Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Tumbledown - Continued

LF Company was now in the same situation as 3 Para/B after the first rush ran out of momentum on Longdon, with the deadly difference that here the enemy was firmly in control of the high ground. The company was stuck for over three hours, although on the left 13 Platoon retained its lodgement in the rocks to the right of Mifio’s position, from which Lance Sergeants Davidson and McGuiness chipped away at the Argentine Sappers’ resolve with anti-tank rockets and phosphorus grenades. Lacking similar cover, attempts by Mitchell’s platoon to outflank right brought them progressively further into the prepared arcs of fire from the SilvaNázquez position. Eventually all progress stopped, despite several daring forays by Guardsman Reynolds.* Kiszeley became separated from his forward observer, Captain Nicol, during the first firefight and once they found each other they also found they were in an area of very poor radio reception. The result was that Väzquez won the race to obtain close artillery support, and when Nicol and Gwyn finally got back in contact it was no longer possible to differentiate between own and enemy shells. BIM 5’s guns and mortars also beat up the outcrop, wounding a number of G Company men including 9 Platoon Sergeant McDonald, while beyond it Scott’s HQ group was bracketed by successive salvos. The HQ group ran forward to take cover in the outcrop as a third salvo tore up the ground where they had been. This may have been the work of the Argentine 155s: Spicer describes an explosion too powerful to have been caused by mere 105s, which excavated the peat bank behind which the HQ Group had been sheltering. The breakthrough started at about 0200 when Gwyn at last started dropping shells close enough, permitting Mitchell’s platoon to get in among Vázquez’s men, at about the same time that Mifio, outflanked by Stuart’s platoon and deserted by most of his men, abandoned his position and retreated up the hill. The telephone cables were cut and the British were jamming his radio so Mifio sent a runner, who never arrived, to warn Vázquez. Guardsman Denholm died on this flank, the place and cause unspecified in any account I have found. The first that the men facing Mitchell’s platoon knew about Mifio’s departure was when they came under GPMG and anti-tank rocket fire from above and behind, which wounded several and killed the gallant Silva. The Argentine Army’s citation for Oscar Silva’s posthumous MVC says he died on Two Sisters: fighting alongside the Marines, it seems, did not count.

McGuiness, in charge of the ten men of Stuart’s platoon highest up the hill, recalled:

‘we definitely took them by surprise and could see them dodging about, trying to get into cover. This allowed the rest of the company to go forward; we could see them and kept moving our fire ahead of them.’

Stuart’s men fell back after this, to get out of the way of Gwyn’s barrage, and the slope was stormed by a group of Mitchell’s men, led by Company Commander Kiszeley. ‘Are you with me Jock?’ he called out.* Silence. He tried again and someone replied resignedly ‘Och aye, sir, I’m wi’you,’ and another, ‘Aye sir, I’m fuckin’ wi’ you as well.’ Gwyn was to fire three salvos and then stop while the infantry stormed the hill, and to the relieved surprise of the men who went ‘over the top’ they burst through Vazquez’s line without loss. With Mifio’s men gone and Vázquez’s left behind, it must have been Silva’s orphaned men who made the Scots fight for every inch of the defile to the summit, killing section leader Lance Sergeant Mitchell and wounding several others. Four RI 4s in addition to Silva died on Tumbledown, Kiszeley himself shooting two and bayoneting a third. In return he had his beret shot off and was hit by two bullets, stopped by his compass and a spare magazine.

Vázquez believed the British fell back after the attack, but in fact the Kiszeley / Mitchell party continued towards the summit and the lull Vázquez experienced was because the rest of 15 Platoon waited for Lieutenant Fraser’s 14 Platoon to join them before mopping up along the base of the hill. For Vázquez the turning point was when the MAG manned by Warrant Officer Julio Castillo and two others (in a particularly strong position tucked under a large boulder, still plainly identifiable) was silenced at about 0230. Castillo held the right flank of Vázquez’s position for four hours against repeated British attacks, and continued to fight when surrounded. He was awarded a posthumous CHVC. Vázquez surrendered at dawn, and when he called out to his men to stop fighting and come out with their hands up he was shocked that only four men responded. Eight of his men were dead, five wounded and all the survivors captured save one: S/C 62 Jorge Sanchez made a daring escape under fire to Oruezabala’s position. Vázquez himself was lucky to survive, because he seems to have been identified as the mythic sniper who ‘put bullets through the cap badges of [variable number] men’. Spicer writes of a captured officer who boasted of having done this, and since Vázquez was the only officer captured he must have been the man thus demonized, although with better luck than the alleged sniper on Longdon. As all Paras are ‘Toms’, so all Scots soldiers are ‘Jocks’. I have a soft spot for Vázquez. He admits that he stopped praying to God to spare his life, realizing: ‘what I’m asking is stupid. Everyone asks the same, but in a war not everyone will survive. I’m wasting a prayer. Besides, the Englishman to my front is making the same petition and there is only one God.’ So he prayed instead, ‘God, all I ask is that when the moment comes I may face it with dignity.’ If obliged to choose one terrain feature on the Falklands that most compels awe at the courage of the men who stormed it, my vote goes to the defile leading to the small peat plateau within the high crags at the summit of Tumbledown. A 60mm mortar section occupied the plateau early in the battle, but the many craters still visible in the area make it clear why it was abandoned. Also still to be seen is the almost impregnable artillery observation post built by 2nd Lieutenant de Marco, BIM 5/N’s forward observer, overlooking the sheer northern face with an unrivalled view of Longdon, Wireless Ridge and the Moody Brook valley: a further reminder of how vital Tumbledown was for the Argentine defence. The peak was taken by Kiszeley, Mitchell and five Guardsmen including the intrepid Reynolds: the bulk of LF Company was still below, mopping up, guarding prisoners and evacuating their own and enemy wounded. Kiszeley’s group paused, skylined, at the eastern end of the plateau, amazed to see Stanley lit up as though in peacetime, and a burst of automatic fire from the broad hollow below, known as the ‘Terrace’ to the Argentines, wounded three of them, including Reynolds and Lieutenant Mitchell, who was shot in both legs. Hours later a mortar bomb hit a stretcher-bearer group evacuating the wounded from the summit. Reynolds and Guardsman Malcolmson, carrying Mitchell, were killed, eight others wounded or re-wounded and the stretcher shredded, but Mitchell was miraculously spared to hobble back to the RAP at Goat Ridge, using a rifle as a crutch. LF Company lost seven men killed and twenty-one wounded. It is hard to imagine what reasons there may have been not to award Kiszeley the VC, but he got an MC instead. Reynolds, meanwhile, received a many-times earned DCM, as did CSM Nicol for continuing to recover the wounded, despite his own wound, throughout the period when the company was stalled at the foot of the hill. There was nothing for either of the Mitchells, Davidson or McGuiness, not for the same reasons that other brave men went undecorated on Longdon but because it would have been ‘unfair’ to award one company or battalion significantly more medals than any other. Kindergarten reasoning, typical of MoD.

