By David Flin
You expect fiction to make adjustments to historical accuracy because “everyone knows” something different. In an earlier article, reference was made by the forum member Geordie to the thumb-scene from the film Gladiator. He pointed out that it’s fairly well-known now that the writers realised that: “Commodus should have used an exposed thumb pointing upwards to indicate death; a fist with no visible thumb for life. The thumb representing the blade, bare and sheathed, respectively. The story goes that they decided that it would be too confusing for the viewers, because “everyone knows” that thumbs up meant life, and thumbs down death.”
However, it’s not a great surprise to learn that fictional works can sometimes take liberties with historical accuracy and be, well, fictionalised.
Memoirs are important sources when doing historical research. Unfortunately, as any policeman will tell you, eyewitness reports are not always reliable. Memoirs are vital to help you catch the mindset and the thoughts; less so on the detail.
Official records, however. They’re reliable on historical fact. Aren’t they? And Wikipedia, while of doubtful reliability on matters of opinion, is generally reliable on matters of simple fact. Isn’t it?
To find out, I’ll take you on a little trip to some islands in the South Atlantic in late May 1982. Specifically, to Mount Kent on the night of 29/30 May. According to Wikipedia:
“The first engagement during the Battle of Mount Kent occurred during the night of the 29th to the 30th May 1982 when Captain Andrés Ferrero’s 3rd Assault Section from 602 Commando Company ran into Air Troop from D Squadron, 22nd Special Air Service on the slopes of Mount Kent, suffering one badly wounded “First-Sergeant Raimundo Viltes) and admittedly abandoning much equipment much to the fury of Major Aldo Rico, commander of 602 Commando Company. The British took control of the situation, but at the cost of two badly wounded SAS troopers.”
It all sounds straightforward and detailed and it’s referenced. There’s just one slight problem. I’ve no way of knowing for certain if it’s accurate or not, but I do know for an absolute certainty that it’s – at best – an incomplete description. As those of you who are familiar with my articles may know, in May 1982, I was Down South as a Royal Marine Lieutenant with No 2 Troop, K Company, 42 Commando.
My recollection of events on that night was that my troop happened to be near a couple of helicopters, when we got orders that, as an SAS patrol had identified that Mount Kent was empty of Argentine troops, we were to be taken by the helicopters to take possession of it.
Imagine our surprise when we arrived at Mount Kent, only to discover around half a battalion of Argentine forces were there. Fortunately for us, they didn’t know how many of us there were, and after a brief but intense exchange of fire, they left, leaving us holding the position. To give an idea of the intensity of the exchange of fire, we had taken more prisoners than we had bullets left.
We reported that we’d taken Mount Kent, other forces came to hold the position, and we rejoined the rest of 42 Commando to continue the advance towards Mount Harriet. We’d reported back the salient facts to the brigade, and got on with the job.
We hadn’t been particularly pleased that there had been around 300 Argentine troops in a location that the SAS had reported as being unoccupied, and our report back mentioned this fact. After all, when you pack 50 men into two helicopters, and send them to engage a position held by six times that number, there’s potential for embarrassment. It is, after all, not easy for helicopters to make a stealthy approach; they are very vulnerable in the approach, and the troops emerging are initially in a very compact mass, potentially in a kill zone without the ability to return maximum fire. We were a bit annoyed at having been put in this position.
As a result, my memory is reasonably certain about the rough outline of events. I may easily have some details wrong. Was it two helicopters or three? If someone told me there were three, I couldn’t, hand on heart, say that they were definitively wrong. I remember two. However, being involved in a growl, that’s something you don’t forget or misremember. Details can be misremembered, but not the basic fact. I can look at the back of my left forearm, and see the remnants of a scar to give me concrete evidence of the incident.
That’s another funny thing about memory. I’ve no idea how I picked up that scar. It wasn’t there at the start of the incident, and by the end, I had a six-inch long scratch that was being sewn back together while I radioed in the report.
The report had been radioed in, and we were on our way to the next objective, and that should have been an end to the matter.
And yet, as far as I can tell, most of the official reports of the action give an entirely different picture of what happened. I can only speculate as to why this should be, but it’s known that the original SAS patrol that reconnoitred the area returned to Brigade HQ, and had time to make a far more detailed report in a much more formal manner and – most importantly – had the opportunity to tell everyone their version of events.
Far be it for me to suggest that the PR-conscious SAS modified their recollection of events to gloss over the God-almighty cock-up that they’d made. After all, missing the presence of a half-battalion in a reconnaissance zone is a cock-up of the first order. Far be it from me to suggest that the SAS described what they would have liked to have happened rather than what actually happened. I’m not suggesting it. I’m flat-out stating it.
Afterwards, when the official histories were written, those writing had a mountain of evidence at Brigade HQ, neatly written on the proper forms, giving the SAS version. And they had one radio report of the event from a unit where the officer responsible was by now on a hospital ship heading home, and not easily accessible giving the Royal Marine version of events.
“That’s all very interesting, but what’s the point of that meandering tale?”
The point is that when doing research into historical events, you have to be aware that a source may not be accurate. It might easily be misremembered, or taken from sources that are themselves incorrect. It may, with the best of intentions, be wrong. There’s an old saying: “To steal from one source is plagiarism. To steal from many sources is research.” Well, something similar applies to historical research. Check from a variety of sources, preferably from different viewpoints.
And, of course, when it comes to memoirs and biographies and autobiographies, you need to be aware that vagaries of memory can be such that the events described are not necessarily accurate. You’ll start to get a sense when something sounds right and when it doesn’t, but you have to remember that you always need confirmation. The one thing you can’t do with regard to a specific event is just rely on the word of one person. You'll have to do further research, and come to a balanced judgement.
“OK. So how do we know that your version of the Battle of Mount Kent is accurate?”
You’ll just have to take my word for it.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow