Thursday, 2 June 2016

Silent Voices: Screaming Aloud - Part 2

There must be better ways to spend a day of your life rather than being stuck in a RAF Tristar, packed with a bunch of excited journalists, their MoD minders and associated hangers on. We landed for an hour in West Africa to refuel and the civilians could not understand why they could not get off and stretch their legs – the idea we were not officially there just did not seem to penetrate their gin soaked brains and if anyone commented about what was technically a combatant nations aircraft on neutral soil, the local government could claim it was an emergency landing and once repairs had been carried out and the plane re-fuelled we were on our way. It was a bit lame as an excuse, as a couple of RAF Tri-stars a day had to have ‘emergency landings’ on the airfield but it covered international diplomatic niceties, as did the inflated landing fees and refuelling costs paid by the UK Government.

It would be the same at Ascension Island when the same journalists would not see the USN fleet support ships at anchor off loading fuel, spares and weapons which they were not providing to the UK forces according to their South American spokeswoman at the Whitehouse, especially not the latest mark of AIM-9 Sidewinder to be mounted on the FRS1 Sea Harriers for its first combat run. No, the journalists would not see all that going on.
It was mid May. What little I knew and had been told was that if the Argentineans did not back down soon we would have to land or go home. D-day had been set for the end of May which why I was on my way south to embark on the Canberra for deployment to the combined Commando / Airborne surgical section under the command of Surgeon Commander Rick Jolly RN. After Ascension I was to join HMS Shetland, an offshore patrol vessel, for transit to the task force area – then? The developing situation would determine where I went next but initially it would be HMS Illustrious, prior to further my further deployment.

I was not on the tarmac at Ascension for long before being whisked away in a Seaking HAS Mk2 of 814 Squadron, as Shetland was already on the way back south. It was a pleasure not to have to say goodbye to the journalists who mostly had their heads up their own or one another’s arses. The normality of HMS Shetland was a relief, not a journalist in sight, once in the wardroom the First Lieutenant tapped my shoulder, said “Hello and I see you have a bridge watch keeping certificate, so I have put you down for tonight’s middle watch, OK! I’d get some sack time after dinner if I was you.” If you can’t take a joke you should not have joined, is the old naval saw - ha, ha, ha, says I.

The navigator stands half the watch with me as second officer then we switch roles as he checks my skills and ability to understand the sea ways of the OPV and handle the different problems which always turn up during any watch. He seems satisfied I will not break his ship in the strange way navigators take on their ship’s safety, the ship is first her Majesty’s and then the Captain’s before the navigator can make any real claim but the deep ingrained sense of the navigator being the modern version of the old sailing ship’s ‘master’ holds hard, the man who stays with the ship through thick and thin while Captain’s come and go. We talk about the fact that the OPV is only slightly bigger than the Flower class corvettes of the Cruel Sea, has the advantage of the closed bridge but like the Flower class has its origins in deep sea trawlers in terms of how it rides the wind and the seas. This ship is a different kettle of fish to the twin screw frigates and destroyers I am used to which have stacks of steam or gas turbine power in reserve to get you out of trouble. Yet Shetland does not have the same urge to slam into oncoming waves as the Leanders, Type 42’s or Type 21’s; preferring to ride over the top than seeking to go through the wave crests, as we gently cork screw our way south in heavy seas.

Over the wireless net comes a flash message informing of the loss of Atlantic Conveyor, I wake the Captain to inform him, “Who the hell are you?” he asks. 
“Your new middle watch keeper, sir.” 
“A welcome voice to an isolated Jock.” says he, “I’ll ask you to call on me tomorrow, once you surface, to say your formal hello.” 
“Aye, Aye , Sir.” 
The phone goes down at the other end, thirty minutes more and then I can put the phone down as well.

“So where do you hail from in our wild land?”
“Fife , sir, lang spoon and all that sort of nonsense.”
“Perthshire, Birnham is my old tramping ground – school?”
“Watson’s, Carnegie Scholarship ...”
“Glenalmond ... rugby?”
“Nope, had to pack in after U16’s as I didn’t bulk up and was getting badly concussed too often – was a scrum half, more a rag doll at 2nd XV level, changed to hockey, school colours, U18 Scotland cap, Scottish Universities, Cornwall, West of England, Navy and Combined Services – still hopeful for a chance at a full Scotland cap. So maybe packing in rugby wasn’t that bad a move, sir.”
“Sounds like it wasn’t; well, great to have ‘Fang Farrier’ on board who puts his shoulder the communal wheel when invited, you taking watches will give my lads a break over the next few days it will take to get down to the Task Force operating area and shift back to defence watches. You will probably get hoisted off the deck once we are in range of the carriers so I would take your ease where ever possible. Next move?”
“Commando / Airborne surgical support ... Sorry, sir, that sounds a bit dubious when you say it like that, like some sort of jock strap or cod piece ... “
He chuckled, “Humour, keeps you sane when everyone is losing their heads. You are a good man to have around, permission to keep my wardroom smiling at every chance and good luck when you get ashore.”
“Thank you, Sir, I hope Shetland always has a following wind and a good sea.” 

Shetland was a hundred miles out from the carriers when the Seaking picked me up; they had taken two hours to get to HMS Shetland battling a 80 knot head wind, luckily the deck was within limits so they could land on to re-fuel rather than doing it in the hover, a VIFR – Vertical In Flight Refuelling. With the wind behind us we were back over Hermes in just over 40 minutes. I transferred to HMS Intrepid for the landings. The boss of 3 Commando Brigade medical services was onboard so I was given a personal briefing on where and how quickly the Forward Surgical Unit was going to be set up in San Carlos. Time to get out of my Navy blues and into Commando Lovats, combat overalls, pick up my webbing, big pack and draw my personal weapon, a Browning 9mm with 500 rounds, half a dozen giving sets, a dozen pack of Heamocel, a half a dozen 100ml packs of Metroniadazole and a dozen each of large and medium field dressings to cover my immediate needs when first ashore. If I had to go to a forward Regimental Aid Post, due to medical service casualties, I would dig up a SLR from somewhere, the heft of the rifle just made you feel that bit safer if the bad guys were heading your way. Commander Rick Jolly came aboard to check his landing and deployment orders and said a quick hello; see you ashore, before he went back to Canberra. Not long now before we went ashore. The tension on board was evident, the humour blacker than usual and increasingly forced.

I spent time with my friends who were going ashore as Regimental Aid and Resuscitation Officers. They did not know if they would be going into a hot landing zone or not, it would depend whether the Argentinean Regiment based at Port San Carlos and the ridges around it stayed or bugged out. We all hoped the attack and landing on Fanning Head by the SBS would cause their right flank to be threatened, roll them up and they would move back to their main line of defence in the mountains before Stanley while we built up around San Carlos Water without much opposition, prior to making our own move to take Stanley and free the islands.

Andy of 42 Commando was his usual laconic self, Peter of 40 Commando quiet but determined not to let his team down but Nigel of 45 was a bit of a worry to us all, he was clearly skittish and nervy, could not settle and was trying far too hard to pretend he was not any of these things. We were all scared, all worried, all fearful that we would fail to do our job and a casualty who could have lived dies, make the wrong call and waste space on the now limited Casevac helicopter asset as a result of the loss of Atlantic Conveyor. I dealt with the fear by checking and re-checking my notes, going through casualty labelling exercises with Peter and Andy, talking over potential wounds and their immediate treatment need but Nigel hid away in the onboard dental surgery, only coming out at meal times and even then he did not sit down with us and sought to sit on his own. We talked to the Brigade medical boss about our concerns but he was sure Nigel would sort himself out when push came to shove, he would not want to let the team down, he was a good chap and just reacting to the tension of waiting, once we were going he would release all that tension like opening a bottle of beer, we would see. Well, we all thought, we now only have twelve hours to wait, tomorrow we go ashore and we headed off to our cabins to try and get some sleep, deep in our own personal nightmare of what tomorrow will bring.


My coach from the Barrios had been right, when the Navy found out I was good at football, really good at football, I ended up in a nice office job, warm, dry with lots of time off to train and play football. I played for the Navy U18’s versus the Army and Air Force and we won both matches, with me scoring in both. The Navy coach sorted out travel warrants and leave for me to go to my River Plate trial and I came back with a trainee contract in my pocket. He said he would look into me getting early release from conscription by mid April 1982 so I could get a full season in. The business of the scrap metal merchants in South Georgia passed me by – I had a pro-contract with River Plate and I would be out of here and soon.

When we had our great victory and took the Malvinas from the English I was so proud of my nation for taking on and beating one of the world’s military powers. The people were out celebrating in the streets but in the Marine camp the sergeants were saying it was not over, they had trained with the Royal Marines, the English would not give up the Malvinas that easily, blood would have to be spilt, their navy and marines would come and the USA, while saying one thing to the Americas, would be backing their longstanding ally in NATO, mark my words Junior Corporal da Silva, mark my words. We will pray you are out, safe, playing football for River Plate, before they arrive because if we let these Royal Marines get ashore in the Malvinas, it will get messy. These hard men, with hard faces, telling it as it is cooled my joy over the success to freezing point. In the mess that night we watched the evening news telling us that an English fleet had sailed to regain the Malvinas but they would never get close because our brave Navy with its cruiser, destroyers and carrier would stop them as soon as they came within range. Our brave Naval Airmen from the 25 de Mayo would launch Exocets to sink the English carriers when they were still 500 miles away, ending any hope of a successful English invasion of the Malvinas – Ils Non Passeron!

Just in case; us conscripts found ourselves on the range, with our rifles, once or twice a week. My section sergeant taught me how to breakdown my FN rifle, clean it, oil it and put it back together again, then he made me do it faster and faster, then he blind folded me and I did time and time again until he was happy I knew what I was doing. Then he got me to do the same with a Colt pistol. He said this knowledge would save my life if things got hot on the Malvinas. It was late April, the politicians on both sides were poking each other with sticks. The BBC World News told us the English fleet was at Ascension Island. The Argentinian news was full of it being a bluff, the USA would broker a peace, the Malvinas would stay Argentinean for now and ever, the English did not have the ships to mount an invasion without US Navy ship’s help and the US Navy would not send ships. The US needed a strong Argentina to keep South America stable, Ms Kirkpatrick would win the day, the UN would side with Argentina, Regan would see which side his bread was buttered but I was still a conscript in the Naval Regiment, my early release promise forgotten – Viva la Patria!

The order came to pack; my Naval Regiment was being sent to the Malvinas to support the troops already there, a show of force to put the English off once and for all. There would not be any fighting as we would out number them three to one, no army has ever beaten those odds when landing from the sea, so far from their own base, with an 11,500 kilometre logistical tail and a Southern Ocean winter so close. June would see the English going home with their tails between their legs when the winter gales blew them away.

Junior Corporal Da Silva was not so sure, he trusted what the sergeant had said about the Royal Marines, he had done some reading about the English and their marines, they did not seem to him to be quitters, neither did their Airborne Troops – they may have been defeated at Arnhem but they had not lost. The English did not know how to lose, even when they should not ever win – Napoleon and Hitler were just two of many great leaders in history who found that out, to their cost. Would Galtieri be the next leader to discover this lesson or maybe the days when the English had this determination are now gone?

So Junior Corporal Da Silva packed, returned to barracks and when his squad had their rifles for range practice he began to pass on the lessons of weapon maintenance he had been taught by the Marine sergeant, especially how to clear jams in the rifle and the magazine. He would give his squad the best chance of survival in a fire fight he could. The hope was the English would see sense and go home. This is no longer about me; it is about us, my rifle squad, my friends, my men.


Are 16 and 17 year olds men or are we youths or boys?

To allow us to be shot at, wounded and killed we are now honorary ‘Manos’, this is the military way but we are not going to be shot at, wounded or killed that will be everyone else, not us and, anyway, the English will be running home with their tails between their legs by June when the winter gales blow from the heart of Antarctica and our naval aviators have sunk all their carriers. We get through June unscathed and we will have won and then I can go home to Buenos Aires, join River Plate, become a great footballer, win Argentinean caps and lift the World Cup in 1990 as Argentine captain. Best of all I will give my family a nice home with rooms, baths, toilets, a swimming pool and no more hand me downs, ever. Dad will be able to stop trawling the dump for a roof and Mum can have an electric sewing machine. So OK, it is still a bit about me – what do you expect? I am a sixteen year old, not seventeen until August.

What can you say about the glorious Malvinas?

A dump? A very clean version of the Barrios? Foreign? Lots of sheep? No trees? Filled with grumpy, angry people who speak loudly in English at you in an offensive way (even though you know many of them speak Spanish as well as you do), cold and windy in a way that makes Puntas Arenas seem a tropical paradise, bleak – the only thing which breaks your view are the ascending ranges of hills to the east which look sharp, grey and forbidding as they jut out from a land which is just so many shades of brown, where green looks out of place, just wrong and all you can hope for is it will soon turn brown as well because it clashes so much. The sky is a uniform grey; no, I lie, there are patches of darker and lighter grey so not uniform as such. The sea is just enough of a different set of grey so you can just tell where it and the sky meet.

In summary the Malvinas are grey and brown, cold and windy while the liberated people make very clear they do not agree with Argentinean liberation - a great place for a holiday, all told, so welcoming.

The squad has a night in a shipping container before we march out to help our big brothers (the real marines) set up a defence line in the mountains just in case the English, who are not supposed to be coming, come. The Marine Sergeant in charge tells us the mountain is called Mount Longdon but just for now, because after our great and glorious victory of liberation it will surely be renamed Mount Galtieri (a voice from the back said, “I hope someone does, on a wall - preferably.” Even the Marine sergeant smiled). It seems strange that we were always taken charge of by NCO’s – officers were never seen or heard. The Naval Regiment officers must have been somewhere around but if you asked me or any of my squad we could not name one or even describe them. Our company was run by marine NCO’s and stiffened with a scattering of marine squaddies.

Mount Longdon – grey, brown, high, cold, windswept and boggy; where it was not boggy it was rock. We learned how to dig trenches in a bog and into the permafrost you meet after around half a metre, we learned the importance of drainage in boggy, permafrost trenches, we learned how to make dry stone ‘sangars’ as machine gun pits where we could not dig, we learned about fall back positions, mines, killing zones, the importance of a dry ‘bivvy’ out of the wind, on such a cold miserable shit heap as Mount Longdon. We learned more about being soldiers in that week than we had learned since first setting foot in the barracks. We learned our regimental officers turned up once a week said, “Jolly good show, sergeant, carry on.” and then buggered off back to Stanley in their Mercedes four by fours, as quickly as possible to a warm house, hot water and hot food while we froze our arses off on Mount Longdon and ate crappy barely warm ‘C’ rations. Our officers were clearly suited to the Malvinas – grey, brown, miserable and cold. The only good news was the English had not turned up – yet.

After ten days we came off the mountain for three days of what the military humourously calls ‘rest and recreation’. This amounted to a shipping container with a television and a video machine. The selection of videos appeared to be box sets of Disney Classics. The live television was all news from Argentina about how we were winning in the Malvinas – as long as you do not mention the sinking of the Belgrano, an innocent, Second World War era, six inch cruiser, fitted with Tomahawk anti-ship cruise missiles which just happened to be sneaking east about the Falkland’s to attack the English fleet with two equally innocent Harpoon anti-ship missile carrying Type 42 destroyers as its escorts. Nasty English Navy, sneakily sinking the aged Belgrano with a state of the art nuclear, hunter, killer submarine – that is just not fair, naughty, naughty English not playing by the ‘rules’ but it is alright we sank one of their aircraft carriers in revenge (but HMS Sheffield is not an aircraft carrier as such, Mr News Announcer, only in that it carries one Lynx helicopter). Apparently our brave boys in the 25 de Mayo are now taking a well earned rest back in port before launching the real attack against the enemy fleet which is going to stop the English in their tracks or maybe not as there is at least one other Royal Navy state of the art nuclear, hunter, killer submarine in the area and we do not want to do a Belgrano on the 25 de Mayo, do we? 

At least the food was hotter and not reconstituted but there was no hot water to wash with and someone had forgotten to send any porta-loos for us conscripts – but that was OK for us boys from the Barrios we just shat in the streets, home from home, even if we risked frost bitten ‘cohunes’. We noted we did not see any officers or NCO’s shitting in the streets or washing in ice cold water, on the positive side we still had not been shot at and had a ringside seat when the English Navy Planes, they did not have because all their carriers had been sunk according to Mr News Announcer, shot up Puccaras sitting on the hard standing and bombed the crap out of Stanley airfield in general.

On the news from Buenos Aires that night we were reassured to know that just twelve hours before the bombing of Stanley another English aircraft carrier had been sunk – wait, I thought they had all been sunk already; hold that unpatriotic thought. Our Marine Sergeant called by to tell us to get packed, ladies, tomorrow we were heading back to Mount Longdon, apparently the English who were never going to land on the Malvinas in a million years had landed at San Carlos and Port San Carlos but not to worry the Argentine Air Force was going to sink all the ships in San Carlos Water by lunch time tomorrow so they would have to go home but, just in case, we better make sure our rifles were clean, well oiled and each of us draw an extra 500 rounds of FN rifle ammunition, a couple of spare magazines for our FN rifles, four fragmentation grenades along with seven days of ‘C’ rations. This was to be on the safe side because we knew just how well the re-supply chain worked for Mount Longdon from our first visit, calling the supply chain ‘intermittent’ would be being over optimistic and you can forget getting anything you actually need. The best guess was if we requested a couple of thousand rounds of ‘ammo’ we would actually get a porta-loo and a dozen VCRs from our friends in supplies. As we left to return to the front line a rumour was going round that last night some sneaky, English plane had made some very big holes in the Stanley runway – not cricket, what?

On our return we found our relief had relieved themselves in our foxholes, at least they were easy to remove, as the permafrost had turned them into ‘shiticles’.

1 comment:

  1. Getting a, real, flavour of what happened; from both points of view. I'm hooked.