In April of 1982 twenty-three-year-old Lieutenant Keith Paul Mills commanded a 22-man detachment of Royal Marines deployed to South Georgia Island in the Falklands. South Georgia is a 104 mile-long barren rock in the Southern Atlantic some 7,600 miles from London. This deployment to one of the most desolate and remote locations in the British Realm should have been routine. Instead, LT Mills found himself as the sole line of defense against a concerted invasion by a combined arms force from the Argentine military. His performance along with that of his fellow Marines was the stuff of legend.
Setting the Stage
In March of 1982, a group of Argentine civilian scrap workers landed in Leith Harbor on Georgia Island from the transport ship ARA Bahia Buen Sucesco and planted an Argentine flag. These scrappers were there ostensibly to dismantle an abandoned whaling station. The sole British presence on the island was an Antarctic Survey team commanded by Trefor Edwards. Unknown at the time, the scrap crew also included ten Argentine Naval Commandos posing as civilian scientists.
Edwards had communications with the British government in London, and he duly reported that a motley band of Argentine civilians had hoisted their flag on sovereign English soil. London demanded that the flag be removed. Edwards likely never imagined his position as an Antarctic research scientist would entail so much diplomacy, but he confronted them and the Argentines lowered their flag.
The Brits have never taken threats to their sovereignty lightly, so they dispatched the HMS Endurance, a Royal Navy ice patrol vessel, to the area to investigate. Named after Ernest Shackleton’s ship that carried his expedition to the Antarctic in 1914, the modern-day version also carried LT Mills and his contingent of Royal Marines. As was the case with most polar vessels, the Endurance was painted bright red. Her crew referred to her affectionately as The Red Plum as a result.
Unbeknownst to Mills and his Marines, this entire escapade was part of the larger covert Operation Alpha. This Argentine military operation intended to use the contracted dismantling of the whaling station to pre-position Argentine forces for a military invasion. The Argentine military government presumed that Britain had grown weary of policing its empire. They expected British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to give up the Falklands without a fight. They catastrophically underestimated the Iron Lady.
The Plot Thickens
Mills and his Marines landed in Leith Harbor. In response, the Argentines sortied the Corvette ARA Guerrico into the area. The Guerrico along with the ARA Bahia Buen Sucesco represented a formidable force with two helicopters, forty Argentine Marines, and a variety of heavy weapons to include an autoloading 100mm main gun.
Desperate to avoid unnecessary loss of life London instructed LT Mills to make only token resistance to any Argentine violation of British territory. Mills responded with, “Sod that, I’ll make their eyes water!” Not since BG Anthony McAuliffe responded “Nuts!” to the German demand to surrender at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge has a professional soldier conjured such an epic retort.
The Fuse is Lit
An Argentine Alouette helicopter landed in full view of the British positions and disgorged its contingent of Argentine Marines. The second aircraft, a Puma, began cycling in Marines as well. They were met with intense automatic weapons fire from the entrenched British positions.
The Puma pilot nursed his critically damaged machine back across the bay. Two Argentines were killed and another four injured in the subsequent crash. The first Argentine contingent attempted an assault on the British positions only to be pinned down by accurate and effective fire. In desperation, they called on the Corvette Guerrico for fire support.
The Guerrico steamed into the harbor and opened fire on the British positions. Recently out of refit at dry dock, the Guerrico was barely in fighting trim. Her 20mm guns jammed after a single round, the 40mm batteries got off six shots, and the 100mm main gun launched a single round before failing. The British responded with everything they had.
Heavy automatic fire from L4A4 and L7A2 light machineguns, as well as SLR semiautomatic rifles, raked the hapless Argentine warship, killing an Argentine Petty Officer and wounding two sailors. The Royal Marines hit and disabled the elevation gear on the main gun with an M72 Light Antitank Weapon. A Royal Marine gunner then skipped an 84mm Carl Gustav round off of the water and struck the vessel in the hull.
The corvette’s commander then reversed the ship and made for the harbor entrance. This gave the Royal Marines an opportunity to engage the opposite side of the vessel. A Marine marksman named SGT Peter Leech armed with an L42A1 sniper rifle shot up the bridge, causing the skipper, quartermaster, and helmsman to dive for cover. A second Carl Gustav round disabled the Guerrico’s Exocet missile launcher.
The Guerrico then left the harbor to enable repairs after her mauling at the hands of the Royal Marines. Meanwhile, the Argentine Marines engaged the English defenses with heavy small arms fire. CPL Nigel Peters caught two rounds in his arm.
The L1A1 SLR (Self-Loading Rifle) served as the first-line British Infantry rifle from 1954 up into the 1980s when it was supplanted by the 5.56mm L85A1. An Anglicized version of the 7.62x51mm Belgian FN FAL, the L1A1 is a gas-operated autoloading rifle that weighs 9.56 pounds empty.
During the Falklands War, both the British and Argentine forces utilized FAL variants. Commonwealth SLR’s fired semiauto only, while the Argentine versions were selective fire. Both militaries used the same belt-fed light machineguns as well. This was one of the rare conflicts wherein both sides were almost identically equipped. Victory came down to training, logistics, leadership, and political will.
The L4A4 is a 7.62x51mm version of the WW2-era Bren light machinegun. At a glance, the L4A4 can be distinguished from its previous version by the top-mounted magazine. The L4A4 mag sports a much milder curve than that of the previous .303-firing sort. L4A4 magazines are interchangeable with those of the SLR rifle, making feeding the gun in combat a simpler logistical task. The SLR will fit and feed the 30-round L4A4 magazine, while the L4A4 will also use the stubbier SLR box.
The L7A1 is a license-built version of the FN MAG (Mitrailleuse d’Appui General) gun built by the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield Lock. This gas-operated 7.62x51mm full auto-only support weapon replaced the venerable Vickers gun in British service in 1957. This same action serves as the L7A2 in British service today. The US variant is the M240-series of belt-fed support weapons.
The L42A1 bolt-action sniper rifle served as the standard precision rifle for the British Ministry of Defence from 1970 until 1990. An accurized derivative of the 19th-century Lee-Metford rifle of 1888, the rear-locking action designed by James Paris Lee served the British Empire for more than a century. The L42A1 was chambered in 7.62x51mm and featured a 3.5X No32 telescopic sight with a bullet drop compensator.
The M72 LAW (Light Antitank Weapon) is a prepackaged round of 66mm rocket-propelled ammunition encased within a disposable fiberglass and aluminum firing tube. Adopted by the US military in 1963, the M72 remains in active use around the world today. The British version employed during the Falklands War was titled the Rocket 66mm HEAT (High Explosive AntiTank) L1A1. The M72 weighs about 5.5 pounds and will penetrate a full 12 inches of steel armor.
The M2 Carl Gustav is a Swedish-designed 84mm recoilless rifle used by many Western European armies. The Carl Gustav includes a 3X optical sight and loads from the rear. At 31 pounds the M2 was brutal to hump long distances. US Army Rangers used the weapon in my day and called it the “Goose” or the “Cross,” a reference to Christ’s heavy burden at Calvary.
The Carl Gustav fires a relatively high-velocity round compared to comparable rocket launchers and has a longer range as a result. Unlike most rocket launchers, the Gustav can fire a wide variety of disparate rounds as well such as HEAT, High Explosive Dual Purpose, smoke, illumination, and rocket-assisted rounds. Today the latest version of the Carl Gustav sets Uncle Sam back some $20,000.
The Rest of the Story
By now the Guerrico’s main gun was marginally operational so she returned for more, this time pounding the British with heavy 100mm high explosive rounds. As the elevation gear was jammed the ship had to pull forward and back up to adjust the fall of shot. LT Mills realized that he was hopelessly outgunned. Outnumbered three-to-one and without a corvette of his own, Mills waved a white coat and nonetheless demanded the Argentines’ either surrender or return his troops safely to the UK. The Argentines treated their captives well, respecting them as fellow warriors.
The Argentines airlifted the Royal Marine contingent to Montevideo in Uruguay and released them. Upon arrival back home the British people rightfully revered these brave Marines as heroes. LT Mills was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, while SGT Leech was given the Distinguished Service Medal. Mills was promoted to Captain and eventually retired in 1996.
After his retirement Keith Mills has managed a series of elderly care homes in SW England. Mills Peak, a 2,050-foot mountain SW of Cape Douglas in the northern portion of Barff Peninsula on South Georgia, is named in his honor.