The Falklands – or Las Malvinas, as they are called in Argentina – hove on to my mental horizon on a windy day, threatening rain, in Bariloche, northern Patagonia.
I’d decided to take advantage of a tentative break in the grey, cloud-flecked sky, to take a cable car ride up Cerro Otto to admire the view of Lake Nahuel Huapi from the dated and slightly depressing revolving restaurant with a definite dash of Soviet style. I bought my ticket from an elderly man in a wooden Swiss chalet-style ticket booth, who was smoking and chatting with his equally elderly and slightly gnarled friend. When they found out I was English, they both smirked cunningly and asked me what people in my country thought of the Falklands War. While unfortunately I can’t claim to be too young to remember the war (well, I can – and often do – but it isn’t true), I must admit to being a little hazy on the details, so I was slightly thrown by their question. They weren’t too bothered by my lack of historical military knowledge, and took the opportunity to fill me in with a scathing overview of General Galtieri’s politics and Chile’s traitorous role in aiding the war-mongering Brits. Interestingly, by this time, nearly 30 years since the war, they seemed to hold more of a grudge against their neighbouring country than against Britain, their erstwhile enemy.
As I travelled further south through the wild expanse of Patagonia, the references to the Malvinas grew more frequent, culminating in Ushuaia, with a townful of memorials to the soldiers who died in the war. At this point I never expected to visit these remote islands myself, though my conversations with locals like the cable car ticket seller did begin to whet my curiosity about this far-flung outpost of British territory. So when I had to make my choice between an 11-12 day trip to the Antarctic peninsula or a longer, 20-day voyage that took in the Falklands and South Georgia as well, these discussions were a definite factor in my decision. Equally influential, if I’m truthful, was the fact that the longer trip was available for the same price as the shorter one.
As a result of factors economic and otherwise, I found myself landing by zodiac at Port Stanley on the day before Christmas Eve, 2009. One of my new-found friends on the Orlova, the expedition boat I was travelling on, was Solly, a freelance journalist who writes for the Brazilian news website, Terra. He was on board, amazingly enough, at the request of his editor, on an all-expenses-paid field trip. I would have been impossibly jealous of his situation if he hadn’t spent a good part of the voyage in bed seasick, with occasional forays to the dining room to experiment with the therapeutic effects of two, if not three, desserts created by the talented pastry chef, Gerardo. On the promise (subsequently broken) that I would keep quiet, and the agreement (kept) that I would take photos with his camera, Solly very kindly allowed me to sit in on an interview he conducted with two former marines, Gary and Curly (aged 55 and 49 respectively) in the Falkland Islands Museum, crammed with exhibits and hugely informative. These stocky former soldiers had both joined the crack force of the Marines aged 16, had fought in the Falklands conflict and are now both living there permanently. Gary is married to a local girl he’d met when stationed there in 1977, Curly is a more recent immigrant who’d relocated his entire family ‘lock, stock and barrel’ from the UK.
The whole encounter was incredibly moving and affecting. Curly had been in Gibraltar when war broke out. His ship was fully provisioned and ready, and they sat, docked, waiting for the orders to set sail, and waiting to see if the boat turned right or left when it left the port. It turned left, so the troops knew they were headed for war and for Ascension Island, where a fleet of British ships massed, provisioned from Europe, forming the longest military supply chain ever. I was curious to find out how accurate the cable car man’s comments about the Chilean role in facilitating this supply chain were, but was unable to discover the real truth about this.
The Argentinian forces outnumbered the British troops 3:1 and in military terms, according to Curly, the British should never have won. But the British had sent in their best resources: the Marines, of course, including Curly and Gary, and also the Paras, the Guards, and the Gurkhas. Not only did the British have the superior forces they also had an unquantifiable x-factor. As Curly put it, the Argentinians underestimated the mentality of the British forces. Despite the fact that the Falklands are 8000 miles from Britain, both men agreed that the war was fought as though it had been in their own backyard. Gary described how an indefatigable British backbone and determination came into play: they agreed that for them, losing or giving up was just not an option to even be considered.
In a chilling recollection, Curly told us how he’d spent his 22nd birthday fishing the dead and injured from the icy grip of the Atlantic after HMS Coventry was hit. Gary told us how when the battle ship the Belgrano was hit and 300 Argentinian soldiers were killed, his initial feeling was one of elation, of victory. It was only when the Britsih battleship the Sheffield was hit that the whole thing suddenly seemed real, was suddenly starkly revealed as more than a game and as a genuine life-and-death situation. I could hardly begin to imagine what these men had been through and the scenes they had witnessed. Polite, articulate, quietly-spoken and self-possessed when we spoke with them, they had evidently been highly effective former soldiers capable of being as ruthless as was necessary. They spoke in a matter-of-fact way of how every soldier had had their ‘own Falklands War’, all focused on their own specific objectives, their own particular experience, but how they all felt a bond due to the fact they’d all gone through something no one else could fully comprehend: for them, the war included everyone who’d fought there and excluded everyone else. The men described the exhausting and physically challenging conditions prevailing in this damp, cold, exposed and remote island, how the men had to carry packs weighing 100 pounds plus and how many of them suffered badly from trench foot.
Gary and Curly told their story in a calm, clear, matter-of-fact way, yet by saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that they were clinical about it; far from it. At times they spoke with barely-suppressed emotion, and there were several points when all four of us had tears in our eyes. While tough in the military arena – as they explained, you did what you had to do, it was you or ‘them’ – away from the battlefield they were deeply sensitive and thoughtful. They were genuinely affected by the grief of the families of the Argentinian casualties, who’d recently been permitted to make their first visit to the island to stage a memorial. Gary has been extremely active in setting up a veteran’s centre in Port Stanley, in a big house overlooking the harbour, so that the vets and their families can come, stay as long as they like, visit the island, including the battle sites where they’d been stationed, and hopefully lay some of their demons to rest. And while it would have been completely out-of-character for Gary or Curly to complain – these are the toughest guys I’ve ever met – the demons are obviously tenacious.
The Falkland Islanders seem to be eternally grateful for what soldiers like Gary and Curly did for them. When Solly asked Glenda, who works at the Falklands Museum, for potential contacts for his interview, she said she’d call Gary, ‘one of the guys who liberated us’. And as the men themselves related, when one of the visiting vet’s wives asked Glenda if she didn’t get bored of all these former soldiers visiting and talking about the war, she’d said, ‘I’ll look after them as my children will look after their children and my children will look after their children’. It was a highly charged moment and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle to attention. I was astonished at how generous Gary and Curly were with their experiences and insights, even though some of the memories they shared with us clearly still were and always will be painful. Despite my general opposition to war, I felt exceptionally privileged to talk to these men and left feeling a deep admiration for them both and a much more nuanced view of who the Falklands/the Malvinas should belong to.
If you liked this, you might be interested in:
- The official UK Government Falkland Islands website
- The Falkland Islands Tourist Board website
- My Antarctica blog post
- My Round the World in 100 Countries blog post