With the successful landing of the British amphibious forces on the Falklands, victory was only a matter of time. There remained however, the capture of Port Stanley itself and the Argentine army had strongly fortified the surrounding hills to protect the town. The task of clearing the way was given to 3 Para, who, under the command of Lt Col Hew Pyke, launched a night attack on the enemy bunkers. The bloody hand to hand battle with bayonet and grenade that followed led to the final surrender of Argentine forces on the islands.
After tabbing in atrocious weather across East Falkland from Port San Carlos, 3 Para, part of 3 Commando Brigade, arrived at Murrell Bridge, an area about one mile west of Mount Longdon and prepared for its attack. Fire support was to be provided by the 4.5 inch guns of HMS Avenger and the 105mm howitzers of 29 Commando Regiment of the Royal Artillery. Nick Rose, a private in 6 Platoon, notes, “The terrain dictated exactly how we advanced. We walked Indian file and there were great boulders you had to cross and then there was the heather and the gorse and it’s constantly wet with storm force winds and horizontal rain, a nightmare scenario”.
With minefields to the south and Argentine troops dug in on Wireless Ridge to the east, it was decided to make a night attack towards the long narrow summit ridge of Mount Longdon and capture the high ground key to the Para’s advance. Once secured, the attack would move on to Wireless Ridge.
Defending the mountain was a company of the Argentine 7th Infantry Regiment reinforced by snipers from the 501Company Special Forces and Marines. The infantry was issued with the FAL 7.62 rifle able to fire on fully automatic while the British version, the SLR, was configured to fire on semi-automatic only. The Argentines were further supported by 105mm artillery, mortars and anti tank missiles and each of their positions was pre-registered as defensive fire targets by the gunners.
Pike sent B Company (4,5,6 Platoons) to take the full length of the ridge, codenaming their targets “Fly Half “ and “Full Back”, while A Company,(1,2,3 Platoons) were tasked with capturing the northern spur, codenamed “Wing Forward”. The Para’s own machine guns and mortars of their Support Company were to establish two fire bases for the attack, one at the 300 feet contour west of the mountain and another at Free Kick, once taken. A troop from 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers would provide engineer support. The sappers also manned the .30 cal machine gun on the contour to neutralise a similar weapon being operated by the Argentines on Two Sisters Mountain to the south west. After a four hour march the Paras were close to their objective when Corporal Brian Milne of B Company stepped on a mine, the explosion alerting the enemy. Sappers were later to find that there were more than 1,500 mines in the area, but fortunately most of them were unusable due the contacts being frozen.
Following the explosion, some 20 Argentineans rushed from their tents and began firing, but most of the defenders were still struggling to get out of their sleeping bags and seizing the moment, 4 Platoon, led by Lieutenant Bickerdike, rushed in with guns and grenades cutting down the confused enemy. 6 Platoon, led by Lt Shaw, advancing on the right flank, grenaded every bunker and foxhole and reached their objective of Fly Half . They had missed one bunker however and the defenders they had bypassed fired into the backs of the platoon causing some casualties before they were killed. A section led by Corporal Stewart McLaughlin, came under fire from a machine gun on higher ground. He ordered his men to fix bayonets and charged uphill into a hail of fire destroying the post…
Along the ridge, small groups of soldiers were fighting for their lives. Privates Gough and Gray managed to crawl up to an enemy bunker undetected and after hurling grenades through the firing slit, rushed in and bayoneted the survivors. Both men were later Mentioned in Despatches for their exploits. Just as the Paras were on the point of overwhelming the defenders, a platoon of Argentine reinforcements arrived wearing head mounted night sights and began to pick off the attackers. Private Rose resumes his story, “There’s incoming everywhere, loads of stuff going down the range, then Bang, my pal Fester (Tony Greenwood) gets it just above his left eye, only a yard away from me. That was a terrible thing; Fester was such a lovely guy. Then it was Baz Barrett, he had gone back to try to get field dressings for Pete Gray and was coming back when, Bang, he got hit in the back”.
The battle was going badly for the Paras – Argentine resistance was strong and well organised. In a heavily fortified bunker in the centre of their position were Marines Jorge Maciel and Claudio Scaglioni, manning a heavy machine gun and Marines Luis Fernandez and Sergio Giuseppetti armed with night scoped rifles. The Paras of 4 platoon attempted to carry out reconnaissance on the Marines’ position but as they moved forward, their leader, Lt Bickerdike and his signaller were wounded. The remainder of the platoon, now led by Sergeant Ian McKay, charged the position and was met with a hail of fire, killing Private Jason Burt and wounding two others. Jason was seventeen at the time of his death. Despite these losses, Sergeant McKay continued to charge the enemy position alone. The 29 year old sergeant was later found dead on the enemy position with grenade and rifle. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. Corporal McLaughlin and his section crawled forward to grenade throwing range, but despite efforts with fragmentation grenades and 66mm LAW missiles, were unable to silence the machine gun. Corporal McLaughlin was a much liked and well respected member of his platoon and many felt that he should have received an award for this and other actions that night. He was later killed by a mortar shell when walking to the aid post following an earlier wounding and when his body was searched, a collection of enemy ears were found in one of his ammunition pouches. It is thought that this was the reason for him not being put forward for a medal.
Mike Southall, a veteran of the battle and only 17 years old at the time, recalls that when the firing slackened, he and a comrade went forward and discovered Sergeant McKay’s body; he goes on, “I couldn’t believe that he was dead in front of me. He was my sergeant when I was in recruit training; I was very upset at that stage”.
After 4 hours of heavy close fighting, the remnants of 4 and 5 platoon regrouped and launched another attack, but were ambushed by a group of the Argentine reinforcements, killing and wounding a number of Paras. When the firing subsided, Mike Southall and his comrades moved forward to help the casualties. He records that they “followed the screams”. He goes on, “I came across my mate, Neil Grose, who had been hit in the chest and was in a lot of pain. It was horrendous, it was his 18th birthday. Lying by his side was Private Ian Scrivens, another 17 year old, who had tried to help Neil but had been shot dead. We got Neil back to the Regimental Aid Post but he got very quiet and slipped away there and then”. Privates Scrivens and Burt were the youngest Paras to die that night, both being seventeen. It is ironic that both were considered too young to serve in Northern Ireland yet old enough for a full scale battle.
Meanwhile, another group of enemy Marines were creeping towards the British aid post on the western slope. Colour Sergeant Brian Faulkner, seeing that about 20 wounded Paras were about to be captured (or worse) deployed anyone fit enough defend the post. He relates, ” I picked three or four blokes and got up on this high feature. As I did so, a group of twenty or thirty Argentines came towards us. We just opened fire on them. We don’t know how many we killed but they got what they deserved because none of them were left standing when we had finished with them”.
Following unexpectedly fierce resistance, B Company’s 4 and 5 platoons pulled back from Fly Half while the 105mm guns of 29 Commando Regiment plastered the enemy positions from Mount Kent. The two platoons then advanced and after heavy fighting, occupied the position. A Company passed through them and launched an assault on Full Back. The fighting became a bitter hand to hand struggle with rifle, grenade and bayonet. It was here, as the company were mopping up the final opposition, that Corporal McLaughlin was killed, hit firstly by a round from a Czelalski recoilless rifle and then by a mortar as he went for treatment.
When daylight came, Argentine troops could be seen retreating towards Port Stanley. The battle for Mount Longdon was over. The battle had lasted some twelve hours and cost the lives of seventeen Paras and one Royal Engineer. Forty Paras were wounded in the battle. A further four Paras and one REME were killed and seven Paratroopers were wounded in the Argentine shelling that followed. The Argentines suffered thirty one killed, one hundred and twenty wounded and fifty taken prisoner.
Much has been written since the battle about the supposedly poor standard of Argentine troops engaged in the fighting and it is true that some of the British commanders on the islands did not have a high opinion of their opponents. Memoirs of some of the Argentine veterans recount how poorly led they were by their officers and how the lack of food, fuel and ammunition contributed to their defeat. In an interview after the war, Private Jorge Altieri of the Argentine 7th Infantry Regiment stated, “We were undernourished before the battle, we were weakened”. Another ex soldier stated that “Our own officers were our greatest enemies. They supplied themselves with whiskey from the pubs, but they weren’t prepared for war. They disappeared when things got serious”.
These statements may have been true of some of the conscripted soldiers, but it must be remembered that a large number of infantrymen of the 7th Regiment had received specialised Commando training and were certainly no pushover for the Paras. The Regiment also had detachments of Special Forces and Marines in support. I leave the last word to Brigadier Julian Thompson, commander of the British 3rd Commando Brigade during the battle who later reported, “I was on the point of withdrawing my Paras from Mount Longdon. We couldn’t believe that these teenagers, disguised as soldiers were causing us to suffer so many casualties”.