The Falklands War is the primary reason why I have wanted to visit the Islands for so long. In my mid-teens, a TV program to mark the tenth anniversary of the war sparked an interest in me that has lasted ever since. Whilst my interests have expanded and my visit also served my interests in wildlife, landscapes and photography, learning more about events in 1982 were a priority.
I had three tours around some of the battlefields and other sites while in the Falklands. What instantly struck me was how fresh the signs of war still are, even 32 years later. The positions constructed by troops I saw could have been created just a few years ago and the wreckage of the shot down Argentine Dagger aircraft on Pebble Island (the pilot of which survived) looks barely touched by the three decades of Falklands weather.
The battlefields are still strewn with the debris and detritus of war, with some large items remaining including some weapons (e.g. the recoilless rifle on Mount Longdon and all now well beyond use), while many smaller items lie all around and hidden in the ground including blankets, boots, personal kit and spent, and unspent, ammunition. Of course there are also the much larger remnants of the war which cannot be seen, those below the surface of the surrounding sea. Six British ships from the war lie in the waters surrounding the islands and seeing the buoy marking the final resting place of HMS Antelope, in San Carlos Water, really moved me – lying in such dark, cold, rough and wind blown waters, so far from home.
The Falklands are perhaps infamous for having uncleared minefields spread around the islands. Yes, they are there; I saw them around Goose Green and in the mountains close to Stanley and on the beaches around the capital. However, there are vast swathes of the islands, the majority in fact, left untouched by the war.
I was struck by the beauty of the cemeteries and monuments and their surroundings. Perhaps it was the good weather and I’m sure they will look and feel very different in the midst of a winter storm, but they are all in settings that give beautiful backdrops and fitting stages for those who gave all for the freedom of the islanders to decide their own future.
At every cemetery or monument I visited, I made a point of reading every name, Argentine or British. Whilst it is easy to look for the most famous or most decorated names amongst those listed, for me it is important to notice all of them no matter what service, what rank or what age. Unfortunately, I didn’t get time to visit the one main Argentine cemetery, which is near to Darwin, but I did spend a short time at the small memorial on Pebble Island which marks the spot where a shot down Argentine Learjet crashed.
By chance rather than design, I visited the battlefields of Mount Longdon and Mount Harriet on Remembrance Sunday, and I marked the two-minute silence at the memorial on Longdon. After reading so much about the battle for Longdon, it was slightly unreal to spend time there; something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. Having seen pictures and maps of the place and the battle, it was very familiar but seeing the signs of war still very much in evidence was both surprising and poignant.
Of the land battles in 1982, I have read most about those fought by the Parachute Regiment and I have read comparatively little about the battles fought by the Royal Marines including that for Mount Harriet. Harriet seems even more of an impenetrable fortress than Longdon and I found it almost unbelievable that there were, thankfully, comparatively few British losses in taking the mountain (one soldier was killed by artillery fire on the approach to the battle while a second was shot when trying to take the surrender of some Argentines when one soldier changed his mind).
I found that there remain some strong feelings amongst the islanders towards the nation only 250 miles to the west. Some of these feelings are clearly lasting from memories of the actions over 30 years ago now, while some relate more to the current and the difficulties that the islanders have in living so close to a still hostile neighbour and the actions being taken by the Argentine government to isolate the Islands.
The military are still very much in evidence now, not least to visitors arriving at Mount Pleasant Airbase, using the Air Bridge between the Islands and RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. In my travels I frequently saw movements by helicopter, was flown over by two RAF Typhoons and a Hercules and even had my own ‘HMS’ moored offshore for the night when at Bleaker Island. It is clear that the islanders are very grateful to the military, not only for their actions and sacrifice in 1982, but also to the ongoing security they provide.
However, not all the locals seem happy to see the military. Gentoo penguins really don’t like helicopters and go running off in a mad panic each time one comes close. This seems particularly odd when they see them very frequently, but they do trudge back to where they started as soon as the big noisy thing goes away – only to run off again when the next one comes (they must have the memories not much greater than their main foodstuff!).
I have cared about the plight of the islands for a long time, even though I have no strong connections with them. It therefore came as a bit of a surprise to me that for a moment during my visit, while flying over the vast, empty areas of West Falkland, I did question whether they are worth protecting and, if necessary, fighting for again. However, this was a very short-lived moment of questioning.
For me the most important factor is the presence of the Islanders themselves. They own the islands, their home, just as much as I own the land (albeit very small) under my home. The Islanders are as British as I am and the vast majority have British roots going back many generations (just as I do) and have, in fact, more shared history with mainland UK than many people living here now. To me, the Islands may be far away, at the end of a long line of communication, but they are as British as any group of Islands within the British Isles and deserve to be protected, and have the right to be, from any hostile action (whether military, economic or diplomatic) from their near neighbour and its supporters.
Having been to the battlefields and talked to islanders, this visit has very much renewed my interest in what happened in 1982. However, more than that, my support for the right of the Islands to remain a Crown Dependency has also increased and I need to give some thought to how I can do more to show that support (in whatever small way I can).
(I would like to thank Tony Smith for guiding me around the Mount Longdon and Mount Harriet battlefields – he is an excellent guide with an incredible knowledge of the battles and insight into what actually happened in 1982. He can speak not only from first hand experience from an islander’s point of view but has also spoken to many veterans, both junior and senior and from both sides. He clearly has a passion for sharing knowledge of the war and he does so both enthusiastically and with great sensitivity).