The Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982 led to a 74-day war that saw the British assemble an amphibious taskforce, sail over 8000 miles and retake the colony. The campaign witnessed large-scale ground battles between Western-equipped forces, aerial battles and the only sinking to date of a warship by a nuclear submarine. But amongst the rather frantic battles taking place on, around and above the Falklands, one fight on a remote island hundreds of miles away from the main theatre stands out.
South Georgia is a rocky, ice covered island 967 miles from the Falklands in the middle of the Southern Atlantic. To its south the next landmass is Antarctica. In the past it had housed whaling stations and sealers but by April 1982 these industries had long been derelict and abandoned. The only inhabitants were a small party of scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and a short platoon of twenty-two Royal Marines, who had been dispatched from the Falklands to roust off a party of Argentine commandos and civilians that had raised the Argentine flag on South Georgia in March.
On 2 April the news came that Argentine marines and Special Forces had invaded the Falklands and, after a series of sharp actions, had obtained the Governor’s surrender. Lt. Mills, in charge of the South Georgia detachment, had been told that he was to make only a token resistance to any invasion. In a moment that General McAuliffe would have been proud of, Mills is reputed to have replied to these orders with “sod that, I’ll make their eyes water”. With a fight firmly in mind, Mills set his troops to fortifying their location in Grytviken, the largest of the abandoned settlements, despite the fact that the Royal Marines were essentially alone with no hope of reinforcement or relief.
On 3 April Argentine ships off Grytviken harbour demanded the British surrender. Their force consisted of the corvette Guerrico, the survey ship Bahia Paraiso, two helicopters, ten naval special forces and forty marines. The Guerrico alone gave the Argentines a tremendous firepower advantage, with a 100 mm main gun and multiple 40 mm and 20 mm cannon. Combined with their helicopters – a Puma troop carrier and a Alouette III light scout – the Argentines also had the ability to move troops anywhere they needed.
Against this Mill’s platoon only had SLR rifles, L4a4 Bren guns and L7 GPMGs, with their heaviest firepower being some LAW anti-tank rockets and a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle.
The first wave of Argentines landed unmolested at 11:41, but as the next wave flew ashore they were engaged with intense small arms fire. The Puma, badly damaged and smoking, crashed on the southern bank of the bay, killing two and injuring four.
The first party of Argentines, now under heavy fire and pinned down, requested fire support from the Guerrico. At 11:55 the ship moved into the cove and opened fire on the Royal Marines. However, the corvettes guns all failed in short order, either because of maintenance issues or due to return fire. Its 100 mm and 20 mms only managed one shot, whilst the 40 mm managed six. Unable to engage effectively, the Guerrico turned about and headed back out to sea.
It was not to go unmolested. Opening fire on the ship, the Royal Marines riddled the bridge with gunfire and killed a sailor trying to get the 40 mm back into action. They also hit the vessel with a LAW and two Carl Gustav rounds for good measure, inflicting more damage and knocking out the ships Exocet anti-ship missiles. Additionally, a Royal Marine sergeant armed with an L42 sniper rifle kept up accurate fire on the bridge which forced the crew there into cover as they attempted to extricate the corvette from the fight.
Valiant though the Royal Marines attempts may have been, it was always going to end only one way. At 12:48 the Guerrico, now wisely staying out of Grytviken Cove, got its main gun back into action and began to shell the British positions. Still engaged with the Argentine marines of the first landing, Mill’s realised that further resistance was futile and ordered his men to surrender. With that South Georgia fell under a brief Argentine occupation until liberated by British Special Forces and Royal Marines on 25 April.
For his action, Mill’s was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and had a peak named after him on South Georgia. Sergeant Leach, the sniper, received the Distinguished Service Medal.
The Battle of Grytviken only lasted an hour or so, but showed that a small, determined force can do a lot of damage. All told the Argentines lost 3 killed, 9 wounded, one helicopter shot down and one corvette damaged. The British suffered one injured. The British troops were well treated by their captors and repatriated via Uruguay. As one of the Royal Marine’s put it: “They bore us no malice. They did understand the job we did. They were Marines, like ourselves.”