Saturday, 4 June 2016

Silent voices: Screaming aloud 4

One of my first jobs after qualifying, as a dentist, was putting a motor cyclist’s face and jaws back together while the plumbers threw away his spleen, joined up bits of his intestines, having removed leaky bits, and a chunk of macerated liver while the joiners went to work bolting long bones back together. I had to carefully hold his eye while the oral surgery consultant placed a carbon fibre, Teflon coated plate to form the bottom of his no longer existing eye socket floor in the vain hope he would still be able to see: at least his eye would not fall out or drop into his maxillary sinus which would be terribly unfortunate, not to say embarrassing when our motor cyclist sneezed at a party, for example. The next step was to re-attach his forehead, with eye sockets to his cranium so we could wire his left and right maxilla back in place after that there was the straight forward job of plating his lower jaw together reducing the bilateral dislocation of said lower jaw and stabilise the whole kit and caboodle so it would mend properly. All the time we were doing this precision work we were listening to the bickering of the plumbers over Telegraph crossword clues and answers with the anaethetist while the smell of burning bone and sounds of drilling and hammering drifted up from the joiners. I mention this not to simply poke fun at General and Orthopaedic Surgeons, which I am, but also so you understand I am quite used to dealing with extreme trauma and devastating human deformation, in moderation, and was planning to train as an oral and plastic surgeon with a special interest in oral cancer and cleft palate. At Ajax Bay, in the meat processing factory, moderation was passé. You were faced with glut or famine.

The first epidemic came from the fact the boots supplied by the MoD to the troops were not fit for purpose and it struck mainly at 40 and 45 Commando yomping up to Teal Inlet; the combination of cold plus leaking boots plus feet that never were dry, constantly subject to temperatures just above freezing were a perfect recipe for Trench foot and Royal’s being Royals ignored the pain and chunks of their feet sloughing off when they removed their socks because they did not want to let their mates down. Grown men were in tears when their RAP team told them enough was enough and sent them back down the line to us as their feet ulcerated and scabbed. We would get them and their feet clean and dry, treat any obvious infection, the not too bad stayed with us as extra orderlies but for many they were just getting in our way so it was into a helicopter and off to the hospital ship, SS Uganda, their fight over before they even started because someone at the MoD had not ensured that: boot, infantry - for the use of, could do its bloody job. 3 Para had much the same problem on their tab, I reckoned for both the Royals and Paras, Trench foot counted for one in five of their casualties on the Falkland Islands.


I had brought my own Miendhal’s with me, well broken in, no leaks, properly lined and snug as a bug in the rug. I know quite a few of the Marines sent home to ask for their own hiking boots to be sent out along with waterproof leggings and jackets. The problems with the boots is just another reason why the Welsh Guards went forward, by sea, to Bluff Cove – if you forget about the fact they were not combat fit having pranced around in front of Buckingham Palace for six months on ceremonial duties and were only there because some army chap in the MoD wanted to ensure the Brigade Guards were properly represented. Couldn’t risk leaving the recapture of the islands to the Navy’s Bootnecks and ‘Johnny come lately’s’ like the Paras and the new fangled assault and special duty, spearhead brigade they formed. So Five Brigade pitched up with its Ghurkhas (yippee, go Johnny Ghurkha, go) and the Squelch Guards (the Royal Lard arses).

Most of the casualties we saw and treated off the frigates and destroyers were burns of some lesser or greater degree where we would put a medium freezer bag over a badly burnt hand or a large freezer bag over a foot then seal it, burns to limbs were routinely cling filmed after the Flamazine had been liberally spread – all to stop the casualty dehydrating as lymph leaked out of their blood and evapourated.  In really bad cases we would try and find a bit that was not burnt (or not too badly burnt) and put in an IV line with Heamocel, a Metroniadazole chaser and a side of morphine. Just as suddenly as we were busy, our clients would be whisked off to the hospital ship and we would return to the ‘brain in neutral, finger up bum’ mode; conserving energy until the next time. 

