An extract from the book 'Above All Courage' by Max Arthur. No section of this article may reproduced without the author's permission.
After we had been on the Norland for four or five days I got the Toms together and told them what my thoughts were, that we were going to war! The reason I felt this was that Margaret, who is a very determined lady, had set the ground rules very early on. She had said she wouldn't negotiate until the Argentinians had left, and having been involved in the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980 knew her thinking because she'd set the ground rules there.
When you look at the Argentinians and their psychological build-up, their macho was that they mustn't lose face and there's no way that Galtieri could pull out without doing something. So, at least we would have to land and fight some kind of battle, or maybe just land, and they may jack then; but I thought it was unlikely. We had about three weeks before landing in which we could concentrate on one solid objective – training for war. We'd never had a period like this since Borneo, which was fourteen years ago. So, I could really concentrate the Toms' minds because there were no outside imbuggerancies like duties and guards and everything else.
Fortunately, I'd given a lot of thought to the psychological preparation and battlefield stress, based around Lord Moran's book, The Anatomy of Courage. I'd also had previous experience in Northern Ireland and with the SAS in Oman. Northern Ireland has its very violent periods and some prolonged operations but none with the full orchestration of war. There were shooting engagements but you can't compare those to a full-scale battle. The Toms in my company hadn't heard the noise of a sustained battle or felt the intense loneliness and fear that results from such an experience. I was fortunate to have had that experience, so spent a lot of time talking to my company, to the officers and NCOs, taking them through a scenario which was to prove to be close to the actual reality of the battles that were to come.
On the Norland we were lucky because we embarked as a battalion group on our own, with supporting arms. We were moving as a unit, minus only a small party that had gone ahead, which we caught up with at Ascension. We also had on board two Field Surgical Teams (FSTs), some of whom I'd come across in the Middle East where they'd carried out a lot of field surgery. Partly because of the situation in Northern Ireland, where expert medical help is at hand, medical training prior to the Falklands was woefully weak. In Northern Ireland, if a bloke's hurt he's lifted straight into Musgrove, or wherever, and he's quickly under expert knifemen. Therefore the one thing I had to impress on my soldiers was that the Northern Ireland image of a casualty halting an operation wasn't going to happen in the Falklands. We had an objective to take, so whoever got bowled over had to administer their own first aid and look after themselves. Then, once we'd secured our objective, we'd come back and sort out the casualties. So, for ten days the highly professional medical people in the FSTs put the Toms through an intensive medical cadre on life-saving, first aid, gunshot wounds, tears, rips, and all the rest of it. At the end of it, they could take blood, put in drips and repair all manner of wounds very efficiently. Because I'd instilled in them that we were going to war, they didn't play at it – they were totally committed.
The other way I chose to focus my Toms' thoughts was by using the medium of the Resistance to Interrogation, which I got from training with the SAS. This is an area which normally gets swept under the carpet because it's pretty unpleasant. But we were going 8,000 miles to take on a numerically superior army, and therefore there was a distinct possibility of Toms getting captured. I had to prepare them for that; I had to prepare them for every eventuality that could happen. This was going to be the most frightening thing they had ever come across in their lives but they'd have to get over that and get on and do their job.
In their training, I'd tried to instil in them the need to be aggressive, because I don't think people understand the amount of violence that's got to be generated to' impress your point of view on somebody who's equally keen to impress his view on you. Generally we were going to be the regiment at the end of a long line of supply, so we had to be able to fight with whatever we had and carry what we wanted. The opposition would be a regular army with conscripts, so if we made our presence felt initially, they might just crack. This proved correct, because at Goose Green we not only beat them physically but psychologically. So from then on (although there were severe battles in the mountains), they never counter-attacked, yet they had the troops, ammunition and logistics.
In the first encounter at Goose Green, we'd given them what's called a classic Parachute Regiment punch-up – a gutter fight –but then our blokes are bloody good at that, probably the best in the world. Some of the rumours about the Argentinians being ill-equipped, underfed and lacking ammunition were just not true. I mean, our blokes were amazed at what we found around the place. With our calibre of blokes in those positions, it would have been a Crete all over again and we would have wiped anyone out.
David Cooper, the Padre of 2 PARA, was extremely good with the Toms while we were on the Norland. His contribution was immense. His sermon at Stanley has been reported on, but his sermons on the boat on the way down had a tremendous amount to do with uniting an already very close battalion, because he wouldn't avoid issues. He has an inbuilt ability to talk to soldiers and gain their trust, which is not as easy as one might think. Because he's got a tremendous depth of wisdom, he doesn't talk down to a soldier — he talks at his level. He is very realistic but he can be very abrupt and down to earth. He said in one of his sermons, 'Okay, on the way down you're going to book in for some credits by coming to church, but I can't guarantee that's going to give you any luck; because some of you will not be coming back. All I will guarantee is that you will be looked after whether you come back or whether you don't.' There is nothing false about the man, so the Toms can talk to David. He's not just a very practical Christian, he's also a very fine soldier so he knows what he's talking about. The blokes have a tremendous respect for him. David encouraged them to find a quiet place to go and think about things.The great quality about our Toms is that they do think. A lot of people don't give them credit for that — they think they're just dozy, hairy-arsed parachute soldiers, all blood and thunder, but they think as well. There's no doubt about it, one's extremely fortunate to command that calibre of men. With that quality of soldier and a bit of luck, you can take on the world.
We landed on 21 May, and had five or six days of bad weather until we moved off from Sussex Mountains towards Goose Green. Our first scheduled attack on Goose Green was cancelled. We moved off again on the 26/27th towards Camilla Creek House. On that march down, which was a four- or five-hour trog, we were carrying a lot of weight on our backs, but at least the Toms were on the move. There were various shell holes on the way and I remember some of the younger ones asking what they were. I said, 'Well, they're not moles!' I then asked them what they thought they were; artillery or what? What I was trying to get them to do was to look for signs. I'd seen shell holes before and pointed out that these were fresh and had obviously been fired that night because there was ice on the others. The blokes then started to become attuned to what to look for and what the signs meant. I also told them to listen carefully so they would tune their ears to the incoming artillery fire. They could hear the guns firing and the whistle and they were all going down a bit bloody quick. So I explained that the shots that they'd just heard were well over to our east, to the left, but it was the first time they'd heard it and as it was coming vaguely towards them, they were obviously very wary. So I really had to orchestrate their ears. The one thing I stressed was, 'You will get artillery and mortar fire against you but you've got to maintain your momentum — I may not be there, you may lose your section commanders or senior soldiers but someone's got to keep it going, that's what it's all about. Artillery falls in areas and at times you can judge this and at other times perhaps not. But if you see it coming into an area, then you want to keep well clear.' The thing I was trying to get across to them is that you have to think about your job; like any other, whether you're a journalist or a sportsman, you have got to think about the tactics of the game.
We stayed at Camilla Creek House for a period of time. While we were there a breach of security happened when, for some inexplicable reason, the World Service told the world and his wife where we were. That involved 400 of the enemy being flown in and positions being turned round to meet our likely advance. A fairly stressful time especially as H. had already told us that we were going into action against odds of two to one; these were sporting odds so we didn't need them increased! We were fairly well forward of our own defensive position and well in range of enemy artillery and their air recce, facing a garrison which was fairly well equipped.
H. gave an O Group and I got back to give my orders just after last light. I sat facing my company O Group, three young Platoon Commanders — the eldest could only have been in the army for a year and a bit, and the youngest had only been with me since January of that year, so for them it was a big occasion. My three Platoon Sergeants were not that experienced either, so it was not the best time to start giving out orders or talking about hundreds of the enemy. But one had to be fairly blunt about things, and enforce one's own personality on the orders performance as you have to do with any Orders Group. I told them that the training we had done before was all part of the great maxim that in peace we were training for war. We had trained aggressively and realistically and now we were at war. I went through our battle plan of what I wanted them to do: how we were going to get on with it; how they would do their job in controlling their platoons and sections; how I would keep the direction with the Forward Observation Officer. I then talked about keeping the supporting fire moving ahead, casualty procedure and prisoners of war. I also told them that they were not to accept a white flag without telling me.
We'd been put on the west side to blockbust down towards Boca House. H.'s plan was for a six-phase day/night or night/day silent/noisy attack. H. knew well that B Company was a fairly aggressive company because that's the way I had trained them and they had confidence in their own ability. I knew that we'd been put on a side that had a fair amount of problems. So we knew we were in for a hard slog and that time was precious. I told them that we must get on, that we were not interested in capturing hundreds of gringos, someone else could do that. What I wanted to do was go through position after position after position and keep battering away at them. Finally, I said to them, 'These people have nicked our islands — we're going to make them wish they had never heard of the Falkland Islands.' In other words, 'Let's get stuck in!'
Later we moved to the forming-up point at the neck of the isthmus leading down to Goose Green. A Company had to swing round to the east in order to take out Burntside House before the whole battalion could move straight down. If we hadn't done that we would have been hitting one another with crossfire. So we moved into position and just lay down in our assault formations. It was raining, very cold and windy. The blokes lit cigarettes and we listened to the night noises of HMS Arrow which was firing away, but unfortunately a mechanical problem negated her very impressive fire support which later we were to rue. A Company started to make their attack and although there were shells coming over, they caused little problem. Slowly my lads started to get attuned. But there was a tension around because we knew from our own patrols that facing us, about four or five hundred yards away, there was an enemy company defensive position with a machine gun.
In support for the attack we had three light guns based at Camilla Creek House which were firing ahead of us. We only had very limited helicopter lift to come forward with the small amount of ammunition that we had. The support boys carried forward two mortars with ammunition. A normal battalion would have six or eight, but we only had two. However, we did have six detachments of Milan, which is an anti-tank gun with a guided missile, and we also had six heavy machine guns. We had, of course, expected HMS Arrow to be the main thrust of our artillery attack.
It was such an awful night in terms of the weather that one of our problems was actually being able to see what we were coming into. Although it was dark, raining and even snowing at times, the Toms got accustomed to it. At least they'd had some experience of night fighting during the previous November whilst carrying out exercises in Kenya. I've always felt strongly that night operations have got to become second nature. The one thing I'd learnt in the Middle East was to keep the momentum going — if you stopped on a position, you got hammered. So all through the night we kept crashing on. Their artillery, which was generally well orchestrated, had a job to find us. When we did stop, because we got disorganized or we came across a position we didn't know about, the enemy rearranged their artillery to fire back on us and we took shells. What saved us in these situations was that the ground was very soft and a lot of shells ploughed in or blew up in the peat. If it had been a very hard surface, I think the casualties on both sides would have been far worse.
The company killed its first Argentinian about three minutes after the start. It was some of Corporal Margerison's men that took him out. This thing actually arose from a trench, in a helmet and poncho; there was no face, just a helmet and poncho. We challenged him twice and nothing happened. The third time, his hands moved and two of my machine gunners and two riflemen opened up and, rather naturally, this bloke fell over. So that was a release of tension; we knew our weapons worked. As they say in the vernacular, 'Target scream when hit.' Like the first punch from a boxer or the first run for a batsman, we'd played it and hit home.
That night, in the aggressive trench-to-trench action, we had them all over the place, there's no doubt about that, and we didn't sustain any casualties in my company. D Company, however, had two killed because they hit a machine-gun post behind us which we hadn't seen. We had to fight at really close quarters for four or five hours which showed our soldiers' durability and stamina; certainly their aggressive, hard training paid off. I think we had, without blowing one's own trumpet, the most problems to overcome but we kept moving in a classic formation of two platoons up and one platoon back. A Company was on our left and we couldn't link in with them, so it wasn't a classic two-company move which we achieved later at Wireless Ridge. Many of the actions were led by young NCOs, senior soldiers and young soldiers, a lot of whom were unsung and unseen, but that's a fact of life, and a tribute to their self-discipline.
Come the dawn we had lost control of the driving seat. We'd come up against the main defence position which was the ridge of Darwin Hill in the east and we were still about 800 metres short of Boca House which we'd expected to take in one run that night. We'd lost two hours of darkness due to D Company having a punch-up behind us, and we'd also hit another position which had taken forty-five minutes to clear. These things happen in battle. The great 'Chinagraph Line', as I call it, that starts here and finishes there, just doesn't work out that way. People must understand that the bloke over there doesn't want to be killed any more than you or I, so he's going to make life bloody awkward for you. It's like a game of chess. As I said to the soldiers, 'You must keep thinking. If one course of action is producing casualties, then you've got to start something else. You may be on your own, isolated and feeling afraid, but you must keep thinking, because if you don't think, you'll get killed.' Having said that and shaken them up a bit, I said, 'Let's face it, to get killed by artillery fire, by mortar, or to be shot is unlucky. An awful lot of shrapnel is going to come down without causing casualties. It will be frightening — I'm not disputing that — but not every bullet is aimed at you. You've got to listen, hear the shells coming and if you think they're coming close, then obviously you get down. But as soon as you think it's quiet, keep moving.' I think the little black woollen hat that I wore throughout the campaign helped the Toms to identify me and I'm sure they thought, 'If that stupid bugger's still running around with that hat on, it can't be that bad.'
