by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.
In Part 1 we explored the political roots of the U.S. invasion of Grenada as well as the planning for the invasion, known as Operation Urgent Fury, which was characterized by major failures in intelligence. In Part 2, we shall look at how the plan faired when confronted with reality and what lessons can be learned from the operation.
Parachute Landing at Point Salines
The Rangers of the 75th Regiment were in mid-flight bound for Point Salines airfield when their commander was informed that the landing strip was strewn with defensive obstacles preventing the transports from landing — and decided then and there they would have to make a parachute landing instead. Fortunately, the Ranger’s had brought their parachutes just in case. Unfortunately, the guidance system of the lead two transports failed on route, forcing them to abort mission — the headquarters unit would have to jump first!
On October 25th, 1983, at 5:30 AM, the MC-130 transports buzzed low over the airfield to drop the parachutists at the extremely low altitude of 500 feet to minimize their exposure to anti-aircraft fire—the first U.S. combat drop since World War II. Delta Force commando Eric Haney, who had landed in Grenada earlier by helicopter, described the sight in his book “Inside Delta Force” (p. 302f):
[…] as they [the C-130s] approached the leading edge of the airfield, the first two planes were plastered with automatic cannon fire. The lead plane broke away, but the others kept coming, and then you could see the Rangers pouring out the jump doors and into the sky. They were jumping at such a low altitude that their parachutes opened only a few seconds before they hit the ground. […] Rangers were scattered down the length of the ten-thousand foot runway, just getting out of their parachutes, when two armored vehicles rolled out onto the airfield and started firing their machine guns and heavy cannon.
Amazingly, none of the transports were shot down nor any of the Rangers hit coming down. However, they were immediately involved in a firefight with quad-.51 caliber anti-aircraft guns, Cubans positioned around the airport and two BTR-60 APCs. While fire rained down from above from an AC-130 gunship, the Rangers overran one of the anti-aircraft guns in an impromptu charge, knocked out the BTRs with 90 mm recoilless rifles, and managed to persuade over a hundred Cubans firing from the terminal to surrender.
However, they continued to receive sniper and mortar fire from the perimeter of the long airstrip, and still needed to clear the long, open runway of obstacles before reinforcements from the 82nd Airborne Division could land there. Lacking any vehicles of their own, a group of Rangers under John Abizaid, future commander of CENTCOM during the Iraq War, hotwired one of the Cuban bull dozers and drove it down the runaway, advancing behind it as it deflected enemy fire. By 8 AM, the runaway had been sufficiently cleared for the C-141s carrying the 82nd Airborne Division to begin landing.
Special Forces Raids
The Navy SEALs and Delta Force were less fortunate in their endeavors. Delta Force, staging on Blackhawk helicopters in Barbados, departed late on its mission and thus did not benefit from the cover of darkness. The raid to capture the commanders of the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) at Fort Rupert (today known as Fort George) proceeded successfully, but the lack of adequate intelligence doomed the mission to rescue the political prisoners at Richmond Hill. As the Blackhawks approached, the pilots discovered that hill was actually too steep to land a helicopter on—and that an anti-aircraft battery was located directly above the prison.
The Special Ops pilots tried to hover over the prison to lower operators in by rope instead. But one Blackhawk was so shot up it was forced to crash land in the tree line outside the prison, where it immediately came under fire which killed a crew member, while the other helicopters took so many hits they were forced to abort.
Siege at the Governor’s Mansion
The two Navy SEALs team were able to insert into St. George’s despite being raked by anti-aircraft fire (several were wounded and the helicopter carrying the SEAL’s radio was damaged and forced to abort), but encountered another problem: neither team had anti-tank weapons. One SEAL Team seized the Radio Free Grenada station, but was driven out under fire by BTRs after a protracted firefight. Destroying the radio they had hoped to capture, they fought their way to beach and swam away under fire. Nonetheless, a backup transmitter interrupted the station’s routine of Reggae music to transmit a call to resist the American invasion.
Meanwhile, 22 men in SEAL Team 6 managed to secure Governor General Paul Scoon at his residence after inserting via fast rope — but were immediately surrounded by infantry and four BTRs-60s, which riddled the building with machine gun fire. Intending to rescue the governor and his family, they instead were besieged for nearly 24 hours under constant fire. Because their communication equipment was on a helicopter that had aborted mission, they only succeeded in calling air support by making an international collect call (paid for with a soldier’s credit card), which ultimately summoned an AC-130 which knocked out one of the attacking BTRs.
The deteriorating situation led Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, III to dispatch A-7 Corsair attack planes and two AH-1 Cobras to strike at the defenses around the capital. The slower Cobras were raked by flak while dueling with the anti-aircraft guns of Fort Frederick. One of them crashed near the sea shore, prompting a helicopter rescue that succeeded in saving just one of the two crewmen. While providing covering fire for the rescue, the other Cobra was struck hard and plummeted into the sea with its crew. The invasion force had just lost half of its attack helicopters.
The A-7s ran into other problems: while attacking an anti-aircraft gun, one bomb struck a nearby mental hospital, killing 18 patients and releasing the dazed survivors on the streets of the city. Accounts differ as to how aware the Navy was of the hospital’s position.
Surprise at True Blue
Back at Point Salines, units of the 82nd Airborne Division continued to trickle into Point Salines, but only two aircraft could land at a time on the incomplete runway. The Rangers and paratroopers began advancing in the afternoon to secure the True Blue campus of Saint George’s medical college. One lone Jeep patrol was ambushed and its crew of four killed, and another died manning a machine-gun. The Rangers eventually did secure the True Blue campus — where they were stunned to learn from the students there that majority of their number were actually staying at another campus at Grand Anse.
At 3 PM, three BTR-60s counterattacked Point Salines airport. Racing past a forward patrol, which missed with its LAW rockets, the BTRs were eventually stopped by the Ranger’s 90 mm recoilless rifles and the intervention of an AC-130 gunship. The counterattack so alarmed General Trobaugh, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, that he told Fort Bragg “Keep sending battalions until I tell you to stop.” (Six would eventually come in all).
The Marine Landings
A SEAL team finally managed to reconnoitre Pearls beach early in the morning of the 25th — and reported it unsuitable for tracked vehicles. So the Marines airlifted the E and F Company to a nearby horse-racing track, and from there they swiftly advanced to capture Pearls Airport in the face of only minor resistance. As word of the Seal Team pinned down in Governor General Scoon’s residence reached Admiral Metcalf, he deployed G Company of the 22nd Marine Assault Unit (MAU) to an amphibious landing north of Saint George in Grand Mal bay. The noise from the Marine’s heavy Amtraks and tanks seemed to scare away the opposition, and the Marines rolled south towards St. George’s. They finally arrived to relieve the Navy Seals on the morning of the 26th, and Governor Scoon was finally evacuated.
Meanwhile, communications, logistical problems and interservice bickering accumulated between the Army, Marines, and Navy. Trobaugh, the ground commander, could literally see the ship Admiral Metcalf was on — but his radio couldn’t communicate with it. A Marine commander had to be threatened with court martial by General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. before he agreed to put Army soldiers on Marine helicopters. The Navy didn’t trust the Army helicopters to land safely on their ships to evacuate casualties, and then didn’t want to pay for refueling them. (Also, the fuel hoses turned out to be incompatible.) Ground troops were not given adequate rations and dozens passed out from the heat and lack of water.
The Battle at “Little Havana”
By the morning of the 2nd day, the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division at Point Salines were already moving out to attack the Cuban compound at “Little Havana” near the airport, hoping to diminish sniper fire. While conducting a reconnaissance at 5 AM to make up for the poor maps, Captain Michael Ritz, commander of B Company, was shot and killed when he ran into a Cuban ambush. The main Cuban position was then hit by a heavy air and ground bombardment, as well as sniper fire, and hundreds surrendered, some immediately, and others after an intense firefight.
The camp’s commander, Colonel Orlando Matamoros Lopez later recounted in an interview the resistance he and Colonel Pedro Tortolo Comas put up:
At dawn, they threw mortars, aviation, cannon, machine guns […] at us. It was the fourth mortar shell that injured me […] Tortoló got to where I was, intending to evacuate me, [and] at the same time a grenade killed Carlos Diaz [Cuban Communist Party official] and another companion who was with him. Then I told Tortoló not to wait any longer, to retreat, that they were going to destroy us, that they should take advantage of a cloud of dust and smoke […] I kept on shooting until I ran out of bullets.
In all 16 Cubans were killed and 86 captured, while 8 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division were wounded, and another died while attempting to disarm an SPG-9 recoilless rifle.
