Major Chris Keeble's account of Goose Green

An extract from the book 'Above All Courage' by Max Arthur. No section of this article may reproduced without the author's permission.

Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones was the originator and the source of everything that happened to 2 PARA. The way the unit was constructed, the training, the emphasis and speed, and the offence all stemmed from him.

I first met him three years earlier, when we were both instructors at the School of Infantry. Since we worked in separate wings of the school, I only met him infrequently, and we merely knew each other professionally. It wasn't until February 1982 when I joined the battalion as the Second-in-Command that I got to know him well. He was one of the few men I have met in my Army career with whom I felt immediately in harmony. I would like to think that he felt the same way about me.

The relationship between the CO and Second-in-Command should ideally be a close one. The Second-in-Command actually does not command anything; the CO is the commander. The Second-in-Command's role, apart from his peacetime function of training the unit for its operational role, is to assume command in his absence. He should also serve as somebody for the Commanding Officer to bounce his ideas off, test the water, without upsetting the crucial position of the boss or rupturing the command structure. I found this relationship extremely straightforward with H. and, of course, because of the nature of the man, very demanding — as indeed did all the company commanders.

When the Falklands blew up he was actually in France, and I went up to Aldershot from Wiltshire to represent the CO at a meeting with Brigadier Wilson, the Commander of 5 Infantry Brigade. I met up with H., breathless from France, and we spent the afternoon with Sara, his wife, in their house, and talked about how we would reconstruct the battalion for war, should we be required to support the Royal Marines — 3 Commando Brigade. We had not at this point been earmarked for the Falklands. We were actually on leave prior to departure for the jungle in Belize, in Central America, as the crisis blew up. Our sister battalion, 3 PARA, had been selected to embark with the Royal Marines and it was felt that 2 PARA should remain to fill the gap created by their departure. H., of course, was very impatient as we watched the Task Force depart, and more so when our overseas tour to Belize was cancelled. Despite these developments, we did not stop planning for the possibility of going, and as things developed, it was providential we had put so much effort into getting 2 PARA geared for the offence.

The British Army has a strong tradition which is still evident, particularly in BAOR, for concentrating on the defence, unlike, say, the German Army. This is perhaps less so in The Parachute Regiment or the Royal Marines in terms of its philosophy towards conflict. It was clear the Falklands could only be recaptured by the attack. We therefore made it our business in the few days we had to plan to acquire what additional weapons and equipment we needed to increase our potential for the offence. We also spent much time studying the topography, the Argentinian armed forces and even working out how we could launch an airframe assault directly into Stanley; such was our enthusiasm to go! It was, of course, all rewarded when we heard we had been tasked to join 3 Commando Brigade at Ascension Island and had been allocated the North Sea ferry Norland to get there! We were to be the best jungle-trained battalion in the South Atlantic!

As soon as the battalion had been selected, H. left for Ascension Island to link up with the 3 Commando Brigade staff, leaving me in command. He said, 'Chris, train up the battalion and bring it down to me. I'll be in Ascension.' We then spent a week training in Aldershot, getting all the equipment we had planned to acquire, embarked the battalion on Norland and worked out a training programme for the remaining three weeks afloat. So I spent actually four weeks commanding 2 PARA. It's not that important, but it's a measure of the trust that existed between H. and me that I was given the task, and I felt very privileged to work up 2 PARA for war. And it was the first opportunity I think I've ever had in my military career when I actually had the chance to do what I wanted to do, and I knew that it would be in tune with what H. would want, 6,000 miles away.

There were innumerable things we did on the Norland to prepare ourselves for the offence. There were about 1,000 personnel on board; 2 PARA made up the majority, but we also had merchant seamen, civilians and even two women cooks. We all lived in remarkable harmony and the relentless pursuit to work up the battalion for war was made to blend in with the workings of a commercial ferry. It took not a little time for the crew to come to terms with the possibility of war. I was desperately anxious to get to Ascension Island as fast as possible, and grew daily more impatient with the zig-zag pattern of the ship's course, obviously devised to comply with navigational and international rules of the sea! We had a meeting, as we departed, to plan the training priorities and programme and to devise the seamanship skills required to turn the Norland — a commercial ferry — into an amphibious platform. There were several weaknesses in 2 PARA, which I had seen on Salisbury Plain and at a major field exercise in Norfolk in January. These had to be got right.

The first was our approach to casualties. The current principle was based on patching up the injured and withdrawing them to expert help well behind the battle. We quickly appreciated that movement, other than by helicopter, would be too slow for casualty survival and so we decided to concentrate on battlefield resuscitation, rather than simple first aid. In other words, to sustain the injured for as long as possible at or near the site of wounding. This was put into operation by our brilliant Medical Officer, Captain Steve Hughes, RAMC, who had researched the medical experiences of various campaigns, particularly those of the Israelis. I well remember discussing with him in Aldershot, before we left, how we would achieve this objective and what additional medical resources we would need. As a result he acquired 1,000 drips for intravenous infusion to cope with blood loss and even purchased a dummy forearm, veins and all, to practise setting up these drips. The idea was that we would distribute these IVs to each man, along with the more usual morphine, and shell dressings. A soldier would then have his own 'repair kit' which either he or a combat medic could administer. During the journey south, we taught everyone how to set up a drip either intravenously or through the rectum should the former method not be possible. As a result of these measures, we were able dramatically to reduce the loss of life, and sustain the casualties until evacuation could occur, according to the needs of the battlefield rather than to the needs of the injured.

Very much tied in with these measures was the battalion's attitude to the mission. Throughout the training of a parachute soldier, the mission is regarded as paramount. Much of the testing, and selection, is based on assessing the ability of an individual's will to achieve a particular objective. If the mission is paramount, casualties are a secondary consideration, hence the emphasis on producing a method of sustaining the casualty without affecting the morale of the soldier. A fine balance was struck between the mission and the casualty.

Thirdly, one should consider the efforts made to prepare the men's minds for conflict. I remember speaking to the Padre, David Cooper, and said, 'Look, one of the problems we're going to have to face is how do you cope with the trauma of war? How do you cope with the effect on the mind of seeing your buddy's legs blown off? How do you cope with the stress of conflict, spiritually and mentally?' If you look at real conflict, it's not your weapons that win the war, it's not your equipment, it's your mental ability to sustain yourself under stress. The man who wins is the man who can hang on the longest and sustain the will to win. The whole point of war, really, is to apply violence to break the enemy's will, not destroy his weapons or his cities, but undermine his will to fight for what he believes in. Now, how do you reinforce that in a body of people who've never been to war? This is where David Cooper was so marvellous. He took each section (nine men), the smallest fighting unit in the battalion, and he sat down in front of them and said, 'Look, when we go on this battlefield, it's going to be bloody awful. Now, I don't know about you, but I'll tell you how I'm going to feel.'

He attempted to penetrate that macho facade that soldiers build around themselves to reinforce their own resistance to fear. By voicing their own fears for them he got them to talk about how they would actually cope with the trauma of war. Being a Padre, out of the military system, with no sergeants or platoon commanders there, the freedom to talk was provided. This sharing of emotions between one human being and another demands a giving to each other, and developed a spiritual bond within the sections, which is so essential if people are going to fight and be prepared to die for each other. It was a tremendous contribution. I suspect this preparation may have prevented some of the post-Falklands psychiatric cases that have subsequently developed. He was marvellous.

In that week after Goose Green you would have found this wonderful closeness of everybody — they were fused by fire. Very difficult to describe, but there was this tremendous brotherhood. The word 'brotherhood' conjures it up. It's a word used frequently by people who fought in the Second World War — Brotherhood of Arnhem — and it is a brotherhood, too. War is a very emotional business — more than people realize. Much more than I'd ever anticipated and appreciated. I was enormously attracted to The Parachute Regiment because of this wonderful feeling of comradeship. We all have to go through a traumatic selection process, which weeds out a great number of people. We are united in our hardship, by what we have done. It is a very good way of preparing for the actual trauma of war. Soldiers do not fight for Queen and country, or even for Maggie — they fight for each other. But they need to know that their comrades would do the same. Selection produces that mutual trust.

I remember parachuting onto the Arnhem drop zone with our sister battalion, 10 PARA, on their annual pilgrimage to the battlefields and the war cemetery. After the jump, we visited the Oosterbeek Crossroads, the scene of fierce fighting on the outskirts of Arnhem, and we listened to one of the very few survivors of that battalion describing the battle for the Crossroads. Someone in the audience said to the speaker, 'What made you go on fighting when the battalion had been largely destroyed, the cause lost and defeat inevitable?' He paused, looked across to the suburban junction and with tears brimming up in his eyes he said quietly and simply, 'They were my friends.' That's how it was for 2 PARA. We had spent our practice training fusing the individuals together. The fire of war merely tempered that process. We would never have given up. We would have fought to the last man rather than not achieve the mission.

When H. died what faced me was really very simple. Since I had been running the unit for most of the journey south, I knew exactly what could be done. I remember my heart leapt when I heard Sergeant Blackburn's voice frantically saying, 'Sunray is down,' and it took some seconds to appreciate what he was saying in veiled speech. My greatest problem was that I was 1,500 metres back from H. with our Main HQ and it took me some time to get the correct information back from the forward two companies, A and B, in order to decide what to do with the reserves.

B Company with Johnny Crosland were in a reasonable position, despite being pinned down, and so I told him to assume command until I could get forward with Major Hector Gullan, the ubiquitous and invaluable Brigade Liaison Officer, who had a direct line to Brigadier Julian Thompson. I also took with me my orderly room clerk Corporal Kelly, who had been at my side throughout, to man the battalion radio link. As we left, the RSM, Mr Simpson, called me back, much to my irritation. 'What is it?' I asked sharply. He looked me in the eye and said, 'You are going to do fucking well, Sir!' I felt a million dollars! A wonderful touch. He did terribly well in the battle, dealing with the whole procedure of accounting for the casualties, normally the Adjutant's job. Very sadly, David Wood had also been killed on Darwin Hill with his Commanding Officer.

The outcome of the battle was really achieved by the skill of Phil Neame's and Johnny Crosland's companies, D and B, reinforced by the Recce Platoon commanded by brave Roger Jenner. Subsequently, the devastating violence created by the Harriers who attacked the outskirts of the settlement at last light clinched it. It was at that moment it seemed to me that the will of the defence began to break. We, on the other hand, were very short of ammunition and so overnight I prepared two plans. I remember sitting in a gorse bush behind Darwin Hill that night and saying to Dair Farrar-Hockley, commanding A Company, and others that the way to crack the problem was to walk down the hill the next day and tell the bloody Argies the game was up and defeat inevitable. Dair looked at me wearily as if I had lost my marbles! If that failed, well, we would launch a Marine assault with aircraft, artillery and infantry, and destroy the settlement. There was really no other option, since, not only had we little ammunition, we were all exhausted having been on the go for some forty hours without sleep. In addition, and perhaps the most profound factor of all, there were 112 civilians locked up in the Community Hall in Goose Green! This fact was discovered overnight and re-emphasized the need to use more subtle means than the bayonet! After all, we had not journeyed 8,000 miles merely to destroy the very people we had come to save.

And so, standing in a small tin shed on the airfield next day, with Tony Rice, the Battery Commander, and our two bewildered journalists, Robert Fox and David Norris, we confronted the Argies with Plan A. It was clear that the three Argentinian commanders we spoke to, navy, army and air force, had had enough. It became apparent later that one of the principal causes of the collapse of will was the breakdown in the relationship between officer and conscripted soldiers, which in itself reinforces the strength of a volunteer, albeit smaller, force.

The surrender was arranged on a sports field outside Goose Green, close to the hidden position of D Company who had closed up on the settlement. It was a straightforward affair requiring the defenders to lay down their arms, which I allowed them to do with a degree of honour, to avoid rubbing their noses in defeat. There was nothing to gain from such a humiliation. About 150 of them assembled in a hollow square and after singing their national anthem, the commander, an airman, saluted me and handed over his pistol. We were very concerned that we could not see any Argentine army personnel in the mass of defeated airmen. Some minutes later everything became clear as we watched about 1,000 soldiers marching up in files to surrender in the same way. It was an incredible sight. We held our breath hoping they wouldn't change their minds. It was a very significant situation. Here, the Argentines had all the resources to defend the settlement for a long time, but they lacked the bottle. This lack of will, evident throughout the whole Argentine ground defence, lost them the Malvinas. If their islands were such a precious Argentine possession, why were they not prepared to die to hold onto them? Clearly, the islands did not have that significance in the Argentinians' minds and the war was merely a device to distract the population from the desperate state of the government's fortunes on the mainland. I like to think that the evil that stalked the Argentine, in the shape of the right-wing dictatorship, was felled through the action on the Falklands and opened the way to a more liberal regime. That process started at Goose Green.

The victory, however, was H.'s. The inspiration of 2 Para came from him, and my role was merely to act on his behalf in his absence. For that I am the caretaker of an enamelled bit of metal, which I carry on behalf of every man in 2 Para, especially the junior non-commissioned officers and the soldiers. I miss the brotherhood of that gang of folk who were called 2 PARA who are now dispersed to the four winds, but especially I miss H.

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