Wednesday, 24 January 2007
`A Cloudpunchers Tale`
Falklands Islands above.
I joined the British Army at the age of 16 and enlisted into the Royal Artillery, I did 12 months training at the JLRRA (Junior leaders Regt Royal Artillery) and learnt my trade as a Gunner on the 25 Pounder Field gun used in WW2. I passed out in August 1979 and was posted to 12 Air Defence Regt RA in Dortmund, West Germany and learnt my new trade as an air defence gunner (Cloudpuncher) on Rapier missiles, little did I realise that I would be using these missiles in action during Operation Corporate, the liberation of the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982.
The initial warning was given at 10.45 hrs, Friday 2nd April 1982, two hours before we were officially on leave. Some other units had actually gone home and as soon as they got there they had to do an about turn and set of back. Everybody was totally hacked with life at first, with leave being cancelled, then once we had found out what the crack was, some Argentineans had invaded an island off the coast of Scotland. Well, the Falklands sounds like the Shetlands doesn’t it? We all got excited about the thought of going up there and giving them a good kicking.
Unbelievably, by 1800 hrs. on Saturday 3rd April 1982, we were ready to go and kick some Argie arses. It took us sixteen hours on a shagged out old army bus to get from Kirton to the docks in Plymouth. But we didn’t mind. We felt like heroes already as news had leaked out to the media by now. So, Joe Public had a good idea where we were going. All the motorists were beeping their horns and Union Jacks appeared from everywhere. It was a carnival atmosphere. We were all getting carried away by it. We will probably get to Plymouth and the Argies will shit themselves and sod off home for a corned beef buttie?
Eventually we loaded all our Rapier fire units and ourselves onto the Royal Fleet Auxiliary LSL (landing Ship Logistic) the Sir Geraint, this trusty tug would take us the 8,000 miles to the Falklands Islands and war. Being air defence gunners part of our training was recognising enemy aircraft that we had expected to be Soviet Block aircraft, floggers and fitters ect, now the aircraft we would be facing would normally be recognised as friendly, A4 Sky hawks, Mirage,Puccara after, Aeromachi MB 339`s.
We were now part of 3rd Commando Brigade and 79 Commando battery were on board with us, they referred to us as `Crap hats` because we never wore a green or red beret, we called them `Cabbage heads`, us crap hats learnt a great deal from the cabbage heads about surviving in artic conditions, how to build snow holes and how to look out for the symptoms and treatment of hypothermia, as well as how to drink more beer than us and sing louder.
The atmosphere seemed more relaxed as we entered more tropical waters after suffering extremely severe seasickness. Watching dolphins and flying fish playing in the clear blue ocean was new and interesting experience for us all.
After stopping off at Ascension Island and being at sea during the sinking of the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano with the sad loss of 350 sailors and then the loss of the British destroyer HMS Sheffield by an Exocet missile which was built in my home town of Barrow-in-Furness, I was in some ways glad to get to our destination of Port San Carlos and dry land.
My first glimpse of action on that sunny day of D Day was a Puccara strafing our ships before being shot down. This was followed by the loss of two helicopters shot down by enemy machine gun fire. One of the Gazelle helicopters crashed into the icy sea and the pilots were machine-gunned in the water. The second Gazelle was hit and exploded into the hillside with the loss of the crew.
At the end of the first day of the war, we had brought 3,000 men ashore, practically unopposed, as the enemy had expected us to land at Port Stanley the capital. After my detachment 32 Alpha we got into action ASP to give our troops digging in vital air defence cover. Our radios soon blared out Air Raid warning Red, eight bogies heading west through the sound.
The first warning of imminent attack was the enormous noise of all the ships anti aircraft guns opening up. Sitting at the tracker seat sweating even though it was freezing cold-through my bone dome (helmet) I got the alarm signal in my ears, a high pitched beeping noise and went through my drills that I had done a thousand times in peace time in Germany: ALARM NARROW TARGET TRACKING HOSTILE INCOVER. Out of the attacking seven or so enemy fighter jets I picked out one and lined my cross hairs up on the fuselage.
Bob my sergeant, ordered “ENGAGE“, and I pressed the fire button with my left hand index finger. There was a loud bang as the missile left the beam of the launcher only to go wildly out of control and explode into the ground. The second and third missiles were also `rouge` (faulty) as well. I acquired another target-a bright white Naval A4 Sky hawk and engaged. This missile gathered correctly and hit the Sky hawk head on, exploding it spectacularly in a huge ball of flame. At this precise moment you don’t think of the pilot sat at the controls, the aircraft is just a weapons platform and is trying to kill you and your mates. Several Royal Marines cheered and through their berets into the air in celebration.
In the days ahead I shot down a Mirage before our system developed a fault. If our Rapier had have been working we would surely have had even more kills.
On the night of June 7th 32 Alpha were tasked to travel with the Welsh Guards on board the ill fated troop ship Sir Galahad to a place called Bluff Cove. We were surprised to be tasked with this as we had reported to headquarters that we had a fault and were waiting for them to send a spare part. One of our sister detachments 31 Delta had volunteered to go in our place to no avail, this blunder by our senior officers was to result in the worst disaster of the whole war and would live with me forever.
Next morning ourselves and another LSL (Sir Tristram) weighed anchor . Having already seen the devastation caused by the skilful Argentinean pilots at San Carlos, I wasn’t too happy about bobbing around in broad daylight like two sitting ducks. After a very unnecessary delay due to the CO of the Welsh Guards arguing that he wasn’t getting off yet as this was not his destination, we finally started to get the men and ammunition ashore. We landed amongst the `Maroon machine` of 2 Para and got the Rapier up and running in record time, we were operational and looking for targets: we didn’t have long to wait.