On the evening of the 27th May we got busy. We were fully prepared, having been briefed about 2 Para’s assault on Goose Green and were still doing the final setting up when the BBC’s World Service announced the attack on Goose Green was going in nearly two hours before the actual H-hour we were preparing for. Rick Jolly ‘Superstar’ contacted 3rd Commando Brigade HQ to ask if the attack had gone in early. He got a bit of a flea in his ear until he stated so we all could hear, “With respect, Sir, the BBC World Service has just announced that British Forces are attacking Goose Green.” As we watched Commander Jolly’s not very jolly face we sensed the pause at the far end, a quick check that the Commander was not pulling their chain and a Jolly smile as he was told it was a BBC fuck up. The Casevac helicopter scoots in to the hard standing, going into in a zero height hover. The orderlies dash out when signalled by the Flight Deck Officer (FDO), one man to a walking wounded two or three to a stretcher, as soon as the orderlies are safely clear the FDO waves off the helicopter and brings the next one in by the time the casualties are in triage the orderlies are out bringing the next load in under a minute a well defined and organised working area becomes a spiders web of stretcher and walking wounded which within two minutes becomes like a picture of hell painted by Peter Breughel senior. Screamers can wait, if they have energy to scream they are not near dying – you check the silent and low moaners and get your LMA to stick morphine into the screamer if they do not have a head wound – just to shut him the fuck up. You see the tell tale ten pence size hole of a high velocity round entry wound, mid right thoracic (chest). The orderly cuts the battle dress off, you flip the casualty over and see a dinner plate sized exit wound while within the wound your head torch shows no signs of bleeding and few signs of remaining lung, eyes unresponsive to light, blood pressure is low, pulse thin and rapid. You get an IV line in and mark his tag as a 1 – not quite dead and get the LMA to wrap cling film around the casualty’s chest to see if you can re-inflate his other intact lung. Futile, most certainly - but you have to try one last throw of the dice; your team and the walking wounded tell you to do something with their eyes, eyes you feel following you from casualty to casualty. You take two minutes maximum and leave the patch and stop team to do their bit – next. Head wound, heavy bleeder, angled entry wound in front of ear, exit wound same side, eyes responsive to light, blood pressure good, pulse pretty steady – serious wound but survivable mark him 2, get an IV line in, heamocel, prep him for surgery and give the surgeons some work, you are saying all this as you check his body for the quiet wounds, the sneaky wounds, the ones that could kill that the obvious bleeder is taking your attention from, two minutes – next in under fifteen minutes two dozen casualties are sorted and the surgeons are put to work, part of your team clean up and re-stock while the rest of you deal with the minor trauma of the walking wounded.

Maybe a fun job like taking pieces of white phosphour from the burnt and dead flesh of a wound, hearing them start to sizzle as they move from being buried in an oxygen free wound into the normal atmosphere as you quickly place them under water in a kidney dish to stop the sizzle from becoming a re-ignition and a white heat of around 1000 Centigrade. Then it maybe some poor Argentinian conscript who has been told god only knows what stories about the Paras or Royals cutting their bollocks or some other part of their external anatomy off. You try your Franglo-Spanish-Latin; “Gentile, gentile, este video par blesse. OK?” He relaxes, he is wearing a down jacket, there is no sign of blood but he looks pale, “Mucho fredo” he whispers, the LMA tells you his BP is plummeting. You get his down jacket off and reveal at least two thoracic and one abdominal wound. There is no time to shout and scream ‘Who missed this fucking disaster?’ You are too busy trying to pick up a vein, when they are all collapsing on you; you get a line in. His body sucks up the Heamocel as fast as you can pour it in to him, dilution of his remaining blood is going to be a major problem and potentially stop his heart. You call for O negative and get another line in, to start putting blood in as well. In your mind you are repeating the same mantra – fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck – a surgeon piles through and starts putting haemostats on major bleeding sites he can see or feel in the wounds. The casualty’s BP stops its plummeting and hovers around some sort of life sustaining stability; you call out for another two pints of O negative, two of Sodium Chloride and hear the sound of an incoming Wessex helicopter. It is certainly not Santa and his little helpers on their way, the surgeon mouths; “Fuck off, I’ve got this one”. You stand up, flex your shoulders, try to get the knots out of your neck muscles, take a deep breath, pretend to relax for the benefit of the resuscitation team, roughly give your hands a wash with an anti bacterial hand rub, wipe them on a bit of manky green service issue towel that probably puts as many bugs back onto your hands as the hand rub rub killed off, check the team is ready, as another dozen casualties are brought in from the helicopter and like Postman Pat you get back to sorting them into the right onward delivery boxes and store them appropriately, until they can be delivered or transferred elsewhere.