At first light, as we approached our objective, we were caught in a difficult position as we were subjected to over-fire from Darwin Hill. The only thing to do was to move forward, so I ordered the two leading platoons, 4 and 6, to move ahead with Company HQ into the gully in front of Boca House. We then started to fight our way down this gully into the bottom and up the other side towards a sort of gorse line which gave some cover from the enemy's fairly dominant position at Boca House. As the light increased, so did the accuracy of their fire. I had two options, either withdraw completely or get forward. I certainly wasn't going to withdraw so I ordered my two forward platoons ahead with my own HQ. I left my reserve, 5 Platoon, on the crest line to protect the whole of the high ground in case we had to beat a hasty retreat; it was that platoon that took a battering. We also got fairly well larded with artillery and mortars but 5 Platoon were taking a lot of long-range fire from machine guns and snipers and were beginning to take casualties. I said to them over the net, 'Right, once we get down into the gully you withdraw onto the hill line and just hold the ridge-line position.'
It was during this action we lost young Stephen Illingsworth. He had rescued Private Hall, who had been shot, and then, because we were short of ammunition, had gone back for Hall's kit and while doing this was killed. It was a very brave act, no doubt about it; a classic young soldier's act, extremely brave, totally unselfish, and one can only give the highest praise for him. Street (or 'Strasse' as he was known in the company) was also wounded. He is very much the old company soldier but I heard him scream when he got two shots in the left leg. Later, when seeing his wounds, I was not surprised he yelled.
A little later there was a pause in the action as each side tried to sum up its own situation. During this period the Toms were able to see the devastation we'd created through the night because we were now standing in the positions we'd taken out. We could see the effects of artillery fire, mortars, grenades and our own handiwork. In this lull, a mortar bomb came through the air, spinning rather badly, hit the crest line and very seriously wounded my Second-in-Command, Captain John Young. Fortunately, Captain Rory Wagon, who had been our RMO (Regimental Medical Officer) before Steven Hughes, was on hand. He did what he could but it was essential that Young be urgently casevac'd out. The helicopter pilot, Captain John Greenhalgh, heard that we were in a spot of bother and needed to get a casualty out. So after last light, in the most atrocious weather and guided only by the lights of torches, he brought his helicopter down to the outskirts of Goose Green. His extremely brave flying undoubtedly saved the lives of Captain Young and other casualties. Captain Greenhalgh had flown with us the previous November in Kenya so he knew the battalion; he knew all the officers and people intimately, so when he heard that our unit was in trouble it meant much more to him.
We were under increasing pressure because we'd been in action for four hours during the night without resupply. About four or five hundred yards in front of us, across a totally open field, was a very strong enemy position. They were in the driving seat and could put down artillery, air attack or mortar fire whenever they wanted. I had a sixth sense that they'd mined their approaches so I couldn't just say, 'Right, fellows, up the hill after me,' because we'd have been wiped out. Although we were putting down fire onto their positions and hitting their bunkers, we weren't actually killing the blokes inside. So I said, 'Cool the fire.' I just kept one machine gun going because in the back of my mind was the thought that they could counter-attack. We were in a fairly tenuous position because Toms were trying to hide behind gorse bushes which, needless to say, hardly provided adequate cover.
Even in these circumstances, there was still a lot of humorous banter between the lads, which kept our spirits up. One of the radio operators who was forward with one of the platoons was on the net saying, 'For God's sake, beam me up, Scotty.' 'I haven't got the right channel,' I replied. At this point all we had to influence the battle were the three light guns and two mortars, and these were running out of ammunition. And we were still getting hammered. The situation changed when Corporal Margerison managed to clear a bunker and Corporal Robinson's lot flattened another. Robinson had a lucky escape when a bullet just missed his balls. All I could hear him saying was, 'If you've hit me in the balls, the wife'll kill me.' But once he'd ascertained he'd still got a pair, he was all right.
One of his other mates got his rifle butt smashed and a couple of people had misses in the backs of their helmets. With these two positions cleared I was able to get the company reorganized. I wanted to withdraw one of the leading platoons to a slightly better position. We managed to land a smoke bomb close by which, whilst giving cover for the withdrawal, also ignited the gorse. While we were withdrawing, Corporal Margerison was hit by a bullet which went through the back of his left shoulder, out through his jaw and took all his teeth out. A couple of Toms dragged him back to cover and he was brought back to Company HQ. Having looked at his back I thought he'd possibly punctured his lung because he was wheezing a bit and obviously the shock was starting to come on. So I said to Smith, the medic, 'There is no way that we can get him back up the hill we've just come down because we'd all get shot in the back. You're going to have to work on him and sort him out. Whatever kit you want from anyone, you get it, because he's a priority. Get a drip into him. I don't know how long we're going to be here but that's your problem at the moment. Don't use everything up because there are other blokes who might need it.' To his great credit, Smith got on with it and kept Corporal Margerison alive.
I then took command of directing our guns and mortars onto the positions that were giving us problems. To my simple brain, what's hurting you at the moment has got to be eradicated. You worry about positions at Goose Green once you get to Goose Green.
It was during this period that I heard that H. was killed performing a very brave act. I think there have been criticisms raised as to why he was so far forward. I honestly believe that if you are trying to get blokes to do something you've got to be at the front. It's all very well to say you have to sit back and take an overall position, but I don't think people understand just how desperate the position was. We'd been at it for four or five hours, including a couple of hours of daylight, we were short of ammunition and we didn't have resources. If we'd had the Scorpions and the artillery support we had at Wireless Ridge it would've been a different ball game. This was a classic Parachute Regiment punch-up. When the news came over the net that H. had been killed, I said to Corporal Russell, my signalman, 'That doesn't go any further. We've got enough problems without letting that out.' I was very close to H. — we thought along the same sort of lines. His death certainly stiffened my resolve. I mean, I was always determined that we were going to win, but his death just added a bit more oomph.
Shortly after the news of H.'s death I heard that the Argentinians had landed another 200 people to our south; we were in for trouble. I thought of John Frost's A Bridge Too Far and I said to myself, 'We've gone an island too far.' We needed to strike again. Boca House was our major objective but with the weapons that we had, we couldn't get effective fire onto it, so I called up the Milan team. A Milan is an anti-tank weapon which fires a guided missile with a very substantial warhead over a range of 2,000 metres. I thought, if we can bust them with the Milans, we can probably get round their flank, get down to Darwin, knock that off and then worry about Goose Green. The Milan was an unorthodox choice, but it was the only powerful weapon we had. Much to our relief, the first round fired was a perfect bull's-eye. It went straight through the bunker window and blew it out completely, and the second one did the same. Four more rounds and that was Boca House cleared out. Everyone stood on their feet and cheered!
A Company achieved a breakthrough in their own right and cleared Darwin Hill. Chris Keeble had taken over command by then and sent D Company off to start attacking Goose Green.
We then started to come under fairly intense fire from Goose Green and the airfield. Their anti-aircraft guns had very good optics so they could see us at about a mile and a half's distance. Chris Keeble had been calling for an air strike all day but weather conditions were bad. However, at last light, the Harriers came and I would say their effect was critical. They came in on a low pass and dropped cluster bombs, inflicting a lot of casualties. I think the psychological effect on the Argies of this attack was out of all proportion because it was a surgical strike, very precise, and I think this undermined their will to keep fighting.
Prior to the aerial attack we had continued towards Goose Green with D and C Companies. A Company remained on Darwin Hill. We'd heard that there were 112 civilians being held in Goose Green so our idea of going in and flattening the area was out of the question. I said to Chris Keeble that I would swing down the isthmus itself and come in from the south. I'd been looking at the map and seen there were a couple of streams and realized if we could get round and come in from the south, they would feel they were encircled. So psychologically the whole thing really shifted to our advantage; we'd broken the crust, they had no escape. However, their anti-aircraft guns were still extremely intense. I remember telling the two leading Platoon Commanders that I wanted to get to where we could see the tracers in the sky. I'm sure one or two of them thought J.C.'s deaf or daft, or both. I told them that we were going to go underneath the trajectory and, although there was a lot of fire, we had a fairly reasonable passage and got through only to realize later that we had been walking through a minefield!
We had to try and neutralize their anti-aircraft guns; some were forward and some were on the promontory of Goose Green. They had their guns in amongst the buildings and were going to be difficult to shift. When we arrived within three or four hundred yards to the south of Goose Green, we engaged them with machine guns and they returned very fierce fire. We then heard that six helicopters had landed to my south with reinforcements but we managed to get a few rounds of ammunition off which landed right on top of them and dispersed them. There was still the thought in the back of my mind that there were one or two hundred blokes who had been landed fresh and could catch us with a possible counter-attack. So, after the Harrier attack, I gathered everyone together and told them to go and scrounge all the ammunition they could find. They went off and plundered everything and carried back about seven or eight thousand Argentinian rounds, which fortunately were the same calibre as ours.
I told the lads to go firm, to get into fours, dig in, and then we'd have to wait and see. I don't think anyone knew quite how far round we were so we withdrew that night and dug in to a tight defensive position around a hill. It was a very long, cold night — it snowed and froze very hard. But the Toms were very good indeed considering they'd been on their feet fighting for twenty-four hours. Morale-wise there were no problems; they were terrific. They'd had a bit of a baptism and they'd come through very well. The news had filtered through during the day that we'd lost H. I gave them a sort of Winston Churchill pull up. I said, 'Look we've done bloody well today. Okay, we've lost some lads; we've lost the CO. Now we've really got to show our mettle. It's not over yet, we haven't got the place. We're about 1,000 metres from D Company; we're on our own and an enemy has landed to our south and there's a considerable force at Goose Green, so we could be in a fairly sticky position.'
While we lay there two guys in a hole received virtually a direct hit but fortunately it had gone into the peat. It hadn't wounded them, but it had blasted them, and they were shaken. I shouted to them to come back to the Company HQ and have a cup of tea. It was just what they needed; to get back into the main body and have a cup of tea and a cigarette. You could see the relief on their faces.
We were really set to go in for the last push but that wasn't necessary because the following morning the surrender negotiations had started –2 PARA had captured two senior Argentine NCOs. Chris Keeble explained his terms of surrender and sent them off to talk to their garrison commander. Eventually they accepted Chris's terms of agreement. Initially a couple of hundred air force men appeared. Then, to our amazement, a massive column of about 1,000 blokes marched out. After the surrender we were told to stay firm and dig in where we were on the high ground.
Later, I went into Goose Green and was pleased to meet some of the very relieved civilians, who had been released. I was also interested to see the state of the Argentine forces and just how many officers they had, because as far as I knew, we had only killed one or two of them. The most senior bloke I'd come across during the battle was a sergeant, which I think was indicative of their hierarchy.
As I had expected, there were very many fairly fresh-faced-looking officers in Goose Green who had obviously run off, leaving their conscripts to fight it out – which was an appalling mark on their performance. From a soldier's point of view, if their officers had no respect for their men, how could they ever expect to win? I was appalled at this macho characteristic, which was extremely shallow. They seemed pretty tough so long as we didn't get too close. Once we closed, they wanted to surrender. Well, I'm afraid that doesn't work in real life and at night it's impossible. So I think a lot of people were hurt, possibly unnecessarily. If you start an attack and then decide to surrender I think that suggests someone's got their ground rules wrong.
The casualty-clearing process then started. We swept the battlefield trying to get all the Argentinian casualties in and their bodies tidied up. Their officers appeared to have little interest and an extremely frail knowledge of how many men they had. We just lined the enemy bodies up against a hedge; there was nothing else we could do. David Cooper had the task of attempting to organize some kind of burial for them, with little help from the Argentinians.
We then flew to Ajax Bay for what we'd assumed was a memorial service for H. and the others. When we arrived, there was a hole dug ready to receive eighteen burial bags and a lot of people gathered round, saying their last farewells. We'd understood that the bodies of those killed would be repatriated. Yet here we were burying them. We didn't know what the hell was going on and a lot of people were, naturally, very upset. The company commanders acted as bearers for H., and for the Adjutant David Wood, Chris Dent and Jim Barry. The Toms under Regimental Sergeant-Major Simpson, who had flown down with us, were the bearers for the other Toms.
When we returned to Goose Green, David Cooper and Steve Hughes continued to work non-stop as we were still finding the enemy dead or wounded three or four days after the battle. Some of the wounded were suffering from fairly advanced gangrene and were in a bad state.
We took over a large agricultural shed with enough room for the whole company. Colour-Sergeant Steve Gerrard organized the sleeping arrangements and got a brazier fire going. The first time I had a moment of quietness, I sat down and wrote to the parents of Stephen Illingsworth and told them of his great gallantry. I also wrote to Sarah Jones about H. I hoped these letters would bring them some comfort. I felt responsible for Illingsworth. I don't mean that in a trite sort of way. I was his boss and basically he'd been killed working for me.I also wrote to Cathy Dent, whose husband Chris had been killed at A Company's action on Darwin Hill.
I then asked the NCOs and officers to put down on paper the names of those they thought deserved some kind of award. I had no idea what the award system was going to be, but I thought we ought to get some notes down while our memories were still fresh. Things were good within our own little group but I was very keen that now we had finished at Goose Green, the company got some rest. The boys who had been wounded were recovering well. We had many instances of young lads being badly hurt but they'd heeded the lessons the medics had taught them on the Norland and looked after their own wounds and were able to hang on (in some cases for a number of hours) until we could get them out. They'd then arrive at Ajax Bay in a fit enough state for the doctors not to have to resuscitate or revive them. Even during their convalescence they showed great determination to get over their wounds. I think that's a tremendous tribute to their courage and to the courage of our medics, because without a doubt, if you're going into a punch-up it's encouraging to know that, not far behind you, are the medics who'll take care of you if you do get hurt. The medics at the hospital, nicknamed the Red and Green Life Machine, at Ajax Bay worked flat out and performed miracles. One can't give them enough credit, especially as not one single casualty who arrived alive had died.
The other blokes who did a great job of work were the logisticians. Logistics is not a glamour area; it's a mundane job of getting kit from A to B. Generally there was not too much finesse about it, just humping and dumping, and those boys did it. I think the whole logistic chain was amazing; it covered everything, from refuelling in the air to actually getting the kit to the right place.
Having called a nearby farm from a local telephone to ascertain if it was clear of Argentinians, we moved on to Fitzroy. We got into Fitzroy by 3 or 4 June and dug in. We remained there until 10 or 11 June. These six days were interesting because there was a slight feeling of 'You've done your bit, 2 PARA — you can stand back now', which was very dangerous. My message to my Toms was quite simple: 'You can stand down when you get to Ascension Island on the way back because that's when it's finished. Drop your guard now and you will get one straight on the chin.'So we set about improving our positions and making ourselves comfortable; got ourselves dried out and maintained normal company position.
The Toms could now rest but with the understanding that there was still a war on. Naturally, they were tired. After all, we'd been in a fairly major fracas for thirty-six hours and we'd lost eighteen men and had thirty-eight wounded. In The Anatomy of Courage Lord Moran talks about the 'bank of courage'. Our reserve had been pretty drained; it needed to be replenished, banked up. The next seven days were going to be a useful recuperation phase. After twenty-four hours we began preparing for other tasks. This kept the element of tension up sufficiently and didn't allow the Toms to think too much about their experiences. Out there, there was no R & R (rest and recuperation) as there is in Northern Ireland. I was only too aware of the fact that the Argentinians could well have adopted the attitude of 'Okay, we've taken one on the nose, now we'll sling one back at you.' Their air force showed in the Sir Galahad attack that they had the capability of doing just that. We were then told we would be the reserve battalion for the final push on Stanley. My great cry was, 'Follow the loot.' I told them to get themselves ready because, 'If there's a nut to be cracked, they'll ask 2 PARA to crack it, not because anyone else can't, but we are the reserve force. In any plan the commander is going to have a reserve, and he will commit his reserve if he needs it.' What I tried to impress upon my Toms was that the enemy wasn't finished until it decides to throw the towel in.
While 3 PARA and the Marines took their objectives, we moved off from behind Mount Kent and began our move towards Mount Longdon. It was a long, cold march of about sixteen kilometres over difficult terrain, carrying a load of over 50 lbs each. It was done as a classic airborne snake. Fortunately we were still pretty fit, yet despite the overboots we'd scrounged from the Welsh Guards to keep the frost off our feet, some of the unlikeliest blokes, the ones who were physically very fit, went down with trench foot. The only thing to do when that happens is to casevac them or keep them in their sleeping bags for a few days, until the whole body has thawed out. You have to de-thaw the whole body because once the feet have gone past a certain stage, the body temperature drops. Steven Hughes did a tremendous job at Fitzroy because he managed to get the trench foot casualties into the Regimental Aid Post where they soon recovered enough to return to their companies. This was very important as we had more trench foot casualties than actual battle casualties. Foot care is vital, and that means when you stop at night, you undo your frozen boots, check you feet, massage them, put on dry socks and then put your wet socks under your armpits. In the morning, you've then got a spare pair of dry socks. Of course we were cold but the body temperature regulates itself.
When we got to Stanley and were in warm houses, a lot of us couldn't sleep — it was too hot. It had been so cold on that particular night behind Longdon I think the whole battalion had marched round in circles, trying to keep warm. In the daylight we could see this great ring of footprints in the frost. Towards Longdon we were the leading company, and I was trying to find a safe route through the Argentinian artillery that was ahead of us. It was only when I went round some peat bog for nature's call that I spotted a gap between two beaten zones of artillery fire. As I was finishing, to my surprise our new CO, David Chaundler, came round the comer. I told him that with the fire coming in from the left and right, we'd have to go through the middle and hope that they didn't shift their aim. This idea worked and the battalion moved up to its assembly position behind Mount Longdon. Before the final push for Wireless Ridge there was a lot more tension —which was natural. The blokes were apprehensive because they'd seen the violence of battle; they'd seen their friends hurt and killed. But when the whistle went and the momentum started, that was it. It's rather like making a parachute jump — doesn't matter how many times you've done it, unless you're apprehensive, you're not switched on. We were always going to be up against it down there but I maintained on the way there that we weren't going to lose. Someone else was going to take an early bath, and that's what they did.
As we lay behind Mount Longdon and contemplated our next attack there was a greater feeling of apprehension. The battle for Goose Green had shown us what could happen and now we were about to roll into the attack again. There were many differences between these two attacks, the main ones being that at Wireless Ridge we had tremendous dedicated fire support and I, as a Company Commander, had had a chance to recce from Mount Longdon over the ground that I was about to attack. The Goose Green attack could be classed as a 'come as you are party'. In many ways this was to be a classic battalion night attack consisting of a preliminary operation by D Company followed by the main attack put in by A and B Companies. C Company were also tasked to look after a further objective.
This was not to say that there were no problems. Although the attack was put back some twenty-four hours, our preparation for battle was held up by enemy activity. Due to heavy enemy fire on Mount Longdon no targets had been previously registered. Due to late intelligence, orders and their dissemination down the line was very hurried. Permission to make the attack was granted just two hours before last light - I then received my orders, 'Command and control'. Those throw-away words took on a new significance.
From the start line to the objective was about 1,500 metres over open rolling country with a wide stream about 400 metres from the objective. Paratroopers resent getting wet, especially when it is freezing cold! Our frontage was four platoons wide, held together by two lance-corporals in the middle. Control was going to be by shouting, so the more our artillery fire deafened the enemy the better - 3 PARA said we sounded like a football crowd going into the attack!
To help direction I had the direct fire from Scorpions and Scimitars, and this was excellent. The troop leader kept firing until I told him to switch, but otherwise he used the AFV (armoured fighting vehicle) optics to search for targets and engaged them immediately. I would suggest it is impossible to command an attack as well as totally control all your supporting fire - especially if you are my height and trying to see over the next tuft of grass! Just to add spice to this situation, I was given the news of a possible minefield in front of our objective some five minutes before the attack was due to start. I decided to keep this good news to myself! My TAC HQ found themselves some five metres behind the leading soldiers instead of about the usual fifteen! I had discussed minefield tactics with the company and also with our four Royal Engineers. If close to an objective and under fire, the policy was to go straight through. In this case we had no option and in any case to breach a minefield is a long job. The objective was a long oblong hill with no obvious landmarks. Enemy defences were going to be a problem. Once the enemy had lost this objective, we had no option but to dig in on his old positions, as the ground beyond fell away, leading us onto a long forward slope. Therefore it was vital to fight through quickly and, once secure, dig in as soon as possible.
Although opposition was light in terms of small-arms fire, the enemy artillery responded as we had anticipated and the company needed no greater encouragement to dig in. As I have said, there was a fair amount of tension before the battle began. Added to that was the fact that the lights of Port Stanley were in sight. Our thoughts were shaken by enemy artillery hitting our positions on the start line. I had no need to give any orders - the Toms were already in cover. When I tried to crouch down I found a signaller under each knee! I laughed and the tension eased.
Once on the move, into the attack, all signs of nerves vanished. Our attack started at about 0100 and we had consolidated by 0230. Whereas at Goose Green we had had to win the fire fight by using company weapons, this time our fire support had done the job. To win the fire fight is not as easy as it sounds but, once won, it is vital to press home the attack - i.e. keep the initiative. The enemy now kept up a steady harassing fire barrage on and around us until dawn, some nine hours away.
It was a great responsibility and also a great privilege to lead such high calibre blokes. If you have the privilege of commanding such men, then the battle is half won before you start. So I think it behoves you to try and think things out before, because there's no doubt that they are looking to you. I say this humbly, without meaning to sound pompous, but I think that within the battalion, I was the barometer. People knew that I'd had a lot of experience and therefore they were looking at me to see if there was any shake. If there was, then things could have been serious. We had a very good team led by H., and I think the Toms knew that such a team thought conscientiously about problems and wouldn't commit them to something that they had no control over. People have said, 'Well, why the hell did you go to Goose Green?' And the answer to that is that the Toms were keen to get at the enemy and attack them. It's a great privilege to have people of that nature ready to follow you.
Reproduced by kind permission of Max ArthurRead More