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The Falklands: Watching Maggie's War

Patrick Bishop’s first assignment as a foreign correspondent was to accompany the British task force sent to the South Atlantic to reclaim the Falkland Islands in April 1982. Thirty years on, he recalls his experience.

2 Para guarding Argentine POWs, Port Stanley, 1982For me, a young reporter attached to 3 Commando Brigade aboard the requisitioned cruise ship Canberra, covering ‘Maggie’s war’ was a process of constant revelation. The soldiers, the sea and landscapes, the actuality of combat – everything was surprising and collided with expectations.

I arrived in the war, like Britain itself, bemused at the suddenness of events. One minute I was a home news hack on the Observer, the next I was an official war correspondent, with a red cloth-covered Second World War-issue booklet of regulations and the rank of honorary captain.

We left from Southampton on a drizzly Good Friday evening. Two or three hundred wives, girlfriends and children had gathered on the quayside to say goodbye and good luck to their menfolk, while onboard a band played ‘A Life On The Ocean Wave’ and ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’. The crowd was cheerfully patriotic. Some waved union flags. Two buxom girls, soon the object of close attention by the TV cameras, were wearing T-shirts with the legend ‘Give The Argies Some Bargie’.

Who were these people? To my metropolitan eyes they appeared somewhat alien. Indeed they were. The era of Callaghan’s Labour government, which was replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration in 1979, had forced patriotism underground. Mrs T. was untried and not yet confident enough to encourage its resurrection.

The Marines and Paratroopers swarming over the ship were equally unfamiliar. Although I had spent a lot of time in the Northern Ireland of hunger strikes and H-Blocks, I barely ever met a soldier. Weary of their stock representation in the media as an occupation force, the military had given up on PR offensives and withdrawn into itself.

Over the next weeks of our stop-and-start progress to the Falklands my preconceptions were stripped away. Some of the stereotypes stood up. Most of the officers had gone to public schools. None of the men had. The two were divided by a social chasm that would take a very long run-up to jump. On the other hand the political opinions of the officers were unpredictable. There was no blind acceptance of the justice of the British cause and Thatcher was as much an object of suspicion as admiration: ‘It is one thing to die for Queen and country, another to die for Margaret Thatcher’, intoned a colonel in the Crowsnest bar, which served as the officers mess. Among the most reflective was Herbert Jones, ‘Colonel H’ of 2 Para, who would win a posthumous Victoria Cross at Goose Green.

What they all shared – officers, ‘bootnecks’ and ‘toms’ – was a fierce enthusiasm for what they did. Their meticulous professionalism, their eagerness to please, their boundless good cheer were a rebuke to the cultivated ennui of us civilians.

The positive outlook was contagious. By the time we got to Ascension Island, which we sailed round and round at night to shake off any lurking Argentinian submarines, I too was running round the deck and listening avidly to weapons and first aid drills. Every hour we heard the latest from the BBC World Service on the search for a peaceful solution going on at the United Nations. Bad news stoked anxieties about death, injury and whether I would ‘bottle it’ when the shooting started. Good news, however, stoked an equally powerful fear that the greatest story of my life was going to be snatched away from me.

After we left Ascension and sailed south into the southern winter the drills no longer seemed theoretical. As the apprehension of the journalists and their civilian MoD ‘minders’ increased, the soldiers grew ever more cheerful. The Paras seemed to revel in their bad boy reputation. I was watching a corporal giving a tactical talk when he spotted me out of the corner of his eye. ‘What do you do if you capture a wounded Argie?’, he demanded rhetorically. ‘You blow his f***ing head off. What do you do if there’s a journalist watching? You treat him as one of your own.’ It was, I was assured, a joke.

The nights drew in, the cold seas heaved, albatrosses skimmed the wave tops, trailing wing tips in the water. One evening they test-fired the general purpose machine-guns slotted into the deck rails, which were the Canberra’s only anti-aircraft protection. I went out onto the ship’s bridge wings to watch. Pink tracer streamed out into the dark, to be whipped into arcs by the 50-knot wind howling across the ocean. When I came back inside, a practice air raid drill was in progress. The lights were dimmed and the passageways were filled with prone figures taking cover. The following night there was an air raid alert for real.

Two days before the landing it was decided to move half the force onto other ships before the attack. Once the cross-decking arrangements had been made a strange mood of gaiety crept over Canberra. In the Crowsnest a waiter called Guy sat down at the piano and started to belt out an archaic selection of forces favourites. The bar started to look like the set from a morale-boosting 1940s movie, with subalterns who were born 15 years after the war standing round the piano holding glasses and singing along to the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’. Later that night we were issued with our full kit: camouflage windproof smocks and trousers, a Bergen rucksack, a plastic poncho that doubled as the roof of your makeshift ‘bivvy’ (for some never-explained reason no tents had been taken) and cheap, painfully pinching DMS boots. The process of transformation was complete.

I went ashore with 42 Commando, Royal Marines on the morning of D-Day, in an old fashioned landing craft. The bow door went down and we stepped off into the freezing brine. My feet never seemed to get properly dry for the rest of the campaign. The morning had opened with an Argentinian Pucara ground-attack aircraft flashing over the hills at the end of San Carlos water. I had never been under fire before. I watched as it raced towards the ship. Lights twinkled under its wings. A salvo of fire streamed brightly towards the ship in front of us, stitching the water behind its stern. It was fascinating, then frightening, but there was nothing to be done and I felt a welcome coolness. It was a first lesson on the nature of warfare – you simply do not have the emotional energy to remain fearful for long.

The attacks continued all morning. Suicidally brave Argentinian pilots flashed overhead through a storm of missile fire, one of them ejecting as his plane was hit, the parachute blossoming only a few hundred feet before he hit the sea. It was a relief to get on dry land.

The first Falklanders we encountered seemed oddly unaffected by our arrival, as if what was going on had little to do with them. They were to remain an enigma. The next 24 days until the end lived up to the maxim that war was boredom interspersed with moments of terror. I was at brigade headquarters behind Mount Kent just as Major-General Jeremy Moore was about to brief his commanders on the final assault on Port Stanley. Suddenly four Skyhawks of the Argentinian air force roared in and bombs rained down, shredding the tent where the meeting was about to begin.

The night before the Argentinian surrender I was in a medical aid post below Mount Harriet, watching the mountainside flickering with tracer and exploding mortar rounds, all lit up by the flat white light of floating parachute illumination shells fired by the defenders.

A few hours later I was picking my way through the debris of the defeated; mudstained sleeping bags, abandoned boots and kitbags. Comic books, photographs of sweethearts and letters from home skipped in the wind. A dead Argentinian soldier lay face down in the mud. He looked about 20. Not for the first time, I felt desperately sorry for the poor bastards on the other side.

Patrick Bishop is the author of 3 Para (Harper Perennial, 2008).

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