The Battle for Mountains Surrounding Stanley I

Major General Moore had summoned his two brigade commanders to Division Headquarters aboard LPD Fearless early on 8 June to discuss options for the final attack on Stanley. Unlike his staff, Moore had not been so upset about Brigadier Wilson’s surprise move to Fitzroy nearly a week earlier. Risky though it had been, 5 Brigade’s leap forward fixed the enemy’s attention all the more closely on the southern approach to Stanley. The Argentines had been thinking for some time that the British would launch their main assault from a route through Fitzroy, despite reports of British advances to the west of Stanley near Teal Inlet. And to be sure, they did not know that activity to the south had become a frantic struggle to reduce the vulnerability of 2 Para without supplies and supporting arms. Increased activity around Fitzroy further promoted the perception that it would become the springboard for the final attack. Fitzroy was not, however, part of a deception plan to mask a commando attack from the west. Quite the contrary, it was intended to play a significant role in the final attack. Just how prominent that role would be was one of the main issues at Moore’s meeting with his commanders.

The contentious issue at his meeting that day was whether British ground forces would conduct their final assault through the mountains near Stanley on a broad or a narrow front. The broad front in question started with Mount Longdon to the north-west of Stanley and included high ground starting a few miles south of Longdon and extending eastwards to Stanley: Two Sisters, Mount Harriet, Tumbledown Mountain, Mount William and Sapper Hill. Should Mount Longdon be an objective, then another prominent feature known as Wireless Ridge stood between Mount Longdon and Stanley. In that case, the British would need to take Wireless as well. The narrow option excluded Mount Longdon and Wireless Ridge.

Brigadier Thompson objected to the narrow front option for reasons both tactical and logistical. Since the Argentines were expecting a thrust from the south now more than ever, concentrating the attack into a narrower front from the west and south of Stanley would play into their suspicions. From a logistics standpoint, very importantly, the narrow front option with British forces bypassing Argentine forces on Mount Longdon posed significant risks. For days the Division had been concentrating on getting supplies into the FBMA at Teal Inlet. That area now served as the forward sustainment base for 3 Commando Brigade. Thompson’s 3 Para and 45 Commando had moved east from there several days before and taken the high ground of Mount Estancia and Mount Vernet to the north-west of Longdon. The track from Teal Inlet through a small settlement called Estancia House near Mount Estancia now became the critical ground supply route for his units, regardless of where they were attacking.

Opposition astride this supply route, most notably from Argentine units at Mount Longdon, had to be neutralized in order to ensure continuity of support to 3 Commando Brigade units during the final battle. From a logistics perspective, Thompson’s battle plan enabled interior rather than exterior lines of communication, thereby enabling 3 Commando Brigade to maintain the security of its only ground and helicopter resupply route from the FBMA at Teal Inlet through a distribution point at Estancia House and from there to combat units. The Brigade could not rely on the few available helicopters to move supplies forward from Teal Inlet. Combat units would carry considerable supplies with them, but approach marches would be long, and once fighting started the units would require reliable resupply. During the final battle, helicopters would focus on resupply if possible, but mainly on movement of artillery ammunition and medical evacuation. Mount Longdon, therefore, became a critical objective from Thompson’s perspective, and 3 Commando Brigade had to control it to protect logistics sustainment for the battle for Stanley.

Some at division level clearly did not share all of Thompson’s concerns. While Moore was chairing his meeting aboard Fearless that day, other members of the Division staff and Commando Logistic Regiment were forward at Fitzroy assessing the potential of that area as a sustainment base. Shifting supplies forward from Ajax Bay could shorten distances significantly between the bulk of stocks and combat units, even though there were risks in moving large quantities of supplies that near to Stanley; but getting supplies there was challenging. Distances by sea from the Ajax area were twice as long to Fitzroy as they were to Teal Inlet.

