Operation Rosario – The real story (Part 2)

The invasion begins – “I thought, Oh shit! They’re coming. I realised what I had seen. It was organised chaos. They were moving, and they were moving purposefully.” – Nidge Buckett, Falkland Islands resident and later recipient of the British Empire Medal.

At 23:00 on the night of April 1st 84 Argentine special forces personnel of the Marine Amphibious Company (not the ‘Buzo Tactico’ as wrongly believed) landed to the south of Stanley at Lake Point. Their intended landing zone had been Mullet Creek just to the east, but here their inflatable landing craft had run straight into the thick beds of kelp – a thick morass of seaweed with strands an inch or more thick which surrounds the Falklands – and the motors of the boats had quickly become entangled and clogged. It took an hour and a half for the Argentine soldiers to row their way forward through and around the clinging web of kelp and they now arrived at Lake Point tired and over an hour behind schedule. Now the Argentine force split onto two sections; the larger section under command of Lt. Commander Sabarots heading for the Royal Marines’ barracks of Moody Brook to the north and west, and the second of 18 men under command of Lt. Commander Giachino heading due north to Government House.

On the rough ground and in the darkness, the two Argentine forces became delayed and Giachino’s small command was forced to stop when one man – Lieutenant Bardi, slipped and fractured his ankle. Unable to move the man, Giachino opted to press on and leave him behind, with one more soldier being left with him for support. The attacks upon Moody Brook barracks and Government House were supposed to be launched simultaneously at 06:00 but now the plan was slipping behind.

At precisely 06:05 on the morning of April 2nd 1982 the Falklands War erupted with a cacophony of explosions and machine gun fire from the direction of Moody Brook barracks. Sabarots’ men had followed their initial orders to assault the barracks with smoke and stun grenades only, but someone must have opened up with his sub-machine gun soon joined by the others who peppered the old prefabricated building from the outside. It was lucky, perhaps, for Argentina that the barracks were empty. In Lt. Commander Sanchez Sabarots’ report, he stated that; “It was still completely dark. We were going to use tear-gas to force the British out of the buildings and capture them. Our orders were not to cause casualties if possible. That was the most difficult mission of my career. All our training as commandos was to fight aggressively and inflict maximum casualties on the enemy. We surrounded the barracks with machine-gun teams, leaving only one escape route along the peninsula north of Stanley Harbour. Anyone who did get away would not able to reach the town and reinforce the British there. Then we threw the gas grenades into each building. There was no reaction; the barracks were empty.”

However this view conflicts strongly with the other evidence which shows that Moody Brook was strafed by machine-gun fire. In the state in which they were later found, riddled with bullet holes, not a man inside would have survived and Vice-Admiral Busser’s plan for a bloodless occupation would have fallen apart at the first shot. Sabarot had quickly preserved his integrity to his orders, and an official story circulated later that the barracks were destroyed in a British bombing raid on June 12th, but the physical evidence seen at the time and after – actual bullet holes fired by small-calibre SMG’s from ground level, told a different story. Not just the explosions but also the gunfire was heard some way away in Stanley, where Major Phil Summers of the volunteer FIDF (Falkland Islands defence Force) strode out from the drill-hall onto John Street, clutching his Lee Enfield rifle, followed by his men, and stared distantly towards the direction of the sudden conflagration. “Right lads,” he said in a calm voice designed to instil confidence, “It’s started.”

The sudden explosions from behind them now told the Royal Marines defending the beaches around York Bay that they were in the wrong place and in danger of being taken from behind. Realising that Government House was now in danger of being attacked  first, they quickly packed up and dashed back through the streets of Stanley towards Government House, picking up a section of newly-arrived Marines who had become lost, with all running back to defend the residency.

A fighting withdrawal – “One Section pepper-potted down the road towards the wood where we knew Government House to be.” – Corporal Armour, Royal Marines.

The men retiring from York Bay were just crossing the football pitch which separated Government House from Stanley when they were suddenly met by a hail of gunfire from a wooded ridge to the south which overlooked the residency. At once, the Marines went to ground and radioed in the contact. The enemy was close. Very close.

