Author’s Note: This, the first part of a three-part post is certainly the kernel of what has finally become my new book “The First Casualty – The untold story of the Falklands War”. However I should add (this being written some six months after the original blog post below) that in light of a vast wealth of new information I consider it inaccurate in many places. the men of the Royal Marines declared it mostly correct and certainly 200% better than anyone else had told their story, yet with hindsight I must consider it in places biased, inaccurate and occasionally unfair to some, including many I now call friends. Therefore as a work of posterity (this began the call to turn the story into a book) it is useful, but as a work in itself and certainly a true representation, I am forced to correct or at least disclaim a great deal of it in light of fresh evidence and beg the reader to accept it as mostly accurate, a decent read but not as a historical truth, the results of which are all in the book. Many thanks. RDP.
“The Argentine death toll may have been embarrassingly high, and it is worth remembering that covering up death was not new to the Junta…” – Graham Bound, author of “Invasion 1982 – The Falkland Islanders’ Story.
As a military historian, I become personally fascinated by the untold stories of warfare. Many of my readers and followers will know that this is my passion: The true story, challenging the fiction and the myth, stripping away the layers surrounding a story and unearthing that rarest of all things in our business – the truth.
It is something relatively easy to write of some glorious battle hundreds of years ago, with flags flying, bands playing and brightly coloured uniforms in formation launching some grand attack – and it is quite another to write of something recent – so recent, in fact, that many of the protagonists from that day are still alive. In a way, the duty of care – to both those men and also to the preservation of the history of which they were a part is infinitely heavier and more pressing to the author than when someone may pose a new suggestion about the battle of Waterloo or whatever it may be. Nobody who fought on the day is going to collar you if you get it wrong or feel in other ways morally offended by an inclusion, omission or personal opinion!
It has been a study of some months, therefore, until I felt comfortable enough to write about Operation “Rosario” – the Argentine invasion of the Falklands on April 1st-2nd 1982. At first, the story seems just a tad dull (you see what I mean about offending people easily?) – with a tiny garrison of Royal Marines being pretty much swamped by the superior forces of a much larger nation in just a few hours and though not simply giving up at the first shot, they are remembered as not really scoring that ‘bloody nose’ which would tell the world that the combined forces of the enemy had fought the Royal Marines, even a token garrison of them who didn’t stand a chance. In short, if I can quantify that statement of “a tad dull” – well, it wasn’t exactly Rorke’s Drift, now was it?
However (and before I get two-dozen ex-RM’s beating my door down for vengeance) evidence that I have uncovered and have begun to really look into has now painted a very different picture of this brave stand, and a story which, I believe, needs to be told. I have been reticent for some time but, being involved in several Falkland Islands discussion groups on-line, I began to find certain facets of what we may call ‘the accepted truth’ which didn’t quite stack up, and more importantly, the people who could help me to find the truth.
Before I begin this, however, I want to tackle the subject of “bias” – the historian’s own original enemy, which I will have to scotch if anything is to be taken seriously and credibly, particularly when we are speaking not just of the dead, but of the living also. A biased story is only ever (and even then ‘at best’) one half of the tale and in short, it is what gets us into this kind of mess in the first place, so I’ll not add to it. History is based upon evidence, not opinion – and where the Falkland Islands are concerned, there is vastly more opinion than anything which approaches ‘cold, hard fact’.
Of course, to a point, I am biased. The Falklands are British. First claimed by Britain in 1594, first landed on and claimed again by Britain in 1690 and, after a little spate of who said, wrote or did what to whom after 1765, absolutely British since January 3rd 1833 to the present date. It seems easy, but there are others who do not see it that way. This, I guess, is opinion from both sides. This post is therefore going to avoid opinion or politics. It is a matter for the people there to decide as the UN grants them the right to do, and as of their referendum in 2013 the people there have decided to stay as they are – a self-determining country with free association with Britain…and you can read UN Resolutions 1514 and 1541 if you want to look and decide for yourself! There….that’s my bias out of the way. If you can’t scotch it entirely, then declare it and be prepared to be bloody good with your facts afterwards. I’ll take that!
But let’s not dwell on politics. I do military history, and there is a very good chance that not a single man on either side who fought on the night of April 1st-2nd 1982 knew a damned thing about any UN Resolutions or cared that much either! What concerns us here is a military operation and the evidence and suggestion that not only did this little garrison of Royal Marines give more than ‘as good as they got’ but that the Argentine Junta did a great deal of work to cover up what was actually quite a fiasco.
In studying this small piece of history, the first thing which struck me were the Argentine casualties. You can look at Wikipedia or indeed any other more authoritative source (which is usually any of them) and you will see the same thing – Argentine losses: 1 man killed and 3 men wounded. Instantly this looks plausible. Look at the killed-to-wounded ration on a battlefield and this seems about right. So why question it?
Well it comes down to good reasoning and the actual reports of the fighting from sources to include Argentine military, Royal Marines, Falkland Islanders and the staff at Stanley’s own KEMH – The King Edward Memorial Hospital, who treated the Argentine wounded during and after the battle. In looking at this, the evidence didn’t stack up, indeed it was overwhelmingly against the Argentine reports from the day’s action….and here it starts to get interesting. Don’t get me wrong; all countries are – or have been guilty of diminishing their losses whilst magnifying those of the enemy. Napoleon – the greatest military commander who ever lived, was a flagrant abuser of this time-honoured tradition, but in truth, the British really are not.
Now this isn’t bias. Make a statement like that and you have to back it up! We British have certainly done this in wartime where it was good for morale and things, but after the event we always came clean. Dunkirk is a good example. We also didn’t report the first landing of a V2 rocket so as not to shock the population about a weapon we could do nothing to stop. These, however, are quite isolated cases. Perhaps it is a cultural thing. We honour our war dead but we also don’t pull our punches when we need to. The only man killed in the Aroghi / Magdala campaign of 1868 was a survivor of the Light Brigade from Balaclava who was riding an elephant and shot himself in the leg with his pistol whilst adjusting himself. The press had a field-day on him! – We can be quite brutal with ourselves, us British!
However, it seemed to me that Argentina was not playing by the same rules, and whilst the fight for the Falkland Islands was brief, yet the fighting itself was intense while it lasted. I should add that I’m not anti-Argentine, but that there is a sense of duty not just to do honour to the plucky bunch of Royal Marines who held out that night, but also to the Argentines who went up against them. We know of one man killed – Lt. Commander Pedro Giachino – so if other men died, I asked myself, why don’t we know their names? To me, after 34 years, that is just wrong.
The Opening Moves
“No diplomat can talk about the use of force. A decision of this nature is taken without any prior notice. We are willing, very firmly, to go as far as need be if the archipelago is not returned as soon as possible.” – Nicanor Costa Mendez, Argentine Foreign Minister.
I’m not going to bore you here with logistics; of who was where and did what prior to the engagement. That is somebody else’s job. If I were writing a book then I would, of course, but this is a blog post! Suffice to say that Britain ‘lucked out’ in one sense. Bad weather had delayed the Argentine operation and had caught the small British garrison at a time when the single detachment which maintained British interests in the South Atlantic was being changed over. The British contingent on the Falklands was therefore two detachments of Royal Marines; one coming, the other leaving, and was now at a total of 41 men plus a few others who maintained the rough little airfield and the small patrol boat which circled the islands every now and then.
The British force also had some warning. Argentina had openly boasted about its intent to take the Falklands by force for a couple of years, and one visiting British officer had been shown the newly-bought American Amtrak amphibious personnel carriers and had been told “We are going to invade the Malvinas with these!” – It was perhaps the worst-kept secret in the South Atlantic, but still (and perhaps with that native arrogance which comes from a nation which had not been successfully invaded since 1066) many did not expect it. Always did the British know that Argentina could do it, but nobody, it seems, actually thought that they ever would.
London had been lulled to sleep by talks of peace. Of an old colonial situation which the foreign office had been only too pleased to rid itself of working out. Argentina would have the Falklands – some islands nobody in Britain had ever heard of, and that would be another costly embarrassment of a now-defunct past which we could ship off to somebody else. Sadly for Britain (and now happily) whilst the Falkland Islanders had been largely forgotten by the mother country, yet they remembered fondly who they were at heart. The people of the Falklands were not asleep. Regularly they had picked up some alarming radio transmissions and reported back unusual flights, flares were seen to be dropped at night, strange ships were seen off the coast, a periscope was seen off-shore, farmers complained of fences being broken down with army-pattern boot tracks left behind in the mud and an Argentine Learjet landed unscheduled at Stanley Airport complaining of technical difficulties but with a strange additional ‘pod’ attached to it which would later transpire to be – as the people of the Falklands suspected – a camera. In short, the people of the Falklands knew that they were being infiltrated, reconnoitred and tested.
Preparing to resist
“There’s going to be two troop transports and five warships off the islands by first light. They’ve got armour, they’ve got artillery, they’ve got mortars, they’ve got air cover. And we’re going to fight them until we’re overrun.” – Corporal Geordie Gill, Royal Marines.
The foreign office back in London was asleep, but on the islands, the small garrison of Royal Marines had no such illusions. They had a ‘defence plan’ – a rough plan drawn up annually by the garrison commander and presented to the governor Rex Hunt. It was more of a formality, but as the sun set on the evening of April 1st and as radar and radio traffic off the coast increased to a certainty that the invasion was coming, the small force of Royal Marines now made their preparations for defence. It was hopeless, of course, but the now-modified plan gave a few chances to do something.
