Thursday, 20 December 2007

Tumbledown - Continued

The Battle for Mount Tumbledown

The next phase in the British plan of attack was that the Second Parachute Battalion, with the Third Commando Battalion as reserve, would attack Wireless Ridge, northwest of Puerto Argentino. At the same time, the 5th Brigade, formed by the Scottish Guard Battalion, the Welsh Guard Battalion and the Gurkha Battalion would attack Tumbledown (229 meters high), William (213 meters high) and Sapper Hill (138 meters high), respectively. The attack, which had been originally planned for the evening of the 12th, was postponed until the evening of the 13th. For the attack the British brought up ammunition and supplies during the whole day, and there they confronted the Argentines responsible for the defense of Mount Tumbledown, Mount William and Sapper Hill in the west and southeast of Puerto Argentino: the 5th Marine Battalion. Leaders of the Argentine High Command in the Malvinas decided to attach to the Marine unit C Company of the 3rd IR in the south, as well as B Company of the 6th IR and A Company of the 3rd IR in the north. At 10:15 p.m., after a heavy preparation bombardment, the British began the attack against two companies from the 5th Marine Battalion: N Company on Tumbledown and O Company southwest of Mount William. The attackers were the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards. If they captured the position quickly, the Gurkhas were to follow through and assault the smaller position on Mount William. See map 3.

Assuming that the British would take one position at a time and then consolidate it, the Marines tried, as their basic strategy, to hold their positions until dawn. They expected the British to withdraw if they failed to capture these positions. The first action was a diversionary attack carried out by about thirty guardsmen of the Headquarters Company, supported by four light tanks. This was the first tank operation in the Malvinas Islands. The attack was aimed to attract the Argentine forces towards Mount William, and the British column engaged the southernmost elements of the O Company of the 5th Marines, which had been sent forward near Pony Pass. The British advanced while there was still some light, so that the Argentines could clearly identify the attacking force and its composition. According to the officer commanding O Company, the British were unaware of the presence of the Argentine force. The Argentine officer in charge fixed the position of the attackers and directed the artillery fire, which rained down on the Scots. This initial exchange ended favorably for the Argentines, as the guards pulled back, believing that they had accomplished the diversion. But no Argentine reserves moved to that sector, and the British had not yet detected the presence of O Company. Later, this company engaged the Welsh Guards, who were advancing in order to pass Mount William and attack Sapper Hill. After the men of the O Company had inflicted some casualties and delayed the advance of the attackers, Battalion Headquarters ordered them to pull back to Sapper Hill. The unit retreated, fighting all the way. Finally, at about 1:30 a.m. on June 14th, the company reinforced the defensive perimeter of C Company of the 3rd IR.

Next, the British directed their main effort on Tumbledown. The plan of the Scots Guards for the main attack was to tackle Tumbledown’s long, thin ridge in three phases, working from west to east, with each of the battalion’s three rifle companies capturing one - third of the objective in turn. G Company of the Scots Guards would attack the first third, the Left Flank Company would capture the central third, and the Right Flank Company would capture the last third.

Confronting the Scots Guards, the defenders of Tumbledown were N Company of the 5th Marine Battalion. This company positioned its platoons as follows: the 1st Platoon, on the south side of Mount William, protecting the road from Fitz Roy to Puerto Argentino; the 2nd Platoon, on the west side of Mount William in the direction to Dos Hermanas; the 3rd Platoon, on the north side of Mount Tumbledown in the direction of Moody Valley; the 4th Platoon positioned on the southeast of Mount Tumbledown toward Mount Harriet; and finally, the 5th Platoon, which consisted of the Amphibious Engineers, lay positioned on the highest point of the western part of Mount Tumbledown toward the west-northeast. The company was supported by six 81mm mortars, six 106mm mortars, the Marine howitzers battery and Army Artillery Groups 3 and 4. G Company (Scots Guards Battalion) approached silently on to the western end of Tumbledown and occupied the position without difficulty, because no Argentine troops were stationed there. Next, the Left Flank Company passed through G Company to approach the main heights of Tumbledown and, on this occasion, its men met fierce Argentine fire.