Mid afternoon on the 28th you are still going but now it is ‘tagging and bagging’ the zeroes, the ones that never made it back from Goose Green. The 2 Para’s CSM and the 2 Para RAP team are tenderly looking after their own boys making sure they a properly labelled and their resting place is marked on the burial plan. The CSM’s tears are running down his cheeks as he puts his ‘Sunray’ to rest along with the other Para casualties. The Triage and Resuscitation Green defence watch is dealing with the Argentineans while my Red Watch is on call manning triage and resuscitation front shop. They deal with the mix of professional soldiers and conscripts which equal tenderness but are angry when they find few, if any, of the conscripts carry any form of ID disc. They give them numbers and complete descriptions where they can, identifying any distinguishing marks but you are left with the strong feeling these kids are just necessary discards for the Junta in Buenos Aeries in their need to hold onto ‘Las Malvinas’ at any cost. These kids from poor homes for whom the state did not have much of a care for in the first place. Once the 2 Para had their burial service and a layer of sand had been put over the Paras, to delineate friend from foe, the Argentinean’s were laid on top in a greater number. A Royal Marine Catholic Priest prayed for their souls and the absolution of their sins, sprinkled some Holy Water, kissed his crucifix, bowed his head then turned and walked away as the next coating of sand went over the new layer of the dead – a ‘Mille Fueille’ of war, if you like.

The forward surgical support unit at Teal Inlet was also now in full operation and was nearer the Hospital ship ‘box’ and so most of the casualties from the occasional fire fight went their way. We were still seeing the sad trail of Royal’s and Para’s sent back with Trench foot, angry with a MoD who could not even order effective foot wear. When they found the stock of Argentinean boots taken off the wounded or the dead, their eyes lighted up and immediately started sorting them out into pairs and sizes, taking boots to fit themselves and then sending the rest forward, to their mates, as a preventative measure. Argentinean boots were definitely fit for purpose and our lads wanted to get their hands on some. The use of Argentinean boots meant that many of the Trench foot casualties, we had previously  been sending to the SS Uganda, could be returned, in due course, to the front line in their new, warm and dry footwear. 

Happy Days!

Next heads up was 42 Commando’s jump forward by helicopter to secure Mount Kent, no one knew if it would be a hot Landing Zone or not, ‘D’ section SBS were going to act as the ‘beacon troop’ and went in the night before to ‘Recce’ the lie of the land. They were soon in a pretty intense fire fight but with support from the 105mm field guns of 29 Commando (Artillery) and Mk 8 4.5 inch of HMS Avenger they eventually pushed the Argentinean’s off the mountain with only light casualties. By the time the Argentineans re-grouped to counter attack the whole of 42 Commando was on the mountain so sensibly they retreated back to their next defence line centred on Mount Harriet and flanked by Mount Longdon and Tumbledown Ridge.

The following day I was informed that Red Watch was to support 5 Brigade’s RAMC forward surgical support team going into Bluff Cove, it had been decided that our experience would be a great help until they got the hang of things. We packed our triage and resuscitation kit into air transportable boxes, packed our own kit and were relayed forward to join the RAMC team on Sir Galahad. I arrived in Sir Galahad’s wardroom to be met with a major bust up between a Welsh Guards Major and Captain Southeby-Taylor RM (who was to be beach master for the landing) over the order kit and men were going to be landed. It ended with Southeby-Tailor warning if they did not land the men and gear as fast as possible, and sort out the mess ashore, he would not be held responsible for the consequences. To which the Welsh Guards Major replied I out rank you, as a Guards Major I am equivalent to a RM Lieutenant Colonel so we will be doing it my way. I had never seen Southeby-Tailor this mad. He saw me, or maybe my naval insignia on the RM Lovats, after much unburdening of what he thought of the Welsh Guards in general and this ‘F’in Major’ in particular he asked me what I was doing here. I explained and he said fine, as beach master I am ordering you ashore to set up a RAP for the Royal Marine contingent because this idiot Major is going to get a lot of people killed tomorrow and I may as well save what I can. I told the RAMC major I had been ordered ashore by the beach master and with respect to RN and RM operation orders I had to do what the beach master told me.

When, out of courtesy, I informed the Welsh Guards Major, he went ape shit saying I was part of the RAMC section, had to follow his orders and that was to stay on board and land with his RAMC section. I pointed to my RN shoulder tabs and said with respect, Sir, I am in charge of an autonomous ‘RN/RM’ triage and resuscitation unit which has been ordered to give assistance to the RAMC forward surgical support unit. As such I have to act under the direction of the Beach Master RM until you are ashore and even when you are ashore he remains responsible for the landing and dispersal. He has ordered me and my team ashore in support of RM activities.

We jumped into a couple of rigid raiders and went ashore and having set up, we watch the lunatic ballet of maxi-floats trundling kit and men from one LSL to the other all so the Rapier detachment could be put ashore first, to create an air defence perimeter to protect the landings. The Beach Master called in to check we were OK in the defile he had found for us. He took a cup of coffee and joined us watching the great panjandrum rotating around.

