An extract from the book 'Above All Courage' by Max Arthur. No section of this article may reproduced without the author's permission.
There were a few tears on the dockside as we set off, rather more cheers than tears with the band playing and so on — all real lump-in-the-throat stuff. There were toms on board yelling to their wives, 'I'll be back soon,' and shedding the old crocodile tear. It all fell into perspective when 300 yards down the Sound we passed a group of WRENS and those same toms who'd been shedding the crocodile tears three minutes earlier were wolf-whistling and catcalling, so everyone was rather high in morale.
From then on we were preparing ourselves for what might be. There was a lot of training and sorting out of stores and so on. But no one really took the exercise seriously, it all looked likely that we would go for a nice South Atlantic cruise, a big show of arms and maybe even go ashore, but no one really thought that we were going to shed blood at that stage —they were all hoping we would, but didn't really believe it was going to happen.
I suppose it all started to change when the Belgrano was sunk. That of course got everyone chauvinistic and excited; then a couple of days later the Sheffield was sunk. It was at that point that the ship became rather more quiet than it had been, everyone wrapped up in their own thoughts, but probably not until then had it dawned really that this could be a rather bloody business and that we might not all be coming back. But this slight feeling of uncertainty didn't last; within about three hours there were some fairly ripe old jokes on the matter going round on the toms' deck — a sort of defence mechanism, I suppose.
From the more serious preparation point of view we were trying to assess if there were any shortfalls in our training and to anticipate areas where we needed to improve before we went ashore. I know I was concerned, amongst other things, about the medical training because at platoon level when it came down to keeping people alive we were short of well-trained medics. So my emphasis was to get at least two well-trained medics per platoon and with Steve Hughes' medical supervision we by and large achieved that. By the end of the trip everyone was running around the deck shoving anal drips up any bare backsides that happened to be around — personally I always went round with my back to the bulkhead so no one could have a crack at me. Steve Hughes, who was only twenty-four, was a quite remarkable character and showed the foresight and organizational ability that one might be lucky to find in a half-colonel medic. He also had the spunk to register his views with H. and Chris Keeble, both strong characters. In my view his greatest contribution was before we landed; that work counted an enormous amount in subsequent life-saving and, of course, people's morale, because they had confidence in him and the medical system he'd trained.
The other aspect which concerned me quite a lot was the mental preparation of blokes going into combat for the first time. A lot of us looked to John Crosland who was by far the most experienced man on the trip. People looked to him to some extent for reactions, not so much for guidance, because at the end of the day each had to find his own way of doing things. I got my company to prepare in the finest detail so that everyone was minutely ready for every contingency. I think that the biggest loss of confidence occurs when you are caught on the hop. The object therefore was to try to reach the stage where at least we had the reassurance that we'd talked through every situation, which could only help morale. I couldn't very well tell them what it was like because I didn't know myself. All I could do was to try and anticipate the difficult areas beyond the military textbook and to try and get across to platoon commanders and, through them, the whole way down, what I was expecting of them and what I was likely to do in certain situations. Then at least my behaviour and actions would be predictable and expected and we'd all be working along the same lines.
I was also concerned about how much kit we should take ashore. I spent days trying to pare it down to essentials. H. even decreed that to reduce weight we wouldn't take bayonets as we were going to win the battle with firepower. I thought, 'That's all right until things go wrong.' So I managed to persuade him that we should take them as tin openers. He didn't normally break agreements but that rather appealed to him.
The other thing I found myself lumbered with was Sports Day. I must admit it was quite a good day really, the sun was beginning to shine and the blokes were out in their swimming suits and so on. The real trouble was that on a small boat with a lot of people on board, the object being to involve as many people as possible, one had to be fairly ingenious about the games one dreamed up. We were a bit limited for space but I set up a tug-of-war which got everyone on the top deck cheering away. In the orienteering competition we sent men from the bowels of the ship to the very top which upset the crew a bit as some of them were trying to sleep. But it was all good stuff, and gave everyone a laugh. As we went further south I had to organize a second Sports Day and by then the weather was getting rather rougher and H. took one look at the steeple chase and the slippery decks and the force 5 winds and decided that we were more likely to lose more men on a repeat performance of that than going up against the Argentinians!
We finally disembarked on 21 May. Everyone seemed more concerned at not getting their feet wet than the fact that there might be enemy on the beach-head. Soon after we got ashore we secured our little area and nothing happened. As we moved off we ended up at the rear of the battalion snake going up to Sussex Mountain. I suppose everyone was carrying about 80 lbs but the guys with the mortars must have been carrying around 120 lbs and of course were holding us up at the back. With Argentinian air strikes expected at daybreak this was a little trying. Knowing our rear was by then secure, I overtook them, but we were still left struggling up Sussex Mountain when the first strike came in. Fortunately, the pilot seemed to have rather poor eyesight and his load of stuff went well wide of us. We'd been worrying about their air attacks till then, but thereafter became quite blasé, as long as we were well dispersed. This was an important lesson for later at Goose Green.
