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TOO FEW, TOO FAR

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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, a small island several hundred kilometers east of the Falklands, where Royal Marine Section Commander George Thomsen would become a legend. Twenty-two Royal Marines engaged an overwhelming Argentinean invasion force. This is a description of their stand on South Georgia.

 

THE ALOUETTE

The steady throb of the warship diminished, muffled by the cliff face, her foaming wake crashing against the rock. Then another sound began to penetrate, drumming in and out of earshot with menacing familiarity. I scanned urgently. Where? A shout rang out from the other plateau.

 

I turned my head toward the sheds. But there was nothing. Then it came again, closer, louder. Rotors flashed above a rusting tin roof, bobbing up, then disappearing behind the buildings, an Alouette sweeping in low and fast, just feet above the water. After only seconds out of view, she reappeared, rising up, just a glimpse of rotors between the jumble of tin, going like a bat out of hell toward Grytviken. Bodies appeared, flitting between the tin huts by the jetty. The Alouette’s tail dropped from view behind the distant town rooftops.

 

She’d done her job. There would be six enemy below us, among the sheds, maximum. OK, they still had no idea of our positions. But now they were coming – in force. A few seconds passed and my eyes picked up their reinforcements.

 

A flash of blades in the sunshine gave the big machine away as she bobbed down between the mountain valleys then dropped low over the little church, before disappearing into our blind spot behind the sheds of the Point. Half a minute’s silence and she reappeared, loud and aggressive, full frontal, then swept round the huts over the jetty and hovered, thirty-feet up, above the helipad. Her blades slammed the air, smashing down onto the sparse vegetation below. She was a troop carrier: sixteen Marines plus air crew.

 

And worse, a gunship! A belt-fed heavy machine gun swung from the open side door, panning round menacingly. A helmeted head peered along the sights. Behind the gunner, pale faces of Marines crammed the fuselage. But what the hell was the pilot doing? The front came up and yawed like he was out on a day trip. It was a gift. If we allowed this machine to put down we had big trouble.

 

She was less than a hundred yards from Al Larkin’s position, side on and asking for it.

 

THE FUSE IS LIT

“HIT IT!” Mills bellowed.

 

Larkin’s gun barked twice. His 7.62s ripped through the Argentine gunner, throwing him back inside like a rag doll.

 

The fuse was lit. A cacophony of gunfire rent the air. Everyone opened up, filling the inside of the fuselage with hot lead. The pilot kicked the rudder, hauled the big machine round toward Brown ridge and hit the pedal.

 

She tilted and banked away. Sitting on the right, probably with an armoured seat back, he’d be farthest away from the hail of bullets.

 

Up on one knee in the wet grass, I took careful aim. The SLR kicked viciously into my shoulder, sending twenty rounds through the gaping doorway into the fuselage.

 

My adrenalin valve had opened wide, set itself on overtime, whacking pure fluid into my senses. Everything slammed into crystal-clear slow motion, like an action replay – every pull of the trigger a deliberate act.

 

The racket of automatic fire split the air asunder, punctuated by steel hammering through the thin body of the trapped machine, drumming like hail on a tin roof as bullets pierced and left, over the sound of our onslaught.

 

The gunship writhed in the sky, obscuring the doorway from my sights. Hundreds of rounds in a few short seconds had pumped into the butcher’s shop that had once been a cabin. I turned my attention to the flailing rotors and sent twenty rounds into the engine cowling beneath.

 

Bits of ally and steel rained down from her into the water beneath. Brum’s GPMG, fed feverishly by Brasso, barked and jumped on its bipod, sending arcs of lazy tracer across the water. The white-hot stars joined Chubb and Parson’s Light Machine Gun tracer, hammering through the ether from my left, and converged, as one, on the retreating machine, like deadly ribbons on a maypole.

 

GOT ‘EM!!!

Black smoke began to conceal our target.

 

“We got the bugger, Brum!” Brasso yelled through the din – between them they were pumping out a cyclic rate of 950 rounds a minute – then blew on his burnt fingers and linked another flailing ammunition belt.

 

The fizz and roar of a 66mm rocket joined the barrage, snaked across the widening gap, brushed the underside of the stricken gunship’s fuselage then fell somewhere beyond, exploding in a pillar of white spray.