“Fangs, this is madness. We know the Rapiers hate any sort of sea journey as it completely fucks up their giros. Throw in rapid deployment under a helicopter and we are talking twelve hours at least before the things can begin to be operational. By the time they are ashore it will be daylight and we will no longer have Intrepid’s landing assault craft as they are under orders to ‘bug’ out an hour before daylight to get them as far away from air attack as possible. It will take over four hours to land the Rapiers, Welsh Guards and RAMC using the Maxi-floats and the limited helicopter asset we have. 

Let’s assume the Argentinean’s have a forward observation post above Bluff Cove, we know they have top class night observation equipment, so there will be enough light around an hour before dawn to see what we are up to. They send a flash message to HQ in Stanley, who being staff are bound to ask for confirmation, say fifteen minutes wasted. By the time the Air Staff get their act into gear the forward observation post at Bluff Cove will be watching the landing with mark one eyeballs and asking HQ Stanley just where is the air force? So let’s say the pilots are up waiting for dawn, the briefing will be pretty short, the Skyhawk A4’s will already be fuelled, armed with 1000Kg bombs and 20 mm cannon in preparation for today’s raids. As dawn rises here, while it is till dark on the mainland, those jets will be in the air, 50 minutes later they will be bombing the crap out of these LSL’s which will still be packed with Welsh Guards, their equipment and your RAMC chums while the next to useless Rapiers are shipped to shore. This time their bombs will be properly fused, courtesy of the UK media’s inability to shut up when your opposition are making a big mistake plus the monumental stupidity of politicians in London and their need for ‘good news’ to tell the UK public.”

I just listened. The Beach Master had to tell someone of his greatest fear, nightmare and share the vain hope; he would be proven wrong. He told us to stay safe and keep down when the jets came in bombing and strafing. In the end he was 20 minutes out in his prediction of catastrophe. As the RAMC survivors came ashore they were sent to us. We got them dry, into our spare kit and then all set to, dealing with the wounds, blast injury and burns sustained by Welsh Guardsmen, RAMC colleagues and RFA officers and men who had been trapped below deck as ammunition and fuel cooked off. The Welsh Guard survivors were quick to help their injured friends and understood, even in their mate’s pain, there was no rushing, priorities had to be made. The least likely to survive would wait until last. They held their friends’ hand’s or if badly burnt found somewhere to give their friends the touch of companionship. It is a pity their officers had not been as together. The smell of roasted human flesh stays in my nose to this day with mingled overtones of ship’s fuel oil, cordite and helicopter exhaust – Perfume de Bluff Cove: an unforgettable experience. You would not want to see the visuals and stills that would go with the ‘Perfume de Bluff Cove’ advertising program, I know I do not; yet on average, once a year there will be a re-run of the advertising visuals which always brings the perfume back to mind, along with the nightmares.

It would be an understatement to call this ‘not one of the Brigade of Guards better days’.
I do not know whether it was courtesy of the Welsh Guards’ Major whining up the line of command about my refusing his orders that I was recalled or whether Southeby-Taylor had noticed and told my boss I was on the point of falling over the cliff after the Bluff Cove contretemps, (which to be honest, looking back, I was) but the morning of the main assault on Stanley saw me leaving the Bluff Cove Forward Surgical unit, jumping a Wessex Five of 874 Squadron back to Intrepid for a ‘rest’, a hot shower, dry clean clothes, a warm meal or two, a few beers and a dry warm bunk for the next 48 hours (unless exigencies of the ‘Service’ decided otherwise). Commander Rick Jolly stuck his head into my cabin to say, “Well done for Bluff Cove and I am trying to get you a ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’, at least, for your role in helping pull the RAMC Unit back together plus your actual efforts for the wounded.”

What can one say to that? I am dry, warm, fed and relatively safe for the first time in over three weeks, I suppose it should be a loud, “Yes, Sir, Thank you, Sir!” rather than the “Whoop de doo! So what?” which was actually at the fore front of my mind, as he left to my rather less than grateful, “That’ll be nice.” Unsurprisingly this allocade never, ever came to aught. I guess being awarded some token of regard for helping save Welsh Guardsmen from the stupidity of their senior officer was never going to be popular in the higher military and political echelons; echelons who would be already seeking ways to spin this dunghill of an event into something tragic but brave, heroic but sad and of course a very ‘British’ success out of an abject failure with a ‘story’ of derring-do and stiff upper lipped-ness in the face of adversity.

A jockanese naval Surgeon Lieutenant of very humble origins, who told a Senior English Public School educated, Welsh Guards Major, with respect, where to stick it; is probably not the ‘hero’ the ‘British’ politicians and their media ‘spin merchants’ are looking for in this tale of defeat snatched from an easy win. Imagine the press conference, “Well Surgeon Lieutenant ‘Jock’ RN can you describe the role that resulted in you winning this award?” asks the man from the BBC;
“Yes, I saved as many RFA, RAMC and Welsh Guard personnel from the impact of the Welsh Guards CO’s stupidity and bone headedness, as I, my RN medical team, along with the RAMC section survivors, humanly could”, says I.

“What Welsh Guards CO’s stupidity and bone headedness?” says the gathered UK and International press pack.

You see what I mean?
The heavy machine gun sangar, to my left, is hit by a missile, a big missile. I catch its trail on the edge of my vision, on the way in, just before there is a large flash and explosion. Alphonso’s night sight is blinded and so am I because he is my eyes. Medina appears. “Lads we are going to have to pull back. The English have got between us and Wireless Ridge and have out flanked Mount Harriet to our front and are now putting pressure on elements of the 6th Marines who hold the valley floor between us and Tumbledown. Let’s go before a Milan Missile comes your way.”

We bug out to the 7th Regiment’s command post, the major there asks the two marine squads to act as the cork in the neck of a bottle flanked by English Paratroops to our right and Royal Marines to our left. He wants a fighting retreat. The remnants of the 7th Regiment are the sides of the bottle and we will all fold back towards Tumbledown Ridge, which we still hold, in set stages to enable as much of the regiment’s light artillery, wounded and weapons rounds to get back as possible. The Major is staying with us because he will control the movement down a protected gulley before we link up with the 7th Regiment rearguard and complete the fighting retreat. We set up across the ‘T’ to block the flanks to the gulley from incursion. Medina and a recoilless rifle team (old folks would call it a bazooka) are in the centre with a field of fire down both flanks. Alphonso and me have our light machine gun set up above the Major’s command post, giving fire support to the right flank and centre. The rest of the squad is spread across our front. The English come again, up our right flank from Wireless ridge we stall their attack, Medina sends a recoilless rifle round into a group of English, they just disappear, we think that Medina hit one of the English full on. Then pressure comes on our left and tactically weaker flank they start to get pushed in on the centre. The Major is screaming at Medina, “Can you give me five more minutes?” Medina gives the thumbs up and I send Alphonso down to the assembly area for the bug out while firing short bursts down onto the saddle to keep English heads down. I am aware of a bright light, a lot of heat and something slamming into the side of my head. Then it goes dark, I am breathing – I think – but cannot move. I sense rather than hear bits of rock falling all around me. I hear Alphonso saying, “Why you, Julio, Why you?” and I am aware of him holding me. Medina shouts at Aphonso if he does not go now he will be captured or maybe killed. Leave Julio, the English will look after him just fine, probably better than our own sawbones but if we are going to get back to Tumbledown we have to go now, with the Major. Alphonso says, ‘See you when you get home, Julio,” and leaves me where I am.

I do not know how long it is but I can see dim light now rather than just darkness. I hear English voices and the occasional sound of a shell exploding or the whistle and ping of a small arms round ricocheting off the rocks. A hand gently touches my shoulder and feels my neck. They gently turn me over and I can make out the grey of the sky and the outline of their heads. They feel my body all over but take in a big breath when they check my head. I think they shake their heads and shrug. I still have no pain but cannot feel my toes or hands; that will be because of the head injury, I can feel myself crying, tears running down my cheeks as I realise I will probably never play football again. An English, speaking quite good Spanish, tells me they are going to move me onto a stretcher and it might hurt a lot but they cannot help any pain because of my head injury. He wipes my eyes and tells me it is OK, don’t be afraid, we have you now. He does not know they are not tears of fear but of loss. They put me onto a stretcher, I blacked out.

Next time I wake there is a head shining a bright light into my eyes, I must have reacted because he stopped shining the light and said something in English. A different English Spanish speaker asked me my name. I could hear myself saying my name but I could not hear anything come out. He touched my forehead with something cold and wet then spoke in priestly Latin – maybe I should have listen harder in Father Orlando’s religious classes and I would know what he was saying – then he touched a cloth to my lips before, in Spanish, commending me to God’s protection and safety. Soon after that I started feeling warm and settled in myself, I stopped worrying about playing football and thought that priest must be powerful in prayer and with my Catholic God, for an English. He was clearly getting God to make me better again.
The next time I was conscious I was aware of the smell of mothers: that clean soapy smell mother’s have. I could hear the voices of women, maybe they were angels but I felt one touch my brow and say something in English. I could make out someone screaming, maybe it was myself but I heard these angelic voices calming the screamer down, as a smell of roasted beef caught my nose. I was aware of one of these angels touching my cheek. I wish I could understand English because it sounded caring yet wistful. I think I would have liked what she said to her friend about me. As I lay there I could feel a gentle swaying sensation as if this angel was rocking me to sleep. It was a nice feeling so I fell asleep as she asked me to do, by her rocking.

