Sunday, 3 February 2008

The Close-Quarter Battle

Major Simon Price was my company commander during the Falklands and as the CO of Right Flank he was responsible for leading the attack on the final 1/3rd of Tumbledown.

I vividly remember the events just prior to the attack going in. We had at last moved up through Left Flanks positions which were still being cleared, in fact as I crouched down behind rocks a grenade went off among the Left Flank wounded. Dawn was approaching and there was a sense of urgency as a daylight attack across the exposed mountainside was the last thing any of us wanted.

Rapid plans were made with 1 Platoon climbing into the rocks to the left so as to provide covering fire for 2 and 3 platoon who were going to sweep around to the right. CSM Ian Amos was rushing around making sure ammunition was placed in piles and pointing them out. I was one of the team who was going to be supplying the GPMG's and my mouth was dry, this was it.

Just as we were about to attack the magazine on his SLR went ping and rounds went flying everywhere. Ian muttered a string of oaths and for some reason insideme the tension slipped away.

The commands were given and the night erupted with the sounds of small arms and shouting. Right Flank threw themselves into the attack.

The Close-Quarter Battle: Right Flank Company, 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards on Tumbledown Mountain — 13-14 June 1982

Simon Price

Close-quarter fighting at night is amongst the most challenging of tasks that an infantry sub-unit can be called upon to undertake in war. Add to that the immensely difficult terrain of the Tumbledown and, in particular, the crag and rock terrain of its eastern summit, combined with poor communications and lack of training in night attacks, then all these factors resulted in a task that confronted the Guardsmen of 2nd Battalion, the Scots Guards as being one of gargantuan proportions. The difficulties were further compounded on that 13-14 June night of the Scots Guards’ assault by a most inhospitable austral winter climate of a force six wind with snow and temperature of minus six degrees centigrade which, when combined, meant soldiers were being exposed to a dangerous chill factor of minus twenty-two degrees centigrade.

What then were the factors that enabled the Battalion to be so successful in its night attack against the Argentine 5th Marine Infantry Battalion and some other sub-units of the Argentine Army? Using the story of Right Flank Company’s deliberate third and final phase attack of the Battalion’s difficult night battle, some of the key ingredients will be identified that led to an eventually successful outcome to the operation after brutal fighting.

Clear orders
At night the unexpected invariably occurs in a close-quarter battle. A tactical system is essential to overcome this problem and enable more junior commanders at platoon and section level to work around apparently insurmountable obstacles and then be able to exploit the ensuing opportunities. Today all these procedures are encapsulated in the British Army’s concept of “Mission Command”. Back in 1982 such a concept was not as clearly articulated. In Right Flank Company’s night battle the final objective could not be viewed from the Scots Guards’ positions near Mount Harriet area because it was in complete dead ground to the observer. The consequence was that a final assault plan could not be presented at the formal Right Flank Company Orders Group for this particular deliberate company night attack prior to the Battalion’s tactical advance to battle on the entire Tumbledown feature. To obviate this potentially damaging shortfall, a much fuller than normal “Concept of Operations” was given out which stipulated, unless countermanded later during the battle, what the Company Commander expected from each platoon commander and his platoon on arrival at the Company’s final objective on the eastern end of the Tumbledown.

Decisive leadership
Uncertainty in battle is one condition that any commander, whether it be at battalion, company, platoon or section level simply cannot afford to have within his unit or sub-unit. It is, by far, better to do something, even if it is wrong or perhaps unconventional at the time and in the unbelievably noisy chaos of an infantry night battle, than to be indecisive and do nothing at all. This was personified by Sergeant Robert Jackson’s individual hand-grenade attack on an enemy machine- gun nest perched high in the rocks. The senior NCO discarded his Self- Loading Rifle and climbed up a rock pinnacle to a position that overlooked this enemy position so as to throw a number of grenades with some accuracy onto it and thus neutralise its effectiveness. Right Flank Company’s battle provided a number of other outstanding examples in which such leadership, at all levels, enabled difficult obstacles to be overcome and ensuing situations exploited to the best possible advantage.

