Thursday, 7 February 2008

Tumbledown and Mount William

Eduardo Villarraza was the company commander of N company which was the company that gave Left Flank such grief and who were responsible for pinning our group down for such a long time.

Introduction

The 5th Marine Infantry Battalion (5BIM) — and therefore its N Company of which I was the Company Commander — was made up of both enlisted men and conscripts, the latter having been called up after their eighteenth birthday to fulfil the mandatory military duties required by law in the country at the time of these facts. N Company consisted of ten percent enlisted personnel and ninety percent conscripts. The enlisted personnel held the command appointments, except for a few cases in which these were held by outstanding conscripts because of a shortfall in regular military personnel.

In terms of training, N Company had achieved a high standard aided by the fact it was possible to carry out training in different environments and extreme conditions, for Tierra del Fuego is a region with a very cold climate, steppes and mountains, and dense woods and trees of great height. The terrain included large lakes and it is surrounded by sea. N Company also had access and a proximity to different terrains suitable for exercises and the use of ground, airborne and naval artillery. The strong focus of the training plan developed in 1981 called for a large number of out-of-barrack days, with multiple exercises at Battalion level that included all support weapons firing live ammunition, and exercises with naval gunfire support and attack aircraft providing fire support.

Deployment and defence planning

Given the distribution of the units in the proximity of Puerto Argentino and organization of the defensive system, the (Joint) Argentine Command was convinced that the British offensive would come from the sea and there would be landings on the southern coast. This idea was not shared by the Commanding Officer of BIM5, because we knew as Marines that to land on a defended coast is extremely costly, and we were also aware of what it takes to establish a military presence on land starting from zero, and then launch operations afterwards.

Furthermore the CO of SIMS alerted the (Joint) Argentine Command that British troops would seek to land anywhere on Soledad Island (East Falkland) and then execute their attack from their land bridgehead. Indeed the British manoeuvre was developed on this latter concept.
In spite of the addition of regiments — particularly Infantry Regiments the area of responsibility and sectors assigned to BIM5 were never modified, the exception being the role of 0 Company, which was originally deployed onto Mount Longdon. This Company was relieved by the 7th Infantry Regiment, and the Battalion recovered it so as to become a reserve. With the addition of C Company (Fusiliers) of the 3rd Infantry Regiment placed next to M Company at their position between Sapper Hill and Mount William, N Company adopted its final defensive system by occupying Mounts Tumbledown and William with a tactical area of responsibility from the edge of the sea up to Moody Valley.

The final defence organization was 1 Platoon located south-west of Mount William, 2 Platoon north-west of Mount William and south of Tumbledown, and 3 Platoon north-east of Tumbledown. Each of these platoons consisted of three infantry rifle sections of thirteen men each, a nine-men group of machine guns (7.62 mm), with the platoon commander and two to four additional men to man the communications and act, in some cases, as medical assistants. This added up to a total of fifty-two or fifty-four men. In addition there was a 60mm mortar group (three mortars) which consisted of fifteen to eighteen men located in an area to the east of Tumbledown, the 81mm mortar group (six mortars) north-east of Mount William at a location roughly equidistant between the latter and Tumbledown, and N Company Headquarters located on the east end of Tumbledown plus communications, logistics and a medical assistant, and a rocket launcher group (of four men). This latter group was placed under the command of N Company Headquarters and could be used wherever a threat materialised that was suitable for a counter-attack by these weapons.

This disposition was the initial plan set up with organic means, i.e. personnel and weapons. Afterwards, utilising the reinforcements received, weapons and troops were placed in the following sectors. Firstly at Mount William was located a 105mm Recoilless Gun Group (with two tubes), a Bantam Missile Group (two launchers), and a 12.7mm Browning Machine Gun Group. Then at the western end of the Tumbledown was located 4 Platoon, consisting of a well-trained Battalion Scout Group (approximately twelve men), and another group of men commanded by a Sergeant-Major (approximately ten men with limited training because they belonged to the logistics sub-unit.)

