Battle of Sapper Hill

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The Battle of Sapper Hill was an engagement in the Falklands/Malvinas War, one of a series of battles that took place during the British advance towards Port Stanley against the Argentinians.

British plan

The Welsh Guards were then given the task of assaulting Sapper Hill on the morning of June 14, 1982, after the Scots Guards had attacked and captured Mount Tumbledown. Sapper Hill, a grassy hillock 453 feet high, was the last Argentine strong-point outside Port Stanley, and its capture, along with those of Mounts Tumbledown and William and Wireless Ridge, would bring an end to the fighting around the Falklands capital.

Argentinian stronghold

With the beak of dawn on June 14, Major Phillip Neame's D Company of the 2nd Battalion The British Parachute Regiment (2 PARA) on Wireless Ridge could see hundreds of Argentinians regrouping for a last stand on Sapper Hill.[1]Argentine artillery and Second Lieutenant Augusto La Madrid 6th Regiment platoon was still in action, firing on Neame's company and losing another two killed (Privates Horacio Echave and Horacio Balvidares) on Sapper Hill. While taking up new positions on Sapper Hill, Sergeant Víctor Hugo Juárez from 5th Marine Battalion HQs, Private Vicente Antonio Díaz from the 1st Amphibious Engineers Company and Private Ricardo Ramírez from the 81mm Mortar Platoon on Mount William are also killed in the fierce British bombardment and long-range retaliatory machinegun and small-arms fire from Wireless Ridge.

Night advance

On the night of the June 13/14, the Welsh Guards/Royal Marine Battalion were on standby to reinforce the British attacks on Mounts Tumbledown and William if necessary. Their orders were to move towards Sapper Hill only after these objectives were taken. During the advance, they became bogged down in a minefield, which took them a very long and frustrating time to extract themselves from, after coming under heavy mortar bombardment. Earlier on, a Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre patrol under Sergeant David Lazenby had penetrated the frozen minefield to secure a landing zone for the British helicopters. Major Christopher Drewrywe's Number 2 Company (Welsh Guards) eventually reached the base of Sapper Hill, only to discover that the Argentine M Company was still in position. The Guardsmen were forced to withdraw, protected by the early morning fog, this time avoiding the minefield.[2]Due to this delay, it was decided that 45 Commando should move forward from Two Sisters to occupy Sapper Hill. While 45 Commando were marching towards Sapper Hill, Bravo and Charlie Companies from 40 Commando had escaped from the attention of the Argentine defenders on Sapper Hill and they were picked up by helicopters. They were eventually landed on the slopes of Sapper Hill just as 45 Commando were approaching, so both units attacked and captured Hill.

British attack

Unwilling to abandon the hill, Commander Carlos Robacio on Sapper Hill was planning to counter-attack and drive back the Guardsmen. Only the personal intervention of Colonel Félix Aguiar, the 10th Brigade Chief of Staff, brought the fighting to an end.[3] The 5th Marines worked their way back into Stanley, leaving the 2nd Platoon of Sub-Lieutenant Marcelo Davis and 3rd Platoon of Sub-Lieutenant Alejandro Koch of M Company to cover the retreat. The Argentine Marine companies withdrew safely, only pursued by artillery fire. The Argentine Panhard armoured cars also moved forward to the edge of Stanley to cover the retreating troops, and to neutralize any further helicopter landings.

Marine Privates Roberto Leyes, Eleodoro Monzón and Sergio Ariel from M Company are killed protecting the Argentine retreat. Six Royal Marines are wounded securing Sapper Hill, including four Marines from 40 Commando, one Sapper from Condor Troop and a forward officer from 3 Commando Brigade HQs.

The Royal Marines team protecting the landing zone successfully defended their position when the Argentine Marines under Davis launched a counter-attack, the last one of the ground campaign.[4][5]Two parked Sea Kings within range from Koch's Marines sustained several hits from Sergeant Miguel Angel Vaca's machine-gun and rifle-grenades fired by Corporal Carlos Jorge Sini, but remained operational.

At the foot of the hill there was an enormous minefield. A group of Sappers from Condor Troop went ahead to clear a path through the mines, losing Sergeant Peter Thorpe badly wounded in the process. Tanks of the Blues & Royals moved forward, to provide covering fire if necessary. However, when the Royal Marines and Welsh Guardsmen advanced they found Sapper Hill abandoned. The delay caused by the mines probably saved many lives.[6] The Argentine Marine companies had been deeply entrenched and were well equipped with heavy machine guns. To Guardsman Tracy Evens, the Sapper Hill positions looked impregnable:

We were led to an area that the company would rest at for the night, I still took in the fact the Argies had prepared Sapper Hill well, they had depth positions that would have made the task of taking it very hard.[7]

As the Guardsmen and Royal Marines consolidated their positions, the British lost a Volvo BV-202 tracked vehicle to a mine planted in the Sapper Hill sector. "We ran over a mine. I went up through the roof and the vehicle went up and was turned right round by the explosion," recalled Major Brian Armitage who was shortly evacuated to receive treatment.[8]

References

  1. "I had been trying to get fire missions down on the retreating closely-packed formation of troops but was told that there was no artillery available. I was going quite spare, because I was supposed to have two batteries at my priority call. Here was a golden opportunity being missed. I assumed the enemy were withdrawing to regroup on Sapper Hill and the last thing I wanted was another major battle. Eventually we got the artillery and started blasting away with everything else we had as well. But as soon as we opened up we got very accurate artillery fire back at our own position. I guessed that they were adjusting onto our muzzle flashes so I told all the company to stop firing with their small arms. I decided that the only thing was to keep fighting this battle with artillery, otherwise we were just going to have a lot of shit knocked out of ourselves." Above All, Courage: The Falklands Front Line, Max Arthur, page 202, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985
  2. "After some time an explosion was heard. A Royal Marine had stepped on a mine, followed by another a few minutes later. Our troop then cleared a safe line through the minefield. Once through, we dug in at the base of a hill, only to find that it was still occupied by Argentine troops. So back we went to our original positions, this time around the minefield." Craftsmen of the Army: The Story of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (Vol II 1969-1992, Volumes 1969-1992), J M Kneen, D J Sutton, p 449, Pen & Sword, 1997
  3. Malvinas: La Defensa de Puerto Argentino, Oscar Luis Jofre & Félix Roberto Aguiar, page 275, Editorial Sudamericana, 1987
  4. "An Argentine attack on the Royal Marines right flank was driven back ... The firing gradually slowed down and the Argentines simply evacuated Sapper Hill, as the Royal Marines very slowly got to their feet." Victory in the Falklands, Nick Van Der Bijl, Pen & Sword, 2007
  5. "Cuando le ordené al guardiamarina Davis: "¡Listo, nos vamos !", él todavía estaba pensando en el contraataque, y salió disparando hacia el frente, o sea al revés ... Es que Davis y sus hombres estaban listos para largar el contraataque. Fue impresionante su actitud ofensiva." Malvinas: 20 años, 20 héroes, p. 328, Fundación Soldados, 2002
  6. "Robacio, who came in for criticism from some British officers ... had total command of N Company and the Army platoons involved, and deserves credit for doing all that was possible to limit British gains ... His positioning of heavy weapons on Sapper Hill before the Argentine surrender provided a defensive barrier that would only have been breached at heavy cost in men and equipment." Van Der Bijl, Victory in the Falklands, p. 211
  7. Falklands: Day of Surrender. Britain's Small Wars. Retrieved on 28 August 2016.
  8. Our Falklands war: The Men of The Task Force Tell Their Story, Geoffrey Underwood, p.70, Maritime Books, 1983