British soldiers surrender to Argentine troops who invaded the islands on April 2, 1982 in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. Picture Credit: Rafael WOLLMANN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The fall of Port Stanley

Letters from the Falklands front: no April fool

Artillery Row

To mark 40 years since the Falklands War, two Critic contributors based in the Southern Hemisphere, A.S.H. Smyth in the Falklands, and Dominic Hilton in Argentina, are exchanging letters reflecting on the events of the war, and the differing perspectives on it in Port Stanley and Buenos Aires. Have the two societies moved on? Do scars still run deep? 

Dear Dominic, 

Freya (age 4½) is once again asking why I’m forever being invited over to the Governor’s place. Naturally, I told her that it’s just because I’m such a Top Chap. Last Thursday though, the 31st, it was specifically because there was a reception at Govt. House, hosted by His Excellency (Air Commodore, ret.) Nigel Phillips CBE, in honour of the 32 members of the Falkland Islands Defence Force who turned out on the night of the Argentine invasion. Or, as the Governor put it, “the first of the events that formally mark the commemoration of what happened 40 years ago.”

There are, as you know, scores — if not hundreds — of books, radio and TV documentaries, and even feature films about the Falklands conflict (three of them being broadcast this Monday alone, on Forces television, which is a thing down here); but almost all of these are from the point of view of UK forces. There’s very little written or recorded from the perspective of the local volunteer reserves, whose country, after all, it was that was about to be invaded.

On the evening of April 1st 1982, then, the Governor, Rex Hunt, went on the radio at 7:15pm, announced the bad news that had been passed on to him from Whitehall, and called up the resident detachment(s) of the Royal Marines — Naval Party 8901 — and the FIDF (Falkland Islands Defence Force).

From a paper strength of a hundred or so, spread across the Islands, all 32 of those in Stanley turned out — a brave but self-evidently forlorn “force”, even when augmented by several dozen Marines, against the thousands of incoming Argentinians (see, almost identically, the 1770 Port Egmont showdown). 

The situation wasn’t helped by several complicating factors, not least of which was the fact that, fortuitously or otherwise, the Marines were double-staffed during a handover between detachments, and had to kit themselves out from the FIDF’s armoury. This literally left some of the local soldiery with WW2 weapons (on which, needless to say, they lacked experience). There was also, even though the FIDF were trained by the Marines, no obvious plan for any kind of integrated operations. Lastly, the home team weren’t equipped with radios, which very nearly led to blue-on-blue disasters.

Over and above all this, there was also, in Rex Hunt’s mind, a desperate need to avoid a running battle through the streets (and, more importantly, wooden-walled houses) of the capital. 

The shooting began around dawn — concentrating soon enough on Government House itself, where some of the effects can still be seen — and within an hour or two the Governor had ordered the defensive forces to lay down their weapons. The FIDF Sergeant Major, manning the neighbouring wireless office (his day job anyway), found himself in the unpalatable position of having to set up comms for the negotiations. (I asked if that had been a particularly bitter pill, but he said no: it was the only thing to do.)

For almost all the FIDF contingent that was the end of their war in uniform. By and large they said the Argentinians who disarmed them on the morning of April 2nd were “professional”, and did not treat them unreasonably. But several were subsequently sent into internal exile on West Falkland, others had the unpleasant task of running civil amenities under the occupying authority, and yet more took on considerable risks fighting fires, etc. once the Royal Navy and the RAF got within range and began the process of recapturing the Islands. 

Among the veterans I spoke to in the last couple of weeks the overwhelming consensus was that the civilian population, either of occupied Stanley (including some of themselves) or involved later with the British counter-invasion, had the much tougher time of it. But still, as one of them did mention (and indeed the Governor underlined in his speech), they didn’t know that when they parted from their families on the evening of April 1st.

With thousands of British soldiers billeted in Stanley, the re-establishment of the FIDF wasn’t much of a priority in the months after the liberation. But most of them came back to it in due course, and in later years more than one went on to become Sergeant Major or even commanding officer of the unit. 

Alas, many of the “Class of ’82”, of course, have since passed away. But almost all of those still alive were in attendance at Govt House to see a plaque with all their names on it unveiled by the Governor and the current CO, Major Justin McPhee.

Rather surprisingly, in a place with a disproportionately high number of military memorials, this appears to be the first visible civic acknowledgement of these men answering the call to arms. Yes, sure, as one of them said to me “people here know who did what,” but still. This seems like taking stoical soldierly reticence to an extreme. (And actually I’m not so sure it always has been that clear cut, since a page of the 1992 10th-anniversary edition of the Penguin News Falklands newspaper talks of “controversy” over the part played by the FIDF, and goes on to list precisely who was where that night…) 

The sombre part of the evening dealt with, past and present members of the FIDF — many of them related — then drank a toast to the words of the newly-inaugurated FIDF motto, as approved by Her Majesty, “Faithful in Defence,” before pivoting fluidly to a charity auction of a limited edition bottle of Speyside Glen Moray whisky, numbered and signed by the Governor, Maj. Gen. Julian Thompson (commander of 3 Commando Brigade in 1982), and Gen. Sir Mike Rose (SAS commander). The bidding started at £100, and by the time former FIDF Captain Andrew Brownlee finished his auctioneering duties he had mercilessly extracted no less than £670 out of a young Marine captain from the main garrison down the road at Mount Pleasant. (Was he going to drink it, I asked? No, he said: but as Falklands souvenirs go, it would be better than a toy stuffed penguin.)

In an egregious breach of basic journalistic ethics, I was double-hatting at the reception: an invitee in my own right, but also wielding a microphone for Falklands Radio (for whom I freelance in the newsroom, among other things). What can I say? This is a very small town.

Despite that, I knew the names but not the faces of most of the veterans in the room. What I did know, from my attempts to put together a radio feature on the FIDF’s efforts on the night of April 1st, was that quite a few of them don’t want to talk about it. This isn’t merely out of modesty, I think. A lot of them find revisiting the conflict generally to be traumatic. (Another — an avowed PTSD sufferer at that — simply told me that he found talking about it “repetitious”.) 

Quite apart from these poor guys (diminishing number of) being constantly asked to tell their 1982 stories again, there are plenty of people in the Falklands who feel that the small island nation is over-associated with just this one, albeit epochal, event. This is a tricky topic, and it would be an unwise expat (“contractor”, as we’re known here) who took a public view on it. One might note, though, that the Falkland Islands Government’s official slogan for this year — “Forward at 40” — does seem to have at least one foot in the idea that the war was the Year Zero of the modern Falkland Islands. While this is broadly true, it makes it rather hard to not be looking back always to 1982.

Anyway, I felt uncomfortable taking this opportunity to introduce myself, least of all with mic in hand. Most of them won’t know that I (a voice from the radio, if they listen to it) am even in the FIDF, and there’s no particular reason why they should; but I didn’t want it now to seem like I was using that as leverage. Since several of them had told me straightforwardly over the phone that they did not want to talk (to me or anyone), I was also feeling pre-emptively embarrassed about the fact that I’d nonetheless been invited – as broadcast journalist – to their quite obviously closed “82 veterans” drinks at the Malvina (sic) House Hotel the following night. (Named for a girl, apparently, and not connected with the Argentine name for the Islands, nor a source of any awkwardness in town, to the nervous surprise of every newcomer.)

In the circumstances it was frankly a relief to find that the current FIDF cohort had taken it upon themselves to bring this new commemoration home, as it were, and organised an impromptu unveiling ceremony for the next evening, outside the members’ bar at our headquarters. Former CO Brian Summers graced us with his presence, blazer and medals on, and said a few words, between the plaque and a substantial Union flag. At 7:15pm, on April 1st, we raised our cans of Bud, and cheered the courage and commitment of our predecessors.

Yours, in (Port) Stanley,


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