Monday, 7 May 2012

The Falklands War - Invasion and Occupation - The Story of a Stanley Resident

Invasion and Occupation - The Story of a Stanley Resident

By David Colville

We always feared the Argentines would invade the Falkland Islands, a fear that was however pushed to the recesses of the mind. We were used to our moaning 'neighbours'.

The only way in to the Falklands by air was by courtesy of the Argentine air force and their suspect Fokkers. The food supply boat used to sail from Buenos Aires every three months or so. If the Argentines were mentioned at all, it was in the tone of "Bloody Argies". They were over there. We were here.

Everyone in the Islands was used to the Junta’s posturing. Sovereignty was top of the agenda at Anglo-Argentine negotiations. It always led to stalemate, and was seen by all and sundry as a complete waste of time.

We were all overfed with large helpings of Buenos Aires bluster. Anyway, Britain had always said they’d leave the choice up to the Falkland Islanders. If the Kelpers wanted to stay British, then so be it.

Highlight of the times was when the late Nick Ridley MP travelled the 8,000 miles to the South Atlantic to tell us a great plan for us all would be the "leaseback" option. This meant the Argentines would be granted sovereignty, while the Falklands would keep its identity. Sure. We all believed that. Weren’t the Falkland supposed to be the 24th province of Argentina?

Even the Anglican bishop for South America came down to extol the virtues of the leaseback plan. Needless to say, this idea was given short shrift.

One of my friends was the chief of police in Port Stanley. He was also a member of the Legislative Council and attended an Anglo-Argentine meeting in March, 1982. He told me, in confidence, that the Argentines had made no bones about the fact they would invade if sovereignty was not granted to them.

No-one on the British side had seemed to take this threat seriously, even though this was the first time the Argentine politicos had threatened invasion. Another helping of Buenos Aires bluster? Not this time.....

Life carried on. The favourite music of the Kelpers was country and western. Endless twangy songs about the desire to commit suicide because "my gal done gone and left me". Granted, the radio station did play pop and endlessly aired Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon until some person, who will remain unidentified, scratched the only copy so it was unplayable.

Well, it was up to a few of us to re-educate them by playing some great live music.

In my time out there I was in three bands: Candlepower, Agatha Crusty and the Che Coat Band. The Che Coat Band was so named because of the favourite coat worn by nearly all the population — the ubiquitous snorkel parka. A necessity when battling against the seemingly-constant daily 14-knot winds that rattled the tin roofs.

When greeting someone, we used to say "Mornin' che" (pronounced "chay", as in Che Guevara). So, everyone was a che and wore a che coat — hence the name. Get it? Well, we thought it was quite good.

As a vocalist and bass guitarist, there was nothing I liked more than belting out Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zep and Steppenwolf songs. We used to pull in a fair crowd at live gigs in the town hall, and even made a tape which sold about five copies. We weren’t bad. Remnants of the groups are still playing there as the Fighting Pig Band...

I had just got new digs in the Church Flats. This was a two-storey block next to the school. My mate Peter King lived there with his bird, Rosemary. A teacher lived below them and a FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service) pilot lived below me. It was a good place to hang your hat. It was next to the Cathedral with a good view of the Whalebone Arch.

I had finished work and was going to Peter’s flat before going on to the town hall for a group rehearsal. Peter, a government officer, came back from his work in the Secretariat and sombrely said we all had to listen to the radio at 6pm because the Governor was making an important announcement. We couldn’t drag the reason from Peter, although we knew that he knew.

The clock slowly edged towards the allotted time for Governor Rex Hunt to speak. I thought it would just be some government bull we were in for. After all, Hunt never spoke to the peasantry much if he could help it.

The radio crackled into life: "This is the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Station etc". Then Rex came on. We sat in stunned silence after the broadcast. He’d told us that the Argentine invasion force had set sail for the Falklands. It would be off Cape Pembroke lighthouse at 4am

We were to stay indoors. The only people allowed on the streets of Stanley were the small band of volunteers who made up the Falkland Islands Defence Force, and, of course, the detachment of Royal Marines who were stationed at Moody Brook barracks at the far end of town.

The announcement by the governor had just ended life as we knew it.....

April 2, 1982 was about to dawn. No-one had managed to get any sleep since the announcement that the Argentine invasion fleet was on its way.

Endless cups of coffee and tea. Inane chat. We even made up spur-of-the-moment 'anti-Dago' songs and recorded them. Highly embarrassing in hindsight 18 years on — but then we simply didn't know what else to do.

