This blog is dedicated to Richard Thorpe and Frank Rose (Clare’s Dad and
Today we hired a mini bus and set off across East Falkland. The aim was to see the island and to visit some of the key sites of the 1982 war. The minibus driver was Norman, an ex marine, and in combination with Richard Pattison they provided a commentary on all the events leading up to the recapture of Port Stanley. We drove a circular route from east to west across the north part of the island to Port San Carlos then south to Goose Green and then home again across the south half of the island via Bluff Cove, Mt Tumbledown and then back to the boat. Where we could we got out of the bus, took pictures and walked some of the more important battlefields.
On either side of the gravel roads that the minibus drove along with no concern for his paintwork (and sometimes frightening speed) were barbed wire fences marking the uncleared Argentine minefields. In order our route took us past Mt Kent, Teal Inlet, Port San Carlos (the British troops landing site and the British war cemetery), the Argentine war graves, Goose Green, Mt Harriet, Mt Tumbledown and William and then home via the wreck of the Lady Elizabeth in Stanley Harbour.
I don’t want to write a history of the Falklands war but I do want to recount a little bit about what we saw today whilst it is fresh in our minds and a little bit about the Falklands as it is at the moment. Firstly the scenery. Again we find ourselves in a landscape devoid of trees like Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides. There is grassland and rocky outcrops as far as you can see. The roads are sometimes tarmac and sometimes dirt tracks and without markings. For at least 45 minutes of our drive over the northern road we saw no other cars and were able to stop the bus on the road to look at things. The count of other cars the whole day outside of Stanley could not have been higher than 15. The bus was tracing the 65 mile March of the British troops which, we were reminded, was done in winter and carrying 70kg backpacks with all their kit and ammunition. To test this Nick and I
(Clare) got out of the bus and Nick walked 20 m or so up the road over the rock runs (rivers of broken up rocks) with me on his back to simulate a backpack. As we stopped the bus at Mt Kent it rained, a few minutes of rain on an otherwise sunny day. The rain gave us a little taste of what it might have been like walking through that terrain on a worse day than ours. The average wind speed on the Falklands is 15 knots and with the low pressure
systems tracking over the Islands roughly every 5 days the weather it must have been a hard week.
From Mt Kent we drove to Port San Carlos where the 3500 British troops landed after much deliberation on whether they were to invade at all and after the loss of two ships. As the minibus came over the crest of the hill we saw a stunning view of Port San Carlos which apart from being a historic site is also a picturesque anchorage (or as picturesque as you can get in the bleak treeless landscape). The sea was blue/green and the wind was gentle. I thought how nice it would have been to take Elinca around the islands… another time maybe. At Port San Carlos there is small museum with some information about the Falklands wildlife and about the landings and the soldiers lost as the Argentine planes bombed the ships as the men came ashore. The settlement also hosts the British war cemetery in which 15 our of the 250 British dead are buried. These were those who’s families had opted to leave their bodies to be buried in the Falklands. I found the site
incredibly peaceful and quite simple. It was a stone walled enclosure with a swing gate and two sets of graves facing each other. We stayed quite a while, mostly because the sun was shining and it was nice to wander around reading the messages from loved ones. Sarah spotted that the Assistant Laundryman from HMS Ardent had been killed. That seemed particularly poignant and a reminder that when a ship is bombed the cooks and cleaners
When we left the cemetery we drive up the hill and south toward goose green. We stopped on the top of the hill to look at where the newly landed soldiers ‘dug in’ and managed to find a ring of stones they might have used. We also saw a few enormous hares bounding away across the hillside and some hawks circling overhead. The Argentine cemetery was next with 275 white crosses adorned with rosary beads and some bearing names. Others had two names on or no name and the simple inscription ‘soldado conocido solo por dio’ ‘solider known only by god’. Without dog tags, our bus driver told us, most of the ~1200 Argentine boys were not identified and some family members have claimed a nameless crosses as their own. There was some talk about how the cemetery was being used as a political foothold to give the Argentinians a way to visit the Falklands at will but the overall feeling was one of sadness at so many unnamed graves.
Goose green was a walking tour and Richard took us through the action step by step. It was fascinating hearing a military take on the actions, victories and mistakes that day that lead to the death of 40 men and their commander Cornel Jones. We lay in the grass to demonstrate the concept of ‘dead ground’ and what you could and couldn’t see from the various outposts and trenches used. We visited the spot where Jones was shot as he ‘broke
cover’ and became exposed to the Argentine guns. The area it’s self was not as beautiful as Port San Carlos but whilst we learnt about the war we were also photographing plants (well Cliggy was). By this time we were driving east along the line that the troops would have taken on their march to Stanley (at least that portion of the army that went south then east). We got out of the bus again at Harriet where the 200 British launched an attack on a rocky outcrop defended by 400 Argentinians. Again Norman our bus driver described the battle in detail and we stood, with minefields either side, whilst he described how the British had advanced on the hill whilst a naval ship provided cover fire from the sea. Once taken the Argentines fled to Mt Williams and Mt Tumbledown where they were picked up by the Ghurkha regiment and the Welsh Guards. We were so lucky to be able to see the area with such knowledgeable company and as we are leaving the Falklands tomorrow, to take the first weather gap to South Georgia and maximise our time there, it was great to cram such anextensive Falklands tour into our one day.
On the Falklands in general I just wanted to say how amazed i was at how sparsely populated it is. When we asked the bus driver what keeps people here on the Falklands rather than in the UK he said that it was the space, the chance to raise children where they can ride a horse off into the limitless distance (presumably avoiding the minefields) and the lack of traffic lights. The population really is tiny but that means no crime! The local paper ‘the penguin news’ is busy at the moment because there is court case, a rare case of theft! A downside to living here would be the lack of fresh milk, apparently there was a dairy run by an Australian until he ran off back to Australia with all the equipment. Norman recounted that before internet everyone listened to the same radio frequency for communication and subsequently everybody knew everybody else’s business (I imagine this isstill true even with the internet). The local radio station announces who is on each plane to the different parts of the Falklands each evening. It would be incredibly difficult to have an affair here.
Despite being well briefed before I left home by John, our rector who is ex RAF
and has served here, I was unprepared as to how big the islands are & how barren.
Mile after mile of empty, low moorland stretching to a hazy horizon would have offered
our troops almost no cover as they had to disappear by day and ‘yomp’ by night in their
retaking of the Islands from the Argentines after the 1982 invasion. Richard, who joined us on our arrival here is ex Royal Anglian Regiment and was able to give us almost a first hand account of the events of that time. This brought to life distant memories of hurrying home from work each day to watch in disbelief, the events and terrible losses of our task force as they battled to retake the Falklands. His graphic account and our personal re enactment of the last moments of the life of Colonel H Jones was revealing and unforgettable. This was recent history literally coming back to life. I found the visits to British and Argentine cemeteries terribly sad, especially when reading the ages of some of the young soldiers and sailors at only 19 or 20 years old. Also, the Argentine graveyard is still being used as a political tool in their continuing claim over the sovereignty of these bleak but beautiful islands. In the last few minutes of our fascinating bus tour yesterday there was just time left to drive down to the shore of Whalebone Cove so I could indulge a private passion and photo the wreck of the Sunderland built 3 masted barque ‘Lady Elizabeth’. Just one of several sailing ships which in the 19th & early 20th centuries failed to weather Cape Horn and put back into Port Stanley with severe damage and were then condemmed and stayed here. Unlike the weather and the appearance of the islands, the people are kind, generous and delightful and typical of those who live in smaller communities in more difficult parts of this wonderful world.
Must stop now as we are just about to set sail for South Georgia.