Then the real frustrating bit started when we were warned on two separate occasions that we were going to go down for a raid on Goose Green. On each occasion my company was the one which was picked to lead the way down to the start point at Camilla Creek. On one occasion, having really psyched ourselves up, we actually got half-way there when the order was given that the whole thing had been shelved and we were to make our way back. We trudged back late into the night to be told Brigade had changed their minds and helicopters were being laid on at first light and that we were going to give it another go. We turned up at first light, after a very short night's rest, to be told that the helicopters couldn't fly and that the whole thing had been shelved once more! One began to form comparisons between this particular affair and the Crimean War! It was cold, wet, miserable and no one seemed to know that they were supposed to be doing or what was going to happen. I think it was due more to H.'s persistence than anything else that eventually someone did get off their arse and decide to give us a positive mission rather than have us sit there holding this ground against no one.
Eventually, with my company — D Company — leading the way, we went south to Goose Green. Our objective was Camilla Creek House. We wandered off down there in the dark, without much to navigate by. We weren't sure whether it was occupied or not, so when we got about 1,500 yards away, I thought the sensible thing to do was to send down a few rounds on the house. Even if it wasn't occupied at least they would show us where the house was! The rounds came whistling over and landed about 1,000 metres behind us, rather than 1,000 metres ahead of us as I had expected. We hadn't overshot the objective, the artillery were just living up to their reputation of dropping short!
So we eventually went in on blind speculation. I sent in one patrol, just to see what things looked like, and we found the whole place completely deserted so we made ourselves at home. It was a sort of two up, two down with a little loo downstairs and a few outbuildings, so I moved the whole company into this house. I kept two patrols north and south of us just to keep an eye on things. Then we sat and waited for the rest of the battalion to come in, which was really the worst news of the night because as soon as they arrived they also wanted to come in out of the bad weather. It had been quite a tight squeeze getting my ninety blokes into this house, so trying to get almost 500 blokes in was really very tight! We would have stayed in the house awhile but our move south had been announced in Parliament and so it became quite clear that if we were going to be anywhere, we were going to be in the area of that particular house. H. very sensibly dispersed us all as far and wide as possible.
In the evening the 0 Group was called and we were told that Goose Green was held by four or five hundred men who weren't up to much and that their defences were facing seawards and southwards rather than in our direction and all one had to do was to knock hard at the front door, or the back door in our case, and we'd just sort of walk in. I had spent that day looking at the map and there was a very narrow strip of land we had to advance down. I was concerned, to say the least, as this meant there would be little room for manoeuvre and therefore little scope for bold and imaginative tactics —just a straight slog. Also, as they knew we were coming they would have obviously deployed north. I remember saying to Nobby Clark, my Sergeant-Major, that this was either going to be a cakewalk because they would just give up as everyone predicted, or a very bloody do. Not much in between. I came back to my HQ after the 0 Group with red blobs representing enemy positions smeared all over my map. I tossed it down in front of Nobby and said that I thought it was going to be the second of the two options.
There was nothing very startling or original about the battalion plan –A and B forward and D in reserve (it's totally against the training of the military mind to do anything other than follow the alphabet). So we started off down there, following the rest of the battalion, and it really should have been very easy because all we really had to do was follow everyone else. The only trouble was Battalion HQ stopped off half-way down to the start line and we moved through them expecting guides from the recce patrol to be on the track to show us exactly where to go. But there were no guides and there was a complete mass of tracks leading off in every direction. With so many tracks around we got hopelessly lost and overshot the track in question. The last thing I wanted to do was to end up ahead of A and B Companies and get caught up in their crossfire. So we trod a very careful path back to a known start point, found the track and sat down to wait for the battle to start.
Fortunately A and B Companies were still ahead of us, but what I hadn't taken into account was that we had got ahead of H.'s Tactical HQ. He came stomping down the track, found us there, and took this as a most immense personal affront that his reserve company was actually closer to the battle than he was. Suitably chastened we just sat where we were and watched him go stomping further down the track only to find himself caught in crossfire further down. By this time both A and B Companies had put in an attack of sorts. H. came stomping back and, having been shot at, identified one position where he thought the fire came from and directed me to go and destroy it. My only difficulty was that I couldn't really see where this position was and he didn't really know exactly where it was on the map. So we called up a fire mission from the ship that was offshore, hoping it was one of the pre-targeted objectives. They gave us about two rounds and then the gun jammed on the ship, so that was a great start! We were already underway, so it just became an advance to contact and hope for the best.
By then we were ahead of the other two companies. We dimly saw a position on the skyline ahead of us which offered no opposition at all. So we just went straight into a frontal assault which was the first time I'd been in action in my life. It all seemed to be going well, when suddenly two machine guns opened up on us from the right. Up until then I had thought, if this is war, it's all dead easy. But now we were suddenly really caught flat-footed. There was already one platoon clearing the position in front of us, the platoon on my right was completely pinned down by the two machine guns, and the difficulty was getting any troops available to manoeuvre around and actually assault this position. My only other force available was my third platoon on my left, and any direction they were likely to attack from would mean assaulting straight in towards the direction that I thought B Company was. After a certain amount of flat-footedness, sucking of teeth and wondering what the hell to do, I saw that Chris Waddington had already started bringing his platoon across so that they could assault. I was still concerned that they'd be shooting up B Company in the process, but there was no option.
By this time H. was yelling to find out what the hell was holding us up. So I told Chris to go in and assault and in he went. I got a few expletives from John Crosland about the number of rounds that were coming his way and I answered with expletives about the number of rounds that were coming my way and we just got on with it. This assault led to four casualties. One of those killed was Corporal Bingley who was very brave. He'd gone to ground not really knowing quite where these machine guns were and found himself virtually overlooking the position. He and Grayling just went in and did an immediate assault, and the two of them took the five-strong position out between them. But Bingley was killed in the process and Grayling slightly injured. It was that sort of immediate get up and go and flare that really got us out of a very sticky situation.
The real problems started because we found ourselves scattered to the four winds. We'd taken out these two machine-gun positions and another platoon position on top of the hill in a single company assault. But in the process people had been going everywhere and it was very featureless ground. Trying to regroup everyone was almost impossible. Much as the School of Infantry would have decried it, I felt the only way to get them together was to put up some light myself to tell everyone where I was. It was also telling the enemy where we were, but I had to take the chance on that. It worked and we got everyone together, less two unaccounted for. There was a long delay while we tried to find out where they were; they weren't found until daylight. Corporal Cork had been shot and Fletcher had been bending over applying a field dressing when he was shot himself and so they had both been killed.
To reorganize took us about an hour and a half and it was quite clear that this was a problem besetting the other companies, which was really why H. had fed us, the reserve, in so soon. The whole encounter had been a little chaotic but of course at this stage we had no perspective of the normal. We just accepted this as the norm — feeling it was not totally different from the average exercise! Life became reasonably simple for us for the next hour or so, we just trogged down behind everyone else. At about daylight we ended up on this little knoll about 1,000 metres short of what became known as the Gorse Line, with A Company at this time fairly heavily engaged around Darwin Hill and B Company brought to a stop on the Gorse Line itself, overlooking Boca House. Then everything began to bog down and I started to move my company up closer to the other two lead companies to get under the lee of the hill and out of sight of the enemy. I was told in very certain terms by H. that he didn't want me getting any closer. So we amused ourselves by taking the odd pot shot at some stray Argentinians who we could see about 1,000 yards away. I had to put a stop to that otherwise we wouldn't have had the ammunition when we needed it.
Life then began to get a bit uncomfortable. There was a minefield either side of the track ahead of us and we were on a very exposed knoll. The enemy artillery started sending in fire periodically. The first rounds were some way away but the next came closer. It suddenly dawned on me that whatever else was going on, they still had an observation post that could see this far back up the peninsula. That observation post was busy getting the enemy artillery zeroed in on us. 'Orders notwithstanding', as they say, I decided to push on into the lee of the hill as soon as possible rather than stay around and cop the whole lot — just in time, because as we moved off the hill a fire mission landed smack on it right where we'd been sitting!
We suffered our first daylight casualty, Mechan. At night in the confusion one couldn't see immediately what had happened but with Mechan everyone saw it happen and it obviously had some effect on people's confidence.
We moved round into the lee of this hill and then closer towards the west coast. From there it became obvious to me that there was scope for exploiting the position that we were in. A Company were well bogged in and fighting a fairly fierce battle stage by stage. B Company were apparently in a position where they really couldn't move forward at all. I felt I could move down to the right of everyone else along the shoreline and possibly turn the enemy's position; it seemed worth having a look at least. I put this idea to H. and he was clearly of the frame of mind where he didn't want his reserve committed at this stage and I suspected he felt that things were very much on a tightrope where he was, so he gave me pretty short shrift.
By then we'd been on the go for eight hours and it seemed obvious to me that we weren't going anywhere for at least half an hour so I decided the most sensible thing to do was to get a brew on because it looked like it was going to be a very long day. Stopping in mid-battle and having a brew was met with complete amazement by my blokes. It is not in the book of rules but there seemed nothing better to do. My porridge had just come to the boil when the news came over that H. had been shot. News travelled fast and it wasn't something that could be kept quiet for long, especially as soon after that the battalion Second-in-Command, Chris Keeble, came along giving orders. He gave me orders straight away to move up and join John Crosland to see what we could do to help him. John was at this stage temporarily in charge of the battalion. Well, I was buggered if I was going to waste my porridge so this vagabond army got on the move with everyone trying to take the odd sip of their brew as they went and I was trying to get down the odd spoonful of hot porridge.
We got up to the Gorse Line where John was, crested the hill, and could see the enemy 1,200 metres away. I was convinced that we were out of small-arms range and was bowling along quite confidently when I suddenly felt this 'thing' whip past my leg and looked at my signaller who'd just had his ammunition pouch shot away! We gingerly reversed a few crucial yards behind this slope, back to relatively safe ground. I couldn't see where John was exactly and by the appearance of things he was fairly far forward himself, and I figured that if I was going to go off and find him, all that was going to happen was that I was going to get shot, which didn't seem an attractive idea. So I had another look at the shoreline which did seem to offer quite a lot of promise for an appropriation of Boca House. At Boca House the enemy had their own heavy machine guns which were simply out-ranging our stuff. I thought that even if we couldn't get to a position where we could assault Boca House, at least we might be able to get our machine guns in range and start causing some damage.
I got on to the radio to let Chris know what I was doing. I went down with a section along the shoreline, and got within about 500 yards of the position before it became clear that we were going to be fairly exposed. So I got all the company down, less one platoon and Pete Adams who I left up on the hilltop to liaise between myself and John Crosland and Chris Keeble. At that stage half my radios had packed up and really it could only be done by me relaying to Pete and him passing on the message. Our six machine guns were in range so I lined them up on this spur just down by the beach.
