Cedric Delves commanded D Squadron, 22 SAS, in the Falklands. As the campaign to retake the islands reached its climax in June 1982, with British troops advancing on Port Stanley, Delves and his men were ordered to mount a diversionary attack in support of the main force.
Landing at night, we were received by a Special Boat Service (SBS) patrol. They gave us a quick situation report, sounding sparky and very much on the ball. They believed the immediate area clear of enemy but could not vouch for the hills a little further to the east overlooking Berkeley Sound. Operating in daylight would be something of a departure but the risks sat comfortably with our understanding of things, our instincts, and with what the SBS had reported.
The sweep through Twelve o’Clock Mountain and beyond proved the area clear of enemy, save for an eight-man patrol that made off into the distance. We attempted to cut them off, but the Argentinians had a head start and could move at pace, knowing the ground and what lay before them. We abandoned our pursuit for lack of time, the light fading as the evening drew in.
Back on Beagle Ridge, a short satellite radio conversation with our commanding officer established that the rigid raiding craft had made it to Cochon Island undetected, ready to be called forward for a squadron-size diversionary attack in support of the Paras’ assault of Wireless Ridge that very evening.
This pulled me up. I had been holding to the idea that we would be doing things in our proven way, to our timings. We had been observing Stanley during the day through optics, but had come up with nothing suitable as a squadron target. But now here we were about to lunge off into the largely unknown in no time flat, probably using up our one and only large-scale shot.
I disliked the feeling of not being in full control of our actions, but settled down with map, pencil and paper to knock out a set of orders. Of necessity, the plan of attack would have to be simple, if not downright rudimentary. We had no immediately obvious high-value target to go for. We didn’t even have proven ways in and out. As for surprise: possibly yes, but most likely in the “they must be kidding” sense.
The “team” gathered for orders. I explained our purpose as being to help the Paras’ attack on to Wireless Ridge in a few hours’ time by drawing attention to ourselves. If it worked we might tie down any enemy reserve for a crucial period. More likely, we should bring artillery defensive fire down on ourselves. Nobody liked the sound of that, noting that we had no body armour, not even a single steel helmet between the lot of us.
As everyone dispersed to make their preparations in the limited time remaining, Ted stayed back. His was a central role. He and his troop would go across Hernden Water to Cortley Hill by rigid raiding craft to hit whatever they could find in front of them and then come back out, no hanging around. The rest of the squadron would support as best they could with fire from the “home bank”. I knew Ted and his people were probably in for a bit of a rough night. We all knew it.
There wasn’t much to see: a dark, still night, quiet. Distant noises drifted in on the gentle breeze, some shell-fire and small arms, not loud, sporadic. An occasional illumination round cast an orange glow off to our right. I had expected more.
Was that a motor? Perhaps I imagined it. Moments later the peace was shattered by a ferocious crash of small-arms fire of every possible type: assault-rifles, machineguns, heavy machine-guns, the crump of grenades.
My radio crackled into life. It was Ted. He had landed. Got stuck. Couldn’t get forward. Still on the beach. Couldn’t move, not at all. About to take hits. Not sure if he could get back out.
It hardly needed me to tell them, but I radioed nevertheless, urging the “home bank” to give what covering fire they could, to keep it off the beach for fear of hitting our own, placing as much as possible onto the hill above. They did, and with that things got really bad. From the hillside to our front, across the narrow stretch of water, enemy fire poured into us, anti-aircraft guns, machineguns, heavy machineguns, kitchen sink too as far as I could tell. The whole bloody hill lit up, ablaze with muzzle flashes.
One of the basic, tactical battle-drills is to “win the firefight”. Our fire gradually slackened as the enemy imposed their superiority. I thought I would give it a go myself, a more personal shot at winning the firefight, to encourage the others to increase their fire. I shot off a magazine at the hill above where I reckoned Ted and his troop to be, in the direction of the airport, where a few moments earlier I had heard a C-130 land.
Horror! In all the excitement I had forgotten my practice of loading a few rounds of tracer at the bottom of the magazine, to signal the imminent need for a magazine change. The tracer sped away, an unmissable stream of intermittent light leading back to my exact fold in the ground. Instantly, the ground around us churned over and over, great dense clods of earth flying, thrashed by the anti-aircraft gun opposite and a lot else besides. The din was crushing.
