For weeks the soldiers of Britain’s famed Scots Guards regiment had snatched sleep amid bone-chilling winds in holes that repeatedly filled with freezing water. Men were suffering from frostbite and trench foot, and rations were running low. Adding to their miseries, on this particular day they had come under intense artillery shelling. While this might well describe a scenario from World War I, the date was in fact June 13, 1982, and the trenches in which the British troops huddled were carved not across some stretch of French countryside but into near-frozen tundra by the base of Mount Tumbledown in the subarctic Falkland Islands.
Despite the challenges, morale was high, for the British troops were preparing to end their misery by driving Argentine forces from the rugged escarpment before them. The guardsmen had been told the enemy force comprised young, ill-equipped conscripts who would scurry at the first muzzle flash. They had been grievously misinformed.
The fight for Mount Tumbledown was the last battle in a conflict that was, by modern standards, a “small war”—and to many an unnecessary one. In the words of one veteran of Britain’s elite 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (2 PARA), the war was “short, sharp and very nasty” and, often fought at close quarters with bayonets and grenades, “like something out of World War I.” Soldiers on both sides had little understanding of, or appreciation for, either the causes or the stakes; regardless, the battles were no less fierce, the deaths no less senseless, than those suffered in conflicts of greater global import.
The actual fighting lasted only a matter of weeks but claimed more than 900 lives. It was fought over a territory whose ownership had been in dispute for more than two centuries. The Falkland Islands—an archipelago in the South Atlantic comprising two large islands and 776 smaller ones— lie a few hundred miles off the coast of Argentina and nearly 8,000 miles from the United Kingdom. After colonial conflicts with France and Spain over the islands, Britain claimed sovereignty in 1774, landed troops to reassert its dominion in 1833 and formally established the Falklands as a Crown colony in 1840. The successive governments of Argentina had felt the islands to be theirs, however, and over the decades had lodged a series of formal—and wholly ineffectual—protests.
In 1982 the notoriously oppressive and much-beleaguered military junta that governed Argentina saw the seizure of the Falklands as an opportunity to distract its citizens from the many economic and human rights issues plaguing the country and to unite Argentines behind a self-justifying campaign. Thus on April 2—trumpeting the rationale that British control of the Falklands (or Malvinas, as they are known in Argentina) represented a throwback to the days of empire—commander in chief and de facto President Leopoldo Galtieri landed occupying forces in the Falklands’ capital, Port Stanley, and the next day on South Georgia in the South Sandwich Islands.
Galtieri and his most vocal war hawk, Admiral Jorge Anaya, were correct in their expectation of a patriotic surge; Argentines momentarily forgot the wildly inflated peso and the junta’s harsh policies to rally behind the occupation. But Galtieri was also gambling the British had long since lost interest in the Falkland and South Sandwich Islands and would look the other way. He could not have more completely misread the situation or the resolve of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Ironically, many Britons at the time had no idea where the Falkland Islands were, let alone that they were part of the United Kingdom. Secretary of State for Defence Sir John Nott himself later wrote, “I must confess that I wasn’t much aware of the Falkland Islands before the invasion…[and] was a bit horrified to see how far away they were.” Regardless, although the distant Falklands and South Georgia had long since ceased to be of commercial interest to the United Kingdom, they remained British dependencies, and the Ministry of Defence began immediate preparations for an all-out response to the invasion of the South Atlantic islands.
Within days of the Argentine occupation the Thatcher government—declaring the 1,800 Falkland residents to be “of British tradition and stock”—had established a war cabinet and begun to assemble a naval armada. Ultimately, the British task force grew to more than 100 ships ferrying 8,000 ground troops to face Argentina’s invasion force of some 14,000 soldiers. While the British boasted nearly three times as many ships, the Argentines held a 3-to-1 advantage in combat aircraft. Meanwhile, the United States, concerned Argentina might draw the Soviet Union into the fight as an ally, tried to stem the conflict diplomatically. When these efforts failed, and it became obvious war was unavoidable, Washington announced an embargo on arms sales to Argentina, while providing Britain with war materiel. Europe largely supported the British action; most of Latin America sided with the Argentines.
Two Royal Navy submarines soon surfaced off the Falklands, while other warships sailed out of various British ports, and requisitioned civilian transport vessels—including the Cunard Line flagship Queen Elizabeth 2—ferried ground forces to the islands. Due to the call for a swift response, transportation of troops to the war zone was, in some instances, haphazard at best. According to Lieutenant Robert Lawrence of the Scots Guards, QE2, which left Southampton on May 12, was “heavily overcrowded with the whole of 5 Brigade, Scots and Welsh Guards, Gurkhas and a lot of support units.…Every inch of space was used.” Two-person cabins housed four to five men, unit commanders utilized every stairway landing for training purposes, and soldiers regularly ran circuits of the liner’s top deck for exercise. By the time QE2 arrived off South Georgia two weeks later, a strike force of British Special Air Service (SAS) commandos and Royal Marines had already secured the island. The Falklands presented a more daunting challenge.
The fight for the Falklands officially commenced on May 1, when a long-range Royal Air Force Vulcan bomber dropped its payload on Port Stanley Airport, and Royal Navy Sea Harrier FRS1s shot down three Argentine aircraft. Nightly naval and aerial bombardment followed. Initially, naval action accounted for the greatest number of casualties, with heavy losses of ships and lives on both sides. The sustained landing of British ground forces began on May 21—seven weeks after the Argentine invasion— at San Carlos Water, an inlet on the west coast of East Falkland Island. From there 2 PARA was ordered to attack the Argentines at the Goose Green settlement. Once they had secured the western side of the island, the British would fight their way east to seize Port Stanley and effectively end the conflict.
The fight for Goose Green was a bloody affair. The 1,000- man Argentine defending force, though comprising largely untested conscripts, outnumbered the British paratroopers nearly 2-to-1. Both sides took casualties, with the PARAs giving much worse than they received. The battle seesawed for a full day and a night. Finally, the PARAs—despite the death of their charismatic commander, Lt. Col. Herbert “H” Jones—gained the upper hand. Cold, exhausted and running low on ammunition, the Argentines finally surrendered.
By mid-June, after grueling cross-country marches (“yomps,” in Royal Marine lingo) with full packs in bitter temps across the pitted Falklands tundra, British forces were within striking distance of Port Stanley, but they faced a strong defensive perimeter—a ring of hills occupied by dug-in Argentine army and marine units. At 750 feet, the most challenging objective was Mount Tumbledown, a collection of crags, slabs and boulders that constituted an ideal defensive position.
On the morning of June 13 helicopters flew the men of the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards, from Bluff Cove to a staging area near Goat Ridge, where they soon began to take heavy artillery and mortar fire. While awaiting orders, some of the guardsmen—many fresh from ceremonial duty in London and new to combat— asked a few of the elite PARAs, who had recently captured Goose Green, how the Argentines had performed in combat. One replied, “Get within 200 meters of them, and they’ll run away.” Only later did the guardsmen learn the PARAs had faced mainly poorly outfitted and trained teenage conscripts.
The Argentine force that waited on Tumbledown was another breed entirely. Mostly in their 20s, they were the men of the 5th Marine Battalion—highly trained and motivated troops with combat experience in the recent Argentine civil war. They were well provisioned, outfitted for the frigid weather and, in some instances, better equipped than the British. They also had been trained in night fighting—and despite the assurances of the British PARAs, they didn’t run. “They had had years of aggression,” Lawrence wrote. “They were well used to it. People like me, on the other hand, only weeks previously had been doing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace; not exactly the greatest experience for fighting a war on some godforsaken island in the middle of nowhere.”
In preparing for the British attack, the Argentine marines had dug an intricate system of bunkers, familiarized themselves with the terrain and established a plan for coordinated fire support. Backing them were six 81mm mortars, six 106mm mortars, a howitzer battery and two army artillery groups.
The British battle plan was straightforward and hinged on Scots Guards rifle units divided into three companies. First into the fight, G Company was to seize the western flank of the mountain. That done, Left Flank Company was to pass through the captured area and take the summit. Right Flank Company was then to advance through Left Flank’s zone and secure Tumbledown’s eastern flank. Two Royal Navy frigates—Yarmouth and Active—lay offshore to provide naval gunfire support.
The operation was initially planned as a daytime assault, but the climb was long and steep, over and around treacherous escarpments, and the soldiers would have made easy targets. Wiser minds prevailed, and battalion commander Lt. Col. Michael Scott set the assault on Tumbledown for shortly after dusk on the 13th. By that time British forces had taken nearby Mount Harriet, Two Sisters Ridge and—despite prolonged Argentine artillery fire and heavy casualties—Mount Longdon.
The first phase of the plan featured a diversionary maneuver. In the gathering gloom a force of some 30 Scots Guards of Headquarters Company, supported by four light tanks of the Blues and Royals, moved south toward nearby Mount William in a bid to draw the enemy’s attention. They soon stumbled upon Argentine trenches, and after an intense firefight in which two guardsmen were killed and four wounded, they withdrew—straight into an undetected minefield. Four more men were wounded when they set off mines, in turn giving the Argentines a clear target for mortars and artillery. Fortunately for the British, the shells nearly all landed in soft peat, which absorbed the blasts; otherwise, the result would have been catastrophic. Its mission completed, the diversionary force withdrew, in the process losing one of its tanks to a booby trap.
A half-hour into the engagement, shortly after 10 p.m., G Company commenced the assault on Tumbledown. To its great surprise the company met with practically no resistance and quickly secured its objective. Moving up, the men of Left Flank, however, soon found themselves engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with fixed bayonets. In the most ferocious fighting of the battle, seven guardsmen died while trying for the summit. The British fired antitank rockets at enemy positions, but the Argentines held, raining down mortar and machine-gun fire on the guardsmen. It was, Lawrence wrote, “out-and-out battle, the fullest possible fighting.” Throwing himself into the thick of the fight, Major John Kiszely, Left Flank’s commander, shot two enemy soldiers and bayoneted a third. Though repeatedly targeted, he miraculously suffered only a bullet strike to his compass. Kiszely was later awarded the Military Cross for his actions that night.
When a strategically placed machine-gun post stopped Left Flank cold, Right Flank Company made its way up the mountain in support. It was rugged going, over scree that gave way under the soldiers’ boots. As they climbed, they came upon unoccupied Argentine tents that contained boxes of highly sophisticated IWS (individual weapon sight) night scopes—“the absolute top grade,” recalled Lawrence, “more advanced than the ones we had ourselves. It made us wonder…what lay ahead.”
What lay immediately ahead for Right Flank was intense enemy fire. As the guardsmen attempted a flank attack on the Argentine machine-gun position, the enemy gun crew immediately shifted its attention from Left Flank to them. Danger came from all quarters, as the surrounding rocks ricocheted rounds in all directions. At the head of his platoon Lawrence “tried to make myself disappear into the ground, face down in the dirt.” Ultimately, he threw a phosphorous grenade directly into the enemy machine-gun position, halting the fire and netting the British several prisoners. This gave the guardsmen their first up-close look at their foes. The Argentine marines, noted Lawrence, “were wearing American-style uniform: big green parkas with webbing over the top.”
Throughout the fight the mountain was bathed in unearthly light as star shell illumination rounds fired by British naval vessels fell slowly to earth on parachutes, casting long, eerie shadows over the craggy landscape. Adding to the other-worldliness of the scene was a surprise blizzard that sent snow swirling around the silhouetted fighting figures.
As they struggled to regain their momentum and continue the ascent, the Scots Guards encountered sniper fire from Argentine soldiers concealed on the highest crags. One guardsman sought to scale a rock shielding an enemy sniper and was shot off it. In the face of such punishing fire, explosions and booby traps, the guardsmen struggled on toward the summit, one man advancing while another covered him. “I remember thinking,” wrote Lawrence, “that this was just like the movies.”
Around 2 a.m., after pausing again to regroup, the Scots Guards lashed out at the 5th Marines’ positions from several directions, overcoming them one at a time. Over the next three hours they captured all but three of the enemy foxholes.
The action continued through the night, and by the time the sky began to lighten, some of the guardsmen had run out of ammunition. Among them was Lawrence. Seeing an enemy soldier on the ground to his front, he bayoneted the man, later noting, “He spun wildly…and my bayonet snapped.” Using the only weapon he had, Lawrence recalled, “I stabbed him and I stabbed him, again and again, in the mouth, in the face, in the guts, with a snapped bayonet. It was absolutely horrific. Stabbing a man to death is not a clean way to kill somebody.”
Lawrence then picked up the dead man’s rifle, and using its IWS to enhance his night vision, shot a sniper and took that man’s weapon as well. By this time Lawrence was near the summit, desperately looking for an enemy administration and supply area. “Once we had taken that, we would have taken the whole mountain.”
As Lawrence reached the summit, other guardsmen from various platoons closed up behind and around him. As he gazed down at the lights of Port Stanley some 4 miles distant, an enemy rifle in each hand, a 7.62mm high-velocity armor-piercing round slammed into his head at 3,800 feet per second, destroying nearly 45 percent of his brain. Lawrence lay on the frigid ground for hours before a helicopter arrived to evacuate him and the other wounded. On returning to England, his first words on seeing his father, a retired Royal Air Force wing commander, were, “Oh, Daddy…it wasn’t worth it.”
Singly and in small contingents, the rest of the Scots Guards clawed their way to the summit. By 8 a.m., after what one British soldier referred to as “hours of struggle inch by inch up the rocks, using phosphorous grenades and automatic weapons,” Tumbledown was, for the most part, in the hands of the guardsmen. Fighting continued on the eastern flank of the mountain, but—low on ammunition and denied reinforcements—the Argentine 5th Marine Battalion was ultimately forced to surrender. By 9:45 a.m., some 12 hours after the first shot rang out, the firing ceased.
Meanwhile, the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles had bypassed Tumbledown to capture Mount William to the south, while the Welsh Guards seized Sapper Hill, and 2 PARA took Wireless Ridge. The road to the capital was open, the war virtually over. Still, the commander of the Royal Marines’ 42 Commando unit praised the beaten Argentine marines: “[They] marched smartly, holding their regimental colors high as they marched along the streets of Port Stanley.” The British coveted the enemy’s regimental flags, but to their disappointment the Argentines doused their banners with gasoline and burned them to ashes as their enemies watched.
Miraculously, Robert Lawrence survived but with permanent physical damage that includes partial paralysis. He was one of 43 British soldiers wounded on Tumbledown; nine had been killed. The Argentine marines had suffered at least 30 killed and 100 wounded. London’s Sunday Times later shared with its readers that on Mount Tumbledown “the Scots Guards were to face the toughest action of all. There a well-trained Argentine marine battalion was heavily dug into a series of intricate bunkers, cut in the rock.…The firepower of the marines was intense and impressive.”
For their performance in the battle, men of the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards, received two Distinguished Conduct Medals (one posthumously), two Military Medals, one Distinguished Service Order and two Military Crosses, one of which went to Lawrence. Two members of 9 PARA Squadron, Royal Engineers, received Military Medals, and a helicopter pilot who repeatedly risked his life to transport wounded from the mountain during combat received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the battle Pipe Maj. James Riddell of the 2nd Scots Guards stood near the rocky crest of Tumble- down, cradling his bagpipes to play a haunting quick-march he had composed to commemorate his regiment’s actions. He called it “The Crags of Tumbledown Mountain,” and it would become a staple at events featuring pipe music. His was not the only tune written about the Falklands campaign. Pink Floyd, Dire Straits and Elvis Costello, among others, also weighed in—but far from memorializing the war, their songs were an indictment of Britain’s actions.
Nor were they alone in their disapproval. Although Margaret Thatcher’s government rode a wave of popular sentiment into another term of office, many Britons continued to question the necessity of an armed conflict that had claimed the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British servicemen, as well as three Falkland Islanders, and left thousands more wounded over an ancient possession of questionable worth, thousands of miles distant, that few of their countrymen had even known existed. In a sense the casualty figures are misleading. According to the South Atlantic Medal Association (SAMA), a nongovernmental organization representing and supporting Falklands veterans, within 20 years of the end of the fighting an estimated 264 British veterans—more than had been killed in combat—had committed suicide, possibly as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s been no update to these figures over the last 13 years, or assessments of the numbers of Argentine veterans who took their own lives over what combat veteran Robert Lawrence remembers as a “short, bloody, wet and dirty” war, fought “on the edge of the world.”
Ron Soodalter has written for America’s Civil War, Civil War Times, Wild West and Smithsonian. For further reading he recommends Tumbledown: When the Fighting Is Over, by John Lawrence and Robert Lawrence; “Reassessing the Fighting Performance of Conscript Soldiers During the Malvinas/ Falklands War (1982),” by Alejandro L. Corbacho; and The Battle for the Falklands, by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.