‘If the Falklands were invaded, I’d like to think Britain would do same again’

British troops on the Falklands in 1982.

British troops on the Falklands in 1982.

It is incredible to think that it was more than 30 years ago that many of us sat glued to the television news and watched the Falklands Conflict unfold.

The names still trip off the tongue of anyone over the age of 40:
‘Bomb Alley’. Goose Green. Mount Tumbledown. Bluff Cove and Fitzroy. Port Stanley. Mirage fighter jets. Exocet missiles.

The Sun’s ‘Gotcha’ headline, the of the sinking General Belgrano, the explosions onboard HMS Sheffield and the blazing Sir Galahad are etched in our memories.

This was 1982. There was no internet, no social media and no mobile telephones.

It was the first time that a major conflict involving British forces had been played out through nightly TV news bulletins – the colour images (for those who had colour televisions) bringing the horrors of war into our living rooms like never before.

During the months of April, May and June, the country held its breath for what seemed a very risky undertaking – i.e. sending a task force 8,000 miles away for a scrap on the aggressor’s doorstep.

Only afterwards did we learn what a close-run thing it was, just how much of a gamble it had been and how ill-prepared for war our Armed Forces actually were.

The conflict lasted only 74 days but resulted in the deaths of 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Islanders.

Caught up in the euphoria of a remarkable, improbable victory voters returned Maggie’s government to power and the rest, as they say, is history.

Three decades after Argentine forces on the Falklands surrendered the country’s government is again ratcheting up the tension.

Most Argentines regard the islands, which they refer to as Las Malvinas, as belonging to Argentina and their recovery is even enshrined in the country’s constitution.

It was tub-thumping by Argentine politicians in recent years which prompted the referendum that took place in the Falklands over the last two days.

The result may have been entirely predictable but it was nevertheless important that voters went through the motions.

When Falkland Islanders voted on whether or not to remain a British overseas territory, they were demonstrating democracy in action.

They were telling the rest of the world that the majority of people on that group of islands in the South Atlantic want to remain British.

In voting yes they also gave a ‘hands off’ warning to the Argentine government.

According to Argentine President Cristian Fernandez de Kirchner, of course, the wishes of those inhabitants are irrelevant and the referendum is a pointless exercise.

For her government this is a purely ‘territorial issue’ and thus they often dust off ancient manuscripts to claim that Argentina inherited the islands from the Spanish crown in the 18th Century.

The British government denies this is the case and claims it had long had a settlement on the islands prior to 1767 and has never relinquished sovereignty.

Interestingly, even Spain with the rock of Gibraltar irritatingly close, refuses to support the Argentine cause.

Whatever the complex truth, the people of the Falklands have spoken and, in the time-honoured tradition of self-determination, that should be game, set and match as far as the international community is concerned.

If the Islanders want to remain British then that’s certainly good enough for me, it’s probably good enough for the British people and it should be ammunition enough for the Foreign Office to tell the Argentines to bugger off once and for all.

I can imagine what Maggie would have said the day after such a referendum.

People can say what they like about Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies but when it came to Britain’s standing on the world stage the fact is we haven’t been taken anything like as seriously since she left Downing Street.

Her handling of the Falklands Conflict, her refusal to negotiate, to back down or to consider the possibility of defeat showed the mettle of a great Prime Minister in the mould of Winston Churchill.

What a shame her successors have all been vacillating, pale imitations of the kind of statesmanlike figures this country desperately needs.

Some will argue Maggie went to war to help her win the General Election but if you read accounts of the time you’ll see she went to war because her generation thought that standing up to a dictator was the right thing to do.

Given the effects of the global economic downturn and the every-day worries we all have the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands may seem a fairly low priority at present.

What’s more, given the fact that the Royal Navy doesn’t currently possess an aircraft carrier worthy of the name, it is a matter of some debate as to what would happen if lightning struck twice.

I fervently hope history does not repeat itself. However, I’d like to think that if push came to shove this country would defend its overseas territories just as it did 30 years ago.

I’ll leave the final word on this issue to Eric Barbour, of Waterhayes, who I interviewed last year on the 30th anniversary of the invasion of the Falkland Islands.

