Although I never actually covered the war as a press photographer in the South Atlantic 40 years back…I did manage to get down there just after hostilities had ceased alongside reporter Tim Jones, both of us staffers for The Times of London.
It was cold, it was grey and miserable when we touched down in Port Stanley in the midst of a South Atlantic winter. The road in from the airport was a river of melting snow and mud with hundreds of thousands of Argentinian munitions, helmets and packs were dumped at the road side as the defeated army departed the Falklands for home.
Within a couple of days of arriving Stanley Airport was closed and the runway ripped up to be replaced and extended by American supplied AM2 Matting enabling Phantom jets to land and takeoff relieving the military of having to keep two expensive to maintain Aircraft Carriers on station just over the horizon. Of course none of this could be reported until the new runway was in operation. So, for five weeks we were stuck on the Islands hunting for stories to tell…or at least stories that we would have liked to tell !
We were invited ‘down’ to the Falklands by the MOD-Ministry of Defence to document the clearing up operation about to be carried out by the Pioneer Corps and the Royal Engineers which included the brave and wonderful Bomb Disposal Unit known as the ‘Black Aces’ under the command of former headteacher Major John Quinn. I palled up with this unit as they had access to helicopters and decent four wheel drive vehicles which got me out of Stanley and into the ‘camp’ interior of East Falkland and over to to the west and Goose Green where the ‘Black Aces’ dug up unexploded ordnance to take care of and make safe. I was made a ‘Honorary’ member of the Black Aces after being allowed to ‘set off’ a major dump of explosives.
The following is from Chapter 13 in my auto-biographical book, ‘…and then the Prime Minister hit me…’ …..its a long old chapter but tells how it was for me and Tim way back 40 years ago…but on reflection there is not enough remembrance for all those 255 British military personnel, 649 Argentine military personnel and three Falkland Islanders who died during this, the last of the British Imperial Wars.
Here I dedicate this wordpress document to all who suffered back in 1982 and all those that are still suffering now with wounds or PTSD.
Chapter Thirteen – A Tale of a Steer’s Head, the Missing Beast, the Military Police, Hansard, Spying…and playing with some very Big Ships indeed.
I was sent 8000 miles to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic by The Times with reporter Tim Jones to cover the aftermath of the Falklands war in July 1982.
The Falkland Islands, a group of mostly inhospitable rocky and boggy outcrops exposed to the harshest of elements in the South Atlantic, are a tough place to live and exist. The wind blows constantly and in the winter that is compounded by driving rain and stinging blizzards.
The islanders call the area outside the capital, Port Stanley, the Camp. I call it miserable.
For many years Argentina had laid claim to the sovereignty of Las Malvinas, as they call the Falklands. On 2nd of April 1982 Argentine forces commanded by military dictator General Galtieri invaded the Falkland Island group including South Georgia. Britain and Argentina were at war.
The British Government under the Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, promptly dispatched a vast naval task force to the South Atlantic. This was made up of capital ships from the Royal Navy, converted cruise liners and container ships.
The nasty war lasted just 74 days ending with the Argentine surrender in Port Stanley on 14th of June. During the war 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and 3 Falkland Islanders died.
We were to report on life getting back to normal as well as the clearing up operation such as removing booby traps from peoples gardens, making safe the tens of thousands of rounds of unwanted Argentinean ammunition, detonating unexploded bombs and the rebuilding of the airport.
Tim and I were billeted on a woman who was sympathetic to the Argentine cause. The house was quite basic. The roof and walls were made from corrugated metal sheeting, a common form of construction in Port Stanley. Heating was provided by a peat burning stove which made everything in the house smell peaty and musty, even the food.
Our hostess had quite obviously done well during the short war as she was one of the few on the Falklands to have a television, given to her by the Argentine officers that had occupied her house during the conflict.
Our weekday breakfasts consisted of Argentinean labelled triangle shaped cheese and biscuits. On Sundays we were given bacon and sausage cooked on the peat fire, a very strange concoction of tastes and smells. Supper was slightly better, but we suspected that the beef, normally minced, originated on the Pampas rather than the British home counties. It was basic and sufficed, just.
On the first morning I left the house by the back door. I was just about to open the garden gate when I noticed some strange wires attached. It was a booby trap hand grenade bomb, possibly left by the suppliers of our breakfasts and suppers. I’m sure if it had gone off you would have been able to watch the story on the Argentine television in the sitting room. I, on the other hand, would be playing my golden harp. A Bomb Disposal unit from the Royal Engineers was called and defused the device within a few minutes. The ‘Black Aces’, as the bomb disposal lads were called, became good friends while I was on the Falklands.
The airport reconstruction was priority number one. To keep the Islands secure, effective air cover had to be in place. Aircraft carriers are expensive to operate and have to be supplied on a regular basis. The airport runway had to be extended and strengthened to take military attack fighter squadrons along with all the back up needed. Quite a formidable task but made all the more difficult as it was in the middle of the South Atlantic winter and the operation had to be carried out in secret away from prying Argentinean eyes. The existing runway was put out of action and the airport was closed for nearly three weeks while a new longer stronger airstrip was constructed over the top of the old using a form of interlocking metal panels called AM2 matting. We were marooned for what seemed an eternity. No one could get on or off the Islands by air, there was no way home.
After ‘scoff’, food, the most important needs of servicemen based overseas are letters from home. They can and do put up with the most invasive of privations while fighting in our name but mess with the post and you will have messed with the best.
Getting letters to and from the Falklands while the airport was closed was a logistical nightmare. The post would leave the UK in a Hercules Transport aircraft packed into mail bags. The plane landed on Ascension Island after a 10 hour flight way out into the North Atlantic so as to avoid flying over European airspace to refuel and possibly change crew. The ‘Herc’ C130 would then trundle slowly south on an 18 hour flight down to the Falklands, flying at 20,000 feet at about 230 mph. En route Victor fuel tankers would meet up and refuel the Hercules two or three times, an operation as hazardous as you would expect especially as the top speed of the lumbering transport plane was exactly the stalling speed of the Victor refuelling Tanker jet. To compensate, the whole refuelling operation had to take place with both aircraft heading in a low dive down towards the deep grey Atlantic swell finally levelling out at about 10,000 feet. Quite terrifying. The transport plane had to be constantly refuelled so that it could circle the Falklands make the mail drop and pickup and return to Ascension without landing, over 30 hours in the air.
I was more than just mildly interested in the post delivery system as it was the only way for me to get my exposed film off the islands and back to my picture desk in London. On the morning of the first pick up Tim Jones from The Times and a couple of correspondents from the Guardian and Telegraph duly assembled under the guidance of an RAF ground crew squaddie on a barren hillside high up on the camp. The wind was blowing from all directions and we all helped the RAF lad set up the rather complicated but very basic catching and delivery system. A few upright spars with lots of rope and some hooks plus a large white canvas cross to mark the drop and pick up point. As the wind was blowing so hard the white cross needed to be held down with anything available, a rock, some stones and the bleached skull of a long dead steer did the job.
After a while, just before frostbite set in, we heard the sound of a low flying aircraft. It made a couple of low passes to drop the incoming mail and then lined up to make the pick up. The tail ramp was open and at less than 100 feet we could see the aircrew engaging their hook system with our somewhat Heath Robison contraption on the ground. All of a sudden a whoosh and our mail bag had been snapped and lifted and the C130 was on it’s way home. My film, all the servicemen’s letters and a steer’s skull were on their way to blighty.
Yup, that’s right a ‘steer’s skull’.
Our young RAF lad thought it was a bit of a hoot to send a memento to his pals back home……
A few days later I was sitting in four layers of clothing in the unheated Port Stanley library. I was watching a video of ‘The Life of Brian’ by the Monty Python team, wonderful stuff. It was late in the evening and Tim and I were quietly getting through a bottle of Remy Martin Cognac ( £3 in the NAAFI ) and a tin of Cadbury’s Brazil Nuts. We knew how to have a good time.
A young member of Her Majesty’s forces came in to use one of the only two photo-copiers available on the islands. He asked if we might be interested in seeing some documents marked ‘TOP SECRET’. All of a sudden the two of us woke from our frozen and slightly drunken stupor and became ace newshounds. We gave a quick glance at the material and made some extra copies to read in private later.
The essence of the TOP SECRET correspondence was a series of exchanges by cable between the various commanders of the Army, Navy and Air force based on the Falklands, Ascension Island and at South Atlantic HQ at Northolt in the UK.
The steer’s head had indeed made its way to Ascension Island to be on passed to the UK. Except, it was discovered by the Ascension base commander who wrote to the Commander in Chief Port Stanley that ‘he took a pretty dim view of wasting the time and cost of getting aircrew down to the South Atlantic at considerable risk to life and limb to pick up and deliver mail if it was thought acceptable to send the skull of a steer back in the mail sack. I don’t see the humour here at all’.
