Serial Saturday: Down South In the Service of the Queen - Chapter The Third

By David Flin

In the previous episode, Our Hero travelled Down South to the Falkland Islands, and preparations were made to land the troops.

Chapter the Third. In which Our Hero lands, and discovers that the land was scarcely much drier than the sea. We discover the nature of the First Enemy.

Gentle Reader, you have borne with me the trials and tribulations and frustrations of the tedium of the journey southwards. Imagine, if you will, how much greater those frustrations were for us, eager to, in the words of our Lieutenant: “Get this nonsense over with so that we can get back home.” It is not to be thought that he did not understand the risks and dangers of the endeavour we were about to undertake; but it is the nature of such leaders to ensure that such fears did not occupy our thoughts.

Our ships slid silently (1) into San Carlos Bay, and a watcher on the nearby headland seeing us might have taken us to be Viking warriors on modern-day dragon-ships. Not that any watcher would be paying much attention to us, for we had sent some of our auxiliaries, from the SAS, ahead to keep these watchers occupied. If you are not familiar with the SAS, they are brave, fierce warriors although, in confidence Gentle Reader, I can tell you that while they are well-supplied with courage, they are not over-endowed in intelligence. (3). Nonetheless, we had every confidence that these auxiliaries would disperse any watchers on Fanning Head.

In due course, we made our way onto the land in San Carlos Bay, and made preparations to unload our equipment from the ships. The land, our new home for our stay here, was soft, a water-soaked bog that yielded to the foot as one walked. Every step was an effort, for one sank to ones ankles and beyond, sometimes to ones knee with every step. Brigadier Thompson (4) said in his book of the event “No Picnic”, the Marines bore such hardship without complaint. (5). He was not strictly accurate, but no matter. It was remarked that we would had been better off had we packed skis, which is not as silly as it sounds, because we were all trained in their use. (6).

It was not long before the Argentine air force discovered our presence, and soon afterwards, we discovered that they knew we were here. It was a nervous time for us, but if I’m honest (8), they didn’t bother us very much. Their main targets were the ships in the bay, and the Royal Navy ships formed a barrier protecting the other ships. Watching from our vantage point, it was like watching sheep dogs protecting a flock from wolves, who would flash by, seeking out an isolated target. The planes were forced to pass the warships in order to reach the merchant ships. Not being enamoured of the prospect of leaving their rears vulnerable to the weapons of the warships, they chose to attack the warships instead (9). The Harrier planes were present as well, on occasions, flying to challenge these unwanted interlopers, and jousting with them like so many latter-days knights in flying metal steeds.

We witnessed many occasions where an Argentine plane would be knocked from the sky, and many occasions where a warship received a body blow. Like the pugilists one sees, warships can shrug off several body blows, hurt but unbowed and ready to continue the contest.

On one occasion, an Argentine plane flew close to us, engine aflame, and we saw the pilot attempt to use his ejector seat, to judge from the flash within his cockpit. Unfortunately, his cockpit didn’t open, and the poor pilot failed to survive this. On another occasion, a plane was flying towards us, not far off the ground. Our Lieutenant quickly evaluated the situation, and instructed myself and Marine MacAdam to engage it with our “66”s (10), which we did with alacrity. We fired, and at least one of us must have hit, for part of the wing fell away, and the plane ceased to fly. We recovered the pilot, a young man still bemused by his recent experience, and we saw him escorted to the aid station near the beach. Marine Cledwyn escorted him, a Welshman who knew something about Patagonia.

However, on his return, Cledwyn was voluble in his insistence that there was a female nurse at the aid station. The strange visions that men sometimes get when they are in such adventures as this, and how we laughed at him. As though that most chivalrous of organisations, the Royal Navy, would permit a delicate lady to be present in and witness to such rough circumstances and masculine endeavour as we were engaged upon.

As a digression, I have to confess that the description of the 66 as a “light” weapon can only have been made by someone who has never had the pleasure of carrying it, and its description as “recoil-less” can only have been made by someone who never fired it. But hark to me. I have become as quick to grumble and complain as my comrades.

