A radio operator’s surreal experiences in an unlikely war.
“Hello, Two Charlie, this is Zero. You’re being shot at—again.” Two Charlie, a Westland Scout helicopter piloted by Captain Sam Drennan and his crewman, Corporal Jay Rigg, zipped through the valley below me, its skids only feet off the ground on a fast, low, hopeful run. The tiny helicopter, designed to carry three passengers, carried twice that, its cabin so crowded with broken bleeding men that Rigg stood outside on the skids, cradling the head of a wounded man. All morning I had watched as they went back time and again to pick up casualties from the fighting on Mount Tumbledown. It was June 14, 1982, and although we didn’t know it, the Falklands War was entering its final hours.
The islands’ capital, Port Stanley, lay only a few miles away, but in between lay Tumbledown, a high craggy hill defended by Argentine marines and under assault by men of the Scots Guards. Two Charlie was operating too far forward, but Drennan had served with the Scots Guards before joining the Army Air Corps. These weren’t just casualties, these were his friends.
I was watching from the shelter of Goat Ridge. Behind me the Scots Guards’ Regimental Aid Post and the Gurkhas’ mortar line were both keeping busy as Sam and Jay shuttled between them on casualty evacuation (casevac) flights. I’d been sent forward to rebroadcast messages to and from the rear area and casevac helicopters.
Two Charlie passed me again as Sam and Jay flew low up the valley beneath incoming artillery and outgoing mortar fire. I watched as they hopped across the face of the hill, collecting wounded like some kind of parcel service, lifting off with another full load. That was when I spotted movement in the valley below. A small group of men were slowly picking their way among the boulders. These men in olive green parkas and American-style helmets were my enemy. They were probably stragglers just trying to get back home, but a helicopter full of wounded men was about to fly straight over them. Would they attack? Could I take the risk that they would let it go by? There was no one around to ask. I quietly moved into a firing position and aimed.
News of the Argentine invasion had reached us via BBC on April 2, as my unit returned to the United Kingdom from an exercise in Germany. I was a radio operator in 656 Squadron of the Army Air Corps, and we had spent the last two weeks working with our German counterparts in the Heeresflieger. It was too late to be an April Fool’s Day joke. A corporal asked what many of us were thinking: “What the f— are the Argies doing in Scotland?”
“Sorry lads, but it’s pukka gen [true],” replied the sergeant major. “Those of you lined up for Belize this summer, don’t hold your breath.”
As we left for Easter, signs began appearing at London train stations ordering troops to return to barracks. Within a week the 3rd Commando Brigade— the Royal Marines Amphibious Landing Group, with the addition of the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment—was steaming south aboard the liner Canberra and a variety of naval and Merchant Navy vessels. When intelligence reports suggested there were around 10,000 Argentinian troops already on the islands, the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment received orders to deploy. Recent reorganization within the army had created a new formation, the 5th Infantry Brigade, comprising the 1st Battalion of the 7th Gurkha Rifles, and the 2nd and 3rd Parachute regiments to replace the old 6 Field Force based at Aldershot. That reorganization had moved 656 Squadron to a new role with 1st Infantry Brigade, but when the paras deployed, they specifically requested that 656 accompany them because of the strong working relationship between the units. So it was that 656 found itself temporarily attached to the fledgling 5th Infantry Brigade, a formation that was only four months old yet about to go to war.
With two battalions of paratroops detached to the marines, two new battalions of infantry were needed. The Scots and Welsh guards were quickly added to what was then intended to be a garrison force. I watched enviously as a small advance party left to sail with the 2nd Battalion in the motley collection of civilian and military vessels that made up the task force. As they steamed south, the rest of us joined 5 Brigade on a shakedown exercise in Wales. Rumors were rife about what might happen. The craziest one was that the luxury liner QE2 would be requisitioned as a troopship and that we would sail to war on the most impressive cruise ship in the world. Yeah, right.
