Friday, 3 June 2016

Silent voices: Screaming aloud 3

The Commandos were ashore digging in. The landing, once Fanning Head had been silenced and the Argentinean right flank towards Port San Carlos pushed in, had been unopposed. By daylight on May the 21st elements of 3 Commando Brigade were ashore and beach heads secure, the Blues and Royals Scimitars had been landed and they had pushed out the perimeter north of Port San Carlos to enable 3 Para to move through 42 Commando to secure the left flank between Montevideo and Corral Heights. On the right flank 2 Para would do the same on the line of Monte Campito through the 40 Commando beach head.  45 Commando had been held on board Intrepid as a mobile reserve prior their break out towards Teal Inlet. The Parachute Brigade Landings were being delayed, no one had thought to train them how to 'jump' from a ship and embarkation into the landing craft was taking too long. Canberra and Norland were going to be left exposed to the developing air attacks from the Argentineans.

The Surgical Support Group could not go ashore until 2 and 3 Paras had extended and secured the initial perimeter, nor could the Rapier air defence missile units. I just had to sit tight listening as reports of the incoming air raids came over the ship's Tannoy system. Standing by to help with ships casualties listening as the cacophony of Intrepid’s weapons let loose at an incoming aircraft feeling the impact as tracer and HE rounds from the aircraft hit the ship and the concussion from a bomb going off from a near miss. Out in the sound the gun line of Frigates were taking their toll of incoming Argentinean aircraft but there were enough leakers to make the landings a very risky undertaking. Over the net we heard that HMS Glasgow had been hit by two bombs on the second air raid of the day, neither of which had exploded. On the third raid of the day the Argentinean Air force concentrated on the Frigate gun line in the sound, HMS Plymouth limped in with severe damage topped by an unexploded bomb and fire in the aft Sea Cat magazine but with no power or pressure in the fire main to fight the fire – the ship was going to be lost until as a last chance they flooded the magazine with AVCAT from the aft fuel tank. ‘Paraffin Budgie’ fuel which was so cold it would be unlikely to ignite before all the air had been driven out of the magazine; cooling and oxygen exclusion combined.

HMS Ardent was not so lucky, on the third pass a Skyhawk 1000Kg bomb blew off her stern, breaking her back causing multiple casualties among whom it was feared was the ship’s doctor. I got the nod to join the casualty recovery and resuscitation teams and went on deck to be picked up by a Wessex 5 on its second trip to Ardent to pick up casualties. I asked to be winched down to see where I would be best of help. Argonaut was off Ardent’s Starboard bow seeking to create boundary cooling to enable the ship’s crew to save her, Argonaut and Glasgow’s ships doctors were already a board and a quick conflab and it was decided I would be best in the Wessex looking after the most serious of the casualties once they were aboard. For two hours I shuttled between Ardent and Intrepid occasionally the helicopter was ducking and diving as an air raid came by but most of the time it was keeping patients’ airways open and stopping distressed men from ripping out IV lines in their pain and confusion, marking the tags of those I gave morphine to, applying Flamazine to burns and bagging up burnt hands. In the fifteen minutes the flight took it was surprising how much you could achieve before you landed on Intrepid to off load, brief the ‘on deck’ triage officer, restock supplies and go again. All the while 2 and 3 Para were getting ashore in dribs and drabs and moving into their positions securing and enlarging the beach head perimeter. Eventually the Rapiers were sent ashore but it was decided the surgical team would not land at this late hour, we would go tomorrow.

I went to look for Nigel but he was not in the wardroom or in his cabin, I naturally thought he would be helping with the Ardent casualties either in triage or recovery but no one there had seen him. The next option was to find Nigel’s 45 Commando RAP Senior rate but he had not seen Nigel all day either. We both went to the Intrepid’s dental surgery which was a bit of a mess where 20mm cannon rounds had came and went but there was no obvious sign of Nigel then the POMA signalled me to stand still and be quiet. Over the normal sounds of a ship at work you could just hear the slightest of whimpers. I nodded to the POMA I had heard them too and we triangulated and they appeared to be coming from the empty dental chair. The POMA bent down and found poor Nigel clinging on for dear life to the dental chair. He tried to talk his boss into letting go, like a father to a frightened child, the POMA shook his head at me, Nigel would not budge, then mouthed Lithium and went back to talking to and consoling Nigel. I gave the injection IM and it took around ten minutes until Nigel had relaxed enough to get him out from under the dental chair at that point I went off to find the Brigade medical boss and tell him what had happened. A quick discussion and it was decided to pack him off on the next helicopter to SS Uganda the hospital ship, I went to clear his cabin and his POMA sat with Nigel until it was time to get him on deck and away. Nigel was still pretty catatonic as we put him on the helicopter, said our goodbyes and strapped him in. I do not know what depths he had sank to in his misery and I did not want to know – Here be demons – I could be next or not, who could say.

