Battle of Two Sisters
Composition of forces
The British force, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Whitehead, consisted of the Royal Marines of 45 Commando and 40 Commando anti-tank troop with support from six 105-mm guns of 29 Commando Regiment. The 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (2 Para), was held in reserve. Naval gunfire support was provided by HMS Glamorgan's two 4.5-inch (114 mm) guns.
The Argentinian force originally occupying Mount Challenger, commanded by Major Ricardo Cordón, consisted of the 4th Infantry Regiment, with the bulk of the defenders drawn from C Company with the 1st Platoon (Sub-Lieutenant Miguel Mosquera) and 2nd Platoon (Sub-Lieutenant Jorge Pérez Grandi) on the northern peak of Two Sisters and the 3rd Platoon (Sub-Lieutenant Marcelo Llambias Pravaz) on the southern peak and the 1st Platoon A Company (Sub-Lieutenant Juan Nazer) and Support Platoon (Second Lieutenant Luis Carlos Martella) on the saddle between the two. Major Óscar Jaimet's B Company of the 6th Regiment (RI 6), acting as the local reserve, occupied the saddle between Two Sisters and Mount Longdon.
On 4 June the three companies of 45 CDO advanced on Bluff Cove Peak, on the lower slopes of Mount Kent, and were able to occupy the feature without opposition; they were met by patrols from the Special Air Service (SAS). Enemy opposition was initially desultory but on the night of 29 May a fierce firefight developed over capturing the two important hills, as they were intended to form part of an Argentine Special Forces line.
Captain Andrés Ferrero's patrol (3rd Assault Section, 602 Commando Company) reached the base of Mount Kent but were then promptly pinned down by machinegun and mortar fire. First-Sergeant Raimundo Máximo Viltes was badly wounded when a bullet shattered his heel. Air Troop had two men wounded by rifle fire. Probing attacks around the D Squadron, SAS positions continued throughout the night and at 11:00 am on 30 May, about 12 Argentine Commandos (Captain Tomás Fernández's 2nd Assault Section, 602 Commando Company) tried to get up the summit of Bluff Cove Peak, but were driven off by D Squadron who killed two of the party, First Lieutenant Rubén Eduardo Márquez and Sergeant Óscar Humberto Blas.
First Lieutenant Márquez and Sergeant Blas had shown great personal courage and leadership in the contact and were posthumously awarded the Argentine Medal of Valour in Combat. During this contact, the SAS suffered two casualties from grenades. The Argentine Commandos stumbled on a camp occupied by 15 SAS troopers. Throughout 30 May, Royal Air Force Harriers were active over Mount Kent. One of them, responding to a call for help from D Squadron, was shot down by small arms fire while attacking Mount Kent's eastern lower slopes. Sub-Lieutenant Llambías-Pravaz's platoon was later credited with the destruction of the Harrier XZ 963 flown by Squadron-Leader Jerry Pook.
A heavy mist hung over the Murrell River area, which assisted the 45 Commando Recce Troop to reach and sometimes penetrate the Argentine 3rd Platoon position under Sub-Lieutenant Marcelo Llambías-Pravaz. Marine Andrew Tubb of Recce Troop was on these patrols:
We were actually inside the Argentine position, so we ended up shelling ourselves. We did a lot of patrols up to Two Sisters ... that time [6 June] we pepper-potted [fire and maneouver] for about 400 metres to get out [the 3rd Platoon sergeant, Ramón Valdez, had launched a counterambush.], through the Argy lines firing 66 [mm] rockets to fight through and regroup. We got artillery again to smoke us out. It took us well over an hour to get away and it seemed like a few minutes. We killed seventeen of them [two Army privates, Jose Romero and Andres Rodriguez, and three Sappers of a Marine mine-laying party were actually killed.], and all we had was one bloke with a flesh wound.— Robin Neillands, By Sea & Land: The Story of the Royal Marine Commandos, p. 402, Cassell Military Paperbacks, 2000
For his patrol action, Lieutenant Chris Fox received the Military Cross. In general terms, the Argentines were thoroughly entrenched, about 6,000 metres or less across no-man's-land. The Argentine positions were mined and heavily patrolled.
