War heroes or murderers?: A police inquiry must rule when death on the battlefield is a crime. John Shirley reports

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The Independent Online
AT 2.30 on the morning of Sunday, 13 June, 1982, a British Army telex operator sheltering in a windswept bivouac on the eastern flanks of Mount Kent, high above Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, tapped a simple three-page memorandum into his machine. Prominently marked 'Secret', the message - or 'SitRep' - was the latest in a series of daily bulletins from Commando Brigade Headquarters summarising the previous 24 hours' military activity for units fighting the closing stages of the Falklands war.

The opening lines gave a brisk sense of the optimism of the moment: 'The battle for Stanley began in earnest and all Phase 1 objectives were successfully achieved, albeit sadly not without a considerable loss of life. The majority of the day LT (daylight) hours were spent reorganising and dealing with casualties and PW (prisoners of war).'

These had indeed been momentous hours in the Falklands campaign. In what he later described as 'a straight-forward no- nonsense Warminster-style attack' Brigadier Julian Thompson, the commander of 3 Commando Brigade, had thrown his force of 5,500 men into a massive rolling assault to capture the key mountain peaks overlooking the Falklands capital - Two Sisters, Mount Harriet, Mount Longdon and Tumbledown. Within 36 hours, the Argentine forces had surrendered and Thompson's boss, Major General Jeremy Moore, could triumphantly cable London: 'The Falkland Islands are once more under the government desired by their inhabitants. God save the Queen.'

THE telex messages did not, however, tell the full story. In particular they gave no sense of the carnage on Mount Longdon, the bleakest and most prominent landmark on the Stanley horizon. Here the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment had fought what is generally acknowledged to have been the most violent encounter of the war. In six hours of fighting - mostly at night and close quarters - they had lost 19 men, with 35 wounded, and killed at least 29 Argentines, many with bayonets.

Even before Longdon, the Paras had been through the toughest war of any unit in the Falklands. At Goose Green, three weeks earlier, the Commanding Officer of 2 Para, Lieut Col Herbert 'H' Jones, had been shot dead in crossfire, along with 14 of his men. As the battle reached its bloody climax, a 2 Para officer and two NCOs had died in a confused episode when Argentines opened fire as the three men approached a position with white flags of surrender flying from it. It was no coincidence that the two Victoria Crosses awarded in the campaign went to paratroopers - to 'H' Jones himself and to Sergeant Ian McKay, who died attacking a bunker on Longdon.

Did these experiences, horrific as they were, distort the judgement of individual soldiers, and possibly officers, by the time the war reached its violent crescendo?

This remains the central question behind the disturbing allegations of atrocities which the Independent on Sunday reported last weekend. This week, a police inquiry begins, centring on suggestions in Excursion to Hell, a book by former 3 Para Lance Corporal Vincent Bramley, published last year, that PoWs were shot on Mount Longdon.

Since then, however, other allegations have surfaced which, together with the original Bramley claims, raise the possibility that soldiers of all ranks may have breached the ethics of war and the criminal law. If true, this would seriously compromise the reputation of all those involved in the recapture of the Falklands.

Mr Bramley makes two serious allegations. He claims that a comrade from 3 Para described how he and another comrade took three enemies prisoner at Longdon, only to discover that they were, apparently, US citizens fighting as mercenaries on the Argentine side. A sergeant, having sought 'orders from above', allegedly told the two Paras to kill the prisoners.

His second claim is that after the battle was over two Argentine prisoners were made to stand on the edge of a cliff and shot so that they toppled over the edge into a pit below prepared for 'battle dead' Argentines.

A draft passage left out of the book said: 'It was an outrage and senior officers stepped in immediately before the executions got out of hand. But in the cauldron of emotions after the battle they decided not to take further action. Court martials were the last thing we needed.'

THESE allegations have been made before. Stuart Urban, who wrote and directed An Ungentlemanly Act, the television film about the Falklands screened in June by the BBC, tried to make a feature film six years ago centring on the shooting of Argentine prisoners by a Para platoon. It was finally dropped through lack of money, but while gathering research in 1986 and 1987 Mr Urban spoke to serving and former Paras. He said last week that members of 3 Para had described to him, unprompted, both the incidents detailed by Mr Bramley.

In addition, Mr Urban has told us that he spoke to an officer who took part in the battle for Longdon, and admitted standing by while his men shot prisoners as they advanced up the hill. Mr Urban, who said he had spoken to the officer in confidence, would not name him, but said he had been horrified by what his own men had done: 'There were some pretty hard blokes among the NCOs who were saying 'we have got to move forward'. In his presence, several Argentines who had certainly attempted to surrender and thrown down their weapons were shot.'

Last week, the Independent on Sunday received further supporting testimony for Mr Bramley's claims. It came from a young man who had joined 3 Para shortly before being sent to the Falklands and for whom the horrors of Mount Longdon were a baptism of fire. He spoke of an episode that occurred after the fighting, when prisoners, weapons, equipment and documents were being cleared from the battlefield.

The man, whose identity is known to the Independent on Sunday, described how an NCO put a captured Argentine on the top of a small cliff and shot him off the edge. The man said the prisoner was shot after an officer pointed to a row of dead enemies at the foot of the cliff and told the NCO to 'put him with the others'.

IF these claims are true, some British soldiers are clearly guilty of most serious crimes. Men of all ranks in the unit involved, up to the level of commanding officer, could be held responsible (indeed, senior officers in 3 Para have already been warned that they may be vulnerable under military law if a case is brought).

The legal position is not in doubt. Wherever they serve, British soldiers are bound by civilian law, in addition to military law which imposes stricter conditions in some areas. In the Falklands, for the first time since the Second World War, a state of Active Service was declared, which massively increased the powers of commanding officers to judge and punish their men. In some cases involving crimes by the military, jurisdiction is a problem: this would not apply in the Falklands, over which Britain retains sovereignty.

The Geneva Convention, which provides a framework for the humane treatment of casualties, PoWs and civilians caught up in a conflict, reinforces the legal restraints. As a legally trained officer put it last week: 'The British Government, in the name of the Crown, has signed the Convention. As servants of the Crown we are expected to obey it. The position is clear. There is simply no room for doubt.'

Certainly the Bramley complaints have been treated seriously by the military authorities. Indeed, our inquiries suggest that several months ago officers from the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police began preparing an extensive dossier on the allegations. The inquiry, supervised personally by the SIB's commanding officer, Lt- Col Theis, interviewed a number of serving Paras and, according to sources who have seen it, the result would take 'several days' heavy reading'.

On 28 July, Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, approached Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, with the SIB report. The MoD wanted help and advice. The essence of the investigation was an allegation of murder - a straight-forward criminal matter.

This week, the officer in charge, Det Supt Alec Edwards, of Scotland Yard's International and Organised Crime Branch, will begin a two-stage investigation. He must first establish whether there is a case worthy of investigation. It is too early to say whether Argentine officers might be interviewed.

Beyond the immediate police inquiry, however, the Bramley allegations have wider implications. The complaints, and the publicity surrounding them, have begun to act as a catalyst for a potentially endless series of accusations, rumours and stories of misbehaviour by British soldiers in the Falklands. Some are a potent mixture of exaggerated memories, regimental rivalries and the settling of old scores. Others may well be true. It is unclear whether the police inquiry will be able to look at them.

Take, for example, the battle at Goose Green. It is commonly said in the messes of other regiments that after the 'white flag' incident, 2 Para ignored attempts at surrender and shot down would- be prisoners. Last week, this newspaper was told of another allegation, that after the battle a British helicopter pilot, acting in defiance of the conventions of war, refused to evacuate a badly wounded 17-year-old Argentine despite protests by medical staff. The man died. Finally, it has been alleged that 2 Para, enraged by their colonel's death, slaughtered Argentines hiding in a shed. Students of the Falklands war suspect that this complaint relates to the destruction of Boca House, a building from which Argentine machine-gunners and snipers harassed British troops during the battle - and so, we might conclude, was reasonably regarded as a legitimate target. But, in the context of the Bramley allegations, there is no way of knowing.

The complaints raise an additional political and moral dilemma. In what forum and under what rules should they be judged? Malcolm Rifkind is known to take a particularly strong line, especially in the context of Northern Ireland, on the need for soldiers not to be seen as above the law. And on the referral of the Bramley allegations to the police there was no disagreement with his officials: this was a matter for the CPS, and, so, the police.

Mr Rifkind himself is understood to be agnostic about whether the allegations are true. But he recognises that even if they were put in to spice up the book and sell more copies - a suggestion which Mr Bramley denies - that does not itself make them untrue.

HOWEVER, this is not a 'normal' murder inquiry; it will at least have to consider the question of the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. The British Army still regards the battle of Mount Longdon as a classic example of the horror of combat and the fog of war. Indeed, almost every land engagement in the Falklands war is regarded by military analysts as a test of stamina, courage and endurance not experienced by British soldiers since the first world war.

By every yardstick of the handbook of battle - numbers of men, quality of equipment, length of supply lines, intelligence, element of surprise - the British should have been defeated in the South Atlantic. That they were not remains a testimony to the tenacity of the British fighting man, and his ability to harness violence - with all the risks and rewards that implies. Beyond the clear limits of the criminal law, who, and by what criteria, is to judge the degree to which that violence was exercised?

In any inquiry, criminal or civil, the views of Argentines could prove vital. Last week, the Argentine Army Chief of Staff, Lt-Gen Martin Balza, who commanded an artillery unit in the Falklands and was held prisoner for five weeks, said he knew of no evidence to support Mr Bramley's report of executions; he said he had been treated as a PoW in line with the Geneva Convention.

Soldier after soldier, from conscripts to generals, have steadily maintained that they saw no evidence of British soldiers executing prisoners. Young men who served as conscripts, including on Mount Longdon, generally speak highly of their enemy's professionalism.

Would they have any reason to lie? Probably not, but observers of the Latin American scene point out that to understand the Argentine view of the war, it is vital to remember one fact - they lost. As a result, the argument goes, the whole episode is something most people prefer to forget.

Experienced diplomats in Argentina believe renewed publicity over the Falklands is not in the present government's interests. Buenos Aires has striven to restore warmish relations with Britain, not least in the hope of regaining sovereignty over the Falklands in the longer term. It is supected that any drive for action would come from the press.

By the end of last week, this was beginning to happen. Newspapers, notably the hard-hitting Pagina 12, were beginning to get its teeth into the story. There was a distinct feeling in Buenos Aires that years of silence may soon be broken.

Horacio Benitez, a 20-year-old Argentine conscript who was shot in the head while fighting against both 3 and 2 Para in the final mountain battles on Mount Longdon and Wireless Ridge, retained a cooler eye on events. 'I've read Mr Bramley's book,' he told the Independent on Sunday. 'But I think there's a misinterpretation here.

'At that time, no-one was taking prisoners. The battles themselves, on Longdon and Wireless Ridge, were a matanza (mass killing). We never thought there was any question of taking prisoners, either by them or by us. During such a battle, there is no place for prisoners.'

BRITISH soldiers who served in the Falklands have greeted the allegations of war crimes with a mixture of disgust and resignation. One officer who fought at Goose Green recalled that 'H' Jones had specifically pointed out that all Argentine PoWs were to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and warned his men that anyone who maltreated a prisoner would be prosecuted.

Some officers of 3 Para talked last week of resigning their commissions in protest at the police investigation. Others were adamant that it should be rigorously followed through but were saddened by the public credence given to what one man described as a 'stream of consciousness' series of unsubstantiated complaints.

A senior military figure who saw most of the Falklands war and the Paras' performance at close hand, summed up his feelings thus: 'The great majority of this material is someone's wild imaginings. 'Isolated incident' is a phrase I can live with. The rest is fantasy.'

Additional reporting: Christopher Bellamy, David Connett, Phil Davison, Donald Macintyre, Andrew Marshall, and Sean Rayment

(Photograph omitted)