Eric, who was a 26-year-old with 42 Commando Royal Marines in 1982 and part of the Falklands Task Force, is unequivocal.

He said: “We saw it very much as our country protecting what was ours and protecting people who did not want their home to become part of Argentina.

“If there was another invasion I think we would be totally justified in defending the islands again.”

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Advertisements

Falklands veteran: ‘We had to show the world what we were made of…’

Eric Barbour remembers exactly where he was when he got the call. It was five to nine on Friday, April 2, 1982 and Eric was at home in Biddulph.

His dad answered the telephone: It was Army. The Falklands Conflict had begun and Eric’s leave was abruptly cancelled.

The 26-year-old packed his gear and travelled back to Seaton Barracks in Plymouth to rejoin his unit – 42 Commando Royal Marines.

A week later, on Friday, April 9, Eric and his comrades from the Marines and Paras set sail from Southampton onboard the SS Canberra which had been requisitioned by the Government and refitted as a troop ship.

Eric, now aged 56 and living in Waterhayes, said: “Previous to the Falklands, British troops hadn’t really been involved in a major conflict for many years. The nearest we had come to proper combat was tours to Northern Ireland and the Cyprus Emergency.

“In all honesty I think we were hoping that the Falklands crisis would be solved by the politicians before we arrived. Then news filtered through that the Argentine flagship The General Belgrano had been sunk. Then we heard HMS Sheffield had gone down a couple of days later and we realised we would be needed after all.”

Indeed the brutality of the conflict was brought home to Eric when the body of a former commanding officer of his from 41 Commando Royal Marines was returned to the Canberra for burial at sea.

As Eric sailed south, the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano by the submarine HMS Conqueror, with the loss of more than 320 lives, proved hugely controversial. But it was also to have a dramatic impact on the conflict – forcing all Argentine naval vessels to return to port and take no further part in the hostilities.

The troop ship Canberra anchored in San Carlos Water on May 21 as part of the landings by British forces to retake the islands. This area was to become known as ‘Bomb Alley’ to British forces because of incessant attacks by low-flying Argentinian aircraft.

Although her size and colour made the ‘White Whale’ a soft target, the Argentine Air Force concentrated their efforts on Royal Navy vessels.

Eric was ferried to the Falklands via a landing craft similar to the doomed RFA Sir Galahad which was destroyed by the Argentine Airforce on June 8.

Forty eight British servicemen died in the attack and pictures of the smouldering wreck were beamed around the world.

Eric and his team watched helpless as the jets which caused the carnage flew overhead – so close to his mountain position that he could see into the cockpits.

Eric, who now works as a health and safety adviser, was a corporal at the time and led a Milan Missile troop.

On the night of June 11 it was he and his mates who provided vital covering fire with his anti-tank weapons to suppress the Argentines who were strafing Eric’s fellow marines as they tried to climb Mount Harriet.

Without night vision technology, Eric had to rely on the sight from his SLR to target Argentine positions 800 or so metres away – with the tracer bullet from his rifle making his team an immediate target.

That night Eric and his comrades took more than 1,000 Argentine soldiers prisoner.

Eric said: “One of my abiding memories is walking across the frost-covered terrain the following morning and seeing a boot print on an anti-personnel mine poking through the soil. The ground must have frozen so hard that one of our lads had a very lucky escape.”

The Falklands Conflict lasted just 74 days but cost the lives of 907 soldiers, sailors and airmen – including 258 British personnel. UK forces had won a spectacular victory in very difficult circumstances. The Argentinian military junta was finished and the Falkland Islanders celebrated their liberation.

Eric, who eventually left the Army after more than 17 years – having achieved the rank of Senior NCO – is in no doubt that the UK’s response to the invasion of the Falkland Islands was appropriate.

He said: “We saw it very much as our country protecting what was ours and protecting people who did not want their home to become part of Argentina.”

Thirty years on and tensions are again rising in the South Atlantic as Argentina begins once more to talk up its claim to the ‘Malvinas’.

But Eric, who is married with two sons and two grandchildren, is in no doubt that the UK’s cause was just.

He said: “Looking back, I think we did the right thing. It was a British territory and we had to show the world what we were made of.

