© BM 2008
Chapter Sixteen – Episode 23
Alex shifted slightly in bed, better to see the luminous hands of the alarm clock. It was 3.12, and he had yet to achieve one minute of sleep. Beside him, Anne stirred.
“What’s the matter?” She spoke with her eyes fully closed, and her mouth barely open.
“Nothing, love. Just go back to sleep.”
“What time is it, Alex?”
“It’s just after three. It’s OK, go back to sleep.
She sat up in bed, and switched on the bedside lamp, which blinded both of them, so she quickly switched it off again.
“Can’t you sleep?”
“No, I can’t.”
“It’s the bloody Falklands, isn’t it? You won’t be content until you can go. It’s a waste of time; there won’t be anyone for you to kill.”
“I don’t want to kill anybody.”
“Maybe not, but you do want to go. Alex, either the Argentines will back down, or Maggie will change her mind. People do not fight wars in 1982.”
He was silent for some moments.
“Anne, you don’t understand. Whether there will be fighting or not, I haven’t a clue. And, for what it is worth, I agree with you. I think the Argies will back down. They will have to, because Maggie will send the Task Force, regardless. The Navy is champing at the bit, and the Royal Marines are having orgasms at the very thought.”
He was silent again.
“You see, the Paras will go, 2 Para, and 3 Para. I’ve served with both. They are my friends and my blokes. I would feel disloyal not to be going with them, and just sitting on my arse in Whitehall.”
She turned on the bedside lamp again, making him turn his eyes away from the sharp intrusive light.
“And what about loyalty to me, and the children, our children? What does that count for?”
He rubbed his eyes wearily, and thought carefully before answering her, very slowly, conscious that whatever he was going to say was almost certainly going to be wrong.
“Anne, I am a soldier. I have been a soldier all my life, ever since the time we met. It’s my job; it’s what I do. I do not expect you to understand, but by being a soldier I believe that I am being loyal to every mother and child in this country, and that includes you, and Richard and Kate. That is what the Army means to me.”
“Bullshit, Alex. It means that you have another chance to go and kill some poor bastard, like in the Middle East, or bloody Belize. Well, bloody go. Don’t think about me.” She turned weeping into the pillow.
He got out of bed, and switched off the light on Anne’s side of the bed.
“Keep the dammed light on” she snarled.
He complied and left the bedroom, taking his dressing gown from the back of the door. She screamed after him.
“Anyway, you’re bloody forty four. You’re too old to be fighting wars.” The bedroom light went off again.
Kate was standing outside her bedroom, her hand to her mouth.
“Is there going to be a war, Daddy?”
He held her, and kissed her head. “I don’t know, sweetheart.”
“Mummy doesn’t want you to go, does she?”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Will you go?”
“If they ask me, yes, I’ll go. It’s my job, I am a soldier.”
“Mummy doesn’t want you to be a soldier anymore, does she?”
“No, she never has, darling, she never has. Come on, back to bed.”
He put his arm around her, and felt her shivering. He tucked his daughter up in her bed, smoothing her hair. She smiled at him and closed her eyes, and he sat on the bed for a few minutes. Finally he got up, and tip toed out, closing the bedroom door gently behind him.
Richard was not at home. Alex went into the kitchen and poured himself a large Glenmorangie, and sat in the lounge in the darkness. At five thirty he showered, dressed and left the house to catch the London train. Somehow, just somehow, he had to pull all the strings, call in every favour he had ever been owed, and use every single contact he had ever made. He wanted, no, he needed to get on the Task Force. It would be his last chance.
Alex didn’t have much time. He knew that. He phoned all of the senior officers in 2 and 3 Paras, both of which would form part of 3 Commando Brigade. Both battalions of the Parachute Regiment were up to strength for officers, particularly officers of the rank of major. In any case, some said, Major Millar had spent too much time “fucking around” in other jobs outside the Regiment, that he could hardly count himself as a Para officer any more. This was not to mention the undeniable fact that he was forty-four years of age.
“Forty bloody three,” he snarled to himself, as he put down the phone on an other refusal. It was now 6th April, four days since the invasion had begun, and about 95% of the British Army wanted to be part of the Task Force. Alex was just one more ageing soldier, waiting for his pension, who wanted to get his kicks before he retired. He sat moodily at his desk, staring unseeingly out of the window at Whitehall, his mind now devoid of ideas, but full of savage thoughts.