Down in Intrepid’s Wardroom, circled as if by vultures, was Ardent’s ship’s doctor, the one we thought missing believed dead and who clearly was not. It appears he was going onto the flight deck just as the bomb went off and was blown over the side. A little later one of HMS Glasgow’s ships boats found him floating in his once only suit and life jacket which George swore he did not remember getting into and took him back to Glasgow where he was lodged in a corner of the Wardroom with a hot cup of coffee and a brandy. Glasgow’s own doctor eventually appears needing a medicinal brandy or two thinking his good friend is dead, only to see George sitting in the corner at which point our previously grieving medic says, “What the fuck are you doing here George, you’re supposed to be fucking dead!” at which point George claims he retorted, “Some doctor you are, if you can’t see I’m still fucking breathing!” before Glasgow returned to her post as outlying aircraft picket George had been sent to Intrepid and the most noticeable thing, to me, was he had lost his previously severe stutter along the way. George did suggest to me that being blown a hundred feet over the side by 1000 kg of HE was probably not a suitable cure for a stutter on the NHS nor could he recommend it as a general methodology. Three days later the another side effect was seen when his black hair went white almost over night.

Anyone one, any wiser why George and Nigel reacted as they did, to equally traumatic conditions?

My dark humour finds it entirely appropriate we are setting up a forward surgical support unit in an old meat processing facility – mutton dressed as lamb. It puts a smile on my face as I help organise and set the triage and resuscitation end of the organisation because after the experience of HMS Ardent I clearly understand that is what I will be, a meat processing worker. Not of course a menial meat processing worker more a quality checking supervisor, ensuring only the best meat gets through, with the best chance of ending up fit for human visual consumption and survival when all processing is complete. I will have any number of discards. There will be ones who are teetering on the brink the ‘maybees aye, maybees naw’ who will depend on living long enough for the theatre space required for their extensive wounds to  become available and only then they will get their chance at life. There will be those because of their poor quality and excess damage, I can do nothing for and I will seek to ease their passing as much as I can and with as much compassion as I can but not to the endangerment of the maybes and those with the better chances.

The dead?

They go straight round the back into the self refrigerating, permafrost pit, once they have been bagged and tagged, and are then carefully layered and mapped so we know where everyone should be.

(Triage and resuscitation officering made easy. Just wish it was this easy because at some point in the future the books of the living and the dead will need auditing, balancing and all the ‘what ifs weeded out because if you do not and you play the “I’m OK, honest! game they will drive you insane, wrecking you, your relationships, your health and your hopes. Trust me - I know.)

I see the mass grave behind the Ajax Bay surrounded by members of 3 Commando Air Brigade as they bury their dead, including a friend's body bag after his helicopter was brought down by enemy fire.  As 3 Commando move away, I hear a Sea King helicopter coming in to Casevac the lucky living to the hospital ship. I tip out the remnants of a cup of now cold tea and wander back to start another trick in triage, hoping it will be quiet, for a change, during my watch. The Medical Tech Chief comes up swathed in a newly acquired, inside out, fur coat. He sidles up to me and mock whispers like some old fashioned spiv or the Monty Python character 'Nudge, nudge, wink, wink - know what I mean?', "Nice line in warm 'O' neg or Heamocel, no decent offers rebutted, sir, fancy a pint?" as he flashes the inside of the fur coat which has blood and fluid bags pinned to it to help keep them at body temperature. I smile and ask where did he 'rabbit' the fur coat from. "Got the wife to send it out, along with half a dozen pairs of extra large tights for me, she never wears the coat now, gone all anti-fur, so at least the coat is being put to a good purpose, Sir."

I put the cup down on the 'rest room' table and move through to the receiving area as the Sea King headed off to the hospital ship, SS Uganda. The shout goes up - 'Air raid warning red'. The LMA and me stand at the door to the processing plant as we watch A4's and Puccaras skim over the ships in the bay, watching the bomb splashes from near misses, waiting for expected customers from any hits. We see a Puccara smoking from its starboard engine and watch as the totally misnamed 'Sea Cat' anti aircraft missile staggers slothfully after it, struggling to get close enough to try and pounce. As the Puccara goes behind a ridge there is a blossom of flame - maybe the Sea Cat caught up but more likely the low flying Puccara ran out of air, we both agree on the latter case being more likely. The A4s and Puccaras only ever make one pass now, the survivors learned, early on, a second pass was routinely fatal.

(Sitting here in my home, some thirty odd years later, I can feel the cold wind blowing around me, just as it did as we looked out the door, squinting into the low sun, waiting for the next shout, my hands un-officer like in pockets, slightly hunched against the chill breeze, watching as the Wessex Fives and Jungly Sea Kings restarted their logistic ballet between the ships and shore while the RM Landing craft ushered 5 Brigade to land near San Carlos, where they moved into the bunkers and slit trenches recently vacated by 40 and 45 Commando. The Commandos, meanwhile, had trudged off towards Teal Inlet laden with kit there was no longer transport for, just like the Legionaries of ancient Rome - modern day Marius' Mules.)

There was a silence then as well, broken only by the whop of rotor blades as a Sea King, with an under slung load, passed near us as it shifted a 105mm gun, forward. 

"Fancy a wet, sir?" I nodded in assent so we turned and went inside where a burning naphtha block soon had our hands wrapped round a warming mug of OXO, as the winter sun headed ever closer to the horizon, casting beams of reddish light through the holes in the rusted corrugated iron skin of the processing plant while the motes danced and whirled in the passing of the living, the sick and the dead.

This 'arty-farty' description is all in the future, for now the job is the thing, dealing with the volume, maximising the casualty’s and the other casualties’ best chances of survival which may not necessarily be the same thing.

I was perched in one of the sangars on Mount Longdon, elbows resting on the rim, looking through binoculars at the path from Murrel Bridge the English would have to come through to get to our position. The sun was setting, making my job observing the land for enemy that bit harder as I strained to see through the low mist which was rising through the sun’s dying glare. The temperature was already plummeting. Alphonse, who was now my number two, on the LMG the sergeant had entrusted us with, was hunkered down out of the wind, wrapped in his sleeping bag trying to get warm, having just done his second 30 minute stag, another 30 minutes and we would be out of here, back to the relative warmth of our bivouac. I heard Alphonse say ‘Hi Sarge!” so took my eyes away for a second and saw he had come armed with a flask, hopefully of hot coffee then went back to looking, searching the horizon for the little ant like dots which would tell us the English were here. There was a tap on my shoulder and a mug of coffee stuck in my hand, “You are a good lad, Julio, if we had a regiment of you and Alphonso’s we could stop these bastards right here but what we have is a bunch of quitters who run or surrender at the first signs of a serious fire fight.”
“What has happened Sarge?”
“ An English Airbourne Regiment hit Goose Green last night. Our great and glorious Air Force took a few casualties, fell back on Goose Green and then surrendered, at daylight to an English force, a third of the size of the Air Force detachment. The English achieved all this without much heavy artillery support or ground attack aircraft - apparently; they just snuck up, shouted ‘BOO!’ and the flyboys folded.”
“What does that mean for us?”
“It means if the English can push a sizeable force along the southern coast, from Goose Green then we, my son, will have our left flank turned at Bluff Cove, are fucked and will lose control of Mount Kent and Mount Challenger which leaves us the primary defensive line to stop the Malvinas becoming the Falkland Islands once more.”
“Sarge, green ten, five miles, helicopter, low, just above the ridge line, not one of ours.”
“Got it, either a recce or they have just inserted a forward observation team and know exactly where we are. Check the book ...”
“Lynx, ground attack variant.”
“That will be a forward observation team then - better go and warn the boys we could come under shell fire or air attack fairly soon, I’ll make that could a will, to be on the safe side, eh, Julio.” 
He slapped me on the shoulder again and as I looked round he pointed in mock seriousness to my front but the friendly message was clear, this was about to get very serious.

My squad had just settled down to catch a few hours sleep in our ‘bivvy’ when the first rounds came in with a soulful low pitched whistle and a crump. We knew these were big shells because they were making the mountain shake under us and then heard the cackle of stones or shrapnel landing on the rocks around us. Sarge stuck his head in, had a look round at all our faces and told us to check our weapons, load and have them ready because the English could be on the way but to stay put in our relative safety out of the shell fire until called forward. I asked what sort of shells were exploding.
“Naval, these are 155mm HE shells, coming in from the sea. The 105mm light field guns the English have, have a far sharper sound when they explode and a higher pitched whistle on their way in. Don’t worry it is the one you do not hear, they say, that gets you.” 
Then Sarge was gone; we checked, then cocked our weapons and I checked everyone’s safety catch was on ‘safe’. We knew our positions to go to when called forward, now it was time to wait, to worry and hope we would not fold, at the first onslaught, like the Air Force troops at Goose Green apparently had.

The English did not come that night they were busy elsewhere, preparing to evict our ‘compadres’ from Mount Kent, Mount Challenger and Two Sisters. They still seemed to have enough naval guns left over to shell us most nights. We were young, we trusted the Sarge would see us OK; even when Corporal Alonso started running around shouting and screaming at everyone and anyone. Giving vicious field punishments to conscripts who had said and done nothing just because they were conscripts, to the point when even the Sub Lieutenant of the marines, a man called Baldini, had to appear in person and take charge. It was the first and last time I ever saw him and I cannot say he impressed me, too full of ‘La Patria’ this and that bullshit, but the Sarge respected him as a ‘hard man’ so he could not be that bad. Of course Baldini blamed us conscripts for what had happened, us shit he would not even scrape off his boots in peace time, and we probably deserved to be punished but in time of war Corporal Alonso had gone too far in his chastisement (staking conscripts to the frozen ground for hours at a time, in sleet and snow storms). The Corporal was sent back to Stanley to ‘sort himself the fuck out’ by Baldini. Sarge told us we would not see Alonso again, the Doc had told him the nightly shelling of Mount Longdon had driven the corporal ‘locco’ and that was why he had turned on the conscripts, to hide his own weakness, cowardice and fears.

One night on watch, I was sitting, out of the wind, looking back over Stanley while Alphonso had the night scope looking out for the enemy. Most of the shelling, this night was on the airfield to disrupt the supply flights which could only come in at night when the Royal Navy planes and carriers went to rest and re-supply. That was fine for us because it meant they were not shelling us. As I was watching the fireworks as fuel containers and napalm bombs went off there was a flash on the shore line and I could just make out the blue yellow flare of a missile hurtling out to sea about a minute later there was an explosion on the horizon and you could just make out a dull glow of something on fire. I tapped Alphonse and pointed, he put the night scope on full power and was able to see it was a ship which had been hit, I had a quick look and then we went he went back to looking down Mount Longdon on a line between us and Wireless Ridge. I felt good, after all the shelling by the Royal Navy it was a great feeling to think we had hit back and maybe even sank the ship. I heard the whistle, grabbed Alphonso as the first of a very accurate grouping of Naval shells started plastering our position Aplhonso carried on watching to see if the enemy were coming, he tapped my shoulder and I had a look and saw a section of English coming up a gulley to our left, I took the safety off our light machine gun, nodded to Alphonso to head back and alert the squad to take up their positions then let off a series of aimed two second bursts, I saw six men fall and the others went for cover, Alphonso was back he checked the belt and attached a new one and acted as spotter using the night scope - group of four, red three zero, two second burst – down; group five red one zero, two second burst – down; change belt, covering fire and the squad would fire bursts from their automatic weapons on bearing Alphonso and Corporal Medina told them to through their night sights. People were falling dead and wounded around us. Sarge and another conscript would move the wounded back to our Bivouac which was now the Aid Post, the dead were just left where they lay, no time for them now. We stopped another attack up the gulley but some of the English got round our left flank. We saw grenades going off and heard some screams. Sarge came back to say we would have to be ready to move the English were getting round our left flank, he was going to lead some reserves from the engineers to block the gap and shore up the flank. I never saw him again.

Corporal Medina now kept us supplied with ammunition and told us things were OK for now, the English had been stopped and he thought they had pulled back to regroup. Just as he said that a grenade went off against the outside of the sangar and then an anti tank missile exploded against a rock above us and another cleared over the top and went off into the distance where it exploded far behind us. Medina said he would sort out who was causing us a nuisance and sidled off into the dark wearing a helmet mounted night scope. Things went quiet for a while - if the constant rounds of artillery and mortars coming down on our position and the pattering of incoming rounds on the rocks around us could be called quiet. Alphonso was back carefully scanning our sector. Medina came back and told us who ever had been trying to get us had bugged out. Us Naval conscripts were doing good, so were the boys in the 7th Regiment, far better than those wimps at Goose Green, he produced a couple of bars of chocolate – something we had not seen since Puntas Arenas – and gave us one each. I asked how our Sub Lieutenant was doing. Medina shrugged and said, “Not so good, copped it in the first assault when his machine gun position was taken out by grenades, Corporal Darios was with him.”
“Not been seen he got into a fire fight sealing up the left flank. Its OK kid, he ordered me to look after you before he lead the engineers forward to plug the gap; told me you are a future Argentinean World Cup winning football captain, so I have to keep you safe for the sakes of La Patria.”

To our front we could see tracers and shells exploding all around Mount Harriet, behind us on Wireless Ridge and across the valley on Mount Tumble Down fire was raining down on our defensive positions, it was clear tonight we either held or lost. I felt we had already lost far too many of our friends to lose this important battle, most of the rest of us shit kicking Naval conscripts felt the same way, we were not for budging from Mount Longdon.

“Movement, red three zero”, broke in Alphonso; Medina touched his helmet brim and slipped back off into the dark, I squeezed the trigger, a two second burst on the bearing called out by Alphonso. Here we go again.

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