The Battle for Mountains Surrounding Stanley III

Fights on adjacent mountains had progressed to quicker conclusions than on Mount Longdon that evening, and losses were considerably less. Men in 45 Commando preparing to attack the adjacent Two Sisters witnessed the fierce Fighting underway to their north, as did the Argentines they were about to assault. Lieutenant Colonel Whitehead, the commander of 45 Commando, had planned the attack on Two Sisters so that one of his companies would attack first to seize the high ground on the western slope, thereby fixing the enemy’s attention on that direction. Once on the high ground there, that company would provide a base of fire for the commando’s main effort, consisting of two companies attacking from the north-west. The company that was to initiate the attack, however, was the same one that failed to reach its start line until three hours after the appointed time, thereby delaying logistical elements of 3 Para from crossing the Murrell River Bridge. The men in that company had been struggling under the weight of MILAN missile launchers and dozens of missiles to reach their start line at the appointed time. The unit had planned for a three-hour approach march. Instead it took them twice as long to traverse the rough Falklands terrain in the dark with their loads. When the company arrived around 2300 hrs, Whitehead opted to have his companies attack simultaneously. They did so to very good effect. Within a little over four hours, his men had fought their way up the western slope of Two Sisters and cleared Argentines from positions extending eastwards on Two Sisters toward Tumbledown. Artillery fire from both sides was heavy during the attack. The commandos confronted preplanned Argentine artillery fire, just like that which paratroopers on Mount Longdon were experiencing, once they overran enemy positions. Argentine indirect fire had a particularly devastating effect on the commandos, though. Four men died during the taking of Two Sisters, all felled by Argentine artillery or mortar bombardments. Ten others were wounded throughout the Fighting that night.

The success of Lieutenant Colonel Nick Vaux’s 42 Commando on Mount Harriet, 2km to the south of Two Sisters, was no less impressive. After spending nearly two weeks patrolling and battling the elements, men from 42 Commando implemented a bold plan to outflank the Argentine defenders. His units planned to cross their start line at 2030 hrs. Vaux had received permission from Thompson to forego a silent attack by using preparatory artillery fire on enemy positions on the mountain to distract the Argentines from his real intentions. As that was being implemented, one of his companies was to create a diversion to the west of Mount Harriet as his other two, having skirted the mountain to the south on a long approach march, attacked from the east into the enemy rear. The distance from its assembly area near Mount Challenger to the start line east of Mount Harriet in the Welsh Guards sector was 7km. It would seem like twice that distance, though, because the route crossed several long stone runs, slowing movement considerably and making it difficult to keep quiet. To ensure men would have back-up supplies during the attack, the commando formed a 34-man ‘portage troop’ from its headquarters company to carry ammunition and critical equipment and to be prepared to backhaul any casualties. The ad hoc transport troop consisted of administrative specialists, cooks and whoever else was available and not otherwise directly involved in the Fighting. During 42 Commando’s Fight for Mount Harriet, this human supply train trailed the two companies in the south by about an hour to get in position to support Vaux’s main effort. During that approach march, commando companies would cross 5 Brigade’s boundary before turning north to attack objectives on Mount Harriet. Accordingly, it was agreed beforehand that a reconnaissance platoon from the Welsh Guards would secure the start line for the marines and guide them initially on their final approach. The guardsmen were not at the appointed place for the link-up, though, which delayed the attack for over an hour. Nonetheless, Vaux’s plan worked to perfection. The diversionary attack from the west fixed Argentine attention, while the other two companies surprised defences from the rear. By daylight, after eight hours of Fighting, 42 Commando had seized its objective at the loss of only a single commando and the wounding of twenty others. In attacking from the east, Vaux’s men had cut off the escape route of the surprised defenders. As a direct result, they captured 300 prisoners from the defending Argentine 4th Infantry Regiment, including its commanding Officer.

By daylight, 3 Commando Brigade had secured all of its objectives. Units had received sustained and exceptionally effective naval gunfire from Woodward’s Battle Group. The destroyer Glamorgan and frigates Yarmouth and Avenger fired hundreds of high explosive rounds in support of the ground attacks. Unfortunately, the support was not given without significant cost. As some commandos were Fighting up the slopes of the mountains, they witnessed a land-based Exocet missile fired from the outskirts of Stanley slam into the side of Glamorgan. Although the ship survived, a dozen sailors did not and another dozen were wounded. She became the final ship casualty suffered by the Royal Navy. Woodward had been concerned for some time about his ships being vulnerable to land-based Exocets. His concerns proved to be valid. An hour later, the Royal Air Force completed its seventh Black Buck bombing run. Although all twenty-one bombs missed their intended targets, there can be no doubt that the impacts rattled the nerves of Argentines in Stanley, particularly amidst the reports that Longdon, Two Sisters and Harriet had fallen to the British.

Thompson decided not to have his commanders exploit their hard fought successes by continuing the attack toward their secondary objectives, feeling that they would become unnecessarily exposed if attacking in daylight. The brigade also needed to re-stock gun lines with ammunition. He had relocated his reserve battalion, 2 Para, from its previous area near Mount Kent to Mount Longdon during the night. After a 15km march with equipment, paratroopers were soon digging in on the western side of Mount Longdon. It became clear soon after daylight, though, that Argentines, particularly those atop Tumbledown Mountain, had not only spotted the 3 Commando Brigade units but were able to bring effective mortar and artillery fire upon them. Accordingly, Thompson ordered his units to consolidate near their objectives and prepare for possible counter-attacks. Although there are some indications that the Argentine Army’s central command post in Stanley ordered several counter-attacks for that day, none materialized. That provided units with the opportunity to evacuate their casualties from the three mountains and get their support echelons forward with needed resupply. Additionally, it permitted helicopter pilots to start the time-consuming process of relocating artillery batteries for the next phase of the battle and re-stocking gun lines with ammunition from back-up stocks at Teal Inlet.

Major General Moore had monitored the 3 Commando Brigade engagements closely from the small forward headquarters he had established at Fitzroy. He had hoped to continue attacks without interruption on to Tumbledown Mountain, Mount William and Wireless Ridge, thereby hastening a situation in which Argentines would be forced to surrender. Meanwhile, 5 Brigade had sought an extension so that they could complete plans for attack and the forward stocking of artillery ammunition, which Moore granted. For the next day, efforts refocused on shifting equipment and supplies for the next phase of the battle, and on taking care of immediate unit requirements. All available helicopters laboured to replenish ammunition for artillery batteries dispersed throughout the battle area. Limitations on cargo loads went by the wayside, as they had done so often over the past several weeks. As one pilot put it, ‘We just kept pulling at the stick to see if the aircraft would come up. If not, we threw off a box and tried again.’ Because brigade support bases at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy had established helicopter arming and refuelling locations by this time, pilots did not have to fly the hundred miles to Ajax and back for fuel, as they had so many times the week before during the initial forward build-up.

Supplies moved forward on the surface as well, particularly from 3 Commando Brigade’s units in the north, since they had consumed considerable amounts of small arms ammunition and other supplies during their Fights. The Brigade’s support base at Teal Inlet continued to move supplies forward to the distribution point at Estancia both by vehicle and Rigid Raider boat. From there, unit support echelons picked up supplies and transported them to forward locations along the single track crossing the Murrell Bridge. While resupply by ground was underway, the bridge over the Murrell River collapsed under the weight of an armoured recovery vehicle laden with ammunition, thereby closing 3 Commando Brigade’s only land supply route. Royal Engineers had been labouring in previous days to repair the bridge across the inlet connecting 5 Brigade’s supply base at Fitzroy with its distribution point at Bluff Cove. Now, they focused on this new problem in the north. The engineers built an air-portable bridge at Fitzroy to replace the one damaged across the Murrell River and flew it there by Chinook to reopen 3 Commando Brigade’s supply route.

With the local populace continuing to provide tractors and manpower to shuttle supplies, units were again poised to resume the offensive. Argentine pilots made two last attempts during the final hours of preparation to disrupt British plans, but they were not successful. In the first attempt, during the day of 13 June, Skyhawks attacked the 3 Commando Brigade headquarters near Mount Kent and 2 Para at its new position near Mount Longdon; they damaged three helicopters but produced no additional British casualties. Then, later that night, Harriers intercepted Argentine planes attempting another raid, downing one of them.

The plan for the next phase would get 5 Brigade into the ground war for the first time. The 2 Scots Guards would start it off by attacking an estimated two companies from the 5th Marine Battalion, reputed to be the best Argentine unit in the Falklands, on Tumbledown Mountain. Assuming success by the Guards, the 1/7 Gurkhas would follow to attack Mount William. In the north, 2 Para, still operating under the command and control of 3 Commando Brigade, would assault Wireless Ridge. With these three objectives taken, the Division would then continue attacking Argentine forces into Stanley. If it became necessary, responsibility for taking the town would shift to Thompson. He intended another multi-phase attack. It would start with 3 Para securing areas around the old racecourse on the west side of Stanley. Then 45 Commando would seize Sapper Hill and pass through 42 Commando to secure areas immediately to the south of Stanley. The Welsh Guards would revert back to his control and secure areas to the south-east of the capital, cutting off access to the airport. The British would now have surrounded Stanley to force a surrender, hopefully without having to Fight in the town itself and put civilians at risk.