In the town of Frequente, the Army uncovered an arsenal of thousands of 1950s era bolt-action rifles, submachineguns and carbines that Communist countries had sent to Grenada. A platoon of four Jeeps armed with recoilless rifles ran into another Cuban ambush shortly after — but the jeep’s return fire, supported by a mortar unit, killed four attackers for no loss of their own. Cuban resistance on the island thereafter came largely to an end. Colonel Tortolo Comas later sought asylum at the door of the Soviet Embassy in Saint George. When he returned to Cuba, he was disgraced, busted to private and sent to fight in Angola — a fate more lenient then that accorded to the Cuban general in Angola, who was executed after his defeat in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
“Rescue” at Grand Anse
That afternoon, Trobaugh was told that he needed to move faster to evacuate the medical students at Grand Anse, three miles away. Accordingly, at 4 PM he embarked the Rangers on Marines CH-46 helicopters, and they stormed into the university campus, receiving some incoming fire that wounded one pilot, while another CH-46 crashed while landing after its rotor got tangled in some trees. The Rangers swiftly neutralized resistance, and found some of the medical students, 233 of whom were then loaded into CH-53 heavy transport helicopters and flown to Point Salines. The pictures of the jubilant students were well received by the U.S. public — though the students also revealed there were still more students spread out across the island. The operation was completed in 26 minutes, but the Army either “forgot” or “lacked enough helicopters” to evacuate one eleven-man Ranger squad guarding the perimeter; left behind, they escaped the campus by sea and their rubber raft were picked up by the USS Caron at 11 PM.
Fiasco at Calavigny
By the October 27th, the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division were fanning out, closing in on the capital of Saint George and occupying Grand Anse (where they discovered additional foreign students they had missed the day before), encountering only scattered resistance. However, after receiving sniper fire, a Navy liaison team accidentally called an A-7 strike down on the headquarters of the 2nd Brigade, wounding 17 (one of whom later died of wounds). The 82nd Airborne Division finally linked up with the Marines of the 22nd MAU, and narrowly avoided opening fire on them. Likewise, the Venezuelan embassy was spared a bombardment after a Marine thought to ask the “enemy stronghold” to surrender first.
U.S. intelligence suggested that PRA army units were assembling at the Calavigny training barracks, three miles away from Point Salines airport. General Trobaugh intended to approach it on foot the next day, but received orders in the morning from Washington to seize it more quickly. An air assault by the 1st Battalion of the Rangers was quickly improvised, preceded by a heavy preparatory bombardment from the USS Caron, A-7 Corsairs, AC-130s, and the 82nd’s 105mm howitzers. The howitzer unit, however, had forgotten to bring its aiming circles, lacked topographical maps of the island, and couldn’t communicate with forward observers, so the howitzer shells almost all fell into the sea.
After the storm of fire, the Blackhawks descended upon Calavigny at high speed in anticipation of enemy flak. They were going so fast that the third, fourth and fifth Blackhawks collided with each other while landing in the space of 20 seconds. Shrapnel and spinning rotors were sent flying in all directions. While medics worked frantically to treat the wounded, it was discovered the Calavigny barracks had been abandoned. While accounts contradict each other on whether there was any resistance at all (one theory is the U.S. forces fired on each other), the fact remained that 3 men and 3 helicopters were lost assaulting empty barracks.
There was no meaningful combat after the 27th. Guerilla resistance failed to materialize, and an amphibious landing on the island of Cariciao led to the prompt surrender of its garrison. A new government was swiftly installed, the Cuban engineers were repatriated a few weeks later, and the Cuban and Soviet embassies were expelled. 45 Grenadian soldiers, 24 civilians, and 25 Cubans were counted among the dead, as well as 19 U.S. soldiers. (At least 9 deaths from enemy fire, 4 from accidents, and 1 from friendly fire. However, there is some controversy as to whether this casualty total is accurate). Urgent Fury was over.
The elephant in the room remains that the invasion and overthrow of a sovereign state was in no way necessary to the extraction of the students (who had not been taken hostage), instead of pursuing a peaceful, and far less costly, resolution. The invasion itself put the students, and Scoon, in far more danger than the PRA ever did. The threat posed by the airfield was greatly exaggerated, either dishonestly or from poor analysis. Though Grenada was indeed building up weapon stockpiles, they were old weapons that did not allow it to project power against neighboring islands or meaningfully supply nearby insurgencies, as a CIA report concluded. These reasons were simply pretexts for replacing Grenada’s Cuban-allied government with one aligned with the United States.
Ronald Reagan himself later implied a connection to the Beirut Bombing in a speech: “The events in Lebanon and Grenada, though oceans apart, are closely related.” Moscow, he continued, had “encouraged the violence” in both countries through a “network of surrogates and terrorists.” Some see Grenada as the first use of the ‘preemptive war‘ doctrine later invoked in the Iraq War.
What of the purely military aspects of the invasion?
- The US troops were often met with genuine support by Grenadian civilians tired of the violence and chaos from Coard and Hudson’s coup. As a result, insurgency and guerilla warfare never took hold.
- The Marines of the 22nd MAU steamrolled through the island, their armored vehicles dissuading PRA opponents from offering all but token opposition. They managed to secure the peaceful surrender of a number of Grenadian units, rather than resorting to preparatory bombardments and charging in guns blazing.
- The landing at Point Salines took the defenders by surprise, who had prepared for an invasion by sea. It is possible that by deploying so aggressively in the heart of their positions, the Rangers and paratroopers disrupted the PRA defenses before they could solidify
What Went Poorly
- Lack of intelligence and rushed planning: There was nothing secret about the multiple school campuses, the topography of the country, the steep nature of Richmond Hill’s slopes, or the condition of beaches. Yet, even though Grenada’s poor relationship with Washington had been known for years, the military and intelligence services were lacking all of these basic items. Furthermore, commanders failed to obtain vital information about the beaches and airfields they intended to land upon, and time and time again had to change their plans literally on the fly when condition was found to be unsuitable.
- Poor Consideration of Force Protection: The planners of the Urgent Fury repeatedly sent out small numbers of vulnerable assets deep into hostile territory without adequate intelligence — decisions which cost lives:
- A lone unarmored jeep dispatched on a reconnaissance patrol in dense terrain ambushed and its crew of four killed.
- Four Navy SEALS drowned after being air dropped into a sea squall, a scenario they had never trained for.
- Blackhawk helicopters sent charging into a hail of anti-aircraft fire around Richmond Hill and St. George’s — and both of the Cobras sent to aid them shot down.
- Special Forces teams inserted in small numbers in a hostile city.
Dispatching vulnerable scout teams and pitting helicopters against anti-aircraft guns might be warranted in situations of urgency, but under the condition at Grenada, a more methodical and prudent approach — such as made by the Marines columns — could have yielded the same results. In short, the U.S. plan over-estimated the need for haste, and underestimated the damage their opposition — or even the weather — could do.
- Lack of armor and anti-armor weapons: Both Navy SEAL raids were foiled by a lack of anti-tank weapons, even though the presence of armored vehicles should not have come as a surprise. Furthermore, the deployment of air-transportable armored vehicles, such as M113 APCs or even the M551 Sheridan tank, might have diminished the losses suffered by the Army around Point Salines. This leads to another point…
- Slow Tempo: While the Marines advanced at steady rate in the north, the Army spent three days advancing just four miles. Resistance was undeniably heavier in the Army’s sector, but if they had employed armored vehicles, they might have advanced more swiftly and securely, and not been forced to resort to the helicopter raids at Grand Anse (just 2 miles away) and Calavigny.
- Poor inter-service cooperation: The services failed to coordinate and cooperate at the highest levels, high level commanders were unable to communicate with each other, and the troops at the low level suffered from it.
- Poor Media Management: The Army denied journalist access to Grenada until the third day, leading to widespread criticism and doubts of the management of the conflict.
Urgent Fury evoked swift condemnation even from the United States’ own allies, who were not informed until after the attack had commenced. The United Nations voted 109 to 8 to pass a resolution “deploring” the invasion. But the intervention was supported by 71% of the public at home, and some on the right still see it as having “put […] the ghosts of Vietnam to rest”.
The military did not fail to grasp the seriousness of the snafus in Urgent Fury, and in 1986 Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichol Act which streamlined and centralized the chain of command of the Joint-Chiefs of Staff, and required officers appointed to those positions to have experience in inter-service cooperation. The intent was clear: the different services needed to learn to work together.
Grenada did not fare poorly after the conflict, nor did it prosper brilliantly. The U.S. occupation proved relatively brief, and life on the island returned to normal by most accounts, though scars from the conflict remain. The airport at Point Salines was completed one year after the invasion. In 2009, it was renamed to Maurice Bishop International Airport after the Communist revolutionary who briefly brought the tiny island into the international spotlight.