The Argentinian Experience
by David Aldea
The Taking of Tumbledown
It was on the night of 13-14 June 1982 that Lieutenant Colonel Mike Scott's 2nd Scots Guards Battalion launched the brilliantly planned and long awaited hammer blow against the 5th Marine Battalion. The 2nd Scots Guards Battalion's 'G' Company was responsible for securing the western part of Tumbledown. Left Flank Company was responsible for the centre and Right Flank Company was given the eastern rocky outcrops. It was clear that Tumbledown would seal the fate of Port Stanley and Robacio was prepared to fight long and hard to keep it. He thought, probably correctly, that heavy casualties sustained by civilians and British troops would be considered politically unacceptable. Mortar fire controllers and forward artillery observation officers had already called down effective fire on Mount Harriet during the evening of 13 June
Outside Port Stanley
The 5th Marine Infantry Battalion arrived in the Falklands on Thursday 8 April 1982 and deployed straight to 'Sector Bronze' covering Mount William and Tumbledown Mountain and the southern beaches. Organic to the 1st Marine Force Fleet and based in Rio Grande in Tierra del Fuego the battalion was well suited to the cold of the approaching winter. The battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Hugo Robacio, a believer in war to the end, was admirably led and full of dash. Robacio, aged 49, had readied his battalion with speed and enthusiasm. He had wanted a Falkland assignment. It was Robacio who suggested upon arrival in the Falklands that his battalion be made the Airmobile Reserve and rushed in helicopters to screen off 3 Commando Brigade. (See Desmond Rice & Arthur Gavshon, The Sinking of the Belgrano, pp. 46-48, Secker & Warburg, 1984) The day after Robacio arrived, the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion set out to their assigned positions. Captain Rodolfo Cionchi's 'M' Company dug in on Sapper Hill, just in front of Port Stanley. Captain Eduardo Villarraza's 'N' was dug in on Tumbledown and Mount William. First Lieutenant Daniel Vazquez's 4th Platoon and First Lieutenant Hector Mino's amphibious engineer platoon were on the centre of Tumbledown. On the north-east shoulder of Tumbledown was First Sergeant Jorge Lucero's 3rd Platoon.
On the saddle between Tumbledown and William was Second Lieutenant Marcelo Oruezabala's 2nd Platoon, with Second Lieutenant Carlos Bianchi's 1st Platoon on Mount William. Captain Ricardo Quiroga's 'O' Company dug in on Mount William. 'O' Company, reinforced by Commandos and elements of Major Luis Menghini's 1st Amphibious Engineer Company would later be in a blocking position between Mount William and Pony Pass. Behind these companies, near Felton Stream, the 5th Marine Battalion Headquarters and the 1st Amphibious Engineer Company was based. The amphibious engineers were the local reserve available to Robacio. Most conscripts in 'Batallon de Infanteria de Marina 5' (BIM 5) were dedicated, near professionals and would remain brave and uncomplaining. The 'Batallon 5' conscripts were commanded by fine officers and had undergone a rigorous 2-year long physical and mental training; their equipment was first-rate. The navy-blue berets of the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion was the distinguishing factor in dress among theards Battalion died in heavy shelling. Tragically one house was destroyed, and three women killed during the final battles for Port Stanley.
In the Mount William area, the Scots Guards assault started at 2230 local time on Sunday 13 June when the 2nd Scots Guards Battalion Reconnaissance Platoon under the command of Major Richard Bethell, got to grips with elements of 'O' Company, dug in on the lower slopes of Mount William. The Scots Guards approached very close without being heard. Private Barboza then saw them and all hell broke out. Since the fighting was at such close quarters, both sides used hand grenades at extremely short range. The clash here lasted two hours and with Sergeant Daniel Wight killed and four Scots Guards wounded, Major Bethell's force withdrew. The 5th Marine Battalion's 'O' Company was Robacio's "fire brigade" and under the overall command of Major Antonio Pernias, the battalion's Operations Officer. Pernias, "the Rat", had predicted the British withdrawal route, and with his 81 millimetre mortar platoon on Mount William (under First Sergeant Elvio Cune) and the 120 millimetre mortar platoon of 'C' Company of the 3rd 'General Manuel Belgrano' Regiment on Sapper Hill, engaged the Scottish platoon, inflicting casualties on the Scots Guards. Bethell and a Scots Guard were wounded by a hand grenade covering the British withdrawal. Worst followed when Sergeant Ian Miller trod on an anti-personnel mine. A further three Scots Guards in the general confusion also ended up triggering anti-personnel mines and were wounded. The British lost a tank and two dead in the Mount William area. During the advance on the lower slopes of Mount William British light tanks were used. Major Bethell later assumed that his men killed ten Argentines, but the actual number of Argentine dead was one: Private Omar Iniguez. At about 0230 'O' Company went into reserve for the 5th Marine Battalion's 'N' Company.
On Tumbledown Mountain the 5th Marine Battalion's 'N' Company, under Captain Villarraza, along with fifty remnants of Task Force 'Monte Caseros' (These were men of 'Equipo de Combate Solari' and the 4th Regiment's 'A' Company who had escaped from Mount Harriet and Goat Ridge), were attacked at 0049 on 14 June. The Argentines defending the centre, 92-strong were well entrenched and fought hard and well. The 5th Marine Infantry Battalion platoon under First Lieutenant Daniel Vazquez held on to their weapon pits in the frozen ground and fought back with every ounce of strength.
Here Left Flank Company commanded by Major John Kiszely was brought to a virtual halt for three hours and suffered five killed and eighteen wounded before being able to resume their advance. The Scots Guards had thought that the Argentines blocking their advance would have simply disintegrated from the incredible weight of softening up fire that had poured onto Tumbledown during Sunday 13 June. Indeed the 6th Regiment's 'B' Company waiting as reserve for the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion on the north-east shoulder of Tumbledown was subjected to heavy artillery fire. Major Oscar Jaimet again:
It was an inferno. The British Artillery fire increased in intensity. It went up and down the mountain. The whole mountain quaked and shuddered under the impacts. The rounds arrived like flying kerosene tins filled with hot metal fragments. By pure luck, none hit me, but I saw them hit some soldiers next to me and they just burned through the thickest clothing, winter parka, denim jacket, wool pullover, everything, right through to the flesh. I heard the cries of the wounded. When somebody got wounded he would call out for his mates.
The British shelling claimed twelve men wounded by the time it was dark. Many looked back with mild regret to the halcyon days before. We thought we were badly off then, but what luxury and comfort compared to this. It was enough to send any young lad out of control. But everyone kept themeselves under control and there were no scenes of despair or terror as often happens in some conscript armies. I wonder if the modern conscript can put up with that type of softening up fire? Our basic training was a lot tougher than what we have today. In Bravo Company there were 168 people and everyone behaved sensibly. Even the conscripts behaved like veterans and many of them were not yet twenty. (Courtesy of Colonel Alberto Gonzalez)
Nevertheless, the 'Infantes de Marina' (Marine Infantrymen) and Army personnel defending the centre, held their ground and gave Left Flank Company a hard time, inflicting two dead very early in the fight for the centre of Tumbledown. Morale in Vazquez's platoon was intact and when Left Flank Company attacked the Argentine conscripts emerged from the underground shelters, coolly reoccupied their defences and opened fire with massed assault rifles. Left Flank Company fell back and hiding behind boulders the Scots Guards began shooting at the Argentines with their rifles and anti-tank rocket launchers. A few Argentine Marine conscripts left the main body and fought individually, but Vazquez and the platoon sergeant, Eduardo Fochesatto, managed to keep most of the men together. By this stage, Brigadier Tony Wilson's battle plan was bogged down and the impetus of the British advance on Tumbledown was waning. Signs of frustration emerged. As its Operations Officer, Captain Tim Spicer recalled:
Roger Gwyn was keen to avoid him [Lieutenant Colonel Scott] being killed like 'H' Jones. The Commanding Officer asked my opinion and I advised him not to go up to be seen. He would only be pinned down too. I also told him that we still had confidence in the Company Commander's ability to do the job, and that we should let him get on with it. (Hugh McManners, The Scars of War, p. 244, HarperCollins, 1993)
Slowly Left Flank Company began to get the upper hand. Command and control of First Lieutenant Hector Mino's 1st Amphibious Engineer Company platoon broke down. At about 0200 the unauthorized decision was taken to withdraw the platoon. Disgusted Brigadier-General Oscar Jofre (operational commander of Argentine forces in Stanley sector) spoke to Robacio and the commander of the 7th 'Colonel Pedro Conde' Regiment in the radio. "Anyone seen to transmit an unauthorized order to fall back," he said, "should have their head blown off." With the 2nd Parachute Battalion literally at Stanley's gates, the Argentines seemed to be in a state of schizophrenia - and the Xth Brigade Command seemed equally mad. Private Jorge Abud tells us what happened in the final hours:
There were thousands of rumours. I was even told that some English Commandos had infiltrated Argentine troops, that they spoke perfect Spanish, and that some had even made a company retreat, saying that they had orders from the commander. [The unit may have been First Lieutenant Hector Mino's 1st Amphibious Engineer Company platoon on the centre of Tumbledown Mountain that, at about 0200 local time, sought safety on the eastern end of Tumbledown.] I don't know if it was true, but a lot of people in the town were afraid there were English mixed in among us. Until then, when someone approached we said, 'halt', and asked for identification. But there was so much fear that the system was no good anymore. (Daniel Kon, Los Chicos de la Guerra, pp. 102-103, New English Library, 1983)
Progressively the 7th Regiment remnants increased and massed on the verge of Felton Stream. It was now absolutely necessary to increase the Military Police presence in order to take control and prevent complete disorder. Brigadier-General Jofre immediately informed the 181st Military Police Company commander and the Army Police, 5th Marine Infantry Battalion Military Police Detachment and 2nd Assault Section, 601st Commando Company were ordered to shoot British Special Forces in Argentinian military dress on sight!
