Friday, June 6, 2008

Grenada's Scrappy Little Army

First published in Command Magazine No. 46, December 1997. With slight edits.

Grenada’s Scrappy Little Army

The US invasion of Grenada in 1983 provided a welcome foreign policy vic­tory for the Reagan Administration, even as the dust settled from the deadly bombing of the Marine bar­racks in Lebanon.

Government and media reports at the time emphasized the involvement of the Cubans on the island and downplayed the Grenadian role. The invasion — Operation Urgent Fury — was officially termed a “rescue mission” to liberate hostage American medical students and free the Grena­dian people from communist domina­tion.

But a close look at the fighting that took place reveals a more complex story, and shows the main and dead­liest opponent the Americans faced was not the Cubans, but the small Grenadian armed forces.

A Marxist and good friend of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s leader ear­ly in 1983, was a truly popular politi­cian. While he had attempted to make over Grenada into a communist state with Cuban and Soviet help, he’d been careful not to push his people too far, too fast. But that caution then proved his undoing, when his doctrinaire and dour second-in-command, Bernard Coard, became impatient with the in­cremental pace of change and jealous of Bishop’s “cult of personality.”

The simmering feud within Grena­da’s ruling circle erupted in October, when Coard led the more radical ele­ments of the New Jewel Party in a coup that removed Bishop from power, jail­ing bum and his allies on the 13th.

Coard misjudged the people’s temper, however, and a few days later, on the 19th, Bishop and his colleagues were freed from prison by a massive crowd of civilians. Coard’s faction counterat­tacked using three armored personnel carriers and troops. Scores of people were killed and Bishop was recap­tured. Shortly thereafter, he and sev­en of his associates were cut down by a firing squad’s machinegun in the courtyard of Fort Rupert, in St. George’s, the island’s capital.

The U.S. administration was, of course, concerned with the new com­munist state evolving in the Carib­bean. The build up of the Grenadian military and the growing influence of the Cubans bothered many in Wash­ington. Of particular concern was the construction of a 9,000-foot runway near St. Georges. Ostensibly created to boost tourism, the facility had obvious strategic potential, and captured doc­uments later revealed the Soviets and Cubans did indeed have plans for its military use.

Bishop’s execution, then, and the revulsion it caused across the Carib­bean, gave the United States the op­portunity to move to rid the island of its communist regime. An invasion force was quickly gathered.
The Grenadians, well aware of the growing US enmity, had also been con­sidering how best to use their small army to defend their island. Their hope was to hold out long enough for world opinion to come to the rescue, forcing a premature halt to any at­tack.

The largest part of their armed forces was the People’s Militia, several thousand strong. Besides filling six in­fantry battalions, the militia men and women were also to bolster several of the regular army units. But that ap­proach had to be scrapped when the fighting at the jail and Bishop’s execu­tion deflated the regime’s popular support. Fewer than 250 militia even­tually reported for duty.

Another blow to the Grenadian com­munists’ cause was the generally pas­sive stance adopted by the Cuban con­struction troops and military advisors. Since Bishop had been a personal friend as well as a political ally of Cas­tro, the Cuban dictator was appalled by his murder. He also foresaw the US was soon thereafter likely to intervene and there was little he could do to stop it. For political reasons Castro couldn’t openly abandon a socialist ally state, but he had no stomach for throwing more resources into a lost cause.

The only reinforcement Castro sent was a lone officer to take charge of the Cuban mission on Grenada. He was given orders to “uphold the honor of Cuban arms,” but nothing more. The Cuban construction troops and mili­tary advisory mission, about 700 troops in all, were ordered to defend their encampment but not to fire un­less fired on. So the single largest body of troops on the island were thus put under orders to merely defend them­selves and not to cooperate in any de­fensive schemes put forward by the Grenadians.

The major combat element of the Grenadian army was the Permanent Battalion, which consisted of four companies and some platoon-sized support elements, totaling 475 men and women. Spread around St. Georges and other sites in small de­tachments was the Security Company, under command of Capt. Lester Red­head, who had played a lead role in Bish­op’s death. Also manning positions around the town were the regulars of the Anti-Aircraft Company and some militia, under Lt. Cecil Prime. The Peo­ple’s Revolutionary Army Reserve was massed at Fort Frederick, and comprised the Motorized Company, orga­nized into two platoons with BTR-60 armored personnel carriers and another truck-mounted platoon. There was also the Mobile Company, with yet another three truck-mounted pla­toons. Both the Mobile and Motorized Companies were under command of Lt. Raeburn Nelson. Rounding out the force were 80 of the militia who did re­port for duty. They were formed into the Rapid Mobilization Company un­der Lt, Iman Abdullah.

