Chain of Command
THE telephone jangled me out of a deep sleep.
The operator was matter-of-fact: "Get into barracks in Arbroath as soon as you can, ready to deploy on operations to the South Atlantic". It was 5 o'clock in the morning of Friday 2 April 1982. "But surely April Fools' Day was yesterday?" Weary of having been likewise challenged by everybody else whom she had rung: "No, it's for real - get into Condor Barracks now!" It's a strange feeling being called to war from one's bed. Time has not dimmed the memory of the sensation.
From my experience in the Dhofar War in Oman eight years earlier, I knew that attitudes and expectations were everything. I also knew that nothing ever goes to plan in war, and so I set about explaining to my Marines that there was going to be a fight, and we were certainly going to win it. But they should be ready for the unexpected, and they should be ready to take casualties. I asked them to think what they were going to do when the man next to them dropped. "Troop Sergeant, what are you going to do when the Troop Commander drops? Company Second-in-Command, what are you going to do when I drop? What are you going to do, Marine McGillicuddie, when you drop? Are you going to scream like a Dervish and unnerve the man next to you, or are you going to die quietly like a soldier?"
Needless to say, they all burst out laughing. "See yon McGillicuddie: he'll be screamin' afore he's shot!" This was exactly the effect I'd hoped to achieve. So they understood the worst potentialities, but if they could laugh at them now, then they would be all the more able to cope with them when their time came. "War is a game to be played with a smiling face," said Winston Churchill. How right he was.
In this way I tried to breed a cheerful brotherhood of constructive cynics: optimistic sceptics; men who, when you gave them their orders, would say, "nice plan, boss - looks a good place to start - but, of course, we know THAT won't happen; but we do know what you are trying to achieve and why, and we will somehow make it work for you". And so we went to war.
After the landings, 45 Commando yomped. It was a famous yomp, but, in truth, we didn't walk very far or very fast. The unusual achievement, if there was one, was that we remained a fully fit fighting body of men carrying about 120lb each, in what was something like Rannoch Moor in mid-winter: bleak, windswept, rocky, boggy, cold and wet; without any tents, buildings, woods, or hedges; indeed without any cover at all, except our groundsheet bivouacs and our sleeping bags. And on several occasions we didn't even have those. And we often went short of food. For young men in these conditions, burning calories in prolific quantities, this was no small matter. It was all we could do to stop some Marines eating the cardboard boxes that the rations didn't turn up in. When I saw myself in a mirror after the campaign, I found my skin was stretched across my ribcage and my legs were like a ballet dancer's.
But, having endured the initial pains, people adapted very quickly, and we became almost like wild animals in complete har-mony with our surroundings - not really concerned whether it was raining, snowing, or blazing sunshine - all of which you could get within half an hour down there. We envied nobody their tent or vehicle or ship: we preferred it out of doors. And because we were out of doors, we were only occasionally reminded of the smell of our bodies. War has many smells, but the smell of mud, sweat and urine rarely seem to be far away.
We also smoked a great deal. Nobody wants to encourage smoking, but, in war, cigarettes help. Marines who had hitherto smoked 20 a week, became 20 a day men, and many who hadn't smoked before took it up. It was a prop to one's nerves, an aid to concentration and there was no physical circumstance, however unpleasant or dangerous, that wasn't improvable by lighting up a fag - if you could find a dry match - and passing it around. This was no time to impose any sanctimonious twaddle on the men. If you can keep them alive long enough for them to die of lung cancer, you'll be doing pretty well.
45 Commando's objective was to capture the hills called the Two Sisters. X Ray Company would capture the nearest sister and Yankee and Zulu Companies would capture the further one. It would be a silent night assault because we didn't have enough artillery to support a daylight attack. Artillery and mortars were on call for when the shooting started. HMS Glamorgan was also on call with her 4.5 inch guns, but she could only give us support during darkness because there was a land-based Exocet missile launcher within range on the coast. It had no night-firing capability, so Glamorgan was safe in the dark, but if she was found within range at dawn, then she could expect a missile coming her way. So we knew speed was important.
The march to the start of the battle was a near nightmare. Apart from getting lost, we found ourselves struggling in the dark with our heavy kit over massive ice-covered stone runs. We lost one man who fell down a steep bank and knocked himself unconscious, and another who became wretchedly ill during the night. A journey which I had thought would take three hours took six. I knew Yankee and Zulu were due to start their battle for the further sister at 0300 hours, by which time I was expected to have secured my sister. But I was unwilling to break radio silence to tell Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Whitehead, our Commanding Officer, for fear of bringing an artillery barrage down upon us. Only just before the other two companies were due to start their battle did I tell him that we were late, but that we would very soon be ready to start. Colonel Whitehead calmly said to me on the radio, "OK. Sort yourself out. Tell me when you are ready, and we will go together. You will have mortars. I will use the artillery." This simple act of patience, understanding and trust, and the rapid re-jigging of the plan, was sufficient for me to recover my confidence and turn round to my own people and tell them to sort themselves out, and to let me know when they were ready. And, ten minutes later, 150 knackered Marines were as good as new.
Of course, the attack did not go to plan. There were no enemy on the lower reaches of the mountain, but it was stoutly defended at the top. On one occasion, I gave my own position as the target for the mortars because we were that close to the enemy.
Machine guns, anti-tank weapons and artillery came crashing down in among us as we tried to bury ourselves like moles in the peaty, wet, rocky surface. We lost two men wounded to artillery fire. The battle tends to stop while you are under artillery fire, and it takes a major effort to get it moving again. Being shelled is deafening, terrifying, shocking and quite the loudest noise I have ever heard.
Nevertheless, both in Oman and the South Atlantic, I was left feeling surprised at the number of people it didn't kill. Its chief effect is an assault on the mind. Our own anti-tank weapons, also without night sights but skilfully directed by use of flash lights and radio, fired missiles in over our heads to smash resoundingly into the positions in front of us.
Over the next few hours, my Marines worked their way forwards up the hill under machine gun and artillery fire, supported by our anti-tank weapons. It was like fighting in a built-up area, the rocks were so large.
There were some quite personal battles fought at close range against an enemy shooting at us from behind the rocks in the dark. Throughout the battle, I kept on thinking how depressingly familiar our grandfathers and their grandfathers would have found it.
The only thing that technology has done over the centuries is to extend the range at which some people can engage the enemy. There always remains the need for someone to close with those men who refuse to be killed at long range.
Four hours later, through snow flurries in the mist, Marines of X Ray Company cleared the top of the hill of the Queen's enemies, at the point of the bayonet in the dark. Ultimately, men still fight with clubs and pointed sticks.
And, as we lay there, exhausted, jubilant, nervously expecting a counter-attack, out of the mist appeared a shadowy figure shouting: "Hello X Ray Company, Hello X Ray - it's only the Padre but I've forgotten the f****** password."
But the battle for Two Sisters continued out at sea. The knock-on effect of our delay was that Captain Mike Barrow, the captain of HMS Glamorgan, who was providing critical artillery support to the battle on the other Sister, had to decide whether to remove his ship from the threat of dawn Exocet attack, or stay and provide the artillery needed to finish the business. He stayed, and his ship was indeed hit by a missile and 13 sailors were killed. There were many reasons why the battle for Two Sisters was highly successful, but not least among them was the self-sacrifice and unfailing support that 45 Commando received from HMS Glamorgan.
The following day, when conducting an impromptu burial service for seven of the Argentinean soldiers who had fought to the death against us, I was struck how much like my own teenage Marines they looked.
And was it worth it? Because the burden of war is always unevenly borne, you will get a different answer depending whom you ask.
The family of a dead soldier cannot be expected to give the same answer as a politician. But if a war is judged on whether the situation is better afterwards than it would have been if it had not been fought, then we may claim some success for the Falklands War.
The Falkland Islanders would certainly agree. Moreover, the Soviet Union's view of degenerate, spineless Britain was severely dislocated and so it may have helped to hasten a Western victory in the Cold War. And many believe Britain's view of herself was changed for the better: no small achievement when one remembers the all-pervading sense of national decline of the 1970s.
Success or failure; defeat or victory; delivery of quality or delivery of crap: they ultimately depend upon the quality of decision-making by the lowest paid members of every organisation. My reputation, then, and indeed my life, rested upon the shoulders of young Marines, some of them not yet 18 years old. My job, and that of all their other officers and NCOs, was to get them to the right place at the right time in good order: to equip them physically, mentally and spiritually for battle. But, ultimately, it was up to them. In a digital world of management gobbledygook, the human spirit still is everything.
• Ian Gardiner is now a keynote speaker on leadership and decision-making.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South