Thursday, 24 May 2007

Remember the Malvinas

There's been a deluge of books about the Falklands War now that it's the 25th anniversary of that pointless little conflict. I was nevertheless mightily intrigued with it at the time as a military history freak teenager, especially as those bomb-laden rickety old Vulcans began making divots in Goose Green on my 15th birthday, which must have been a Saturday because I remember drinking Drambuie at some rich kid's house somewhere in Maori Hill (the Knobsville of Dunedin in those days).

Incredible to think now that Margaret Thatcher was heading towards political oblivion after a couple very dismal years in office and that Michael Foot of all people could well have been hanging up his duffel coat at No.10 eventually. Nothing like a colonial war to perk up the population and get the jingoistic blood flowing again. But at the time, in the immortal words of the Iron Duke, "it was a damned close run thing". One or two more type-42 frigates sunk with a couple well-placed Exocets and the Brits would have turned tail and steamed back to Blighty to lick their wounds and further contemplate the continuing decline of 'Great' Britain.

But at the time we all thought the Brits were doing a fine job of kicking some Argie arse. Stories about Colonel 'H' Jones leading his troop into the muzzles of the enemies guns had us fired up, even if he was killed as a result and awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Pathetically, the New Zealand Prime Minister at the time, Robert Muldoon, lent the Brits one of our (four) frigates to free up one of their own for South Atlantic duties.

It's fascinating reading some of the accounts now, particularly from the naval perspective. One of the books recently published is by the commander of the destroyer HMS Coventry, which took three direct hits from 1,000lb bombs delivered by Skyhawks (ironically, the very same fighter aircraft that New Zealand used up until we very sensibly disbanded our airforce a few years ago), and which sunk with the loss of 19 lives in just 20 minutes (Four Weeks In May). As the commander recounts, the two Argie Skyhawks came into view at a distance of 15km after the Sea Wolf missile battery of the accompanying destroyer, HMS Broadsword, failed to fire. Apparently, the battery's software couldn't make the decision which Skyhawk to shoot down because they were flying so close together and at such similar range that it couldn't distinguish a single target. As a result the battery just closed itself down. The Antelope fired off a couple Sea Darts (1950s technology) but they strayed off into the Falklands' hills. The ship's company then lined up on the deck with any firearm they could find and tried to bring the jet aircraft down with repeated volleys of fire. In desperation, someone even tried to blind the two pilots by flashing the signalling project. All to no avail.

And so the Brits took a bit of a battering within the naval taskforce from the Argie airforce, whose flyers modelled themselves on WWII fighter pilots by sitting outside on deck chairs waiting for the call to scramble and using expressions like "Tally ho!"Luckily for them the Rapier anti-aircraft batteries set up on the island were total crap. Unluckily for them, the Brit pilots of the slower but more manoeuverable Hawker Harrier jumpjets were better trained and knew how to 'vector' their jets to best advantage. Unfortunately, a few dogfight victories weren't quite enough for Maggie as the navy lost more and more of their quick-burning aluminium ships, which led to the order to sink the WWII-era cruiser, the General Belgrano, leading to the infamous English tabloid headline "Gotcha!", despite the fact the Belgrano was well outside the exclusion zone and was steaming back towards port. The frustration with the loss of ships also led to the land battle for Goose Green, which went against the overall tactical plan but which was demanded by the politicians to demonstrate the superiority of British squaddies over Argie conscripts and raise morale back home.

All this reminescing about war in the early 1980s makes me think about all the stories about the 17th cocktail squadron that I picked up off a mate during my last year at university. More on that later perhaps. By the way, has Rotten read the junkie-gonzo-journalistic account of the war in Yugoslavia by Anthony Loyd called "My War Gone By, How I Miss It So"? A highly recommended read.

1 comment:

Rotten said...


I haven't read "My War Gone By" but will look for it. "Junkie-Gonzo-Journalistic." I hope it's very gonzo, as I despise junkies and journos.

You might dig David Mitchell's latest, "Black Swan Green". There's a big Falklands reminiscence as well as some other gem stuff from growing up in the eighties.

PS When I was in Buenos Aires in '93 the Argies were still claiming the Maldives (as they were denoted on the maps of the Argentine Air in-flight magazine) as well as that bit of Antarctica that sticks up towards the Drake Passage and Straits of Magellan...