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By Robert Beckhusen, War Is Boring
In late May 1982, British troops slogged across the broken, hilly muck of East Falkand with the objective of pinning in place and defeating the Argentine Army — which the British would do two weeks later.
But the campaign leading up to the Argentine defeat was not short on pitched clashes and lengthy, hilltop firefights. What’s also striking about the final weeks of the Falklands War is that the era pit two technologically matched adversaries — in most respects — against each other in an infantry battle.
One brief and obscure firefight occurred at the Top Malo House, an abandoned shepherd’s house occupied by 16 Argentine soldiers of the 1st Assault Section, 602 Commando Company. From the position, the commandos could observe British maneuvers and threaten aircraft with shoulder-fired Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles.
The task of knocking out the position fell to a group of Royal Marines with the Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre — a “less celebrated” but no-less-tough elite unit compared to the SAS and SBS, according to historians Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins.
The 19 Marines were just about evenly matched with the Argentine commandos, but these were actually uneven odds according to the general military rule that an attacker should outnumber a defender by at least three times the defender’s strength, given the inherent advantages of the defense.
The Marines made up the difference with firepower.
First, they disembarked from a Sea King helicopter around 1.5 kilometers away from the Top Malo House, jumping into partially frozen bog. A grueling hike followed before the group split into two sections, a fire support group and an assault group.
The fire group contained six men with an L42 bolt-action sniper rifle, two L1A1 semi-automatic battle rifles and three Armalites. But the main weapons were 66-millimeter M72 LAW rockets … anti-tank weapons. The assault group carried LAWs, M79 grenade launchers and automatic rifles.
Sgt. Derek Wilson, a veteran of the battle, recounted the clash in a 1983 magazine history of the war published by the Marshall Cavendish company. Two hours after dawn on May 31, the commandos let their rockets and grenades rip. Eight rockets went into the structure. Then, according to Wilson:
There were two M79s in the fire group and two in the assault group so the firepower was quite devastating. We assaulted in text-book fashion, the fire group firing in as we assaulted at right angles. The enemy came out of the house, and they seemed to be very well prepared — 95 percent had webbing on, all were carrying weapons, all had boots and jackets on. And they came out shooting, so at this point we had two guys hit, one in the upper chest, one in the bicep.
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The attack seemed to go in very quickly, all we seemed to be doing was running forward, diving for cover, reloading, up again, firing, running for cover — we seemed to be doing this all the time. I couldn’t see any of the enemy because all I was doing was concentrating on lobbing M79 rounds into the buildings. We swept round, cleared the position, and by this time the Argentines had surrendered under our superior firepower. We reorged (reorganized in a position of all-round defence) and made our ammunition and casualty reports before putting out sentries and clearing up.
Two Argentinian commandos were killed, at least one by an exploding M79 grenade inside the house. Fires started by the exploding rockets cooked off the Argentines’ ammunition store. At least 10 other Argentinians were captured, four of them wounded.
While it was a complete defeat for the Argentine troops, the wounds suffered by the assaulting Brits probably owed to Argentine preparedness — as they likely heard the incoming Sea King helicopter before the attack.
The two wounded British Marines were hit badly. Marine Terry Doyle was shot in the arm, and the round “took out the bicep, broke his arm and one of the main arteries, and did quite a lot of damage to him,” Wilson recalled.
The skirmish was small and remains an anecdote in the larger history of the war, but it was an important step in clearing Argentine observation posts ahead of the main British advance. It also appeared in a 1988 U.S. Army study on military cohesion in the Falklands War — which credited British “luck, ingenuity and superior training” for the victory.
This is not to say the Argentine soldiers were weak or unwilling to fight, which tabloid media often alleged after the war. However, it is true the Argentine military suffered from poor morale. Physical and psychological abuse inflicted by officers on lower-ranked personnel occurred at epidemic levels.
The Argentine military also lacked realistic training, war-time experiences and skills learned from such experiences that are passed down over generations of military service members.
But specialized groups of Argentine soldiers — such as artillery units, helicopter pilots, certain infantry regiments and the commandos — could be extremely deadly and fierce opponents. These soldiers and airmen often received greater training, to boot.
And these soldiers and airmen were quite proud of their jobs.
Capt. Rod Boswell, the Marines’ commander during the battle, felt the Argentine commandos at Top Malo House were formidable, according to the U.S. Army study.
Their professionalism left something to be desired. They made up for their lack of professionalism by their courage. They certainly didn’t lack for courage. I know when I got back that the hysteria of the press left something to be desired. In terms of saying that all the Argentines are cowards that they ran away. That’s simply not true. Every (Argentine) man got out of the house … and they all fought with their weapons.