At that time 'Yarmouth' and 'Active' were blasting the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion's 'N' Company apart. By the time Port Stanley was captured on 14 June 1982 the Royal Navy had fired a total of 8,000 rounds with considerable effect.
By 0430 the local situation was regarded as critical, and that morning, the 6th 'General Juan Viamonte' Regiment's 'B' was ordered to assist. At about 0500 Major Oscar Ramon Jaimet, the Operations Officer of the 6th Regiment gave Second Lieutenant Augusto La Madrid the task of clearing Left Flank Company out with a counterattack. With his accustomed enthusiasm and efficiency La Madrid quickly assembled his men, lined them up and went in. It was hardly a Hollywood style counterattack, but there was no lack of confidence in the 6th Army Regiment platoon (La Madrid would win the equivalent of a Distinguished Conduct Medal).
Second Lieutenant Augusto La Madrid:
My platoon was sent in first; it was in the best shape and location. It was dark, but the British were firing star-shells. I moved off with my men. I had practised a night counterattack in cadet school a year before and knew the theory. I had also taken an infantry company tactics book with me to the Malvinas and had been studying it. Finally, I had a copy of 'Soldado Aislado' [The Isolated Soldier], the translation of an American manual. My men were willing but they had never seen this sector in daylight. As for me, I had just received a telegram from my father, a Professor of History, telling me to fight on to the end - 'Victory or Death! - your father will bless you.' I thought, with that blessing, I was ready to die. I preferred to die with honour than to be a coward. I couldn't tolerate the idea of going home without doing some actual fighting.
We moved off through a gap in the rocks; I spread my men out behind the men who were still fighting. My orders were not to let anyone pass, no even Argentine soldiers. I went forward to make a reconnaissance and could see that the British had two machineguns and a missile launcher in action. I went through another gap in the rocks and was surprised by three men speaking in English behind and above me and firing over the top of me. I could see them with my night binoculars; there were about twelve of them in all. I was anxious to get back to my platoon. I took a rifle grenade and fired at where I had seen the first three men. I heard it explode and some shouts and cries of pain, and the sound of someone falling down the rocks. I ran back to my position and ordered my men to open fire. We stopped them, but they thinned out and came round our flanks; their deployment was good. They also engaged us with light mortars and missile launchers. This went on for a long time, and we suffered heavy casualties; we had eight dead and ten wounded. We started to run short of ammunition, particularly for the machineguns. Also, I could see that we were outflanked, with the British behind us, so we were cut off from my company. Some of my men had been taken prisoner.
I reorganized and found that I was down to sixteen men. I started to retire. The British above me were firing machineguns, but we passed close to the rocks, actually under the machinegun fire. I left six men in a line with one machinegun to cover our retreat, but really we were fighting all the time; we could not break contact. They came on us fast, and we fell back; it was starting to get light. The whole hill had fallen by then, and we were on lower ground, just south of Moody Brook. We eventually got through to Stanley, through what I would like to say was a perfect barrage fired by the Royal Artillery. We had to wait for breaks in the firing, but I still lost a man killed there. (Martin Middlebrook, The Fight for the Malvinas, pp. 260-262)
The counterattack on the Scots Guards failed to make any real headway. It was exectued too late to tip the scales in favour of the Argentines. Not until 0630 could Mino's 1st Amphibious Engineer Company platoon come up to help, but by then the won ground was taken. Robacio, however, did not intend to surrender Tumbledown to the Scots Guards. But as he telephoned Villarraza to check with him on the progress of 'O' Company, which had been planning a counterattack, the unwelcome news arrived that Mino's amphibious engineer platoon was again retreating. At this moment Jofre decided it was time to make a withdrawal. Jofre reasoned that British air assault units would go for Sapper Hill and trap 'N' and 'O' Companies, 5th Marine Infantry Battalion, and 'B' Company, 6th Regiment. Accordingly, 'N' and 'O' Companies were ordered to make for Sapper Hill. Major Jaimet was contacted and he agreed to act as the rearguard. Major Jaimet - an Army commando - was devastated when he received the order:
Sometime during dawn Robacio came up on the air to advise me that he would not come to our assistance and that he had orders to withdraw the companies. I was gutted more than anything because I wanted to play the rest of the company. That was the only thing I was thinking of really. I was a commando and it was a matter of personal as well as national pride to go on fighting regardless of the consequences. I considered Malvinas my paradise. When I got to the 10th Brigade Command I made it clear that my company should be going forward. The orders puzzled and dispirited us. Many looked on the big break of contact as running away and did not like it at all. (Courtesy of Colonel Alberto Gonzalez)
Captain Villarraza refused to give in, however. At 0800 on 14 June, a counterattack using First Sergeant Jorge Lucero's 3rd Platoon was mounted towards the centre of Tumbledown, and, despite initial problems, some progress was made. But as 'B' Company, 1st Battalion of the 7th Duke of Edinburgh's Own Gurkha Rifles appeared in the eastern end of Tumbledown, Lucero's 5th Marine Infantry Battalion platoon was forced to pull back. On account of the strong defences the Gurkha battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel David Morgan, decided to make a night attack, but slow approach marches meant that at dawn on 14 June the Gurkhas were short of their objective, in full view of Villarraza's forward artillery observation officer, Second Lieutenant Marcelo De Marco, and he duly got on the radio and called down rounds of airburst, right on top of the Gurkhas. The Gurkhas had eight wounded by this fire. Inevitably Robacio savaged the way the Xth Brigade Command had conducted the battle. In a 1987 television interview Robacio told British journalist Peter Kosminsky angrily:
On the last day of the war - 14 June - at about 6.30 AM, I thought that we were still winning. My unit hadn't suffered any real losses. We hadn't given up any of our positions. All we had lost was a very, very small part of Mount Tumbledown. I knew that we were running out of ammunition, so I asked my headquarters for more. We were concentrating our efforts on Mount Tumbledown because that was the battle which would seal the fate of Puerto Argentino. Unfortunately we never received the ammunition we needed. At about seven o'clock I received the order to withdraw prior to a surrender. Our military code states that for an Argentine military unit to surrender it must have spent all its ammunition or lost at least two-thirds of its men. It was awful to have to ask the units which were still fighting to withdraw. It was a very bitter moment. We really felt defeated. You could see the battle coming to an end. The unit withdrew in orderly fashion, under intense enemy fire and with the help of God, because God exists on the battlefield. Then my men prepared to resist on Sapper Hill to the last man, but we were told that our commanding officers had already surrendered and I had to give my units the order to withdraw yet again.
Jofre in an interview with the mass circulation 'Gente' news magazine disagrees in his version of events:
Sometime during the morning Robacio came on the air to advise me that his command post, near Felton Stream, was under direct attack[Robacio and his command post were by this time under fire from the 2nd Parachute Battalion]. There are varying accounts of the report time, but I am sure, it was around 0700. 'We are encircled', Robacio told me in a hurried call. 'All around us are British forces firing at us; at least 150 troops and more than a dozen tanks. We are not in a good position.' This came as a shock to me. To us it was apparent, at the time that Special Air Service personnel dressed in Argentine Army uniforms had mixed in with the 7th Regiment soldiers and under their cover infiltrated to the rear of the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion. Now we did have something to worry about.
When I got back to Robacio I made it clear that he should regroup on Sapper Hill. Apart from re-opened communications in the rear and an abundance of ammunition, there would be a dozen Army radar-guided anti-aircraft guns and 'C' Company, 3rd Regiment. In his earlier reports he had reported a shortage of belt-fed ammunition for the machineguns and pressing requirement for casualty evacuation.
It would be very loathsome to leave it under suggestions of the kind we have been talking about, that somehow I was a quitter, that somehow I misled, that we did something wrong. That is nonsense. To stay would have necessitated re-arrangement of the companies in broad daylight.
There was no immediate response to this. Obviously he had more confidence in the situation than I did. I patiently chewed at my finger nails for as long as I could tolerate it. I then got on to battalion headquarters for an explanation. I was told that 'O' Company was planning a counterattack. From my point of view we had already lost too much time and I was anxious to get the companies off Tumbledown and the withdrawal under way why we still had darkness. It was still dark outside.