The C in C Port Stanley obviously had a funny bone and responded to C in C Ascension, ‘This is a perfect example of the petty pilfering going on within the RAF and must stop immediately as when we sent the steer northwards it was indeed a fully grown beast, someone at your end must have eaten the rest of the animal’.
Both messages were of course seen by C in C South Atlantic at his base deep underground at the Northolt HQ.
His response was to both senior officers based on Ascension and Port Stanley. ‘On the subject of the steer’s head and missing beast
I can let you know that I prefer OXO and declare the game love all’.
Nice little tale, not earth shattering but a quiet sweet story.
The Times ran it as the quirky amusing basement piece on page 1.
By lunchtime questions had been asked in the House of Commons along the lines of why are we wasting tax payers money etc etc, Hansard duly reported the debate, and dark brown smelly stuff hit the spinning fan at the MOD.
Meanwhile, way down south in cold windy dispiriting Port Stanley an enquiry had been started to find out how the Times could have had access to this TOP SECRET information.
About 11pm there was a rat-a-tat-tat on the front door of the house we were living in. I opened the door in my long johns to find a 6’6” Red Cap fully paid up member of the Military Police standing there, snow billowing around him, silhouetting him as if he were a personal messenger from Hell. He demanded to see Tim’s note book, there were no niceties. I ran upstairs to wake Tim while quickly finding the original TOP SECRET photo-copies made in the library. Tim engaged the Red Cap in some protracted conversation possibly about syntactical errors in the piece and I went into the back garden, cleared of booby trap hand grenades and burnt the copies that we had made. My flaming Zippo made short work of our illicit paperwork and for once I was pleased that the wind had picked up and blew the evidence far out into the dark southern seas.
A couple of weeks later I was mooching around photographing the final reconstruction work at Port Stanley airport. I was having trouble making an image that said ‘Falklands’ rather than just a building site.
I noticed an RAF Hercules C130 Transport aircraft at the end of the nearly finished runway. There was nothing unusual about that except it didn’t have a refuelling nozzle sticking out above the cockpit. I asked the base commander how on earth that plane had arrived without being refuelled. He became evasive and I smelled a rat. He told me that the plane had been there since before the war and was hidden from the Argies. Now, I’m not a fool and don’t like to be taken for one, so I decided to investigate.
That evening Tim and I brought a few rounds of drinks for the RAF Hercules air crew who were all enjoying the delights of the Upland Goose, the only hotel and restaurant in Port Stanley. After further alcoholic lubrication we discovered that the crew and plane had been overnighting and refuelling on the South American mainland in Brazil, a country not over friendly with Argentina. That is why they didn’t have a refuelling nozzle.
This was quite a story as it was the first time since the start of the war that a South American country had sided with the UK.
Tim wrote up the piece with help from myself and once again questions were asked in the House of Commons, once again we were mentioned in Hansard, twice in a month, not bad, we must be doing something right.
This time we didn’t get a midnight call from a Red Cap but I was hauled over the coals by the Airport Commander and told that I was ‘persona non grata’, and would get absolutely no further help from the RAF while I was on station.
Hey ho, time to pal up with the Senior Service, the Royal Navy. I made some phone calls and asked if I could please come and play with some aircraft carriers, as you do.
The C in C South Atlantic Fleet was very happy to have the Times photograph his ships at sea and arrangements were made.
Tim and myself plus an MOD minder and a photographer from the British Government’s Central Office of Information ( COI ) did a quick safety course of how to escape from a crashed helicopter at sea. Our instruction was: You wait until the rotor has stopped spinning as the helicopter sinks and turns upside down. You find a horizontal metal rail attached to the internal fuselage that has a triangle profile which will indicate that you are next to an escape window, here you pull your legs up to your chest and kick out which hopefully will dislodge the Plexiglas window, all this while holding your breath, not panicking and in the dark probably 50 feet down in the ice cold South Atlantic while wearing a padded blow up brightly coloured survival suit .
Thankfully we were not tested.
Being winched down onto a British war ship travelling at 20 knots, bucking on the waves, from a helicopter is not for the faint hearted. The ship may be large but from a helicopter above the vast emptiness of the South Atlantic, it looks very small indeed. It’s all about timing. The ship has to rise and you have to time your descent to make a soft landing. Sitting in the open doorway of a Sea King chopper with not much more than a bit of webbing and some wire supporting you is when you start to pray. And then you are away, whoosh, you are flying through space, wind and salty spray in your face, more exhilarating than any fairground ride could possibly be. Before touching down on the deck you have to be earthed. The deck crew have to hook your legs as you are dangling in space to make the earth, then you are hauled on board, without the earth grounding being made you would get a real electrical kick from the build up of static made by the helicopter blades.
We all landed safely on HMS Bristol a type 82 Destroyer and the Flag Ship of the South Atlantic Fleet and were taken to the wardroom for refreshments.
I asked over drinks if it was possible to muster up an aircraft carrier, or two plus anything else that was in the area for my photograph. I also wanted a Harrier Jump Jet somewhere in the frame.
It was decided to use a Lynx helicopter as our camera platform for its brilliant manoeuvrability but as they were based on one of the flat top aircraft carriers we had to make a further Helicopter transfer. Oh what fun !
Once more a briefing for the Lynx this time ( the same but a smaller space to panic in ). We went down to the crew quarters and kitted and up. HRH Prince Andrew was a Lynx pilot at the time and was certainly on board and around, certainly my cameras created a bit of a stir in the crew area as most of the guys were stripped off down to their basics. I never saw HRH and I often wonder if I would have snapped him in his all together, probably not, we were a long way off the coast of the Falklands and I’m not a good swimmer.
We took off and positioned ourselves a few hundred feet up…..and then for 20 glorious minutes I had complete control of the South Atlantic Fleet.
I asked over the RT for the two aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and HMS Invincible, the least manoeuvrable of the fleet to position themselves and hold station at 20 knots running parallel with each other leaving a decent sized gap between them. I then arranged for a few Royal Fleet Auxiliary ( RFA ) ships to fill gaps in my Atlantic canvas. A lone Fleet Air Arm vertical take off Harrier Jet hovered over the scene before I asked Admiral Black C in C South Atlantic to make great speed in his flag ship, HMS Bristol, and dash between the two carriers to complete my composition.
Everything worked brilliantly and I said my thanks.
The chopper crew then asked if the COI photographer and myself were securely strapped in…ominous.
They wanted to play and show off exactly what the Lynx could do to the assembled sailors and VIP’s.
First we did a few ‘attack’ runs at the flat tops at maximum speed and dropped ‘bomb’ flares onto the decks, then our crew wanted to show how to throw a Lynx around in the air, standing on its tail and letting it free fall backwards, turning virtually upside down and then diving to sea level before attacking once again from wave height.
It was only after I mentioned, shouted, that I was about to throw up big time and they would have to clean out the chopper upon landing that the boys calmed down and we landed. Very shaken and very very stired, I think part of my stomach is still out there somewhere in the South Atlantic.
I’m still not sure if HRH was part of our two man crew but I have a sneaky suspicion that ‘Randy Andy’ was there and getting his own back on a representative of one of ‘Fleets Streets’ finest.
Flying back to Stanley was quite uneventful apart from getting lost. Our Sea King crew had never landed at the Helicopter landing zone ( LZ ) next to Government house in the centre of Port Stanley before. There was a thick pea souper of a fog that had closed in at ground level but leaving lamp post heads sticking out above the gloom in the town. The skipper asked if anyone knew where the LZ was and as I had spent the previous days photographing around Port Stanley I remembered that the modern lamp posts changed to a more Victorian design near to Government House. He asked me to go up onto the flight deck and take over the navigation for the final few hundred yards. I asked him to fly, blind, with the lamp posts either side of us as we flew at 20 feet along the main street in Port Stanley which was invisible of course. When the lamp posts became Victorian I said, ’Turn left here’, which he did and we landed spot on the LZ with cheers all around.
Something from my past playing with my model aircraft must have paid off somewhere….
I write the above in a mildly humorous way but I would like to pay tribute to the crews and men of the two Sea Kings that crashed during the Falklands war. While both crews were rescued the SAS lost 22 men in one of the incidents.
I managed to transmit my picture from a RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) Ship moored in Stanley Harbour via ‘Marisat’ to Norway and then to Electra House in London where the Times picked up my image by messenger. Unfortunately the image quality broke up during the £700 very expensive and protracted transmission. The picture was unusable.
Meanwhile my COI photographer friend had shipped his film back to his office by air bridge and arrived a few days later. He had the same images as I had but perfectly printed from real negatives in London. His picture, art directed and organised by me looked very nice across half a page in ….The Daily Telegraph !!!
Some you lose and some you lose…learn and move on.