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Untold Stories from the Falklands Campaign
By Christopher Hilton
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Christopher Hilton
All rights reserved.
ALL AT SEA
It seemed a most trivial thing. On 20 December 1981 an Argentine scrap metal merchant, Constantino Davidoff, landed on South Georgia, an island lost in the cold waters of the southern Atlantic. With the South Sandwich Islands, which lay some 300 miles further on, it represented, literally and figuratively, the end of the British Empire.
South Georgia has been described as 'breathtakingly beautiful and a sight on an early spring day not easily forgotten'. It has also been described as:
long and narrow, shaped like a huge, curved, fractured and savaged whale bone, some 170 kilometres long and varying from 2 to 40 kilometres wide. Two mountain ranges (Allardyce and Salvesen) provide its spine, rising to 2,934 metres at Mount Paget's peak (eleven peaks exceed 2,000 metres). Huge glaciers, ice caps and snowfields cover about 75% of the island in the austral summer (November to January); in winter (July to September) a snow blanket reaches the sea. The island then drops some 4,000 metres to the sea floor.
On a global scale, anything which happened there would be a most trivial thing.
South Georgia had no native population, but it did have a small number of residents, including staff from the British Antarctic Survey, which had scientific bases at Bird Island in the far north. The residents would see, among other things, a lot of elephant seals, fur seals and king penguins. The capital, Grytviken, was no more than a few buildings huddled between the ocean and the stark, immense Allardyce Range rising behind.
Davidoff landed without permission at Leith Harbour, a derelict whaling station 15 miles north of Grytviken. Thereby lies a tale, because he had, he would insist, tried to get permission from the British and even 'signed a deal worth $270,000 [£180,000] with the Scottish owners' of the station to take the scrap away.
Word reached the British Antarctic Survey base at Grytviken, but, when they got to Leith Harbour, they found Davidoff had gone. They also found that he had left a message, in chalk, announcing that South Georgia belonged to Argentina, which had laid claim to them since 1927. Argentina had trained more covetous eyes on the Falkland Islands, which had many more inhabitants amongst the seals, penguins and particularly sheep. The Falklands, a British colony since 1833 and some 800 miles to the north-east, had always been claimed by Argentina and they even had a Spanish name, the Islas Malvinas. With South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands they formed a community composed of small, distant parts.
Two days after Davidoff's landing, Lieutenant General Leopoldo Galtieri seized power in Argentina using that country's traditional method of transferring power: a military coup. Davidoff's landing still seemed a most trivial thing, in total no more than a fleeting visit by a scrap-metal dealer who scented scrap on South Georgia and left some mindless graffiti on his way out. It had, of course, nothing to do with Galtieri.
Mark Hiscutt, a 21-year-old gunner – or missile man, as they're known – from Farnborough had joined HMSSheffield, a Type 42 destroyer, in March, and since November had been in the Gulf. In the New Year, Sheffield would take part in Exercise SPRING TRAIN, but Hiscutt would be home by 8 May. He had to be. It was his wedding day. 'I had a fair idea where the Falklands were, yes, I knew they weren't north of Scotland' – which many in the services did not know.
Brian Bilverstone, a 20-year-old radio operator on HMS Herald, an ocean survey ship, was in the Middle East on a seven-month trip. Watch duty tended to be quiet. There were four teleprinters in a bank, one permanently on, the other three on standby. One was invariably enough because the Herald rarely received more than thirty messages a day. Bilverstone would spend time listening to the teleprinter chattering away – or more likely hearing silence. He 'didn't have a clue' where the Falklands were: 'We thought it was Scotland.'
On 9 January 1982 the British Ambassador in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, lodged a formal protest about Davidoff's landing. Three days later the Argentinian Joint Armed Forces Committee began plans to invade the Falklands. Galtieri, now ruling through a junta, inherited a country destroyed by financial problems and traumatised by fighting a 'dirty' internal war against all manner of perceived opponents. He was not popular, but a solution lay to hand: the Islas Malvinas. Their value was entirely symbolic, but, to the destroyed and traumatised, hugely symbolic. Just as importantly, they were defended by only a symbolic force of sixty-eight Royal Marines and HMS Endurance, an Antarctic patrol vessel which 'maintained Britain's presence around the Falkland Islands and supported the British Antarctic Survey'. The Endurance was to be decommissioned as an economic measure which British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced on 9 February. Galtieri could be forgiven for reading this as a withdrawal, opening the islands to him.
Steve Wilkinson, a 21-year-old marine engineer from Chesterfield, was on HMS Exeter, another Type 42 destroyer, halfway through a three-month tour of the West Indies doing guard duty. 'It was very nice and pleasant. The locals were very friendly and there were were quite a few barbeques and parties to be had.' He 'didn't know where the Falklands were. It was very sketchy because it's like the Shetlands and the Orkneys. It's just another bunch of islands, but because the UK had sovereignty on all sorts of bits and pieces, unless you were a geographical whizz you didn't necessarily know.'
In New York, the British and the Argentinians met to discuss the sovereignty of the islands. As February melted in to March these talks were described as 'cordial and positive'. Potentially, if a formula could be worked out, two problems would be solved: the Falklands were only 300 miles from Argentina and, in all practical terms, it made more sense to have a working relationship than rely on Britain 8,000 miles away; and Galtieri could pose as the man who reclaimed the Malvinas. There was a problem, however: other British politicians and diplomats who'd tried these negotiations had encountered opposition – sometimes ferocious – within Britain, and Galtieri was a career soldier.
David Buey was a 20-year-old mechanic with the Fleet Air Arm working on helicopters. His squadron was based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, in Somerset, and he might have expected to be going on a tour of Northern Ireland. It was a front-line squadron and had been there before. The Falklands were something else. 'Very few people did know where the Falklands were, I think.'
Mario Reid, a 20-year-old from Huntingdon, was a sapper with 9 Parachute Squadron of the Royal Engineers, the Parachute Regiment's attached combat engineering unit. He was a fit young man who'd joined the engineers but volunteered, or been volunteered for, para training. 'I didn't mind.' He was in barracks at Aldershot and had no idea where the Falklands were. 'No, of course not. Most people thought they were in Scotland.'
A day after the meeting in New York the Argentinian foreign minister dismissed all talk of the 'cordial and positive' talks and threatened that if Britain did not relinquish sovereignty then the Argentinians would use 'other methods'. It wasn't looking trivial any more and, for those who could read the currents, a general and a junta which could not back down and survive were locking themselves in against a woman who could not back down and survive. Moreover, for Galtieri the word survival might involve physical dimensions; for Thatcher it would only mean her career as prime minister would be over, perhaps very quickly.
On 3 March in London a Member of Parliament asked if all precautions were being taken to defend the Falklands, and didn't get a clear reply. Two days later the British Foreign Secretary reportedly refused to send a submarine to patrol the Falklands. A day after that, a Hercules aeroplane run by LADE, a branch of the Argentine military, landed at Port Stanley airport claiming a fuel leak. LADE had a man there and he gave the senior officers on the plane a tour of the area. Two days later Thatcher asked for plans to be drawn up in the event of an Argentinian blockade or even full-scale invasion.
On 19 March Davidoff and forty workmen returned to South Georgia and did not seek permission. In response, HMS Endurance and twenty-two Royal Marines were despatched from the Falklands.
Dave Brown, a 20-year-old born in Glasgow and now with 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment 'was up at home in Leeds for the weekend, Easter leave. My plan of action was watching Leeds v Liverpool at Elland Road and then travelling over to see my sister in Holland, who was just about to have her first baby. Unfortunately we got called back. I managed to stay over for the Leeds game – which I think we lost, by the way – and then I phoned my mate up who was on guard duty because obviously nobody had mobiles in those days. I did not know where the Falklands were. I don't think 80%, 90% of the lads did.'
On 3 April the Argentinians put significant forces ashore on South Georgia and, although the marines resisted and caused considerable damage, they could not withstand the numbers put against them.
By then Argentina had invaded the Falklands, too. The images of surrender exercised a profound impact on ordinary British people, who knew that regular British people like themselves, in distant Port Stanley and the sheep stations scattered across the two islands – East and West Falkland – were now being ruled by a military junta with a lot of blood on its hands against a constant backdrop of a lot of mothers marching in Buenos Aires for their disappeared sons.
Thatcher was fighting for her political life, while Galtieri saluted adoring, chanting multitudes.
The British Parliament authorised the sending of a Task Force and almost immediately the first RAF planes were heading towards Ascension Island, a British dependent territory since 1653, almost 2,000 miles from Angola and 1,500 from Brazil. Within a short while the airport on this tropical volcanic island became the busiest in the world. Ascension would be a forward base where supplies could be flown for when the Task Force arrived.
By now all manner of diplomacy was going on. With American President Ronald Reagan's approval, Secretary of State Alexander Haigwould shuttle from London to Buenos Aires and back trying to find common ground.
Jimmy O'Connell was a 22-year-old paratrooper from Liverpool who'd just come back from Northern Ireland: 'I went on Easter leave. I didn't know where the Falklands were. I don't think anyone knew. We thought they were in Scotland – some people were saying Scotland. Truthfully, I had never heard of them.'
Graeme Golightly was a 19-year-old marine from Knowsley in Merseyside, based in Seaton Barracks, Plymouth. 'We were in Altcar, a weapons range in Southport. We'd just gone up for some weapon training.' Now they were recalled to Seaton Barracks 'to get our spearhead kit all ready for whatever was going to be happening. Truthfully, no, I did not know where the Falklands were.'
The Task Force, which would have to operate at that range of 8,000 miles, comprised the navy's four remaining major surface ships: the aircraft carriers Hermes and Invincible, and the assault ships Fearless and Intrepid. Half the nuclear submarine fleet went. Eight destroyers went: one Type 82,Bristol; two 'County' Class, Antrim and Glamorgan; five Type 42s,Cardiff, Coventry, Exeter – which had Stephen Wilkinson on – Glasgow and Sheffield – which had Mark Hiscutt on. There were fifteen frigates: Brilliant – which had William Field on – and Broadsword(Type 22s); Active, Alacrity, Ambuscade, Antelope, Ardent, Arrow and Avenger (Type 21s); Andromeda, Argonaut, Minerva, Penelope(Leander class); and Plymouth and Yarmouth (Rothesay class).
There were survey ships being used as hospitals, including HMS Herald. There were Merchant Navy cargo vessels and a North Sea ferry, the Norland – which had Dave Brown on. Ocean liners were requisitioned as gigantic troop transporters: the QE2– which had Mario Reid on – and the Canberra – which had Jimmy O'Connell and Graeme Golightly on. And there were auxiliary ships like the Fort Austin – which had David Buey on.
On 25 April South Georgia was recaptured by the Royal Marines.
The British Government declared a 200-nautical-mile Exclusion Zone round the Falklands a day later. On 29 April the Task Force arrived at the Exclusion Zone and on 2 May the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by the Royal Navy submarine HMS Conqueror, killing 323, although it was outside the Exclusion Zone.
Up until this moment there had been a general assumption, not least among the young men in the Task Force, that a shooting war was unthinkable. The diplomats and politicians would find the common ground after all this military posturing and everyone would go home. After the Belgrano, they all sensed a shooting war had begun.
They were right.CHAPTER 2
THE MISSILE MAN
I went inside the ship twice, the first time with my mate Bones, and while we were down there we didn't have breathing apparatus. All we had was our gas masks. Part of your training is that you never wear a gas mask in a smoke-filled environment – it's not built for it – but that's all we had. It was that or nothing.
Mark Hiscutt's father was in the army, 'so we moved around a lot and we ended up living in Farnborough in Hampshire. I joined the Sea Cadets and I thought this looks good. I didn't want to join the army because I didn't want my father saying, "Well, it wasn't like that in my days" – that's natural. I do it to my mate's son! – so I chose the navy. I was born in 1960 and I was sixteen and a half when I joined up.
'I was a typical boy. I played football for the school and various clubs, I was in the Sea Cadets. We visited a lot of countries, we holidayed in Italy, driving down and back. It wasn't the case for me that I was going into the services because of an unhappy childhood – I'd had a good childhood. I think I wanted to join the navy because of the Sea Cadets.
'At my interview in 1976 I said I didn't want to join the army because of the reason about dad and, secondly, I didn't want to go to Northern Ireland. Then it was pointed out to me that there were matelots in Northern Ireland, which I didn't know. I joined up in 1977. I did my basic training at HMS Raleigh and HMS Cambridge because I was a gunnery rate – missile man, as they call them. They are the ones who fire the guns, in my day four-and-half-inch guns, all metric now.'
Raleigh, the navy says, is the:
premier training establishment in the South West where all ratings joining the service receive the first phase of their naval training. The 9-week phase one training course is designed to be challenging, exciting, maritime in its focus and relevant to the operational environment individuals will find themselves in. It aims to develop individuals as part of a team, inculcate naval ethos and a sense of being part of the naval family.
Cambridge, at the former Wembury Point Holiday Camp south-east of Plymouth, was 'to provide live firing practice with conventional weapons for officers and ratings qualifying in gunnery'.
Hiscutt joined HMS Sheffield in March 1981. The Sheffield, built at Barrow, was a guided-misile destroyer which had been commissioned in 1975. She had a complement of 287, was 410 feet long, 47 feet wide and could do a maximum 30 knots.
Hiscutt explains that 'you had 20mm close-range weapons, that sort of thing. The four and a half is the one at the very front so if you think about a Type 42 destroyer, it's that gun there. I don't know exactly how fast it fired but it was pretty fast and it had a range of a couple of miles. It could knock an aircraft out and be used as naval gunfire support, which is laying rounds down against enemy targets on land, so it was a versatile and important gun. I was in the gun bay. The gun we had on the Sheffield was a Mark 8, an automatic loader. There was nobody in the turret. During action stations there were four or five of us in the gun bay and we kept loading the rounds which went up into the turret.'
Excerpted from Ordinary Heroes by Christopher Hilton. Copyright © 2012 Christopher Hilton. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Major General Julian Thompson, CB, OBE,
1. All at Sea,
2. The Missile Man,
3. The Radio Operator,
4. The Marine Engineer,
5. The Helicopter Expert,
6. The Heavy Mover,
7. The Lucky Paratrooper,
8. The Unlucky Paratrooper,
9. The Prisoner,
10. The 29-Year-Old Teenager,
11. The Islander,
12. Personal Conflicts,
13. Time Travellers,
14. Joking, Crying and Dying,
Appendix: Men and Ships,