As Moore, Thompson, Wilson and others were discussing tactical and logistical options for the final battle, Argentine observers were, unfortunately, peering down from their observation posts to discover and eventually report the arrival of the LSLs Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad at Fitzroy. Word arrived about the Argentine air attacks as the meeting on Fearless was still in session. The session ended abruptly, and the leaders returned to their units as LFFI shifted its focus to saving lives and restoring order at Fitzroy. Moore had reached no decisions about the plan for a final attack before the hasty adjournment.

By 9 June, as the extent of losses at Fitzroy became fully known, the location’s appeal as a large support area vanished. Planning shifted toward establishing only another FBMA at Fitzroy, this one for 5 Brigade. While staff and units were adjusting to the magnitude of losses, Moore shifted his attention to 3 Commando Brigade as the main effort for the upcoming final battle. When arriving on East Falkland ten days earlier, he had anticipated that his brigades would be beginning the final battle by this time. Now, however, Moore still faced requirements to get artillery and ammunition forward for both brigades to support the attack. Additionally, something had to be done to reconstitute the combat strength of 5 Brigade, given the large number of casualties sustained by 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards and the stocks that had been lost. He would focus deliberately on building up logistics capabilities in forward areas before launching the final assault and on ensuring that logistics remained integrated fully with tactical plans through all phases of the battle plan until his forces captured Stanley.

That day, Moore flew forward to 3 Commando Brigade’s headquarters at Teal Inlet to meet with Thompson and tell him that 3 Commando Brigade would be the Division main effort in an attack that would include Mount Longdon. The plan would contain three phases: during the first phase, 3 Commando Brigade would attack Mount Longdon, Two Sisters, and Mount Harriet; during the second, 3 Commando Brigade would continue its attack to take Wireless Ridge while 5 Brigade attacked Tumbledown Mountain and Mount William; Thompson’s Brigade would then continue the attack in phase three to seize remaining high ground south of Stanley, beginning with Sapper Hill. The hope was that the Argentines would surrender before phase three became necessary.

Thompson’s units had been planning towards this end for some time and hoping for such a decision. To add more punch to his main effort, Moore attached 2 Para back to 3 Commando Brigade. He also attached 5 Brigade’s 1 Welsh Guards, which was augmented now by two companies from 40 Commando, because the approach route for the commando attack on Mount Harriet would cross into its sector. Helicopters would lift the paratroopers from their current location near Fitzroy to an assembly area aside Mount Kent, where they would be in reserve initially. Moore, however, did not let Thompson retain control of the remainder of 40 Commando, which had been providing security around the beachhead since D-Day because of continuing concerns about a possible attack on rear areas. Thompson’s units were prepared and eager to get on with it. They had been forward now for well over a week, and although there had been some skirmishes with Argentines, most of their time had been spent patrolling to determine enemy dispositions and vulnerabilities.

Conditions in forward areas had taken a distinct turn for the worse since commandos had moved away from the San Carlos beachhead, particularly for those units in hills approaching Stanley. Lieutenant Colonel Nick Vaux’s 42 Commando probably had been withstanding the worst of it. His men had been patrolling in and around Mount Kent since the end of May and at Mount Challenger since the first days of June. Some of his units had waited several days for their packs to get forward and still longer for resupply of food. Although there remained tons of food and supplies at both Ajax and Teal Inlet, bad weather had complicated efforts to get supplies forward by helicopter. When supplies did arrive, commandos then had to man-pack them further forward at night to unit positions. The dried Arctic rations being provided contained over 5,000 calories but required water and cooking fuel to reconstitute them. Units generally ran short of both; and as a result, men were starting to suffer from diarrhoea and dehydration. Consequently, many relished finding captured enemy rations, because they came with fuel tablets called hexamine for cooking and sometimes with a small bottle of whisky and cigarettes.

As Vaux recalls, ‘Each day brought blizzard, squall and downpour in relentless sequence.’ His commandos would attempt to erect poncho shelters, only to have the fierce winds buffeting the mountains change direction and rip them apart. Only occasionally would the sun break through to provide them with temporary warmth and a chance to dry out clothes. They had come to despise the standard issue military boot that soaked up moisture like a sponge; these boots were now making cases of trench foot a real problem. When packs containing their extra clothing and personal items finally arrived on 7 June, Vaux’s men could hardly contain their enthusiasm: ‘For a brief, carefree spell the atmosphere was reminiscent of opening presents at Christmas, with weather-beaten marines gleefully extracting “dry sox and clean nix”, caches of nutty (chocolate), even the odd battery-powered razor.’

Making matters worse, though, 42 Commando had suffered several casualties when marines stumbled on to Argentine mines as they patrolled areas around Challenger. The difficulty of evacuating these casualties from points of injury to aid stations foreshadowed the difficulties all British units would face during the final battle. At the same time, however, it proved again the wisdom behind the detailed medical training marines and soldiers had received while sailing south from the United Kingdom. One illustrative case in point is that of Marine Mark Curtis of 42 Commando, who was on patrol when he stepped on a mine. Curtis described what happened:

It was at the bottom of a little slope that I stepped on a mine; “Cuth” and the other marine had walked over it. I seemed to be thrown up in the air and fell on my right side. I took the gun off my shoulder and pointed it forward, waiting for someone to fire at us; I still thought it was the ambush. My foot started to feel numb. I tried to feel down but my trousers were all torn round the bottom. The middle of my foot had been blown off; the toes were still there, connected to my shin by a fleshy bit of skin. It looked weird. Half an inch of my heel had been ripped back. That was all there was left – the toes and the back of the heel. “Cuth” shouted, asked what was going on – a bit of heavy language. I told him I’d had my foot blown off, but I didn’t put it quite like that. Everything was quiet then. He crawled over on his hands and knees, looking for mines. He tried to bandage my leg and I gave myself some morphine. You keep it on your dog tag – like a little toothpaste tube with a needle. I couldn’t get the plastic cover off and had to bite it off. I injected myself in the muscle of the thigh. It didn’t seem to have any effect for half an hour; the pain had started after five minutes. “Cuth” picked me up and carried me out.

Medical training and toughness helped Curtis stay alive until his comrades could get him to medical specialists. It took them seven hours to carry him back to the first aid station; from there, it took another eighteen hours to get him to the field hospital. He lost his foot but lived.

Caring for wounded weighed heavily on the minds of many throughout the Land Force. No one doubted there would be casualties. What concerned everyone was the difficulty of getting casualties off the battlefield. Whereas the men were well trained in keeping themselves and their comrades alive until help arrived, the rocky and hilly terrain would make it very difficult for units to extract casualties down the sides of mountains to level locations, from where they could be evacuated further to the rear by helicopter. Making matters worse, hilltop vantage points would enable Argentines to observe helicopters landing and possibly call for fire. Thompson had successfully resisted efforts by the senior doctor at Division to close down 3 Commando Brigade’s small field dressing station at Teal Inlet and to consolidate it with the one being established at Fitzroy to support 5 Brigade, thereby forming one larger divisional field hospital. Although such a proposal seemed advantageous from a resource standpoint, it disregarded the conditions which made evacuation so difficult around the mountains, something which some commanders had come to experience at first hand in recent days. Foggy weather near the mountains surrounding Stanley frequently resulted in conditions that prevented helicopters from flying. Medical evacuation across or around the several mountains separating 3 Commando Brigade units from a Fitzroy field hospital, therefore, became totally contingent upon weather. Of even more immediate concern to combat units was the lack of lightweight but sturdy collapsible stretchers to assist men in carrying casualties from points of injury to locations for treatment or further evacuation. Rocky slopes would make it difficult enough for men to fight their way through Argentine positions, let alone carry stretchers up and men down the slopes under fire. To facilitate casualty evacuation, as well as for forward resupply of ammunition and other critical supplies, units organized ad hoc litter-bearer teams from personnel not directly involved in the fight. The teams would shuttle supplies forward on whatever stretchers they had and carry casualties back.

By this time, another potential problem needed to be solved. Commando Logistic Regiment and its Medical Squadron had been rushing from emergency to emergency since D-Day, as they worked to care for casualties. Lieutenant Colonel Hellberg had found himself under pressure on almost a daily basis from Northwood to release details of those who had been killed or wounded. To control the flow of such sensitive information, he established a Field Records and Reinforcement Holding Unit next to the Red and Green Life Machine, to stay abreast of developments, maintain accurate information about casualties and ensure that notifications to next of kin were completed before divulging any information to others. The Brigade had first implemented this centralized operation during an exercise the previous year. Before the amphibious landings at San Carlos, it had earmarked staffing for this unit for contingency purposes. Some clerks came from parachute battalions and commandos. After the war, 3 Commando Brigade recommended that organizations continue fulfilling these very important but easily overlooked requirements.

Thompson called his commanders together for their ‘O Group’ briefing on 10 June, the day after his meeting with Moore at Teal Inlet. The Commando Brigade plan pivoted on three sequential attacks on the evening of 11 June, beginning in the north with Mount Longdon: 3 Para received the mission to seize that key piece of terrain and prepare to exploit forward on to Wireless Ridge to the east; 45 Commando would attack to defeat enemy forces on Two Sisters directly to the south of Mount Longdon and prepare to exploit forward on to Tumbledown Mountain; and 42 Commando, further south still, would seize Mount Harriet and prepare to follow 45 Commando through Tumbledown to take Mount William. Once the battle started, all units would have to share the single bridge across the Murrell River to shuttle supplies forward. That bridge would remain critical as long as fighting continued, since it enabled the only ground line of communication between 3 Commando Brigade’s distribution point at Estancia House on the west side of the Murrell River and combat units, whose objectives were on the east side. Brigade objectives were to be taken by first light the next day. Two of the attacks were to be silent in order to achieve surprise, meaning that there would be no artillery preparation. The attack on Mount Harriet would be ‘noisy’ to cover the move of 42 Commando around the flank to hit Argentines from the rear. When artillery fire began, Argentines occupying British objectives would feel the full weight of more than 11,000 rounds of 105mm artillery ammunition now positioned forward for this first phase of the battle. Additionally, some Task Force warships were dedicated to support the units: Avenger would provide naval gunfire for 3 Para; Glamorgan for 45 Commando; Yarmouth for 42 Commando; and Arrow for special forces that would be conducting some small operations closer to Stanley. Together, these four ships had 1400 rounds for their 4.5-inch guns to supplement the artillery on land.

Thompson’s commanders had had plenty of time to think about the missions before them and to develop plans during the final days of the supply build-up. Their units nevertheless faced daunting tasks as they attacked up hill, over generally unfamiliar and rocky terrain, and at night. Although some had experienced skirmishes with Argentines over the past week, this would be the first real fighting for most units since arriving on East Falkland. Meanwhile, 2 Para would remain the Brigade reserve.

As commanders finalized details of their respective portions of the plan, Commando Logistic Regiment at Ajax, in its new role supporting both brigades, and brigade support echelons at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy maintained a constant flow of supplies to forward positions, using the Division’s helicopters in preparation for the final attack. There were about forty helicopters of all types available at the time, including four more Wessexes that arrived at San Carlos on 9 June aboard the RFA support ship Engadine. Hopes of providing scheduled maintenance services to them, as would have been strictly enforced in peacetime, had long since vanished. Now, pilots pushed their helicopters to the limits. The single CH47 Chinook, which had been pressed so hard following the loss of the other heavy-lift helicopters aboard Atlantic Conveyor, flew 109 hours without servicing. Since pilots flew virtually nonstop during the limited daylight hours, checks for leaks and structural cracks became limited to those times when pilots brought their helicopters in for a hot refuel, or at night. Checks at night, made with the aid of low-intensity red-lensed flashlights, were not always capable of detecting serious faults. Nonetheless, the British succeeded in maintaining a near 100 per cent operational rate of their helicopters through to the end of the war. ‘Band-Aid fixes’ became more than a figurative expression for many helicopters, as masking tape was used to cover bullet holes. If something was not damaged severely enough to prevent take-off, pilots took the risk.