At about 2.10 am local time on 10 June a strong 45 Commando fighting patrol probed the 3rd Platoon position. In the ensuing fight Special Forces Sergeants Mario Antonio Cisneros and Ramón Gumercindo Acosta were killed; two more Argentine Special Forces lying in ambush for the Royal Marines were wounded. The British military historian Bruce Quarrie later wrote:
A constant series of patrols was undertaken at night to scout out and harass the enemy. Typical was the patrol sent out in the early hours of the morning of 10 June. Lieutenant David Stewart of X-Ray Company, 45 Commando, had briefed his men during the previous afternoon, and by midnight they were ready. Heavily armed, with two machine-guns per section, plus 66 mm rocket launchers and 2-inch mortars, the Troop moved off stealthily into the moonlit night towards a ridge some four km away where Argentine movement had been observed. Keeping well spaced out because of the good visibility, they moved across the rocky ground using the numerous shell holes for cover, and by 04.00 [1 am local time], were set to cross the final stretch of open ground in front of the enemy positions. Using a shallow stream for cover, they moved up the slope and deployed into position among the rocks in front of the Argentine trenches. With the help of a light-intensifying night scope, they could see sentries moving about. Suddenly, an Argentine machine-gun opened fire and the Marines launched a couple of flares from their mortar, firing back with their own machine-guns and rifles. Within seconds three Argentine soldiers and two [Royal] Marines were dead. Other figures could be seen running on the hill to the left, and four more Argentine soldiers fell to the accuracy of the Marines' fire. By this time, the Argentine troops further up the slope were wide awake, and a hail of fire forced the [British] Marines to crouch in the shelter of the rocks. The situation was becoming decidedly unhealthy and Lieutenant Stewart decided to retire, with the objective of killing and harassing the enemy well and truly accomplished. However, a machine-gun to the Marines' right was pouring fire over their getaway route, and Stewart sent his veteran Sergeant, Jolly, with a couple of other men to take it out [They knew they were cut off with what looked a poor chance of escape. In these circumstances any panic or break in morale and the game was up]. After a difficult approach with little cover, there was a short burst of fire and the Argentine machine-gun fell silent. Leapfrogging by sections, the Troop retreated to the stream, by which time the Argentine fire was falling short and there were no further casualties.— Bruce Quarrie, The Worlds Elite Forces, pp.53-54, Octopus Books Limited, 1985
Major Aldo Rico, commander of the 602 Commando Company (involved in a military revolt some years after the war, followed by a career in politics), had a lucky escape in this engagement, when an enemy 66mm projectile exploded uncomfortably close. Captain Hugo Ranieri, who took part in this intense engagement claims that First Lieutenant Jorge Vizoso Posse, although wounded, shot three of the retreating Royal Marines. On that same night (9–10 June), according to the British, a friendly fire incident occurred when British units of 45 Commando Royal Marines on reconnaissance patrol were mistaken for Argentine units in the dark and the British mortar group opened up on them, only to be met with a withering hail of fire from 45 Commando in return. In the confusion, five British troops died, including the mortar troop sergeant, and two were wounded. The next day, Sub-Lieutenant Llambías-Pravaz's men recovered the rucksacks and weapons the Royal Marines had been forced to leave behind and these were presented to Argentine war correspondents in Port Stanley that filmed and photographed the British equipment.
The Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre also carried out patrolling against Two Sisters; Sergeant Joseph Wassell and Lieutenant Fraser Haddow played an important part in the capture of the mountain when they discovered with their binoculars from their observation post on Goat Ridge, the command-detonated barrels of mines the Argentinian Marine engineers had dug in and planned to use on the eastern half of the mountain.
Captain Ian Gardiner's X-Ray Company spearheaded the attack on Two Sisters, accompanied by the unit's Commando-trained chaplain, the Revd Wynne Jones RN. Lieutenant James Kelly's 1 Troop took the western third of the spineback on the southern peak of Two Sisters ('Long Toenail'), with no fighting taking place. However at 11:30 pm local time, Lieutenant David Stewart's 3 Troop ran up against a very determined defence on the spineback and were unable to get forward. Beaten from their attempt to dislodge the Argentine 3rd Platoon, Lieutenant Chris Caroe's 2 Troop threw themselves at the platoon, but the attack was dispersed with the help of artillery fire. For three or four hours X Ray Company were pinned down on the slopes of the mountain. Naval gunfire rippled back and forth across the mountain, but the Argentine 3rd Platoon of Llambías-Pravaz held the Royal Marines off and were not dislodged until about 2.30 am local time. Colonel Andrew Whitehead realized that a single company could not hope to secure Two Sisters without massive casualties, and brought up the unit's two other companies.