Ted was still not sure he could get out the way he had gone in. I warned our liaison officer at Brigade that the troop might have to fight its way out.
The “home bank” troops were taking careful, well aimed, well considered shots at identifiable enemy locations across the water. Over on the far bank Ted and his team were beginning to get a handle on their part of the engagement. They realised that the enemy couldn’t bring fire to bear on the beach itself. To do so they must leave the protection of their trenches; at the moment the enemy showed no interest in doing that, either to improve their marksmanship, or to mount a counterattack.
1 Raiding Squadron Royal Marines with Mk1 RRC during the Falklands Conflict
Of course, the longer Ted left it, the more likely it was that the enemy would overcome his reservations. Ted had to act soon. He warned me that he intended to re-embark and make a dash for safety, relying on the rigid raiding crafts’ impressive speed and manoeuvrability. If he got his timings right, perhaps he could get out into the darkness of Blanco Bay before the enemy reacted with effective, well aimed fire. I told him to crack on. We would do what we could, putting down covering fire — just give us the word.
Ted embarked his troops. The boats pushed carefully back from the beach to prowl quietly, slowly, to and fro, keeping to the calm, still water, hoping not to alert the enemy with the noise of their idling engines, watching the fire-churned sea beyond, alert for any pause or easing of the enemy’s barrage.
Back and forth his boats cruised, alert, fully primed, ready to seize their moment, but nothing, no let up. Then we put down our covering fire, only to get a devastating broadside in return, a wall of sheeting, cracking, banging and spitting hot metal. It felt cataclysmic. The boats made their move, taking advantage of the din and turmoil all about. The boats leapt forward with a roar, charging at the wall of enemy fire, towards the beckoning safety of the darkness beyond.
Time to go. Time to draw a line under the night, before something went wrong! We slipped away, crouching low, scurrying off to one side, fast. As we neared the rallying point, there came the unmistakeable swish of heavy artillery rounds shuffling close-by overhead; lots of them, a whole battery’s worth, moaning, droning, dropping down. It had to be 155mm. They were seriously big bangs. The pond and the surrounding area erupted, churned, perhaps a mere 100 yards in front of the leading troops.
The shock waves powered through us, then came a shower of detritus, bits of rock, metal, water and plenty of muddy turf and a confetti of shredded vegetation. Our respect for Argentine artillery increased. We pressed on fast.
At the squadron rendezvous we took stock. The “home bank” troops were all back in, no casualties; miraculous, not a scratch. I couldn’t quite believe we had got away with it. So far, so good. We waited for Ted’s people. Their last report had indicated that they had made it across Blanco Bay, taking fire as they landed, the raiding craft a write-off.
We didn’t have long to wait. Shadowy figures slipped in to take their place on the squadron’s defensive perimeter. Somebody came across to report that the shadows were indeed Ted’s people, all accounted for. We had two casualties, both walking wounded.
Dawn broke with us back on Murrell Ridge in a strong defensive position, where we had started an age ago it seemed. We were tired, somewhat drained. A certain fuzzy apathy had descended. It was often like that after a stiff contact. The calm had an unreal, strangely intense quality. Senses were heightened and yet mushy; but then my ears were still not right. I felt cocooned in “white noise”. Little was quite as it should be. My hearing never fully really recovered.
We had got off lightly. Our two casualties had been airlifted to Ajax Bay, the field hospital back at San Carlos; we knew that the field surgical team had yet to lose a single casualty making it that far. And 2 Para had triumphed. I liked to think we had helped.
That left Stanley. We would start to think about that after breakfast.
©Cedric Delves 2018. Extracted from Across an Angry Sea: The SAS in the Falklands War by Cedric Delves, published by Hurst
Published in the Times
The 4 Rigid Raiding Craft were from 1st Raiding Squadron Royal Marines and coxswained by Sergeant Plym Buckley, L/Cpl Barry Gilbert and Marines Bill Kavanagh and Geoff Nordass.