Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Razor's Edge - Hugh Bicheno - Tumbledown

I hope the author doesn't mind me posting an extensive quote from his book but this is probably the most detailed account of the battle of Tumbledown I have yet to read.

Since having gone back and walked the battlefield and seen the confusion that still exists today despite the wealth of information that has been published, and the fact that the majority of the combatants that survived the battle are still alive, I really feel that it would be worth the effort to research and record what really happened that night.


THE BATTLE FOR TUMBLEDOWN is, to date, the last battalion-sized ‘forlorn hope’ assault* carried out by the British Army, appropriately by one of its oldest regiments, the Scots Guards. There is no social animus in my earlier comments on the folly of sending the two Guards battalions to the Falklands. They are good troops, possessed of an admirable esprit de corps. Their officers, known variously as ‘debutante’s delights’, ‘chinless wonders’, and so forth, have a tradition of nurturing outstanding savagery under a suave exterior: a matter unexplored in Tumbledown, a TV film based on the story of Guards Lieutenant Robert Lawrence MC, who lived despite a rifle-shot to the head that destroyed half his brain. The other half retained an appalling memory of what the anodyne term ‘hand-to-hand fighting’ really involves:

I stuck my bayonet into the back of his arm, dug it right in because I had run out of ammunition. He spun wildly on the ground and my bayonet snapped. And as he spun, he was trying to get a Colt 45 out of an Army holster on his waist. So I had to stab him to death. I stabbed him and I stabbed him, again and again, in the mouth, in the face, in the guts, with a snapped bayonet. It was absolutely horrific [retrospectively — at the time he recalls crying out ‘Isn’t this fun?’ not long after this incident]. Stabbing a man to death is not a clean way to kill somebody, and what made it doubly horrific was that at one point he started screaming ‘Please. . .‘ in English to me. But if I had left him he could have ended up shooting me in the
back. I took his rifle, moved on, shot a sniper, picked up his and moved on again.

  • From the Dutch verloren hoop (lost troop), ‘forlorn hope’ was the designation adopted by the British in the seventeenth century for those sent to storm a breach in the walls during an assault on a fortress.
The 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards (2 SG) was on ceremonial duty in London when advised on 5 April that they might be going to war. The CO, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Scott, and Captain Spicer his Operations Officer (also Training Officer and Support Company commander and much later author of An Unorthodox Soldier) had to scramble in order to obtain even basics like rucksacks and Clansman radios. 2 SG was also understrength, but volunteers from the Grenadier, Coldstream and Irish Guards soon made up the deficit. As was to be demonstrated again in the 1991 Gulf War, the British could only put a fully (but not properly) equipped division in the field at short notice by cannibalizing stores across the whole Army.

Like most soldiers, Spicer blames government parsimony. In fact the armed forces were over-officered to an almost Ruritanian degree and were probably the least cost effective component of the British public sector. The Guards battalions should not have been sent because they were not combat- ready and other regiments were. Their unpreparedness delayed departure and also made them less able to make up for lost time when they arrived. That was not something forced on the defence establishment by politicians, nor was the lack of contingency planning, military intelligence, inventory control, logistical expertise, familiarity with key weapons systems and so on down the list. None were expensive —merely essential. The Guards had five weeks to make good their deficiencies before embarkation on 12 May. Was it supposed the Warsaw Pact would give as much notice of its intention to roll over Western Europe?

We have seen how 2 SG nearly became the victim of what would have been the bluest of blue-on-blues in British military history on 6 June. Had it been left to Brigadier Wilson, their reprieve would have proved temporary. On 9 June, the day following the Galahad disaster, he summoned his battalion commanders to a meeting at Fitzroy, which to their astonishment was filmed by the BBC, by now regarded by most as an enemy fifth column. It was an attempt to put a brave face on things for the benefit of the folks back home and he said nothing of operational matters until the journalists were gone.

One wishes they had stayed to film the faces of the COs and their staff as Wilson outlined his plan: once 42 Commando seized Harriet, the Gurkhas were to ‘patrol aggressively’ along the line of the coast road towards Tumbledown and William in the hope that the defenders would flee. Failing that, on 12 June the Gurkhas and 2 SG would attack William and Tumbledown simultaneously — in daylight — from the point on the road known as Ponies Pass.

Few things are absolutely certain in war, but barring day-long blanketing mist this was a recipe for a catastrophe that would have relegated the tragedy at Fitzroy to a footnote in the history books. The two hills were known to be held by a battalion of Argentine Marines, normally based in Tierra del Fuego and therefore well equipped for the conditions, who had been in place for two months and were set up to counter an attack from precisely the direction Wilson proposed. William, which would have to be taken first because it flanked the approach to Tumbledown, was not only heavily defended but was close to the road from Stanley, along which Argentine reinforcements could be rushed. Even if the Gurkhas were able to draw all the fire from William, 2 SG would still have to cross a minefield, then a large stone run followed by two smaller ones before assaulting into a broadside of machine-gun fire from much the largest and most complex of the Stanley hills. The slope was almost a defender’s dream and the enemy had built sturdy bunkers within the stone runs to cover the areas of dead ground.