But, Gentle Reader, I have been remiss, and have neglected to mention that which was the second most popular topic of complaint among my comrades. That was the weather. (11). How can I describe the inclement nature of this? I can talk of the constant, never-ending rain, the snow flurries, the howling wind blowing straight off the Antarctic wastes, the lack of cover, the temperature, which never rose above bone-chilling, and frequently fell to what is technically called “Brass Monkeys”. That, combined with the nature of the boggy terrain, and the inferior nature of our boots (12), resulted in our never having dry socks. Those of you with experience in such matters will understand what this means, and those of you as yet innocent in this field cannot begin to understand.

But, after much waiting, the word finally came down. We were indeed to move, advance, and engage the enemy more closely. A conversation arose as our Lieutenant explained this.

“Sir,” I asked, “will we be wearing helmets rather than these berets?” We were proud of our green berets, and though Pride is one of the Seven Sins, we had earned this mark through much effort, and it is not Pride in ourselves, but Pride in the qualities represented by the beret. I am confident that St Peter at the gates of Heaven will forgive us our Pride in our berets, and if not, the Heaven will be a poor place indeed, with no Royal Marines inside. But, for all our Pride in them, the berets are not capable of turning a bullet.

“We will be wearing berets. Most of the fighting will be at night, and all the Marines and Paratroopers will be wearing berets. If, in the gloom and the dark, you see a person, you won’t be able to make out much about them. If they’re wearing a beret, they’re one of ours. If they’re wearing a helmet, they’re one of them, and you have my permission to unseam them from knave to chops. However, they don’t know this, so if they see a figure in the gloom, they can’t be sure if it is one of them or one of us. Mind you, if one of them does see you, I’ll have Sergeant Stone remind you of the concealment skills you should already know.”

And thus, Gentle Reader, you can understand why the photographic images of the actions that you may have seen show us wearing berets. I am certain it wasn’t a factor that had previously occurred to you.

And thus we departed San Carlos Bay, and made our way eastwards, to come to grips with the foe.

Chapter the Fourth will see Our Hero discover that walking across the Falklands is not as glamorous as might be thought, we learn of Sports Pages, and he arrives at Mount Kent.

1. As silently as billions (2) of large turbines and engines will permit. 2. Maybe I exaggerate. Not that I would ever exaggerate in a million years. 3. As we shall see at Mount Kent. 4. Brigadier Julian Thompson, command of 3 Commando Brigade. Basically in charge of everything on the ground. 5. He did indeed say that. I’m here to say that he lied. I can’t speak for all Marines, but I do know that No 2 Troop, K Company, 42 Company yomplained (a mixture of yomping and complaining) every bloody steep from San Carlos to Mount Harriet. I can wax lyrical about their grumbling, which covered every conceivable subject. They even complained about having to walk uphill, and somehow blamed Prince Charles for this, despite my pointing out that since we had landed at sea level, unless we turned into submarines, we had to go uphill. 6. All qualified in Mountain and Arctic Warfare. It is strange to note that all my training in this was only ever of use on a 2-year deployment to Nepal (7), which is about as far from the sea as it is possible to get, and the Falklands, which is about as far from the Arctic as it is possible to get. 7. Don’t ask me why a Royal Marine was sent to the Himalayas to recruit Gurkhas for the British Army. I never found out. I just went. 8. That will make a change. 9. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Nail the equipment, and the landings are stopped cold. Sure, the planes will take heavy casualties doing it, but it wins the war. 10. Anti-tank weapon. Notable for never being used against tanks during the campaign, but excellent for bunker clearance. 11. Number one on the list, by a long way, was the absence of female companionship. That’s a big surprise. 12. When I read books that focus on soldiers talking about the technology of the weapon systems, I know that the author hasn’t got a clue. You’re more concerned about things like the quality of your boots. If your boots are crap, you’re in deep trouble. Official issue boots for this period were fine, apart from the small problem that they leaked and didn’t keep water out. Luckily (and if you think luck had anything to do with it, I’ve a bridge I can sell you), my Troop had all acquired their own decent boots long before we left England. However, it’s not ideal when Marines have to buy their own equipment to enable them to do their job. Put me within throttling range of whoever approved those boots as official issue, and I’ll be happier than he would be. To describe them as a disgrace would be the least of it.

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