A bitter conflict remembered

By Jon Moreno

Friday, April 27, 2012

 

A bitter conflict remembered

Troops on their way to Sapper Hill.

WIGHT LIVINGWHEN Argentine forces invaded the Falklands on April 2, 1982, Islanders were among the thousands of British servicemen immediately called into action.

The brief, but bitter, war resulted in the deaths of 650 Argentine and 255 British serviceman, including 18-year-old Royal Navy chef Andrew Swallow — the only Islander to lose his life during the conflict.

The Bembridge teenager was aboard the frigate HMS Sheffield when it was struck and sunk by an Exocet missile.

His death is felt as poignantly now as it ever was by his family, amid the renewed tension of Argentina reasserting its claim to what it calls Las Malvinas.

Thirty years on and the memories of the conflict are still vivid for several veterans from the Island who fought in the South Atlantic.

I walked the battlefields around Port Stanley as a soldier myself, less than four years after the conflict ended.

Seeing so many craters, spent shells and rounds that had been fired in anger — and in such a bleak place — I could only imagine what the soldiers went through.

There are many incredible first-hand accounts of bravery bringing that era of history to life and encapsulating what it was like going to war so far from home.

One account comes from ex-Royal Marine Tony Harris, of Ryde. Tony, who served with 45 Commando, was attached to support company anti-tank troop after he landed at Ajax Bay, in San Carlos Water, on the night of May 20.

After six long weeks at sea, wondering what he would experience, came the ship’s tannoy call that D-Day was the next day.

The next morning, Tony saw the Falklands for the first time — a sunny scene he likened to Scotland — before all hell broke loose.

"The air raid warning went off and Skyhawks flew passes — dropping bombs into the sea. I felt the ship rock from the wake of the explosions," he said.

"Later that morning, we went ashore. As we moved up the beach, another air raid took place. We moved into cover between some buildings.

"The plane peppered the area with cannon. I felt the brick dust going down the back of my neck as the rounds struck the building a few inches above our heads."

During the early hours of May 23, while Tony was standing down from duty, he watched the frigate, HMS Antelope, explode.

It was a front-page picture on every national newspaper — a horrific scene that shocked the nation and etched the reality of the conflict onto the minds of every Brit.

"I was just getting out of my trench when 'boom’ — the whole place lit up. Next morning, only the bows were showing, then she was gone."

Air raids continued, with Tony joking that at one point the Skyhawks dived so low he could see the pilot’s spots.

It was not long before he was 'yomping’ to Mount Kent, on the approach to Port Stanley, the Argentine’s garrison stronghold.

His company spent a week defending the position until he rejoined his 45 Commando comrades for the assault on Two Sisters between June 11 and 12 — an important British victory.

Tony, aboard a BV 202 tracked vehicle, recalls coming under attack from Argentine artillery en route.

He said: "I could hear the shells going over us and exploding behind us and I could feel the shake of the earth falling around us.

"I legged it to the cover of rocks near the top of the hill. The Argies shelled us relentlessly."

It was during this time HMS Glamorgan, which was providing artillery support, was struck, but thankfully not sunk, by an Exocet direct hit.

Cowes-born Lt Cmdr (retd) Keith Smith, 67, who lives in Tamworth, received a commendation for his actions during the attack. Acting as the ship’s senior engineer, he ensured the vessel retained propulsion and restored lighting and essential functions to its machinery and functions. It was a set back, but one that did not seriously hamper the momentum of operations.

The next objective, the taking of Sapper Hill, on the very edge of Stanley, was much more straightforward.

"We moved forward to engage the Argies defending the hill. When we got there, they had run away leaving one poor sod," said Tony.

"He was surrounded by Marines who had been in the field for weeks and he looked very afraid."

This was where Tony picked up a memento he still has today — an Argentinian marine sergeant’s aide memoire, which contained a family photo.

"I often wonder what happened to him. Hopefully, he is with his grandchildren — listening to his war stories about how he got out in time before the Royal Marines overran his position."

It was on Sapper Hill he saw enemy bodies for the first time.

"It was not a pretty sight. It was an eye-opener to some of the lads as to what the fire power we had been cheering on, had been doing at the other end."

While this was going on, the Scots Guards, the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the Royal Parachute Regiment were taking Tumbledown, Wireless Hill and Mount Longdon respectively, leaving Stanley to the British forces.

Steph Bishop, 52, of Prior Crescent, Newport, who now works as a physical education teacher at Carisbrooke College, was a lance corporal with 3 Para, right in the thick of it.

The battalion took Mount Longdon after two days of intense fighting in which Steph suffered severe, permanent hearing loss after he was injured in a bomb blast less than 10ft away from him.

The Argentinians had either been killed or retreated from their mountain positions to the safety of the Falklands capital and it was the Marines who had the honour of taking it — a controversial one such was the rivalry between them and the Paras, of which Tony was part.

"Moving into Stanley I remember walking down the main road and stepping over a couple of dead Argies," explained Tony.

"We could also see Argies walking around, still armed. The place was a mess, with wet and muddy kit laying all over the roads — abandoned. They just dropped everything to get away."

Tony travelled home in relative luxury aboard the ocean liner Canberra back to Southampton, where he was met by his then girlfriend, his dad and his brother — a magical and emotional moment for him.

"On the morning we came into The Solent I could see the Island and by the time we reached Spithead there were hundreds of boats escorting us in. The atmosphere was electric.

"As I came down the gangplank of the Canberra — seeing the crowds — I felt immensely proud. There was a real outpouring of patriotism and gratitude for what we did."

Nowadays, Tony is a games organiser for Island schools and director of Premier School Sport Coaching, a company that provides sports education on the Island. He is also a former physio at Portsmouth Football Club.

Reflecting poignantly on his Falklands experience, Tony said: "After the war, I didn’t really think about it too much. It was an adventure — boy’s own stuff.

"However, I’ve reflected on the war over the past few years and I’m starting to realise the magnitude of it as I’ve matured."

The Island’s veterans will be taking part in commemorative parades and reunions over the coming months.

Reporter: jonm@iwcpmail.co.uk

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