'It gets worse as you get older': Falklands survivors reveal how they deal with the memories

Thirty years have passed since a small group of islands in the south Atlantic became headline news but for those who were there, memories of the Falklands war will never fade.

Terri Judd
Sunday 25 March 2012 02:00

On a bleak, misty spring morning in Staffordshire, two stonemasons work silently on the country's newest war memorial – the serenity of the scene in marked contrast to the pounding artillery and searing screams of the battlefields they are commemorating.

Nearby, Margaret Allen watches pensively through the tall window of the simple chapel at the National Memorial Arboretum, her cheeks wet from tears. Though now a middle-aged woman, devoted to two teenage children, part of her remains stuck on the day in early March 1982 when she said goodbye to Able Seaman Iain Boldy. They had been married just two weeks.

On 2 April, in that same chapel, a candle will be lit to mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War. And it will burn for the 74 days of the conflict.

As April began in 1982, few in the UK had heard of the Falkland Islands – an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean where the penguins vastly outnumber the 3,000 residents – when news broke that Argentinian forces had invaded the islands and nearby South Georgia.

Dwarfed by the drawn-out conflicts Britain has endured over the past decade, the Falklands War is often held up as a brief, righteous defence of a tiny British Overseas Territory. Victory, however, came at a cost. In two months, almost 1,000 lost their lives, double that number were wounded and countless more were traumatised either by grief or survivors' guilt. "For most of the veterans," says Reverend David Cooper, now 67, who tended the wounded and buried the dead as padre of the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, "very few days pass when they don't think of the Falklands. Every day is a bit of an anniversary."

Despite the passing of time, the emotions of those touched by the bloody brutality of the conflict still bubble dangerously close to the surface. It is perhaps one reason why the South Atlantic Medal Association, which represents the 255 British soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen who perished alongside three Falkland Islanders, is seeing a surge in membership.

The new memorial, admits the association's chairman, Mike Bowles, has been a long time coming, but the group has had to struggle without Government help for six years to raise the £62,000 needed. Made of Cotswold stone to replicate the texture of the Blue Beach British military cemetery at San Carlos in the Falklands, the curved wall with its plaque commemorating "Those who gave their lives and those who have no grave but the sea" will face a 3ft boulder brought from the islands. "You can tell when [visitors] are veterans. They just stand there," explains Patrick Mogur as he works on the finishing touches. "I have had guys in tears here. It is too much for some of them."

For Margaret Allen, who has recently battled through post-traumatic stress herself, the unveiling of the memorial in May will be the first time she faces those who were with her late husband when he died. "It is going to be quite hard. I am terrified but I want to see that they are OK. These days I have a bit more determination than fear. What is the worst that can happen? I could weep for England – and I do that anyway," she says.

Just as the conflict was starting to fade from the national consciousness, it has re-emerged in the news, as a stick with which former defence chiefs have beaten the k Government over swingeing cuts. Only a few weeks ago, Major General Julian Thompson, who led 3 Commando Brigade at the time, joined other military luminaries to claim cutbacks would make defending the islands impossible; it would be a "betrayal", he added, if they were taken again because of the "blood and sacrifice".

Providing a background beat to these warnings has been Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, sabre-rattling over the country's continued claim to "Las Malvinas". Her assertions have been met with angry retorts from the UK Government, which insists that the Argentinian claim is historically inaccurate and that the Falklands will stay British as long as the islanders want it that way. While denying Argentinian accusations that the UK has increased militarisation of the islands – including the apparently inflammatory appearance of one young RAF officer, Prince William – the military says it has firepower to defend the territory.

"It would be dreadful if it happened again. It would be such a waste of what we did 30 years ago," says Bowles, a major in the Royal Corps of Transport at the time. "While the president is certainly playing the Malvinas card, and that will always bring her popularity, she says she wants a non-military solution. So I hope it is just rhetoric. While everybody would like to see more substantial [British] forces down there, we have enough to provide a deterrent until reinforcements arrive, as long as the airfield is safe."

Ironically, the political trading of insults comes at a time when British veterans are reaching out to their Argentinian counterparts and have even mooted the idea of inviting them over to attend the memorial unveiling.

"They were the only ones who knew what it was like, who saw the suffering," explains Reverend Cooper. "Only the enemy knew what it was like. The soldiers weren't jingoistic. When The Sun printed that unforgivable headline ["Gotcha" – when the General Belgrano was sunk with the loss of 323 lives], one of my soldiers said to me, 'Don't they know people are dying?'"

After a meeting earlier this year with the British naval aircraft gunner who shot him down, Mariano Velasco – then a 33-year-old flight lieutenant who survived after ejecting from his Skyhawk fighter jet – said recently: "Good soldiers should be able to forgive each other, and afterwards why can't they be friends?"

"I would really like to meet the pilot who dropped the bombs [on HMS Argonaut, the ship on which her husband served] to see if he is all right," says Margaret Allen. "It was just his job. He was given his orders, as Iain was given orders. I think [meeting him] would be a wonderfully healing experience. When I hear the news, I feel anxious. I am just praying that it doesn't happen. It is distressing to think people on both sides would suffer again. Why would we want to go through that again – more lives and more pain?"

The padre's story

Reverend David Cooper, 67, lost count of the number of men he comforted or buried in the Falklands. A crack shot and trained sniper, he was padre of the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and was with them in every battle.

"As years pass, more and more people contact me to ask, 'May I come and talk to you?' As people get older, they do seem to weep more; it is almost an uncontrolled reaction. I think most of us have wept at one time, if only sometimes out of sheer frustration. We all have our private feelings and that isolation from others.

"I was at most [of the major] battles – Goose Green, Wireless Ridge – I did tend to get about a bit. One can fear that one could have done better, but for me the moment that made me most angry, most frustrated, was at Goose Green. The Argentinian prisoners of war were in a sheep-shearing shed near an Argentinian artillery position with ammunition and odd-looking ordnance. They asked if it could be moved, as it was close to the shed and if the Argentinian air force attacked, they would be vulnerable. We didn't have the manpower but said if they wished to volunteer, they would be paid the going rate under the Geneva Convention. An RAF ATO [bomb-disposal officer] inspected it and said it was safe.

"It was while they were working that it exploded. It had been booby-trapped. One man was caught in the fire, screaming. We couldn't get to him. I helped pull another out of the fire. He was pretty much limbless, one arm left but still alive. His legs were just splinters. He died subsequently. This man had surrendered and his fate was our concern and we failed to keep him safe. I could talk of friends I lost, but that was a low point.

"I think we would all do it again in the circumstances. There was a genuine belief that the enemy had invaded. You can't conduct international diplomacy in that way. I hope it doesn't come to it again, that it goes no further than sabre-rattling. I'm not a pacifist but violence should be the last resort. I had serious reservations about the invasion of Iraq. Not only was it immoral, it was illegal.

"When we came back from the Falklands I visited all the families of our dead. It was very hard – but also extraordinary. I got more from them than I gave them. I felt very small when I saw their fortitude and dignity.

"I wish people would give as much for peace as they would for war. People will give their lives for war. What would they give for peace?"

The officer's story

Malcolm Hunt retired from the Royal Marines as a major general but nothing in a distinguished career affected him as much as a brief period in 1982 when, as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded 40 Commando in the Falklands

"After the surrender in [Port] Stanley [on East Falkland], Jeremy Moore [commander of the land forces during the Falklands War] got hold of me on the blower and said he wanted me to take the surrender on West Falkland,where they did not know it was finished. We went [in boats] into Falkland Sound [the strait running between the islands] and it was blowing a gale so we had to go back to Port San Carlos [on the East]. I asked to fly to Port Howard [on the West] in a helicopter and spoke to the Argentinian colonel there by phone. I didn't want to upset him unduly. I didn't want to say we wanted to take his surrender, so I told him we were coming over to supervise their removal from the islands. He said, 'Fine, what time will you be arriving? We will be on the football pitch and put [landing] smoke down for you.' We got there and negotiated surrender terms and off they went.

"Then we started to clear the beach where we would have landed [in the boats]. There were two 40-gallon oil drums with explosives connected to 135 anti-tank mines. I don't know how many of us would have survived. The awful weather saved our lives.

"I felt at the time and still feel that no other country could have done it, mounted [the operation] from 8,000 miles away. That has always been a source of pride.

"I personally believe the Argentinian claim is false. For all her pontificating, the president said she wouldn't go to war. They want the islands back but I don't think they will do anything. Trying to take them by surprise, with modern intelligence as it is, would be difficult.

"The war changed many of our lives. Recently I had to present the Elizabeth Cross [a new award for families of the dead] to the daughter of a marine who was killed. She was not even born at the time: he had left a pregnant fiancée behind. I remember going to his funeral and 30 years on I was giving the Elizabeth Cross to his daughter. It was very moving; her father was her hero.

"Another marine, his pal, was there. He was hardly in any fighting but after the war, he suddenly had an enormous feeling of guilt that he had survived and his pal hadn't. He suffered from combat stress, lost his job and marriage and he broke down. The South Atlantic Medal Association was able to provide a blanket and he was there for the presentation of the Elizabeth Cross with his new fiancée. It was so poignant."

The islander's story

Lisa Watson was just 12 years old when the Argentinians invaded, and watched the conflict through the eyes of a schoolgirl. Today she is the mother of one son and the editor of the weekly Falkland newspaper 'Penguin News'

"From a young age I heard my father comment: 'It's not a matter of if Argentina invades, it's a matter of when.' As such, the spectre of armed conflict hung over my life from almost as soon as I could speak until 2 April 1982, when my grandmother woke me at 6am and suggested, 'Come downstairs dear, the shooting's started.'

"I was staying with my grandmother, as my parents owned a farm some distance away. Happily, she was a brave woman, and as we watched shells flying overhead and listened to the zing of small arms past the house, she comforted me, saying: 'It's a bit like fireworks, isn't it?'

"Things didn't get any quieter once I was transported to my parents' farm. Early on we were hounded by troops leaping from helicopters, kicking open our door and searching the house. Later it ceased, but around 100 Argentinian conscripts camped nearby and frequently called at the house, begging for food or asking, suspiciously hopefully, 'Are the British troops close yet?'

"Our first encounter with British soldiers was late at night when a knock at the door startled us; we had no hint of their arrival – our windows were blacked out at night, at the orders of the Argentinian authorities. With the widest grin I have ever seen on my father's face he welcomed in the men of the Special Boat Service.

"Less than two years ago, we were again able to welcome one of those men to the farm, when he visited to commemorate the loss of a comrade. The gratitude felt in 1982 has not diminished. The veterans make frequent visits and each is treated like an old friend.

"The Falklands has developed since those days. The economy is healthy as a result of the sale of fishing licences to foreign companies, and as such the islands are financially self-supporting in all but defence.

"Argentina remains a constant thorn with its frequent attempts to undermine the economy and lobby for talks on sovereignty, but we quietly work around it.

"Motivation among islanders to make the Falklands the best it can be is high, the determined hope being that visiting veterans and the families of those who lost loved ones will leave feeling that, in some small way, it just may have been worth it."

The widow's story

Three decades on, Margaret Allen, 54, still weeps as she describes the day she said goodbye to her husband of just two weeks. Able Seaman Iain Boldy, 20, was killed in an air attack on 'HMS Argonaut' on 21 May 1982

"It has never gone away. The different conflicts and wars we are engaged in keep it active in my memory.

"Iain and I had been married two weeks. Before he went away he said he wanted to go to a church when it was quiet. We sat in there. We were so happy. We couldn't be next to each other without holding hands. He stopped and turned to me and I said, 'Please don't.' I knew what he was going to say. He said, 'I am going to die.' And I said, 'If you die, I will kill you.' Then we had a laugh; we were always laughing. I loved him more than anything in the whole world, nothing can change that.

"I took him to the station. He was blowing kisses through the window. That was the last I saw of him.

"On 21 May I found out when I was watching television that five ships had been hit. I was at his grandma's house with his mum. I said something had happened to Iain. His mum said, 'No, no,' but I could feel it. I sat on the stairs and phoned the number in Plymouth. It took hours to get through. It was terrible. As soon as I got through they just said that next of kin would be informed. I went back to what we used to call our happy home.

"I had been home literally about 10 minutes when the bell rang and there was a Catholic priest I had never seen in my life. He said Iain was missing, presumed dead. I thought, 'That's all right; that means there is a chance.' I started to make up stories in my mind.

"Four days later, the same priest came back to say they had recovered his body. By that time they had already buried him at sea. It was dreadful. First he was missing, then he was dead but buried at sea. It takes everything away that is essential for you to process events, start to come to terms with it.

"Three months later I got home and his kitbag was on my front doorstep. I bumped into it in the dark. I don't blame anyone, but I suddenly thought he was home.I can still feel that kitbag.

"Ten years later, during the Gulf War, I was watching TV as an Iraqi soldier was surrendering. I thought, 'When are we going to learn?' I was crying and my little boy, who was three, said, 'Mummy, why are you always crying?' I knew then I had two choices. I had to either leave my two beautiful children or get some help. I couldn't inflict this on them any longer.

"I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I now volunteer at Combat Stress and as an education team member at the National Memorial Arboretum. We have done a lot since, but we have not spent enough time and money supporting those in the military community with mental-health issues. The biggest problem we have is lack of awareness of what families go through."

The Argentinian's story

A champion of the rights of Argentinian veterans, Juan Carlos Ianuzzo was a 35-year-old naval captain when he received his orders to 'reclaim' the Falklands. Today he is secretary of the Association of Malvinas Veterans

"I vividly remember the moment I realised we were finally going to reclaim the Malvinas from the English. It was 1982 and I had been a professional in the navy for 11 years. I had a wife and two small children and we were informed we were leaving only the day before we set sail. When I called my wife to tell her I was leaving, I said what I still believe to be true: that we were going on a glorious mission to take back what is rightfully ours. At that time I never thought it would end in war.

"The Malvinas are as Argentinian as the tango. It is in our national constitution that it is the obligation of every citizen to fight for their return and since I was a child we were taught that the islands were stolen from us, but that one day we would get them back.

"When the war began I remember thinking that I was prepared to lay down my life for my country even if it meant never seeing my family again.

"Even though it was 30 years ago I remember the night we recovered the islands as if it were yesterday. Ahead of us we had sent in tactical divers, who were tasked with attacking the British Marine detachment, but no one was there. We took the airport and then the governor's house. After that the memories get pretty ugly. The important thing is to remember the courage with which our soldiers fought on the islands. It was a bitter sadness when we had to surrender.

"Afterwards was a difficult time for Argentina. The military government was finished and although most Argentinians thought the war was justified at first, they didn't want to acknowledge or help the veterans who became known for having mental-health problems. Many committed suicide. Soldiers from both sides suffered before and after the war. Since I left the navy I have dedicated myself to my work at the Association of Malvinas Veterans. Here we spent years fighting for the rights of veterans and finally, in 2005, the government gave a state pension to all those who served in the war.

"Nationalism now is dead. Some young people don't even know where the islands are! But the fight isn't over: we are still battling for the Malvinas to be returned to us and we will never give up." Interview by Annie Kelly

The teenager's story

Too young to serve in Northern Ireland, Mark Eyles-Thomas, Ian Scrivens, Jason Burt and Neil Grose were among a host of 17-year-olds dispatched to the Falklands. The friends from 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, fought together at the Battle of Mount Longdon on Private Grose's 18th birthday. Only Eyles-Thomas survived

"We were told to take our positions, fix bayonets and run forward. Jase was immediately to my right. He was shot in the head and killed. During the fire-fight, Grose also got hit. I ran to him but Ian Scrivens was already there. While dealing with Neil, Ian was shot by a sniper and fell over Neil. Neil died later from his wounds.

"I haven't had nightmares for ages. I thought I had come to terms with it. But suddenly an anniversary is a great big reminder. As soldiers you're meant to be tough, but the depression just takes over – you can't help it.

"I will be in Aldershot [the former home of the parachute regiment] for the anniversary. The three of them are buried together among 18 men. I shall go and see them, talk about my life, bring them up to date, tell them if I have been in contact with their families.

"It gets worse as you get older. It is tough when you are young, helping families through the difficult times, survivors' guilt. But as you age, you get more emotional.

"I read the newspapers about Afghanistan. These deaths are horrendous. I totally sympathise with the families. I know what they are going through. It's not just for a few weeks, it changes your life.

"Without sounding corny, they don't grow old. When you are remembering them, they still have that boy's smile on their face. They haven't had to deal with bills, mortgages, marriage and work. But then they haven't known the joy of having a family, children of their own.

"But they leave a great legacy. The public is aware of their story, generations will visit their grave. Their legacy will live on, whereas veterans who survived, when we pass away, we will just be in a private grave. People won't know our story. But we have survived, had a life and that is enough to ask. The limelight should shine on those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

"I would not wish Britain ever to be complacent about the Falkland Islands. If they want to remain British, we should be doing everything in our power to help them. We must not think of it as a place 8,000 miles away but part of Britain, just like a London borough."

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