“If there was another invasion I think we would be totally justified in defending the islands again.”



Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

This is why the Second World War generation was so special…

I’m always moved by the death of an old soldier such as Dunkirk veteran William Brindley whose funeral was reported in weekend editions of The Sentinel.

It goes without saying that the passing of Bill represents a great loss to his family and friends.

Sadly his death also further erodes our links with a tumultuous period in this country’s history.

With the passing of each such individual then the risk of us losing perspective on what happened 70-odd years ago increases just a little.

You see, warfare has changed beyond all recognition in the last 40 years – both from the point of view of the combatants themselves and the public left mithering over them back at home.
I would argue it actually changed for us here in the UK back in 1982.

In a week or so we will be in reflective mood as we mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands Conflict.

It was all over in 74 days but the ‘war’ had a profound effect on the psyche of our nation.

For the first time, we didn’t have to just rely on national newspapers for updates on how ‘Our Boys’ (and girls) were doing.

Nightly television news bulletins beamed pictures into our living rooms and we viewed the horrors of war in full colour – albeit a heavily-edited version of the actual events.

We learned about the heroics of 2 Para and Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones’ at Goose Green.

We discussed the fall of St. Georgia, the battle for Mount Tumbledown and the strategic importance of the airfield at Port Stanley.

We marvelled at the Harrier Jump jet’s vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) ability and gave due respect to Prince Andrew for flying the Royal Navy’s Sea King helicopters into the danger zone.

We came to know that ‘the Argies’ had Skyhawk jets and French-made Exocet missiles. We watched the Sir Galahad burn. We watched HMS Sheffield sink.

The Falklands may have been almost 8,000 miles away and we may never have heard of them before April 1982 but for a couple of months that year we all lived and breathed the battle for those islands.

These days, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, any conflict anywhere in the world seems immediate, close and personal and we now take for granted up-to-the-minute television news updates.

Take, for instance, the reporting on the life or death clashes in Iraq or Afghanistan – which has been made so much easier thanks to the internet and satellite communications.

Wars and conflicts these days – while no less bloody or tragic – are better scrutinised, better explained and better understood.

What’s more, the advent of ‘smart bombs’ (or precision-guided munitions to give them their correct term), aerial drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) and more and more powerful and clinical weapons means that the art of warfare itself has changed radically. It’s simply no longer a case of who has the most troops, tanks and heavy artillery.

This certainly isn’t warfare as Bill Brindley and his mates in the North Staffordshire Regiment would recognise it.

Of the 1,000 men in the regiment who went to France with Bill only half of them returned. Let us stop for a second and just think about that: 500 men from just one regiment.

That’s more than the total number of deaths suffered by the UK thus far during operations in Afghanistan.

Our Bill lied about his age to get into the Army and signed up when he was just 17.

During the British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation from Dunkirk wounded Bill’s hospital ship was hit by a torpedo and sunk.

He was fished out of the water by a civilian in one of the many small boats which took part in the operation to rescue allied troops from Hitler’s encircling armies.

He then returned to the fray with the 8th Army – serving in North Africa, Italy, France and finally Germany.

This is Boy’s Own stuff – it really is. But the truth is, Bill’s story was fairly commonplace back then because it was a time of ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things.

These days the media analyses the minutiae of every tiny skirmish to the nth degree.

Just imagine what Sky News would have made of the Dunkirk evacuation – an event so momentous and powerful that we still refer to it to this day when referencing a never-say-die spirit.

Bill’s generation is special because they fought in a global war which threatened the sovereignty of our nation and shaped the very history of the world.

I dare say that never again will we see conflict on such a scale and with so much at stake for so many.

Bill and his comrades sailed and flew overseas not as global policemen but as genuine freedom fighters knowing that defeat meant their loved ones would suffer.

They were our last line of defence and their relatives and friends back in Blighty had absolutely no idea how the war would pan out or what fate would befall their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers.

Without the Bill Brindleys of this world who knows what Britain in 2012 would look like.

The Second World War generation may be dying off but we will remember them because we should remember them.

What’s more, it’s up to us left behind to instil in future generations the importance of the sacrifices they made and the debt we owe them.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel