Goose Green - The first major land victory
Goose Green - The first major land victory - 27/28 May 1982
With the beachhead secure, and no real move made against the British Forces, a period of digging in and consolidation occurred from 21 May onward. The daily air attacks continued, but largely aimed at the ships of the Task Force and away from the landing areas. On 26 May, the Argentine commanders moved most of the 12th Infantry Regiment from the Mount Kent area, overlooking the valley approach to Stanley, to the Goose Green garrison. This was reported by an SAS observation team near Mount Kent, and the reinforced Goose Green garrison took on a more sinister aspect as it was the closest Argentine outpost of any size from which a counterattack could be launched. The British shipping losses of the previous days (which are described on a separate map here.) included the Atlantic Conveyor and most of her cargo of all-important heavy-lift helicopters, which were to be used to move the troops rapidly into close proximity with the Argentine defences around Stanley, and support them in place. This plan now had to be scrapped and a new system devised for moving the troops and supplies forward. These developments spurred the UK-based senior officers to tell Brigadier Thompson that; ‘Some action was required’.
Given the reinforcements newly arrived in Goose Green, and the threat they represented, Brigadier Thompson resurrected an earlier plan for 2 Para to 'raid' the Darwin/Goose Green area. Meanwhile, 45 Commando and 3 Para were to begin moving on foot toward the Mount Kent/Estancia area, and 42 Commando would be moved by helicopter to the Mount Kent area directly, to take advantage of its unoccupied status as reported by the SAS team. 40 Commando would remain at San Carlos, to defend the logistics base established there against any possible Argentine attack on the vital supply chain at its source. Logically, it was circumstance that chose 2 Para for the operation against Darwin/Goose Green, for they were the unit occupying the closest section of the beachhead to the target, the southern section of the Sussex Mountains.
The operation had initially been planned for 24 May, indeed, D Company of 2 Para had actually started moving out of their positions in the mountains before the recall had been issued. In its original form the plan called for 2 Para to 'raid and return', inflicting as much damage as possible before withdrawing, this kind of raid being a term familiar to the Royal Marines but less so to the Army.
On 27th May, however, the mission was up-rated to have 2 Para capture the airfield and settlements; Goose Green being the second largest settlement on the Islands. Various reasons are cited for this, notably the importance of destroying rather than masking the threat from the right flank, following the movement of 12th Regiment.
It was also, almost certainly partly as a result of lobbying by the forceful and charismatic commander of 2 Para, Lieutenant Colonel ‘H’ Jones. However, no additional resources were allocated to the hugely increased demand of this operation. The intelligence available to Colonel Jones was incomplete and somewhat confused as the placement of the newly arrived Argentine reinforcements had not been fully plotted. This was the least of his problems as it turned out. Aside from the lack of support from additional units because simply, there weren't any, his men were going to have to walk to Goose Green carrying what they could. 2 Para had to leave a great deal of their heavy mortars and other support equipment behind. Helicopters were at a premium, because of the sinking of the Atlantic Conveyor and there was great reluctance to risk Volvo BVs and the armoured reconnaissance vehicles of the Blues and Royals beyond the protection of the anti-aircraft umbrella. A move to the area by Landing Craft was considered by Jones in consultation with the RM experts but ruled out as offering less prospects of success than an over-land move.
2 Para would have in support three additional firepower elements. The first was half of 8 Battery three 105 mm artillery guns and their associated ammunition and support teams were moved by helicopter on 27 May to a position near to Camilla Creek House, some six miles from Goose Green and the jumping-off point for 2 Para as they advanced to the attack. The second was HMS Arrow, with her 4.5 inch gun to supplement the fire support of the artillery. Thirdly air support would be available from the newly arrived RAF Harrier GR3s, on call from HMS Hermes to offer close air support if the weather allowed; the RN’s Sea Harriers were now exclusively operating in the air defence role against the attacking Argentine bombers.