With Section 1 spraying fire into the woods, the Marines of Section 6 changed direction and dashed northwards towards the coast along the edges of Stanley.Running through the town, Section 6 now ran into the outskirts of Stanley, up Barrack Street and tried to cross the children’s playground to St. Mary’s Walk. Here they came under rifle and machine gun fire from five or six members of the Argentine special forces hidden in the gardens as more of the enemy dashed through the streets of Stanley to encircle them. The Marines broke out at a bedraggled run, eager to reach Sapper Hill where they could make a stand, but by now the Argentine soldiers were firing from the windows of the houses, from behind garden walls and hedgerows, pinning them down. Returning the fire with their SLR’s, the Marines pulled out and gained the elbow-room they needed to deploy their GPMG which kept Argentine heads down as they dashed through the gardens of the nearby houses down to the jetty and safety.

Meanwhile, Section 1, having kept down the heads of the Argentine snipers on the ridge now launched itself in a desperate run, half-crawling to gain the safety of Government House. From behind the nurses’ home they fired and manouevred and then dashed across the football pitch into a belt of woods around Government House, calling out “Royal Marines!” to forestall any ‘blue on blue’ fire. Eventually being heard by the defenders of Government House, they were covered by fire until they made the safety of the Residency, where they took post upstairs and began to return fire against the Argentine snipers on the ridge.

So far, despite a few accidents and the failure of the ‘decapitation plan’ Busser’s men had avoided casualties on either side and now had their enemy pinned down around Government House where the arriving forces of their 800-strong second wave could swamp them. The Royal Marines were confused, scattered and outnumbered, but their training was paying off. Instinctively they were fighting the only way they knew how, and it was buying precious minutes.

The Argentine second wave – “One of our Amtracks is missing.”

Out in York Bay, the Argentine tank landing ship ARA Cabo San Antonio opened its bow doors while still some way out at sea. On board were twenty American-made FMC LVPT7 Amtracks – amphibious armoured personnel carriers each with a crew of three men and a complement of 20 soldiers, all from the 2nd Marine Infantry Unit. The Amtracks descended the ramp into the rough sea, churning through the kelp beds which clung to them and bogged them down, working between the running gear, making steering and forward movement difficult as meanwhile the heavy seas pushed them off course, threatening to turn some of them over. Finally they gained the shore, rolling up the gentle sandy beaches of the bay, but by Argentine reports a quick count showed only 19 of them on shore.

Now this is very secondary evidence, but interesting. Twenty Amtracks had set out at distance in rough sea and ignorant of the thick kelp-beds through which they would have to push. Many were pushed off-track by the strong current and their lack of power due to clogged running-gear. A similar event befell the American “DD” tanks at Omaha on D-Day, all of which were lost, just through the distance involved, rough seas and being side-on to the current, which is more gentle than that around the Falkland Islands. When the Amtracks came ashore, there were nineteen of them. What became of the lost one, nobody knows, but the difficulties reported and the example of D-Day might suggest that one was lost, and of four different sources which have recounted similar versions of the tale to me, all were present and gleaned this information from the Argentines themselves. Nobody from this vehicle was ever seen again, and so we might conclude, albeit with no certainty, that 23 men met their end in the kelp beds whose demise was covered up conveniently. Be matters what they may, the remaining 19 Amtracks now split into two groups; the main body of 16 pushing up over the ridge, counted by Lieutenant Bill Trollope RM, and pushing on to the airport road, as meanwhile three more pushed on to Stanley airport, already swept by Navy tactical divers and found to be deserted.

The sixteen Amtracks pushed on up the airport road, under the command of Lt. Commander Guillermo Cazzaniga of the 1st Amphibious Vehicles Battalion. According to the British report (made by Lt. Trollope and seconded by others) the advanced force consisted of six vehicles. According to Cazzaniga it was only three (numbers 5, 7 and 19) – a curious anomaly in itself. With the Amtracks advancing, Lt. Trollope quickly pulled back to a hastily-prepared position on a ridge on the edge of Stanley, by a small cluster of white-painted houses known locally as ‘White City’ where he prepared his anti-tank weapons; the 66mm and 84mm missile launchers.

Here begins one of the more interesting aspects of the brief operation. One in which if one side be believed, 23 Argentine soldiers went to their deaths and another in which there were none killed or wounded. There are several reports of the action from this time, and some very conflicting evidence. In short, as we shall see, Trollope, and indeed several others, claim that the vehicle was destroyed and some new evidence shows that this seems likely to be so. Lt. Commander Cazzaniga’s report says otherwise, however, and so we must view all of the evidence here and decide for ourselves.