In order to stop the British, nearly all of N Company was concentrated on the eastern end of the ridge, deployed to dominate the open ground to the north and the south. This left only the 4th Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant Carlos Vázquez, to receive the full attack of the Scots Guards. Moreover, this was not even a regular platoon, as it has been made up from Marines spared from other duties. The platoon comprised twenty-seven Marines, plus a few Marine engineers, and sixteen Army soldiers.

The British used profusely rocket fire, but the Marines’ positions had been well prepared, and the men resisted. As the night wore on and the fierce firefight continued, the Argentines showed no sign of crumbling, and their main positions held firm. They brought down mortar fire on their attackers. According to Vázquez, during the first attacks it appeared that the Scots were overconfident, but later they changed their tactics. At about 1:00 a.m. on June 14th, with the Scots Guards occupying positions among the Argentine foxholes, the Argentine officer in charge requested supporting fire over his own positions. After a hail of fire and after being caught in the open, the Scots withdrew to their rear and to higher ground.

Up to this point, the Argentine casualties had been light. The 1st and 2nd Platoons of N Company had received only artillery fire, and they stayed in their positions in order to block any attack from the Welsh Guards. The 3rd Platoon was also on the north side of Tumbledown covering Moody Valley. At about 1:30 a.m., a platoon from the B Company of the 6th IR arrived at N Company’s command post and prepared for a counterattack in support of the 5th Platoon of N Company. But components of the Scots Guards and the Gurkha Battalion blocked these men. The British units had advanced from the westnorthwest, suffering heavy casualties from the Marine artillery.

Then, at 2:00 a.m., the Scots Guards reassumed the attack against the 4th Platoon, this time more violently. They charged on up the hill, began to assault the Marines’ positions from several directions at once, and took them one by one. At about 4:30 a.m., after the machine guns of the 4th Platoon began to run out of ammunition, Vázquez saw that the Argentines were losing control of the situation, as the British were occupying the foxholes, killing their original occupants.

Once again, Vázquez asked for artillery fire over his position and this time the Marines’ 105mm howitzers pounded the area. At about 5:00 a.m., the British initiated the third assault on the platoon’s foxholes. At 7:00 a.m., only three foxholes remained in the hands of the Marines. Finally, with the ammunition nearly gone, Lieutenant Vázquez decided to surrender. Of the 36 men originally in the platoon, 12 were killed, four missing, and five wounded. By the time that the Scots Guards finally captured the crest of the mount, their Left Flank Company lost also seven killed and twenty-one wounded.

The third phase of the battalion’s attack began at 6 a.m. This time, the Right Flank Company followed up the advance of the Left Flank Company, with its First Platoon taking positions as high up in the rocks to the left as possible in order to provide fire support. This put the Argentine defenders, a platoon of B Company of the 6th IR, under crossfire.

After what one participant described as a further “ six hours of struggle inch by inch up the rocks, using phosphorous grenades and automatic weapons” in order to force the Argentines out from their positions, the Scots Guards siezed Tumbledown. They occupied their objective eleven hours after crossing the Start Line, and their casualties numbered 9 dead and 41 wounded. Some of the survivors of Vázquez’s platoon retreated in the direction of Puerto Argentino.

This stiff resistance from the Marines upset the British timetable and caused the postponement of the Gurkhas’ attack on Mount William. At 5:30 a.m., Commander Robacio informed Headquarters in Puerto Argentino that the western section of Mount Tumbledown was in enemy hands, and he told his superiors that M Company and two platoons of B Company of 6th IR under his command were going to counterattack.

The enemy blocked this Argentine counterattack. At 8 a.m. the fighting was concentrated on the eastern part of Tumbledown and Mount William, but the High Command in Puerto Argentino denied Robacio authorization to employ M Company, which was stationed in Sapper Hill, to reinforce N Company. Finally, at 8:45 a.m., obeying orders from Puerto Argentino and after abandoning their heavy equipment, the 5th Marine Battalion and the remnants of the Army troops with them began to retreat towards Sapper Hill. M Company, which up to now had only received the attention of the British naval artillery, was positioned to receive the retreating Marines. The pullback of the Battalion, which was accomplished under constant bombardment, was orderly and according to regulations. At 9:30 a.m. June 14th, the fighting stopped and a cease-fire came into force.

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