Altogether this amounted to about twenty-five men. They carried assault rifles, an automatic rifle (FAP), two 7.62mm general purpose machine guns and one 60mm mortar. Although all personnel were Marines, the composition of the platoon was not organic, and therefore their training had not been systematised or included with the remainder of N Company’s training. There was also a sub-unit of Amphibious Engineers of about twenty-five men who would fight in the infantry role.

The total personnel of N Company plus its reinforcements added up to about two hundred and fifty men. The first tasks implemented were locating the weapons according to their selected main and secondary firing directions, the construction of their positions and, as the final item, the construction of shelters for the men. It is worth pointing out that, for the short time we had available, excellent shelters and positions were built and these were soon to prove their worth once the British attacks and bombings began.

A fact which also needs to be highlighted in the disposition was the communications system at Company level, as well as that of the Battalion, for between landline and radio links we managed virtually to triple the circuits. In N Company alone, seven kilometres of cable were used to establish landline communications. Another important point to emphasize was the amount of ammunition per weapon, calculated at about twenty to twenty-five days supply, dependent on the weapon system. With regard to rations and because of the system adopted, hot food was distributed in the form of three daily meals until noon on 13 June.

Operations Commence

On 1 May the British forces began their operations with air and naval bombing. Since my position was located on one of the relevant heights I was able to observe with absolute clarity the moment when the first warships of the Royal Navy appeared on the horizon from the east, the naval gunfire support they fired from their southern gunline, and the Argentine aircraft raids against them. As of this day (1 May) naval bombardments began systematically, and would take place nightly from then on. Although not effective in relation to the losses they produced, at least within BIM5, the bombardments resulted nonetheless in an understandable mental wearing-down of personnel, for it was impossible to know when these would take place and what area they would target.

On the tactical side, one of my main worries from the beginning up to the end of the operations was the extension of the front assigned to N Company which, if judged by its dimensions and terrain features, should have been occupied by the Battalion. So extensive was this front, that, with the three platoons I had available, it was not only hardly possible to cover it visually, but nor did it allow for the establishment of a minimum reserve force. All this made it extremely difficult to defend. Questions may arise as to why. A logical action would have been to occupy and maintain the main heights, but doing this would have opened very extensive spaces between them. As a result of these, the British troops would have attacked our positions from the rear by placing fixed positions onto the heights and then perform encircling movements, with serious consequences for our troops. On the other hand, we were convinced from the first moment that operations would be carried out during the night. We were not mistaken.

An intermediate solution was then chosen with the idea of sharing mutual support between platoons or receiving support from the Battalion. Once the attack of 11-12 June on the Argentine troops located at Mount Harriet and Two Sisters had taken place, I had not the slightest of doubts about the attack continuing immediately onto our positions; neither did I have any doubts that it would take place during the night.

The battle

On the morning of 13 June I gathered my subordinate commanders together. I was sure the enemy would attack that night and that this could possibly be the last time I would see some of my subordinates. But, thanks be to God, this did not happen. I conveyed my message to them saying that the moment had now come to show what we really were, and what we Marines were worth. I also said that a creditable performance was expected in the hours of combat to come. From that evening of 13 June onwards, firing grew more and more intense. I believe that we were attacked in the Mount William-Tumbledown area by several thousand projectiles, since five artillery batteries, two ships and the mortars of the Gurkhas and 42 Commando supported the assault on our positions. According to information collected from different media, some 14,000 rounds of ammunition of high-calibre weapons (mortars, artillery, and naval gunfire support) were fired.

At approximately 22.30 hours (local time) Lieutenant Vázquez of 4 Platoon informed me that they were being attacked by British troops and the situation was confusing because his forces were becoming intermingled with the British. At around 24.00 hours, the Engineer subunit began their withdrawal towards the east, but communications with 4 Platoon to co-ordinate actions between the two sub-units could not be established as planned. Given the intensity of the fight, Lieutenant Vázquez requested friendly fire onto his positions, which was provided by both the Company’s 81mm and 60mm mortars. At approximately 01.30 hours I was informed the fighting had stopped.