At about 12:30 am local time Yankee and Zulu Companies attacked the northern peak ('Summer Days') and after a very hard two-hour fight against two rifle platoons and despite heavy machine-gun and mortar fire, succeeded in capturing 'Summer Days'. The Argentine mortar platoon commander, Lieutenant Martella, after having consumed all of his ammunition in an earlier attempt to stop the advance of 42 CDO on Mount Harriet was killed in this action. The British Marines also lost two platoon commanders wounded in the Argentine mortar bombardments with Marine Chris Cooke later recalling, "The three officers in my company pledged to have a drink together at the other end of the island, but only one made it, the other two left with shrapnel wounds." The Z Company platoon commander, Lieutenant Clive Dytor, won the Military Cross by rallying his 8 Troop and leading it forward at bayonet point to take 'Summer Days'. He later recalled "I began listening to our rate of fire and I realised we were going to run out of ammunition. Then I remembered a line in a book about the Black Watch in the Second World War. They were pinned down and the adjutant stood up and shouted, 'Is this the Black Watch? Charge!’ What I didn’t remember, until I read it again later, was that he was actually cut in half at that point by a German machine gun. The next thing I knew I was up and running on my own, shouting, 'Zulu, Zulu, Zulu’, which was our company battle cry and also the battle cry of my father’s old regiment, [the] South Wales Borderers."
Second Lieutenant Aldo Eugenio Franco and his RI 6 platoon, after having scrapped a planned counterattack in support of Major Cordon because the defenders no longer held the peaks, covered the Argentine withdrawal and prevented Yankee Company from attacking C Company as it withdrew from Two Sisters. Augusto Esteban La Madrid, a second lieutenant in the local reserve tasked with assisting Major Cordon, told British historian Martin Middlebrook that, during the final clashes, "Subteniente Franco's platoon was left as a rearguard, but he made it back to Tumbledown OK". Private Oscar Ismael Poltronieri who held up Yankee Company with accurate shooting with his rifle and a machine-gun, was awarded the Argentine Nation to the Heroic Valour in Combat Cross (CHVC), the highest Argentine decoration for bravery. Sub-Lieutenant Nazer had been wounded covering the withdrawal and the remnants of his platoon having been placed under the command of Corporal Virgilio Rafael Barrientos, took up positions on Sapper Hill. Sub-Lieutenants Mosquera and Pérez Grandi had been wounded in the British bombardment, and the remnants of their platoons were put under the command of Captain Carlos López Patterson, the Operations Officer of the 4th Regiment, who took up blocking positions in the ground between Mount Tumbledown and Wireless Ridge alongside the dismounted 10th Armoured Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron under Captain Rodrigo Alejandro Soloaga, engaging at times with heavy machinegun and mortar fire the forward 3 PARA elements on Mount Longdon throughout the daylight hours of 12 and 13 June.
The next morning Colonel Andrew Whitehead looked in wonderment at the strength of the positions the enemy had abandoned. "With fifty Royals," he said, "I could have died of old age holding this place." (Max Hastings, Going To The Wars, p. 363, Macmillan 2000) Although the British unit seemed at the time to have had an easy victory, those actually engaged with the enemy platoons would have been unlikely to agree. Thirty years later, Marine Keith Brown recalled the fighting for the northern peak and concluded "My impression of a night attack was that it was nothing like I expected it to be – in terms of a fairly ordered affair with people running and taking out machine gun nests. It was just hugely confusing. It was fairly arbitrary as to who seemed to be injured – lots of bangs and flashes and very loud noises. You had naval artillery and mortars and heavy and light small arms fire as well. It was terrifying, to be honest. I don’t know how my colleagues felt. We were pretty much pinned down and we came under direct fire from the Argentinians. Up to that point it was all to do with artillery and mortar rounds, but this was direct fire and they were using what seemed to us to be tracers, which was pretty daft. So, you could see where their fields of fire were and we were down low on the ground.
British-American historian Hugh Bicheno has been critical of the 6th Infantry Regiment's 'B' Company who, he claims, withdrew in a disorderly manner from front-line positions at the opening of the battle, although this seems to have little foundation. Brigadier-General Oscar Luis Jofre had certainly been planning to counterattack on Two Sisters but with the defenders no longer in possession of the twin peaks, he ordered the abandonment of the feature and later wrote All of a sudden, we suffer the first emotional impact. It was 04.45 when we received reports from Major Jaimet saying that the defenders on Two Sisters could no longer resist the enemy attack and would begin their withdrawal. Major Oscar Ramón Jaimet has gone on record, saying in the Argentinean newspaper La Gaceta that he had designated Sub-Lieutenant Franco to cover the Argentinean withdrawal and that Argentinean artillery fire was brought down in error amongst the company. Indeed, the company withdrew in good order, according to the Spanish-speaking warrant officer attached to 3 Commando Brigade Headquarters in the fighting. The Argentine Army Official Report on the war recommended Major Oscar Ramon Jaimet and CSM Jorge Edgardo Pitrella of the 6th Regiment's B Company for an MVC (Argentine Nation to the Valour in Combat Medal) for the conduct of their fighting withdrawal and subsequent behaviour on Tumbledown (this was later granted to Major Jaimet, Pitrella was awarded the Argentine Army to the Effort and Abnegation Medal).
Sergeant-Major George Meachin of Yankee Company, later praised the fighting abilities and spirit of the Argentine defenders:
|“||We came under lots of effective fire from 0.50 caliber machine guns ...At the same time, mortars were coming down all over us, but the main threat was from those machine-gunners who could see us in the open because of the moonlight. There were three machine-guns and we brought down constant and effective salvoes of our own artillery fire on to them directly, 15 rounds at a time. There would be a pause, and they'd come back at us again. So we had to do it a second time, all over their positions. There'd be a pause, then 'boom, boom, boom,' they'd come back at us again. Conscripts don't do this, babies don't do this, men who are badly led and of low morale don't do this. They were good steadfast troops. I rate them.||”|
Hugh Bicheno described the moonscape of devastation:
Although Wireless Ridge and the saddle between Tumbledown and William are still heavily scarred, even after more than twenty years the beaten zone between the Two Sisters bear the most eloquent witness to the awesome power of the British artillery, which fired 1,500 shells at the Two Sisters that night. The still-churned area occupied by Nazer's platoon in particular leaves one in no doubt why they decamped immediately, while the saddle itself is dimpled with craters, testimony to the tenacity of Martella's Heavy machine guns and mortars.— Hugh Bicheno, Razor's Edge: The Unofficial History of the Falklands War, p. 242, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006
With the telephone lines to the command post in shreds, Llambías Pravaz led his men to join M Company, 5th Marine Infantry Battalion on Sapper Hill. He had nearly been killed in the fighting when a rock impacted his helmet after a Milan missile exploded close behind him.
The X-Ray Company Marines were in awe of the Argentines in the depleted 3rd Platoon who had put up such determined resistance, and their company commander, Captain Gardiner in the book Above All, Courage (Above all, courage: the Falklands front line : first-hand accounts, Max Arthur, p. 289, Sidwick & Jackson, 1985) later said:
|“||A hard cadre of some twenty men had stayed behind and fought, and they were brave men. Those who stayed and fought had something. I for one would not wish to face my Marines in battle.||”|
A lone rifleman on 'Long Toenail' held out long after resistance had ended on the mountain. There was a humorous moment when the Revd. Wynne Jones was challenged by the Marines and called out that he was 45 Commando's padre and had forgotten the password.
Some 30 years later, Marine Nick Hunt of X-Ray Company got in contact with Sub-Lieutenant Marcelo Llambías-Pravaz, and in a televised reunion on the southern peak of the mountain, he returned the pictures he had found of the army officer and his platoon of conscripts the morning after the Royal Marines had stormed the position.
Seven Royal Marine Commandos and a sapper from 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers were killed taking Two Sisters. Another 17, including platoon commanders (Lieutenants Fox, Dunning and Davies) were wounded. Some 20 Argentines entrusted with the defence of Two Sisters were killed in the first eleven days of June and the night of the battle, another 50 were wounded and 54 taken prisoner.
HMS Glamorgan, which was providing Naval gunfire support (NGS) stayed in her position to support the Royal Marine Commandos who were pinned down. Glamorgan stayed past the time she was meant to leave and was hit by a land based Exocet missile, thirteen crew were killed as a result of this attack.
For bravery shown in the attack on Two Sisters, men from 45 Commando were awarded one DSO, three Military Crosses, one Distinguished Conduct Medal and four Military Medals. A commando from 29 Commando received a Military Medal as did a man from the M&AW Cadre.
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- 45 COMMANDO'S approach to and Battle for TWO SISTERS
- 'Zulu!': The Battle for Two Sisters
- CAPTAIN IAN GARDINER recalls the fighting
- Argentine conscripts re-live Two Sisters battle
- Two Sisters Mountain: The Argentinian Story
- Lieutenant Clive Dytor remembers his role during the attack on Two Sisters. He was awarded the MC (accessed Sunday 25 March 2012)
- MOD news: Marines in emotional return to the Falklands