Then it all happened. John Crosland started blasting away at Boca House with his Milan and with our machine guns in position we set up a rather good duo, with John blasting the sangars and us chopping off the rather stunned survivors who were staggering to other sangars. This seemed to have a very salutary effect on the Argentinians. They gathered very quickly that they didn't have much of a future going for them and after John had got three or four Milans off, all of a sudden white flags started appearing all over the place. Sitting where I was, looking at the position through field glasses, it was quite clear that these buggers were absolutely knackered and they just wanted no more of it. I had all my six machine guns and half the company ready to move on to their position. The Milans and the guns were also set up to cover us.
Then nothing seemed to happen for twenty minutes or so and I was getting more and more impatient, feeling the longer I stayed down on this beach, sooner or later someone was going to spot us and start to direct some shit our way. So I got this wheeze to Chris on the radio that if he didn't give us permission to advance straight away we would get cut off by the tide, which was coming in. I don't think that it would have cut us off but it seemed a useful excuse! We got permission to move. I decided that it was a moment of commitment when someone had to expose himself first and it looked like this time officers would earn their pay. I was about to start forward when Corporal Harley went dashing ahead of me, saying, 'This isn't your job, Sir, you're too valuable. This is toms' work.' So he was really the first guy to take the chance about the surrender. I always had rather a soft spot for him after that, especially having such faith in my judgement! But it was quite clear that it was a completely genuine surrender and they had totally lost interest. We advanced up to the position and one of the platoons, in their eagerness to be first into the position, blundered straight into a minefield rather than follow my directive to stay on the beach. One of them tripped a mine which turned him head over heels. I think Argentinian mines were much like the rest of the Argentinians - not too effective - so he picked himself up, shrugged and carried on going! When we got to Boca House we found a considerable scene of carnage - I suppose thirty or forty casualties and probably eighteen to twenty dead. In the distance one could see the fitter ones who had hightailed at the last moment and were literally fleeing across the airfield.
After ten minutes Chris Keeble came up on the radio and congratulated us on securing Boca House and told me to head straight for Goose Green. With some smugness I told him that we were already on our way. As we were about half the way there we saw what looked like a deserted HQ so I sent one of the platoons off that way and headed with the remaining two down towards Goose Green. At this stage a combination of ack-ack fire overhead and some mines diverted us into a shallow valley which led to the schoolhouse. So we went down towards it and got to the stage where we were almost surrounded by minefields. They were not well laid and were partially visible but the lead platoon at this stage was getting just a little bit nervous. We eventually got into a little hollow ground just short of the schoolhouse where we could actually start forming up ready for an assault. The way to Goose Green lay up the track and there was no way we could move without being exposed to the schoolhouse. In addition there was another position on the skyline with a flag flying a bit further up the track. This became known as the Flagpole Position. It was quite clear what had to be done: first the schoolhouse with fire support from our present position and then the Flagpole Posi¬tion with support from the school.
I suppose the real difficulty at this stage was that we were really a little bit off balance as the platoon which I had detached to check the enemy HQ had by this time come under fire from the Flagpole Position and was unable to join us. The nature of the game from Boca House had been attack and exploitation and almost hot pursuit. Now suddenly we were not exactly in the face of fierce opposition but were clearly in a potentially very dangerous situation. I left one platoon to try and neutralize the Flagpole Position and with the remaining platoon I got ready to assault the schoolhouse. Then things really began to happen in a fierce way. We got small-arms fire down on us from the Flagpole Position and also from the schoolhouse. More alarming still was that we began to get extremely accurate and heavy artillery fire down on us. I suppose the only saving grace was that the ground was so soft the rounds were landing relatively close to you but not having any really serious effect. However, life began to get rather unpleasant. We were also at this stage very much on our own, the rest of the battalion separated by a forward slope behind us which was being raked with ack-ack fire.
We were then joined by one of C Company's platoons which gave us the added momentum we needed for the school. Just as we were about to assault the school, I got the news that Jim Barry, the other Platoon Commander, had been shot when he had gone up to take a surrender under a white flag. He and half the section had been shot down. It was such a tragic waste of life. After a little deliberation as to where my priorities were, I left Pete Adams to command the assault on the school and I went back to join 12 Platoon to find that Sergeant Meredith by this stage had got the situation firmly under control. His platoon was busily knocking shit out of the Flagpole Position with 66 rocket launchers and machine guns. We didn't know who had been killed or injured with Jim Barry, but certainly some of the injured were trying to get back. There were one or two very brave people there — Shevill who was very badly shot managed to pull himself back about 200 yards, finding his own cover, refusing help from others who would have had to expose themselves, and a couple of others who performed extraordinarily well for just private soldiers in organizing themselves and getting their injured companions back under covering fire from Meredith and his crew. Meredith, of course, held it all together, and made sure the platoon continued to work together — a really solid number, hard as nails and with the ability to think. He never appeared fussed which is what I think really helped at this time, at least for his blokes. Private Carter was the other guy who really came through. He'd been one of the blokes up with Jim Barry and was perhaps the first to recover from the shock and get the four of them still alive to start reacting. He'd only just joined the company and for a young inexperienced soldier he showed incredible resilience and presence of mind and initiative. Carter and Meredith, between them, probably saved the lives of the other three involved in the incident.
