TOO FEW, TOO FAR - PART II
The Falklands War of 1982 was one of the defining conflicts of the decade. The United Kingdom fought a war practically on its own thousands of miles from home. However, the conflict spread wider – and included the island of South Georgia, where Royal Marine Section Commander George Thomsen would become a legend. Part II continues with the bloody battle.
THE GUERRICO CIRCLES TOWARD BROWN MOUNTAIN
All the while, the Guerrico had been constantly on the move. Slowly her razor bow had turned in the pool of the deep harbour, circling out toward Brown Mountain, as far away from our puny weapons as she could sail. First port side on to the rusting dockside, before facing us head on, showing her sleek predator lines, until her port side had swung obliquely into view and she was facing the channel once again.
She was in clear view now, maybe 750 yards away. But would she stay or try to leave? If it was the latter, then she would need to pass King Edward Point, which would once again hide her briefly behind the jumble of tin sheds, before she came into full view again in the narrow deep channel, close in to our positions. It was the route she must take to reach the cover of the rocks once more at Hope Point – her only way out.
But she appeared to have stopped dead. She was stationary in the water – not a sign of movement. So what the hell would she do now? Everyone around me watched and waited.
Minutes ticked slowly by, then came a white ribbon of movement in the water at her bows and it was clear to us that the captain had made his decision. The warship was beginning to move in our direction. She was off...
Black smoke belched from her funnel. The captain either had balls, or was a bloody idiot, but he had made his decision. The Guerrico would run our gantlet.
MAGS RATTLED THROUGH THE GRASS
Feet pounded behind me. Pete Leach’s broad back melted into the shadow of the long green house. Ammunition mags rattled and snapped through the grass.
The Guerrico’s captain gave her full clog. White foam boiled. Her stern dropped and the bow began to eat water. On she came, into our maelstrom of lead. Every “small arm” on the northwest ridge hammered out a renewed hail of lead, peppering her hull and superstructure with a thousand lacerations as she powered toward us.
Behind and above me, Pete Leach had taken position with his sniper rifle, just inside the glassless corner window of the house. Above the thunder of our weapons came the sound of his L42’s free-floating barrel, barking its deadly song. The front port window of the fleeing warship disappeared, the sound of smashing glass penetrating the roar of our onslaught.
Crack! Followed by the thump of impact! Death left the barrel again. The next window flew inward like the last. Pete could put a hole in the centre of a man’s forehead at 1000 yards. Inside the bridge would be carnage.
Her bow sliced behind the tin huts of the point. She was doing thirty, spewing great clouds of diesel smoke, laying it behind like a cloak. White water, spraying high in rainbow droplets, leapt from her forward plates.
SCREAMING LIKE A WOUNDED SEA MONSTER
For a few seconds she was almost completely obscured from view. Then the high bow wave reappeared from behind the tin shacks, flat out, going for broke, into the channel between the two points and she was alongside once more. Belching black fury, her diesels were screaming like a wounded sea monster, screws torturing the frozen brine in a bubbling storm of panic.
My shoulder pumped with the action of my SLR emptying the chamber into her flank.Another mag – where the hell is it? – slammed in.
Whack, whack. More lead through the bridge side window.
Above the thunderstorm of flying lead, the rivet gun noise had kicked back in with a vengeance. Like a hundred hammers beating out a tuneless tattoo, the noise of striking bullets and shattered glass came back to us through the murderous din.
Thump. Crash. Another pane fell from the house behind us. The L42 barked again. Nearer. Pete had moved position.
We poured in more lead.
The Guerrico bellowed on, the stench of cordite hanging low, choking.
I dragged a sleeve across my eyes and caught a familiar movement across the track. There, through the smoke, blinding flashes and puffs of ejector gas, was Combes – as cool as before, Carl Gustav rock solid on his shoulder, our last killer punch in the tube.
“GO ON MY SON!”
The drainpipe barrel bucked into the haze.
Flame shot from the venturi, past Stonestreet’s left shoulder. The thunderbolt left the tube in a roar of smoke and sparks. Transcending the noise of our puny weapons, the Carl Gustav 84mm savaged the air like an avenging Valkyrie, winging across the sky in relentless pursuit.
The Guerrico was going like an express train. But there was no escape. The armour-piercing rocket slammed into the sinister twin Exocet launcher, abaft the funnel, exploding in a flash of white light and a noise like rolling thunder.
“YES!” She bucked and shuddered like a live animal.
