Day Five – Returning to San Carlos
On Tuesday morning we travelled to San Carlos via the Blue Beach war cemetery where lays the graves of several of the fallen including the grave of Colonel H Jones, 2 Para. Visiting San Carlos has triggered my memory. My journey during the conflict saw me get off the SS Canberra with the remainder of the battalion. The Canberra had been floating in the infamous ‘Bomb Alley’ prior to the troops being transported onto land by landing craft supplied by HMS Fearless. We eventually put our feet on the ground at San Carlos beach via the jetty at last light. The jetty is still in place and seeing it has made my memories of that night come back in full. The battalion moved into a defensive position in the high ground around San Carlos in preparation to move towards the enemy positions in the mountain tops around Port Stanley. I carried my Bergen, weapon (SLR 7.62mm) and ammunition weighing around 50/60lb. This included my personal weapon an SLR 7.62mm rifl , 2 hand grenades and a 66mm bunker buster. I can remember digging the trench that night in a peat bog and the bottom took no time to fill with water. It didn’t take long that night for my feet to become wet. The army boots in those days weren’t waterproof and pretty useless. During the evening we receive a warning that we are going to advance forward during the night and begin the march towards the start line for the assault. This was to be a long tab through the night and I prepare myself mentally for the long night ahead. The bergans were to be transported by vehicles and would be collected closer to the start point.
Photo 1 The jetty at San Carlos.
Photo 2 The dark shaded gorse area left hand side of the photo is where I dug my trench on 4/6/82
I explore the area where my company dug trenches in a defensive position knowing that we would probably be moving later that night. A trench was still a necessity in case of air attack along the notorious ‘Bomb Alley’. That night we started to move forward and very slowly we started to plod on in the freezing cold wind and rain. The kit was heavy but we were used to it and I remember my concentration levels being sky high as I switched on listening to orders being passed down the line. As a young soldier in a infantry section you don’t receive too much information and I was unaware due to bad weather that there were no helicopters available to move the heavier equipment. I don’t think we had gone too far maybe a couple of miles when we stopped and returned to San Carlos. I found out later that Brigade decided due to the poor weather and lack of helicopter support that they would move us to Fitzroy by boat so we could then join the advance towards Stanley. A typical saying in the army is ‘hurry up and wait’ and over the next couple of days we would do it far too often. The heavy rain had arrived and we were soaked to the skin by the time we arrived back at the jetty to board HMS Fearless. The ship members were great has we found spaces on board the vessel to dry kit and change some clothing. We are told that the plan is to sail us to Fitzroy disembark and that from there the whole Brigade would advance towards Stanley. The Brigade consisted of 1 WG (Welsh Guards) 2 SG (Scots Guards) a battalion of Gurkhas and various support teams. Our battalion alone consisted of approximately 650 men. We sailed the following day, June 6th, but for various reasons not enough landing crafts arrived and only half of the battalion were able to get off. They were taken to Yellow Beach at Bluff Cove after a 30 mile journey with around 300 men packed into two crafts. We visited the area today and it was strange to see where I would have landed if everything had gone to plan. The lads compared the journey to the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan packed like sardines in rough seas but without the enemy fire.
Photo 3 Entrance to Bluff Cove where all the battalion would have been dropped off if we had all left the ship together
After a while waiting there was word that there would be no landing craft arriving to transport us. We stayed on board but as the Fearless couldn’t be risked to sail into the cove we were later transferred onto the Sir Galahad a troop carrying ship. This is not the first time I had been on this ship as it had been used to bring me and the remainder of the battalion back from South Armagh in 1980.
My recollection of my time onboard the ship is sketchy. I remember us being placed on the lower tank deck of the ship in companies, three company being at the bow and support company and Prince of Wales company at the stern. Around the centre of the tank deck was a big opening with a big crane sitting above it. A gigantic pile of equipment, kit and ammunition including explosives and shells was sat in the middle ready to be taken off when we reached Fitzroy. I remember dropping off our Bergen’s in a big pile waiting to be lifted off and the company was placed in areas 9,8 and 7 platoon. We would have been the company nearest the bow and somewhere behind a JCB digger sat on the tank deck waiting to be lifted off. We were almost the closest soldiers to the bow. We sailed through the night and arrived at Bluff in the early hours of the morning of the 8th June. We expected to get off but we found out there was a problem again with the landing crafts and after being told to get ready to move we were stood down on two occasions. I did explore the ship and found a big hole at the bow end which was as a result of it being hit earlier in the conflict. The bomb hadn’t exploded and had been carried off the ship by engineers and marines to be blown up in a safe area. I knew none of this at the time but was just told it had been hit previously. The hole was big enough for me to walk inside it. The scale of the danger we were in floating like sitting ducks in the cove didn’t really cross my mind I just wanted to get off and be on land. I must admit I was sick of boats by this stage.