We cheered ourselves a bit by telling each other that SAS soldiers had already been secretly landed at strategic points. However, this was tempered a bit by earlier reports that shadowy figures had been spotted around the bleak Pony's Pass. These could have been the crack Argentine Special Boat Squadron. A sort of SAS with flippers — and bloody lethal weapons. All we could do was sit tight and wait.

I used to broadcast an hourly 'Record Round-up' slot on the airwaves, plus read the weekly news round-up called Newsletter. Luckily it hadn't been my slot the night before else I would have been stuck in the studio. Director of Broadcasting Patrick Watts was in the chair, doing a sterling job, keeping us informed of events. The radio was on constantly, in every home, from Stanley to Fox Bay, from Goose Green to Port Howard.

It was still dark. Outside, the men of the Falkland Islands Defence Force doubled by. Glad I wasn't in that outfit. On the radio, people were ringing in to Pat Watts telling him about noises they'd heard. Just jumpy? Or were the Argies nearer than we thought? Then one woman rang the studio to say she'd heard firing from the vicinity of the airport.

Upstairs in Church Flats, Peter King, a hobbyist snapper, had a darkroom. Luckily, it had a little window in it. Granted, you couldn't see much from it as the Cathedral spire and roof were in the way, but you could see towards the airport. Peter and I thought we'd have a look. Sure enough, we could hear firing, and it seemed to be coming closer. Hang on a minute, surely street warfare wasn't on the agenda? Most of the houses were wooden. Bullets would zip straight through them. Then I almost evacuated my supper as a line of bullets bounced off the Cathedral roof right by us. We hastily closed the window and ran downstairs.

From the front window we could see an awe-inspiring stream of tracer shells arcing from somewhere in the harbour. Shouting, screaming and the sound of machine gun fire permeated the crisp air. The Royal Marines were having a hell of a battle at Government House.

The radio once again crackled into life. Argentines had manned the studio and waved their guns under Patrick Watts's nose. Suddenly, edicts were being read by the Argentines: 'We want no bloodshed' etc. Too late.

The time flew by. As suddenly as it began it was all over. The marines and FIDF volunteers had been rounded up. The governor had surrendered and later was deported with his family. Huge Argentine navy vessels anchored triumphantly in the harbour, busy unloading men and seemingly-endless supplies of dust-coloured Mercedes Benz military vehicles.

General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, age 56, had become the hero of Argentina. His men had recaptured the nation's birthright - the Islas Malvinas.

It was April 3 1982. Masses of Argentine soldiers and tons of military equipment were now on the streets of Port Stanley. The roads hadn't seen so much traffic. Many more troops were based around the outlying settlements.

The Cable & Wireless office was still open, so we hurriedly sent as many telegrams to as many people as possible. I sent one to my mum telling her about the invasion. She then contacted the MoD to tell them we'd been invaded, but was told in no uncertain terms 'not to be so silly'.

I even received a phone call from the then editor of the Daily Star - Lloyd Turner, if my memory serves me right. Being in the islands since 1975, I didn't know that the Daily Star was a newspaper. I assumed it was the Morning Star and was a bit wary of talking to a bunch of commies. However, after being assured the Daily Star was a stable mate of the good old Express, I chatted away and gave as much low-down on the situation as I could. Oh yes, where's the cheque Lloyd? 18 years plus interest.........??

One day I was interrogated by an Argentine officer. He was Canadian, with Argentine grandparents, and thus spoke perfect English. What knocked me to the floor was that he had amazingly detailed dossiers on nearly everyone, including myself. He knew where my dad worked, where he and my mum were born, what schools I went to - everything. Pointless info. really, but where did he get it from?

The flat I lived in overlooked the school. The Argentines had turned the playground into a compound. I used to watch as soldiers would come in to get their meagre ration of soup with a few spuds in it. I also used to watch, spellbound, as erring soldiers were put through punishments of wriggling across the ground like snakes, on their bellies, arms either side, with the odd swift kick up the khyber from an irate NCO. They noticed me watching one day when they had no food. They were angry, pointed their guns up at me, and waited while an officer came and told me I had to keep the curtains closed 24 hours a day from now on; though not before I saw three corpses being slid into large plastic wrappings, not the sophisticated 'body bags' used today.

Everywhere we went we had to 'wave something white' when encountering the military. Luckily, I had a handkerchief that had come up semi-grey courtesy of 'Square deal Surf', so I was okay.

It was time for me to broadcast a record round-up. It was almost 8pm, cold and dark, as I made my way up to the studio. After numerous hanky-waving rituals, made even more of a pain in the backside as I was lugging 12 or so slippery LPs under my arm, I was stopped by a group of soldiers who insisted they 'check' my LPs. One made them burst out laughing. It was Queen's first LP, simply called Queen. One pointed to a picture of the then long-haired Roger Taylor and said 'Maricon' (poof) and tossed the album into the grass. They let me retrieve it and I broadcast my programme. I even managed to make the quip 'Record round-up makes the day go (Dago) quicker'.......hmmmmmm.....well, I thought it was good at the time.

Gradually, I (as did nearly the whole population) ceased work. After a couple of rushed editions of the Times, the military used my office as their second-in-command HQ. Everything I had there was smashed, torn - completely destroyed by them. We were even told to bury components of our CB radios two miles apart! I don't think anybody did.

Myself and Peter King busied ourselves painting giant red crosses on the roof of the nurses' home so it wouldn't get flattened in the event of an air attack. Band rehearsals were over, the Town Hall was being used as a barracks. The Post Office was turned into a giant latrine. Soldiers even defecated in the drawers of the Postmaster's desk. Argentine pesos were replacing Falkland Islands pounds. Even our stamps were over-franked with an Islas Malvinas postcode.

At first, we didn't bother talking to the soldiers, but as the days went by people spoke to the many who could speak English. A lot I spoke to were actually amazed we could speak English. The younger conscripts had been told they were going to fight their bitter enemies, the Chileans. Another trio of 'semi-schoolboys' manning a machine gun nest outside Church Flats told me they had no choice but to join the Argentine army. Leave college and have no job or join up. This fuelled the rife speculation that Argentina had invaded partly to steer the nation's anger away from the junta's miserable handling of the plummeting economy. I didn't hate the conscript soldiers. I genuinely felt sorry for them. The regulars were another matter. Hard-bitten, resolute - an attitude that made the whole situation all the more surreal. They were an unknown quantity. Argentina had never been to war before but were itching for a fight. Just ask the idiot who let the Task Force ships anchor in San Carlos.

The knowledge the Task Force was on its way cheered the mood considerably. Then one day, three weeks after the invasion, I was told I was being booted out. I had a few hours to pack a small holdall. The Canadian officer saw me again and told me I had been noted as printing 'anti-Argentine propaganda' over the years and they said I should go. Did I want to go? You bet. It was a sort of 'easy-tough' decision. I would be sad at leaving my many friends behind, but also glad to be given the chance to get out in one piece.

Some of my Falkland friends came with me to the airport. Rosemary Allen gave me a ginormous bar of Cadbury's for the journey. The Argentines would only let me draw £20 from my account, but I reckoned I wouldn't need much cash anyway. I didn't care. I was on my way home. Simple - or was it?

The only way into the Falkland Islands via plane was by courtesy of the Argentine air force. Its Fokker F27 turbo prop planes, later, the Fokker F28 jets, were always seen as the biggest plane the airstrip could handle. Yet here I was, ready to leave, and a bloody big airliner was on the runway. How the hell could that thing take off in the relatively short distance the Stanley Tarmac was laid?

The answer was simple. On board, apart from the cockpit of course, were just three seats. The rest of the aeroplane was stripped bare - an amazing sight. Like standing inside a cigar tube. The figures 727 were moulded into the plastic window blind by my seat. The Argentine military policeman accompanying me said that it was stripped bare for two reasons. The first was so that they could cram as many troops into the plane as possible. The second was that it was so lightened by the removal of unnecessary trimmings (like seats and liferaft/jackets!) that it was able to take off from a short airstrip. We were ready to go. I looked down and wished I had worn my brown trousers. Too late now.

The emotions welled as the jets fired. There goes seven years of my life down the drain. I could see the faces of those who had been allowed to come and see me off by the perimeter fence. Then we were airborne. The take-off was like a rocket's, almost, with the nose straight up. They were far from stupid these Argentines. Their military pilots were highly-skilled.

The treeless, wind-raked, water-splattered green and browns of the Falklands terrain gave way to open sea. The time passed in a dream. I was dying of thirst but you don't see trolley dollies on a military plane. The plane dropped sharply and the Argentine coast was to my left. Christ, we were low. Time to grip the seat again. The sea was rough but the sun was blazing. Funny, but the sun cheered me up a bit. That life-giving golden globe doesn't venture to the Falklands very often.

A couple of hours later and the approach to Comodoro Rivadavia was being made. This was where I had stayed for about four days on my way to the Falklands in 1975. It was a dry, dusty town fronted by the vast bay called the Golf St Gorge (St George Gulf), in southern Patagonia. I remember there were seemingly hundreds of those oil-producing 'nodding donkey' thingies that bob up and down. Now, the place was a hive of military activity. No gauchos or pampas grass here, pal. Just war preparations. I counted 30 Hercules aircraft neatly lined up, plus there were hundreds of troops lying or sitting about their gear. I was taken off the plane and into the airport. No checks or anything, I was escorted by the policeman and shoved into a little cell-type room. No window. And it was hot. After all, I wasn't given much time to pack so I was wearing three jackets - one of which was stolen by some git at Montevideo airport, but that's another story.

Naturally, in all that South American heat my giant bar of Cadbury's had melted into itself. Chocolate covered tin foil. Bin it. Six hours passed until they let me out. I managed to get a drink of water before I was ushered on to a civilian plane to Buenos Aires. I did a quick double take and recount on the parked Hercules. Inside the plane, packed with ordinary folk, were a few militia who walked up and down making sure all the window blinds were closed so no-one else could see the Hercules or troops as we took off. The flight was long, hot and uneventful. Welcome to Buenos Aires.

I was left there. The military cop told me I had to find my own way out of the country. I knew the British Embassy was closed because of the conflict. I didn't fancy trying to find my way through the vast city on a quest for the US or perhaps Swiss embassies. I still had the £20. Would that be enough to get me across the border to Uruguay?

I went to the desk where the flights to Uruguay departed. There were no flights for another six hours or so. In those days, all foreigners in Argentina had to carry a little white photo-ID card. They asked for mine. When I showed them, they shouted something like: 'He's from Malvinas'. I was quickly surrounded by people. One old woman punched me repeatedly in the back. An old man spat all over me. One woman, who could speak good English, was ranting on about how Thatcher was going to nuke Buenos Aires (a bloody good idea I thought) and how Britain had forced her son to go to war. I couldn't argue. They left me alone after a while. I'd had a good kicking. I felt pleased I hadn't cried although I desperately wanted to.

About an hour later, I was amazed to hear voices speaking with an English accent. I looked around and there was a business-type man and a woman jabbering away in what I was sure was a middle-English accent. I got talking to them and was amazed to find the chap was a Brian Deane who ran a business in Montevideo and had married a Uruguayan. Immediately he went to the desk, had a loud argument with the clerk and I was booked on the short hop. He and his wife were the epitome of kindness and sympathy. It was time for departure, but not before the clerk made one pointless gesture by throwing my passport down the floor. It seemed to skim for miles along the polished tiles. I had barely enough time to retrieve it before the runway bus pulled away.

Brian and his wife were met by his brothers-in-law at Montevideo. I was about to say goodbye but they insisted on dropping me off at the British Embassy. Even though it was 2am, the ambassador - a tall, slim, elegant woman - made me very welcome. The consul was summoned from his bed and found me a hotel. After countless form filling sessions and being asked stupid questions such as: 'Can your mother and father afford to pay the fare back to the Government?' (Of course they can, I lied), I was flown out from Montevideo to Gatwick on a British Caledonian plane.

I was taken through the bowels of Gatwick to a 'debriefing' room where some officials asked me to mark on a map of Stanley where gun emplacements etc. were. I was able to show them where the Argentines had laid strings of pram-type wheels along the shore with guttering between them so they looked like loads of anti-aircraft guns. I also showed them where the mines were alongside the airport road and told them of the Hercules transport planes at Comodoro Rivadavia. That was it. My parents had moved from Fareham to Southampton so it was there I headed. Now for my 15 minutes of fame. Andy Warhol was so right. I was interviewed by Southern TV's Khalid Aziz. Then I had another slot 'beamed direct' to News at Ten, and another round of interviews with BBC South. I even had a large share of column inches in Southampton's Daily Echo. As soon as it all began, it ended. The conflict was over. The media went on to the next crisis. A chapter of my life closed.

Now as I sit at my terminal at The News, Portsmouth, trying to motivate myself to write a half-decent headline on yet another Portchester parish hall nib, with the chief sub cacking his pants because I am three minutes past deadline, I sometimes realise how lucky I am to be here. Thankfully my name wasn't etched on a stray bullet as the Argentines took the Falklands.

David Colville lived in the Falkland Islands from 1975 to 1982, where he worked in the Public Works Department.  He also edited and produced a music newsheet 'Blue Suede Shoes' and the local newspaper 'Falkland Islands Times'.  Our thanks to David for allowing us to reprint this article.

1 comment:

  1. GRATEFUL THANKS for keeping this on your site.
    CANNOT believe THIRTY-FIVE years have almost passed.
    BEST WISHES TO YOU ALL (Shout! Yell!)
    Dave Colville
    The News, Portsmouth