by David Flin
In the previous episode, Our Hero and his comrades marched across the Islands.
Chapter the Fifth: In which Our Hero and his comrades capture the “undefended” Mount Kent; the Lieutenant sends a signal regarding this success; the journey continues.
Gentle Reader, in the last chapter, I described the SAS report that Mount Kent was unoccupied by the Argentine forces, and that we had been selected to take and hold this crucial outpost, doubtless because of the high regard for our professionalism (1).
I am afraid that I shall have to use a little bit of technical discussion to explain this next part. When taking part in a heliborne assault, it is most desirous not to have the enemy in possession of the landing site, for you have limited opportunity to defend yourself while they have ample opportunity to shoot at you. Furthermore, upon landing, you have to emerge in a tight group from an easily identifiable and open position, unable to deploy your full strength, while they are in concealed, scattered, and protected positions, and all of them are able to engage you. An opposed heliborne landing is a situation that rarely turns out well for those in the helicopters, especially when there is no supporting fire to persuade the defenders to keep their heads down. Furthermore, in this instance, there had been no opportunity to reconnoitre a landing zone, and we were dependent on the skill of the pilots to locate a suitable site by eye while flying in the dark.
Luckily, our SAS auxiliaries had assured us that they had examined the area, and had determined that it was clear of enemy forces. This was good, because our helicopters were each rated to carry a maximum of 10 passengers, and here, each helicopter was carrying over 20, taking red-lining to a new definition.
Imagine our surprise, Gentle Reader, when, as we approached Mount Kent, we saw evidence of the presence of a half-battalion of Argentine soldiers, against which we 45 Marines would have to prevail from an unpromising starting tactical position.
“Bother,” (2) quoth Sergeant Stone.
Fortunately, the noise of the straining helicopter engine drowned out the noise of the imprecations that were cast in the direction of the SAS patrol that had somehow missed the presence of several hundred troops. I’m sure that it was an easy mistake for them to make, but it did leave us in an inconvenient position.
Equally fortuitous was the fact that the Argentine forces did not pay any attention to our approach, apparently expecting resupply from their own forces, although we were approaching from the wrong direction for this. Upon landing, we quickly disabused them of that notion, and while we knew their numbers and could identify them swiftly through the silhouettes of head gear, they knew not our numbers, nor where we were, nor even whether the figures they could see were British or Argentine. They may have been full of patriotic spirit, but patriotic spirit does not sustain one’s courage or ability to operate when so taken by surprise, especially when poorly commanded and poorly trained.
After an exchange of firing, the Argentine forces decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and departed in an abrupt manner, apart from those who had been wounded or detained.
We prepared ourselves for the inevitable counter-attack. We were but a small force, and we had expended the greater part of our ammunition in driving the enemy from the position. Our Lieutenant checked on each of us briefly, before preparing to transmit a report to his superiors. I regret to say that we considered the report of the SAS patrol to have not been to the level of professionalism that one would desire.
The Lieutenant gave his report. “2 Troop, K Company, 42 Commando. We are in possession of Mount Kent, reported empty by SAS patrol. In possession of 87 Argentine POWs taken prisoner from empty Mount Kent. Estimated 300 Argentines driven off empty Mount Kent. No casualties, ammunition low. 45 Marines present. 41 rounds and 2 grenades remaining. Awaiting further orders. Regret too low on ammunition to capture further empty positions.”
In addition to the probable counter-attack, we also had a problem with the Argentine prisoners. We were outnumbered by our prisoners, we did not have the manpower to escort them to the rear, and we did not have anywhere to keep them confined. Even the simple and immorally evil solution was not available to us, for we had more prisoners than we had bullets. (3).
Luckily, the Argentine prisoners were still shocked by the fight, and had not the spirit to turn on their captors, for if they had, we would have been hard pressed. We waited, and presently a unit of Gurkhas arrived to take over our position, and escort our prisoners to the rear. (4).
We had time to partake of a brew of tea with the Gurkhas, and I must advise you, Gentle Reader, that Gurkha tea is not like tea drunk in England, for it is about half tea, and about half condensed milk, with the addition of several spoons of sugar and pepper. It is, I am advised, an acquired taste. While the taste of the cuisine may have been questionable, the warmth of the companionship between my comrades and the Gurkhas was unsurpassed, with great affection on both sides. The peals of delight when they learned that our Lieutenant could speak their tongue could have been heard back in England.
A helicopter arrived, bringing us ammunition and supplies, along with instructions for us to continue our advance eastwards, and to make our way to the approaches to Mount Harriet.
As we departed, several of us wondered why our Lieutenant and our Sergeant took great care not to be in direct line of sight of the Gurkhas. A moment later, some of us lacking the experience of the Lieutenant and the Sergeant gained wisdom, through the arrival on the fleshy part of the posterior of stones fired from catapults. A parting gift from our Gurkha comrades, and a jest taken in good humour. (5).
Still, at least my comrades had some new topics about which to complain, which they duly did. Extensively.
In Chapter the Sixth, Our Hero participates in night patrols preparatory to the assault on Mount Harriet.
1. And the fact that we happened to be right next to a couple of helicopters, and could get there quickest. It was pure chance. 2. Or a word to that general effect. 3. Never considered as an option, but under such circumstances, it is a thought that occurs to one. It’s wrong, and it’s rightly punished, but I would defy anyone to say that it is impossible to understand how it happens. 4. I’ve been told that the Gurkhas hadn’t arrived on the Falklands yet. Despite that, having spent two years in Nepal, I am able to recognise a Gurkha when I see one. When someone who looks like a Gurkha, who proudly carries a khukri, who tells me that they are a Gurkha, who speaks Gurkhali to me, and who wears a Gurkha cap badge arrives, I tend, rashly, to assume that they are a Gurkha. Nonetheless, the records indicate that they hadn’t yet arrived, so I am forced to conclude that we somehow willed them into existence. Gentle Reader, be advised that official records may, at time, be inaccurate. 5. MacDonald Fraser describes a similar incident in Quartered Safe Out Here (highly recommended), and I can verify that 40 years on, that tradition was still going strong. And believe me, you do take it in good humour. Incidentally, their tea in Nepal is even worse than described here, because Nepal is at a high altitude. As a result, the air pressure is significantly lower than at sea level, and therefore water boils at a lower temperature, and the tea isn’t brewed properly. But the Gurkha loves it.