A war remembered

A quarter of a century ago today, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands sparking an international crisis which led to war and nearly 1,000 deaths. Political editor PAUL GEATER looks at the impact of a conflict which many think could have been avoided - and hears from Suffolk men who were involved.

By Paul Geater

A quarter of a century ago today, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands sparking an international crisis which led to war and nearly 1,000 deaths. Political editor PAUL GEATER looks at the impact of a conflict which many think could have been avoided - and hears from Suffolk men who were involved.

AT FIRST the Falklands War seemed something of a joke.

In mid-March 1982 there were reports that a group of Argentine scrap metal dealers had landed on the uninhabited island of South Georgia, which had been abandoned in the early years of the 20th century when the whaling trade ceased.

But three weeks later the jokes ceased and the matter became much more serious when thousands of Argentine troops invaded the two large islands that form the Falklands. The 1,800 islanders, who mainly earned their living from sheep farming, insisted that they wanted to remain under British rule and had rejected decades of Argentine claims on the islands.

It had never seemed likely that the Argentines would provoke an international incident by invading, but domestic problems with the ruling junta in the early 1980s and the British government's decision to withdraw HMS Endurance which patrolled the Antarctic and paid regular visits to the Falklands changed that.

Most Read

The Argentines invaded the Falklands on April 2 and occupied the island until they surrendered to British troops in mid June.

Although the war is now seen as an aberration - it did not have the long-term effect on the country that other conflicts have had before and since - it was significant in a number of ways.

More British forces died in the Falklands than have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined - and an even greater number of former service personnel committed suicide after the war.

And its effect on British political life cannot be underestimated. In the months before the conflict the Conservative government was extremely unpopular with voters. Opinion polls suggested the Tories were in third place behind the newly-formed Liberal/SDP Alliance and Michael Foot's Labour Party.

After the war Mrs Thatcher's government got a great lift in the popularity stakes - and less than a year after the surrender won a second general election with the greatest parliamentary majority in recent political history.

RETAKING the Falkland Islands was one of the most difficult military operations ever undertaken by this country because of their distance from the UK.

The entire operation had to be launched from the sea because there were no land bases nearby that could be used as staging posts. The nearest base available to the task force that was quickly assembled was Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic - 4,000 miles from both the Falklands and the UK.

The task force sailed for the south Atlantic just three days after the invasion, initially for Ascension.

There were no land bases on the south American continent - most of Argentina's neighbours supported its claim with the exception of Chile whose relations with its close neighbour were very strained.

But while Chile was able to offer moral support, it was not prepared to incur the wrath of its neighbour by offering airbases to the British.

That meant it was not possible to fly paratroops to the Falklands and the only air cover for the task force was that provided by carrier-based aircraft, comparatively light Harrier fighter-bombers and anti-submarine helicopters. A large proportion of the navy's surface fleet was sent to the south Atlantic - and submarines were also patrolling under the sea.

A sub was responsible for the single largest loss of life among the Argentines when HMS Conqueror sank the cruiser Belgrano.

Both sides sustained substantial losses in equipment as well as in loss of life.

The loss of HMS Sheffield, sunk by a French-made Exocet missile on May 4, was a particularly difficult blow - it was the first major British casualty of the war - but HMS Ardent, HMS Antelope, and HMS Coventry were also sunk as was the requisitioned cargo vessel Atlantic Conveyor which was carrying supplies for the troops once they landed on the Falklands.

Two of Britain's best known ocean liners, the QE II and the SS Canberra, were converted into troop ships and the Canberra in particular earned a reputation as the “Great White Whale” as it came under fire in San Carlos water while marines disembarked.

There were significant battles at Goose Green on the Falklands where the commander of 2Para Col H Jones was killed - he was later awarded a posthumous VC - and at Fitzroy near the capital Stanley where the supply ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristan came under attack.

During that battle Welsh Guardsman Simon Weston was seriously injured - he later became an inspiration for people who suffered serious burn injuries.

March 19: Scrap workers reported on South Georgia, put up Argentine flag.

April 2: Falklands invaded by Argentine forces.

April 5: Taskforce sails from Portsmouth.

April 25: South Georgia recaptured.

May 1: First British attacks on Argentine troops in the Falklands.

May 2: Belgrano sunk.

May 4: HMS Sheffield sunk.

May 20: Final peace proposals rejected by Argentina.

May 21: Beachhead established at San Carlos Water. HMS Ardent sunk.

May 23: HMS Antelope badly damaged, sank the next day.