I was on a helicopter journey again, I landed and two doctors looked at me and one said to the other, this is one is for you. The doctor grunted something to his friend as he and an orderly stripped me.  He was very gentle as he checked my teeth, lifted my arms and legs, turned me over, speaking to someone I could not see, all the time, describing my body, describing my head injury, I presume it was the other Doctor he was talking to. When he was finished he seemed angry with me for some reason. I wanted to know why but before I could ask he had zipped me up in what must have been a sleeping bag. I was then laid down amongst a whole ward of my compadres. Sarge was there, he told me not to be such lazy bastard, lying around when we had a championship winning, Argentinean football team to put together.


The attacks of the 11th to 12th of June were successful; the Argentineans were pushed out of their outer defensive ring after heavy fighting and stiff resistance. Let no one swallow the myth of poorly lead and armed conscripts, 3 Para took heavy casualties assaulting Mount Longdon as did 5 Brigade on Tumbledown where at dawn of the 12th they still had not secured all their objectives. This meant that Mount Longdon and Wireless ridge continued to come under light and heavy weapon fire from across the valley. 45 Commando had pushed in the cork of Argentineans at the head of the valley and then pulled back and dug in when exposed to fire from the Argentineans who still had a foot hold on Tumbledown. All in all a good night’s work and in amongst harassing fire from the Argentinean howitzers the poor bloody infantry licked their wounds and set to getting organised for the final assault scheduled for the evening of the 14th of June. I was sent forward to the Bluff Cove forward surgical support team to rejoin red watch in preparation for what was going to be the final battle.

The battle never came. At lunchtime on the 14th rumours started to circulate that the Argentineans had wrapped their hand in, accepted defeat. Then came the order to stand down, from operations, until further notice. No sooner than this message had been promulgated around the Bluff Cove unit than a formal notice of Argentinean surrender was sent from OIC Falkland’s land forces. It was interesting that the 5 Brigade medics celebrated with high fives and shouts of joy; for Red Watch it was an overall sense of relief and the thought we would be going home soon which best caught our spirit. We had seen enough and still had casualties coming down off Tumbledown to deal with, our conflict had not yet finished, men were still dying. A Guard’s RSM came in carrying an officer. It turned out the officer had taken a sniper round to the head and his men had moved forward think him a goner. It was only 8 hours later as they came back to identify and bag up their dead the officer had made a movement and they realised he was still alive. A Kelpie husband and wife had come up from nowhere in a landrover with a big pot of hot soup. The husband had taken the soup off the back and was dolling it out to his men and the wife had driven them down to the Bluff Cove unit. The big question on the RSM’s face was, “Am I too late?”

The question was answered quite quickly, the officer had a decent BP and pulse whether his survival was a good thing or not, with around a third of his right frontal lobe missing and other potential brain damage from the high velocity round, was a different matter. We reassured the RSM, took the officer’s details, cleaned him up as best we could, put a line in and waited for a casevac to the SS Uganda. He would live, this young man, but what sort of a life would that be for an ex-Guards Officer?

In dribs and drabs walking wounded continued to walk in, along with the occasional Argentinean on a stretcher carried by a couple of his compadres. Everyone else had started celebrating but we were still dealing with the flotsam and jetsam, the human debris and detritus of the conflict. On the 15th of June OIC Falklands dropped in on us on his tour of dispersed units to congratulate us on our efforts and his hope we could all soon pack up and go home.

An old school friend in 847 Squadron flew Red Watch back to Intrepid. A shower, a hot meal and a warm bunk do wonders for a man’s spirit. A sense of well being which was to last only 24 hours and a meeting with 3rd Commando Brigade’s senior medic when Richard and I were dropped the bomb that we had to stay and oversee the repatriation of UK fatalities, as promised to their families by Mrs Thatcher, and generally be on hand for the War Graves section to give post mortem advice. Since the UK fatalities would be going home it was expected they would all need formal death certificates to meet coroner’s requirements for violent death and a positive ID. The reason I was staying was the obvious one that far too many of the Argentinean dead had no identification and the Red Cross would expect us to provide as much information as possible to identify these men, including dental charting. This was expected to be Richard and me’s main task. We would have five days R&R aboard Intrepid prior to be transferred to the LSL which was going to act as the base of operations for the War Graves organisation in San Carlos Waters. Here’s the thing; two out of three fatalities usually involve a head wound making visual recognition of the deceased difficult and without any other distinguishing marks noted on their medical records, apparently having a dog tag would not be sufficient under English Law (though it would work fine for those staying on the island), apparently it is only ‘indicative of the person’s identity’, this leaves dental charting as the best way to establish a positive identification when all else has failed. Remember back at the beginning when I said:

Richard and me had a system.