Bloodlust was up. Neat adrenalin hammered through my veins. Banshee shouts and Red Indian war cries filled the choking air. But still the Guerrico hammered on, listing to starboard. Grey smoke curled and licked down her side, then trailed behind with her belching diesel exhaust, mixing and swirling into the great valley of her foaming wake.
Below me, amongst the sheds, pinpoints of automatic fire and telltale flashes of ejector gas drummed out a warning. Lead zipped past, rattling the timber thirty feet behind me like a demented woodpecker.
A GPMG from the farthest trench hammered back, cutting a swathe of death through the nearest hut. Glass, tin and splinters, filled the air. A cloud of dust rose like smoke, hiding the alleyways and drifting into the shadows.
Clip empty, I dropped the gritty timber stock from my cheek and snatched up a replacement. Air rushed above my beret. A line of bullet holes ripped into the house, zip fastener straight, running up the wall at a 45-degree angle.
A boot hit a window just feet away from the new scar. The pane flew out, seemed to hang in the air, flashed in the sun, dropped, and shattered on the glass-littered shale path beneath. The noise of impact joined the firestorm – Pete Leach was following the ship in her path of flight.
Snap, clip in, I brought the rifle back to the side of my face.
The Guerrico’s speed was terrific. She was closing fast now on the shelter of Hope Point rocks.
Two more shots in quick succession sang out from the upper floor of the house.
Then, flank full onto the monument ridge, Chubby and Parsons had her once more full in their sights. Armour piercing tracer poured into her hide, joining our ribbons of stars, hosing through the acrid smoke that was belching and obscuring her foaming stern.
Still she motored on. The great curl of her bow wave finally reached the crag and slid like a scimitar behind the steel grey cliff face.
In seconds the rest of her had dragged itself in and behind, and all we were left with was the foul smell of diesel exhaust, the crash of her wake on the shore, and the cloud of her passage settling low onto the icy pool of Grytviken harbour.
A FLOATING WRECK
I reached into my webbing, found my flask, took a pull, swilled round and spat out. The Guerrico had come in roaring like a lion, a complete modern warship, with enough hardware to take out a town. She was now no more than a floating wreck.
I pulled back from the parapet of the ridge, away from the trajectory of intermittent enemy fire still dribbling up from the sheds, and jinked through the tough grass to the edge of the trench. The quiet between the pops and cracks of small arms whined its tinnitus whistle loud in my ears.
On my right, guys were moving about urgently on the main ridge. I dropped down next to the damp pit.
“Don’t knock then.” Jesse looked up, running his sleeve along the black plastic stock of his rifle.
“Bugger off. Everyone alright?” I scanned around. I could see they were.
Jesse licked his thumb and forefinger and began to carefully clean his front sight.
Brasso grinned, pulling up the great axe from under a thick pile of spent cartridges, some still smoking.
Brum squinted up from the machine gun, eased his neck, looked across at me and nodded. “Yeah, we’re OK, Nige Peters ain’t though, old son.”
“Damn.” I dropped my grin. “Bad?”
SMASHED TO BLOODY BITS
“Bad enough. Word came across the track just now. He only stood up with that bleeding 66mm rocket launcher, just after Combesy whacked the bastard. Belgian automatic they reckon. He took two through his upper arm. Smashed to bloody bits.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Morphine?”
“Keep him going for a bit won’t it?” He shook his head.
“Aye. That’s about all.”
Field dressings, morphine, a rudimentary understanding of first aid, and that was it. I pictured our escape route. It would be torture for him.
“ If it’s as bad as you say, the poor sod needs a doc’ quick.”
Eight thousand miles from home – fat chance.
THE SHADOW OF DEATH
“Tell me about it.” It was Brasso. “If he don’t get it, and we make a run for it, he won’t last more than a few days.” He wiped his chin with the back of his hand.
“When the morphine runs out the pain’ll bloody kill him.”
Nobody spoke for a few seconds.
“If that don’t... the bloody gangrene will,” Jesse said quietly, looking up from his work. He wasn’t smiling.
Didn’t have to spell it out. The festering wound wouldn’t go away without medical care. We all knew it. Gangrene was a bastard way to die.
There was still not even a breeze to stir the stalks around us, or to brush the surface of the harbour waters. In no time the deep pool had slipped back to its impersonation of an azure blue mirror, as though the ship had been no more than a nightmare mirage.
Even the stench of her exhaust had begun to settle, seeping like a ghost into the grit and the rock. The smell of the sea and kelp began to faintly permeate back through the grasses again, a backdrop scent – and a welcome one – to the stench of cordite and ejector gas.
The scene flickered in my peripheral vision, bringing my focus up and across to the far side of the harbour waters. Skimming along the line of Brown Mountain Ridge, another chopper appeared, the sound of her rotors echoing faintly in and out of earshot across the bay.
It was another drop. Throughout the conflict they had been scurrying back and forth, dropping off heavily armed assault troops, like extras in a crowd scene, playing second fiddle to the main event. Indistinct shouting drifted from the right hand trenches.
RIFLE FIRE SPIT THE AIR LIKE CRACKLING THUNDER
The Alouette was making for the same spot – the cemetery again. She slowed and put down.
A cry sang out from my right. Men dropped from the chopper and a barrage of rifle fire from the trenches on the main ridge split the air like crackling thunder.
I lowered my SLR and followed suit, aiming high and a few feet in front of the darting figures. They had to be fifteen hundred yards away, but in the absence of any other targets it would have to do. ‘If we can just pin them down ’til nightfall’ ran in my head over and over like a scratched record.
Whatever the plan, no way were they going to attempt to storm the thousand yards of exposed path running along the side of the bay, between our positions and the capital. For that matter neither were we.
No. For now, keep them holed up in the ruins of the town and deal with the events as they unfold. However, one thing we could be fairly sure of was that it was unlikely that they would be coming for us now, either by air or by sea.
Narrowing my eyes, I scanned across the body-littered foreshore, to the smoking pile of the helicopter gunship on the far bank, then out through the mouth of the bay toward the Guerrico. She had reappeared from behind the rocks of Hope Point, listing to starboard and about half a mile out to sea.
A mile behind her and to one side, the Bahia Paraiso still lay watching, as she had throughout the conflict. The Alouette, having left the ridge, was now a tiny dot and closing in on her fast. I looked away and turned my attention back to the tell tale ghosts of smoke emitting from the deep shadows between the distant rusting buildings. I raised my sights, took careful aim, then the thunderbolt struck.
The express train was back. Ripping the air asunder, a shell roared overhead, smashing into the mountain wall, high up with ear-splitting fury, echoing and crackling back from the white crags enclosing the bay. Blinding light, debris and smoke rumbled down the edifice.
Cries and shouts of “COVER!” drifted through deafened ears. I found it hard to focus.
Shouts mingled as one. Jesse tugged my sleeve and pointed.
Out to sea, a pinprick of light and smoke illuminated the Guerrico’s crippled front gun.
HOWLING DEMONS RENT THE AIR
She’s bleeding shelling us! I thought we’d banjaxed the bastard!”
Howling demons rent the air. Lower. Four high explosive shells jack-hammered deep into the rock face. Stone rained down, clattering onto the roof of the big house, grit landing amongst us like hail.
“But the bleeding gun’s jammed.” Brum raised his eyes above the parapet.
“Yeah,” Jesse spat out, “but look at the bastards. Look what they’re bloody doing.”
The Guerrico was on the move. Her stern boiling white water as she dragged herself farther out to sea.
“They’re going to shunt the wreck around till they’ve got our range, ain’t they?” Jesse’s face wore a grim smile.
“Those first shots will give them a bearing, I reckon. Then once they get it right,” he squinted across the sunlit water at the manoeuvring warship, “they’ll be dropping em’ bloody right on top of us.”
Minutes went by, punctuated by the crack of small arms from the point and the whirr of the distant Alouette, once again on its way back along the snow capped ridge.
The Guerrico had stopped dead in the frozen water again.
I watched, fascinated. Jesse had guessed her intentions. The bastards were determined. Bright flashes of light left her forward gun.
Armour-piercing shells tortured the air. They hammered overhead at arm’s reach, above the ridge, missed the house and struck home into the solid wall of rock, four in a row, twenty feet lower than the first shells. Adrenalin pumped – thump thump in my ears – to the violence of the multiple thunderclap. Sound drifted away to silence, then came clamouring back, screaming through my head, like a thousand alarm bells. Smoke and dust choked the air.
MAKING READY FOR ANOTHER SALVO
In slow motion, the ringing in my head dissipated and the atmosphere began to clear around us. Through the haze, I watched the crippled ship as she yawed, ultra-slowly across to port, white water boiling from her props, then carefully began to ease about. Her movements were calculated, purposeful and sinister. Whoever was now in command was taking his time, making ready for another salvo.
Indistinct shouting sounded from the grasses thirty feet behind the trench. Someone was trying to call a message up to Pete Leach. The Sergeant Major’s voice came back through the shattered building behind me, then seconds later a door crashed open and his parade ground yell sounded from the porch.
“COVERING FIRE!” bellowed above the rattle of an enemy automatic. Keeping low, the heavy L42 in his fist, Pete jinked across the track toward Mills’ trench. Brum’s machine gun kicked eagerly. Lead spat from every weapon on both ridges. This would be it then. Mills must need to discuss our next move.
Four more shells hurtled overhead.
“Right Jesse lad!” I shouted over the din. “I reckon it’s time we put some mortars in.” I nodded down to the cluster of buildings nearest the jetty.
Muzzle flashes from Belgian automatics had been getting closer, steadily moving up through the sheds. They were close enough now, hopefully, all in the vicinity of the nearest buildings. A mortar amongst them should achieve maximum damage with one salvo.
I heaved the short black tube up from where it lay besides its casing in the wet grass, ran a finger round the inside of the rim and calculated the trajectory. The ‘2-inch’ had a maximum killing range of around 300 yards. But the sheds were less than half that distance.
The sound of boots thumped through the grass behind me, and I turned from setting up the directory of the tube to see Pete hammering back towards the porch.
Jesse piled out a couple of 900-gram smoke and a pile of heavier high explosive bombs. Smoke would get us our range, then onto rapid fire – we could sling them down at eight rounds a minute.
“READY!” I shouted. Automatic fire zipped overhead, smashing splinters from the corner of the house. Jesse raised his head again, jaw clamped shut, and grinned evilly across.
MILLS IS HIT
Kneeling, with the tube dug in and angled just off the vertical toward the point, and with left-hand fingers wrapped around the black steel, I lifted the smoke canister and brought it up to the tube, then stopped.
“WHOA!” Came a shout from behind me. I spun round.
“You’ll hit Mills!” Pete Leach was at the corner window of the house, face smudged with dirt, red with exertion. Then more shouting came to my ears, drifting across from the main ridge, and all around us the sound of gunfire abruptly ceased.
“What?” I dropped my arm and rested the base of the smoke bomb on a patch of shale between the tussocks. What the hell was going on? “Where is he, then?”
“Down there.” The big man angled his head toward the slope below us. My eyes traversed the battleground and caught a movement to the right. Mills, SMG strapped across his back, came into view, walking purposefully, dead centre down the puddled track past the bungalow-shaped building nearest our ridge.
“What the hell!” He left the cover, stepped out into the open killing ground at a steady pace, and kept walking.
Every head on the plateau turned toward the lone figure. No sound of movement left the trenches; not even a breeze rustled the tall grass. The silence dropped down around us under a heavy cloak of unreality. Seconds crawled past.
The diminishing figure came level with the helipad. He walked on without a glance, passing its crumbling sheet of concrete, and stepped on into the final hundred yards of stony outcrop that separated him from the deadly cluster of sheds on the point.
He couldn’t have.
WE’RE SIX NIL UP!
I looked round at Pete. Shook my head. “Tell me he hasn’t?”
“He bloody has!” Leach’s eyes shone down from the gaping hole of the window, like angry black coals. “He’s only gone and bleeding jacked it in already.”
I felt my mouth hanging open and clamped it shut. Realisation of Pete’s reply hit home, like a physical blow. “Bollocks. We’re six nil up! Winning hands down, man.” The distant figure of Lieutenant Mills disappeared amongst the clutter of sheds.
Pete nodded, his eyes drilling me across the gap, a slit of a smile above his powerful jaw. “I know. But he’s the boss, George. His decision. We go along with it.” Shifting his big frame from the opening, he moved back into the shadow of the room and disappeared once more into the darkness of the pockmarked house.
A string of expletives erupted from the trench. Adrenalin still flowed like blood. The warrior spirit was up. To end it now seemed like a betrayal.
I laid the tube of the mortar back down in the grass, next to its gaping case, and handed Jesse the smoke bomb. He took it with a wry smile, shaking his head, breathing heavily down his nose. Fragmented emotions banged around in my skull.
HE’D DONE IT!
Five minutes clawed by, lead-heavy with silence, before Mills reappeared, surrounded by Argies. He stood in the open, away from the deep shadows between the sheds, surreal in the sunshine, signaling with both arms for us to come down.