May 25: HMS Coventry and Atlantic Conveyor sunk.

May 28: Battle of Goose Green.

June 8: Sir Galahad and Sir Tristan bombed.

June 13/14: Battle of Tumbledown Mountain, overlooking Falklands capital Port Stanley.

June 14: Argentines on the Falklands surrender.

June 17: Argentine dictator General Galtieri resigned.

July 26: Service of thanksgiving in London.

October 10: Falklands victory parade through London.

Diplomatic relations with Argentina were restored in 1990.

TERRY Barnes was a 19-year-old commando when the Argentines invaded the Falkland Islands.

“We were on a training exercise near Southport on Merseyside when the invasion happened. We were sent straight down to Plymouth, where we were based and then on to Southampton to get on the Canberra - we sailed just three days later,” he recalled.

The trip to the Falklands was occupied by training and fitness preparation: “We would run around the deck, and as well as several marine troops there were also the Paras on the Canberra so there was quite a bit of rivalry all around.”

He was with 40 Para which was one of the first land forces to land on the Falklands. As a 19-year-old marine he was scared, but saw it all as part of his job.

He said: “One of our troop stepped on a landmine and lost his foot. Another member of the troop who went to see to him also lost a foot. The screams were dreadful.”

A 17-year-old marine next to him in the trenches overlooking Port Stanley was shot in the arm, but he said: “It was something you got on with. You just had to accept the situation.”

The conditions were appalling on the Falklands - but the commandos' training on Dartmoor was very valuable. Terry, 44, said: “It was just like Dartmoor. It was not nice, but we were ready for it. Some of the other troops down there seemed to have come straight from guarding Buckingham Palace and were not ready for the dreadful conditions.

“We were fighting in the autumn and winter in the Falklands - the wind was very cold,” he recalled.

The rations were very poor - but on one occasion they got some extra protein.

“We had laid some grenades and suddenly one went off. We didn't think there were any Argentines that near us and it turned out it was a goose that had landed and blown itself up. We ate that.”

The marines were among the first troops to arrive at the Falklands - and they were the first to leave the islands just a week after the Argentine surrender in June.

The returned to Britain on the Canberra, but were not ready for the welcome they would receive.

Terry said: “We had thought we would get off at Southampton, return to base at Plymouth, and then go on leave - but when the ship sailed past Plymouth Hoe there were all these boats out to meet us.

“At Southampton there were crowds everywhere. It was amazing. And during our coach journey back to Plymouth every time we had to stop at traffic lights there were people putting crates of beer on our buses - it was a good journey.”

But there was no let up for the marines after the Falklands.

Terry returned to his then home in Norwich Road, Ipswich, and said: “We had six weeks' leave but then we were sent off to Northern Ireland. We went to south Armagh which was bandit country in those days - it was the height of the troubles. But that was our life.”

Terry left the marines in 1987 and later went to university and trained as a teacher. He is now a sport lecturer at the West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds, but still lives in the same part of Ipswich, just off Dales Road.

Today he is married to Sharon and has a young daughter, Sarah - but he knows he is one of the lucky ones. He said: “There was no support to Falklands veterans after the war. If you look at the number of people who suffered from post-traumatic shock and the suicide rate it is frightening.

“I think we did a good job, and I'm going to a reunion later in the spring. But there were a lot of people who were badly affected by the whole experience,” he said.

ROBERT Bird was nearing the end of his naval service as a helicopter engineer, when he was sent to the Falklands as a chief mechanician.

The 64-year-old said: “I retired from the Navy the next year after 22 years so I was a bit of a father figure to the youngsters. There were a lot of teenagers who had never been in a conflict before. The younger men were very apprehensive - but they grew up a lot during the conflict.

“I had already been to Aden and Borneo so I had been involved in fighting before - but it was never very nice.”

He worked on Wessex helicopters and celebrated his 40th birthday in the South Atlantic.

But although he had seen action before, the maritime nature of the Falklands War meant it was a different type of conflict for almost everyone involved: “There were very few people involved who had any experience of this kind of conflict at sea,” he said.

His moved between vessels during the war and felt fortunate not to come under fire - although nearby vessels were targeted by the Argentines.

“I didn't fly very much - it was my job to keep the helicopters working and we succeeded in that,” he said.

After leaving the navy, Mr Bird worked for Ipswich council as a housing officer for many years until he retired - and now lives in Robin Drive on the Chantry estate.

N Were you involved in the Falklands War? Write with your memories to Your Letters, the Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter