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Artillery Row

Did prayer decide the Battle of Goose Green?

The expedition to take back the Falkland Islands was riskier than we might think

This is the fortieth anniversary of the year of the Falklands conflict, and we are now close to the anniversary of the battle at Goose Green. As I describe in my book Beyond the Odds, prayer was a theme during the two World Wars — there were nine National Days of Prayer during the Second World War, and many of the commanders had a strong faith. After the Second World War, the Christian faith and worldview declined, as it has done further since then. There were no National Days of Prayer, and some people were opposed to the war. Nevertheless, there was private prayer at home and in the serving forces. 

The force heading for San Carlos was dismissed as a diversion

The expedition to take back the Falkland Islands was a far riskier venture than it may seem in retrospect. It was thought at first that the Super Étendard Argentine fighter planes, based on the Argentine mainland and armed with Exocet missiles, could not reach the Falklands with any effective weapons load. This proved to be wrong, since the planes refuelled in mid-air. The British did not have air superiority and the landing was going to be extremely dangerous. However, on 21 May, British troops landed unopposed at night in San Carlos Bay in favourable weather. Fortunately, an Argentine pre-conflict study had concluded that it was an impossible site for a successful landing. Reports that the force was heading for San Carlos were dismissed by Argentine commanders on the basis that this must be a diversion. We cannot connect the successful landing with particular prayers, though individuals were praying. And everything did not go right following the landing, when a number of ships were sunk with great loss of life.

One striking example of the effect of personal prayer is the battle to take the Argentine garrison at Goose Green. Older readers may remember that Colonel H. Jones (known as “Colonel H”), commanding the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, was killed on 28 May 1982 in fighting before the capture of the garrison. When Colonel H was killed, the battalion (only in fighting order but carrying 48 hours of rations, together with weapons and equipment) was, after an exhausting forty-eight hours, short of the garrison at Goose Green and under attack from dug-in Argentine troops. 

The prospects of success were uncertain. The British advance had been announced on the BBC World Service, and the forward Argentine positions had been reinforced. The terrain was soft, which meant no tanks. After the sinking of the Atlantic Conveyor (a converted passenger liner), there was a shortage of helicopters to transport equipment, such as mortars. Worse still, the Harrier fighter jets could not take off because of a fog at sea. HMS Arrow, which was planned to give supporting fire, had withdrawn to safety after Argentine air attacks, and the land-based guns were now too far back in a gusty wind to provide support.

After fifteen hours of fighting, the troops were tired and cold

After Colonel H’s death, Major Chris Keeble took over command of the battalion. At that point, it was pinned down by enemy fire. The position was unlocked by some heroic actions, and Chris Keeble then executed a new plan which took the battalion into positions surrounding the Goose garrison on three sides. However, at the end of that day, after fifteen hours of fighting, the troops were tired and cold, and had suffered casualties of seventeen dead and thirty-five wounded. Ammunition was now arriving by helicopter, but it was short. There were minefields and an attack would involve more casualties.

This is Chris Keeble’s account:

There was a possibility of a counterattack during this midwinter night, bitterly cold, snow blowing all over the place, and I felt desperate. I remember going to the company commanders as we sat in a hollow with burning gorse around us, frightened, cold and uncertain.

I was not sure how we would ever get out of this position and they looked at me and said, “What are we going to do now?” I said, “I have no idea.” It was an awful moment and I said, “Look, just give me a few seconds. I am just going up the hill, to be alone for a minute.” I went up this gully and I thrust my hands into my pockets, desperately thinking: what am I going to do now? I remembered a prayer I had in my pocket. It was the prayer of a man called Charles de Foucauld who was a French nobleman and soldier. … I knew the prayer and I knelt down in the gorse and I prayed:

My Father, I abandon myself to you. Do with me as you will. Whatever you may do with me I thank you, provided your will is fulfilled. I ask for nothing more. 

In that moment I suddenly felt absolutely clear about what I needed to do! I felt joyful! I felt warm! I didn’t feel frightened, and I returned back down to the company commanders and said, “I now know what we need to do. I am going to negotiate a surrender.” They looked at me with incredulity. I said, “I am certain as to what we need to do; trust me!” So I got a couple of prisoners of war. I explained to them that they were going to lose, and we were both Christians and what we were doing was crazy — fighting each other on a desolate plain — and that the way out of this was through negotiations. “If you would like to take this option, I will release you now to go back down to your own commanders. I will meet you at the airfield tomorrow morning if you want to talk, but be back by 10am.”

The Argentine commanders were offered a surrender with honour and a safe passage for them and their men back to Argentina. They accepted the offer. The accepted wisdom is that an attacking force should have a superiority of 3:1. The surrender was achieved with a British inferiority in numbers of 1:3. We should not expect easily to understand the intervention of a higher power amidst the suffering of war, but the testimony of Chris Keeble and others serving in the Falklands conflict shows that God is a reality for those who trust in Him.

John Scriven is the author, with Tim Dieppe, of Beyond the Odds, Providence in Britain’s Wars of the 20th Century

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