‘Head and Neck’ came to me: Richard was ‘The Rest’.

To the uninitiated this appears, at first glance, a rather lopsided division of labour leaving Richard with most of the body to deal with but as you read on you will eventually understand the logic and why Richard had the easier job.

You check the body for any distinguishing marks which are noted on their medical records – this includes the inevitable tattoos. If there are no distinguishing marks then you match the lower right arch segment dental charting with the fatality’s last dental charting - if you get a match then your client is positively ID’d, he is matched to his dog tag and the English coroner is going to be a happy chappy. If not you will have to complete a further check until you get a decisive match. This is fine if the cause of death is below the head but with head wounds it may not be this simple as the fatal round may have destroyed a fair chunk of the lower and upper jaws. In some cases teeth will be imbedded in the base of the skull driven there by the concussion wave of the round or shrapnel as it smashed into the face. If you only have a fragment of jaw intact with insufficient teeth in place, you have to go fishing around trying to find enough teeth or bits of teeth to make a positive ID and keep the coroner happy; so much for the UK casualties with dog tags. You then put the bodies back into the bags where they were split into ‘stayers’ and ‘homers’; the ‘homers’ then went forward to further processing by the firm of embalmers who had got the UK Government contract and then into the fridges of a Fyfe’s banana boat for their journey home to ‘dear old Blighty.’ 

“Hey Mr Tallyman, tally me bananas ....”

Then there were the Argentinean fatalities some 270 were collected from the Falkland’s between San Carlos Water and the outer defensive ring and brought to us for Red Cross identification. The problem starts with most do not have dog tags, no one thought to give the conscripts dog tags. There are around thirty who have dog tags - the marines and other professional infantry put in to give the conscripts a ‘stiffening’ or are aviators. Maybe 20 of the conscripts are discovered to have enough in bits of paper and letters to give them a name or at least a home address. These are easier to process. The rest have to be reviewed with distinguishing marks or other features put on the Red Cross form, a full mouth dental charting, age and any other information that could help with their identification; all this, times 240. SS Uganda, before she bugs out home, drops off another four or five Argentineans to join our merry throng. The anger of all these sixteen and seventeen year olds dying for such a stupid reason, some times is hard to contain. It is an anger which not one glass or even a full bottle of whisky can assuage. It is an anger that makes you want to lift this sixteen old corpse up, missing a third of its brain and give them a bloody good shake for being so bloody stupid to fall for politicians’ vain glory and unsustainable promises. It is an anger which burns even deeper when the Red Cross return comes back with the Argentinean Junta saying they cannot positively identify any of the conscripts because they hold insufficient medical records and no dental chartings. These boys and men are destined to simply become more of the Argentinean Junta’s ‘missing’ just like the regime’s opponents back at home in Argentina. They had failed to hold Las Malvinas and were not worthy of any respect or remembrance, they were already forgotten, considered missing.

Where we had home addresses we took it upon ourselves to write and tell them where their boy or loved one lay, their war grave registration number so once the Argentine War cemetery was in place, they could come to the Falkland Islands and pay their last respects when relations between the islanders and Argentineans were in a better place. The other 220 were ‘Known only unto God’ which was not much use for their grieving families because even ‘God’s mysterious ways’ had bugger all chance of telling their families where their loved ones lay.
Mid July, it was freezing outside with the wind chill driving the temperatures down to -20 Centigrade – not summer barbeque weather by any stretch of the imagination. Our job finished Richard and I were bored, there was only so much staring wistfully out of the bridge windows onto the grey spray checked surface of San Carlos Water or the hills around anyone can take, we just wanted to go home and maybe get a bit of an Northern Autumn before the next winter started.

Mid September and I eventually get my early release for good behaviour, join HMS Southampton and go home to a darkening, October, Devonport sky, an empty quay and wander solitarily back to my home in Devonport. The house is in darkness, John is not back from work and Mandy will be still at work. I put the kettle on and wonder, just what was the fucking point? All that stress, all that discomfort, all that terror, all that blood, all that anger, all to come home to an empty house. How do you explain to your family and friends who were not there, in the Falklands, just what it was like, would they want to know anyway, what bits will you need to edit out, maybe it will be best to say nothing? Five o’clock and it is as grim outside as San Carlos Water is on a good day. The silence needs to be broken but I sit in the front room sitting on the sofa, lights off, couple of bars on the electric fire on, holding a mug of cooling tea, not even trying to shut out the gloom outside with the curtains, I just cannot be bothered.