As predicted British helicopter-borne infantry, 40th Commando Battalion, lost no time in following up until checked with a bloody nose at Sapper Hill. I asked Jaimet if his company could hold out for another hour as we were planning to pull the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion back and up on and around Sapper Hill. Jaimet agreed. Villarraza waited for artillery to open up to signal that he could get away.
At 0945 Jaimet was ordered to withdraw and although hindered by British fire his company was able to break clear. All 5th Marine Infantry Battalion elements had reached Sapper Hill by 1000. After that things went from bad to worse. No sooner had Jaimet reached Sapper Hill, Dalton, the operations officer of the brigade, came up to me and said, 'Many soldiers are in a strange state and the Kelpers are bound to get hurt. One 3rd Regiment platoon has been told to go into the houses by a fanatical lieutenant, who has also ordered the men to kill the Kelpers-something awful is happening.' I'll never forget that moment. It was like a lightning bolt had hit me. It was becoming evident to me that I was no longer at the control. 'We've had it. The lives of the Kelpers are being risked.' I told General Menendez and he realized that there was no question of fighting any further.
Menendez told me that he wished to talk to Galtieri to arrange a ceasefire. I agreed. It was all over. Fighting on Sapper Hill was out of the question.
On orders from Stanley, the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion and Jaimet's 6th Regiment company left Sapper Hill for Stanley. The thankless task of covering the Argentine retreat was Captain Rodolfo Cionchi's. To help him , he had just part of 'M' Company and some soldiers from the 4th Army Regiment who had recently fought well on 'Long Toenail', the southern ridge of Two Sisters. Just south of Cionchi's position was a minefield. It was here that a 40 Royal Marine Commando Battalion platoon landed by 2 Sea King helicopters. On Sapper Hill Second Lieutenants Davis and Koch, and their 5th Marine Infantry Battalion platoons were soon in a firefight. Second Lieutenant Marcelo Llambias-Pravaz of the 4th Army Regiment joined them and opened fire with a FAL rifle. "I was so mad; I wanted to shoot both helicopters out of the sky", says Llambias-Pravaz.
The Sea Kings were raked with rifle fire and limped out to seek cover. Both helicopters had to be taken out of service temporarily while repairs were completed. The last shots of the battle had been fired. Beating a prudent retreat, Cionchi's force made their way back to Port Stanley.
The attack against Sapper Hill came in at 1305 local time and Second Lieutenant Cooper's 40 Royal Marine Commando Battalion platoon managed to get very close to Second Lieutenant Guillermo Koch's 3rd Platoon, but the British attack was beaten off by rifle and machinegun fire - indeed the British platoon commander and Private McGregor ended up triggering anti-personnel mines.
British war correspondent John Witheroe later landed in a helicopter on the lower slopes of Sapper Hill:
We flew in a helicopter to the base of Sapper Hill. The Marines had just been involved in a fire-fight with retreating Argentinians and we found several wounded Marines on the roadside being tended by medical orderlies. (Michael Bilton & Peter Kosminsky, Speaking Out: Untold Stories from the Falklands War, pp. 271-272)
Post mortem on BIM 5
Robacio's battalion had performed well. Not bad, considering the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion was made up almost entirely by young, conscript soldiers. During the Tumbledown battle, Robacio was principally in sole and total command of 'N' Company and the Army company involved; and deserved full credit for doing all that was possible to limit British gains. Perhaps his wisest move was made before Vazquez's positions fell, when he ordered his 'O' Company to move into a position that would allow it to play an active role in the Tumbledown fighting. His later positioning of his troops and heavy weapons on Sapper Hill before the Argentine surrender provided a defensive barrier that would only have been breached at heavy cost in men and equipment.
The Argentine Marines were praised for their courage. Robacio reminded the public that his battalion had been placed into an untenable position by Army generals. Robacio was not dismissed: he was promoted in rank. In 44 days the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion had suffered sixteen dead and sixty-four wounded. Eight of the Argentines who died on Tumbledown were Army personnel of the 6th Regiment and five from the 4th Regiment which proved that an Argentine soldier did not need to be a Marine to stop a bullet. Indeed, the surrender left a sour taste in Major Oscar Ramon Jaimet's mouth. He had wanted a Stalingrad style ending with house-to-house combat.
Jofre's intent seems to have been to avert civilian casualties.
Private Santiago Carrizo tells us what happened when the 3rd 'General Manuel Belgrano' Regiment prepared for house-to-house combat:
We were all very nervous after all we had lived through. Our platoon commander [commando-trained Lieutenant Frecha] told us to take positions in the houses. 'Don't be afraid of anyone. Go into the houses and if a Kelper resists, shoot him. (Max Hastings & Simon Jenkins, Battle for the Falklands, p. 303)