FRONTAL ASSAULT ON the enemy’s strongest point — does this sound familiar? It should. It is the hallmark of the personality type dissected in Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. ‘But General Walpole took no trouble to reconnoitre; and, without even a cursory examination of the position, launched his men in a blundering and haphazard manner against the strongest face... ‘The incident described was at Fort Rooyah during the Indian Mutiny, but any one of a dozen general officers’ names from the Crimean, Boer and the two World Wars could be substituted for Walpole’s. Wilson’s scheme held out at best the prospect of a Pyrrhic victory, at worst a loss of momentum and a morale boost for the enemy that might have doomed the entire campaign. According to his chief Sapper, Wilson’s reason for proposing a headlong attack was that he was under intense pressure to win ‘the race for Stanley’ — yet there are still those who feel he was unjustly treated after the war and ‘cruelly’ hustled into retirement. While conceding that whoever was exerting the pressure from London richly deserved to precede him into professional oblivion, it is an established principle of international jurisprudence (except, as we have seen, in Argentina) that a soldier not only should but must disobey criminal orders. If the knowing, needless sacrifice of lives on the altar of inter-service rivalry is not a premeditated crime then the term has no meaning.

FORTUNATELY MIKE SCOTT (no familiarity intended — there were several Scoffs among the Scots) had the moral courage to rebel, quietly but firmly. Here serendipity once more worked to British advantage because the CO of a Guards battalion may courteously accept suggestions from lesser beings, but takes orders only from the great Guardsman in the Sky or his senior earthly representatives. In addition, although the First Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles (1/7 Gurkhas) was the strongest infantry unit in the Falklands, it was politically impossible to give them the primary role in 5 Brigade’s offensive. The Welsh Guards were out of it and should have been withdrawn to San Carlos to release 40 Commando, instead of borrowing two companies from it to maintain an illusion of participation. Wilson either led with 2 SG or did not lead at all, and power therefore devolved to Scott. The brigadier was gradually shut out of the decision-making process until, during the battle, Spicer took it upon himself to shut down the radio link with Brigade to stop Wilson ‘pestering’ Scott. Once the Para battalions were taken from Wilson’s brigade it was an error to leave him in command. It would have been better to honour the custom that two Guards battalions demand a Guards brigadier, but no British tradition is more sacred than ‘Buggins’s turn’.

The staff of 2 SG quickly discarded the daylight attack option, and after Scott’s chief sapper, Lieutenant Peter McManners, advised him that it would take all night to locate and breach the minefield, so was the approach from the south-west. Scott therefore recommended an attack during the night of 12—13 June from a staging area between Harriet and Goat Ridge, assuming 42 Commando gained control of them on the 1 lth—l2th. The line of advance was the one 45 Commando envisaged and was straining at the leash to pursue in the morning of the 12th, but neither Scott nor Wilson appear to have been told that 3 Commando Brigade might follow through. The lack of coordination and inter-communication that Division was supposed to ensure was not Moore’s fault: he lacked the staff and the communications equipment, and despite donning a neutral Afrika Korps-style cap was presumed guilty of favouring the Marines even when what he proposed was manifestly the correct military solution. It was a command shambles created by old men in London squabbling over the limelight like pantomime queens.

Scott’s scheme, rubber-stamped by Wilson on the 11th, was for 2 SG to attack Tumbledown from the west. Once it was secure 1/7 Gurkhas would pass around it to attack William from the north, across the saddle between the two features. The Welsh Guards/40 Commando battalion was to be in reserve in the lee of Harriet ready to exploit forward to Sapper Hill. The attack was to coincide with an assault on Wireless Ridge by 2 Para, now back under command of 3 Commando Brigade. Tumbledown towered over Wireless Ridge and until 2 SG could silence the support weapons and drive the Argentine artillery observers off it, 2 Para was likely to have a thin time of it.

But at the same time 2 Para’s attack would prevent Argentine forces in the valley from reinforcing Tumbledown, so the two operations were interdependent. In the absence of time to conduct ground reconnaissance of his own, Scott gratefully accepted Thompson’s offer of the M&AW Cadre members who had set up on Goat Ridge on 8—9 June to guide 2 SG and the Gurkhas to their start lines east of Goat Ridge.

A cartoon published in London at the time showed two Argentine soldiers huddled in a trench, one saying: ‘No, no, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s the Gurkhas who cut your throat with a big knife —the Scots do it with a broken bottle.’ The 5th Marine Infantry Battalion (BIM 5) on Tumbledown and Mount William was to have the dubious distinction of being attacked by both, although in the event William was abandoned before the Gurkhas got there. The Argentine Marines on the Falklands were in most respects independent of the Army, enjoying as they did their own logistics airlift plus organic artillery, air defence and sapper support. To their credit, at the command level Marine Colonel Moeremans’ staff were fully integrated with Jofre’s, and inter-service rivalry was not a factor in the battle of Tumbledown. The CO of BIM 5, Lieutenant Colonel Robacio, broke ranks six years after the war, when he dishonestly alleged his battalion only fell back from Tumbledown and William because Jofre ordered it to do so, after the Army had been driven from Wireless Ridge. Robacio was provoked by press denigration of the Navy’s role in the Falklands debacle, but it was still a sad and demeaning coda to one of the few examples of cooperation among the services in Argentine history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Only one comment I agree on in this article and that is that Wilson was a complete waste of space.
As for Spicer....5 weeks wasn't enough time to prepare for sailing? I was in 40 CDO at the time and we sailed 3 days after the news of the invasion came through. Bergens, by the way, were never issued in those days...we bought them ourselves as we did with most of our kit. That probably explains in itself the difference between Guards & Marines.
I had the misfortune to be attached to them after the Sir Galahad disaster and spent 12 hours in a mine field as a result of their 'recce' troop's performance, resulting in us missing the start line for 42's assault on Mnt Harriet and that being delayed.
Their input can be best summed up in a comment I received from a WG RSM: "I can't wait to get out of here, back to London, and do some proper soldiering".