Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Tumbledown - Continued

Scott’s scheme, given to his company commanders at 1530 on 11 June, was for a three-phase operation the following night, with G Company leading to take the western outcrop, Left Flank Company (LF) the main ridge as far as the twin summit peaks, and Right Flank Company (RF) the rest, including a large rock formation to the north-west of the main ridge overlooking an enemy logistics distribution point.* The main assault was to be preceded by a diversionary attack led by HQ Company commander Major Bethell, supported by a troop (two Scorpions and two Scimitars) of the Blues and Royals from the south-west, intended to keep the enemy’s attention fixed in the wrong direction. ‘Left Flank’ and ‘Right Flank’ are survivals from the days of red coats and linear battlefield manoeuvres. 2 SG and the Gurkhas spent the 12th waiting for the promised helicopter lift. It was not until 1600 that Wilson advised the COs that a higher priority had been given to resupplying 3 Commando Brigade after the battles of the night before. Scott demanded a twenty-four-hour postponement to ensure that Gwyn’s gunline should also be fully stocked. Furthermore, anxious as Moore was to relieve the pressure on the forward battalions, it would have been utter folly to attack without even giving the Guards and Gurkhas a chance to eyeball their objective. Early on the 13th troop commanders down to section level were flown to Goat Ridge and spent the day studying Tumbledown! William. The rank and file were brought to the assembly area behind the ridge throughout the day, under intermittent shelling that wounded a lance sergeant.

Bethell’s thirty-man group consisted of two sections from the Recce Platoon under Sergeant Coull, an HQ Company section including Drill Sergeant Wight, armed with converted Bren guns (LMG) and led by CSM Brady, and two 9 Parachute Squadron Sappers. They started from Port Harriet House and met up with the tanks on the road south-west of Harriet at about 1700. They rode forward with them until at 1830 they dismounted to advance on foot, skirting south of Ponies Pass. The battalion advance was scheduled to start at 2100 but it was not until 2045 that Bethell arrived at the enemy position he intended to attack: a cluster of above-ground bunkers built with peat-filled fuel drums, from which members of the O Company/Sapper group under Quiroga had been observing the British advance through passive night goggles for half an hour. The Argentine position was tiered, with the riflemen holding the first line, four MAGs and the command post 100 yards behind them, and three 60mm mortars 150 yards further back. The reason why Bethell’s group was permitted to get so close seems to have been because Quiroga twisted his ankle and held fire until Sub-Lieutenant Calmels arrived to replace him.

One of the MAGs opened up at point-blank range and the Brens promptly returned fire. Drill Sergeant Wight and Sapper Lance Corporal Pashley were killed in the first exchange and S/C 62 Iñiguez mortally wounded, the only Argentine fatality in this engagement. Five Guardsmen and about the same number of Argentines were wounded over the next hour and a half, during which the diversion drew fire from all BIM S’s mortars and the Marine battery. Calmels reported he was under attack by two companies and at 2220 received permission to retreat, while for his part Bethell decided at about 2230 that his men had done enough. So it was that the two groups disengaged at about the same time, but not before a grenade wounded Bethell and Piper Duffy. Carrying their casualties the diversion group then walked into a minefield and four men were crippled, leaving barely enough fit men to help the wounded and not enough to carry the dead, who were abandoned amid heavy, but fortunately peat-dampened mortar fire.

Bethell lost radio contact early with Lieutenant Coreth of the Blues and Royals, who drove toward the sound of the guns when the action started until, skirting a crater in the road, he drove over an anti-tank mine that lifted his Scorpion several feet in the air, dismounted the engine and shredded a track, but did not breach the hull or injure the crew. The remaining tanks did their bit for the diversion by taking it in turns to fire at William and Tumbledown as they reversed towards Harriet, also under heavy fire. At some point they emerged from the radio black hole and Coreth was able to reestablish contact with Bethell, at the time on hands and knees with Sapper Lance Corporal Foran and Piper Duffy, using a torch to identify mines. It was not until 0200 that they made it back to the road, where Coreth picked up the wounded and rushed them to the 42 Commando RAP south-west of Harriet.

The diversion cost two of the nine British killed and eleven of the forty- three wounded during the battle. Its success can be measured by the fact that when Jofre published his apologia in 1987, he still believed a full battalion attack with armoured support was launched out of Ponies Pass (see Diagram 7, p. 313). Perhaps more to the point Robacio, Pernias and Villarraza believed it at the time, which is a good part of the reason why Vázquez’s, Silva’s and Miño’s men at the western end of Tumbledown were left to fight the main body of 2 SG on their own. Foran got an MM for mine clearing under fire, but Bethell only a Mention in Despatches for devising and executing a brilliantly successful operation that saved many lives, in which he repeatedly risked his own to attack enemy positions and recover his wounded. Leading the main attack, Major Dalzell-Jobs’ G Company advanced a mile without alerting the enemy. The temperature had fallen below freezing and the night was darkened by snow flurries driven by fierce winds into the back of the advancing Guards — and into the eyes of the defenders on Tumbledown. It was not until Major Kiszeley’s LF Company passed through, entering the relatively sheltered saddle between the western outcrop and Tumbledown proper at about 2230, that Miño’s and Silva’s men spotted them. They held fire until the two leading platoons were in the middle of the saddle and then a stunning volume of fire drove the Guards to cover, behind a peat bank they were extraordinarily lucky not to have crossed before the firing started.

‘Everybody got down because the initial firefight was incredible, it was like being at the wrong end of a machine-gun range,’ Lieutenant Mitchell of 15 Platoon recalled. ‘Bullets at close range cracked like a whip over your head. The air was full of bits of lead and chunks of rock, which were being broken off and were flying around all over the place. . . You had the feeling that if you raised your hand slightly in the air it would be shot off.’

Guardsman Stirling was killed and 15 Platoon Sergeant Jackson wounded in the initial fusillade. Newly graduated 2nd Lieutenant Stuart’s 13 Platoon was out of the immediate line of fire and ran forward to hook around Mifio’s northern flank, only to run into accurate rifle fire, possibly from Lucero’s platoon. Platoon Sergeant Simeon and Guardsman Tanbini were killed and when CSM Nicol and Lance Corporal Eyre went to their aid they were wounded: Nicol by a bullet that struck the barrel of his rifle, held across his chest, and ricocheted through his hand. He thought it likely they were all victims of a single sniper.

1 comment:

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