The assault went in on the school with no problems and we made many schoolchildren happy by burning down the schoolhouse. It was all they could talk about when we finally entered the village. However, we couldn't stay in the area as we were coming under very heavy direct fire from Goose Green itself, and we had no way of neutralizing it because there were civilians in the village. For the same reason, we couldn't actually occupy the Flagpole Position, although Meredith's crew had knocked seven kinds of shit out of it, having set off an ammunition dump. This continued to give an excellent firework display for the rest of the day.
Chris Waddington and his platoon had joined us by this stage. We were all tightly grouped on the track leading to Goose Green. We couldn't move off to the left without coming under fire from Goose Green nor to the right because of the minefield. So we were sitting there, having been told that there was going to be a Harrier strike onto the enemy gun position. Over came this aircraft which wasn't a Harrier at all but an enemy Skyhawk. I saw this cannon-fire zipping towards us and felt utterly helpless and angry that I'd fucked up everything because I'd tightly grouped the whole company. It was the only time that day that I was really scared. Thank God we didn't get any casualties. When a Pucara decided to do the same we shot him down. The track itself and the exploding bomb dump were, I guessed, the obvious indicators for the aircraft. Rather than remain as a target for aircraft I decided to take our chances in the minefield, so we moved off into a nice reverse-slope position.
By this stage it was just coming up to last light and we heard from Chris Keeble that we weren't to exploit further because he had other moves afoot. John Crosland had by then gone round to the south-west and so we had the village encircled. This was one of John's canny moves, because they tried to land reinforcements for Goose Green down there but old John had pre-empted them and got himself between them and the village. Probably no one else had sussed out that possibility.
We began to unwind slightly. We were very low on food; more important, we had very little ammunition left; most people had run out of water and we had no warm clothing. We spent the night in this position and were very cold. Under cover of darkness we were able to bring down the bodies of Jim Barry, Lance-Corporal Smith and Corporal Sullivan. Jim, of course, shouldn't have been with us at all. He'd been picked for the Americas Cup trials in Newport and I'd given him the choice of a cruise there or a cruise in the South Atlantic. Being the sort of bloke he was, he returned from the Americas Cup team to join us without a second thought. A snowcat came forward with some ammunition and took their bodies and our other casualties back at last. It was not until then that we had any direct link with the rest of the battalion.
We entered the village the next day and my company went up with Chris Keeble to organize the surrender. It was something of an eye opener to see over 900 Argentinians still fully armed come out to meet our three small platoons. It seemed a little incongruous to say the least. In Goose Green the welcome was fairly rapturous —we went into the village house where everyone had been cooped up and we were given cups of tea. It was quite nice to be treated like the conquering hero for a bit. My Company HQ ended up in the farm manager's house and we were looked after very well.
We realized we had fought a major battle against fairly remarkable odds. I think that we had stuck our necks out and it had not been a controlled or typical situation at all. In saner moments we probably realized that it wasn't the sort of thing to commit a single battalion to at all but we had been committed and done it. So everyone was pleased with themselves. I think that what we had achieved as a battalion was very much a reflection of H. A more phlegmatic person probably would not have committed us to such uncertainty. But he was a real warrior and was determined to get stuck in. Not only that, but he had imbued such a faith in the battalion, in our abilities, that I don't think the idea of failure entered anyone's mind. We just assumed we would win and this did a lot for everyone's approach when things got rough —'Just a minor hiccup — soon sort it out.' Anyway, the Argentinians were a lot less frightening than he could be! I think that was his major contribution; that, and not expecting anything more than he was prepared to do himself and making that clear to everyone. That's why he got killed, but what he'd set in motion of course didn't die with him. The act just kept rolling. We all knew what was expected of us and it would have taken a deliberate act at that stage to stop what he'd started. I sometimes had doubts about his military judgement but none about him as a man — an extraordinary personality. I just don't think that the Battle of Goose Green as we know it could have ever happened without him.
Without a doubt there was also a reaction setting in that we all rather felt we had done our bit, now let the rest of the Army do theirs. No one imagined we were going to have anything like this to do again. There was a definite awareness that we had scored, not only a very important tactical victory, but probably a very significant psychological victory. One or two of the younger toms I think were a little overawed by what they'd been through and the number going sick with trench foot increased perceptibly — a sort of subconscious way of getting a break. Really all they needed was a little reassurance so I made sure all going sick were seen by the Sergeant-Major, and I went round the positions talking to people and getting them ready to commit themselves once more. I told them how well they'd done but warned them that there was more to come. We debriefed in great detail. I told them we'd learned a lot from Goose Green and that we had to put those lessons into effect and that the next battle was bound to be a more sure-fire thing.
We began our move to Wireless Ridge with Lieutenant-Colonel David Chaundler as our new CO. The move there involved a long night march in the snow. Just before, I had had a dose of the cook's special brew as had most of the company. Every time we stopped I had to step out of the line and drop my trousers in the freezing cold for a quick one, much to the amusement of everyone else. The only consolation was that the rest of the battalion were caught in the same way. It was terribly demoralizing being faced with these personal inconveniences -and not at all cool!
We went up into position just north of Longdon and waited for the order to assault Wireless Ridge. Our new CO had been up and promised that next time we weren't going anywhere without our full ration of artillery, so we began to feel a little more confident. But there was still that lingering feeling that we had already been through the mangle - my company had picked up eight dead, over half the battalion's total at Goose Green. So there was a definite feeling that we had done our share once and would just rather not go through the whole thing again, but that if we had to, we had to.