Battalion Headquarters was kept permanently informed, and due to developments in the fighting, ordered M Company to prepare for a counter-attack. This was not carried out. At approximately 02.00 hours, a new offensive began on 4 Platoon’s position. The situation became very complicated for them because the British troops had taken positions to their rear. Mortar and artillery rounds were ordered again onto the platoon positions, reinforcements for M Company were required once again, and the Engineer sub-unit was sent away to support them. At this point an Argentine Army sub-unit (of about twenty men) arrived, commanded by Second-Lieutenant Lamadrid. Neither this nor the Engineer sub-unit could make it to the position occupied by 4 Platoon for, after having advanced half the way, they met British troops who stopped them.

Therefore between 02.00 hours and 03.00 hours on 14 June, the situation was that 4 Platoon had been engaged at the eastern end of Tumbledown without being able to break contact. The Engineer sub-unit was still in the Tumbledown and in contact with British troops, but unable to advance. 1 and 2 Platoons were at Mount William, with a limited possibility of being used due to a concrete threat from Mount Harriet and Pony’s Pass after fighting had taken place in that area a few hours before. On the northern flank there were no more Argentine troops, as we had heard on the radio that the 7th Infantry Regiment had fallen back with a great number of personnel heading towards the town. Lastly M Company remained in its position and had not initiated any movement. The conclusion was that the last line of defence towards the west comprised N Company and that this defence was being broken. I took the decision therefore to hold the position for as long as it was possible.

This was the current situation and, at about 06.00 hours, Lieutenant Vãzquez informed me that he could not hold his position anymore and was about to surrender. It was then that I realised we had a short time remaining in the Tumbledown. Meanwhile the Engineers, the Company’s mortar groups and Army sub-unit were engaging British troops. The latter exerted so strong a pressure that they forced our troops to fall back towards the eastern end of Tumbledown. Between 08.00 hours and 08.30 hours, it had already become impossible to hold the Tumbledown and I ordered the withdrawal to begin. This started in a somewhat disorganized way but, after the line of march had advanced a few metres, the commanders were able to regain control over their subunits. At this point we were having problems communicating with 1 and 2 Platoons, which were then ordered from Battalion Headquarters to fall back onto Sapper Hill, this marking therefore the end of N Company’s actions.

Conclusion

From my point of view, the following factors accounted for N Company’s defeat:

  • The front that N Company had been assigned to cover was extremely large when, in fact, that sector should have been the entire Battalion’s responsibility
  • The main effort of the defence was originally pointed towards the southern coast of our area, thus weakening the defensive positions towards the west.
  • The defensive system always gave the initiative to the British troops, therefore everything the Company was called upon to do only, in reality, amounted to just sitting and waiting.
  • The defensive system was, in general terms, static. We lacked mobility and this, in practical terms, prevented any offensive operations from being carried out, especially counter-attacks.
On the other hand, I believe the following to have been positive aspects of the defence:

  • The high degree of training the Battalion had achieved during the previous years and its ability to operate in cold weather.
  • As a result of this training, there was a significant confidence which permeated throughout the chain of command, with superiors and subordinates trusting each other in the roles to which each had been appointed.
  • The construction of effective defensive positions.
  • The guidance which platoon commanders, at all levels, exerted over their personnel.
  • The excellent communications system which allowed the continuous exercise of appropriate leadership over sub-units on the basis of precise and timely information.

As a conclusion, it might be stated that although ninety percent of the Battalion’s troops were conscript Marines, their performance demonstrates that effective combat-ready units can be achieved through suitable training in techniques, tactics and use of weapons, and, most importantly, with the appropriate leadership.

1 comment: