Remembering the Falklands conflict: four veterans tell their story

Keith Brown during his time as a soldier in the Falklands conflict
Keith Brown during his time as a soldier in the Falklands conflict
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EXACTLY 30 years today, thousands of Argentine troops landed on the British-owned Falkland Islands, an act of aggression that led to Margaret Thatcher’s government assembling a massive naval task force to liberate the islands. The liberation took 74 days and cost 255 British and 649 Argentine lives. Here, four servicemen tell their stories to Tom Peterkin

Transport Minister Keith Brown was 19 years old and serving in the Royal Marines when he was ordered to the Falklands

WE WERE just about to go on leave for the Easter break when we were told that all leave was cancelled. We drove down to Portsmouth and we got in an old tub called the RFA Stromness, which was rat infested. It was quickly turned around and the hold was made habitable. We stopped off at Ascension Island and we were told to go south from there. That’s when I thought we would actually have to do something when we got down there. Until then we were convinced that it wouldn’t happen.

We got down to the Falklands and we were pretty exposed, because the old tub had no defences. It was exciting and frightening. We didn’t get off to a good start, because we ended up landing in broad daylight, not under cover of darkness, because it took so long to get off the boats. Flack was heavy.

Our unit was the unit that yomped. The entire 85 kilometres. We were the only unit that didn’t get any helicopter lifts at any point. I did get a helicopter lift. Myself and my troop officer went on a scout into enemy territory for reference, which was very interesting. But we came back to the same point that we had left. After that we went on to Mount Kent, which the Argentinians just left, and, very shortly after, that we went on to Two Sisters, the big series of battles around Port Stanley.

You are told you have to write your last will and testament and write your last letter to your family. It was obviously a different kind of scale from anything else you might have experienced.

I felt very worried. We had had guys killed shortly before that on what was a blue-on-blue incident [friendly fire]. Some guys from my mortar troop had gone to support a fighting patrol and there had been some confusion in enemy territory.

We were on Mount Kent, which was the objective before the Two Sisters – the ring of hills around Stanley. There was obviously a fair bit of no-man’s land and then the territory up to where the Argentinians were on Two Sisters. So Yankee company – a full fighting patrol – went out. But if they engaged the enemy, which was its intention, they would have to call in mortar fire support. The mortar fire support couldn’t be delivered from that far away. So a section had to go up to be behind them. When the guys in the mortar troop went to support the guys in Yankee company in a fighting patrol, they came across each other with tragic consequences, which happens in enemy territory in war. I wasn’t in that platoon.

So, we had already had some casualties by that stage in our own unit. But this was a full-scale attack, a different proposition entirely. My impression of a night attack was that it was nothing like I expected it to be – in terms of a fairly ordered affair with people running and taking out machine gun nests. It was just hugely confusing. It was fairly arbitrary as to who seemed to be injured – lots of bangs and flashes and very loud noises. You had naval artillery and mortars and heavy and light small arms fire as well.

It was terrifying, to be honest. I don’t know how my colleagues felt. We were pretty much pinned down and we came under direct fire from the Argentinians. Up to that point it was all to do with artillery and mortar rounds, but this was direct fire and they were using what seemed to us to be tracers, which was pretty daft. So, you could see where their fields of fire were and we were down low on the ground.

Then we were told to move, which no-one could understand, because we could see all the rounds in front of us. We thought, if we move forward, we are going to end up getting our heads cut. I have always wondered about this and I got the chance to ask my commanding officer about this in 2007. What is it that makes people go forward when every instinct that you have is to go back? His answer was training, honour … I think it is much more to do with the people you are with and not letting them down – fear of that.

We got to the top of the hill Two Sisters and achieved our objective. I was with TAC HQ, we were right in the front. We got in front of the fighting company at one point. We got to the top and our Commanding Officer was very keen to go on to Tumbledown, our next objective. But before doing so, he had to check that he had sufficient ammunition and that casualties weren’t too high. Casualties were low, but so was ammunition. So, there was no prospect of doing that. He was very disappointed. I wasn’t quite as disappointed as he was!

I think it altered my view on life. I think that feeling that you can lose your life does focus things and you do tend to appreciate a lot more what comes afterwards.

The day after the night of the attack I was asked to take a prisoner down to our headquarters – a young Argentinian laddie. I had to go down to get some more batteries for my radio and I was told to grab somebody else, so I took this prisoner down.

When I got close to HQ, I suddenly got screamed at to blindfold the guy, because he was not meant to be able to see our echelon area. So, I blindfolded this guy and he just collapsed in a heap and began howling – this young lad. I just put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘OK’, which was about the only word I would think he’d understand. But he was convinced, I think, he was about to be shot.

We came back off and then we went back on to the same boat, the Stromness – then an RAF DC10 to Leuchars. We didn’t get any of that jamboree. That was good. I have mentioned the blue-on-blue incident, so you can imagine some of the sensitivities around that.

That led to increased sensitivity, so we came home at 7 o’clock in the morning with the mist there, a piper playing and I think it was more fitting than a jamboree elsewhere. When I went into the hanger, we were all kept behind a rope, as were the relatives. I remember my mum bursting through this rope and running down the length of the hanger saying ‘Keith, Keith’ – hugely embarrassing.

Malcolm Duck was a 21-year-old acting lieutenant in 45 Commando when he went to the Falklands. He now runs Ducks, a restaurant at Kilspindie House, East Lothian

‘PAYS to be a winner, Sir.’ ‘If you can’t make a f***n decision, you’re f***n useless, Sir!’ ‘If you can’t take a joke, don’t join.’ These three quotes from Royal Marine sergeants have really governed my life. Once through Royal Marine training, you never stop being a Royal Marine, whether serving or not. The main lesson the Falklands taught me was that waking up is a privilege, and at all times we have the choice to be happy or unhappy, no matter what the circumstances.

Quite early I was diagnosed as dyslexic; I couldn’t write my name when I was nine. My mother took me out of school in primary five and taught me herself in Mallaig. Though I qualified for university, I reacted against the middle-class push to go there. To the amazement of many, I passed all the tests and ended up in 45 Commando Royal Marines in 1981. Within 18 months, I had led 35 men in action in Belfast and the Falklands.

I think Belfast is important because it was a very different scenario to the conventional warfare of the Falkands. In Belfast, the welfare of the Marine was the priority. In the Falklands, putting more lead down on the enemy in order to advance was the absolute priority, to ensure the advance could continue. Belfast had given us a very good grounding as a team; we had fought together, but the Falklands was different – you can dominate ground and you can hold ground. Holding ground means that Joe Bloggs is standing on it. The Argentinians held the ground and they had to be shifted. It was ‘fix bayonets’, old-fashioned, conventional soldiering, which means means Joe Bloggs is close enough to say hello.

I remember the morning after the attack on the Two Sisters sitting with my radio operator, Marine Pete Jenkins, sipping a cup of tea. Marine Gordon McPherson had been killed where we bivvied for the night, his blood on the rocks. It was a beautiful clear day. We had no orders. We had no objective. Money, family, work didn’t matter. We were surprised we were still alive and not sure if we would be tomorrow. I think that will be the most peaceful moment of my life.

What did it teach me? Everything! Honesty respect, honour. We have lost more post-Falklands than we did down there. I never think of it, but during this period of remembrance, I am pleasantly surprised that, as I write this, my eyes water and I think of good men gone.

Pipe Major Brian Donaldson is one of the world’s top solo pipers and bagpipe makers. His firm, Inveran Bagpipes, is based in Auchtermuchty, Fife. He was 23 and a Lance Corporal when he went to the Falklands

I WAS on my Pipe Major’s course at Edinburgh Castle when I got the call from the Battalion and it was all hands on deck. We had six weeks’ hard training before we boarded the QE2 at Southampton – they turned the QE2 into a troop ship. Just outside the exclusion zone we transferred on to the Canberra. The Canberra took us into the exclusion zone and from there we landed at Bluff Cove and marched three or four miles and got to an area where we dug in.

I was in the reconnaissance platoon and we got a mission to seek out and destroy three big gun positions. We searched all night for these guns and we had to find a lay-up position. We came across Port Harriet House, yours truly was tasked to check it out. There was no-one in there, but we are talking about 3 or 4am. I cleared the house personally and we lay up there. But it wasn’t until dawn broke that we discovered that we were only three or four hundred yards away from the Argentinian front line. We radioed back to HQ and were told to stay put and glean as much information as possible.

We eventually got compromised and got mortared out of Harriet House, which was quite hairy. The Argentinian mortar platoon zeroed in on that house quickly. We had to bail out and they mortared us for two or three miles. If it wasn’t for the fact that the ground was soft and peaty, they would have near wiped us out. As it was, there were only a couple of casualties on that attack. It wasn’t long after that we got the order from the Brigade Commander to attack Tumbledown. I was on the main assault. It was pretty hairy up there. We took on the Argentinian marines – their crack troops – because Tumbledown was the last defensive stronghold prior to liberating Stanley.

We got pinned down by sniper fire, because the Argentinian marines had the latest American sights. But we did the job. If you can imagine being in the middle of mortars going off, big guns from ships putting a lot of firepower on that mountain. We had to crawl all the way up there. As soon as we got in position, the attack came in and it was like the fireworks at Edinburgh Castle. There was flack all over the place.

That battle went on and daybreak broke and they surrendered. It was something like 7.30am. As soon as they surrendered, we had the task of collecting our dead and injured. I remember having to walk up the battle site and it was just like a butcher’s shop. Horrendous. When you think of the friends and comrades that were killed and injured, it does give you strength in your life, because you realise some people aren’t around any more. If you can survive through the thick of battle, you can survive through just about anything.

Major Iain Dalzel Job owns the Guards Hotel in Haymarket, Edinburgh, and is President of the Scots Guards Association Club

I WAS a company commander of G company the Scots Guards when we were ordered to attack Tumbledown Mountain. We were the first company in. It was exciting, but it was quite frightening. A mortar round went off over my head. Literally about 10ft up on a rock. There was a steep rock face with rock protruding out of it. The mortar round hit the top of that. The mortar round burst and a tiny piece of metal went into my head. But I didn’t know it had gone in there. I saw our Medical Officer when we got back to the East Falkland after the war was over. He didn’t know I had been wounded either. He couldn’t find any blood. There was a tiny bit of metal, the size of the end of a pencil in my head. Little bits of metal travel extraordinarily fast and they are the ones that are the real killers. The Battalion lost eight, who were killed. Many were wounded.

I wasn’t worried for myself at all. That was because my family was looked after. But I thought we would lose around 15 or 20 people, but we didn’t lose anybody. Actually I was worried for the boys, because they were my Guardsmen.

These are quotes from some of my Guardsmen: Guardsman David Ward, who stayed in the Army and became a Company Sergeant Major, said: “Later, as we went through the Argentinian positions we realised what great natural defences they had. There were quite a few Argentinian dead.”

Guardsman Alan Bunyan, who also stayed in the Army and became a Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant, said: “Apart from the surrender on Tumbledown my most vivid memory of the war is the Argentinian Skyhawk attack at Bluff Cove. After they bombed the ships they came back very low over us and we opened up. The sky just lit up we shot down five of the planes.”

Guardsman John Mitchell said: “The locals made us feel at home. In fact, Sgt Wayne Hanson is the godfather of a little boy who lived at Hill Cove, in the Falklands. He is called Elvis McRae as his mother was a great fan of Elvis Presley’s! Our Minister, Angus Smith, baptised him.”

It changed my view on life; I was pleased to have survived. The Army did me well, although I have suffered from this wound most of the time since.

My left arm has gone numb, but that is life. I used to punch holes through walls just trying to do my tie up, because I got so annoyed. But looking back I feel very proud of what we achieved.