Monday, 11 June 2012

Battle of Mt Longdon. The beginning of the end..

This week in the Falkland Islands, the events of 30 years ago will be vividly remembered.  June 14th is Liberation Day.  The Falklands are very different to what they were like 30 years ago.  To understand why, I think it's important to understnad what happened in 1982.

255 members of the British Task Force lost their lives liberating the Falklands.  3 civilians were killed in Stanley.  649 Argentine lives were lost.

The surrender of Argentine forces was preceded by a series of battles for the high ground overlooking Stanley.  Three battles were fought on the mountains during the night of the 11th June - Mt Challenger, Two Sisters and Mt Longdon.

A few weeks ago, I walked up Mount Longdon, about 3 miles west of Stanley. Like the other hills around the town, it's not that high, or difficult (from the east) - more a ramble than a scramble.  But it was the scene of a bloody battle towards the end of the Falklands War.
105mm rifle.
Getting to the Falkland Islands these days is not that easy - the only options are a twice-weekly flight from RAF Brize Norton, or via Chile once per week (or a cruise ship during the summer).  The nearest big city, Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, would be a convenient place to fly through from a logistical, but not historical, point of view.

The hill is dotted with crosses.  This gully was heavily defended.

Feelings stemming from the Argentine invasion, and subsequent British retaking, of the islands still run high in Argentina and the Falklands.  The most obvious impact is transport difficulties - people and goods need to take a roundabout route -  and there's a continuing sense of mistrust (at best) between neighbours.
Looking south through the natural fortifications to Mt Tumbledown
 So, that's why I mention the War.  Not to do so would ignore a major aspect of Falklands Islands life.  Whilst I would love to show more picture of penguins, one reason I can't is that I can't access the beaches near Stanley where penguins gather, because they may be mined!  Another unwelcome and lasting reminder of the war.
105mm gun, pointing west.  Two Sisters' summit on horizon. Mt Longdon summit to right.
To recap, Argentine troops invaded in large numbers on April 2nd 1982.  British forces landed at San Carlos on 21st May, at the western coast of East Falklands.  The troops then found that all but one of the Chinook helicopters they had intended using to take them into battle, had been lost when the merchant ship, Atlantic Conveyor, was sunk by Exocets.  12 merchant seaman, who presumably had no say if they went into a war zone or not,  were killed.

There was no  alternative but to walk 50 miles across the trackless terrain in mid-winter, with full packs and equipment.  The 3-day "Yomp" became a iconic symbol of the toughness of the British troops. (Last week, I listened to a ex-company commander, Mike Cole, give a talk on the battle of Two Sisters.  He re-lived the Yomp by walking the full distance again, and sleeping in the hills, to raise funds for a Royal Marine charity.)

War detritus

The bad weather made sleeping rough in flooded foxholes purgatory, and troops suffered badly from Trench Foot for the first time since 1918.   But it also meant that Argentine aircraft could not attack the long lines of walking soldier in the treeless "Camp" (the Falklands name for the countryside).

Whilst the advance troops waited for a second formation to land in the south (this was delayed when ships carrying the Welsh Guards were bombed, with many casualties), patrols were sent out at night to find out enemy troop positions.  Small teams would walk miles in darkness across the boggy landscape, right up to enemy positions and return with this vital intelligence.

Royal Marine Commandos were to attack hills to the south, 3 Para (3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment) were given Mt Longdon as their objective.

Looking west, where British troops attacked from.  Open ground meant night attacks were the only option.

On the night of the 11th June, 1982, 3 simultaneous attacks on Argentine positions took place. 3 Para's target was Mt Longdon, a rocky outcrop rising about 1,000 from the peat bogs.

There are many accounts of the events of that night, but there is no disputing that there was a long, closely-fought, engagement.  British forces fixed bayonets just prior to the attack, and fighting continued throughout the night.

Walking around the summit, there are numerous memorials to fallen comrades.  It is easy to see why it would have been so difficult to winkle out the defending troops, who had had a month to set up their defensive positions.  But the Argentine defenders would also have been debilitated by the cold and poor food.
The remains of a defensive sangar.
In the end, it is difficult to comprehend what happened there that night.  It's a very moving place.
On my way down from the summit, I met another walker on his way up.  He had been there that night, 30 years ago.  This was the first time he'd been back, and he found it a difficult journey on several levels.  For one thing, he had never seen the terrain in daylight.  Immediately after the Argentine forces had been cleared from the hill, their artillery around Stanley zeroed in on their former positions, now occupied by the Paras.  The bombardment was relentless and accurate.  He had fought all night and taken cover all day.
Remains of a heavy machine gun.  The field of fire is huge.
Stone bunker, built around natural feature.
Argentine crosses, with summit cross on skyline.

For the Fallen, Los Caidos.
Tribute from a Para
 "In Memory of all the soldiers who died on this  mountain both British and Argentinian.  May their God watch over them.  May they never be far from our thoughts.  God bless them and their families."
Memorial to Sgt McKay VC, and other paratroopers, who lost their lives here.
Sgt McKay won the last VC of the 20th century.  Pinned down, he attacked a machine-gun bunker with grenades, and was later found dead on the bunker. But the machine-gun had been knocked out, allowing the attack to continue.  You may want to read the Citation -
His medal is on display at the Imperial War museum, courtesy of Lord Ashcroft.
Some of the many tributes on the hill.

Open countryside in every direction, forcing night battles.
Steel poppies for the fallen.
Memorial to Ian McKay VC.  Yellow ammunition box contains cleaning materials. Summit cross behind.

The local plant, Balsam Bog, acts as a cross holder.
The men (on both sides) who fought on those hills were very young.  Sergeant McKay VC, was 29, and two Paratroopers who died were 17.  Another was killed on his 18th birthday.  I can't remember what I was doing that day, but I wasn't risking my life for my country.

Here is a photo of the hills around Stanley taken this weekend.  Imagine sleeping rough on these hills for a month at this time of year....

Several miles offshore, HMS Glamorgan provided firepower from its guns in support of the night battles.  However, as the battles dragged on, dawn approached and Glamorgan was spotted and hit by an Exocet missile.  The quick reactions of the crew meant the missile hit the ship a glancing blow, and the ship survived, although 13 crew were killed.

As the 11th June became the 12th, the Royal Marines and Paras dug in on the mountain-tops.  They had achieved their objectives.  The Argentine forces still held the three hills closest to Stanley.  But the final phase of the war was imminent.

I find it hard to believe that any lives were worth losing.  An avoidable conflict after a massive failure of diplomacy.  However, the people of the Falklands were, and are, extremely grateful for the sacrifices made.  They will always remember what was done on their behalf, and they will commemorate the British losses every year on Liberation Day.

 "In Memory of all the soldiers who died on this  mountain both British and Argentinian.  May their God watch over them.  May they never be far from our thoughts.  God bless them and their families."
Jimmy O'Connell, ex 3 Para


  1. Thank you Peter for that very moving account of
    what happened 30 years ago so far away. We must
    never forget those brave souls. Sue

  2. For a small war I am impressed how it had so many aspects of a large war, from high tech air battles to hand to hand combat.
    I think I have viewed every available youtube videos, some of which are very good. What is missing are videos on what the local residences did in their own defense. I have been told that among other things during those final battles local farmers and residences used their vehicles and wagon to move equipment forward in support of the advancing troops. Whatever they did could use a little more recognitions and story telling.

    I recently read that some Argentines now would like forensic identifaction of the unknow soldiers the British so carefully buried when the Argentine government refused to repatriate their dead. If this happens, The Argentine government will have to deal directing with the Falkland Islanders and that the Islanders will be very compassionate and generous toward this effort.

  3. Peter, a very moving blog. The informal memorials are so poignant being where they fell. It's all so very sad.

    Interesting Tossing Pebbles in the Stream mentioned the interment of the Argentine dead by UK forces this was one of George's jobs after the conflict and affected him greatly. He thought the British forces were underprepared and under - equipped until he has to bury the poor Argentine boys. Bx

  4. Yes, I have seen the piles of thin plimsolls that were abandoned on the hills as the British troops advanced.

    To respond to some good points -

    There is a small campaign growing to get recognition for those civilians who helped the troops. Some deserve medals. One woman led a convoy of ammunition-carrying Landrovers through a minefield. There will be an area set aside at the Liberation Memorial on Thursday for "Those who assisted the Task Force".

    Otherwise, those in Stanley seemed to have continued with their lives as best as they could. Contract workers, such as my wife, all left by charter plane to Montevideo! Difficult decision! But it might explain why "Contractors" are not universally held in high regard!

    And yes, I understand the Argentine families are approaching the Red Cross for identification of bodies using newer forensic techniques.

    Today, the visiting Foreign Office minister announced there will be a referendum next year on the Falklands sovereignty. The phrasing of the question should be interesting but I won't hold my breath on the result! (There's a lot of Chileans here, who can't really answer the question -"Do you want to remain British?")

    Two Typhoons have just flown low over Stanley, as they do when journalists are in town!

    1. Hi, if you're interested in the Falklands war, Parachute Regiment, Mount Longdon, then read the new book 'Three Days in June' … …