Kiszeley’s group reached the summit no more than ten minutes ahead of Sub- Lieutenant de la Madrid’s RIM 6/B/i Platoon, guided by de Marco and Mifio who were anxious to make amends for having given up the feature in the first place. The fault was not really theirs. Despite repeated pleas over four or five hours — and no less repeated assurances that reinforcements were on their way — the men at the western end of Tumbledown were left unsupported to the end. Robacio and Villarraza had their minds closed to the possibility that Vázquez might be facing the main attack, and that the battalion attack they thought they had defeated in the south-west was the diversion. Pemlas sent the 0 Company reserve to the saddle behind William, where, along with the rest of N Company, it was isolated by Gwyn’s dissecting fire plan. Much later, Robacio ordered M Company to move forward from Sapper Hill (although RIM 3/C was nearer), but when he learned that Mifio had retreated, the only troops that could intervene in time were the men of Jaimet’s RIM 6/B. Jaimet, in turn, sent only one platoon under a green sub-lieutenant instead of ordering senior Lieutenant Arbella to lead a company attack, or better still leading it himself. De la Madrid says: ‘I spread my men out behind the men who were still fighting’ in the Terrace area, which is something of a puzzle: either they were stragglers from Mifio’s platoon (unlikely) or there had been an unrecorded sortie by some of Villarraza’s HQ Group. Braving the fire of two machine-guns and a ‘missile launcher’ firing down from the summit, de la Madrid went forward until he heard English voices above and behind him. He spotted a group of twelve men through his night goggles and fired a rifle grenade at them. Fraser’s 14 Platoon, newly arrived to support Kiszeley’s tiny group, reported two NCOs wounded by a grenade at about this time. For the next hour or so the two groups sniped at each other across the Terrace. Thanks to the die-hards of Vázquez’s platoon it was not until about 0600 that Major Price’s RF Company came up to resume the offensive, and during that period a company attack might have won back the summit. It was the last clear chance the Argentines had to inflict a significant check on the British.

We must now return to the battle for Wireless Ridge, which greatly influenced the end-game on Tumbledown. Although 2 Para’s Chaundler refused an appeal from Mike Scott to release some of his artillery support to help 2 SG, the tremendous firepower unleashed on Wireless Ridge in fact helped the Scots considerably. A glance back at Map 31 (p. 290) will show how Lucero’s platoon on the north side of Tumbledown was ideally placed to counter-attack Stuart’s flanking move, which drove off Mifio’s Sappers and unlocked the western defences of the hill, or failing that to redeploy to the summit via the steep peat slope to its right. Lucero did neither because his allotted task was to support Wireless Ridge with his mortar and heavy machine-guns, and you did not become an SNCO in the Argentine Navy by questioning orders. Nor was there any reason to do so. Both Lucero and Jaimet, who was also supporting the men on Wireless Ridge with his mortars, could plainly see their compatriots being chewed up to their front. As we have seen, Villaraza and Robacio were confident they had defeated the main enemy attack until they learned of Mifio ‘s retreat, and until that moment nothing Lucero or Jaimet could see and hear on the radio warned them that, behind them, Tumbledown was falling to the enemy. However, once they did realize their peril, Robacio and Jaimet failed to respond adequately. Both later claimed they wanted a fight to the death in Stanley — but if their concept of honour demanded more bloodshed, why not their own, leading their men on Tumbledown?*

  • Robaclo and Mifio (!) got Navy-sponsored CUVCs, but not Vázquez. The Army gave Jaimet an MVC.

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