The Marines were armed and equipped with the SLR or Self Loading Rifle, a long-barrelled semi-automatic rifle which fired a 7.62mm bullet from a 20-round magazine. It was a single-shot weapon designed for range, accuracy and potency; a ‘killing weapon’ whose impact could blow off a limb or knock a major chunk out of its intended target. It had been designed for the vast German plains should the Russians come during the Cold War, but here in the Falkland Islands, it was in its element. The only drawback to the SLR was its usage in close or street fighting where it was unwieldy, but the Marines had already determined not to fight in the streets of the island’s capital, Stanley. The Royal Marines had lived amongst the people of the Falklands, many had good friends, girlfriends and, in the case of a few of them, even wives and children in Stanley. Whatever happened, the Royal Marines would defend them to the death if they had to, and there would be no fighting in the streets of Stanley.
There were a few anti-tank weapons, but very few, consisting of 66mm and two 84mm Karl Gustav missile launchers with scant ammunition. There were a few of the redoubtable GPMG’s (general-purpose machine gun) some pistols, a store of grenades (many of which the armourer refused to give out, stating that they were too expensive!) and a stash of old short-magazine Lee Enfield rifles, post-war models but still based upon a design which had served in the trenches of the first world war. To complete this small and inadequate arsenal, there were a few small rolls of barbed wire, which were hastily strung across the most likely of the landing beaches. There was a cunning plan to divert the beacon which was operated by the Argentinian LADE airline – which the invasion force would be using to home in on – to lead the Argentine forces out to sea. In the end, nobody knew how to redirect the beacon, and so vandalism was resorted to instead to destroy it.
The best plan which the Royal Marines had with their tiny force was to give the Argentines a ‘bloody nose’. They could not win, but they were determined to deny Argentina the right to claim a ‘peaceful annexation’ to the Falklands. Whatever happened, the world would know that there had been a fight. The plan was simple, but effective: several strong-points would be held to delay the invasion, such as the light-house and the airport whose runway was also blocked up with vehicles and other obstacles to deny the Argentines a convenient landing place. Some Marines would hold the strong-point of Government House – the residency of the island’s governor and meanwhile the rest would offer resistance and fall back by sections under cover.
The idea was to hold ‘choke points’ – an age-old strategy of using the ground as a ‘force multiplier’. The ‘Airport Road’ which ran from the airport to Stanley was a perfect example; a narrow road overlooked by ridges and surrounded by rough and boggy ground. The advancing Argentine forces would be hit with everything the lead section had and would be forced to stop and deploy into the rough ground to either side. They would create a big target and then, when they began to return fire, the lead section would pull back under cover of the supporting sections to the next position. This tactic would create damage and lower the risk to the defending force but, most importantly, it would take up time. Each stand would delay the advance, make the Argentine soldiers more wary in their next advance and every hour was critical if the world was to wake up and take action. Finally the sections would gather at Government House for a final stand and there try to rack up as many enemy casualties as possible before they were overrun or forced to surrender.
Preparing To Invade
“We thought if we came in such numbers that you would not resist.” – Vice-Admiral Carlos Busser.
The Argentine forces, under command of Vice-Admiral Carlos Busser, were coming in strength. Busser was an experienced officer who expected limited, if any resistance from the tiny British garrison. Critically, Busser knew, as did the British, that the invasion would have to be completed quickly and bloodlessly if it were to stand a chance of being quickly forgotten – even accepted, by Britain and the International Community. There could be no civilian casualties. Ideally there should also be no casualties amongst the Royal Marines, which would salve the anger of Britain and give the appearance of a peaceful and acceptable annexation.
Busser developed a two-fold strategy, the first part of which was termed by my fellow-author Hugh Bicheno as ‘The decapitation plan’. Eighty-four men of the Argentine special forces would lead the way and split into two groups; the first was to neutralise the Marines’ barracks at Moody Brook which stood to the west of Stanley and Government House in the rear of the British lines, employing stun and smoke grenades to catch the Marines unaware and force them to surrender without a shot. The second group was to circle around to assault Government House itself in a ‘snatch’ operation designed to capture Governor Rex Hunt alive. Then the second stage of the plan would begin; an invasion force of 800 men and a second wave of 2,000 more which would swamp the islands and any of the Marines still at large, compelling all thoughts of resistance to end without a shot. By morning, Busser hoped, the Falklands would be Argentine, the governor and the tiny garrison would be conveniently removed, the Argentine flag raised and the operation dressed up as an uncontested occupation.
It was an admirable plan, but it failed to take account of several factors, chief amongst which was the willingness of the Royal Marines to fight. Unbeknownst to Busser, this was not some forgotten colonial garrison but a group of soldiers defending their friends, their girlfriends, their wives and even in some cases, their children.
The battle for Stanley – one of the most uneven actions of the 20th century, was about to erupt, and a small group of islands which most of the world had never heard of, were about to become famous.
(End of Part 1)
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