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The Argentine Invasion of South Georgia

South Georgia

In late 1979 an Argentine scrap metal dealer named Constantino Davidoff bought the rights to three derelict whaling stations at Leith on the small South Atlantic Island of South Georgia. The island was uninhabited apart from some scientists of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who were stationed at Grytviken 20 miles from Leith. The islands were administrated by the Governor of the Falklands, 800 miles to the north. Steve Martin commanded the BAS Station.

On 19 of March 1982, after gaining authorization from the British Embassy, 41 Argentinean workmen employed by Davidoff arrived at Leith, aboard the Argentine Navy transport Bahia Buen Suceso, commanded by Captain Briatore. Among the workmen (covertly at first) were a group of tactical divers from the Argentine Navy's Special Forces (Buzo Tactico). This formation operated along the same lines as the US Navy Seals. They were under the command of Lieutenant Commander Alfredo Astiz, who was wanted in several European countries after the disappearances of some Europeans in Argentina a few years earlier.

Argentine workmen

The British Embassy had told Davidoff, that Captain Briatore would have to report to the BAS station upon his arrival on British territory. This he did not do. Whether this undiplomatic act was planned to provoke the British Government, has never been established. However, the Argentines next move certainly got the attention of Whitehall.  Astiz paraded his men, now in uniform, raised the Argentine flag on a building and fired a rifle volley. This made the Argentines' intentions all too clear to four BAS scientists monitoring the Argentine activities. Next morning, the 20th of March, Trevor Edwards, a BAS team leader, met with Captain Briatore in Leif and delivered a message from his Government in London:

You have landed at Leith without obtaining proper clearance. You and your party must go back on board the Bahia Buen Suces immediately and report to the base commander at Grytviken for further instructions. You must remove the Argentine flag from Leith. You must not interfere with the British Antarctic Survey depot at Leith. You must not alter or deface the notices at Leith. No military personnel are allowed to land on South Georgia and no firearms are to be taken ashore.


The Argentines reluctantly lowered their flag, but no attempt was made by them to report to Martin at Grytviken. 800 miles away in Port Stanley, Governor Rex Hunt was starting to get concerned about the way diplomatic events were turning. He requested that H.M.S.Endurance return to South Georgia (she had just arrived from Grytviken) with a detachment of 22 Royal Marines, to observe the Argentine activities at Leith. After first unloading an officer and ten ratings, Endurance sailed from Port Stanley on the 20th of March, arriving off Grytviken on the 23rd. The 22 Royal Marines were commanded by Lieutenant Keith Paul Mills RM. Mills would later be known within the Royal Marine circles as " Fairly Famous "  because of his part in the up coming events.

The Ice Patrol Ship H.M.S. Endurance ( nick named The Red Plum ) had for the last 15 years, ploughed the seas of the South Atlantic every summer, carrying out scientific work and supporting the BAS stations. She carried two Wasp helicopters and was armed with two 20 mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns. Since 1980 her captain had been Captain Nick Barker. This was to be Endurance's last trip to the South Atlantic. After returning to the UK, she was to be scrapped.

Barker was aware of the Argentines " Drum Beating " long before Whitehall took any notice. Over the last two years Endurance had often visited Argentinean and Chilean Navy ports and Barker had gone out of his way to form a rapport with senior Argentine and Chilean Navy officers. This did not go down well with the Foreign office. In January 1982 while visiting the Argentine base of Puerto Belgrano, Barker was told by a senior Argentine Officer "There's to be a war against the Malvinas. I don't know when, but soon. " Barker reported this and other rumours he had been told by Chilean officers, to London. The report was ignored.


The Argentine Junta had decided that they were going to make a point in South Georgia. On the night of the 24th the Argentine Naval Transport ship Bahia Paraiso, captained by Trombetta, anchored in Stromness Bay south of Leith, and landed, unobserved, 12 Argentine Marines by landing craft.  The Bahia Paraiso carried a Puma and Alouette helicopters. Two of Mill's Royal Marines had been stationed on Jason Peak, overlooking Stromness Bay.

Next morning they reported the presence of Bahia Paraiso.  Mills decided he needed to get a closer look, so accompanied by senior NCO, Sergeant Major Peter Leach (a veteran of many of Britain's Small Wars) he landed at the foot of Olsen Valley from a BAS lunch. From there they climbed up Harbour Point, 600 meters above Leith. From this height they watched the Argentines unloading stores and could see the Argentine Marines wandering about.

Barker had also decided to " Take a peak " at what was happening at Leith. Taking one of Endurance's Wasps, he was flown by Commander Tony Ellerbeck and Lieutenant Wells to Tonsberg Point, and from there they walked up a small hill to observe Leigh. On board Bahia Paraisothe, the Royal Navy Wasp was spotted and the Alouette helicopter flown by Lieutenant Busson and Trombetta was scrambled.  Barker and his party soon joined up with Mills and Sergeant Major Leach. On seeing the Alouette helicopter heading their way, the British decided to leave. The Argentines made a quick pass over Barker, then returned and hovered over the five men.  Trombetta made an age-old rude gesture towards the British that was plainly seen by Barker then 


 flew off. Mills and Barker agreed that it was now pointless to try and observe the Argentines this close and placed a lookout on the Busen Peninsula.


On the 29th Trombetta took the Bahia Paraiso out of Stromness Bay and disappeared into the South Atlantic. Barker and Endurance were ordered by London to find her. After three days Barker found the Bahia Paraiso cruising 15 miles off Cumberland Bay. For days the two ships played a game of hide and seek among the icebergs, until Barker was ordered to return to Grytviken and land Mills and his Marines. He was then to head back to the Falklands to give whatever help he could against the now expected Argentinean invasion. Mills and his Royal Marines made themselves at home in Shackleton House in Grytviken. London informed Mills via Endurance that if the Argentines tried to occupy Grytviken he was to use the Yellow Card rules of engagement, normally used in Northern Ireland, which was hardly any use against an invading force. Steve Martin and his BAS team were not too pleased about having these unwanted visitors in the usually quiet Grytviken. Martin was to remain in charge of Grytviken, unless the Argentines arrived at the station with thoughts of aggression. If that happened, Mills would take charge making the BAS team civilians. Martin also decided to send three of his team to St. Andrews Bay to join two women wild life photographers, Cindy Buxton and Annie Price.

On the 2nd of April, Lieutenant Commander Astiz, the senior Argentine officer at Leith, assembled his troops and informed them that the Malvinas had been retaken from the British and from that day forth South Georgia was part of Argentina and was to be called " Isal San Pedro ". The Argentine national anthem was played as their flag was raised. Mills at Grytviken also heard the news that Stanley had been invaded. Realizing that Grytviken would be next on the Argentines' shopping list, he sent Corporal Nigel Peters and three Marines to the Jason Peak OP, while he and Sergeant Major Leach planned the defence of Grytviken.

Mills chose a 35 ft plateau behind Shackleton House as his main defensive position.  As it was still summer and the grass was high, the plateau offered excellent concealment for four two-man and two three-man trenches, from which the Marines could cover the approaches to Grytviken and King Edward Point. Corporal Thomsen's 5-man section armed with a GPMG placed themselves in front of Shackleton House, ready to bring down fire on any one trying to land on the beach. Marines Daniels, Porter and Church, mined the beach in front of the Customs house. 


They also mined some of the other buildings with home made explosives made from empty ammunition cases and bits of metal. On the jetty they placed a command detonated 45-gallon oil drum filled with a very unpleasant combination of petrol, paint and PE. Mills overall plan was to hold out until nightfall, bug out, and head North for Maiviken, where he and his men would try and carry out a guerrilla war against the Argentines.

During the day of the 2nd, while the Marines were preparing their positions, Captain Trombetta sailed the Bahia Paraiso close to Grytviken. Trombetta radioed Martin and told him to stand by for an important message. Mills radioed Barker aboard Endurance, which after receiving new orders was now racing back to South Georgia after being " buggered about " as Barker called it. Barker passed on a message to Mills tom London saying " The officer commanding Royal Marines is not, repeat not, to take any action which may endanger lives " This seemed very confusing to both Mills and Barker.  How would Mills resist an Argentine invasion if he was not allowed to open fire?

At dawn on the 3rd, Marine Peters at the Jason Peak OP radioed that he had sighted the Bahia Paraiso refuelling an Argentine warship and cross decking Argentinean troops to the Bahia Paraiso. This warship was a French Type A69 frigate called Guerrico, armed with twin Exocets, dual-purpose 100 mm semi-automatic gun and a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun. The troops Peters had seen cross decking were Argentine Marines commanded by Second Lieutenant Luna. Soon after making his report, Peters and the three Marines with him were picked up by Sergeant Major Leach in a Gemini and returned to Grytviken.

Just after 9.30am, the Alouette helicopter flown by Lieutenant Busson, took off from the Bahia Paraiso and headed for Grytviken.  Busson was to see if he could see any signs of a British military presence at Grytviken. Mills kept his men well out of sight and despite flying over Grytviken for ten minutes, Busson could see no sign of defences or troops. He returned to the Bahia Paraiso and reported this to Trombetta and Astiz. At 10 am Trombetta sailed the Bahia Paraiso into Cumberland East Bay. He then radioed Steve Martin and stated the following.

"Following our successful operation in the Malvinas, your ex-governor has unconditionally surrendered the Falkland Islands and its dependencies. We suggest you adopt a similar course of action to prevent further loss of life. A cease fire is now in force."

This statement contained many lies. Firstly, Hunt had only surrendered  the Falklands and NOT its dependencies. Secondly there was no such cease-fire in effect.  Martin replied repeating what Trombetta had just said and asked for some time to consider. He was buying time in the hope that Endurance would return. When  Martin had replied to Trombetta he pretended that his VHF set was not working and used his HF set instead. Knowing that Endurance's radio would pickup the message as well. 

On the bridge of Endurance, Barker was informed of the Argentines message to Martin and broke radio silence to try and get in touch with Mills to release him from his rules of engagement and to "defend if he was provoked " The message was sent, but because of bad weather no reply was heard from Mills, who never received the message, although almost every other radio station in the region heard Barkers message, including the Argentines.

Meanwhile back at Grytviken, Trombetta radioed Martin to say that he was sending Argentine troops ashore and ordered Martin to assemble all remaining 13 members of the BAS team on the beach. Martin informed him that if the Argentines landed any troops at Grytviken, it would be seen as an illegal act and they would be met by the British military presence on the island. Trombetta thought Martin was bluffing as his helicopter reconnaissance earlier had not seen any signs of British troops. Mills now took over command from Martin as it was obvious that the Argentines were coming.

At 12pm Trombetta brought the Bahia Paraiso into Cumberland East Bay and launched Bussan's Alouette helicopter with seven Argentine Marines on board. Busson headed towards Grytviken. At the same time the frigate Guerrico captained by Commander Alfonso, came into the bay and trained her guns on Shackleton House. Mills and Marine Daniels walked unarmed down to the jetty, expecting the Argentines to send a boat. He was surprised to see Bussan's Alouette land at the end of King Edward Point and debark the seven Argentine Marines. The fifth Marine to leave the helicopter saw Mills and Daniels and aimed his weapon at them. Mills did a smart about turn and he and Daniels sprinted back to their positions on the plateau. The Alouette quickly departed leaving the Argentine Marines to take cover in the near by buildings. So far no shots had been fired, but that was all about to change.

Crashed Puma

At the same time Mills reached his trench, 1st Lieutenant Alejandro Villagra piloting a Puma Helicopter lifted off from the Bahia Paraiso carrying another 15 argentine Marines to reinforce the seven already ashore. Villagra brought the Puma too close to Mount Hodges, and Mills gave his men the order to open fire. A hail of fire hit the Puma. Two Argentinean Marines  were instantly killed and several wounded, but Villagra and his co-pilot were amazingly unhurt and managed to stop the helicopter from dropping out of the sky. 

Both pilots managed to coax the smoking aircraft across the bay to the Hummocks were it crashed and rolled over on its side, injuring more Marines.  The seven Marines already ashore started to advance on Shackleton House. Lance Corporal Thomsen waited until they were within 100 yards of his position, then told Marine Holding manning a GPMG to let them have it, which he did. The Argentine Marines dived for cover in the near by buildings. The Battle of Grytviken had now started.

Trombetta now realized that there was in fact a very healthy British military presence at Grytviken and ordered Alfonso to bring Guerrico closer in and  to bombard King Edward Point. The Argentines now knew where Mills and his Marines where positioned and opened fire with Guerrico's 100 mm semi-automatic gun. But even at maximum depression the shells smashed into the scree behind the plateau. Frustrated, Alfonso brought Guerrico closer in, broadside to the Royal Marines. Mills waited until the frigate was 550 meters from his position, then ordered his men to open fire with every weapon they had. A Type A69 frigate is a very big target and the Guerrico shook under the impact of thousands of rounds ripping though her thin structure.


Marine David Combes, who was normally the ships steward on Endurance now placed his name in naval history books by firing his Carl Gustav 84 mm anti tank weapon at the Guerrico.  The Royal Marines watched as the 10lb projectile staggered across the waves and then, on its last legs, smashed into Guerrico's hull just above the waterline, sending up a column of white water.  They then heard a loud rumble come from inside the ship. Below decks Argentine damage control parties struggled to stop the flow of water that was now coming though the hole.

Gustav 84 mm anti tank weaponThe explosion killed one Argentine sailor and wounded several others. It also destroyed many electrical cables, including the ones used to power the 100 mm gun's traverse mechanism making the gun useless at this close range. The aft 40 mm was still working until Marines Parsons and Chubb cut down the Argentine gun crew with their LMG. Alfonso was having a hard time trying to manoeuvre the big ship quickly inside the small bay. He knew he had to get out of the bay quickly. As the ship came about, Sergeant Major Leach lying on a table up stairs in Shackleton House, took his time and fired 15 shots into the bridge with his sniper rifle. This caused panic and confusion as officers and sailors trying to steer the ship had to take cover. With the ship turned,  Alfonso steered the ship out of the bay, but she had to run the gauntlet of fire from the Royal Marines again before getting out of range. Marine Combes let go another 84 mm at the frigate that smashed into the hull below the Exocets. The Marines also managed to hit Guerrico at least twice with 66 mm rockets. Corporal Peters was severely wounded in the arm while standing to fire his 66 mm. The rifle shot had come from one of the Argentine Marines in the buildings near Shackleton House.

Guerrico finally made her way out of range.  Later an Argentine officer counted over 1,000 hits to her structure. The Royal Marines had taken on a warship, and won the fight. While the ship to shore battle had been taking place, Bussan's Alouette helicopter had been ferrying more Argentine Marines ashore, out of range of the British. These Marines soon advanced and joined the others in Grytviken. Guerrico now out of British range managed to fire off a salvo that bracketed Mills positions. Mills knew he had proved a point and informed his men he intended to surrender. This decision did not go down well with the veteran Sergeant Major Leach, but he obeyed his officer and passed the word to all the Marines to cease-fire.