I hear the sound of the key in the door, John comes in whistling, switches on the hall light and heads off into the kitchen, I hear him putting the kettle on, going for a pee, going upstairs, coming back down, the clink of a spoon on a mug as he makes himself a tea, the rustle of the inevitable dark chocolate McVitties biscuit packet and he comes into the living room, switches a lamp on, closes the curtains, put the TV on and turns round and sees me on the sofa. The first words of my home coming are, “Are you OK? You look completely knackered, I’ll get you a fresh tea.” The British faith in the restorative powers of a good mug of tea remains unbroken.

How do you regain your hold on life after seeing so much of death?

With a high degree of difficulty and a lot of lying to yourself and others, is the answer.

Before you go on leave you are told there is to be a service of remembrance for the Falkland’s fallen in the Jago Mansion’s Church. You wonder in and sit in a pew about halfway down. Your latent Calvinistic spirit is rather overwhelmed and simultaneously disgusted by the high church Episcopalian trappings and surroundings. You try to avoid looking at the Anglo-Catholic altar piece of the ‘Crucified Christ’ because, inside your head, you are already hearing you telling that lump of carved and painted wood just exactly what you think of his illusion of him dying so everyone else can live. You cannot tell whether it is tears of sadness or anger which are coursing down your cheeks, as you shake uncontrollably and your forehead rests on the bible rail to your front. A hand touches your shoulder, formulaic words of comfort spew forth as they sit down beside you, embarrassed, trying to get you to unbend, to stop banging your forehead on the bible rail, to stop you disturbing the peace, so the rest of the congregation can go about their formulaic procession of ‘remembrance’ in peace. 

A voice you recognise says, “Come on”, and leads you out into the fresh air, away from the dank, overbearing, sickly smell of empty Christianity. You look out across the cricket square in front of the wardroom, forcing yourself to stand up straight, relax, become aware of the pain in your hands from your own tightly clenched fists – the pain from your bruised forehead will come much later. You feel yourself breathing with less of a shudder or constriction and more normally, while feeling in your pockets for a handkerchief. The voice of your Devonport boss, Surgeon Captain Davies, tells you he has a handkerchief and hands you your cap. The voice says, “We need to go somewhere quiet and have a chat”, and you climb in the front seat of his SAAB and he takes you home to his house where he and Mrs Davies listen while you talk and talk and talk.
The next morning Mrs Davies takes you home and waits while you pack. Ensuring you get on the train that will take you home to Edinburgh, your family and friends; the train that takes most of the day to wend its way via Bristol, Gloucester, Birmingham, Derby, York and Newcastle. She reminds you that the Captain does not want to see you in Devonport for at least three or, better, four weeks. Go home, rest and come back your old self. The last bit is going to be tricky when your old self is buried with all the other corpses, left on the Falklands.


So here I was, Alphonso the Stupid, on the SS Canberra our air force had claimed to have sunk on many occasions, on my way home from the Malvinas, living in more comfort and better fed as a POW than I ever had as a member of the naval regiment on the Malvinas. The ship sailed into Puntas Arenas and we were offloaded onto the same quay which had embarked from just six weeks before. This time we were not so excited nor so sure of ourselves. Deep inside us was the sense we had let our country down – yes – but also we had been let down by the Military Junta who had sent us to the Malvinas poorly prepared and badly lead. A leadership which thought you could bluff your way to victory and had no real plan once their bluff had been called. Then there was the deaths of all those friends and the guilt of having to leave Julio on the top of Mount Longdon not knowing whether he had lived or died. I volunteered to carry our wounded off the Canberra in the hope he would be there. My only hope was he was amongst the critically wounded, yet to be landed from the English hospital ship.We thought we would be going home to our families so when the buses took us back to barracks we just thought this would be a prelude to us getting our leave passes. This was not going to be the case. We were told that the Junta had blocked all leave because of the ‘problems’ with agitators in Buenos Aires. We were not even allowed to write to our parents to tell them we were safe home. Locked in barracks we only knew what we were told by the sergeants and corporals which was not that much. There was no television or radio allowed, no newspapers apart from the heavily censored military one, we were isolated, we did not know what was happening in our own country. It was six weeks before we were finally allowed to go home, before we heard about the riots against the Junta for their failure to hold the Falklands. It was six weeks before I could start to find out


  1. It must have been "hell on earth".

  2. Thank you for that. My grandfather who died on the Somme was a lowly private in the RAMC. Your story gives me a flavour of what he must have experienced. Can't see Max Hastings writing like this! I do hate the ' bread and circuses' bullshit the MSM give us