The Battle for Mountains Surrounding Stanley II

The British had taken to heart the sobering lessons of Goose Green. Moore was resolved not to start the attack before the required support was in place for his brigades. Expectations for combat units were no different than they had been on D-Day. Each man was to carry two days of supplies and ammunition. All vehicles were to be topped off with fuel. The major difference was the deliberate build-up of artillery ammunition to provide overlapping coverage of fire for battalions. Previously, 2 Para had gone into battle man-packing ammunition and only a portion of its organic mortars. Units would bring all their organic weapons to bear on objectives this time. Additionally, the British would press all of their 105mm artillery batteries into action. The intent was for each battalion to receive support from at least one battery of six guns and possibly from another battery (for a total of twelve guns) at any one time, depending on commitments. Moore directed that there be 500 rounds of ammunition at every gun position, backed up by 500 more rounds per gun in forward support areas at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy. Supplementing the artillery would be naval gunfire and Harrier groundattack aircraft. The Royal Engineers had completed landing platforms and jet refuelling capability at San Carlos on 5 June. Harrier pilots could now stay on station longer to provide support because they did not have to return to ships to refuel as before. The plan was for combat units in brigades to have two days of supply. Each FBMA would have an additional two days’ on hand. Backing them up would be the support area at Ajax Bay, now the sustainment base ashore for all land forces. Commodore Clapp remained prepared to provide additional resupply from ships in Falkland Sound or at sea to the Force Maintenance Area as needed. His LSLs would be pushing supplies from Ajax to the FBMAs at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy on alternating days to keep forward areas well stocked.

A considerable amount of ammunition had already been shifted forward to Teal Inlet and Fitzroy by the time the exact plan of attack became clear. Before the build-up was complete, Commando Logistic Regiment would move over 1,000 tons of ammunition to each location, almost exclusively by sea. A Sea King helicopter, after all, could carry only about sixty rounds of 105mm ammunition per lift. Helicopters became indispensable, however, in moving ammunition from the forward support areas to gun positions. It was a slow process. And it became slower still at times, when units on the ground tried to retain slings and nets for their own use after receiving ammunition and other supplies. The British had not deployed with as much sling-load equipment as they would have liked. The frustrations among logisticians of not getting sling-load items back would continue as attacks started and it became necessary to relocate both guns and ammunition.

By the time the build-up was complete, Teal Inlet and Fitzroy had both become hubs of activity. Forward arming and refuelling points had been established at each location to eliminate the need for helicopters to return to San Carlos. Local settlements pressed their equipment into service to help soldiers. Before long, tractors and Volvo tracked vehicles, which had become the most desirable means to move supplies, had churned the peat into seas of mud. By 11 June, the now famous Red and Green Life Machine, which had taken considerable pride in its inter-service medical teams, had largely disbanded to relocate medical troops and surgical teams to Teal Inlet and Fitzroy so that increased lifesaving care and surgical capabilities would be far forward to care for casualties. Only a single surgical team remained at Ajax. The hospital ship Uganda would come close to shore in the final days, as a precaution, to receive casualties if required.

Support plans for the two brigades were based on comparable principles. The bulk of 3 Commando Brigade stocks would remain at Teal Inlet under control of the Commander, Transport Squadron from Commando Logistic Regiment. From there, supplies would move, either by Rigid Raider boat or four-wheel drive/tracked vehicles further east to a distribution point at Estancia House, where approximately sixty tons of supplies were stashed and camouflaged before the attack commenced. Combat unit support echelons, split between the Teal Inlet support base and the Estancia distribution point, would provide supplies to their respective units from the distribution point. Together, they would transport supplies by whatever means they could overland from the distribution point, using the single-width muddy track. Helicopters would supplement unit efforts whenever possible, bringing casualties back from aid posts to field surgical teams on return flights. The bulk of stocks for 5 Brigade remained at Fitzroy under control of the Commander, 81 Ordnance, who had further assistance from a small command post from Commando Logistic Regiment. He and battalion quartermasters from 5 Brigade units would then coordinate movement of supplies to a distribution point at Bluff Cove, the initial location of the Scots Guards. From there, they would take supplies forward to unit locations. The intent was to move supplies between Fitzroy and Bluff Cove both by land and sea. The bridge crossing the inlet and connecting the settlement and distribution point, however, still was under repair from damage caused by Argentine explosives. Rough seas in coming days also would limit the use of landing craft to transport supplies to the distribution point. These situations necessitated greater reliance on helicopters to shift supplies forward from Fitzroy. Both 5 Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade units obtained supplies from the distribution point. Logisticians would attempt to orchestrate the throughput of supplies by helicopter, direct from the forward support base to units or gun positions, based on helicopter availability and weather.

