ROBERT HARDMAN: 40 years on from the liberation of the Falkland Islands, what pride these veterans have for their part in one of the greatest feats of arms in history
You now need to be long into middle age to remember the raw emotion of those extraordinary few weeks in the spring and summer of 1982. For all those gathered here yesterday, however, it could have been last week.
‘His memory etched on our minds, forever in our hearts,’ ran the handwritten inscription on the freshly laid wreath for Adrian Anslow of the Fleet Air Arm. He was only 20 when he died. It was signed: ‘Mum, Dad and sister.’
Thousands of Mr Anslow’s comrades were here at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire yesterday to ensure that he, like all the 255 servicemen who gave their lives in the liberation of the Falkland Islands, are still dearly remembered.
Thousands of ex-servicemen and women gathered at the National Memorial to ensure the memory of the 255 who lost lives
Boris Johnson (pictured alongside senior UK defence staff and Falklands veterans) laid a wreath at the service earlier today
The Prime Minister remembered the ‘incredible’ achievement of Britain’s 26,000 servicemen and women sent to the islands
Mr Johnson opened his remarks: ‘The first thing I remember is what an incredible thing it was that they achieved back in 1982’
It was exactly 40 years to the day since British troops hoisted the Union flag above Port Stanley following the surrender of the Argentinian forces. Even today, it is astonishing to think that Britain managed to assemble a battle fleet, sail to the other side of the world and defeat a well-entrenched invader without proper air support – all inside three months.
And unlike every other conflict since, none of those involved had a scintilla of doubt, let alone regret. Every single one of them remains unshakeably proud to have been part of one of the greatest feats of arms in modern history.
Introducing yesterday’s Royal British Legion ceremony, the military historian and former Falklands War correspondent Sir Max Hastings reflected that this had been ‘the greatest adventure of our lives’.
The 40th anniversary commemorations included many profoundly moving testimonies and recordings spanning all the key elements of the Falklands story.
A tearful veteran appears to be moved by remarks made at the Falklands’ 40th anniversary memorial service in Staffordshire
On a highly emotional day, the Prime Minister laid a wreath at the Drumhead before addressing veterans and their families
This iconic war photograph taken by Pete Holdgate shows valiant Royal Marines march towards Port Stanley during the war
They included the dockyard workers who had the fleet ready to sail in just three days, and the burly ex-Royal Marine Graeme Golightly, whose toughest moment had actually been writing the letter leaving his meagre worldly goods to his Mum.
Among the most poignant moments was a series of video tributes from the children living in the Falkland Islands today. All made the simple, powerful point that their freedom rested entirely on the bravery of these stern-faced men squinting in the Staffordshire sunlight and the sacrifices of those that never made it home. ‘Thank you,’ they all said. And you knew that they really meant it.
Even more evocative than the grainy TV footage of tearful farewells and air attacks on the Royal Navy in ‘Bomb Alley’ were the first-hand stories of those in the thick of it.
The prime minister spoke briefly about the ‘incredible daring and bravery’ shown by British servicemen and women
There was even time for the odd smile during today’s proceedings as senior defence staff appeared to watch the flyover
A military flyover involving a British Army chinook helicopter took place during the National Memorial Arboretum service
Former Petty Officer Chris Howe received a warm round of applause for his account of being caught in a fireball after his ship HMS Coventry was struck by three bombs. He could remember having his ‘morning brew’ on deck in bright sunshine and thinking it was ‘perfect weather for Argie pilots’.
He could remember the warnings, later, of approaching enemy aircraft as he manned his post in the operations room – moments before he found himself on the floor in shredded clothing and a tangle of wires, more than a quarter of his body burned to a crisp.
And he could remember how it was only the thought of his wife and sons which empowered him to crawl through the wreckage and haul himself over the side into the soothing South Atlantic.
His subsequent journey from life-raft to a succession of field hospitals and back to the UK remains a little hazy. But, as he concluded: ‘We must never forget!’
Historian and Fleet Street veteran Max Hastings, who was sent to the Falklands as a war correspondent, also spoke today
Margaret Thatcher informed the House of Commons the Argentines had surrendered at 10.15am on June 15. Islanders mark January 10 as Margaret Thatcher Day
Afterwards, in a quiet moment, he told me of a young rating who he had just sent down to a muster station where the poor boy caught the full force of the bombs. Such enduring memories as these are why he remains a trustee of the South Atlantic Medal Association, the decoration which united all those present yesterday.
Remarkably, some of them are still serving to this day.
Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Antony Radakin, told me that there are still 168 Falklands veterans in today’s Armed Forces. He was a schoolboy at the time but retains vivid memories of his mother anxiously scanning the news every night for news of his elder brother, then serving in the task force in HMS Hermes.
Helen Townend, former chair of the Army Widows Association, brought a touch of levity as she recalled taking her newborn twins to wave off her husband Captain Will Townend aboard the QE2.
‘It was like a scene from a Second World War newsreel, but in colour,’ she recalled. As the ship left the quayside, she grabbed the nearest thing she could find to wave at her departing loved one – a Terry’s nappy. One of those twins, Felicity, was there yesterday – and is now proud to serve as a medic in the Army reserves.
Royal Navy commandos are pictured marching from San Carlos to Darwin at the tail end of the violent conflict, June 1982
Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri (left) is pictured with General Menendez on the Falklands Islands during the war
This undated Ministry of Defence photo shows British soldiers recently patrolling the Falklands, which are now at peace
Fresh wounds: a Buenos Aires street mural reads: ‘English get out of the Falklands’, next to an image of Diego Maradona
A veteran wears patches referring to his military service during the 74-day war, which killed 255 Brits and 649 Argentines
British soldiers raise the Union flag at Government House, Port Stanley days after the conflict’s conclusion: June 17, 1982
The former deputy commander of the Royal Navy submarine that sank Argentine cruiser the General Belgrano today defended the controversial attack in an interview to mark the 40th anniversary of the sinking. Above: The Belgrano is pictured as it sank on May 2, 1982
Finally, the veterans were thanked by the Prime Minister, though most of Boris Johnson’s words were drowned out by the thunder of a slow-moving helicopter flypast. After which, there was a great deal of catching up to do.
Karen Manson was thrilled to meet – for the first time – the three comrades who were with her stepbrother Richard Absolon, of 3 Para, when he was killed near Wireless Ridge.
All remembered a quiet lad who never faltered when the going got tough, which explains his posthumous Military Medal.
Nearby I found John ‘Brummie’ Maher, of 59 Commando Royal Engineers, swapping stories with his old mate Dave ‘Muttley’ Wright about their nerve-wracking nights beneath the noses of the enemy clearing minefields around Mount Harriet. ‘The thing is, as long as you’re with your mates, you’ve always got that bond,’ said Mr Maher, 61. ‘And I can assure you that everyone here was very glad that they were there.’
Additional reporting by Katie Neimes
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