“The First Casualty” – An Interview with Hugo Santillan

As the build-up to my new book “The First Casualty – The untold story of the Falklands War” continues, I have taken a trip back to interview two of the veterans of the battle of Stanley on April 2nd 1982. In this first interview we hear the words of the (then) Lieutenant Commander Hugo Santillan, the Argentine officer responsible for planning and executing the amphibious invasion of the Falkland Islands.

Hugo is a great friend of mine who has been pivotal in making this book happen and has been a huge supporter of both myself and the Royal Marines who has done countless wonders to help bring this book to life and gather in information from various Argentine sources. On the day of April 2nd 1982, Hugo was to break his foot in very mysterious circumstances on the Falkland Islands – the story of which is told in the book.

I have posed these questions to him and apologised if any were felt to be too hard to answer, too political or whatever…he has answered all of them exactly as posed to him. Where politically we differ upon the crux of this subject, as friends we simply don’t have to talk politics. As a man and as a Marine he is certainly excellent company and a wonderful friend who has paid excellent tribute to the men of both sides of this conflict. here he tells a few stories which can only add to the continuation of the history on this fascinating subject:

  1. Hugo, how did you feel when you were first told your mission was to the Falkland Islands? Were you happy? Excited? Concerned at all?

In the morning of March 1st, 1982, my battalion commander told me that our unit would be the nucleus of a landing force that would recover the Malvinas Islands. I had then a huge sense of satisfaction because I knew we would fulfill an Argentine goal that was more than a century and a half old. I was not concerned at all, but was very aware from the first minute about the heavy responsibility I was undertaking. I wanted to get to the job immediately! By the way: my Commander and I had a toast with Scotch privately… at nine in the morning.

  1. A harsh question and possibly an unfair one – to the Falkland Islanders you were obviously invading their home. How did you feel about that at the time and how do you feel now? Is it the sort of thing you simply have to put aside to get on with the job?

I’ve never felt we were invading anybody’s home at the time, but rather landing on Argentine soil which was being occupied by a colonial power. With no doubt, everyone in the landing force was prone to show respect to the population and their properties, as ordered. I personally did not feel hostility towards the Islanders; instead, I was puzzled to see their reaction to our presence. Today I still feel the Islanders are living on Argentine soil…I share the Argentine doctrine that respects their interests, however it is part of our history that the islands are Argentine. At the time of the landing I was perfectly aware that I was going to operate against opposite military forces in the midst of an area populated by civilians; it’s a completely common situation at war and I constantly had those circumstances in mind. The difference was -and I still believe is- that such soil is part of our Nation.

  1. You were heavily involved in the planning of Operation Rosario. They say no plan survived the first five minutes of battle. How did you feel it worked out? Would you make any improvements with hindsight?

In fact, it’s a fallacy to say that no plan survives the first five minutes of battle. Half of military history says so and the other half says the opposite. Anyhow, I understand that what it is trying to be said is that the “fog of war” and the “frictions of combat” conspire against the exact accomplishment of a plan. A plan is a set of instructions based on the consideration of facts known with an acceptable level of certainty. One of the governing factors that drove the plan of attack of the landing force was to apply an overwhelming relative combat power in order to prevent any significant resistance by the British defenders. Maybe, for that reason the plan suffered minor alterations to the original layout. I believe our plan was properly conceived and carried out in a sound manner. In my opinion, if we had had more time before the execution of the amphibious assault, it would have been convenient to infiltrate a couple of Commandos Anfibios patrols days before D Day. Thus, we would have had a clear picture of the landing beaches´ status as well as the disposition of the Royal Marines and the local militia on the area.

  1. Admiral Busser thought that the Royal Marine garrison on the islands would not fight – yet you told him they would didn’t you? How did you judge them as opponents, before, during and after?

No, Admiral Busser never thought that the garrison would surrender without fighting. On the contrary, Admiral Busser guided the unfolding of the plan in order to avoid any fighting that could imply loss of live and property. The planning process took into account the possibility that the Royal Marines and the local militia could conduct different levels of resistance, ranging from surveillance, reconnaissance, delaying actions to area defence. My contribution to the analysis of the capabilities of the Royal Marines – based on history – was to state that they would not surrender without putting some kind of resistance. I believe I said that they would not surrender “without leaving us first with a bleeding face”, at least. In our analysis the Royal Marines were always considered as a highly efficient force, well motivated and proud of their history. As to the Falkland Islands Defence Force, we granted them a lower military value. Our estimates over enemy capabilities were corroborated on April 2nd, 1982: the Royal Marines patrols that faced us off Stanley / Puerto Argentino engaged us with machine-gun fire and rocket launchers, forcing us to commit in a fire fight. In the meantime, those who defended the Governor´s House killed one of our men and wounded two others. Under any standard, that was a fight that stood to the fame of the Royal Marines. What came as a surprise to us was that instead of a single Royal Marine platoon there were two: the incoming and the outgoing one. In spite of that, our plan was flexible enough as to absorb such increment. Later, during May and June, the Royal Marines units showed a high training level, outstanding quality of their leaders and the well-known bravery of the troops.

  1. How did you feel when you went home? Like a hero or just someone who did his job? How were you received by the people of Argentina, the other Marines and your family?

I came back home proud of what we have done: accomplishing a difficult mission inflicting no casualties to the enemy nor damaging private property. When I arrived home in Baterías Marine Corps Base in the night of April 3rd, my wife and children (wearing their pyjamas) were waiting at the porch; I will never forget all their faces, staring at me as I was coming closer still wearing my combat uniform, hanging from the shoulders of my driver and my runner, with my left foot with a coarse bandage, trying to conceal my overwhelming emotion. I know I’m no hero: I reserve such title to our dead and wounded on April 2nd and the days that followed. The most pleasant feeling was to receive the gratitude, joy and happiness of everyone as I returned to continental Argentina. Our neighbours, restaurant staff, shop owners and other persons gave me petty presents that made me feel embarrassed because I believed (and I still do) were undeserved. My parents were not able to speak on the phone because they felt so emotional. They came to visit us a few days later; my father was an Argentine Marine Commander, retired 25 years ago; I had to tell him in detail everything starting with the planning all the way until I came back home. He couldn’t believe we managed to do so much in such a short time and with so positive results. My Marine colleagues came to greet us at my battalion barracks; they all felt euphoria, congratulations were pouring all the time and we were ask to tell over and over again different parts of the operation. My good friends from the Fleet and Naval Aviation arrived by the dozen to congratulate us and hear our experiences. To see everybody’s joy was a very pleasant feeling. As to public opinion, except some clearly minor cases, it can be said that Argentinians greeted us in euphoria, pride and joy. “Puerto Belgrano” Naval Fleet’s Base as well as the Marine’s Base “Baterías” saw days of huge enthusiasm, showing the pride for what their units have achieved.

  1. Were you surprised when the UK launched the task force to come and take the Islands back? Did you envisage this in the planning? How did you feel when you knew that the war would escalate?

From the start, Argentina did not plan to engage in a situation that could escalate towards an armed conflict of large magnitude. That being said, the deployment of a British task force to the South Atlantic was initially seen as a feint and later as an escalation of the previous threat of use of force (the first had been the South Georgia episode) to support British diplomacy. Later, when such force started its deployment towards the South, it caused an increased level of unrest and uncertainty. It must be clear that, due to the scope of “Operación Rosario”, the planning of the Landing Force did not consider any enemy capability such as the deployment of a British naval task force. As the executive officer of a marine battalion, I felt deep unrest when we faced the certainty of an escalating conflict. From that moment on, the Infantería de Marina command started to issue plans to face alternatives for continental defence, the reinforcement of Malvinas, the Chile case, etc. As all of those plans implied combat operations, I did not underestimate them. Anyhow, I felt the natural unrest of knowing that in any case we might be facing major forces and not a couple of minor infantry platoons and some militia.

  1. It must have been hard being in Argentina whilst the resulting war was raging just a few hundred miles away across the water. What were your thoughts at the time? Did you want to go back?

By mid-April 1982, the entire Infantería de Marina was deployed to the “Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego” with the purpose of dissuading Chile from trying any aggression over Argentine soil according to the Chilean assumption that our country would not be able to face two fronts simultaneously. My battalion –among other tasks- was on-call to fly to Stanley / Puerto Argentino on a 4-hour notice. Although we were focused on what went on with the islands, in Tierra del Fuego we hardly had a break due to the intense workload. My rifle companies took turns to conduct reconnaissance, take defensive measures, take charge of security duty within our camp, cooperate in the protection of the Río Grande Naval Aviation Base along with its aircraft and premises, increase training, etc. Basically, we thought about Malvinas in our free time. In those days and as a marine battalion executive officer, my mind was distributed among many issues. As of May 1st, with the proximity of the British forces presence on the islands, we grew daily concerns due to the probability of receiving air, naval or special forces raids over the Río Grande area. That fact resulted on the design of customised plans to meet each scenario, all of which increased our workload of daily activities.

  1. The magazines and newspapers in Argentina told the people ‘we are winning’ almost until the end. Did you know how hard it was really going? What were your thoughts and feelings after June 14th when they announced that the war was over?

In my opinion, the Argentine media showed a situation that did not match the reality. By comparison, however, Joint Staff’s communiqués were prudent, realistic and true. There are various surveys in Argentina to analyse this phenomenon: a triumphant press and a cautious administration. My battalion commanding officer (Marine Commander Alfredo Weinstabl) and I were completely aware of the importance of us being on-call to fly to Stanley / Puerto Argentino to reinforce the defensive dispositions if required. For that reason, we went every evening to the Bureau of Intelligence of the Infantería de Marina command in Río Grande (Tierra del Fuego) to get updates on the military situation in the islands. Yes: we both knew what was really happening on sea, land, air and even under the sea. The dawn of June 14th was traumatic: the sudden cease of hostilities hit me totally unexpected. I believed our defence was able to resist some more, but I was surprised by the speed of its collapse. I had a mix of feelings: astonishment at the almost instantaneous cease of land combat, relief because first news stated relatively few casualties, unease because of the adverse result, rage for “losing the war”, impotence for not being able to do anything to alter the situation, fury when Chilean radio operators made fun and laughed at us on emergency radio frequencies, anxiety to know about friends and peers who had been fighting the previous day, unrest for “and now… what?”, etc.

  1. You have spoken often of reconciliation between the veterans. Do you think that this shared experience can be used for positive ends? I know there are many veterans from both countries who have used their shared experience to come to terms with the war and subsequent mental health issues or feelings of bitterness. What about the Falkland Islanders themselves? Do you feel there can be a reconciliation there? Have you ever been back?

When I speak about reconciliation I mean “to go back to the normal relationships that previously existed between the armed forces of both countries”. Historically, the armed forces of Argentina and the United Kingdom enjoyed excellent relationships. For example, I recall that during the laying of Type 42 Destroyer ARA “HÉRCULES”, the Argentine crew lived in Barrow-in-Furness for almost two years. Some of our officers of the crew who brought the ship to Argentina told me about the machinery, gunnery and missile trials that were conducted with Royal Navy support, and of the formal farewell given by the British fleet when they departed to Puerto Belgrano. This case is just an example of the excellent relationships existing between both navies for more than a century. Then the Malvinas crisis occurred. In my opinion, our war was the last war fought between gentlemen. None accused the other of actions against the laws of war, neither having displayed hateful schemes nor having otherwise incurred in any type of morally reproachable conduct. Perhaps a harsh fight thus conducted with nobility caused certain type of mutual respect. For example, when I attended Command & Staff Course with the US Marines at Quantico, Virginia, USA in 1985-1986, I had a warm friendship with Royal Marine Major Joe Gordon, a helicopter pilot, a Falklands veteran and a great classmate. In the same way, there was a Royal Marine lieutenant colonel as a member of the staff; he was very kind and professional with me. As naval attaché in South Africa (1997-1998), I met Royal Navy Commander Andrew Auld, my counterpart from Great Britain: he commanded a Sea Harrier Squadron during the war. A man of excellent mood, fine education and a good golf partner. We shared the same stand when the South African armed forces asked us to comment on our experiences in Malvinas. Our two administrations have re-established diplomatic relations, but that it is not the reason that explains the civilised and even warm way in which old war veterans look at each other’s adversaries for more than three decades. The reason is that we both put a good fight, being each of us loyal to our country. Perhaps we are setting an example to the world about that old Spanish saying that states that “the military is the trade of honest men; when war comes, everybody prays to God and calls the soldier. When war ends, God is forgotten and the soldier is denied”.

As to the islanders, I believe there is a different situation. In a primary outlook, as a nation we consider the islanders as foreigners occupying a territory that belongs to us, but there is no animosity at all. I can say without any doubt that I feel for them the same sympathy and respect that I feel for all British subjects who live and work in continental Argentina. I would like to comment that my grandmother (on my mother’s line) Flora Emma Jack Coffey was the daughter of an Irish family that had migrated to Argentina; she married Modesto Alduncín, from a French Basque family. Anyhow, a prudent view reveals that this issue is a complex one. I don’t believe it is necessary to get into technicalities on international law, but I believe firmly that we must respect the interests of the islanders, however we feel about their demands. This conceptual difference is perhaps what keeps the invisible tension that exists between them and us. I hope that reconciliation (to have normal relationships between the islanders and ourselves) will happen when that tension disappears. In the past I met youngsters born on the islands who were studying in Argentina, as well as the manager of Estancia San José (1973, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego) born in Stanley; he married an Argentine lady and had Argentine children. I also remember that in 1974 there was a delegation from a school in Stanley who visited Batallón de Infantería de Marina N° 5, in Río Grande. I have not returned to the Malvinas, but I would love to go back as a tourist.

  1. You have been immensely helpful in recounting a great part of the Argentine story of Operation Rosario and the events of April 2nd and before. It is a fascinating tale and one which is hardly told. Why do you think it is an important story to tell?

To me, history is fascinating and enlightening. I had the fortune of living the original and through the development of those episodes, so I see myself compelled to be as truthful and objective as possible. I leave to others and to posterity the value judgement of what happened. Our amphibious assault was a successful one for many reasons, but is not comparable to the Argentine heroism of those who faced the real war. I present arms to those who fought and even died while resisting the British reaction. That was the legitimate deed. To tell the facts as they actually occurred is an honest contribution to Truth; I feel obliged to that, regardless of the importance of the episodes in which I saw myself involved.

In Conclusion: These are the words of Hugo Jorge Santillan, a veteran of the first day of the Falklands War, a man of immense humour and great wit, of thorough professionalism and, I must say, a great friend. His contribution to “The First Casualty” has been inestimable and worthy of praise, his help in clarifying the information and even in countering suggestions that the Royal Marines put up a mere ‘token defence’ have been of endless help. He is – and always was – a big fan of the Royal Marines. I guess where politically we differ (and we do greatly) it has never and should never cloud a friendship and mutual respect…that is probably the best reconciliation that the politicians could hope for on both sides. I intend to go myself to the Falkland islands next year…perhaps I will extend the invitation and we can go together? Yes that is us in the picture…a good few drinks down, I might add!

“The First Casualty – The untold story of the Falklands War” will be available from Navy Books and in all good bookstores by November 2016.

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