Rapier air defences were in place and operational at both forward support base locations by this time, but the Argentines did not take action to disrupt the final build-up, either by air or on the ground. Argentine pilots attempted to attack 3 Commando Brigade’s distribution point at Estancia House on a couple of occasions, but they failed to find targets because of the camouflage commandos had erected. Although Argentine pilots had inflicted heavy losses on the British Task Force during the past month, serious threats to British ground forces, except that during 2 Para’s fight at Goose Green, failed to materialize. Argentine leaders never employed forces on the ground to disrupt the initial British build-up in the San Carlos anchorage after the June 8 air attacks at Fitzroy, or now, as logisticians laboured to get supplies to forward areas.

Argentina’s hopes of defeating the British, in fact, had vanished. Some simply had not realized it. They had started with more than a two-to-one numerical advantage in ground forces. Now both sides had about 9,000 soldiers getting ready to confront each other. Argentina’s Junta had foregone many opportunities. Its ability to inflict further damage now was significantly less than it had been. Naval vessels remained berthed in mainland ports after the intimidating and costly loss of General Belgrano a month before. Since then, Argentina had lost nearly a hundred planes in attempts to break through British air defences. It was becoming clear that the prize they had snatched so effortlessly from a reinforced platoon of marines on 2 April was now in jeopardy. Menendez had sent his chief of staff to the mainland on 8 June, the same day that Argentine pilots set back the British at Fitzroy, to ask Galtieri to make some move at the British rear area still at San Carlos. When Galtieri refused, Menendez urged him to accept the terms of UN Resolution 502 demanding an immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces from the Falklands, but Galtieri again refused. Now Menendez’s troops, still largely facing south in and around Stanley, were about to feel the full strength of Moore’s two combat brigades and the supporting arms of the entire British Task Force. The assault would start with ferocity when 3 Commando Brigade units attacked in rapid succession not from the south but from the west.

It had taken the British a little over two months to get to this point, at a cost of a half dozen ships lost and many more damaged, a dozen planes and helicopters downed, and a couple hundred lives. The efforts of every person in the Task Force had focused on setting the stage for the battle for Stanley, which the British had regarded from early on as the centre of gravity in winning the war. Those involved in logistics operations at Ascension Island or in the United Kingdom were probably unaware of that, or of what was about to transpire. Shipbuilders, stock handlers and lorry drivers back in England; frustrated cargo handlers sweltering in the heat of Ascension Island; pilots and ground crews who had kept tankers and resupply planes in the air; crews on a hundred ships both commercial and military; and countless logisticians working in and out of their specialties throughout the theatre – all had contributed to a line of communication that now stretched from distribution points at Estancia House and Bluff Cove 8,000 miles back to the United Kingdom to make the battle possible. It had not been easy getting this far, and their jobs were not yet done, but there was no doubt that they had contributed immeasurably to the British victory that was about to arrive.

From vantage points away from the Falklands, and decades after the war, the short-lived ground war provides the impression that the British victory was not only swift but also easy. This could not be further from the truth. The British would reach their planned objectives, but not without heroic fighting. Thus 3 Commando Brigade would not be ready to exploit their first successes uniformly across the front; nor would 5 Brigade be ready to begin its attack in the second phase of the Division’s plan to take Tumbledown Mountain and Mount William. The attack by 3 Para on Mount Longdon provides an illustration of the difficulties that 3 Commando Brigade units faced the night of 11/12 June both in terms of tactics and logistics. The fight for control of Mount Longdon would become the costliest ground engagement of the war.