Mills left his position and holding  a white coat to signify a flag of truce, walked towards the Argentine positions. An Argentine Marine left cover and met Mills halfway. Mills explained to the Argentine Marine that he wished to speak to the Commander of the Argentinean forces saying he was prepared to surrender his party of Royal Marines to prevent further blood shed. Mills's message was passed to Astiz, who immediately came ashore and accepted Mills's surrender. When the Royal Marines left their positions and marched into captivity, the Argentines were shocked to find out that it had only been a force of 22 Royal Marines that had almost destroyed their invasion plans and damaged their frigate.  Because of this the Royal Marines were treated with great respect by their captors. Mills advised Astiz that his men had heavily booby-trapped the jetty. Astiz asked that Marine Daniels ( who had placed the booby traps ) would care to remove his unpleasant surprises. Daniels obliged although it was contrary to the Geneva Convention.  The only British casualty, Corporal Peters, was taken aboard the Bahia Paraiso and received expert treatment from an Argentine doctor on board.

Ellerbeck and Wells

By this time Barker aboard Endurance had arrived back in the area. Barker placed Endurance out of sight  of Grytviken and sent his Wasp helicopter,  flown by Commander Tony Ellerbeck and Lieutenant Wells, to see what was happening at Grytviken. The Wasp crew landed their helicopter on the mountains high above Grytviken unobserved. The two officers walked forward and peered over the edge  and witnessed the Royal Marines attack on the Guerrico. Returning to their aircraft they quickly radioed Barker aboard Endurance, asking for permission to attack the Argentine warship with their rockets. Barker refused them permission because

of his orders from London. They quickly returned to Endurance and reported what they had seen.

Barker addressed the crew of Endurance saying We're out side range of the Argentines at the moment, in fact we're a lot closer than my directions have allowed me to be. We're supposed to be 150 miles from South Georgia, but as you can see if you look out, we're a lot closer to South Georgia than that. ( Endurance was in fact just 1 mile off the coast of South Georgia ) My directions are NOT, regrettably, to go into Grytviken and zap the Argentine frigate Guerrico, which we could well have done this morning while she was at anchor. But my orders are not to fire unless we're provoked. Well maybe we're provoking them by being here. And if we do provoke them, we'll give them as good as we get.

This address to the ships crew by Barker, was very much the Nelson touch. Endurance was only armed with two 20 mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns and her two Wasps. Frustrated that he'd seen this coming all along, Barker took Endurance away from South Georgia to await the arrival of the Task Force.

Lieutenant Keith Mills RM

The Royal Marines, except Mills, were disarmed and searched before being ferried out to the Bahia Paraiso were they were placed under guard in cabins below the flight deck. On shore the Argentines rounded up the BAS team including Steve Martin, who had been sheltering from the fighting in a cold and wet gully, dressed in only a shirt and slacks. Shortly after dusk, Mills and the BAS team were also ferried out to Bahia Paraiso, which then sailed for the Argentinean mainland. She docked the next day in Rio Grande, where the Argentine dead and wounded ( including Peters ) were taken ashore. 

The Royal Marines and the BAS team were then transported to Bahia Blanca Naval Base. On the 15th Mills and Martin agreed to be interviewed by a tribunal of senior Argentine Naval officers who wanted to find out about the conduct of Argentine forces during the invasion of South Georgia. Mills however refused to allow his junior NCOs to be interviewed.

Sergeant Major Leach was also interviewed by the Argentines, who were very disappointed with his name, rank and number answers. On the 16th the entire British party ( including the last of NP 8901, Cpl. York's party ) were taken to a nearby airfield and flown to Uruguay, were they were handed over to British Embassy officials. On the 19th of April the Royal Marines and the BAS party were flown to Brize Norton in a RAF VC-10. During the flight members of the Joint Service Interrogation Wing and the Intelligence Corps heavily debriefed them.

On arrival in England, Mills and his Marines were treated as heroes by the British press and public. Mills was awarded  the Distinguished Service Cross, Captain Barker was made a Commander of the British Empire and Sergeant Major Leach the Distinguished Service Medal. Marine David Combes was mentioned in Dispatches for his effort in almost sinking an Argentinean warship. Mills and his Marines, after a short leave, returned to their ship H.M.S. Endurance off Grytviken  on the 25th of May. They  had traveled back to South Georgia via Ascension Island, where they had the great satisfaction of guarding Astiz and the other Argentines who had been captured on South Georgia on the 27th of April.

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