Battle of Mount Kent and Top Malo House

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On May 27, 1982, the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) and 45 Commando (45 CDO), Royal Marines had left the British beachhead at San Carlos for Estancia Mountain and Bluff Cove Peak. The 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (2 PARA) were ordered to attack the Argentinian Task Force Mercedes on May 28 located on Darwin Isthmus during the Battle of Darwin and Goose Green, eliminating any future threat from the Argentinian garrison. Major Cedric Delves' D Squadron, 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, embarked in Sea King helicopters would seize Mount Kent, while 19 Royal Marine Commandos from the Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre (M&AWC) under Major Rod Boswell, embarked in a Wessex helicopter, would capture and clear the forward Argentinian Special Forces patrol located at Top Malo House, allowing the 600 Paratroopers from 3 PARA to capture Estancia Mountain and Estancia House. Captain Peter Babbington's Kilo Company of 42 Commando (42 CDO) was expected to land on Mount Kent on the night of May 29. Delays and snow blizzards meant these helicopter-borne reinforcements would only arrive on the night May 31, perilously close to a firefight.

Key ground

Mount Kent with its surrounding hills is an area of high ground on East Falkland, approximately five miles west of Port Stanley. It rises to just under 1,100 feet and it dominated the central axis of advance from San Carlos to Stanley. Given its dominance and proximity to the capital of the Falkland Islands, the mountain was an area of special interest to both British and Argentinian Special Forces.

First contact

The first engagement during the Battles of Mount Kent and Top Malo House occurred during 27 May, when Subteniente Marcelo Llambías Pravaz, Sergeant Ramón Valdez, Corporal Walter Pintos and Private Daniel Castillo from the 4th Regiment's C Company, while patrolling the western slopes under the cover of darkness and heavy rain, were overflown by a British helicopter. After radioing this information to regimental headquarters, the small squad soon after detected a British hide and opened fire. The next day, they closely inspected the scene but only found empty British rations that had to be dug out of the ground.[1]

The next day, Lieutenant Guillermo Enrique Anaya from the 601st Combat Aviation Battalion visited Estancia House Farm and his Bell UH-1H helicopter landed twice on May 28th. Lieutenant Anaya thought there were British commandos hiding in a cow shed, so he machine-gunned it.[2]

In the days that followed there were a number of brief but extremely violent clashes between the Special Forces of both sides.

Argentinian commando incursion

About 40 men of 39-year-old Major Aldo Rico's 602nd Commando Company (Argentinian Army), were originally scheduled to make an assault landing in six Bell UH-1H helicopters of the 601st Combat Aviation Battalion. A follow-up force, the 65-man 601st National Gendarmerie Special Forces Squadron under Major José Ricardo Spadaro, would reinforce the Mount Kent position. Argentinian maps had confirmed the overland route was obstructed with minefields and booby-traps. This meant the National Gendarmerie Special Forces would have to arrive in a Puma helicopter the next day, exposed to Royal Air Force GR-3 Harriers in their morning bomb runs. There was additional delay when the Marine Special Forces from Major Guillermo Sánchez-Sabarots 1st Amphibious Commando Grouping in the lead C-130 Hercules aircraft from Comodoro Rivadavia on the Argentinian mainland, had to abort landing on Stanley Airport. A snow blizzard added to the confusion as the Argentinian Special Forces hurriedly prepared their backpacks and gear for the insertions.

