Operation Rosario (Falklands/Malvinas War)

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On April 2, 1982, with an armed confrontation in the making between a platoon of British Royal Marines (under Lieutenant Keith Mills and Sergeant Peter Leach) sent to reinforce the British Antartic Survey (BAS) under base commander Steve Martin[1] and apprehend Argentine scrap-metal workers on South Georgia and their protecting Special Forces from the Argentinian Navy survey ship ARA "Bahía Buen Suceso",[2] Argentina invaded the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, a remote British colony in the South Atlantic. The Argentinian amphibious landings, Operation Rosario (under Rear-Admiral Carlos César Büsser, Argentinian Marine Corps Commandant), led to a brief, but costly war.

Background

Argentinian invasion plans accelerated when Britain protested about the presence of scrap-metal workers on South Georgia. With talks on the future of the Falklands stalled, the Argentinian Military Junta reacted strongly and by March 26, 1982, two frigates were on their way south, and more ships had put to sea ostensibly for exercises with the Uruguayan Navy. But it seemed that only now was the final decision taken to invade and they headed for Stanley although bad weather delayed their arrival. By March 31, British intelligence had to assume landings were imminent, Governor Rex Hunt was warned, and next evening he announced over the radio that invasion was expected early on April 2.

British defenders

Before the broadcast took place, the defence of Port Stanley was already being organized by the company-sized garrison of Naval Party 8901 (NP8901, all volunteers from 42 and 45 Commandos), under Major Gary Noote and Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF, Royal Marines-trained), under Major Phil Sommers. Usually consisting of 160 defenders, Majors Noote and Sommers, had been reinforced by Major Mike Norman and his platoon-sized garrison replacement that had disembarked from the RRS "John Biscoe". Assuming the main landing would be near Stanley Airfield followed by an advance on Port Stanley, Noote, Sommers and Norman deployed their 120 men accordingly, and positioned four sniper/anti-tanks squads on the Airport Road ready to fall back on the main 40-man position at Government House. By the early hours of April 2, they were mostly in position and the small patrol ship "Forrest" was out in Port William on radar watch. Governor Hunt also ordered the arrest of 30 Argentinian workers from Gas del Estado.

Argentinian landings

The plan was for the 1st Amphibious Commando Grouping (APCA) under Lieutenant-Commander Guillermo Sánchez Sabarots to attack both the NP8901 Barracks at Moody Brook and Government House to force a surrender, supported if necessary by men of Commander Alfredo Raúl Weinstabl's 2nd Marine Infantry Battalion (BIM 2) landed from ships of Task Group 40.1. Under the command of the 1st Marine Brigade commander, Captain Miguel Angel Pita, the Argentinian Marines had orders to cause no casualties "if at all possible".[3] Once Stanley Airfield was in Argentinian hands, the 25th "Special" Infantry Regiment (Army Rangers) and Special Operations Group (Air Force Commandos) would then fly in.

The first landings were before midnight with the 1st Amphibious Commando Grouping spearhead under Lieutenant Bernardo Schweitzer going ashore from the destroyer ARA "Santisima Trinidad" to secure Mullet Creek, followed early on Friday morning by a Buzo Tactico beach reconnaissance party from the submarine ARA "Santa Fe" to check out the main landing beach north of Stanley.[4] As the Amphibious Commandos secured their objectives the destroyers and frigates of Task Force 40 took up support and escort positions and the Tank Landing Ship ARA "Cabo San Antonio" headed in for the unguarded beach at York Bay.

Urban combat

From 6:00 a.m. the main Special Forces attacks and supporting infantry landings got underway. The larger body of Amphibious Commandos cleared Moody Brook and then headed east for Government House which by then was under fire from the spearhead under Lieutenant-Commander Pedro Edgardo Giachino. Giachino, Second-in-Command of the 1st Marine Infantry Battalion (BIM 1), was hit by small arms fire during the attack on Government House and died of his wounds, becoming the only Argentinian invasion force fatality that was treated at the local King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. Around 6:30 a.m., the first of some 20 LVTP-7 Amtraks with 20 or more Marines each inside were landing from "Cabo San Antonio" and by 6.45 am more Marines from the 1st Marine Infantry Battalion were coming into the airfield by Sea King helicopters. A 25th Regiment platoon under 2nd Lieutenant Oscar Roberto Reyes, having disembarked from VAO 010, cleared the Airfield buildings.

As the outnumbered NP 8901 and FIDF defenders fell back on Government House, one of the squads under Lieutenant Bill Trollope defending the Ionospheric Research Station on the Airport Road, stopped the Amtrack spearhead (VAOs 05, 07 and 019) with anti-armour weapons, machine-guns and sniper fire that wounded one Argentinian Marine, Private Horacio Tello.[5] The spearhead was brought to a halt by machine-gun fire hitting the driver compartment of 2nd Sub-Officer Anibal Edgardo Esposito and turret of VAO 7, forcing the machine-gunner, Corporal Osvaldo César Arce to take cover.[6] None of the occupants of VAO 7 were seen to emerge for 2nd Sub-Officer Víctor Quiroga under the guidance of Arce, manoeuvred the Amtrack off the road into a hollow in the ground and disembarked the Marines now hidden from view. But the Royal Marines were obliged to fall back as the Argentinian Marines emerged from the other Amtracks and 2nd Sub-Officer Mario Di Filippo's VAO 19 opened fire with a 72mm recoilles rifle, scoring a direct hit on the building.[7][8]

Only one Royal Marine squad under Corporal Lou Armour' managed to fight its way to Government House, the others were gradually overrun by the increasing number of Amtracks and Marines landed by the white-painted Sea King and Lynx helicopters.

British surrender

With daybreak and Government House surrounded, under sniper fire and the Amtracks approaching, Governor Hunt attempted to negotiate. Faced with the overwhelming forces at Rear-Admiral Büsser's disposal, he ordered the defenders to lay down their arms, which they did at 9:30 a.m. without having suffered any casualties. The Royal Marines had held out against two Argentinian Marine battalions and Special Forces for three hours, firing 6,450 small-arms rounds and 12 anti-tank rockets[9]in a firefight that cost the life of the 2ic of BIM 1 and wounded five invaders, including a military chaplain (Natalio Astolfo) and an Army NCO that stepped on a mine or booby-trap. According to one of Norman's men, Colour-Sergeant Bill Muir, "It was initially estimated that we had killed five and injured seventeen, but we only counted the bodies that we saw drop in front of us."

That evening, the Governor, his family and most of the Royal Marines and captured sailors from "Endurance" were flown out. Major Norman and his men volunteered to fight again with Juliet Company, 42 Commando, suffering four wounded in the final mountain battles.

South Georgia

On April 3, the 1st Marine Infantry Battalion captured South Georgia, 1,350 kilometres to the east of the Falklands. In that action, the Argentinian corvette ARA Guerrico was lured too close to shore and hit by anti-tank missiles from the 23-man Royal Marines platoon under Lieutenant Keith Mill and one Argentinian sailor, Corporal Patricio Guanca was killed in the action. Soon after this Argentinian setback, another two Marines, Privates Mario Almonacid and Jorge Aguila were killed and seven wounded when the Puma helicopter transporting their platoon was hit by concentrated small-arms fire and forced to make a crash-landing. However, one British Royal Marine was wounded in an exchange of fire with the Argentinian Marines. The Marines platoon under Lieutenant Mills eventually surrendered when their position was bombarded by the Guerrico's main 100mm gun.

The 13-strong volunteer militia force under BAS commander Steve Martin at King Edward Point had taken refuge in the church at Grytviken; they were captured in the afternoon and were removed at gunpoint to an Argentine ship bound for Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego, and held for 15 days before being repatriated to Britain. Thirteen other BAS men in South Georgia and two females, scientist Cindy Buxton and journalist Annie Price, remained in hiding until liberated by the British Task Force in late April 1982. They would later confirm that Lieutenant Mills had given them a pistol and that both women had been trained how to shoot.[10]

Photographs of the Royal Marines outside Government House, facedown on the ground, soon appeared in the British press, smuggled out by out by Rex Hunt's son Tony for Simon Winchester of the Sunday Times who had taken the pictures.[11] In response to calls for actions, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered that an armada of British warships be sent to the Falklands. Winchester went to Argentina to cover the war from the southern airbases, but he was arrested with two colleagues (Ian Mather and Tony Prime) for spying.[12]

Fierce battles erupted in May. In all, more than 900 soldiers and sailors from both side died in the fighting. But the British forces won. Winchester, Mather and Prime were freed on June 29.[13]

Occupation

Life under Argentinian occupation was full of anxiety for many of the Falklanders. They had no desire to be ruled by the Argentinians and found that many of their essential goods and services were under threat from the British naval blockade and requisitioning by the Argentinian garrison. Most Land Rovers and many tractors were requisitioned by the military and high powered radios were supposed to be handed over, although not all were.

Shortly after being appointed Miltary Governor of the Malvinas, Brigadier-General Mario Benjamin Menéndez had a meeting with around 40 locals that had formed part of the Fakland Islands Defence Force (FIDF) and that had been captured then released on 2 April. He warned them against taking part in any future attacks on the Argentinian garrison: “I met some of them [members of the FIDF] and explained that if they did some wrong to the occupying troops, I would apply the laws of war against them. I also told them that there was a group of two or three youngsters that continuously were gesticulating or showed an aggressive attitude against the Argentine officers and NCOs. For instance, they used to approach at an excessive speed and pass our troops very closely. I told them that if they ran into one of them or threw them to the floor and somebody fired at them, although I did not like martyrs, I was going to justify what my men did."[14]

There were further deportations of authority figures and Falklanders suspected as being resistance leaders were exiled to Fox Bay Settlement along with their families. Major Patricio Douglas Dowling took control of Argentinian military intelligence and soon gathered a reputation for harshness and threatening behaviour. Most of the 181st Military Police Company under Major Roberto Eduardo Berazay strained to maintain good relations with the Falkland Islanders and tried to treat them well although cold and hungry conscript soldiers did take to stealing food and break-and-enters became more frequent as the conflict dragged on and as the weather worsened. Military discipline was rigidly enforced in Port Stanley on the part of Major Berazay's military police unit in order to prevent break-in’s, robberies, vandalism and sexual assault, from soldiers from the frontlines that dared go Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and those caught were returned to their units where they were beaten, humiliated and staked in the freezing ground as part of field-punishment.

Argentinian Air Force Group Captain Carlos Bloomer-Reeve was given the job of acting as liaison officer between the local population and the military authorities. He had lived in the Falklands and was respected for the fair-mindedness and respect he showed to the locals.

The population at Goose Green had initially a very hard time when they were confined en masse in the Social Club in the aftermath of the British air attacks on Goose Green airfield on 1 May 1982. Lieutenant-Colonel Ítalo Angel Piaggi, the Commanding Officer of the Argentinian 12th Infantry Regiment, said that the lockdown in Goose Green was necessary in order to protect the locals from "the rage of the air force men, who had lost so many colleagues."[15]

The conditions improved when the Argentinians took pity on local women and children. According to local farm manager Eric Goss: "Sanitation in the hall was grim. We ran out of water on the third day, the toilets were blocked and there was some dysentery. We persuaded the Argentinians to bring sea water in barrels for the toilets; and old chap, Mike Robson, did sterling work keeping them going. Two young men, Bob McLeod and Ray Robson, both radio hams, found an old broken radio, part of the club equipment, in a junk cupboard. They made this work and we listened each evening to the B.B.C. World Service; the others made noise at the windows to cover the crackling of the broadcast and we were never discovered."[16]

One local female resident reported that life in the Social Club was far from grim: “After the first week the Argentines let two women go out each day to the galley in the cookhouse, where all the men would normally eat together. They were allowed to cook up a big meal, with bread and cakes, and bring it down to the hall. Considering we were all cramped together in a small place everybody got on very well. People were generally good-natured.”[17]

The government authority did attempt to enforce a change in the road traffic code which had chaotic consequences. The authorities wanted everyone to drive on the right hand side of the road as in Argentina. It was thought that the Argentine military traffic would find this easier than remembering to drive on the left. Merely informing the local population was not enough to change the habits of a lifetime and the end result was chaos. Initial signs in Spanish did not help matters and in the end the authorities had to paint signs in English and write continued reminders in white paint on the roads themselves. It became a permanent reminder that the islands were occupied territory.

