The Impossibly Badass Story of Mills’ Marauders
South Georgia lies 54 degrees south of the equator in the South Atlantic Ocean, some 1,900 kilometres off the coast of Argentina. A cold and inhospitable place covered in jagged snow-capped mountains, fjords, and glaciers, until its discovery by European sailors in 1675 the island had no permanent native population. For the next three hundred years the island would remain largely uninhabited save for a handful of whalers and sealers harvesting the rich waters of the Antarctic Ocean. But in April of 1982 this frozen little speck of land became the touchpoint for one of the last great conventional wars of the 20th Century, and played host to an extraordinary incident in which a small band of 22 British Royal Marines managed to hold off a vastly superior Argentine force and even disable an entire warship. This is the impossibly badass story of Mills’ Marauders and the Battle of Grytviken.
Along with the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia is administered as a dependency of the Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory lying 1,400 kilometres to the east. Though the British have claimed sovereignty over the Falklands since 1833, this claim has long been contested by Argentina, where the islands are known as Las Islas Malvinas. In 1982 Argentina was riven by economic and social turmoil in the wake of its 7-year “Dirty War,” which saw the rise of a brutal military dictatorship or junta [“Hun-tah”] lead by General Leopoldo Galtieri, Air Brigadier Basilo Lami Dozo, and Admiral Jorge [“Hor-hay”] Anaya. Galtieri and Anaya in particular saw the retaking of the Falklands as an ideal means of distracting the Argentine people from their current troubles, settling an old score with Britain and reasserting Argentina’s prestige and dominance in the region. Calculating that the British would not bother to retake such a small archipelago 13,000 kilometres from the Home Isles, Anaya set the invasion for early April 1982.
On March 19, the Argentine transport ship ARA Bahía Buen Suceso steamed into Leith Harbour on South Georgia without clearance and unloaded a team of 19 scrap metal workers. Officially, the landing was part of a business deal between Argentine scrap metal dealer Constantino Davidoff and the British company Christian Salvesen to salvage the remains of a defunct whaling station on the island. However, as part of a secret military plan code-named Operation Alpha, the workers had been infiltrated by a squad of Argentine commandos, who proceeded to raise the Argentine flag over the harbour. At the time, the only British presence on the island was a team from the British Antarctic Survey led by Trefor Edwards who, disturbed by the Argentines’ actions, demanded they lower their flag and report to senior Antarctic Survey officer Steve Martin at the island’s capital of Grytviken. The Argentine commander, Captain Briatore, agreed to lower the flag but refused to report to Grytviken. And while he and the rest of the scrap metal workers departed on March 22, Antarctic Survey members soon reported the presence of other Argentine personnel on the island, prompting Trefor Edwards to contact Rex Hunt, Governor of the Falklands. Hunt duly dispatched the Royal Navy Ice Patrol vessel HMS Endurance carrying a small contingent of 22 Royal Marines to monitor the situation.
As the Endurance steamed towards South Georgia, the Argentines dispatched the corvettes ARA Drummond and ARA Granville to intercept her, as well as the ARA Bahía Paraíso to land a contingent of 10 naval commandos on the island. Over the next week the Endurance and the Argentine vessels played a game of cat-and-mouse in the waters around the island while British and Argentine officials worked to find a diplomatic solution. When none could be found, Endurance steamed into Grytviken harbour and offloaded its contingent of Marines, consisting of two detachments of 8 and 12 men under the command of 24-year old Lieutenant George Thomsen and 23-year-old Lieutenant Keith Mills. On the day they landed, April 2, 1982, Argentina launched Operation Rosario, the large-scale invasion of the Falkland Islands. The 650-man invasion force quickly overwhelmed the islands’ tiny garrison, and within hours the British government at the capital of Port Stanley capitulated. On the same day, the Argentine corvette ARA Guerrico, carrying 40 marines and two helicopters, was dispatched to South Georgia to capture the island, but bad weather delayed its arrival by 24 hours.
The 22 Marines at Grytviken, cut off from support and 13,000 kilometres from home, braced themselves for the coming assault. A radio message from London instructed them to“not resist beyond the point where lives might be lost to no avail,” to which Lieutenant Mills infamously replied: “Sod that! I’ll make their eyes water!”
With the invasion force only hours away, the Marines set about fortifying the harbour, lining the beach with barbed wire and antipersonnel mines and building a makeshift bomb packed with nuts, bolts, and harpoon heads which they placed under the jetty. The Marines had barely enough time to snap a group photo before the sound of a helicopter was heard in the distance. The Battle of Grytviken had begun.
Argentine operations began at 11:41 AM as an Aérospatiale Puma helicopter from the Guerrico landed a contingent of 15 Argentine marines across the harbour from the British positions. A second helicopter took off at 11:45 but was struck by heavy small-arms fire from the Royal Marines, causing it to crash land with the loss of two killed and four wounded. The Marines had drawn first blood, raising a cheer of elation among the tiny force. As Lieutenant Thomsen later recalled:
“There wasn’t a single one of us that wasn’t prepared to fight it out to the last man. We weren’t expected to come back. [Shooting down that helicopter] was like a gift. That kicked off the battle, and we were 16-nil up from the start.”
Following the loss of the helicopter, the 15 Argentine Marines already on the island attacked the British positions, but were pinned down by heavy fire. Having accidentally left their mortars behind on the ship, the Argentines called upon the Guerrico for fire support. The corvette, which had only just left dry dock following extensive repairs, sailed into the narrow bay and at 11:55 opened fire on the British positions with her 20, 40, and 100 millimetre automatic cannons. However, after only a few shots all three guns jammed and became inoperative. Now completely defenceless, the ship had no choice but to complete her turn around the bay, exposing her flanks to the British, who immediately opened fire with rifles, machine guns, and an 84-millimetre Carl Gustav antitank recoilless gun. The Marines landed over 200 hits on the corvette as it sailed past, as Lieutenant Thomsen later recalled:
“It was raking us with its 40mm anti-aircraft gun until we wiped out the gun crew. We then used a [Carl Gustav] but three out of five rounds didn’t go off. If they had we’d have sunk it. But we put it out of action and it was listing at 30 degrees. We whacked out its Exocet launchers with rocket launchers and hit the 4in gun on the front and disabled it. We were putting sniper fire through the bridge so they didn’t-know where they were going…At the same time they were landing troops from two or three other ships and we were outnumbered 50-1, or 100-1 if you count everyone on their ships.”
Seriously crippled, the Guerrico limped out of the harbour until she was at last beyond the range of British fire. It is now thought that the commander of the Argentine forces, Captain Carlos Trombetta, was unaware of the Royal Marines presence on the island, and believed he was only facing members of the British Antarctic Survey team. Otherwise he would likely not have exposed his vessel to such dangerous conditions. Whatever the case, this bizarre engagement remains one of the few occasions where ground troops armed only with light weapons have taken on a warship and come out on top.
Meanwhile, a helicopter from the Bahía Paraíso had been ferrying more Argentine troops ashore out of range of British fire. With the Guerrico safely out of range, the Argentines attacked again, wounding Royal Marines Corporal Nigel Peters in the arm. At the same time, the Guerrico managed to repair her 100-millimetre gun and opened fire on the British positions. Realizing he was outnumbered and outgunned, Lieutenant Mills finally decided to call it quits, and approached the Argentine positions waving a white flag. In a legendary bit of British bluff, Mills announced that he and his men would keep fighting unless the Argentines agreed to his terms – including safe passage for his men off the island. The Argentines agreed, only to discover to their shock that they had been facing a force of only 22 Marines. It was 12:48 PM; ‘Mills’ Marauders’ – as they became known – had managed to hold out against a vastly superior force for more than an hour, inflicting 12 casualties to 1. This action has been likened to a modern-day Rorke’s Drift, the 1879 battle in which 139 British soldiers held out against a force of 5,000 Zulu warriors in Natal, South Africa.
Mills and his men were disarmed and taken aboard the Bahía Paraíso. The Marines were treated well, as Corporal Andrew Lee later recalled:“[The Argentines] bore us no malice. They did understand the job we did. They were Marines, like ourselves.”
Mills’ Marauders were taken back to Argentina and airlifted back to the UK, where they arrived on April 20 to a heroes’ welcome. 15 days earlier, contrary to Admiral Anaya’s calculations, the British government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a naval task force to the South Atlantic to retake the Falkland Islands. Many of the Marines who had bravely defended South Georgia on the opening day of the conflict would return as part of Operation Paraquet, which succeeded in retaking the island on April 25. The fighting on the Falklands would rage on for another 50 days, finally ending on June 14, 1982 with the surrender of Argentine forces at Port Stanley. The Falklands War lasted a total of 74 days and claimed the claimed the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British military personnel and 3 Falkland Islanders. It was the last large-scale conventional engagement the United Kingdom would fight entirely on its own, and the last major colonial war in the history of the British Empire. And while the conflict saw its fair share of heroic actions on both sides, few can compare to the sheer badassery of 22 lightly-armed Marines taking on an entire warship – and winning.
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Hickley, Matthew, Revealed: Untold Story of How 22 Marines Held off Hundreds of Argentinians and Disabled a Warship on Eve of Falklands War, Daily Mail, April 15, 2009, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1169911/Revealed-Untold-story-22-Marines-held-hundreds-Argentinians-disabled-warship-eve-Falklands-War.html
Oord, Christian, When 22 British Marines Held off a Superior Argentine Invasion Force & a Naval Corvette, War History Online, April 8, 2019, https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/when-22-british-marines-held-off-a-superior-argentine-invasion-force-a-naval-corvette.html
Schweimler, Daniel, Scrap Dealer Who Accidentally Set off the Falklands War, BBC Radio 4, April 3l, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8599404.stm
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