Firstly some mathematics…sorry to break the narrative, but this has never once been applied to this particular aspect of history, so let’s be clinical about it! An Amtrack at its thickest point has 45mm of armour. It isn’t a tank, it is amphibious and so needs to be light. Lt. Trollope’s section (Section 2) had with it the 66mm M72-LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapon) L1A2B1 – a shoulder-mounted weapon, with an effective range of 200 metres and a maximum range of 500 metres and with a standard-issue HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) round which could achieve an armour-penetration (as per US Army trials in 1977) of up to 200mm of steel plate. The HEAT round is a nasty piece of work; a shell which pierces the armour and which then sets off a secondary explosion which sprays a fiery jet of molten copper core in a ‘directional particle jet’ which effectively burns through the armour and evaporates anything inside the vehicle. Next is the 84mm Karl Gustav – a weapon with an effective range of 150 metres against tanks (which the Amtrack was not) and 700 metres against other targets. Essentially, this much larger weapon had an armour penetration of between 150mm and 400mm of armour depending upon the range, and disposed of a much larger internal core of molten copper. In short, a strike from any of these was capable of carving through an Amtrack like a hot knife through butter and killing anyone and everyone inside quite easily. I mention this because it has a bearing upon the next portion of our story.

It was 07:15 when the leading Amtracks of Cazzaniga’s force approached the ridge held by Lt. Trollope and his men. By now it was daylight and the Royal Marines had a clear line of sight as they prepared to engage the enemy at a range of 200-250 Metres – well inside the effective range of both the 66mm and the 84mm anti-tank weapons. According to Trollope’s report (see below) two 84mm rounds and one 66mm were fired and all went wide or fell short. The standard operating procedure for the Argentine Amtrack drivers (again, as see below) was to take evasive action and deploy the men to repel the enemy fire, and so the leading Amtrack swung off of the road to deploy its men. Here it gets interesting.

This from Lt. Trollope’s own report: “Six armoured Personnel Carriers began advancing at speed down the Airport Road. The first APC was engaged at a range of about 200 to 250 metres. The first three missiles, two 84 mm and one 66 mm, missed. Subsequently one 66 mm fired by Marine Gibbs, hit the passenger compartment and one 84 mm Marines [George] Brown and [Danny] Betts hit the front. Both rounds exploded and no fire was received from that vehicle. The remaining five APCs which were about 600 to 700 metres away deployed their troops and opened fire. We engaged them with GPMG, SLR and sniper rifle [Sergeant Shepherd] for about a minute before we threw a white phosphorus smoke grenade and leap-frogged back to the cover of gardens. Incoming fire at that stage was fairly heavy, but mostly inaccurate.”

So we have one report from Trollope, seconded later by the reports from Marines Gibbs, Brown and Betts which tell the same story. Finally I would add some new research from an interview with Marine Macdonald who stated; “I only witnessed the thick black smoke coming from the LVPT 7 on the Airport Rd. However, I did speak to the members of the section who took it out – very soon afterwards. They did confirm to me that troops did try and exit the vehicle but were forced back into the vehicle by their heavy gunfire.” – So we have four reports of people who saw and even claimed to have shot this vehicle and one more from a man who, whilst he didn’t see the actual explosions, saw the smoke from the explosions and who later recounts that those Argentine soldiers who did survive the inferno inside were beaten back by heavy GPMG and SLR gunfire.

Let as look now at the Argentine report, which comes only from one man; Lt. Commander Hugo Santillan who stated that; “We were on the last stretch of the road into Stanley. A machine-gun fired from one of the three white houses about 500 metres away and hit the right-hand Amtrac. The fire was very accurate. Then there were some explosions from a rocket launcher, but they were inaccurate, falling a long way from us. We followed our standard operating procedure and took evasive action. The Amtrack on the right returned fire and took cover in a little depression. Once he was out of danger, I told all three vehicles to disembark their men. I ordered the crew with the recoilless rifle to fire one round of hollow charge at the ridge of the roof of the house where the machine-gun was, to cause a bang but not an explosion. We were still following our orders not to inflict casualties. The first round was about a hundred metres short, but the second hit the roof. The British troops then threw a purple smoke grenade; I thought it was their signal to withdraw. They had stopped firing, so Commander Weinstabl started the movement of the two companies around the position. Some riflemen in one of the houses started firing then; that was quite uncomfortable. I couldn’t pinpoint their location, but one of my other Amtracks could and asked permission to open up with a mortar which he had. I authorized this, but only with three rounds and only at the roofs of the houses. Two rounds fell short, but the third hit right in the centre of the roof; that was incredible. The British ceased firing then.”

Obviously, the two accounts are in opposition. The number of Amtracks engaged, the range (which is at least double that previously stated) the location (Santillan states that the fire came from houses, the Marines that they were behind a ridge) and even the outcome. In short, this sounds like two entirely different engagements. So how do we decide the truth?

Firstly, let us take the Argentine side; a report written by one man which reports an initial encounter with SLR and GPMG fire followed by anti-tank fire which was inaccurate and all fell short. It is stated that there was a mild scratching of an Amtrack with bullets, the deployment of a mortar and finally the British making an escape under the cover of purple smoke. To me, this just doesn’t ring true, and I’ll tell you why.

Firstly, when confronted with armoured vehicles and being in possession of anti-tank weapons, laying in ambush and undetected, what soldier in his right mind would give away his position with useless small-arms fire? Instantly this doesn’t ring true, and I’m not a soldier. Certainly the next vehicle in line was engaged with long-range gunfire after the small quota of missiles was expended, and this both sides agree upon – that an Amtrack was engaged with GPMG and SLR fire. Where the story differs is that these are evidently two entirely different incidents. In short, the Argentine version either deletes the instance of the first Amtrack or the Royal Marines’ report invents it. One final point of interest is that the Argentine report has all of the vehicles together, the RM one that the leading vehicle was anything from 400-500 metres ahead an unsupported.

Secondly, when Trollope’s men pulled out, they were out of their scant amount of anti-tank ammunition completely, hence they could do no more damage – only Trollope’s version, backed by three others, accounts for this expenditure, which Santillan’s lone version does not.

Thirdly, Santillan states the range at first contact at 500 metres – half a kilometre. Again, this doesn’t ring true to the alternative versions of events. Lt. Trollope reported first contact with the leading Amtrack at 200-250 metres – significantly less than Santillan’s version which stated that distance at double or more. Trollope’s version (again backed by others) puts the range of the other vehicles at 600-700 metres. Santillan has the whole based at 500 metres. Again this is anomalous, and yet one side was obscured by poor vision in the vehicles and by confusion and falling rounds. The other had a sniper rifle with accurate sights and range-finders and the time to line up the sights. On balance, I would trust the evidence of the Royal Marines on this issue.

Whatever the distance, from here Santillan goes on to say that he deployed and engaged with a mortar – a weapon designed for very short range and indirect fire. At half a kilometre this was extreme range indeed, indeed the standard issue 51mm mortar had a range of 460 metres in trials, so 500 metres would certainly be extreme. The mortar would have to, I am assured, be fired almost flat, and to score a hit at the third attempt, even flat onto the roof of a house, would be a very lucky shot. If the range was, as Trollope’s report suggests, more like the 600-700 metres stated, then this becomes even more improbable certainly some rounds did land around the houses, but as Trollope said, it was mostly inaccurate.

Fourthly, the Royal Marines had a stated and entirely vested interest in keeping the fighting away from the houses. Not one other report mentions the Marines taking post in a house (certainly not when they had a perfectly good defensive ridge available) and again it seems highly incongruous with any other account. White City was a small collection of houses, and they were occupied. Alistair Grieves, a government laboratory technician was at home as the battle raged, and actually telephoned a report of the scene through the the Falklands’ own radio station which was broadcasting throughout the invasion. From his window, he too reported smoke from the lead Amtrack and the mortar rounds falling nearby. Likewise Eileen Vidal, another resident of White City and a radio telephone operator was cowering with her children behind a sofa as the Marines withdrew past her house. An Argentine mortar round landed in her garden followed by bursts of fire and then an Amtrack passed by her window moments later. Again, the evidence forces us to concede that the Marines most certainly were not ensconced in the houses. No roofs were reported as struck, and the mortar round which hit Eileen Vidal’s garden was fired from a very close range as the Marines were pulling back. This brings a lot of Santillan’s report into grave doubt. Indeed – as a personal opinion – the major part of it seems entirely invented.