 

She veered and wobbled just above the icy water, acrid smoke making patterns in the clear blue sky. I lowered my smoking barrel, released my finger from the warm trigger, slammed in another clip, and watched her crash on the other side of the bay like a broken toy.

 

Cordite tasted strong in the warm air. I ran a finger under my beret and wiped the sweat with the back of my hand.

The ‘day tripper’ pilot had made the far bank, maybe 1,000 yards away, before losing control and falling out of the air. The Puma lay on her side, rotors crushed with the impact, a crippled wreck, smoke rising like a funeral pyre in the bright sunshine. She was dead. Only the pilot could have survived.

 

Shouts rang out from the trenches.

 

“Yow. Wow-wow-wow. Yow. Wow-wow-wow.”

 

I raised my head above the grass. Brasso was yelping and dancing like a Red Indian, steel flashing in his hand.

 

His joy was short lived.

 

“Get your head down you daft sod.”

 

Small-arms fire cracked from the area of the sheds below us. He ducked back down behind the blocks of peat forming the trench’s crude parapet. Another few shots rang out. No sign of the intended target. No hiss of disturbed air or spurt of shale? Where the hell were the buggers? I squinted through the grasses, examining the jumble of sheds. A telltale puff of smoke would do.

 

DEADLY SILENCE

But there was nothing – not a movement. Seconds passed, then the waiting was broken.

 

“Jesus Christ. The daft buggers!” It was Brum, his voice urgent.

 

I looked across to his trench, then followed his line of vision. Adrenalin pumped.

 

There was movement now. The enemy were out in the open. Hidden from the bank of trenches on our right by the sheds, the party dropped by the Alouette was advancing along the beach toward the helipad – directly into our ‘killing field’.

 

From their positions among the sheds they would have seen the fire coming from the plateau on our right. The poor sods had no idea that we would guard the obvious line of approach. Whoever trained them should have been hung.

I hollered the command simultaneously with Pete Leach.

 

SHOOT EM!!!

“Don’t just bleeding look at ’em. SHOOT!”

 

The air was ripped violently apart. The gun jumped in Brum’s hands, eager to hurl its death load into the oncoming Argentine Marines, snatching, chewing up and spitting out smoking cartridge shells in a hail of bone-smashing lead.

 

It had been sighted to perfection. The beach was a slaughterhouse. Three bodies were thrown back with his first sweep. Bits flying off them. Weapons tossed from their hands. The spared ones dropped low and bolted for cover, tracer flicking behind them as Brum brought the GPMG back round. Legs disappeared behind the nearest shed to their ‘death ground’. Bullets lashed through its timber corner, splinters flying, showing white under the dark paintwork, and they’d gone.

 

The silence rang. Smoke rose from the GPMG. Brum put his hand behind his neck and eased his shoulders. “Should keep them a bit quieter.”

 

I picked up the sound of spent shells rattling in the bottom of the trench as he moved his feet. The quiet was not to last. The big noise had returned, drifting away then increasing, ominous, unseen, from behind the cliff face. I placed it fast. It was the Guerrico, her predator’s bow emerging once more from behind the screen of rocks.

 

BACK FOR REVENGE

“Here she comes lads.” But this time she was moving slower; maybe only a few knots.

 

“Arrogant buggers.” I heard Jock snap in another clip.

 

She came out steady, twenty, thirty, fifty feet – her 100mm gun once again swinging round toward the shore.

 

But this time it was business. She was back for revenge. A cloud of smoke left the recoiling barrel. A sound like an express train roared overhead, followed by an explosion as the shell smashed into the mountainside above Shackleton House. Around the bay the mountains joined in the game, the sound crackling from crag to crag like thunderbolts in a lightening storm.

 

Whoosh. Another, lower down, hammered into the scree. She hove into the bay, gradually leaving the concealment of the cliff face, firing shell after shell. 260 feet in and her tail left the cover of the rocks. Then the Bofors swung, yawed, and opened up, barrels pulsing like pistons in the bright sun.

 

Somehow they had guessed our position. Maybe the survivors from the first party had comms. Brum’s machine gun hammered back, lead spat from my SLR. They’d see us now by the gas from the reload chambers and the tracer. The grass buzzed and sighed around me, then a noise like a jackhammer on overtime hit the house, punching a line of fist-sized holes through the dark green wall.