Surprise during any battle, whether it takes place during daylight or at night, is quoted often as being a “battle-winning factor”. It is believed that Right Flank Company’s battle produced one such example when the Royal Artillery’s gunfire support that had been promised for the Company’s assault became unexpectedly unavailable at a crucial point in the fighting. The resulting action, to the best of my knowledge, led to the Company having to conduct the only British infantry assault on an enemy Argentine objective without any higher-level supporting fire of any type in the entire Falklands War. Paradoxically this, in turn, resulted in the enemy being taken completely by surprise as to exactly when the company’s final assault would take place.

Maintenance of the momentum
This key principle was amply demonstrated during Right Flank Company’s battle. During the initial lodgement onto the objective, and when the Company’s momentum became stalled due to cleverly located Argentine defensive placements, the Company Commander had to intervene personally on the first of three such occasions so as to restore momentum to the Company’s attack. If this had not been done then Right Flank’s attack might well have continued to stall throughout the valuable remaining limited time of darkness available. Obviously the latter is a key advantage to any attacking unit that wishes to maintain an effective assault on the enemy. The arrival of first light and then subsequent gradual increase of daylight would have probably started to work in the enemy’s favour.

The Company Commander’s intervention was required a second time when 2 Platoon became pinned down by a small group of the enemy in the central group of crags within the final objective. Then, when Lieutenant Robert Lawrence received a serious head wound from an enemy sniper bullet as he led his platoon in a decisive right-flanking attack on enemy Marine positions, the third and final Company Commander intervention was needed in order to resolve this difficult situation and, once more, regain the all-important sub-unit’s momentum of their assault.

At night, and during the noise and chaos of close-quarter battle, when vision is restricted to a bare couple of metres, both teamwork and confidence in your fellow soldiers, junior commanders and more senior commanders is absolutely essential for success. This final phase of the Battalion’s battle was eventually reduced to pairs of men carrying out basic infantry fire and movement attacks on enemy dug-in defensive positions. Such a tactic was loosely, but successfully, controlled by both Section and Platoon Commanders. Effective teamwork and confidence in each other’s abilities enabled such dispersed action to succeed against enemy bunker positions which had been prepared thoroughly by the Argentine Marines for sixty-seven days prior to the Scots Guards’ assault. Such were the strength of these enemy bunkers that the Argentine casualties from the Royal Navy and Royal Artillery bombardments and British Harrier aircraft air strikes as from 1 May were exceptionally limited prior to the Battalion’s assault in the final twenty-four hours of the campaign

Trained commanders
Primarily due to its traditional ceremonial role of London Public Duties, the Household Division also has had an accompanying tradition of obeying orders quickly and accurately. This stood the Battalion and Right Flank Company in good stead during the Tumbledown battle. When this asset is combined with properly trained and highly-capable junior officers and non-commissioned officers, then the result is that Guardsmen are capable of applying their basic skills to areas they are either not well-versed in, or have not been trained to tackle. The Battle of Tumbledown was just such an occasion when the Battalion, including Right Flank, had never been trained for or carried out such a conventional and complex Battalion night attack. However, because the unit had confidence in its commanders at all levels, all sub-units were most effective when the moment of truth arrived and they were put through a gruelling test of stamina and courage.

The effective use of artillery is essential in limiting ones own side’s casualties and, on the other hand, unbalancing and thereby neutralising an enemy located in their defensive positions. Lack of artillery, when initially requested on the Tumbledown by Right Flank Company, triggered a major alteration in the Company’s battle plan. Also there was uncalled for, or misdirected, British artillery fire that almost caused a major “blue-on-blue” incident and significant own Right Flank casualties. On the credit side, however, the failure of effective Argentine artillery made our troops’ tasks infinitely easier. As a final point, the effective use of accurately controlled artillery fire from Right Flank’s newly won defensive positions onto the Moody Valley area immediately west of the Falklands’ capital, Port Stanley, contributed to bringing the war to a rapid conclusion. It also probably saved many lives — both British and Argentine.

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