Falklands Return 2007

Dave Rowlands


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Falklands 25th Anniversary Pilgrimage.

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.
 Most of today would be taken up with traveling with everyone allocated a seat on one of six coaches which departed the UJC at various times. Once we arrived at Gatwick and had been processed through check in and security most of us took the chance to do some duty free shopping. Included in our group were a number of bagpipe players from various regiments who took the opportunity to play various tunes (including the very moving Tumbledown) whilst we waited in the departure lounge. This drew some very strange looks from members of the public waiting for other flights! Our flight, which had been laid on by Monarch Airlines, was due to depart at 1700 and was routed via Rio de Janeiro for a refueling stop and change of crew with us due to arrive on the islands at 0835 (local) Tuesday 6th November. The flight itself was uneventful but really brought home just how far away the islands are.

Tuesday 6th November.
 Our arrival on the islands was a little disappointing as we had been promised an escort by two RAF Tornados based at Mount Pleasant Airfield, however, due to various reasons this was not possible so we had to make do with an air tour around the islands which our pilot claimed was due to the routing he had been given by air traffic control but most of us weren’t so sure especially as our pilot was ex RAF and had been one of the tanker pilots taking part on the Vulcan ‘Black Buck’ raids during the war. What ever the reason we had an excellent view of the whole islands set in a beautiful bright blue sea. The weather on arrival was windy and cold, just as we had expected, with some snow on the hills around the airfield even though this was the start of spring for them. After we had been through the various Customs and Immigration checks (funny they didn’t bother with these the last time we landed!) we were taken by coaches and minibuses to the Falkland Island Defence Force (FIDF) Hall in Stanley where we were welcomed by His Excellency the Governor and various other people who had helped set up the trip. Once this was completed we were then collected by the families we would be staying with and taken to their various homes. I had heard reports that the islanders really look after returning veterans but to discover that 240 of us were being accommodated in houses around Stanley, the other 10 had volunteered to be billeted in the Army transit barracks Hillside Camp in Stanley, at no cost to ourselves was really amazing. In Fact as the week went on the amount of things the islanders did for us was just outstanding, they really are a very generous bunch of people. The afternoon was then free to settle into our homes or be taken on a tour of Stanley before we all meet up again at 1930 at the FIDF hall for a public reception open to all veterans and islanders. This was a great event with a massive attendance and really made us feel welcome. The number of islanders at this reception would be an indication as to how well all the events of the week would be supported by them.

Wednesday 7th November.
 Today was an early start with us all meeting up at the FIDF hall at 0800 and needless to say there were a few sore heads present after last nights festivities. The day was set aside for a full tour of the island using the locals own 4x4 vehicles so we ended up with about 80 vehicles moving around the island which is no mean feat but even this was really well organised with people sharing vehicles with others with similar interests. In my case I was in a vehicle with two lads off HMS Glamorgan which was great because we could all swap sea stories as we made or way around all the major sites. Of course I also thanked them for running aground during our Gulf trip in 1981 and having to go home early leaving us to fill their social calendar! Our route took us anti clockwise round the island from Stanley to San Carlos via Teal Inlet with various stops along the way. At each stop we were able to meet up with other veterans and were often able to talk to guys that had actually fought at that location which really brought it all into a better perspective for those like myself who had never actually set foot on the islands.

 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.
 Today we had various trips organised for different groups including tours of the battlefields, an overnight stay on Pebble Island and trips on HMS Clyde the new Royal Navy island defence ship for various naval veterans. I was one of a group of 20 who had been selected to go to Port Howard on West Falkland for an overnight stay. This would include a ferry crossing over Falkland Sound during which we would hold a service of Remembrance over HMS Ardent. Our group was made up of ex-Ardent crew, next of kin of two ratings killed on board, other members of the ’21 Club’ from various sister ships and a couple of REME Engineers who had helped clear West Falkland of ordnance after the war. The day started with a minibus trip to Port San Carlos where we met the MV Tamar which is the local ferry servicing the out laying islands/settlements. Having been welcomed onboard we made our way out into San Carlos Water under beautiful clear blue skies and calm seas. Once again the beauty of the place really hits you as well as just how small the anchorage is. It was not to difficult to look out and still see all the ships packed in there and I still don’t know how we did it without any of us colliding or running aground. On leaving Port San Carlos we were escorted out by a school of porpoise which stayed with us most of the way out to the Sound.

 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.
 After being given a huge breakfast by our hosts we made our way back to the harbour, and after saying goodbye to all the settlers who had gathered to see us off we sailed away feeling really refreshed and relaxed. After a short crossing of the Sound we made our way back into San Carlos Water where the captain very kindly took a detour into Ajax Bay so that we could pass HMS Antelopes marker buoy. Once again we paid our respects to one of the 21 club who didn’t make it home before sailing back around Hospital Point and into Port San Carlos where we met up with our minibuses for the journey back into Stanley. During the drive back, and despite the rough roads, we all fell asleep which I’m sure had nothing what so ever to do with the alcohol consumed the night before. Once back in Stanley we had a free afternoon to see the sights or go shopping and after a walk around Stanley I found myself in the local museum which is a really great place showing the whole history of the islands in great detail with some fantastic displays. A lot of people forget that the islands had a long history before April 1982 which is well documented although of course the 1982 section does take up a large part of the museum. It did feel a bit strange walking around the exhibits and reading about events that you had taken part in which is not  a normal experience with museums.

 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.
  The day dawned bright and early again with rather a few sore heads once again in evidence. Today was set aside for various trips organised to meet the wishes of those taking part so we all made our way out from Stanley in different directions. My host had offered to take myself and two others up onto Mount Harriet which is a short distance outside Stanley. As this was one of the targets for our NGS on the night of 7th/8th June when we fired 228 rounds (5 tons) of 4.5” shells in support of the attacks by 2 Commando Brigade and 2 Para I was really looking forward to seeing just where we had been shelling. After a short trip out of Stanley on the Mount Pleasant road we turned off and started to make our way across country in the 4x4. I have to say that the islanders are expert off road drivers with most of them learning to drive on the open countryside outside Stanley. In fact up until 1985 when the road building programme started the only roads on the whole island were in Stanley. Even now most of the roads are unpaved lose gravel with the only tarmac ones being in Stanley or around Mount Pleasant Airport. As we made our way up to the high ground along Goat Ridge the going was really difficult with the underlying peat being very wet and slippery. Despite the best efforts of our driver in wasn’t long before we had sunk up to our axles or become bogged as the locals call it. This is seen as an occupational hazard which happens to everyone sooner or later but even so is often the subject of friendly leg pulling. Having realised we couldn’t get ourselves out we made a radio call for help and with so many people out on the hills it wasn’t long before another couple of 4x4’s arrived to pull us out. It’s really great to see that everyone just piles in to help each other out and really shows just what a community spirit they have. Whilst we were waiting for help to arrive we were able to walk up onto Mount Harriet and saw some Argentine defensive positions as well as a number of shell holes, who knows one of them could have been made by one of our shells.

 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.
 This morning was set aside for the Remembrance Day Service at Stanley Cathedral after which we were to form up as part of the Armed Forces contingent for the march to the Cross of Sacrifice for another service of Remembrance and the two minute silence. Just after we formed up, but before we moved off, the heavens opened and we had to endure a very harsh and very cold sleet shower which quickly turned to driving rain but even this didn’t damped our spirits as we moved off as a group to the Cross of Sacrifice.

 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.
 This was our last full day on the islands so it was set aside for our own itineraries. I was lucky enough to be taken out to Ajax Bay to see the former refrigeration plant that Cdr Rick Jolly and his medical team turned into a field hospital and which became better known as ‘The Maroon and Green Fixing Machine’. This was a fantastic place and it wasn’t hard to imagine the sheer hard work that went on here in far from ideal conditions. It is a real tribute to the team that everyone, both British and Argentine, who arrived there alive survived. The site is slowly being taken over by nature and there is even a small Gentoo penguin colony just a few feet from the buildings. These noisy little birds were not concerned by our presence in the slightest and just got on with sitting on their eggs and doing what penguins do.

  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.
Tuesday 13th November.
 Today was a really sad day as we said our finial goodbyes to some really great friends who had gone out of their way to make us welcome. I know that a lot of friendships have been made over the week with many of us already making plans to return.

 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.
 Needless to say we all slept as much as we could on the way home aided by the fact that we were physically and mentally exhausted after a really hectic and emotional 10 days. Because of the delays we didn’t arrive back at Gatwick until 1300 and as we all had onward journeys to make it was a case of quick goodbyes as we made our way through baggage reclamation and Customs. At the end of a fantastic trip it was really great to be home.

 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.