Other daily reminders of occupation included the numerous field artillery and anti-aircraft batteries in and around Port Stanley and large no-go areas to the civilian population like the gymnasium building that was commandeered by Argentinian Army Green Berets from Major Mario Luis Castagneto's 601st Commando Company. Children were taken out of school and sent to the interior for their safety. The local radio station was forced to play Argentinian official military communiques of the war. Fortunately, many islanders were able to pick up the BBC World Service and were encouraged by news of the British landings in San Carlos and the British victory at Goose Green.

There was some talk of evacuating the Falklands Islanders. The British government did not wish the Falklanders to abandon the islands as that would make their main argument of self-determination mute. It was only a small portion of the population who considered leaving but it was enough to concern the British government. They made it clear that the British would help anyone temporarily but that the expectation was that they would return once the fighting was over. As it transpired, few Falkland Islanders took this option and most remained in the Falklands. Tragically, three islanders would be killed when a stray naval shell hit their house.

Liberation

Argentinian occupation of the Falklands ended on June 14. After 74 days, the islands became British administered again. Unlike the Goose Green residents the Port Stanley citizens had been allowed much freedom of movement. But there was a 16-hour night curfew.

The British units took over the buildings commandeered by the Argentinians. Local fireman Lewis Clifton describes how the infrastructures of Port Stanley broke under the extra strain of accommodating the British troops and processing thousands of Argentine prisoners of war awaiting repatriation: "The place just couldn't take it. There was only sporadic electricity and water and the sanitation system collapsed. The streets were ankle-deep in human waste. The stench was awful, really awful, and we were all suffering from what we called Galtieri's revenge. He lost the war but left us ill."[18]

There was much Argentinian criticism of the behaviour of British Paratroopers after the Argentinian surrender. Brigadier-General Oscar Luis Jofre, the commander of the 10th Mechanized Infantry Brigade in his book 'Malvinas: La Defensa de Puerto Argentino' (Editorial Sudamaricana, 1987) alleges that he complained to the British authorities and the Royal Marine Commandos took over and soon restored order in the Falklands capital. A staff officer of Commodore Michael Clapp wrote in his war diary:"Utterly depressing. The troops are in a post war mood and very selfish. Grab, Grab - transport, houses, equipment, food, etc. - gone is the spirit of selflessness in the field. It will return but at present all is filth, squalor and (the) looting instinct prevails. Quite the worst aspect of the whole campaign."[19]

British SBS Commandos were helicoptered to Pebble Island on June 15 to accept the surrender of the local garrison and found that the two dozen local inhabitants had been confined to the farm manager's house. But the locals showed no hatred for the occupiers, and even insisted that one young English-speaking Argentinian conscript, Jorge Alberto Ortiz, from the 3rd Marine Battalion's 'H' Company whom they had befriended should have lunch with them before he was taken with the others to imprisonment in the sheep shearing sheds. Jorge in his perfect Californian accent told them he planned to come back in the near future as a civilian. Arina Bernstein, a cheerful read-headed woman in her mid-thirties told him he would be welcome, "But don't you come back planting you little flag here again, Jorge."[20]

Claims that the Argentinian forces had behaved like savages throughout the occupation were investigated with British war correspondents Patrick Joseph Bishop and ‎John Witherow establishing they were mostly hearsay:"They had certainly been responsible for smashing up the solid old post office, and the backstreets of the town were littered with excrement. But although fourteen local men were taken from their homes during the occupation and sent to West Falkland where they were put under house arrest, few inhabitants were ill-treated. It was an uncomfortable rather than brutal regime... There were stories of looting but on closer examination this tended to be troops stealing buns from the deep-freeze or sleeping in beds with muddy boots. Some valuables and souvenirs were stolen and houses vandalized but the details of the outrages were vague. Most of the serious damage was done by the British shelling. One islander said without rencour that the British had caused more of a mess in Stanley than the Argentinians."[21]

Captain Jeremy Larken of HMS 'Fearless' confirms the view the Argentinian occupation foces had behaved appropriately:"It was clear General Menendez had looked after things at Government House with almost loving care. Even the ornaments were still in their place. But once 3 Commando Brigade got in there and started using it as their headquarters, I think it suffered considerably. It's fair to say that the British were less careful with Port Stanley than had been the Argentine forces... In the early days, our control over our own people was not as good as it might have been. I won't say there was rape and pillage, but there was a great deal of acquisition of war materials." [22]

Leftist anti-war veterans from the Buenos Aires-based 'Centro Ex-Combatientes Islas Malvinas' (Malvinas Islands Ex-Combatants Centre or CECIM) tell of being tied and pinned to the frozen ground with tent pegs for hours or punched and kicked for stealing from the food depots or shooting and killing sheep for food. In a 2019 interview with ‘Radio Noticias’, former Private Gustavo Placente from the 181st Military Police Company explained that field punishments were absolutely necessary to keep the conscript soldiers in line.

References

  1. "The 23 Marines, only one of whom was wounded in the Battle of Grytviken, and 13 civilians – the BAS base commander Steve Martin had been with the military contingent at the time – were taken on board the Bahia Paraiso without incident." [1]
  2. ot-description.aspx?id=12002445 Orders, Decorations, Campaign Medals & Militaria
  3. "Under Miguel Pita's robust personal leadership, and with orders to cause no casualties 'if at all possible', 800 men from his brigade, formed from the 2nd Marine Infantry Battalion (BIM 2), a Comandos Anfibios team ... spearheaded the assault on the Falklands Islands." Exocet Falklands: The Untold Story of Special Forces Operations, Ewen Southby-Tailyour, p. 61, Pen and Sword, 2014
  4. "The next Argentinians ashore were the frogmen from the Santa Fe, to secure the beach at Yorke Bay, to the north of the airfield, at 3:30 a.m." The Royal Navy and Falklands War, David Brown, p. 57, Pen and Sword, 1987
  5. "The fact that no one was observed to emerge from the first Amtrac to be engaged encouraged the Royal Marines to think that one of their rocket rounds had punched a hole in it and that some of the machine-gun fire had penetrated the hole and caused severe casualties among the men inside. Local civilians who observed the action optimistically supported this view later. There was no rocket hit, just the scars of ninety-seven machine-gun bullets. Only one Argentine marine was slightly wounded by a sliver of metal cutting his hand." Argentine Fight for the Falklands, Martin Middlebrook, p. 37, Pen and Sword, 2003
  6. Vehículos Anfibios
  7. "Commander Weinstabl and I decided it was time to force the British to withdraw. I ordered the crew with the recoilles rifle to fire one round of hollow charge at ... the roof of the house where the machine-gun was, to cause a bang but not an explosion. We were still following our orders not to inflict casualties. The first round was about a hundred metres short, but the second hit the roof ... They had stopped firing, so Commander started the movement of the two companies around the position.." Argentine Fight for the Falklands, Martin Middlebrook, p. 36, Pen and Sword, 2003
  8. Vehículos Anfibios
  9. Rear-Admiral Carlos Büsser
  10. 2 BRITONS DESCRIBE STAY ON S. GEORGIA
  11. "The humiliation was soon reinforced by images of the Argentine flag being raised and of the Royal Marines as prisoners. The photographs of the surrender of the Royal Marines had been taken by Simon Winchester of the Sunday Times and were smuggled out by out by Rex Hunt's son Tony." The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Volume 2: War and Diplomacy, Lawrence Freedman, pp. 8-9, Routledge, 2004
  12. "Winchester went to Argentina where he was later arrested with two colleagues for spying." The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Volume 2: War and Diplomacy, Lawrence Freedman, p. 9, Routledge, 2004
  13. 3 BRITISH REPORTERS RELEASED FROM JAIL BY ARGENTINE JUNTA
  14. 74 Days Under the Argentine Flag: The Experiences of Occupation During the Falklands/Malvinas War
  15. Making Their Dispositions Accordingly: Civilian Experiences of the 1982 Falklands War
  16. Operation Corporate: The Falklands War, Martin Middlebrook, p. 169, Viking, 1985
  17. Speaking Out: Untold Stories from the Falklands War, Michael Bilton, Peter Kosminsky, Andre Deutsch, 1989
  18. The Falklands invasion, by those who were there
  19. The Falklands War, D. George Boyce, p. 146, Macmillan International Higher Education, 2005
  20. The Battle for the Falklands, Max Hastings, Simon Jenkins, p.313, Pan, 1987
  21. The Winter War: The Falklands, Patrick Joseph Bishop, John Witherow, p.143, Quartet Books, 1982
  22. Forgotten Voices of the Falklands, Hugh McManners, p. 433, Random House, 2008