The Scots Guards On Tumbledown Mountain
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Published: Mon, 08 May 2017
On the second of April, 1982, Argentinian forces landed on The Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean, roughly 300 miles from the Argentinian coast. They overpowered both the standing garrison of 56 Royal Marines and the Falklands Islands Defence Force (FIDF), and proceeded to occupy the islands. The British response began on the same day, when 9 Royal Navy (RN) ships were sent orders to move to the Falklands. Twenty-three days after the Argentinian occupation began British Royal marines began retaking the Falklands.
The journey of the Scots guards begins later, on the Twelfth of May, when the Queen Elizabeth 2, an ocean liner commandeered by the RN, left Southampton with the 5 Infantry Brigade, which consisted of the second battalion of the Scots Guards, Welsh Guards and Gurkhas. The Scots guards landed at Fitzroy on the Falklands, on the sixth of June. On the eleventh of June, the so-called “Battle for (Port) Stanley”, actually 6 battles, some of which happened simultaneously, began. A single day later, the British attack on Tumbledown Mountain began.
In all honesty, the British forces may have deployed to the Falklands in the stereotypical style of the American armed forces in such areas, namely large-scale amphibious operations, with a minimal distance between landing sites and major objectives such as Port Stanley and the Falklands’ airstrip. This would, however, have ended in disaster, as this is exactly what the Argentine defence forces were preparing for, with their defences centred around Port Stanley.
Another approach would have been a majorly airborne operation, with the Parachute Battalion troopers and Royal Marine commandos parachuting onto the islands, and the rest of the infantry and equipment being brought in by helicopters. For this approach, a good knowledge of anti-air defences would have been required and also complete air superiority, in order to minimise the certain casualties. This would have meant a war fought in the World War 2 style Blitzkrieg, and would have required either a nearby airstrip or an aircraft carrier capable of launching aircraft or use in both a bombing and transport role. The nearest airfield was on Ascension Island, and required a formation of 11 tanker aircraft for 1 Vulcan bomber to reach the Falklands, all of which had to be launched from the same airstrip. This would have been impossible with the existing facilities at RAF Ascension Island, as multiple C130 Hercules, along with refuelling craft would have to take off, and also loiter for some time, in order for all the aircraft, and therefore also all the paratroopers, to arrive simultaneously.
The 5th Infantry Brigade was actually chosen for a single, simple reason, namely that they were the only brigade free of any other obligations, as others were stationed as garrisons all over the world, due to cold-war tensions. At the point where it was chosen, however, the 5th Infantry Brigade was composed only of the 1st Battalion, 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles, who will be referred to simply as the Gurkhas. The only district in the UK with any forces free from garrison duties or the like was London, with the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards (2SG) who were responsible for public duties such as the changing of the guard, and the 1st Battalion of the Welsh Guards, who were just being rotated out of Spearhead Battalion position. This meant that neither of the Guards Battalions was at their peak readiness, as the only duties of the Scots Guards had been to keep clean, presentable and as fit as possible, and the Welsh Guards had been incapable of any training. The other infantry formation in the Falklands, 3rd Commando brigade was also present, and consisted of two battalions which had formerly been part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, but had been transferred just before deployment, namely the second battalion of the Paratroopers (2PARA) and the third battalion of the paratroopers (3PARA). Also in the 3rd Commando Brigade were the Royal Marines of 40, 42 and 45 Commando, as well as support units.
Opposing them, the Argentine forces were composed of the only Argentine marines on the Falklands, which had been bolstered up by the addition of some army Engineers, some Surface-to-Air Missile launchers (SAMs) and a heavy machine gun company. They had had some time to dig in and set up their defences. Additionally, they were composed of conscripts who had spent more time in the military than many of the Argentinian army forces on the Falklands, and were therefore of a higher quality, and lastly, their training was also of a higher quality than the Argentine army’s was, as is commented on by Alejandro L. Corbacho, in his paper “Reassessing the Fighting Performance of Conscript Soldiers during the Malvinas/Falklands War (1982).” Also mentioned therein is the fact that they were otherwise better prepared for the Falklands, as they had iron bars and other tools for entrenching themselves.