And finally we must address the purple smoke….a small point but not a single person in that force had any purple smoke. I have checked this. Indeed, Trollope’s own account tells of white phosphorous smoke, which was the standard issue and the only one available.

And so, we have to conclude, a mass of circumstantial evidence falls upon the obvious point. The Amtrack which led the way came under anti-tank fire and followed this standard operating procedure to slew off of the airport road. Here, side-on, it was struck by a 66mm round which would have sprayed molten metal at hundreds of degrees inside the vehicle in a massive contained explosion. Then the vehicle, being struck, perhaps slewed slightly and was struck full in the face by an 84mm Karl Gustav which would have evaporated the crew and the occupants too, and probably would have ignited the engine which would have been closest to the point of impact. Side-on, the vehicle was seen burning and belching smoke, and when any who did survive (if there were any) attempted to get out, they were driven back by the GPMG and SLR fire. Nobody can say for absolute certain, of course, but with 99% certainty we may allow that here were 23 Argentine soldiers whose sacrifice was simply forgotten and rubbed out.

The only alternative is that Trollope and four other men all told the same lie which tallied up (at least in part) with that of two citizens, and that at the same time Lt. Commander Santillan was perhaps the most unobservant soldier of all time, with the added super-power of greatly extending the range of mortars and being able to change the colour of smoke! All history, as we have stated in Part 1, is subjective and is based upon evidence, but here is a very odd tale which simply does not tally. Santillan’s report simply falls apart on almost every point, not because out of bias I might choose to interpret it that way, but because quite simply, it could not have happened. Perhaps the only glimmer of evidence in his favour is that of the mortar range. From an interview with a Falklands Veteran and ex Royal Marine, I have been assured that although the mortar would be at a very extreme range at 500 metres and would, as he said, have to be fired almost flat, yet it was conceivable that a house could be hit at that range. “I’d have had a go”, my contact told me, “but to hit it on the third shot would be one in a million.” – At the 600-700 yards as stated by Trollope, however, this really became unlikely. again, this doesn’t much alter the tale, except that nobody’s roof was caved in, no Marines were even in the houses, and a round landed in a garden only when the Argentine force was much closer and following up the withdrawal. All in all, Santillan’s report is riddled with inaccuracies, and we are left to wonder if virtually the entire report was not a fabrication.

Here concludes Part 2 of 3 on the true story of Operation Rosario – a story which, since our first instalment, has taken a dramatic twist. Argentina claims, as is supported today, a total casualty count of just 1 man killed and 3 men wounded for this whole operation, and yet we have already seen overwhelming evidence for the loss of 23 men in one go, and possibly, very possibly, in the kelp beds, of another 23. I ask again, who were these men? Why are they not honoured? Why do we not know their names? Yet there is more of the same to come in Part 3.

End of Part 2.

For more updates follow ‘Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author’ on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Operation Rosario – The real story (Part 2)

  1. Gary Willams says:

    Hi Ricky I was one of Mike Normans detachment and when I first returned to the islands I was talking to an islander who did tell me that the amtrac did indeed get taken out as one of the windows was obliterated also that for days after several bodies were wahed up in the harbour

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    • Hi Gary, this is very interesting, and I am having a lot of 8901 guys come to me (and a few Argentine soldiers who were there too) to thank me for telling this story. No veterans have said that this did not happen and all are very keen to provide their own story. I would be very interested to hear yours. I am on Facebook or you can email me? rickydphillips@btinternet.com – I have been asked to turn this into a book, and have enough personal stories to make this a success. I understand that it is soon 8901’s annual get-together, so I would be interested to get a few more insights. You guys put up a bloody good fight, and I respect you all. I have been speaking to Andy Macdonald, to islander (and ex-marine) Taff Davies and also to a couple of guys who fought at Grytviken too. Would you be interested to help and happy to give me some more insight? I’d really like your story to go down in history, not get forgotten amidst all of the propaganda from the other side. I read only yesterday that “The Marines gave up after token resistance” and that makes me very annoyed and eager to write the truth. Be good to hear from you!

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