I have often tried to piece together what I remember about the explosion. I had been to the rear of the ship to speak to some mates from support company but had returned to my area near the JCB and pile of bergans shortly before 2pm local time. We had been stood down from getting off and I was wearing most of my kit including my combat jacket off and waterproof jacket. Underneath I was wearing a jumper and thermals. My weapon and equipment was lying close by. Suddenly I heard the screech of the Argentinian Skyhawks as they flew over the ship and the only warning came from a platoon sergeant stood near the cargo opening who shouted out ‘take cover’. I instantly dived towards the bergans moving through the air as the bombs hit causing a huge explosion. I didn’t see the flames at first due to diving the opposite way and the whole tank deck went dark with thick black smoke all around. I knew straight away though that we had been bombed. For what seemed like ages I lay prone on the ground and saw soldiers struggling to get out from a door over to my right. There was then several bangs close by and it soon become obvious that the intense heat from the fire was exploding the ammunition which was piled high below the opening. It’s amazing how calm people were as we queued to leave the tank deck. As we are leaving I begin to see for the first time people with flash injuries and at least one person having flames to his upper torso being put out by other soldiers. Although it felt like a long time I would guess that the length of time between the explosion and me leaving the tank deck was probably only a few minutes. We learned later that two 500lb bombs exploded at the stern end of the ship. Many of the 48 men killed and seriously burnt were near the point of impact and belonged to the mortar platoon. My company lost two men including Gareth, I will never know where they were at the time but it is likely that they were elsewhere on the ship. They could possibly have been anywhere because we were waiting for the order to get off and allowed to move about. I didn’t see them earlier as 9 Platoon were sat to the left and slightly back from my position as we were all cleaning weapons and lightly oiling ammunition knowing that we were getting close to fighting and everything needed to be in good working condition. The other lad Chris had only recently finished his basic training and was 17. I managed to leave the tank deck pretty quickly and in an orderly fashion with sergeants and corporals who were not injured taking control and organising the troops. I saw my section commander along the way as we were directed to the upper deck. He acknowledged me and I continued up and into the open air. As I reached the upper deck I saw for the first time the devastation from the bombs and flames rising high from the rear of the ship. I saw several of my company, some injured with terrible flash burns to hands and faces. It is now obvious that if the hold hadn’t been open the fireball would have ripped through the tank deck with absolutely nowhere to go potentially killing everybody down below. The JCB prevented anything flames from reaching my area. I was sent with another guardsman to help with a man who had lost his leg and ran towards the upper deck to find him. My adrenaline was pumping at this stage as I got my morphine ready but by the time we got to him he was already being cared for and evacuated onto a chopper. We went back to the side of the ship where members of 3 company were starting to climb down a rope ladder onto two large solid lifeboats and several rubber lifeboats. I always had it in my mind that it was like a cargo net but a photo I saw in the RAF officers mess shows that it was a rope ladder.
Photo hanging in the 82 room at the Mount Pleasant Officers mess showing the ladder
On reaching the bottom of the ladder,I was told to get into a rubber life craft already half full with survivors. I can’t remember exactly but I would say we had around 10 people including at least two with severe burns to the hands. We were eventually pushed away from the side and started to drift away from the ship. I could not see what was going on outside as the craft was covered. However from the commentary I picked up from the person near the opening it was obvious we were floating back towards the stern and the fire. I became aware that a helicopter was overhead and could hear the loud whirring of the rotor blades as we started to float away again towards shore. Footage of this is often shown on Falklands coverage and it is believed that the pilot was Prince Andrew. At some point we came alongside a lifeboat full with fellow guardsmen and our life craft was tied to the back and we were towed to the beach. We were met by personnel from various units already at Fitzroy who helped pull the boats close to the beach. I climbed out of the life craft into water close to the shoreline and waded ankle deep to the beach where I was directed towards the settlement at Fitzroy.
Being towed into the beach at Bluff Cove I was in the life craft between the two lifeboats
I start to see and recognise other members of the company and see a good friend Jimmy shivering in only a shirt. I haven’t really mentioned the weather much but it was nearly always freezing cold and the biting wind makes it even colder. I am wearing my wet proof jacket over the top of my combat jacket so I gave it to Jimmy along with a cigarette from the one surviving packet in my combat jacket top pocket. The remainder don’t last too long as I share with others on the walk towards Fitzroy. I stopped smoking shortly after the conflict but at that moment I was so glad to be a smoker. On eventually reaching the settlement we were met by non commissioned officers from the company who were taking a register of survivors. In true guards fashion I remember getting into three ranks as if on palace guard so a role call could be held. This was quickly aborted as another Argentinian Skyhawk jet flew above our position so low that you could see the pilot. I did feel real fear at this moment because we were out in the open with no weapons and little cover. I ended up lying in the middle of a field watching as the Skyhawk flew above us. It didn’t hang around long though as we watched and heard a Harriet fighter start to chase it along the rocky headline. We did not witness it but were told later that the Skyhawk had been shot down trying to escape. Eventually I managed to get back together with all survivors from 3 company and we are taken to the sheep pen mentioned previously. It was over the next couple of days that I learn that there were many killed probably including my good friend who was listed as missing. That night and most of the following day we stayed in the sheep pen at Fitzroy. I had no equipment or weapon and only the clothes I was standing in so was hoping to be re kitted out and at least given a new weapon asap.
The open ground and ridge line at Fitzroy this is where I watched the Skyhawk fly above my head
This is the first time that I have ever pieced it all together and now have a photographic memory of my movements before and after the bombing. Writing this allows me to close the book and share with others what we went through. I have no ill feeling towards anybody as it’s war however I do feel that the senior Welsh Guards officer on board the Galahad should have insisted that we were moved off sooner. I certainly have no Ill feeling towards any of the Argentinian soldiers or pilots, they did what I was trained to do and maybe would have had to do if circumstances had been different. Fate meant that I didn’t take part in the final battles around Stanley but I survived the conflict due to my position in the boat at the time of the explosions. I will write about my experiences leading up to the end of the conflict next including visits to Ajax Bay where I guarded POW’s and eventually moving into Port Stanley.