Come the night, things weren't helped by the fact that the plan had changed at least three times. But then we had the reassurance that we'd never known an airborne exercise go off as planned. So when we went ashore at Sussex Mountain and again that night before Wireless Ridge, the toms took the very phlegmatic approach that it was like any other exercise they had ever been on - one big fuck-up! I didn't beat around the bush on this, reckoning it was better to admit things weren't going as planned, but at least keeping them in the picture. That made them feel involved in what was happening, not just pawns, and they were more ready to accept last-minute changes as a result. This helped morale which I think was the difference between us and the Argentinians. They weren't used to all this fucking around, and when it happened, as it always does in war, it got to them. In the case of our toms, it was almost a source of strength.
The main thing about Wireless Ridge was that we were the only company in the whole of that battle that actually had to assault in the face of organized opposition. We actually carried out three separate company attacks in that one night. While waiting to attack our first position, the inevitable bit of farce came right on cue. We could barely identify the objective, and one or two people had doubts if we were facing the right way. Then we heard other people moving about in the dark at our start line. We were just about to have a go at them when we realized they were the mortars and some stretcher-bearers retracing their steps!
In the event, the attack went in with little opposition. We had really leathered it up with artillery before we actually got onto the position. We had also had light tanks from the Blues and Royals, and machine guns supporting us, so by the time we started moving through it, whatever enemy had been there - anything between a platoon and a company -had already thinned out and all we found was isolated resistance and a few casualties which were quickly despatched. So we got onto the position quite pleased with ourselves. The thing about the Argentinians really was that you'd attack positions, and you'd find a large proportion of them completely unready. With all this battle going on around them they would be lying in the bottom of the trenches, or even asleep in their sleeping bags - a sleep of fear really. They would be right down inside their sleeping bags, or have their hoods pulled up. It's what I call the ostrich factor: they had buried their heads, thinking, 'It's not happening, it won't happen to me, I'm not here. . .'
At Goose Green we never met co-ordinated resistance but here for the first time we did. We were still clearing the first position when we began to get extremely heavy artillery down on us such as 155 mm and 105 mm rounds. I had been told to reorganize on the position but there was just no way I was going to do that so we pushed straight through and reorganized about 300 yards further on.
After A and B Companies had taken their objectives we set off for our next target - the first part of the main ridge line. Again with artillery support and the Blues and Royals providing spot-on response, we met very little opposition. We should have gone straight into an attack on our third and final objective which was known to be very strongly held. I told our FOO (Forward Observation Officer) to fire the final target but for one reason or another the wrong target number was called up and the next five rounds landed straight on us, which completely broke our momentum. It wounded one Section Commander and killed another. This lad had already been injured and casevac'd; he'd recovered, returned to us and now, of all things, he'd been killed by our own artillery. It seemed a complete waste. These things do happen in war, far worse has happened in the past and far worse will probably happen in the future, but it made me really mad.
We tried again, but the rounds were now landing rather closer to B Company than the enemy. I was getting all ready to assault and then had to call a halt while the artillery went through this long system of adjusting the fire onto the target. We were actually overlooking the enemy position at this time and thank God we had the tanks in support, because they were able, from the flank, to keep firing at the enemy positions and keep them occupied. Fortunately, the enemy were totally unaware that we were sitting on a bald, open slope just a few hundred yards to their left and above them. If they had turned and looked at us we would have been really in the shit.
The artillery finally got some rounds on target. 'At last,' I thought. We were literally about to assault when once again the artillery had to stop firing because some rounds had again been landing on B Company. It clearly wasn't B Company's night! I could advance without fire support and my feelings were, especially having already had thirty odd rounds of our own artillery on my position, that B Company could live with one gun sending the odd round their way while we got on with the war and out of a very nasty situation. But there was no way I could persuade any¬one to change their minds. So we then had to go through the rigmarole of firing each gun in turn to try and find out which one needed re-aligning, which was approaching the farcical. There we were, literally within spit¬ting distance of the enemy, while this sort of peacetime safety procedure went on — and I got a bollocking for not assaulting earlier! I began to think that it really wasn't my night either, and began to get extremely short-tempered with a large number of people. The only bright point in the whole night so far was that from where we sat we could see the lights of Stanley burning as if it were a peaceful winter's evening. All very different to what was going on around us. We had rather expected a black-out.
Eventually we had four out of six guns lined up. I said, 'Sod it, I've had enough. We won't bother with the other two, we'll just go in with what we've got.' I gave the order to attack. The trouble was we'd completely lost our momentum. The toms had almost grown roots waiting in the cold and by this time were very sceptical of our artillery support. I yelled, 'Advance!' and stood up myself, and nothing happened! I thought, 'Shit,' and yelled 'Advance!' again and the cry was taken up and slowly everyone began to move forward unopposed.
We got within about 100 yards of the enemy position when one of the toms put up an illuminating round earlier than he should have done, which just attracted the enemy who suddenly realized that the assault was coming not from the front but from their flank. So of course everything that they'd got was turned on us. There we were, in the middle of a very exposed, totally bald, little valley with no cover at all, suddenly confronted with this withering hail of small-arms fire, accompanied all the time by incoming enemy artillery! Everyone hit the deck. Direct fire at night always is rather more frightening than in daylight. You can see it coming and you just hope they can't see you.
I thought, 'Fucking hell, what do I do next?' I was almost at a loss, knowing that it was my job to get the assault going but not at all keen on moving myself! I learned a great truth from that moment — if in doubt, start shouting. I'm not normally a great shouter, but I started shouting for all I was worth! Then I heard other people start to shout. I got up and ran a few yards and I could see other people moving and suddenly it all got into its stride again. The blokes started working as they had been trained to do: fire and manoeuvre, moving in pairs, and so on. It suddenly began to happen once more. I lost my signaller in the middle of it all. I thought he had been shot. I needed communications and looked round for him, but as he is as black as the ace of spades there was little chance of finding him that night, so I moved off without him.
The assault went in and everyone started to work very well together from that moment on. Fortunately I had my own personal radio so I was able to talk to the Platoon Commanders, but there was no way that I could talk back to Battalion HQ. I had also by that stage lost touch with our artillery observation officer. So the only fire I had in support were the tanks which were on the company net. I was able to keep talking to them and they did a great job in chasing the enemy off the ridge in front of us. As we hit the enemy they began to cut and run. If I had gone by the School of Infantry handbook we'd have cleared each position systematically step by step, at a relatively slow and controlled pace, one position at a time. But I remember this distinct feeling that all we had to do was to keep moving very fast and keep the enemy on the run ahead of us. If we went slowly they'd leave one set of positions and reorganize in a further set of positions and we'd have to fight all the way along. So I started to keep the pace moving as briskly as I could, but the platoons on either side of me were trying to conduct things as they'd been trained, in a slightly more measured and controlled way. At one stage, Sergeant Meredith or Sergeant O'Rawe was yelling at some of his guys because the Company Commander was ahead of them. He thought that this was absolute heresy. But I was sure that if I kept the pace moving then the opposition we'd encounter would be very light.
We kept on the move so quickly that the enemy didn't have the chance to go firm anywhere until we got to this area called the Telegraph Wires. This was the limit of our exploitation as the SAS were operating further east of that. The ridge line carried on ahead of us, so it was an absurd place to stop, just no obvious feature, but we stopped there as ordered. I was quite sure that the Argentinians who were running along ahead of us must have thought we had run out of steam. We had been going nonstop for over 800 yards.
Then from the east we got this counter-attack. Jon Page, whose platoon I had left up that end, did a really bloody good job. He managed to get hold of our artillery by flicking his radio onto their net, as we were still without our FOO. That broke up their attack. I made my way back to Meredith and Page. In the last thirty or forty yards I had to get across the top of the hillside itself. I became vaguely aware of a lot of shit coming my way. This was confirmed by Meredith who told me to 'Fuck off' as I was attracting a lot of shit his way! His platoon was having a very, very rough time indeed. They couldn't move without attracting extremely accurate small-arms fire.
There was sporadic artillery fire going on the whole time which one began to live with, but this was really most uncomfortable and the whole platoon was virtually pinned down and couldn't move. A lot of this fire was coming from Tumbledown as 5 Brigade's attack had started late and the Argentinian positions there dominated Wireless Ridge. But I think a lot was coming from snipers on the slope above Moody Brook that we hadn't cleared. It was something we had to live with, but something Jon Page nearly didn't live with. He was moving round his position and got hit by a round which knocked him off his feet and split the difference bet-ween his magazine pouch and a grenade on his belt. It didn't actually pierce him; he got up and got on with the job! There was a lot of shit flying around and it was very hairy for anyone to move about. All this had rather delayed my sorting out exactly what ground I wanted 10 and 11 Platoons to cover. I'd sent my runner, Hanby, back to try and locate the rest of my Company HQ, but he'd not found them as they were further back, still dealing with casualties. So he'd got the two Platoon Commanders together and started tying up details with them on his own initiative. When I did get to them, I found he'd actually done a rather good job and there was little else in that respect for me to do.
Then as daylight began to come up we got another counter-attack, this time from the Moody Brook side onto Sean Webster's platoon. I thought, 'Bloody hell, what's going on around here?' I wondered what we had got into and thought that this was most unlike the Argentinians. For a while they were quite persistent. They got close enough to throw grenades but they didn't drive home their attack — a 'Latin' gesture, and we won.
I then met up with Corporal Osborne, my signaller, who I'd lost at the start of the attack. I thought he'd been hit but he'd actually fallen into an Argentinian shit hole. As I could now get on the battalion net again I called up a fire mission onto the Moody Brook area which quickly discour¬aged any other counter-attack.
Those three hours between starting our final attack and daylight were for me the most harrowing period of the whole war, especially with the cock-ups from the artillery breaking our momentum and losing contact with the CO, and then the counter-attacks. But about half an hour after daylight we saw the Argentinians pulling off Tumbledown. It was an amazing sight. They virtually marched off in single file.
I had been trying to get fire missions down on the retreating closely-packed formation of troops but was told that there was no artillery available. I was going quite spare, because I was supposed to have two batteries at my priority call. Here was a golden opportunity being missed. I assumed the enemy were withdrawing to regroup on Sapper Hill and the last thing I wanted was another major battle. Eventually we got the artillery and started blasting away with everything else we had as well. But as soon as we opened up we got very accurate artillery fire back at our own position. I guessed that they were adjusting onto our muzzle flashes so I told all the company to stop firing with their small arms. I decided that the only thing was to keep fighting this battle with artillery, otherwise we were just going to have a lot of shit knocked out of ourselves.
The CO then came up and couldn't understand this — he felt we should have been firing with everything we had and I tried to explain what my reservations were but he told me to keep firing with everything I had. Very gingerly I got just two machine guns to open up to avoid exposing our own position. The machine guns opened up and nothing came back at us so I felt an absolute idiot! What had of course happened was that during my conversation with the CO the Argentinians had thrown in the towel. We were now able to do anything we liked, so the whole thing turned into a turkey shoot. We were firing away with machine guns and it was just a slaughter. I think for different reasons David Chaundler told us to stop firing. The change was just so abrupt, within the space of a few minutes, from well-organized opposition to the surrender. After that it was plain sailing into Stanley. We were still on the hilltop when the news of the ceasefire came over. The toms saw it as an end to an exercise. Everywhere you could hear, 'Endex.'
Everyone stood up and took their helmets off and put their red berets on for the first time in months, just to let everyone know that it was The Parachute Regiment who had won the war. And in much the same way as on the end of an exercise, everyone who had spare ammunition fired it off — smoke grenades, the lot. It was childish really but it was very amusing and rewarding to watch, and great fun. It even got to the stage where my Sergeant Major started to get people to make their weapons safe — probably a prudent move, it would have been terrible to have had an own goal at this stage. But it struck me as too ironic that he'd used the same words as he would have done at the end of an exercise. It really was a quite farcical end to a really incredible night where we had been on the go for eight hours. We'd been more or less the only company in any serious contact that night and had been very much out on a limb for most of it.
Looking back, I wouldn't have missed it for anything. There was almost a feeling of disappointment after Wireless Ridge. In a perverse sense I would've liked it to have gone on. After Goose Green I felt, well, if nothing else happens, I've fought my battle. I've trained for it for fifteen years and it was a bloody good battle, a unique battle, and I wouldn't be at all sorry if I never had anything else like that again in my life. I'd had my moment of excitement.
With Goose Green we had the feeling of approaching the unknown and complete uncertainty. At Wireless Ridge we knew what to expect but there was more apprehension. There was the feeling that we had been lucky and how much did we want to push our luck? I know the toms felt it and I took positive measures to make sure that that sort of feeling didn't get out of hand. After Wireless Ridge I suppose I began to feel kind of immortal! I thought, well, I've come through this, come through Goose Green, I'm not bad at this job, I quite enjoy it and it's a pity there's no more of it. Whether I felt that because in the bottom of my heart I knew there was no more I don't know. If you feel that you are doing your job well and you have a group of blokes around you who respect you and who you respect, you feel you can take on the bloody world. I got very emotional immediately after the ceasefire. I told the blokes how well they had done and what a great bunch I thought they all were. Of course, you shouldn't tell them that too often — they'd get complacent! But without any doubt what really won the day was the quality of the blokes we had, probably the best trained soldiers in the world and they performed as that. We had come through the cauldron and had lost some very brave blokes indeed. Now this fantastic little force one had built up and worked with had done its bit and no longer had anything to do with it. It was a moment of sadness. We marched into Stanley knowing in the back of our minds that we were never going to do anything like that again. It was difficult to come to terms with.
A week later, on the boat going back home, it was almost as if the war had never happened. It was, 'Ah, Phil, you're the guy who organizes sports. We'd like you to organize the sports for Airborne Forces Day.'
I think we all came back more mature people. The toms didn't have a great requirement to beat up Aldershot any more because they had already shown the world what they could do, and what was Aldershot? I suppose the other thing one remembers was the humour and light heartedness of it all. People had got uptight at times and very frustrated before Goose Green, wondering what the hell we were going to do, but all the time there were funny little events which broke the gloom. At 0 Group I tried not to get too gripped about things. I didn't think it would help if people saw me as very intense and serious. Soldiering is a tough, cruel world and we all had our problems, but it is counter-productive to take everything too seriously. It was a happy company, a jovial company. The NCOs used to take the piss out of me and I used to do the same back, and in this way we all knew each other very well. We knew where to touch the right chords. Chris Waddington, for instance, was renowned for coming up at the end of every 0 Group with 'a question', irrelevant, complicated, difficult to answer, it didn't matter, he had to have 'a question. It could have become irritating but it didn't. It actually became a source of amusement instead of 'Oh fucking hell, Chris, shut up.' I'd say, 'Right, any questions?' There would be a lull and the Sergeant Major would pipe up with, 'Mr Waddington has still got his question, Sir.' And everyone would fall about laughing and Chris would blush. It was all great fun, all this great drama around us but we were still laughing and ribbing each other as if we were down at the boozer. I suppose it was a bit out of place, but it kept things going very well.
Of course what it really did was to weld a close team built on trust and on knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses. And that's what really scored for us — team effort. I think I was lucky, I had some excellent subordinates and it didn't need too much from me to produce results. It was all very effortless and rewarding, very rarely lonely or frightening. As much as I led them they carried me. And though not all of us got back, and I'm sad for their families, I never really mourned them, because for me they're still there, part of the team.
Reproduced by kind permission of Max ArthurRead More