Brigadier Wilson issued orders to his three battalions on the afternoon of 12 June. The timing and success of the fight for Tumbledown affected the other attacks. Argentine forces on that mountain would be able to influence action on the adjacent Mount William and on Wireless Ridge, just a few kilometres north. If the Scots Guards did not achieve their objectives by daylight, then 2 Para on Wireless Ridge would be exposed and vulnerable to Argentine marines remaining on Tumbledown. The Argentines had viewed Tumbledown from the start as a key to the defence of Stanley because it so dominated other surrounding hills. Accordingly, they had prepared a stiff defensive network on the mountain and littered approach routes with mines. The British had little hope of avoiding the full force of Argentine defences. The north face of the mountain yielded sharp drop-offs, significantly limiting any approach from that side. Other Argentine defenders on Mount William to the east protected that flank and maintained observation over the more open terrain to the south of Tumbledown. All this enabled the Argentines to concentrate their defences in the west and south. Consequently, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Scott, commander of 2 Scots Guards, planned to attack Tumbledown directly from the west, with three of his companies passing through each other as the fight progressed to maintain momentum in reaching the top of Tumbledown. His reconnaissance platoon reinforced with a troop of two Scorpions and two Scimitars would create a diversionary attack to the south on the most likely approach route. He had not received much intelligence about Argentine battle positions, though. The diversion would start at 1900 hrs on13 June, with the main attack commencing two hours later. British artillery, naval gunfire and Harriers pounded Tumbledown on the day of the attack.

When the diversion started, the platoon of slightly more than thirty guardsmen initially had difficulty locating the enemy. Once they did, they encountered fierce resistance from Argentines in dozens of bunkers designed to block any approach to Stanley from the south. Before the engagement was over, they were fighting for their lives as they struggled to withdraw, eventually finding themselves in a minefield, where Argentines then tried to target them with artillery fire. What was intended as a diversion had proven very costly. Two were killed; a dozen were wounded. One of the Scorpion armoured vehicles from the Blues and Royals hit an anti-tank mine and had to be abandoned. The next day, sappers would discover fifty-seven mines embedded in the ground near the Scorpion as they tried to recover the vehicle.

As this platoon was trying desperately to extricate itself from the minefield, the main attack commenced from the west. The guardsmen reached their first objective without much contact. Then, as the second phase began and companies started passing forward, they encountered heavy defences sheltered by rocks and crags to the top of Tumbledown. The Scots Guards did not reach the summit until 0600 hrs, at which time they faced more Argentines fiercely resisting from other fighting positions. Finally, after ten hours of tough combat, much of it at close quarters, the Scots Guards gained control of Tumbledown. Lieutenant Colonel Scott had ordered his men not to wear their helmets during the attack, although they carried them on their packs for the expected artillery fire that would follow when they reached their objectives – his thought being that wearing the more distinctive berets would help morale and also aid in identification. At least one of his platoon commanders sustained serious head wounds during the fighting. It is perhaps surprising that many others did not. Although aid stations were echeloned, getting the wounded down the mountainside so that they could be treated and evacuated plagued the guardsmen just as it had the commandos two nights previous. They would lose two more to mortar fire as men tried to retrieve their wounded comrades after the Argentines had fled. Nine men lost their lives; another forty-three were wounded. Fully half of all those killed or wounded were Officers, warrant Officers or noncommissioned Officers, a clear testament to these having led from the front. This fight had been a tough one, too.

Meanwhile, the men of 1/7 Gurkha Rifles had been freezing as they waited in an area west of Tumbledown throughout the night for word that the Scots Guards had taken their objectives. The plan had been for them to pass through the guardsmen after Tumbledown was secure. Although they had been without ration resupply for two days, the proud Gurkhas remained poised to start their advance toward Mount William. The duration of the Scots Guards’ attack meant, however, that if they waited much longer they would be attacking Mount William in daylight. Therefore Wilson ordered them to move out on a different route. They were circling Tumbledown under cliffs to the north when they encountered a minefield. An Argentine forward observer detected the formation and called for fire support, which injured eight of the Gurkhas. As fighting waned on Tumbledown and daylight approached, they finally reached the east side of Tumbledown and prepared to assault William, only to discover most Argentines had already fled. After brief skirmishes resulting in no further casualties, they soon were atop Mount William. After the war, their commander showed his good humour by crediting his men with the collapse of the defences:

Our boys were not just ‘disappointed’ at not hitting the enemy, they were livid, but it is some consolation that we heard later from several sources (rarely admitted in the press) that it was our arrival on the battlefield from the north in the way that we did that caused the final collapse. I am not too confident that that is so, but we certainly contributed to the rout. The Argies were scared stupid of the Gurkhas and the former’s rapid disappearance from the battlefield was probably the best, and certainly the most nicely timed decision of their war.