Stunned seconds ticked... The message kicked in – he’d done it.
“Is that poxing it then!?” Brum spat the words.
Jesse and Brasso scowled down the track, cursing.
“Bloody looks like it,” I nodded, anger and resentment boiling. “Best head off. Get yourselves down there.”
I tried to focus on what we were being ordered to do. A feeling of unreality swam around in my senses. This couldn’t be happening. Some of our guys were already on the gravel track, closing in on the nearest building. Jock walked by shaking his head. Jesse and Brum, grim faced, clambered out of the pit and followed.
Brasso was the last to leave. “See you down there George.” There was no grin. He heaved himself up to ground level, his Arctic windproof hanging open. Two hand axes flashed from his webbing like a sharp-shooter’s handguns. He’d meant what he said... I‘d never doubted him.
SHADOWS MARCH BEFORE THEM
I peered down into the shadow of the trench wall. The giant fire axe reclined in the sharp front corner by the spent ammo boxes. There was no sign of the wet peat forming its floor. Just a carpet of empty brass shells.
Porter, Church and Daniels joined the thin speckled line, dropping down the curved slope toward the level ground of the foreshore. Their shadows marched before them. Twice their height in the early low sun, pointing like dark accusing fingers, arrow straight toward the ruined capital, Grytviken.
“Oi! Anything been happening while we’ve been away?” The unmistakeable sound of Chubb’s voice broke into my thoughts. He was walking past the house with Steve Parsons, running his fingers over the craters and bullet holes.
“Not a lot.”
“Typical. We’ve been fighting a bloody war up there, while you dozy lot have been day-dreaming.”
“Wondered what the noise was.” I tried to force a grin, but my face would have cracked.
The trademark low laugh drifted down. “Course you did. Can’t stop. Got to run. Shall I tell our new friends to expect you?” He inclined his head and spat toward the foreshore, where dozens of Argentine special assault troops were lining up the men.
“Yeah.” My eyes dragged back to the beach, still unable to believe what was happening. “Buggers. Get the beer on ice, man.”
Boots scrunching on the glass and loose shale, the two Marines headed for the track.
The door of the dark green house opened and closed, clicking heavily on its weatherproof catch. The noise drew me round to peer into the darkness of the porch. With Chubb and Parsons gone I’d thought I was alone, but a shadow moved and Pete Leach walked out into the sunshine.
“All gone, George?” Tiger bright eyes glared past me at the line of Royal Marines gathering on the beach.
“Aye. Chubb and Parsons have just gan’ down.” Their heads disappeared below the level of the plateau as they dropped down the steep incline toward the level track.
“Well, best we make a move then, get it over with.” He forced the corners of his mouth up, then pulled a bottle of spirits from each of his side pockets. “Come on, things are never that bad.” He continued, “time to go home.”
I watched his broad back as he crunched off across the shattered window panes, leaving me alone on the ridge.
Then a movement caught my eye. It was the bow wave from a landing craft, flashing in the sunshine as it ploughed through the frozen water, rounding Hope Point. Black Argy helmets showed above the high sides. The boat then turned and began to close on our spit of land. With the ceasefire in operation the reinforcements in the troop carrier would be heading toward the easiest place to disembark – and that would be the low square jetty.
THE POWER OF LIFE AND DEATH
I left it to its steady approach and lowered my eyes to the promontory of land spread out below me. On the landward side of the jetty, Argentine troops, dropped by chopper during the battle, appeared from the tight cluster of sheds and began to mass on the foreshore of the stony beach.
On cue, a new chill breeze stirred from nowhere and began to pick at the long grass. I swore, pulled up my collar and made to leave. Then another movement dragged my eyes down.
In front of me, two feet below the parapet of the trench, hung the white plastic double light switch. Suspended by its tangle of coloured wires, it was swinging... gently, enticingly, a hair’s breadth from the blood-red handle of the great axe.
The switch held the power of life and death. One flick and the deadly payload of harpoon heads and scrap iron, wrapped around our hidden mines, would blow the landing craft out of the water and cut down the enemy on the beach, like a scythe through corn.
If I used it now, there would be indiscriminate carnage. Our guys were down there too.A cold blast buffeted in, chucking a cloud across the sun’s face. The colour drained from the land. I laid my rifle down in the tall grass and began the long walk down.
Too Few, Too Far is available from Casemate Publishing, www.casematepublishing.com, 159 pp., $34.95, ISBN 978-1848680968