The ring of mountains surrounding Port Stanley, including Tumbledown, had to be dealt with almost simultaneously by the 5th Infantry Brigade, which meant that the depleted and demoralised Welsh Guards, the complete but untrained Scots Guards and the complete and ready Gurkhas all had to spring into action, as 4 peaks needed to be taken, namely Mount Tumbledown, Sapper Hill, Wireless Ridge and Mount William. The Welsh Guards were allocated the easier task of taking Sapper Hill, while 2PARA from the 3rd Commando Brigade were allocated
The forces defending Tumbledown mountain consisted of the Argentine Marine Battalion, supported by six 105mm field guns and several M2 heavy machine guns (HMGs), chambered in 12.7x99mm NATO rounds, capable of piercing light vehicle armour after a mile or more.
British forces attacking, or assisting in the attack on Tumbledown, consisted of 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards (2SG), supported by 2 Scimitar Light Tanks (Reconnaissance) and 2 Scorpion Light Tanks (Reconnaissance) operated by the Blues and Royals, the HMS Active and the HMS Yarmouth providing fire support from their 4.5 inch guns and mortar detachments of the Royal Marines, as well as one company of Gurkhas attached to 2SG.
However, when interviewed, former Guardsman Steve Cocks stated that
“There was no armoured support of the troops on Tumbledown [â€¦] the initial plan for the attack was to be a frontal attack from the area of Pony Pass in daylight [â€¦] there was a diversionary attack at Pony Pass which was some miles South of Tumbledown in an area that the Argentines expected us to attack. This attack was designed to be noisy and had the mission to cause as much distraction as possible to take the focus of attention away from the silent approach from the West of Tumbledown.”
A diversionary attack was made by the reconnaissance platoon of 2SG, consisting of twelve men organised into three fireteams of four; supported by the Blues and Royals from the south of Tumbledown. The effectiveness of the diversion attack is debatable, as was told by Steve Cocks, yet the former Guardsman is steadfast in the belief that the attack was in the very least, a display of the bravery of 2SG, as they were up against fortified troops who outnumbered them, for whom they had to cross a minefield to reach; but he is also of the opinion that the argentine Marines thought that this was the main attack, and were therefore rather surprised when attacked by the main section of 2SG from a completely different direction a few hours later.
The main element of 2SG was split into 3 companies: G Company, which was to attack from the west; LF Company, which was to attack the higher central crags; and finally, RF Company, which was to attack the lower eastern crags.
G Company advanced first to its position, and was there to assist when LF Company came under heavy sniper and machine gun fire during the second phase of the attack, at about 22:30. Tough fighting continued there for several hours, and at 02:30 the LF Company Commander, Major John Kiszely, began a bayonet charge at the Argentine positions, narrowly avoiding being shot himself, as a bullet lodged itself in his belt buckle. His charge reached the top of the mountain, although it absorbed a massive amount of his men, and in the end he and a group of six others were on top of Mount Tumbledown, three of whom were, however, injured. The third phase began at 06:00, when RF Company began attacking their designated targets. They started forwards, firing their anti-tank weapons at argentine positions, and came under heavy fire, with no artillery support and no mortar support. Their attack succeeded, and at 08:00 they held the former Argentinian positions.
What makes this victory truly remarkable is that the Scots guards were fresh from public duties in London, meaning that they were not as fit as they could have been, had ineffective artillery support for a portion of the battle (as shells which were not using airburst fuses were simply sinking into the peat, and also there was one “rogue gun” in the artillery that needed to be corrected), and they were up against an enemy that had had since the 15th of April to prepare to fight. They moved forwards against some of the best Argentine infantry on the Falklands, through minefields, and without armoured support managed it.
However, if one looks at the disadvantages of the Argentinian troops, the victory seems less remarkable, as no Argentinian shells had airburst fuses, which was mentioned during the interview with former Guardsman Steve Cocks, where he described a mortar shell landing no more than three to four metres away from him, and the only thing hitting him was dirt, as the shell had buried itself too deep to do any major damage. Also, Argentinian troops were partially composed of conscripts, so men who were just serving the time they had to serve, and were not really motivated to keep the Falklands, as is evidenced in the 1987 documentary “The Falklands War: The Untold Story” when an Argentine conscript tells of when he landed in Port Stanley, and was confused because everything was in English, the populace were not welcoming them as liberators; they had been told that they were going to free their compatriots who just happened to be under British rule. The Argentines were slightly demoralised even before the British main attack had started, yet they had still thought that the British attack on Tumbledown had been repulsed, and so one can assume that they suffered a severe blow to their morale when the bulk of 2SG appeared from a different direction.
2SG had just finished fighting one of the last battles fought on the Falklands, quite probably the actual last battle, as 1/7 Gurkhas never needed to fight in order to take Mount William, and there is no certainty about when the battle of Wireless ridge ended, only when it started.
Additionally, this was the only 2 battalion attack of the entire Falklands conflict, as the Gurkhas were also tasked with taking the North-eastern spur of Tumbledown, which they found deserted, which is one of the interesting points about the Gurkhas’ regimental identity, as the Argentine conscripts had been told that they were cold-blooded killers who ate their victims, similar to the propaganda spread about them by the Nazis; and so the Argentines ran to the Scots to surrender.
For 2SG’s victory at Tumbledown, both British soldiers and Argentinian soldiers died. The Scots Guards lost 8 guardsmen and 1 engineer attached to them and suffered a further 53 wounded. The Argentinians lost 30 Marines, well over a hundred wounded, and thirty were captured, and kept as Prisoners of War (POWs) until the resolution of the conflict.
On the next day, General Mario Mendez, the Argentine military governor of the Falkland Islands, officially surrendered to British forces, which meant that no more fighting took place. All POWs of both sides were repatriated, and the British issued a statement saying that they were finished fighting on the Falklands, something the Argentinians neglected to do. Later, the military Junta in charge of Argentina was toppled, in part because of lack of popular support, which was one of their main causes for an invasion of the Falklands.
2SG had just inflicted almost triple their casualties on an entrenched Argentinian force, which was the best of the Argentinian infantry on the Falklands; while fighting from lower ground, in bad terrain, under (admittedly ineffective, yet intense) artillery and mortar fire. This came from a unit that was not as fit as it could have been, and with no close air support, nor very effective artillery. For the Argentinian forces in the Falklands, this must have seemed to be either a miracle or a sign that they could not possibly win, possibly both, as they had held all the advantages they could have, except for numerical superiority and training for night operations, advantages which should have been negated simply by the fact that the Argentinian marines had an organized and well dug-in defence line set up.
Was it necessary?
Upon observation of the map 1 of the appendix, one may notice that the points where the Welsh Guards, the Scots Guards and the Gurkhas had landed, in effect the entire infantry of the 5th Infantry Battalion, all require them to go through or close to Mount Tumbledown if they were to advance on Port Stanley.
Additionally, according to Steve Cocks, one of the guardsmen of 2SG present at the battle, “Argentine artillery was mainly dug in between Tumbledown and Stanley and therefore was completely dominated by whoever held the mountain” meaning that taking Mount Tumbledown is, in the very least, a highly important event leading to the general Argentine surrender, possibly more than just very important.
Also, an absence of supporting forces was, and still is, a situation no infantry force would wish to find itself in, as artillery, even if it is as ineffective as that at Tumbledown, is still capable of causing damage, if not physically, then due to its psychological effect. This effect is even more significant if the opposing force does have said support, in this case the British had artillery, courtesy of both the Royal Navy and also the guns of the 3rd Commando Brigade; and also air support from the Harriers of both the Royal Navy and the RAF, as well as the Black Buck missions flown from RAF Ascension Island. The Argentineans, after Tumbledown, lost most of their artillery, and air support was not guaranteed, as any Argentine aircraft would have to be sent from the mainland, and thereby run the gauntlet twice, as they had to breach the Total Exclusion Zone set up by the British forces, and also get back through it.
Argentine forces were, after Tumbledown severely outnumbered by the British forces, although they could have been easily reinforced from the Argentine mainland. Furthermore, Mount William (see map 4), the next peak in the inside ring of mountains and large hills surrounding Port Stanley, was indefensible after the capture of Tumbledown, as troops could be easily deployed around it, and defending troops would be left without air or artillery support, rendering the defence of Mount William a suicide mission.
What would have happened without it?
Without Mount Tumbledown and the area overlooked by it, British forces would have been subjected to further artillery bombardment from the Argentine artillery positions between Tumbledown and Port Stanley. This would mean continuous losses among the British forces, which would lead to demoralisation and therefore decreased fighting prowess.
Also, Mount William if not taken, could easily have been used to coordinate artillery fire, as well as direct possible airstrikes and provide overwatch (meaning to watch from a point forward enough to, if necessary participate in action, but far back enough to be able to see the bigger picture and be out of immediate danger) for any argentine counterattacks, which would mean that a counterattack’s chances of success would be far higher.
Lastly, it was on the day after the victory of the Scots Guards in the Battle of Mount Tumbledown, that the Argentine commander of the island’s occupying force, Mario Menendez, surrendered. This was, in all probability, due to Mount Tumbledown being the last natural defence for the Argentinean positions in and around Port Stanley, meaning that British forces would be able to attack Port Stanley with no worries about natural barriers, nor Argentine artillery, while the forces defending Port Stanley would have been under semi-constant fire from the Royal Navy frigates present, or the 3rd Commando Battalion’s embedded artillery, possibly even mortars brought by 42 Commando, Royal Marines.
Possible scenarios for an alternative British victory
Naturally, there are always “what-ifs” in history, and here the only possible ones would be “What if the Scots Guards would have lost?”, “What if Tumbledown had been ignored?” and “What if a different route to Port Stanley had been taken?”
The second of these has already been answered in the previous section, but shall still be included in its condensed form, namely: Had 2SG not taken Tumbledown, then firstly, argentine artillery behind would have been able to continue firing at British forces, and if they would have tried simply going around it, they would have received a high amount of casualties from the marines stationed on Tumbledown, as well as later on having enemy forces behind them, and also being under fire from Mount William during an advance on Port Stanley, where Argentine troops had had the longest tie to dig in and prepare.
Should the Scots Guards have failed to take Mount Tumbledown, one of three things would have happened, the first of these being that it would have been a pyrrhic victory for the Argentinean forces, who would have needed some time (that they wouldn’t have available to them) to resupply and reinforce. This would, in all probability, have been exploited by a further British attack, possibly executed by an element of the 3rd Commando Brigade (probably 40 Commando, Royal Marines, as they lacked a mountain to hold) or again by 2SG.
The second possibility would have been a retreat, followed by intense bombardment of Mount Tumbledown by some combination of 3 Commando’s Artillery, mortars from various groups, air support provided by the Harriers of the Royal Navy and the RAF; as well s continued shelling by the RN ships just offshore. This would then have been followed by a further attack by the British land forces, which, if facing depleted (from both the assault by 2SG and also the bombardment, as the British used proximity fuses, resulting in their shells being far more effective) Argentine defenders, especially with armoured support from the armoured vehicles of the Blues & Royals which could be sent along, would have little trouble succeeding.
The third, and final possibility, would have been an amphibious attack on Stanley, resulting in high casualties, as one can see clearly on map 3 of the appendix, a large amount of the defences are directed to sea, in a fashion suitable for defending against an amphibious assault. The forces used in this assault would have to be taken from the Royal Marines, as these were the only forces trained in amphibious landings. The removal of these forces from their positions would have resulted in a weakening of the British hold on the positions around Port Stanley. As mentioned above, only 40 Commando was not holding a mountain, so they could presumably have been used for such an assault.
Evaluation of Sources
The main sources used to answer this essay have come from both Argentine and British sources. However, among the top three resources, only one was Argentine, the other two being British, one even being interviewing a former Guardsman.
The Guardsman interviewed, Steve Cocks, was in the RF (Right Flank) section on Tumbledown, and now occasionally gives lectures on his experiences, as well as keeping a blog about his and others’ experiences in the Falklands and also about them keeping together in a veterans’ association. Due to his being British, and also the fact that the event happened thirty years ago, information taken from him would normally have to be taken and cross-referenced with Argentine sources, as well as other, official, British sources. An attempt was made to contact the Platoon commander whose platoon defended Tumbledown, however, he remained unresponsive.
The Argentine source used is a research paper by Professor Alejandro L. Corbacho, of the Department of Political Science at the Universidad Del CEMA of Buenos Aires, entitled “Reassessing the Fighting Performances of Conscript Soldiers during the Malvinas/Falklands War (1982)”, and published in September 2004. As a university research paper, its information can be taken as solid; however, seeing as both the university and (presumably) the professor are Argentinean there is sure to be at least a slight pro-Argentina slant on their information.
The last major source used is a website dedicated purely to naval history, with a section dedicated purely to the Falklands. It is from this website that all the maps used originate from. The website uses information from the Bavarian state library, the British Library and the US library of Congress. The fact that this uses multiple states’ official libraries and records for its information must be considered, however, two of three universities are not only from the Anglo-sphere, but from nations that are historically allies.
All in all, sources used have been predominantly British, due to Argentine veterans remaining unresponsive, and also due to the fact that most are published in Spanish and remain untranslated. Three sources have been written by Falklands Veterans (including Steve Cocks), and are therefore considered less reliable than other sources.
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