By this time, 2 Para had overwhelmed the Argentines on Wireless Ridge. The paratroopers had learned many lessons from their fight at Goose Green, where, through no fault of their own, they did not have the benefit of much supporting fire. Lieutenant Colonel David Chaundler could now enjoy an extensive artillery preparation to precede his attacking soldiers. Unlike his predecessor H. Jones at Goose Green, he had two batteries of artillery with thousands of rounds to support his battalion for this fight. The attack by 2 Para would be ‘noisy’, with preparatory fire starting before men crossed their start lines. In addition to the artillery, the frigate Ambuscade with her 4.5-inch guns, all of the battalion’s organic mortars, support platoons with bunker-busting MILAN missiles and machine guns, and armoured vehicles would support the attack, which was planned in four phases. Companies would start their attacks from positions north of Wireless and, after reaching first objectives, turn eastwards and continue attacking from the west over the ridge. Preparatory fire pounded Argentine positions as paratroopers started crossing start lines just after 2100 hrs on 13 June. One account indicates that the artillery fired so much ammunition during the paratroopers’ attack that helicopters fitted with night vision devices had to keep ammunition flowing between forward supply points and gun lines; and that, as the fight progressed to the top of the ridge, the tanks of the Blues and Royals had to go back to rear supply points themselves to replenish the large quantities of ammunition they had expended. The barrage of fire demoralized Argentine defenders. Soon they were abandoning positions in an attempt to survive, often leaving their equipment in place. Although companies faced some resistance, the combination of heavy supporting fire and an aggressive ground attack soon overcame Argentine defences. As paratroopers succeeded in closing ranks, the remaining defenders broke and ran. When the fighting ended, 2 Para had suffered three killed and eleven wounded. Estimates of Argentine casualties were 25 killed and 125 wounded, the vast majority by the effective supporting fire.

The last shots of the war would come on Sapper Hill. With Tumbledown and William now secure, Wilson ordered Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Rickett, the commander of 1 Welsh Guards, to attack and secure that piece of ground. Two companies from 40 Commando reinforced Rickett’s battalion. Helicopters moved them to two different landing zones in the vicinity of Sapper Hill. Those landing at the first found themselves on a tract of land surrounded by minefields. Helicopters erroneously landed others too far to the east in full view of the few Argentine defenders still on the hill. Three Argentines were killed in a brief firefight. The rest quickly abandoned their positions and fled toward Stanley. The Welsh Guards and commandos had secured Sapper Hill despite the errant landings. The fighting was over.

By daylight, British units started to see Argentines retreating in disarray throughout the battlefields. Their attacks clearly had succeeded in overthrowing defences and creating near panic in Argentine ranks, despite the heroic resistance of some. Although some British artillery batteries were now down to just a few rounds, they would not need to hurry to re-stock gun lines. Those who could view the ground stretching from surrounding hilltops to Stanley realized that the fighting was over. Before long, hundreds of Argentine soldiers were dropping their weapons, discarding other equipment and fleeing towards the capital.

For the inhabitants of Stanley, it had been a terrifying four days. Most had fled for safety to makeshift bunkers in basements, crawl spaces, under porches or in other protected areas. Although they knew the battle for the mountains was underway, they had no idea how it was going. Argentine 155mm artillery rattled their houses as it fired large shells toward the mountains at the advancing British. The sounds of battle had become deafening. The mountains, quite visible from many places in Stanley on clear days, now were obscured by smoke and dust from the constant shelling by the opposing forces. Argentines had taken up positions in and around houses and buildings as well as on rooftops in Stanley. British Harriers had become a common sight for residents as pilots flew nearly nonstop trying to destroy or soften up Argentine positions. Naval gunfire had been pounding areas around the town to eliminate other key defences. Unfortunately, errant British shells also struck some houses in the town, killing three residents.

It had not been easy for either the military or the people of Stanley. For the British Task Force, the two months since they had departed the United Kingdom had been especially difficult. Hundreds on both sides had lost their lives or been wounded. Still more wounded waited on mountain slopes to be treated and evacuated. Now, as victors, the British were about to transition to one of the most difficult phases in war – when fighting men have to work to implement a disciplined peace in a community ravaged by war. They had the advantage of knowing that the citizens of Stanley would welcome their arrival; but those same citizens also needed their help, as did thousands of defeated and dejected Argentines. The transition and ultimate return to normalcy in Stanley would bring additional challenges and concerns for the war-weary British and, in particular, for the men of logistics and support units.