After the apparent success of the landings at San Carlos, the commander of 3 Commando Brigade – Brigadier Julian Thompson – was under pressure to break out and fight the bulk of the Argentine land forces on East Falkland. This is a quandry often seen in amphibious operations – a desire on the one hand by politicians and higher commanders to win the war quickly, and a more cautious approach by the commander in the field on the other. But with a finite limit to operations – after which the task forces ships would fall apart – the war had to be won. And sooner rather than later.
Knowing that the Argentines had a significant garrison around the settlements of Darwin and Goose Green to the south-east of San Carlos, Thompson planned a raid to attack and captured the settlements. He would probably have preferred not to – early plans had intended for the area to be bypassed – but leaving the Goose Green garrison alone would have left his right flank open in the advance to Stanley. And also, he was under pressure to break out of San Carlos. While there were not enough troops to begin the march to Stanley- and with the loss of helicopter lift this march would take much longer anyway – an attack on Goose Green was feasible.
Thompson detailed 2 Para for the attack, as they were located on Sussex Mountains, nearest Goose Green from San Carlos. 2 Para, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel ‘H’ Jones, number three Rifle Companies, a Patrol Company, and a support company with mortars and anti-tank weapons. In support were three 105mm guns of the Royal Artillery, Scout helicopters for resupply and casualty evacuation, Sea Harriers on call for air bombardment, and naval gunfire support from the Frigate HMS Arrow. The Argentine settlement numbered over a thousands Army and Air Force personnel. The bulk comprised 12 Infantry Regiment and a company from the commando-trained 25 Infantry Regiment. The garrison was supported by six 20mm Rheinmetall cannons, two radar-laid Oerlikon guns and four 105mm howitzers. Pucaras at Goose Green airstrip were armed with Napalm munitions. Hence 2 Para faced a very stiff task – attacking a numerically superior enemy, who had time to dig into prepared positions, and had a superiority of heavy weapons. The terrain and geography also suited the defender – the narrow isthmus restricting room for maneouvre.
2 Para marched down to Camilla Creek House, just north of their start line. During the final planning of their attack the men were startled to be informed by the BBC World Service that they were about to attack Goose Green. The World Service, of course, was being listened to by the Argentines, who therefore knew that the attack was imminent. An angry Jones threatened to sue the BBC, Whitehall and the War Cabinet. Thus 2 Para had almost certainly lost the advantage of surprise.
At 0230 on 28 May 2 Para launched its attack, with the objective of using darkness to capture Goose Green ‘by Breakfast’. There followed an intense, bitter battle. 2 Para quickly came upon strong opposition, from Argentine troops dug in on Darwin Hill. Momentum seemed to be lost. At this point Jones took the initiative, leading the Adjutant and A Company’s second-in-command in a charge up a gully in which both men were killed. Soon after Jones assaulted an Argentine trench. He was hit twice. The trench was captured, but he died within minutes. The Scout helicopter sent to evacuate him was shot down by a Pucara.
Jones’s second-in-command, Major Chris Keeble, took over a battle at a critical phase. 2 Para were well short of their objective, and caught in daylight against strong opposition. It was almost midday before the attack regained impetus, with A Company clearing the east side of Darwin Hill, and B Company taking Boca House in the west. At one point during the battle for the airfield the Argentines fires anti-aircraft guns at the attacking Paras. But with momentum regained, the evening found 2 Para on the outskirts of Goose Green settlement. Thompson flew in Juliet Company of 42 Commando to Darwin to reinforce 2 Para. The Argentines, meanwhile, prepared to fly in a company from 6 Regiment to reinforce their Garrison.
However, the next day the Garrison commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Piaggi, surrendered his forces, after an appeal from Keeble to avoid further loss of life. The Paras were astounded when a thousand men laid down their arms. 17 British personnel had been killed and 64 wounded, while 50 Argentines were killed and 120 were wounded.
Goose Green was a notable victory for the Paras. It was reminiscent of some of ther Regiment’s proudest moments, in particular the battle to reach Arnhem Bridge in September 1944. Goose Green showed that experienced, well trained men – many of whom had experience of Northern Ireland – could upset the odds against a numerically superior enemy. On the flip side, Goose Green showed that even badly led, badly equipped and badly trained conscripts can still put up a stern fight when operating heavy weapons and sited in prepared positions.
H Jones was awarded a posthumous VC for his bravery at Goose Green. There have been two very different schools of thought about Jones’s actions at Goose Green. Whilst on the one hand he was showing supreme leadership by leading by example, on the other hand, was he being reckless? Did he deprive his Battalion of its commanding officer when they most needed him? Personally, I try and keep an open mind. I know it’s a cliche in military history circles, but those of us who were not there will find it very hard to understand.