“ALARM NARROW TARGET TRACKING HOSTILE IN COVER.”
Bob screamed “ENGAGE”
I pressed the fire button but nothing happened. I had to sit there and watch the Galahad explode like watching a movie, only it was real. It was the most sickening moment of my young life. The equipment was useless and I felt sure that we were all going to die. We were defenceless against enemy air attack. I jumped into a near by trench and waited to be incinerated by the enemy. By this time the casualties had started to come ashore, horrifically burnt, some with limbs missing, lying around us like charcoal dummies receiving medical attention. I felt so guilty that my missile hadn’t fired. The whole attack was over in seconds: 50 men dead and hundreds mutilated and burnt beyond believe. It was a scene from the bowls of hell.
But it wasn’t over. I could hear the horrible sound of jet engines again, that to this day make the hairs on my neck stand up. Ricky jumped into he seat and bravely went through his drills. We were all lying on our backs firing our rifles up at the Sky hawk, the Para’s were standing firing their GPMGS (General Purpose machine Guns). The Sky hawk was so low that you could clearly see the pilot inside, suddenly there was the sound of a loud bang as one of our missiles left the beam, streaking up towards the Sky hawk: it veered left and right and then, with a quick angled turn, hit its target, to our enormous relief. It crashed into the snow capped mountainside with a huge fireball .
It started to snow and then we wee told that a white flag was flying over Port Stanley: we had just fought our last major action of the war an survived. We were transported by Chinook helicopter into Stanley and I slept the sleep of the dead with the warmth of the chopper. Stanley had been trashed by the Argys and they had used the place as one big toilet. And guess who had to clean it? Not surprisingly we all came down with dysentery and had to be evacuated on board ship. Then finally after the Battery Sergeant Major told us “The holidays over gentlemen“, we flew home to RAF Waddington. Unbelievably, we had all survived the Falklands war.
Its 24 years since I fought as a 19 year old in the Falklands war and I remember it as if it were yesterday. I believe it will go down in history as the last great colonial war that Britain will ever fight. When the politicians run out of hot air, war is a continuation of politics through other means. I believe this war was just but I will take the psychological scars to my grave, we may have survived the war in body but not in mind. It saddens me deeply to know that more Falklands war veterans have now killed themselves than were killed in action.
The British Army do not shoot their psychological casualties anymore, but metaphorically speaking they have pulled the trigger on the many veterans who could no longer face another day of suffering and thought that having feelings like they have made them less of a man, especially if they were from elite units such as the Para’s and Royal Marines and even the Special Air Service, at the end of the day we are all human beings, its not the rifle that kills the enemy it’s the soldier pulling the trigger.
After coming home from the Falklands war I applied to be a mercenary I could not adjust to civilian life, I even joined the army again and volunteered for a tour of Northern Ireland. I was not the care free happy young Gunner who went, and neither were my mates, we had all dramatically changed, but we did not realise it. The MoD new we were all likely to suffer from PTSD because they were warned about it from the American involvement in Vietnam were 58 thousand serviceman were killed and more alarmingly it is estimated that up to 200 thousand Vietnam veterans may have committed suicide. This prompted the US government to set up the Veterans Administration to care for and process disability pensions.
I killed two Argentineans not with a bayonet but with Rapier missiles and I was dam glad when I did it as they were trying to kill me and my fellow soldiers, to me at the time they were not human beings but weapons of war as they were flying fast jets with enormous capability to destroy, it was only when I returned home did it start to sink in, the enormity of what I had been through and the fact that I had come close to death as a teenager.
I witnessed British soldiers mutilating corpses and blowing the bodies up with grenades and to my utter disgust I just laughed in about it all and thought it was one big joke. After seeing the Galahad troop ship destroyed as I was the Rapier missile operator tracking the enemy aircraft and the large loss of life, that I wrongly blamed myself for later on, I unknowingly became a casualty of war myself in the psychological sense, and instead of having a cup of tea I preceded to try to drink myself into oblivion. At no time were any Falklands veterans debriefed or told by the MOD that they may experience flash backs or disturbed sleep, they were just left to get on with it some with fatal consequences.
I left the Army in 1988 with according to the MoD a clean bill of health and an exemplary record and an undiagnosed and untreated condition of PTSD. It wasn’t till seven years later that a civilian doctor diagnosed me with PTSD, as it was not in the news every week then I had never heard of the condition and I disputed the fact as like many I though I was being told I was a coward of something. I lost my marriage my home my job and narrowly escaped prison, I was clinically depressed and considered suicide, my ex wife was pregnant with my boy who is now 12 years old and I think that is what stopped me.
I was sent for counselling and just clammed up and could not talk about my problems I found them to painful to recount, so my councillor told me to go away and write my thoughts and feelings down. The government with all it’s millions hold servicemen with PTSD in contempt and even some senior officers deny that the condition exists, as there is no set up like the VA in this country and you have to go through your local GP and he may or may not diagnose you with PTSD probably depression it covers a lot of maladies, I just hope I can help stop one serviceman or woman from taking their own lives, the human cost is incalculable as the stigma and family depression passes on to the next generations. My poetry is my own form of self counselling.
© Mack (RG) The thoughts of a Falklands War Veteran.