But on May 12, QE2 slipped its moorings at Southampton, its decks crowded with the 5 Brigade. It wasn’t easy getting into the right warlike frame of mind surrounded by uniformed Cunard waiters with room service available on call, but we did what we could. Escape drills were endlessly run; after all, the Argies had at least one submarine, and we were an easy target.
For two weeks we sailed through tropical seas, flying fish leaping alongside the ship as we trained for arctic conditions. Medical lectures combined warnings about malaria with others about frostbite. The civilian crew was offered the chance to return to Britain when we reached our staging point at Ascension Island. They stayed. Their only concession: At mealtimes they wore steel helmets.
Then one morning we awoke to find ourselves steaming slowly through sea mist and icebergs. We inched into the safety of South Georgia to rendezvous with the liner Canberra. Having landed 3 Commando Brigade under air attack, Canberra had now come for 5 Brigade. QE2, it had been decided, was too vulnerable. Her loss would be too much of a propaganda coup.
We knew the Argentines had Exocet missiles capable of sinking military ships designed to take damage. A civilian ship wouldn’t stand a chance. The only hope was to try to get on the opposite side of Canberra from the attack. So, as we drew near the islands, the ship would sometimes list to one side or the other as men judged the direction of the attack and went to stand on the opposite deck.
Arriving on East Falkland, we dug in at the southern end of San Carlos Sound—“Bomb Alley” the media had by now christened it— and waited. And waited. Then, in the early hours of June 6, I was awakened and called to the command post. One of our helicopters had gone down. We stood by in case there was a chance of rescue, but there would be none. Simon Cockton, who had left his wedding reception to join the unit as we deployed, and Chris Griffin, whose baby son was undergoing heart surgery back in London that same morning, were victims of a “blue on blue”—friendly fire. It would be years before their families were told the truth.
I was now part of the squadron’s three-man reconnaissance team. Armed with two rifles, an L4 light machine gun—a rebored WWII-vintage Bren gun—an M72 light antitank weapon and a radio, we were to be sent forward to establish new landing sites. Now it was time to earn our pay with a trip to Darwin, the tiny settlement alongside Goose Green.
By the morning of June 8, the recon team had set up at the settlement of Fitzroy, and I woke up in a lumber shed surrounded by Gurkhas cooking curry. The plan was that 5 Brigade would advance through Fitzroy and nearby Bluff Cove, forming the southern thrust of a pincer movement with 3 Commando attacking from the north. Walking out of the shed, I looked out into the bay where two landing ships lay at anchor, having arrived during the night. Brigade headquarters was being set up in the shed, so I found a spare area and set up my radio, and we began organizing the squadron’s arrival. With headphones on, I hadn’t noticed that things had gone quiet. But when I glanced over my shoulder, everyone was on the floor. Another air raid. I was trying to decide whether I could be bothered taking cover when there came the sound of jet engines at full throttle and the blast wave hit like the door of hell slamming. Dust settled, and I thought suddenly of old war movies. Without even realizing I had done it, I sent out a message: “Contact, Fitzroy. We’re being bombed.”
The two landing ships had been easy targets. Aboard, men of the Welsh Guards had been relaxing and waiting to be transferred ashore when a formation of Douglas A-4 Skyhawks found them. Within seconds, the two ships were infernos. More than 50 men died, and a similar number were wounded.
Things quickly settled down after that. Life at Fitzroy was safe, and we shared a warm barn with some calves. It smelled pretty bad. At night we could watch the distant arc of tracer and listen to the firefights up in the mountains, with some frustration that we weren’t part of it.
Then, as the Scots Guards prepared to attack Tumbledown, volunteers were asked to come forward to assist with evacuating casualties. My friends and I quickly jumped at the chance to get to the front line—“up to our nuts in guts.” All night we waited, but the call never came. At dawn the next day, I was asked if I would go forward to Goat Ridge to help organize casevac flights. Our aircraft were operating at their limit, ferrying ammunition forward and carrying out wounded. I finally had the chance to do something.
So now I found myself alone on a hill, watching men pick their way through the rocks and wondering if I should kill them. I knew I could. I knew I wouldn’t even get shouted at for doing it. But that wasn’t what I was there to do. I was there to get the wounded out. Starting my own private war wouldn’t help anyone. I sighted down on the first figure as the sound of Two Charlie’s rotors reached me. In a couple of seconds they would round the end of the ridge and be over the enemy. I clicked off the safety and watched as one figure dropped, then the others. Two Charlie hurtled over them and raced onward. Slowly the men got back up and continued their trudge toward Port Stanley. I watched them go.
As they disappeared from view, a call came over the radio—“Hello all stations, this is Zero. Endex, I say again, Endex.” End of exercise? Just when it was getting interesting?
I made my way back down the hill to the regimental aid post. It was true. Already a long line of prisoners, their faces a mixture of fear and relief, was approaching from the direction of Tumbledown. It was eerily quiet.
The Argentines were in mortal fear of the Gurkhas, whom they seemed to regard as a band of savages. In one case, we had flown a wounded Argentinian back to our field hospital only to find him clutching a grenade with the pin taken out, terrified that he would be tortured and eaten by the Gurkhas. Gently, the grenade was made safe and taken from him before he passed out. He awoke in a hospital bed with two Gurkha soldiers sitting on either side of him, holding knives and forks and grinning.
Back home, there was a lot of public sympathy for the Argentinian prisoners. The press had reported that they were, after all, young, inexperienced conscripts. Most, however, were “Class of ’62”—20-year-olds who had already completed two years in the military. They were the same age as we were. One Argentinian soldier, angry at his nation’s humiliation, declared loudly and in excellent English that their defeat was because they had old weapons and equipment. I thought about our own machine guns, a 1943 Bren gun with slight modifications. I thought about our Korean War–vintage hardtack biscuits brought out of storage and about the .50- and .30-caliber Browning machine guns stored for the last 40 years. I thought about the number of Brits wearing the much more waterproof Argentine army boots instead of their own. Yes, mate, I thought, it must have been the tools that made you do a bad job. What else could it be? Just as it looked as though someone might take the debate to a physical level, he stopped. He looked around and smiled. “Best of three?” he asked.
Like the rest of my war, the liberation of Port Stanley wasn’t what I’d hoped. The islanders, traumatized by their captivity and the fighting, were in no mood to hang out the flags. To us they seemed ungrateful, but that wasn’t accurate. They knew that the Argentinians had fought for the islands, but we had fought for the islanders. They were grateful then, they’re grateful now, but they were too tired to show it. We all were.
I moved into what had once been the community school and more recently a hospital. The toilets were broken and overflowing. We ate our meals in a hall whose wall was decorated with blackening blood spatter in an arc 8 feet from the floor. We acquired a Huey helicopter, cleaned out the blood and gore, and used it to ferry us to and from the ships now crowding Stanley Harbor so we could get a hot shower and change our clothes for the first time in weeks. We spent time exploring the Argentine positions and souvenir hunting—learning very quickly to tie string to our desired souvenir and walk to a safe distance before pulling it to us. We found quite a few booby traps that way. Mines were everywhere, and we took great delight in taking our newly arrived replacements on tours of the minefields, always ending the tour with a race across a field ringed with warning signs—set up for us by some friendly engineers who left just enough deactivated mines in place to make it look good.
Then it was over. I was driven out to the shattered terminal of Port Stanley’s airfield and climbed aboard a Lockheed C-130 Hercules “Herky Bird” for the long flight home. For the next 18 hours I stared at the plane’s massive internal fuel tanks, my boredom relieved by occasionally swinging trapezelike to the toilet on the rear cargo door, or when we touched down briefly at Ascension and in Senegal, where the sight of troops in camouflage on the runway made the tourists on incoming charter flights sit up and take notice.
I arrived back in Britain tired, dirty and happy. I drank a few beers in the same pub my granddad had visited to celebrate his rescue from Dunkirk 40 years earlier, and I wondered what to say to all the people who asked me, “What was it like?”
All I could say was that it wasn’t what I’d expected.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.