 

I heard a jarring impact on the shale to the left, ground my body down into the turf, then it came again. Only lower. Closer. Wasps plucked at my windproof, some slamming into the trench parapet. Then back again, lower, thud, thud, thud, deep into the face of the ridge.

 

Shit and grass filled the air, obscuring the sun.

 

Whump, whump came from the ground beneath me. The trench had got it again. Then the hammering stopped and my neck crawled with dirt and debris sticking to the sweat as the air cleared around us.

 

“CEASE FIRING!” came screaming across the track from Mills.

 

We fell silent. The Guerrico steamed on. The Bofors stuttered, drilling lines a little farther down, sending up great clouds of choking dust and fragments of broken scree. The crew had now lost the little puffs of telltale smoke that gave away our positions – maybe they thought we were all dead.

 

I watched, mesmerised. Walking pace, her bow wave just a ripple, the sleek grey shape came closer, she was still not fully alongside us.

 

“Come on then, you bugger,” drifted through the grasses. The bofors raked back again, peppering the house, the sound of smashing glass joining the murderous onslaught. Another shell flashed and burst on the mountain wall.

 

I raised my head. Across the water a chopper had set down near the distant cemetery enclosure, black shapes dropped, then slipped away fast into cover.

 

Still the warship closed, Bofors belching flame, slamming lead into the shale pile behind the trenches on my right.

 

Sweat tingled on my spine. Mouth dry, I echoed the call from the trench. Yeah come on, you arrogant fool.

 

“Wait for it lads” came the shout.

 

The front bridge windows became oblique and the Guerrico’s flank slipped along until she was parallel with my vision. She was as close to the shore as the channel allowed. She could come no nearer. She was directly alongside our positions.

 

“FIRE!!!” screamed out.

 

THE GATES OF HELL SWING OPEN

Mills had timed it to perfection. The gates of hell had swung wide and the ship was in.

 

Pure adrenalin pumped through my veins.

 

Every weapon on the plateau let loose a hail of British fury, smashing like a hundred rivet guns into the aluminium flank of the mighty ship. Her head was in our noose. The giant front-mounted gun swung and traversed uselessly. I pumped half a magazine through the windows on the side of the bridge. A short burst from her Bofors thumped under my body, lifting the ground, sending up a cloud of choking debris.

 

I wiped grit from my eyes and raised my head, levelling my sights again.

 

Brasso was feverishly ripping open ammo boxes. The snake of Brum’s ammo belt jumped and writhed as he held sustained bursts. Tracer after tracer disappeared deep into the belly of the trapped leviathan.

 

My finger caressed the trigger. Five, six more rounds into the Exocet launchers. I thumbed sweat and muck from the corner of my eye and repositioned my rifle.

 

Bodies rose across the track. I slammed in another clip. The torsos of Dave Combes and John Stonestreet emerged through the haze of cordite.

 

Combes had the Carl Gustav 84mm tank-busting rocket launcher on his shoulder, its stand hanging limp at his chest, one hand on the front grip, the other wrapped around the pistol grip. John cracked the venturi chamber shut, inches behind Dave’s right ear and dropped on one knee. From all around them, sustained gunfire slammed into the armour plating of the spitting Bofors. Combes raised the drainpipe barrel, head tucked in tight to the iron sights.

 

Waited, still as a statue. Pull the trigger! Flame roared from the venturi and the missile left the rifled tube in a frenzy of tortured light. My eyes followed the deadly warhead, streaking up, high into the blue sky across the frozen sunlit brine.

 

The ship was at maximum range and moving, but Combes was an expert. Coming down in a shallow arc, the Swedish armour-piercing rocket sliced wickedly into the hull like a monstrous can opener, punching a great gaping hole in her dull grey plates.

 

“YES!”

 

A deep booming explosion shook the vessel from bow to stern. Indian war whoops and triumphant cheers joined the smoke and grit hanging like a low cloud in the mild Antarctic air. I closed my left hand around the familiar wooden grip and rested the warm stock against my cheek.

 

Next Month: Part II

 

Too Few, Too Far is available from Casemate Publishing, www.casematepublishing.com, 159 pp., $34.95,

ISBN 978-1848680968