The Yompers - With 45 Commando in the Falklands War

Posted on Tuesday 17th April 2012

Fighting - the battle of two sisters
By Ian Gardiner
Extracted from The Yompers and reproduced by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd
Three decades ago, Britain and Argentina went to war over a small group of islands in the South Atlantic. Even today, the very idea has a whiff of absurdity about it. It was all the more remarkable because it was fought with the near wholehearted, patriotic enthusiasm of the populations of both countries and it was evident right from the start that the government of one of those countries must fall as a result. The eyebrows rise a notch further when one remembers that the British were prepared to risk the greater part of their navy and the lives of many soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and civilians in pursuit of victory.
The Falklands War has been described as an avoidable war. This idea is born out of wishful thinking. It is possible at some point along the road to every war to see, in retrospect, moments where if different decisions had been taken it might have been avoided. This conflict was no different and was no more avoidable than any other war. It has also been described as futile. If fighting for the principle of self-determination of peoples is futile, then it was a futile war, but we who fought did not think it so. What follows is an account of Ian Gardiner’s X Ray Company,
The march to the forming up position from which we were to start our assault was a near nightmare. It was relatively easy ground and we knew the way. I had estimated it might take us three hours and had allowed an hour spare. It took us six hours. In the first place, I had not appreciated how much the Milan missiles would slow us down. Each man carried his own weapon and equipment – on average about 80 lbs. But we also carried 40 Milan missiles and they weighed about 30 lbs each. A piece of rock or a small stream which a man in normal fighting order would barely have noticed became a major obstacle.
One of the men, Marine Jones, was knocked unconscious by his equipment when he fell over a bluff. Phil Witcombe managed to resuscitate him and he bravely carried on. It had been intended that radio silence would be imposed until the assault. I broke this, judging that the risk of Argentine interception was less than the risk of not getting there at all. Had I not, we might still have been there today, little groups of men bumbling around East Falkland, still trying to find each other. However, I delayed telling the commanding officer of our difficulties until the last safe moment. We had no secure radios at company level. My messages to my company trying to find the missing bits were, I hoped, interpretable as yet another patrol. Any message to Commando Tactical Headquarters explaining our difficulties could only have one meaning.
Key members of 45 Commando Group about to receive CO's orders on 26 May for the 'yomp'.
We arrived at the forming up point for our attack two hours late, about the same time that Zulu and Yankee Companies were due to start their attacks. No plan survives first contact with the enemy and mine hadn’t even survived that far. We were now 150 very fed up, tired men and the real work of the night had yet to begin. But it is miraculous where reserves of energy can come from. I called Andrew Whitehead on the radio and told him briefly what had happened. I would not have been surprised if he had given me a very frosty reply. Instead, he was completely calm and patient and said something to the effect of, ‘OK. Sort yourselves out. Tell me when you are ready. I will do nothing until I hear from you, then we will go together.’ He then gave orders for Zulu and Yankee to go to ground and await further orders. He also rearranged the artillery fire-plan with Gerry Akhurst, as it would no longer be possible to concentrate our artillery assets on three consecutive battles. This simple act demonstrating patience, trust and understanding was enough to soothe my raddled nerves. I was able to turn quietly round to my own people and say, ‘Put the last six hours behind you. Sort yourselves out, tell me when you are ready, and we’ll crack on.’ Ten minutes later, 150 knackered marines were as good as new.
I wondered whether I should give the order to fix bayonets. I decided against it thinking that wriggling around and through the rocks in the dark, the bayonet would get in the way. However, the troop commanders were much more sensible. James Kelly, anticipating a close-quarters fight in the rocks, whispered the order to 1 Troop to fix bayonets and they all quietly did so. This supremely functional act was, of course, not without its symbolism. The final seal upon our preparations, it linked us with numberless soldiers of previous generations in a thousand battles, who conducted a similar final act before committing themselves to the manifold unknowns that lay before them. David and Chris also ordered ‘fix bayonets’ before engaging their respective positions.
I gave the order to go, and James Kelly set off with 1 Troop on their dangerous journey towards the Murrel River, across the 1,000 metres that separated us from the bottom of the objective. Sergeant Major Bell and his fire team took a parallel course 200 yards to his left. The Anti-tank Troop was ready to put instant fire down and the mortars and artillery were primed to fire smoke shells. Nevertheless, I watched them through my binoculars with my heart in my mouth and my stomach in knots. Visibility was now good – far too good. The moon had risen making the journey even more hazardous still. They reached the stream halfway and then I lost them. I committed Lieutenant David Stewart with 3 Troop off on their journey across the open ground and followed them with my headquarters. I was sufficiently apprehensive to whisper to Wynne Jones: ‘Pray for our souls, Vicar. Pray for our souls.’
‘I won’t need to,’ he said. ‘I won’t need to.’
Corporal Mick Tagg at the start of the Yomp as we leave Port San Carlos. Each man is carrying upwards of 120 lbs (55kg). (James Kelly)
The sound of a crump of artillery came from over to our left. This was not aimed at us. In fact, it didn’t seem to be aimed at anybody: it was speculative Argentine firing that very nearly hit the jackpot. It landed in front of Zulu, Yankee and Commando Tactical Headquarters, just where they would have been if they had not stopped to wait for X Ray. Then I saw and heard a machine gun opening up from near the top of our objective. The tracer arced across to the northern Sister. So, the battle had started. Please God, I thought, just let James Kelly and 1 Troop get into the rocks before it starts here!
The sound of that machine gun was unmistakable. I had used the .5 inch Browning in Oman. The Browning was originally designed shortly after the First World War but has been in service somewhere on land, at sea or in the air ever since. The man who designed it, John Moses Browning of Utah, was born back in 1855. In spite of that, the Browning remained, and remains still, a superb weapon, in no way obsolete. It is accurate to about 2,000 metres and can pump its half-inch calibre slug out to nearly 7,000 metres. This beast is in service today with the British forces, although we had none in service at that time. So it has been around for nearly ninety years, with the prospect of many more yet to come. Now, we were to be at the receiving end, but I did not think that, from where it seemed to be, it would be able to depress sufficiently to hit us once we were in the rocks at the bottom of the objective. No doubt the enemy would have other machine guns there, but their chance to use them to maximum effect was rapidly slipping away. James and 1 Troop were almost there. Once they were in, it would be a gutter fight in the dark which we would surely win.
With my headquarters and 3 Troop, I reached the Murrel River and started to cross. It was too wide to jump so I had to wade. It was surprisingly deep and came halfway up my thighs. It was bitterly cold.
The Two Sisters from the south west. The nearest Sister was X Ray Company's objective. (Author)
James Kelly then told me what I had been hoping against hope to hear: he was secure in the rocks and had met no opposition. He consolidated his troop, on my instructions, on the bottom third of the feature. It was now only a matter of time and at what cost. I dispatched 3 Troop through 1 Troop and followed through with my headquarters. David Stewart and his men worked their way up the dragon’s back and soon he told me that his objective, the second third of the hill, was clear. He asked permission to exploit forward to the top. This I readily gave. Time was of the essence, and anything that sped things up was all to the good. Time seems to pass very quickly during a battle. It felt like only a few minutes since we had left the start line but was probably more like an hour.
3 Troop was halfway up the 1,500-metre-long objective when they ran into our first opposition. They had been seen by two machine guns near the top of the ridge. Any attempt to close with them drew rifle fire from the right-hand side. They tried to move up the left side but came under fire from the northern Sister, where Yankee and Zulu were engaged in a major battle. In fact it was probably from a Browning on the saddle between the Two Sisters. I thought of masking off the northern Sister with smoke, but mortar smoke shells throw out burning white phosphorus. This is very nasty if you are near it, and I was not entirely sure where the Sergeant Major was. I decided to pull 3 Troop back and wallop the top with artillery and mortars, then send Lieutenant Chris Caröe in with 2 Troop. While 2 Troop was moving up, I decided to see what we could do with the Milan missiles and invited them to have a go. It would mean firing at near maximum range over our heads but it would help to fill the gap before the artillery arrived. Steve Hughes and his men estimated where we were from the tracer of our machine guns, and from the Argentine tracer they could guess where the enemy machine guns probably were. The first round was fired. It’s a strange thing having an anti-tank missile fired over your head at night. We could see it coming towards us, quite slowly it seemed, a bright light, making a curious spluttering, farting noise very unlike what I expected. It took about a quarter of a minute to arrive and it sounded almost friendly. It looked as if it was going to hit us and we all ducked involuntarily as it passed about 30 feet over our heads and produced the most satisfactory bang on impact.
Soon 2 Troop were ready. I had asked Captain Alasdair Cameron to bring an artillery fire mission on to the top of the hill and Corporal Andrew Foster to bring down a mortar stonk immediately in front of us. In the dark, halfway up the hill, one could never be sure precisely where one was and I was disinclined to spend too much time with a torch looking at the map. But the enemy we were trying to suppress was between 100 and 300 yards further up the hill. Corporal Foster and I agreed a grid reference – our own grid reference plus 100 yards. However, given the degree of accuracy and the beaten zone of the 81mm mortar, we were in effect about to mortar ourselves. I shouted to anyone who could hear, that eight mortar rounds were coming in – to get down, count the rounds, and after eight, get up and go.
By now it had begun to snow. As I lay there waiting for mortars and artillery, smoking yet another cigarette in a hole, it occurred to me how depressingly familiar our grandfathers, and their grandfathers, would have found this battle. Young men under fire, scrambling up a rocky hill in a snowstorm in the dark, bayonets fixed, trying to find other young men and kill them: a scene which has repeated itself hundreds of times in the Second and First World Wars, the Boer War, the Crimea and in a thousand imperial skirmishes. All that technology has done over the years has been to extend the range at which some people can engage the other side. Nevertheless, there always remains the imperative for someone to close with the enemy and bayonet him if necessary. When it comes down to it, war is a nasty, vicious gutter fight where you try to exploit any advantage to gouge the other side’s eyes out. In spite of the onset of technology, men still fight each other with clubs and pointed sticks. The mortar shells soon came crashing down, mostly where we wanted them. Corporal Foster had done a good job and none of our people were hit. But Alasdair was having trouble getting artillery. Artillery is allocated according to priorities. The original plan gave X Ray priority for our attack on the southern Sister. This would then switch to Zulu and Yankee when they started their attack. Since the shooting had actually started first on Zulu’s attack, the priority had switched to the northern Sister before we had fired a shot. Because we had been late arriving on the objective, the batteries were now all engaged on the other Sister. It was nobody’s fault, although Alasdair was feeling pretty frustrated. It was just another change in plan. I asked Corporal Foster to repeat the mortar stonk. But then the mortars struck problems as, with the recoil, their baseplates disappeared into the bog. The nature of the topography had dictated the siting of the mortars and they were firing at the limit of their range and on maximum charge. The ground consisted of peaty, soft soil mixed with boulders. In spite of extensive preparation of the baseplates, the mortars ended up bending two bipods and buckling three or four baseplates due to the forces involved.
Brigade Headquarters striking camp. But the ground and the weather was typical for us all. (Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum)
Meanwhile, the mortar troop was able to support us with one solitary mortar instead of six, while they dug out the baseplates. In retrospect, I should have tried harder to wrestle some artillery support from Commando Tactical Headquarters. Over a thousand rounds of artillery were eventually fired during the Two Sisters battle by 29 Commando and not one of which was fired in support of X Ray. At this moment, Caröe’s men could have done with something to keep the Argentines’ heads down as they closed with them up the hill. But hindsight is the only exact science. The Sergeant Major’s heavy weapons group out to the left might have been able to support a fight on the lower reaches of the hill, but up here it was too steep for them to be able to help. I ordered another fusillade of Milan anti-tank missiles, and two or three came in as before, smack on target. Several more missiles came crashing in at the extremity of their range during the course of the battle. Being a wire-guided missile, there was a risk that if we fired it beyond the range of the wires they would snap and the missile could go rogue amongst ourselves. But since this, and one solitary mortar, was all the support we were going to get, it was a risk I was willing to take. I told Caröe to get up there and kill the enemy and he and his men went up the hill to the echo.
It was an impressive performance. Not only were the enemy using an anti-tank weapon, they now brought artillery down on our hill. Some shells landed among the rocks and exploded stone fragments as well as shrapnel. Others landed on the few bits of bog between the rocks. It was one of the latter which blew over Marine Howie Watson and Lance Corporal Montgomery. It picked them up and threw them several yards but miraculously they lived. Watson was deaf and stunned, with blood pouring from a shrapnel wound in his nose, but otherwise unharmed. Montgomery had dislocated his shoulder, but the skin was unbroken. In the course of trying to find a wound, Sergeant George Matthews cut through his shirt, a non-service issue Norwegian arctic garment which Monty had paid for himself. Later, he complained about the destruction of the shirt.
Caröe’s men picked and clambered their way round, up and over the rocks. It was like fighting in a built up area, or in a bombed city: two men cover; one jumps round or over; leapfrogging all the way. They stumbled across a number of bodies and bits of bodies. Our Milan missile strikes and our mortar fire had been on target. The Troop soon encountered two machine guns, near the top of the hill at the far side of a relatively open piece of ground. They were crossing a ridge line when the machine guns opened up from 200 yards away. The Browning on the saddle to their left opened up too. However, it is not unusual for inexperienced troops to fire high at night, especially when they are shooting downhill. This saved the lead section led by Corporal Frank Melia, the .5 inch bullets crashing over their heads, but into the area of my headquarters further down the hill, spattering Chaplain Wynne Jones with debris. The Troop was now pinned down and under artillery fire, which was also landing among my headquarters. When taking cover, some men found they had dived so hard into clefts in the rocks that they were wedged in and couldn’t get out again without removing their equipment. Bullet ricochets, shell splinters and fragments of rocks flew everywhere around my headquarters, so it felt as if we were in the thick of the battle too.
Moreover, Zulu and Yankee seemed to be stuck on the other Sister and were being hit by one of the .5 inch Brownings on the saddle near the top of our hill. We all seemed to be losing momentum. However, Corporal Melia noted with pride that his men were going through the correct contact drills, as his section automatically began to locate the enemy and deliver accurate target indication. As they continued to suppress the enemy and win the fire-fight, he considered his options for mounting an assault. He decided to crawl forward up a gully to his left to check his angle of approach. He had covered no more than 30 metres, when he heard Chris Caröe frantically calling him back. He quickly retraced his steps and discovered that Caröe was about to direct mortar fire on to the enemy position.
Chris Caröe, in an attempt to get things moving, took three men up another gully, including his radio operator Marine Graham Adcock who was correcting the fall of the mortar as he went, but they came back down again pretty quickly, pursued by bursts of tracer. Caröe then fired his tracer rounds at a target to show Marine Dave O’Connor, the GPMG gunner, an enemy gun location. After firing eight rounds no one had spotted the fall of shot. It was only the next morning, when he paced it out, he realised it had only been 90 metres to the target. Tracer starts burning at 110 metres.
The enemy machine gunners were clearly supported by a number of riflemen. The weapon the Argentine riflemen used was the Belgian Fabrique Nationale 7.62mm rifle, very similar to our own Self Loading Rifle. Theirs was a version which could fire on automatic. A burst of 20 rounds from a FN was not very accurate, but at such close range it didn’t have to be. The stalemate was eventually broken by Marine O’Connor and Marine Alex Gibb. A moment earlier Gibb had been ordered forward with his LMG by Sergeant George Matthews, to join the lead section. He had run forward in the face of machine gun bullets splattering the rocks around him. O’Connor, an experienced and skilled machine gunner, took his GPMG to an exposed position and, with Gibb, duelled it out with the Argentine machine gunner. O’Connor won. At the same time, Marine Nick Taylor took advantage of the distraction to fire a 66mm, hand-held anti-tank weapon at the machine-gun position. It went straight over the top followed by a sardonic cheer from the troop. Taylor threw away the empty and shouted for another, which was tossed to him. He fired and it hit close to the target; followed by more cheers, this time of approbation. The 66mm has a danger area to the rear of the weapon, where anyone caught in the back blast is liable to injury, and the men around Taylor were well within it. Their only course of action was to bury their heads in the rocks and stick their backsides in the air, twice. Fortunately the only damage was singed trousers. The machine gun stopped long enough for men of 2 Troop to sprint across the remaining 150 yards and get in among the rocks beneath the machine gun’s field of fire.
Now it was back to street fighting again. Caröe called for his 2-inch mortarman to put some rounds down. The firing pin broke after the first round. It seemed that mortars and X Company were just not meant to be. Chris Caröe then called Marine Adcock and Marine Gibb to follow him, as the rest of Corporal Frank Melia’s section put down a hail of fire. All three sprinted the last 70 metres to the gun position and saw the last defenders running away down a gully to the right. Alex Gibb fired off a magazine of the LMG and Caröe followed that with a grenade. There was a scream of pain and, the following morning, a rifle covered with blood was found with a trail of blood leading across the rocks down the hill, but no body. The rest of the troop then worked their way up to join Caröe, Gibb and Adcock, clearing bunkers they found on the way. Adcock spotted a camp of tents below and to the left of the position and two grenades were thrown, after which it was left alone as the climb down was unclear and steep in the dark. Although the immediate position was cleared, the Browning on the saddle was still in action. Caröe ordered two more 66s and the firing stopped. At dawn, a severely wounded Argentine soldier was found next to his .50 Browning. Soon those Argentines who could, withdrew, leaving hot machine guns and a number of dead and wounded. The remaining dug-in positions were cleared like rooms in a house. Typically this is done in pairs. One man throws a grenade into the bunker, another runs in firing his rifle, shouts ‘clear’, and on to the next one. This was a well-practised drill. Soon, in a snowstorm, some four hours after the battle had started, the men of 2 Troop cleared the peak of the Queen’s enemies at the point of the bayonet.
Royal Marines in HMS Fearless shortly before the assault
L to R: Sergeant George MacMillan and Lieutenant James Kelly (James Kelly)
Yomping. (Wynne Jones)
This was the ground that 45 Commando fought through, in a snow storm, in the dark. (Malcolm Duck)
A 155mm shell hole. The bog absorbed much of the impact, but when they landed in the rocks, shrapnel and rock fragments flew everywhere. (Author)
Argentine prisoners captured by Yankee and Zulu Companies on the northern Sister. (Malcom Duck)
Ian Gardiner after the Battle of Two Sisters. (James Kelly)
Ian Gardiner leading X Coy into Stanley 16 June 1982. (Alan Roberts)
The South Atlantic Medal, front and back.
Philip Mussell of Medal News describes the introduction of the first separate campaign medal for British service personnel since Korea.
The Falklands Conflict of 1982 saw the introduction of the first separate Campaign medal for British service personnel since Korea (although there is an argument for the Rhodesia medal of 1980 to be viewed as a Campaign medal – but that is another story). Prior to the South Atlantic Medal, as it is officially known, service in such conflicts as Malaya, Borneo etc. had been recognized with the award of clasps to be worn on a General Service Medal. The medal, which features the Arms of the Falkland Islands beneath the words 'South Atlantic Medal'
The South Atlantic Medal
Some 27,000 medals were awarded (7,000 to the Army, 3,700 to the Royal Marines, 13,000 to the Royal Navy, 2,000 to the RAF, 2,000 to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and 2,000 to the Merchant Navy and civilian) with those given to members of the Scots and Welsh Guards, the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines being particularly sought after. The Falklands conflict also marked two other medallic milestones: it saw the first awards of the Victoria Cross to British Soldiers since the Indonesia-Malaysia Conflict (both were awarded posthumously – to Lieutenant Colonel 'H' Jones of 2 Para and Sergeant Ian McKay of 3 Para), and the first ever posthumous awards of the Military Medal (to Private Richard Absolon 3 Para and Lance Corporal Gary Bingley 2 Para). Up until this point the Military Medal, which was instituted in 1916, had only been awarded to living recipients.

Further Reading

The Yompers
(Hardback - 224 pages)
ISBN: 9781848844414

by Ian Gardiner
Only £19.99

'Yomping' was revealed by the journalist Charles Laurence in 1982 as the word which the Royal Marines used to describe carrying heavy loads long distances on foot. Given the intense public interest in the dramatic events then unfolding in the South Atlantic, it caught on and is now in common usage. The Yompers is the first account to be written by a company commander who fought in the Falklands War. Called to action from their beds early on 2 April 1982, the author along with the rest of 45 Commando…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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