Nineteen Americans died in combat during the invasion. About half per­ished in combat accidents and friend­ly fire incidents, but nearly all the rest were done in by fire from Grenadian defenders. Several of the most notable fights solely involved Grenadian de­fenders.

One of the initial objectives of the invasion force was the Richmond Hill Prison in the capital. Five UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were supposed to land there carrying Delta Force cornmandos whose mission was to liberate the political prisoners being kept in­side. Driven off by heavy fire from the anti-aircraft guns sited around the prison, the Black Hawks made a second attempt that resulted in one chopper going down, killing the pilot and wounding 11 other soldiers. The pris­on wasn’t liberated for more than a day.

Another special forces target in the initial assault was Government House, home of British Gov. Gen. Sir Paul Scoon, who was to form the post-inva­sion government. While the Navy SEALs succeeded in reaching him, they were then pinned down by Grenadian fire and unable to leave. It was only af­ter Marines, led by tanks, approached the next day that the siege was broken. One of the elements called in to help the beleaguered SEAL team consisted of a pair of Marine Cobra helicopter gunships. Anti-aircraft fire from the Fort Frederick battery succeeded in downing both of them, killing three of the four crewmen.

A third special forces target was the transmitter station at Beausejour. While the commando team succeeded in capturing their objective, they were soon faced with a counterattack by a scratch force led by Prime and con­sisting of one BTR-60, and 82mm mor­tar and a 20 man platoon from the Mobile Company. Prime’s men drove off the Americans but didn’t kill any.

The decisive fight was at the Point Salinas airfield. Two battalions of U.S. Army Ran­gers dropped from dangerously low altitude to capture the facility and at­tack the nearby Cuban encampment. Although no Rangers were killed in the ini­tial drop, one man later died in the fighting to expand the airhead. Both Grenadian and Cuban troops were in the area, so it’s unclear who fired the fatal bullet.

The main Cuban position was in the hills north of the airfield, and it was soon brought under attack by ele­ments of the US 82nd Airborne Divi­sion, who’d flown in to reinforce the Rangers. One officer was killed during a night-time reconnaissance of the Cuban lines, and he was the only fatality known for certain to have been caused by those forces. The Cuban camp was finally taken in a violent as­sault the next day. Sixteen of those de­fenders were left dead, but no more Americans were killed.

The biggest combat disaster for the Americans came during the afternoon of the first day, when a five-man, jeep-borne recon team of Rangers got lost while scouting a road leading from the airfield. They drove into an ambush set by the militia of the Rapid Mobi­lization Company in which four of the Rangers were killed.
The largest counterattack launched against the Americans was conducted by a BTR-60 platoon from the Motor­ized Company. All three vehicles were quickly destroyed by light anti-tank weapons and gunship fire. It was, in the words of one US soldier who ob­served it, a “valiant, heroic, but stupid move.”

By noon of the second day it was clear the Americans had arrived in overwhelming force. The Cubans had surrendered and soon the still-surviving elements of the Grenadian army simply began melting away, trying to blend in among the populace. While the Americans reported occasional sniper fire for days afterward, no more invaders were killed by enemy fire.

The small Grenadian army had man­aged to kill in action at least eight Americans, wounded scores more and shot down several helicopters. Despite their limited resources, they also man­aged to launch several counterattacks, including one that temporarily suc­ceeded. Looked at another way, if Saddam Hussein’s army had been propor­tionately as effective in 1991, the Coal­ition would have suffered tens of thousands of casualties, rather than hundreds, in Operation Desert Storm. And in contrast, though they received most of the press attention, the 700 Cubans on Grenada killed just one or two Americans.

— Seth Owen


Adkin, Mark. Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada. London: Leo Cooper Books, 1989.

Bolger, Damel P. Americans at War Novato Calif., Presidio Press 1988

Russell. Lee & M Albert Mendez Grenada 1983 Osprey Men at Arms Series No. 139 London Osprey 1985

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