Facing 2 Para, was an Argentine force numerically much larger although far less well integrated and trained. The first troops to arrive at Goose Green after the Argentine invasion were units of the Argentine Air Force who established a base for Pucara ground attack aircraft on the grass airfield. The airfield staff included engineering support teams, 20 mm and 35 mm anti-aircraft guns with their crews and were commanded by Air Commodore Wilson D Pedroza; they were supported by C Company of the 25th Regiment. The last arrivals, on 26 May, were the majority of the 12th Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Italo Piaggi, and the force eventually had four 105mm field guns only three were in working condition. Mr Eric Goss, the settlement manager at Goose Green, was not impressed by the quality of the new troops, who were largely conscripts. Oddly, the commander of this mixed force, named Task Force Mercedes, Brigadier General Omar Parada, was based in Stanley, so when the battle for Goose Green began in earnest, his only input to run the defences was by radio. Nevertheless while the ‘effective’ Argentine numerical strength can be said to have been similar to that of 2 Para, this does not take into account the number and sheer amount of additional men and equipment available to the Argentine defenders, not to mention the prepared defensive positions that gave the Argentines many advantages. What had started life as a 'raid' was to become the first major land battle of the conflict.
Camilla Creek House
With the general enemy area under observation by the patrols, 2 Para called in a Harrier GR3 strike against both gun and infantry positions on the hills above Goose Green. A Forward Air Controller with 2 Para would operate through an air liaison officer at Brigade Headquarters. Unfortunately when the weather finally enabled the aircraft to make their sortie, the FAC with the patrols had been called back to the Battalion HQ and was not on hand to liase with them. Wing Commander Peter Squire, the commander of the Harrier GR3 force, and Squadron Leader Bob Iveson left HMS Hermes to make the attack and two passes were made over the Argentine positions; then Sqn Ldr Iveson decided to make a third. His Harrier was hit by two 35 mm shells which knocked out his controls and started a fire in the cockpit. At around 100 ft, he immediately ejected, As he was only at around 100 ft, he immediately pulled the ejection handle and left the cockpit while the Harrier was doing around 450 knots and his aircraft exploded in mid-air shortly afterwards; he hit the ground after being under the parachute for only ten or fifteen seconds. He suffered spinal compression and wind-blast damage to his eyes but hit the ground sufficiently far from the Argentine positions to make good his escape and was picked up two days later by a Royal Navy helicopter.
The reconnaissance parties withdrew at least one having been were spotted and engaged with long range machine gun. About that time a civilian Land Rover with an Argentine patrol following up the recent activity was captured by the FAC party moving forward again and, with the patrols, brought to Battalion HQ. Having stayed the day at Camilla Creek House resting and preparing their equipment. An orders group was held 27 May at last light. It was then known that 114 civilians were in Goose Green.
The assaulting companies of 2 Para made their preliminary moves to their various start lines on the north end of the Goose Green isthmus at 2300 hrs on 27 May. Two mortars were set up at a fire base to the west of the isthmus and the 105 mm artillery guns at Cammilla Creek House were readied and HMS Arrow was present in Brenton Loch to the west of the isthmus to provide covering fire. All the Companies had reached their start points by 0230 hrs on 28 May. B and D Companies formed up on the west side of Burntside Pond and A Company on the east. C Company, consisting of reconnaissance and Patrol Platoons were positioned overlooking the north-west end of the isthmus to mark the start lines. Major Hugh Jenner, commanding Support Company, was positioned to the west of the isthmus at the fire support base on the other side of the creek.
Burntside Hill In the cold and completely dark night, all was ready for the assault. Almost immediately, A Company, under the command of Major Dair Farrar-Hockley moved off to secure 2 PARA’s first objective, Burntside House, a suspected Argentinian platoon position. Artillery fire was called in first from HMS Arrow, but its gun jammed soon after, and the ship had to cease fire. A Coy put down heavy fire onto the house including anti-tank missiles and grenades. Unbeknown to A Coy, the house was occupied by four civilians, all of whom were thankfully unhurt. The enemy platoon withdrew, probably as the attack started leaving two dead.
Half an hour after A Company had left their start line B Company, under command of Major John Crosland, advanced to capture their first objective, after a brief but fierce firefight. D Company, under the command of Major Phillip Neame, then passed through A and B Company, to secure a small hill along the centre line. Again after a short firefight this was achieved, but enemy positions between B and D companies which had been unwittingly bypassed in the dark, opened up on D Company inflicting 2 dead and 2 wounded – the first British losses in the engagement. D Company eventually destroyed this position, but only after causing some anxious moments and a pithy exchange of communications with B Company, who were also in the line of fire.
The whole style of the attack had been based on maintaining momentum against the defenders, that instruction had been drummed into his troops by 'H' from the start as the best way to roll up their positions and not give the Argentines time to think and regroup. As a result the development of the battle in the dark thus far relied on two common traits of the Parachute Regiment troops, the ability of individual members of every rank to display initiative with inventiveness under fire, and sheer, bloody-minded aggression.
All initial objectives were in British hands by 0500 hrs, therefore. However, the pitch black night, the featureless terrain, and the dispersed nature of these engagements was starting to throw up some real challenges to the plan of securing all key objectives by daylight; reorganisation was proving tortuous, the companies had only a vague idea of the others whereabouts. Dawn was rapidly approaching, and it would be daylight by 0730 hrs. This would reduce the Para’s supporting fire as HMS ARROW, which had been able to provide further fire Goose Green airfield would have to leave before daylight..
As dawn rose, A Company moved around Darwin Bay, having first positioned 3 platoon to secure the left flank against the enemy force in Darwin settlement. They quickly came under fire from well defended positions near Darwin Hill, which rose to 100 feet above the small settlement. The horseshoe position, sighted to defend against a seaborne landing, had well positioned trenches dug in with overhead protection; although noted by reconnaissance, the strength and dominating nature of this vital position had not elicited any attention in the orders of the previous day Enemy artillery fire was also brought to bear on all the forward companies, exposed on bare open terrain with no natural cover. Casualties began to occur. Now, the lack of fire support and protected manoeuvre, afforded by armoured reconnaissance vehicles which had been denied, began to tell. It was to be compounded by the fog at sea which hindered friendly air support.
With no option for flanking movement and no indirect fire support to get the enemy’s head down, Major Farrar-Hockley was obliged to conduct a slow battle of attrition. With A Coy inching their way up the hill, many daring and courageous independent actions at every level took place; not least among private soldiers and junior NCOs; and further casualties were taken. Concerned at the prospect of losing the initiative after about the first hour of fighting on Darwin Hill, the CO had joined A Company, with his 10-man tactical command group, anxious to keep the momentum going. He continued to control the battalion’s actions from a gorse gully in the thick of this firefight. Eventually, it was agreed that Farrar-Hockley would lead an assault on the nearest trenches, but this was repulsed by intense machine-gun fire from which three men died.
Ever aware of the importance of example and sharing the demands placed on his troops, ‘H’ followed by LCpl Beresford and Sgt Norman moved into an adjoining gully from where he could see an enemy position. As he did so he was exposed to fire from the next line of trenches running inland over the second hill, which were now some 30 yards behind him and to his right. His bodyguard called to him to watch his back, but the impossibly brave lone figure charging up the hill firing his Stirling submachine gun was an easy target for the Argentines and 'H' was hit. He fell in open ground, close to the trench he was attacking, and died shortly afterwards, following the capture of Darwin Hill.
Within thirty minutes and after some three hours in all of this constant aggression, A Company had inflicted 60% losses on the enemy, and the position eventually fell. The courageous defence of the hill by 1st Lt Estevez and his company was noteworthy. A Company had finally secured the important left flank and the direct approaches to Darwin, but with a loss of four dead and eleven wounded.
While the battle on Darwin Hill had been raging, B Company had also been pinned down by Argentine forces sited in the ruins of Boca House, which was B Company's next objective. Major Keeble, the Battalion’s Second-in-Command, during the course of his hour long march from Battalion main headquarters to reach the forward positions, now agreed to suggestions from John Crosland - temporarily in command of the Battalion – to bring up Milan missiles for sangar-busting there being no need to reserve them for their normal anti-tank duties.
D Company meanwhile had moved into the western lee of Darwin Hill to avoid the attention of Argentinian artillery where they detected bypassed Argentinians scuttling along the western shoreline in an obvious attempt to rejoin their southerly positions. A suggestion to take the same route to attempt a right flanking move around Darwin Hill and on to Boca House by Phil Neame had been rejected whilst all attention had been focussed on A Company’s battle. With little direct action possible but as the best possible preparation for what was shaping up to be a long day, D Company had therefore elected to take breakfast. B & D Company Commanders then colluded to affect Major Neame’s earlier ideas for a right flanking move along the coast. In the event, it proved impossible to gain a covered approach right up to Boca House, but it did bring the position well within range of the Company’s 18 machine guns of which 12 were used. With the addition of the Milan from Sp Company, they began to be used with deadly effect and white flags of surrender began to appear all over the position. As a consequence, and on the pretext that to delay would see them cut off by the in-coming tide, D Company advanced from their protected position for the nerve-jangling 600 yard march across open ground to take the Boca House position, and the last major obstacle it was believed to the advance on Goose Green. About 20 prisoners were taken, and some twelve Argentine soldiers were killed, the rest having run off in the direction of Goose Green.
After this success at Boca House the Paras now had room to manoeuvre. D Company, already exploiting forward, moved from Boca House directly via the Airfield, to approach Goose Green from the west; B Company moved further south down the isthmus and then turned inland to cut off Goose Green from the south. C Company, who had until now been in reserve was now ordered forward to Darwin Ridge to bypass A Company and approach the settlement from the North, reinforced by 3 Platoon from A Company. A Company’s task became the defence of Darwin Hill, which dominated the isthmus and the masking of Darwin should enemy still be hidden there.
20 and 35 mm anti-aircraft guns at the southern end of the airfield were now being used in a ground role to fire on the Paras. To avoid the AAA fire, D company, unaware of C Company’s orders, deflected into a defile which led them towards the School House directly north of the settlement. This detour took them straight into a minefield just short of the School House; it inhibited attempts to return to their original axis which would have taken them to an enemy position to the Northwest of the settlement which became known as the flagpole. C Company themselves were spotted moving down from Darwin Ridge and came under AAA fire suffering several major injuries, mostly among the Company Headquarters where the Company Commander Major Roger Jenner and others were hit. The Patrols and Reconnaissance Platoons nevertheless continued their advance, joining up with D Company among the outlying buildings of the school, to the surprise of both companies, as Neame was attempting to get artillery to support the assault on the School House – a reportedly strongly held enemy position - with 11 Platoon. By this time the area was subject to constant enemy artillery fire from Argentinian 105mm guns on the outskirts of the settlement, which had already inflicted casualties on D Company. With the southern slope of Darwin Hill behind them still raked by AAA fire, casevac of these was impossible. The situation was becoming confused and difficult, but the true chaos of war then took hold. Neame had left No.12 platoon to provide covering fire onto the School House, having earlier detached No.10 platoon to clear an outlying enemy position on the north of the airfield which threatened the defile D Company had used to avoid earlier.
It was reported that white flags were flying at the main Argentine position (Flagpole) on the airfield. D Company's 12 Platoon Commander decided to go forward with one of his sections and take the surrender. As they were approaching the position, a British machine gun from the Machine Gun platoon on Darwin Hill opened up in the mistaken belief they were giving covering fire to an attack. The Argentineans opened fire in return, killing the Platoon Commander and two NCOs instantly, and severely wounding several more and no surrender took place.
Next, the air forces of both sides took a hand in adding to the chaos. Warned of an imminent friendly air strike, D Company were a little taken aback, when the sound of in-coming aircraft turned out to be two Argentine Aermacchis MB-339 jets and a pair of Pucaras from Stanley who made rocket, napalm and gun attacks against D and C Companies. Nevertheless, one Puccara was brought down by ground fire, and the pilot ejected, quickly being picked up by the men of D Company, and a Skyhawk Aermacchi was also hit and later crashed.
For a brief moment, in the face of these set-backs and hemmed in by a minefield, there was, perhaps, just a hint of concern amongst the assembled Paras. However, commanders at all levels rose to the challenge. In quick succession, the School House fell and was razed to a cinder in a combined assault by D Company’s 11 Platoon, the Patrols and Recce Platoons in a devastating use of M79 and grenades. 12 Platoon, now led by their platoon sergeant, succeeded in destroying the Flag Pole position that had earlier tried to surrender, and ignited the nearby airfield ammunition dump. This rendered it impossible to occupy the position, but afforded an entertaining firework display, as order began to be restored. Major Keeble decided it was best to consolidate and dig in where they were.
About this time three Harrier GR3s made an attack on the Argentine gun positions around the airfield. The first two aircraft were carrying BL755 cluster bombs, the third attacked with rockets. The strike was aimed only some 200 yards from the Paras forward positions and the attack must have impacted heavily on Argentine morale.
Meanwhile about 100 men from B Company of 12th Regiment of the Argentine Army had just been flown down by helicopter from the Mount Kent area to a position a mile south of Goose Green, beyond B Company 2 Para's position to the south of the settlement. Greeted by British artillery fire on arrival, these men moved into Goose Green under cover of darkness but found themselves just part of the confused and demoralised garrison.
There was a feeling across the Battalion, that further fighting may be required on the following day. Meanwhile, while J Company of 42 Commando under Major Mike Norman were forwarded by helicopter to Camilla Creek House as were more artillery, support weapons and more ammunition.
Meanwhile, Major Keeble – aided in his plan by Robert Fox, a BBC reporter with the Battalion sent two prisoners into the settlement with a note saying quite simply surrender or take the consequences. The threat of more Harrier strikes underlined the hopelessness of their situation. The Argentines had men and ammunition, but were effectively trapped by the surrounding British troops, with no room to manoeuvre. The Argentine commanders, Air Commodore Pedroza and Lieutenant Colonel Piaggi meet with Major Keeble at 0930 hrs and after discussion agreed to surrender and paraded their men accordingly. The morning brought its own surprise for the Argentines as they surrendered their weapons, when they saw how few men they were surrendering to.
A victory that defied all Odds; 1,500 prisoners were taken in the battle for Goose Green, and some fifty-five Argentine personnel are recorded as having been killed with under a hundred wounded. Fifteen men from 2 Para, one from the Royal Engineers and a Royal Marine pilot were killed in the fighting, and thirty-seven Paras were wounded. None of the inhabitants of the settlements were hurt.
2 PARA had, after 36 hours, battled their way over some 10 kilometres of terrain that offered limited scope for manoeuvre. However, it was not just the scale and the odds, but the significance of the victory that was important. Failure, or even an indeterminate result, could have been a strategic disaster. As it was, an outstanding success set the moral tenor for the war, achieving superiority over the Argentinians of confidence and will. And yet, there were many short-comings to the plan, exacerbated by too few resources stemming from lack of clarity as to the aim. Its execution, on unfamiliar, often featureless terrain in the pitch dark, and in the face of the unexpected, was problematic and frequently chaotic. Although there were certainly moments of inspiration, such as the masterful ‘game of poker’ that brought about the surrender to a force one-third the size, exhausted and down to its last bullets, the outcome cannot be ascribed to masterful planning and execution.
So, what did enable such an outstanding and unlikely victory? The answer, arguably, starts with ‘H’ Jones. He, perhaps more than most, grasped the strategic dimension, and that a complete victory was essential to deny any suggestion of success by the Argentineans – whilst negotiations continued at diplomatic level. Then despite indifferent support for an up-graded mission, he took that lonely, courageous decision to commit. And - notwithstanding his personal misgiving on the odds – he communicated the importance of the mission and that commitment, and instilled in the battalion such a confidence and belief in their ability to deliver, with such force of personality, that had it sustained 50% casualties, his battalion would still have been pushing forward – convinced of victory. His intervention and selfless death on Darwin Hill was not, despite the myths, instrumental to the outcome, although entirely in character with the way he took on the mission. He had already made his most telling contribution. Ultimately, however, success has to be credited to the organization and individuals within it that ‘H’ Jones led. Allied to a collective robustness and determination, at every level, there were acts of initiative, heroism, selflessness - many unrecorded - that in any account commemorating the battle 25 years later, it seems invidious to single out individual acts and people. In summary, this was a battle where a potential strategic disaster was avoided by the leadership, insight and courage of one man, a victory delivered by The Parachute Regiment ability to thrive on chaos, uncertainty and setbacks which can destroy lesser mortals!
Based on Airborne Assault Duxford: Paradata Falklands Accounts using as sources:
- The Official History of the Falklands’ War: Sir Lawrence Freedman (Routledge)
- Goose Green (A Battle is Fought to be Won): Mark Adkin (Pen & Sword)
- Advice and input from Colonel David Benest OBE (Signals Officer, 2 PARA. 1981-83).