Lieutenant Colonel Hew Pike’s plan for taking Mount Longdon was simple yet challenging, and it took into full account the terrain and anticipated enemy positions. Because there was a large minefield to the south of Mount Longdon, it would not be possible for his units to outflank the Argentines from that direction without taking considerable risks. The mountain’s summit, on the west side, provided a commanding view of the surrounding open ground for several thousand metres, both to the west, from where the British would attack under cover of darkness, and to the east, where the British would have to clear Argentines from fighting positions extending eastward to Wireless Ridge. Because the terrain surrounding Longdon was open, paratroopers could become exposed once fighting started, particularly if the Argentines were able to illuminate the area. The British believed that the Argentines were holding the summit and the north ridge of Mount Longdon. Pike planned to dedicate a company to take each of these areas, to hold his third company in reserve to assist as needed and to be prepared to exploit successes. The support company would establish a base of fire from the west/north-west to support attacking infantry companies with mortars, machineguns and MILAN missiles. Pike’s paratroopers would be going up against men from the enemy’s 7th Regiment, which was known to be holding Wireless Ridge as well. The fight for Mount Longdon was anticipated to be a tough one. After action reports indicated that the paratroopers confronted strong defences manned by a company and reinforced by engineers, snipers and machine-gun crews. The fight for the summit proved to be the fiercest.

Logistics support for 3 Para’s attack was organized with both a forward and rear element. The unit’s regimental aid post was likewise split into forward and rear aid stations to provide for continuous care to casualties. The forward logistics element was to travel with the support company on foot as it moved to establish its fire support base. It consisted of stretcher-bearers, who carried ammunition forward atop stretchers, and the forward aid station under control of the Regimental Medical Officer. The rear logistics element, under control of the battalion’s executive Officer, had the benefit of five tracked Volvo vehicles, three civilian tractors with trailers and four civilian Land Rovers. They would carry the bulk of additional ammunition and supplies as well as the rear aid station, which included an extra doctor as well as medical specialists and supplies. The vehicles would not go forward until the fight was underway, so that 3 Para’s approach march and attack could remain silent. Complicating matters for 3 Para’s rear element as well as for others in 3 Commando Brigade, however, was the lone bridge over the Murrell River. The vehicles of 3 Para could not cross the bridge until 45 Commando, the unit to its immediate south that would attack Two Sisters just 2km from Mount Longdon, had crossed its start line as well. Thompson had prescribed precise times for his units to cross their start lines to sequence the Brigade attack properly: 3 Para, to be exact, was scheduled to cross its start line at 2001 hrs that evening, followed by 45 Commando at 2100 hrs.12 Getting the rear element forward did not seem to be a problem. Men had to carry their heavy loads 5km or more over the rough East Falkland terrain in the dark just to get from assembly areas to start lines. From start lines, they had several more kilometres to go to find the enemy. Needless to say, a lot could happen to cause plans to unravel and to delay support from getting across the bridge.

The bulk of Pike’s support was not only contingent upon 45 Commando crossing its start line. If 45 Commando’s attack on Two Sisters did not go favourably, then that also could affect 3 Para’s ability to get its rear logistics element forward, since Argentine defenders on Two Sisters would be close enough to observe it and call for fire. Likewise, if 3 Para’s attack on Mount Longdon did not go as planned, Argentine defenders there would remain in overwatch positions to do the same to 45 Commando’s rear element. The two units were clearly dependent upon each other for both timeliness and success. As so often happens on battlefields, friction disrupted plans and timetables, but it did not stop British success that evening.

Pike’s paratroopers forded the Murrell River and crossed their start line only a few minutes behind schedule. As companies started toward their objectives in the dark, their paths inadvertently crossed, creating some confusion; and then, less than an hour after units crossed the start line, a platoon leader stepped on an anti-personnel mine. The explosion ended 3 Para’s hopes of a silent approach and attack. Within minutes, as the support company and the forward logistics element were still en route to their positions, the fight was underway and 3 Para started taking casualties. Fighting would continue throughout the night as paratroopers fought up the craggy slopes of Mount Longdon, often exposed by illumination rounds fired by Argentine artillery. Meanwhile, 3 Para’s rear logistics element was experiencing significant delays getting across the Murrell Bridge. One of the companies from Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Whitehead’s 45 Commando did not reach its start line for the attack on Two Sisters until 2300 hrs, two hours later than scheduled, which eventually altered that commando’s plan for attacking in the south. The delay now meant that 3 Para’s rear logistics element could not get across the Murrell River until well after midnight. By then, 3 Para had been fighting for over three hours. When the rear portion of the regimental aid post managed to join its forward counterpart at the base of Mount Longdon after midnight, the battalion was in dire need of medical support and supplies. Two company medical assistants had already been killed on the mountain as they tried to help the wounded.

The battalion had designated a landing site just to the west of the Murrell Bridge for helicopters to pick up casualties in need of evacuation to 3 Commando Brigade’s field dressing station at Teal Inlet. The forward aid post had been treating casualties for some time before the rear aid post arrived with the vehicles needed to get casualties to the helicopter-landing site. Before first light, approximately twenty casualties had been evacuated by vehicles from the regimental aid post at the base of Mount Longdon to the landing site, from where they were transported to Teal Inlet, initially in reconnaissance helicopters fitted with night vision devices for flying in the dark. Each brigade had been allocated Wessex helicopters specifically to assist in evacuation of casualties. They could call these helicopters forward now, using their own radio nets and without coordinating with a higher headquarters, a different procedure from that which had plagued 3 Commando Brigade during the Goose Green fight. Regrettably, the Wessex helicopters were not equipped for flying at night. By first light, when these and other helicopters without night-flight capabilities could be used, a backlog of casualties awaited evacuation at the landing site.

None of the helicopters providing evacuation from the battlefield to field dressing stations were configured with equipment or personnel to provide continuous medical treatment for casualties. The British had no pure medical evacuation helicopters with them. The light helicopters like Gazelles and Scouts flew patients in rear compartments from which seats had been removed. Space was so restricted that stretchers would not fit. As was the case when they hurriedly came to the aid of 5 Brigade following air attacks at Fitzroy, British helicopter pilots landed, took on casualties wherever they could and flew them as directly as possible to the nearest dressing station. Air crewmen did whatever possible to look after casualties en route. Not being trained medics, though, they could render little assistance. Fortunately, distances to field dressing stations at both Teal Inlet and Fitzroy were less than 20km, even from the most distant of objectives. (The bodies of those less fortunate who had been killed outright or who had died from wounds were isolated from the injured and, as time permitted, normally evacuated on vehicles heading overland to rear areas.) Evading artillery fire became a challenge in itself for helicopter pilots, as Argentine field artillery observers atop surrounding hills spotted them in the daylight and called for fire. Consequently, the sighting of British helicopters landing to evacuate casualties often prompted shelling from Argentine artillery able to range the Mount Longdon area from Stanley.

By late morning, having fought all night over the crags and through the rocky crevasses of Mount Longdon in, around and through positions that Argentines had been preparing for over a month, the paratroopers had won. But 3 Para now found itself the target of well-planned and discouragingly accurate artillery and mortar fire, making it difficult to exploit their hard-fought success toward Wireless Ridge. The battalion did not receive the order to continue the attack that day. Had they received it, it is likely that they would have advanced further only with difficulty and after some reconstitution. The fight to take Mount Longdon had cost 3 Para seventeen lives and over forty wounded. Holding on to it for the next forty-eight hours would cost them another six lives, as paratroopers fell victim to continuing Argentine artillery attacks. Some of them, as commonly cited in reports following the war, were stretcher-bearers and other medical personnel trying to evacuate or treat the wounded. The after action report of 3 Para following the war reveals the difficulty units faced getting the wounded further to the rear: of the twenty-three paratroopers who died taking or consolidating their position on Mount Longdon, eighteen lost their lives before arriving at the regimental aid post. Given the remarkable medical training the unit received aboard ship when en route to the Falklands, which gave individuals the confidence and ability to take care of themselves and others on the battlefield, the experience of 3 Para on Mount Longdon accentuates the difficulty of extracting casualties from points of injury to locations for further treatment or evacuation, even when the distance to those locations is only a matter of several hundred metres. The battalion’s forward medical station was located against the rocky base of Longdon, just a short walk from the summit on a normal day, perhaps. That evening, it probably seemed like miles away.