On Mount Kent and Bluff Cove Peak, Major Cedric Delves' thinly spread out D Squadron, received no warning of Operation Autoimpuesta and were momentarily caught off guard when they heard the sound of Argentinian Army helicopters approaching from Murrell River, in fact a Puma and four Huey helicopters bringing in 29 Argentinian Army Green Berets consisting of Captain Eduardo Villarruel's 5-man HQ Section and Captain Tomás Fernández's 2nd and Captain Andrés Ferrero's 3rd Assault Sections, both 12-man patrols.[3]

Mount Kent

On the night of May 29th 1982, Captain Andres Antonio Ferrero's 3rd Assault Section from the 602nd Commando Company ran into Boat Troop from D Squadron, 22nd Special Air Service on the eastern slopes of the mountain.[4]The British took control of the situation, but at the cost of two badly wounded SAS troopers. Captain Andres Ferrero remembers:

The Malvinas War is all so long ago now that it is difficult to recall it, even more to sort out the details sufficiently to compare one's experience there with Comandos en Accion. However, reading Isidoro Ruiz-Moreno's official history, again and again, to refresh myflagging memory has proved a salutary experience. Our mission briefing told us little more than we were to get on the ground, deal with any opposition as best we could and wait for the National Gendarmerie Commandos. Our task was to block the advance of 3 Commando Brigade.

We'd been divided into two waves. I didn't like the idea of being split from the rest of the Commandos, but I could see why we had to do it. To fly in the turbulence between the peaks was a sure way to lose further helicopters. Bad weather had been forcast. Dark clouds on the horizon were blowing in Puerto Argentino's direction. To add to the problem, only four helicopters were available. Major Aldo Rico had agreed that the second wave should be postponed until the next day and since he and others in the company had failed to hitch a helicopter lift, to pass the time that night, he achieved his goal to learn to ride a motorbike. Rico had asked Major Mario Castagneto if he thought Mount Kent could be reached by foot but, because of the new minefields, he realized it would not be possible. In any case, it was too late to do anything by land that day.

We were issued grenades, bandoliers and ammunition, and two MAG machineguns, along with anti-tank rocket launchers and ratpacks. We were tired after a sleepless night. First Lieutenant Horacio Fernando Lauria, a charismatic engineer-commando in his early thirties, in an attempt to take his mind of what lay ahead had been studying Mount Kent zone maps and intelligence reports ... We boarded a Unimog, which Captain Fernando de la Serna told us would be taking us to our helicopter. We were dressed in reversible white camouflage suits. The helmets came off, the berets on, and the 602nd was driven to the Soccer Field. It was around 4 in the evening and darker than usual because the sky was overcast. Journalist Eduardo Rotondo was filming us and taking pictures. This was a unique period for the Army; to be in a war zone accompanied by journalists.

It was Argentinian Army Day. A day to be proud of our Army. It was even more important for Major Rico as it was his son's birthday. The helicopter we boarded - Huey AE 418 - was stripped bare inside and we sat on the floor ... At last, at about 5 in the evening came the order to go. Captains Eduardo Villarruel and Jorge Duran were coming too. The pilot lifted his helicopter into a low hover, about 3 feet off the ground. The whine of the engines was deafening. We were in the air, and this time it wasn't a training exercise. The pilot, lowered the helicopter's nose and picked up airspeed. It was a 6 or 7 minute flight - something like that. As we started to approach the noise was incredible. When we landed, I could not get off fast enough. As soon as we got off clear of the blades we began to off-load the weapons and equipment. The helicopter was loaded to the roof with spareammunition, Instalaza missiles and medical packs. We watched the ascent of the helicopter until it disappeared.

Not surprisingly, some insertions were badly scattered: Captain Eduardo Villarruel's headquarters group was so thoroughly lost that they did not rejoin the 602nd until the next day. We had landed 500 metres off course - northeast of Mount Kent. The night had fallen like ice into a glass, sharp and cold. With First Lieutenant Francisco Maqueda, an experienced mountaineer, leading, we moved higher up the mountain. It was awful terrain, with rocky outcrops all over the place. It was extremely difficult going for, while the sides of the mountain were not sheer, they were very steep and made up of boulders. One thing all of us had in common was that we were in reasonable shape.

The average age in the 602nd was between 28 and 33. Otherwise my combat patrol couldn't have undertaken the six grueling patrol missions that lay ahead. The thought of bumping into a British patrol, or even worse, walking into an ambush, was uppermost in my mind. This was the Lion's den. We'd gone 500 metres when, I signaled a stop. 'I can hear water, ' I said. I got edgy. I turned to Lauria who caught up with me when I stopped and he asked, 'Why not let Mucked and me go on a reconnaissance, to see what's around?' I thought for a moment, then said, 'Okay, but that I along with Maqueda would be going, with Oviedo.' The rest were to stay behind some boulders and wait for us to signal with the torch ... When we had gone about 50 metres all hell broke out. The rest of the patrol under Lauria, came under accurate machine-gun and mortar fire.

Only one man was wounded though - First Sergeant Raimundo Maximiliano Viltes. He received a bullet through a heel. For a few seconds, pandemonium reigned. Only a few managed to get rounds off. Lauria thought they were part of Combat Team Solari that was known to have been dug in the area. When he explained to me what happened, it was obvious he was very shocked. Returning fire with his FAL rifle, Lauria managed to hit some Special Air Service Commandos ... By now it was about 7 in the evening and I heard two helicopters flying over head, returning with the 601st's 2nd Assault Section from Big Mountain, but saw nothing because of the low clouds. I had to make myself calm down. I had already experienced combat, being under fire from People's Revolutionary Army guerrillas. I had been a Commando since 1975 and had served in Tucuman Province. I tried to work out how to hit back. We crawled towards them, heard they were British and decided to take them ourselves. The problem was that we had to sprint over the top, World War One style. I had little hope that anyone could have survived that ambush. I was filled with confusion as well as desperate with anxiety. By this time mortar flares were up, illuminating portions of the area. Later I learned that at the first sound of mortar fire most had run away. It wasn't exactly the reaction Lauria had wanted. Lauria and Viltes, who were last away, had a grim withdrawal under mortar fire all the way. First Sergeant Jose Nunez helped Viltes.

That night Lauria lay listening to the storm of fire as the Kent ridgeline blazed under the fire of 'D' Squadron of the Special Air Service Regiment. I started to pray. I put myself in God's hands and I know this is going to sound corny, but it started snowing very hard. We didn't dare wait too long. The signal we'd agreed on was one, two, then go. When finally we were calm enough, I put up one finger, then two, and we made our move. We were now scrambling downhill. It was slippery, dangerous. We slid down the mountainside on our backs and bottoms, sending small avalanches of grey stone, cascading down the mountain. During the getaway we lost Oviedo. The British Commandos did not follow up. There were about 20 of them with two machineguns but they also fled. This is not uncommon in war. It was later learned that the British Commandos, thinking that they were on the point of being outflanked by Maqueda, Oviedo and me, decided to retire. Realizing their mistake, they returned to the Kent ridgeline just as Captain Tomas Fernandez's patrol closed on Bluff Cove Peak.[5]

Meanwhile, according to his patrol report, Captain Eduardo Marcelo Villarruel had also landed on the eastern slopes of Mount Kent and, avoiding contact, withdrew to the northern rocks. After discussing with Brigadier Thompson the importance of holding Mount Kent and the option of retreating to Estancia House Farm, Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Rose, who commanded the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, instructed Major Cedric Delves that it was critical to maintain the position and instructed him to gather the lead elements of 3 PARA until 42 Commando arrived.[6]

3 PARA had captured Teal Inlet Settlement on May 29 in their march to Estancia House, one of the British paratroopers in Captain Matthew Selfridge's D Company had been evacuated suffering from a self-inflicted wound.[7]

Bluff Cove Peak

In the meantime, the 602nd Commando Company's 2nd Assault Section, commanded by Capitán Tomás Victor Fernández, after a brief pause, continued its advance up Bluff Cove Peak. It was here that Teniente 1º Rubén Eduardo Márquez and Sargento 1º Oscar Humberto Blas won posthumously the Medalla Heroico Valor en Combate (Gallantry in Combat Medal) in a patrol clash in which they wounded two Special Air Service Commandos with hand grenades.[8][9] There was nothing for it but to squeeze as many as possible into caves near the top of Bluff Cove Peak," admits Captain Fernández.

That same morning, before dawn, as Captain Eduardo Marcelo Villarruel led his headquarters group back to Argentinian lines, he ran into a heavily armed British patrol on the foggy slopes of Mount Kent heading to Estancia House. The Argentinian Special Forces went to ground and deployed into a skirmish line ready to open up. Sergeant Mario Antonio Cisnero, had the 7.62 millimetre belt-fed machine-gun and got very excited. Villarruel, for some reason told Cisnero to hold his fire. It was a serious misjudgment and probably cost the Argentinians the battle for Mount Kent. It later transpired that the British patrol were members of 'D' Squadron, 22nd Special Air Service Regiment retreating with their two wounded. Unfortunately because of the blizzard, communications were lost on both sides. But for the first time Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Rose's 22nd Special Air Service Regiment was in control of the situation after the initial confusion. By 1700 local time on May 30 when Captain Tomás Fernández's radio operator, Senior Sergeant Alfredo Flores, at last came on air, he passed the dramatic message, "We are in trouble" and 40 minutes later, "there are English all around us.. you had better hurry up."

The Argentinian helicopter-borne offensive had been checked, with the Special Air Service successfully maintaining their positions on Mount Kent and Bluff Cove Peak. Major Aldo Rico was placed in charge of all further Special Forces operations. He reluctantly cancelled the deployment of Major Mario Castagneto's 601st Commando Company and instructed Castagneto to rescue the 602nd Commando Company, who were to assemble on Estancia Mountain. [10]

Captain Andres Ferrero regrouped his men on Estancia Mountain and awaited reinforcements. Around 1100 local time on May 30th, the Argentinian patrol commander watched in horror as two Royal Air Force Harriers (XZ963 and XZ789) made a pass over the Puma carrying reinforcements from the 601st National Gendarmerie Special Forces Squadron, firing as they went. The Puma crashed in the ground and started a fire in which six Gendarmerie Commandos from Captain Jorge San Emeterio's combat patrol were killed: Lieutenant Ricardo Julio Sánchez, Second Lieutenant Guillermo Nasif, Corporals Marciano Veron, Víctor Samuel Guerrero, Carlos Ismael Pereyra and Lance-Corporal Juan Carlos Treppo. Those Gendarmerie Commandos who could jumped out, some of them braving the fire and exploding ammunition to rescue eight injured colleagues.

The Argentinian 3rd Rifle Platoon under Subteniente Marcelo Llambías Pravaz on Mount Challenger, however, exacted rapid revenge and Royal Air Force Harrier XZ 963 flown by Squadron-Leader Jerry Pook was shot down.

Royal Marine reinforcements

The job of seizing the 1,300ft mountain fell to Captain Peter Babbington's Kilo Company of 42 CDO, who would be flown in by helicopters. Major Cedric Delves' D Squadron was told to locate and secure a suitable landing zone below the Mount Kent summit, but the lack of helicopters, coupled with blizzard conditions, meant it took five nights to airlift in the 120 Royal Marines of Babbington.

The British High Command 8,000 miles away in Northwood, impatient for victories, questioned the need to use up valuable time on reconnaissance. Fortunately the British commander in the Falklands ignored their orders, because when the Royal Marines did land on the lower slopes of Mount Kent they discovered that strong enemy special forces patrols were still trying to penetrate the British lines.

Brigadier Julian Thompson, who commanded 3 Commando Brigade, wrote later that without the SAS presence on Mount Kent, the Argentine patrols "would have had a turkey shoot on the vulnerable helicopters and the troops as they jumped out, temporarily disorientated in the darkness; the operation would have been a disaster."[11]

When the 42 CDO spearhead flew in on the night of May 30/31 they witnessed the SAS ambush Captain Tomás Fernández's 2nd Assault Section near the landing site. Fortunately for the Royal Marine reinforcements, though, the Argentinian patrol withdrew after having earlier lost two killed on Bluff Cove Peak.

Also heavily involved in this action was the Task Force’s only surviving Chinook helicopter, Bravo November. Flight-Lieutenant Andy Lawless, co-pilot of the Chinook took part in the mission to deliver artillery guns and ammunition to the SAS and describes the crash of the helicopter (possibly as a result of small-arms fire) soon after:

We knew the SAS were outgunned. Our job was to land 105-mm howitzers] of 29 Regiment Royal Artillery. Rose (Loadmaster) told me the landing site was flat and secure. The mission was to be flown all at night with night-vision goggles. We had three 105—mm guns inside and ammunition pallets under-slung. Then the fog of war intervened. The ground was not flat and covered in boulders. We could not find anywhere to land and we spent time manoeuvring to drop off the under-slung loads. We had to put them exactly where the gunners wanted because they could not roll the guns very far across the terrible terrain. I can distinctly remember troops moving under the rotor disking firing their guns – this was not part of the plan. There were incoming artillery rounds. Once we dropped off the guns we went straight back to San Carlos to bring in more guns and ammo. Then we hit water. We were lucky because if we had hit solid ground we would have been dead. We hit at 100 knots. The bow wave came over the cockpit window as we settled and the engines partially flamed out. I knew we had ditched but I was not sure if we had been hit. Dick (Pilot) said he thought we had been hit by ground fire. As the helicopter settled the bow wave reduced. We had the collective still up and the engine wound up as we came out of the water like a cork out of a bottle. We were climbing.[12]

Top Malo House

Having surrounded Top Malo House, Captain Rod Boswell ordered his 12-man assault group patrol to fix bayonets and fire a green flare, the signal for the 7-man support group on a nearby hillock to unleash a volley of six anti-tank rockets at the remote shepherd's house.

Senior Lieutenant Ernesto Emilio Espinosa on sentry duty on the top stairs window raised the alarm and was shot and killed by Corporal Steve Groves armed with a sniper rifle and moments later the building burst into flames.

As Boswell and his assault group charged forward, two more 66mm rockets smashed into the house and the Argentinian Special Forces who had taken cover there overnight fled to Mullows Stream 200 metres away.

In the fierce firefight that followed, Seniort Sergeant Mateo Domingo Sbert was killed while covering their retreat to the stream and the Argentinian second-in-command, Senior Lieutenant Horacio Losito lost consciousness through loss of blood before the remainder threw down their weapons and surrendered.

The battle of Top Malo House, a few miles from Teal Inlet, on May 31 cost the lives of two members of Captain José Arnobio Vercesi's 1st Assault Section of the 602nd Commando Company. The 10 Argentinian survivors, six of them wounded, were taken prisoner.

Four Royal Marine Commandos (Sergeants Doyle, Groves, McLean and Corporal Stone) were wounded[13][14][15], a testament to the professionalism and skill of Britain's Special Forces. Unknown to Boswell's men, however, the 45-minute fight had been watched by Argentinian Air Force Observation Posts (OPs) manning OPs on nearby hills. So awestruck were they by the textbook assault, that 14 of them surrendered to the Paratroopers and Royal Marines making their way to Estancia Mountain and Bluff Cove Peak.

Captain José Arnobio Vercesi's 1st Assault Section from the 602nd Commando Company and Captain José Ramón Negretti's 2nd Assault Section from Major Mario Luis Castagneto's 601st Commando Company had been using Mount Simon and Big Mountain to report on and harry the British advance towards Mount Kent, the first of several peaks guarding the approach to Port Stanley.

Aftermath

The Battles of Mount Kent and Top Malo House in late May 1982 cost the lives of eleven members of Argentina's Special Forces. Just 10 British special forces were wounded, but five were soon killed as a result of Friendly fire.

References

  1. Marcelo Llambias Pravaz (Malvinas Corazón De Mi Patria)
  2. Entrevista a Guillermo Anaya, Top Gun de los helicopteristas
  3. On Mount Kent D Squadron, thinly spread out, received no warning of Operation Autoimpuesta and were unprepared for the sound, at about 6pm, of helicopters approaching from the east, in fact a Puma and four Huey helicopters bringing in twenty-nine commandos consisting of Captain Eduardo Villarruel's five-strong HQ Section and Captain Tomas Fernandez's 2nd and Captain Ferrero's 3rd Assault Sections, both twelve-strong. Nine Battles to Stanley, Nick Van Der Bijl, pg. 147, Pen & Sword, 2014
  4. Ferrero's section landed on the eastern slopes of Mount Kent and were soon engaged in a confusing close-quarter night battle with Boat Troop of exploding grenades, sudden firefights at close rage and the abrupt scuttle of boots over rocks. Nine Battles to Stanley, Nick Van Der Bijl, pg. 147, Pen & Sword, 2014
  5. Comandos en Acción: El Ejercito en Malvinas, Isidoro J. Ruiz Moreno, Emecé, 1986
  6. Meanwhile, according to his patrol report, Villarruel had also landed on Mount Kent and, avoiding contact, withdrew to the high ground north of the hill. After discussing with Brigadier Thompson the importance of seizing Mount Kent and disadvantage of regrouping at Estancia, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Rose, who commanded the SAS, instructed Major Delves that it was critical to hold it and put him in command of all forces in the area until 42 Commando arrived. Nine Battles to Stanley, Nick Van Der Bijl, pg. 148, Pen & Sword, 2014
  7. Unfortunately, this was a 'negligent discharge' originating from one of the most dangerous weapons in the British military inventory, the 9 mm sub-machine gun. He was rather unwell as Nick Morgan, John Williams and Malcolm Jowitt got to work. Later, this patient would complain about the three tubes inserted into his chest, but those drainage routes did a vital job in carrying away the blood leaking from the bullet's long track. He was a rather lucky boy – another survivor, and very much against the odds. Doctor for Friend and Foe: Britain's Frontline Medic in the Fight for the Falklands, Rick Jolly, p. 89, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012
  8. Two more men were wounded, but the SAS remained in control of its main positions by the morning of 30 May. Twilight Warriors: Inside the World's Special Forces, Martin C. Arostegui, pg 181, St. Martin's Press, 1997
  9. Fernandez's section spent the night extricating themselves from the ambush and although two more SAS were wounded, he lost Sergeant Alfredo Flores, who was knocked out when he fell and was taken prisoner.Nine Battles to Stanley, Nick Van Der Bijl, pg. 149, Pen & Sword, 2014
  10. Operation Autoimpuesta, so far, was not going well and with the British now occupying Mount Kent, Major Rico was given command of Special Forces operations. He cancelled the deployment of 601 Commando Company and instructed Major Castagneto to rescue 602 Commando, who were to assemble on Mount Estancia. Nine Battles to Stanley, Nick Van Der Bijl, pg. 149, Pen & Sword, 2014
  11. Key battles at Top Malo and Mount Kent
  12. 16 Air Assault Brigade: The History of Britain's Rapid Reaction Force, Tim Ripley, pp. 45-46, Casemate Publishers, 2008
  13. Remembering The Falklands Day By Day
  14. "Sergeant McLean was wounded in the hand when a round hit the 66mm LAW he was about to fire." Nine Battles to Stanley, Nick Van Der Bijl, Pen & Sword, 2014
  15. "The fire group quickly destroyed the target house, but the Argentines stormed out, firing back and very quickly two Marines, Sergeant Terry Doyle in the assault group and Sergeant Rocky Stone of the fire group, had been shot and injured. Then Corporal Steve Groves was shot in the chest. The assault group had almost charged down on to Top Malo, blazing firepower from the hip and with Boswell leading." Commando, David Reynolds, p. 146, Sutton, 2001