“There won’t be any fighting,” he told himself moodily. Still, he would like to be there, just in case there was.
“Es la bloody vida,” he told himself.
“What did you say, you dickhead?” He asked the question to himself out loud. “You spoke Spanish!” There was one last chance. The Argies spoke Spanish. Someone would need to interpret.
He went the rounds again, trying out this new tack, and was told that the Royal Marines had a Spanish speaking captain who had been brought up in Central America.
“Yes, but supposing he gets killed or wounded. What then?” It seemed to be a reasonable question to Alex, but it produced no green light.
He tried his last, desperate throw. “Do we really want to depend on a Marine for translation?”
It worked. Glory be, it worked.
On 9th April 1982, Alex found himself aboard Canberra, attached to Headquarters of the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, as a translator, and supernumerary officer, en route to the South Atlantic.
Kate hugged him tightly and kissed him goodbye, even at that time knowing that her long anticipated school cruise on Uganda had been cancelled as the ship was also going off to the Falklands to be a hospital ship. Anne had ignored her husband completely, reverting to one of her ‘silent running’ modes, and was not at Southampton.
“Goodbye, Dad. Please take care. I love you.”
He held her. “Don’t worry, Katy, it will be a doddle. I’ll be home before you know it. No one is going to go shooting at your old dad.”
“They are going to fight, Dad. I feel it. And we are going to fight them. I know we will win, but there is going to be a war.”
“Come on.” He shook her gently. “They won’t fight the British Army, and the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force. Come on, we’re the best in the world, and they know that too.”
She was in tears now. “They will, Dad. Please look after yourself, and come home safely to us.”
He was full of mixed emotions, fear for one. She was a woman, even if only a twelve year old woman and women knew everything. Perhaps the bastards would fight, perhaps she was right. Well, let them fight, we can manage them. His other emotion was anger. Where was Anne? Where was his wife? She should be saying these things, not his daughter.
He hugged Richard, who had remained silent all this time.
“Bye, Dad. Take care. I love you.”
“Good bye, mate. I love you. Look after the girls for me.” He held his son and then released him. “Now, go home. Don’t hang about until the ship sails. I love you both.” He turned away, knowing that they would disobey him.
As the Canberra furrowed the seas on way to keeping her rendezvous at Ascension Island, he was reminded very quickly that Anne might just have been right about at least one thing. Forty three or forty four, he was no longer in the jungles of Malaya in his wide eyed youth, or in Oman at the height of his manhood. Alex realised that he had spent too much of his recent Army service in the Madrid mission of Her Majesty’s Government or commanding a desk in Whitehall. He was made painfully aware of these facts, and of his unfitness, by the savage regime of training, which was instigated on board the ship. He was quite unable to keep up with the young Paras, and Royal Marines, who spent hours and expended gallons of sweat in endlessly running around the decks.
There were extended briefings that Alex, as a Headquarters staff officer attended. He also spent hours interpreting signal traffic from the Argentines picked up directly, or passed on from the Americans and Chileans. He knew that the same ‘sigint’ was also being monitored in London by the people in the Intelligence community, who would be able to make more out of it than Alex could.
They reached Ascension around the middle of the month, and lay offshore for most of the time, with only occasional breaks from the ship board boredom by training runs ashore to practise landings on the beach. They listened constantly to the BBC World Service describe the efforts of US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, to broker a settlement. They listened to the increasingly truculent tones of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and they all knew there would be no compromise or negotiated settlement while she was in charge.
Events followed thereafter with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. Between 21st and 25th April, South Georgia was retaken, to resounding shipboard cheers.
The war had just started. Honour on each side now demanded that there would be no going back. On 8th May Canberra slipped anchor, leaving the island fading in the distance, until there was only the peaks of the mountains to be seen. Ant then there was nothing visible, and they had the increasingly cold gray waters of the South Atlantic for company. The training continued and intensified as they got closer to the war they now believed, incredulously, was now inevitable.
On 21st May the Paras and Marines went ashore at San Carlos Bay, and 3 Para established themselves at Port San Carlos. The Argentine Navy, who had spearheaded the invasion of the Falklands way back in April, had been noticeable by their absence since the General Belgrano had been sunk. Their Air Force, on the other hand, had other ideas. A succession of aircraft came whistling up Falkland Sound and scudded at wave top level over San Carlos Bay, attacking the British positions with considerable courage,
The troops on the ground, Paras and Marines, loosed a hail of metal at their attackers, usually without success. The Rapier surface to air missiles, of which much was expected, were not yet in place, and the firing at the Argentine aircraft was more to release frustration than in any real expectation of achieving kills.
The British surface vessels maintained a massive firepower filling the skies with their venom, and deafening the defenders on shore with the cacophony of noise, and they scored some successes. Out to sea, far to the west, and out of sight to the men on the ground, the Harriers of the Royal Navy fought the invaders with considerable success. Their carrier based location gave them much longer in the air than the shore based Argentine Air Force. Still the Argentine pilots got through, the Mirages, Canberras and Pucaras skipping like flat stones across the placid waters, to deliver their message of defiance to the British.
After one such attack, the men of 3 Para stood looking out across West Falkland as if expecting an other wave of aircraft. They were shocked, fearful, angry and deafened.
Sergeant Jon Tyler stood next to Alex. “They sure as hell got balls, sir.”
“They have indeed, Jon. I wonder if their army’s balls are as big as the Air Force?”
HMS Ardent was lost on 21st May, Antelope on 24th, and on the following black day for the Royal Navy, Coventry was sunk off Pebble Island, and the Atlantic Conveyor sent to the bottom off to the north east of East Falkland. The latter was a savage blow, as she had been carrying their long awaited Chinook helicopters. The Commanding Officer of 3 Para called his officers together for a briefing.
“Right, chaps, it’s all settled now. 2 Para is going to Goose Green, and we are going that way. He waved his left arm vaguely in an easterly direction. “To Teal Outlet. I think they have a Holiday Inn there.”
They all grinned.
“By the way,” he paused for effect. “And we will walk there, gentlemen.”
And so they walked, or more accurately, marched, across the bleak frozen wastes of East Falkland, their sixty pound packs on their backs. The Royal Marines called it ‘yomping’, and the Paras, in spite of their intense rivalry with the Marines, could find no adequate reason not to use the same term. The rate of march of the Parachute Regiment is considerable, one of the quickest in the British Army, but they had rarely marched in these conditions before. They ‘yomped’ fifty minutes in every hour, and stopped for a ten minute ‘blow’. At these breaks the men sank down, gratefully, on to the wet peat, releasing their heavy packs form their backs.
It was always wet, the rain above, and the water underfoot, permeating first their boots, and then, by degrees, just about everything else. During the breaks a small group of soldiers was dispatched for picket duty, spreading out from the resting soldiers.
Alex lay back against his pack, too weary to remove it, his eyes closed, his chest heaving.
“You prat,” he told himself, “You volunteered for this. You fought to be here. You made yourself a fucking nuisance to everyone to get here. You wanted to be a bloody hero.” The thought kept reoccurring to him that Anne had been right. He was damm near forty-four years of age, and many of the men he was marching alongside were less than half his age. Not that it mattered a toss at this stage. He was here now, and he would bloody well keep up, even if it killed him. And that, he reflected, as he dragged himself to his feet once more, was probably what it would do.
They reached Douglas Settlement, and then pushed on to Teal Outlet, all without meeting any opposition.
“Perhaps the have all fucked off, sir,” a young soldier remarked to him.
“Perhaps they have, Westy.” He grinned at the paratrooper. “Let’s hope so.”
“Christ, no, sir, not after we have come all this way. Let’s have a crack at the bastards.”
They heard in silence the news of the action by 2 Para at Goose Green, a heroic but bloody little encounter which cost the lives of nearly thirty of their comrades, including the CO of 2 Para, Colonel ‘H’ Jones. They were stunned and silent, to a man. Everyone knew at least one man who had died, and although many had known a fellow paratrooper who had been murdered by the IRA, this was the first time it had happened in a conflict with other soldiers. It was a sobering experience, and there was less talk of wanting immediate action.
Alex was standing next to Private West, drinking a scalding cup of tea that had just been made on the Primus. They had listened to the news of 2 Para in silence.
West spoke, almost softly. “I was wrong, major, they haven’t fucked off at all. At least, they hadn’t at Goose Green. It looks like we may all get an innings after all.”
Alex nodded. “It’s a funny thing, Westy, but my daughter told me at Southampton, that there would be fighting, and she is only twelve.”
“It’s a pity she isn’t in the fucking Cabinet, then, because they didn’t seem to reckon on the bastards fighting back. Your girl could have put them straight.”
Chapter Sixteen – Episode 24