Falklands Return 2007
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As the only member of Ambuscade’s crew on the recent 25th Anniversary Pilgrimage I thought it would be a good idea to share my experience of the trip with the rest of you. The Pilgrimage was organized as a joint venture between the South Atlantic Medal Association 1982 and Combat Stress and consisted of 250 personnel, this being the maximum number that can be accommodated on the islands at any one time, made up of veterans, family members of servicemen killed in action and Combat Stress staff.
We first met at the Union Jack Club, London on Sunday 4th November 2007 for an evening reception which was attended by Margaret Thatcher. Although she looked rather frail she made a point of greeting everyone as she made her way around the room, often stopping for a brief chat with people. Once Maggie had left we were treated to a great meal during which we took the opportunity to get to know each other and many stories were swapped well into the small hours.
Monday 5th November.
Tuesday 6th November.
Wednesday 7th November.
At 1200 we all met up at San Carlos Cemetery for a Remembrance service. This is a really peaceful, beautiful and moving place which brought many veterans to tears. The cemetery itself is on a slope above Blue Beach, which was one of the main landing sites, and looks out over San Carlos Water towards Ajax Bay. Although small (most of those that died were repatriated back to the UK after the war) with only about 15 graves all those who died are commemorated on plaques on the back wall of the cemetery. After the service there was plenty of time for us to have our own quite moments of reflection before being given a great buffet lunch provided by the Army before moving off to Darwin and Goose Green. On the way we stopped at the Argentine War Cemetery which is located in a fold of ground near to Goose Green. This again was a very moving place with most of the graves marked simply as ‘Solider of Argentine – Known only unto God’ as a lot of them did not wear dog tags. The cemetery itself still provokes strong reactions from the locals with all of them refusing to set foot in the place. This came as a surprise to all the veterans as none of us felt any animosity towards the dead and simply saw them as service men that had paid the ultimate price for their country. After a short time we continued onto Goose Green and Darwin before making our way back into Stanley as 80 of us, myself included, had to be back early as we had been invited to attend a reception at Government House hosted by the Governor. Because of the number of veterans and the lack of space at Government House the Governor was in fact hosting three receptions spread over the next three nights so we all got a chance to mix with the high and mighty. After spending a few hours here the rest of the night was our own so needless to say the local pubs once again did a roaring trade.
Thursday 8th November.
Having made our way out of San Carlos Water, past Fanning Head and out into the Sound we were treated to a low level fly past by an RAF Tornado which buzzed us a couple of times. Whilst this was a great display of flying it really brought back the memories of moving across the Sound with the sound of fast jets screaming overheard. In fact of couple of the lads said that as soon as they heard the sound of the jet they automatically heard the ‘hands to action stations’ pipe and general alarm so closely are the sounds now linked in their memories. Before long we were positioned over Ardent’s finial resting place where we held a very moving ceremony for those that didn’t make it home. After the service we all had a tot of rum in their memory before dropping the bottle, still with more than half left, over the side for the lads down below. The whole service was really moving leaving most of us in tears and really brought home just how lucky we were. After a short time we got under way again and made our way across the Sound to Port Howard. As we entered the channel up towards the settlement we were once again joined by a school of porpoise which, after the service we had just held, was a really great moment because according to legend dolphins and porpoise look after the souls of those lost at sea and it almost seemed like they we telling us the lads were ok.
Upon arrival at Port Howard we were welcomed by the whole settlement and taken to the largest building there which is the sheep shearing shed. This was a real surprise as they were in the middle of shearing a huge flock of ewes and we were treated to a grand tour of the whole process which, after all the stresses of the last few days was a welcome change and really fascinating. The islanders had laid on a huge range of cakes, pastries and other delights which we did our best to make a dent in but with only 20 of us this was rather difficult but rest assured we tried. We then made our way out to the settlement manager’s house where we had a chance to sit down and relax before making our way out to various sites of interest around the settlement. Once again the experience of visiting these sites was greatly enhanced by being able to talk to locals who had been present during the events they were talking about. Once we returned to Port Howard we were taken to the various houses where we would be staying for a couple of hours free time before we all met up again in the Community Hall for an evening get together. Once again we were treated to a huge array of food all prepared by the islanders themselves and with a ‘free bar for all’ a great time was had with some of us not getting to bed until well into the small hours.
Friday 9th November.
The evening was taken up with a dance in the FIDF hall hosted by the Royal British Legion. Once again there was a huge turn out of both veterans and islanders and a great time was had with many friendships being forged.
Saturday 10th November.
Once we had been pulled out it became clear from the number of other radio calls for help that the ground was defeating even the most experienced drivers so we abandoned the idea of going further into the mountains and made our way down to Fitzroy. This is a really beautiful and peaceful place with a number of memorials set around the cove where the survivors from RFA Sir Galahad and RFA Sir Tristram were brought ashore. The weather whilst we were there was bright and sunny with clear skies, just as it was on 8th June 1982 which really showed up just how visible the ships were to the Argentine positions in the high ground that surrounds the area. Once again we were able to spend as long as we needed to reflect on the events that unfolded here and to commemorate those that died.
That evening we all met up at Government House for a group photograph before the local school choir gave us a rendition of ‘Someone waits for me’ which is the song sung by the young lady during the Falklands March in London in June. This is a very moving song, made even more poignant by the location, and once again many of us found ourselves shedding a tear, not bad for a bunch of rough, tough war veterans hey. After this we formed up and marched along the seafront to the 1982 memorial for an evening Remembrance ceremony. One moment of light relief during this moving service was provided at the expense of the RAF. Having learned that it was not a good idea to have fast jets flying over a group of 250 veterans without prior warning the organisers announced that, hopefully, two Tornados would fly past over the harbour at low level. As we waited for the aircraft to appear two large seagulls took off from near Government House and made their way along the sea front in perfect formation, flying past us to howls of laughter and jokes about defence cuts and the fact that the Red Sparrows had really let themselves go. Once the Remembrance ceremony was completed we marched off along the front to Victory Green where we presented two benches to the islanders as a thank you for all their efforts in helping to make this pilgrimage such a success. At the conclusion of this the former RSM from 2 Para who was in charge of the parade gave the best command I have ever heard – “Veterans, to the nearest public house, fall out”. Needless to say we all followed his order and spent the rest of the night enjoying the various local hostelries.
Sunday 11th November.
After the service at the cross and the two minute silence we made our way down to Memorial Wood which is an area of land set aside for a wood with a tree being dedicated to everyone, both task force members and islanders, who lost their lives during the conflict. This is a fairly new idea and the trees are still small and trying to get established but it is really a great venture and should only get better as the trees become more established and is a great way to remember those that paid the ultimate price. After this we made our way up to the FIDF hall for a very welcome curry lunch provided by the Army caterers, which was very well received and very warming.
The rest of the day was our own so my hosts very kindly took me out to the MV Atlantic Conveyor memorial which is situated at Cape Pembroke which is the most easterly point on the island and is therefore as close as possible to the point where she lies. This memorial is a ships propeller set overlooking the ocean with the ships name cut out of the top of two of the blades. Considering our involvement in the attack on 25th May this was one place I really wanted to see so that I could offer my condolences on behalf of all our crew to those that lost their lives that day and are buried at sea.
Monday 12th November.
After making our way back into Stanley we again all met up at the FIDF hall for an evening reception to say thanks to all the islanders. Once again this event was really well supported with everyone dancing and singing into the night.
The flight home did not go without a hitch as our aircraft was delayed leaving Rio and so we had a long wait at the terminal. This was eased some what by the RAF giving us a great lunch in the junior rates mess. Once again the forces catering branch did a great job, after all how many restaurants could cope with 250 extra guests arriving with only 30 minutes warning? Once the aircraft was refueled we took our seats for the long haul home with the RAF providing an escort of two Tornados who took up station on either wing tip and gave us some great photo opportunities, better late then never hey lads!
After 4 ½ hours we reached Rio for another refueling stop but once again our departure was delayed by air traffic control with us finally getting airborne just before midnight UK time.
Wednesday 14th November.
As a final note I would just like to express my heartfelt thanks to the Pilgrimage organisers who had worked really hard to pull it all together, your efforts are really appreciated. I would also like to thank the countless number of islanders who had given up their homes as well as their time to make us so welcome. I know that you often say that it is the least you can do after what we did for you in 1982 but the fact remains that we were just doing our jobs. The generosity you all showed us was far more than just repaying a debt and will never be forgotten. Many thanks to you all.