Monday, 3 September 2007

My contribution to Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment

The Falklands War.

At 0430 hours on April 2nd 1982 60 or so men of the Buzo Tactico, the Argentine special forces, landed by helicopter at Mullet Creek 3 miles outside of Port Stanley. The long years of negotiation between the British and Argentine governments with regards the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands had failed and Argentina had resorted to the military option. Despite frantic efforts to broker a last minute peace deal the world was powerless to prevent the tiny British garrison from being expelled and a large contingent of Argentine troops from landing. Barely two months later at 2359 on the 14th June 1982 the final surrender document was signed and hostilities came to an end after a campaign that had seen the British fighting, and winning, a war against a numerically superior enemy 8000 miles from their home bases. Time will only tell if the cost of 255 British and 750 Argentine dead was worth it.

The initial invasion of the Islands resulted in the capture of the British forces defending Port Stanley. Naval party 8901, consisting of 80 men, resisted as best as it could but overwhelming numbers, 60 special forces and the 600-700 strong 2nd Marine Infantry battalion, meant that defeat was inevitable and to save needless bloodshed the Marines surrendered. The British were treated with great respect and placed on the transport Bahia Parasio that sailed for Bahia Blanca naval base where they were landed on April 13th. On April 15th a tribunal of senior naval officers interviewed them and on April 16th they where taken to an airfield, flown to Uruguay and handed over to the British authorities. This was the only significant number of prisoners captured by the Argentine forces and all of them returned to fight during the conflict as Company J attached to 42 Commando. Only one other prisoner was taken during the conflict, Lt Glover, a pilot shot down on May 21st and returned to the British on July 8th.

The battles for the recapture of the Falkland Islands were a series of hard fought actions that saw individual battalion assaults on key objections as well as skirmishes between special forces. Names such as Goose Green, Pebble Island, Mount Longdon, Two Sisters, Mount Harriet, Tumbledown and Wireless Ridge mean little to people now, but for the soldiers of both sides who fought for these features they are burned forever into their minds. In conditions of freezing winds, snow, rain and mud the opposing forces fought each other for the control of the high ground and strategic points of the area around Port Stanley.

With British troops in the high ground around Port Stanley the Argentine general Menendez had little option than to surrender and so it was that the fighting came to an end and 12,978 prisoners where taken.

“I remember vividly my first sight of a live Argentine soldier. Having been in combat all night I was exhausted, cold, wet and a little in shock from the events of the last 14 hours of fighting. The platoon was sitting in a large semi circle in the lee of a large rocky outcrop to keep out of the wind and snow. The smell of battle was still strong despite the wind and we were all covered in filth from the fighting with black faces from the cam cream and cordite. I looked to my right and saw a group of enemy soldiers being quickly escorted off the battlefield. Suddenly two prisoners were carried to where we were sitting and unceremoniously dumped on the ground. They looked very scared and in a lot of pain each with a crude bandage applied to leg wounds. They lay there avoiding eye contact and looking a very sorry sight. We all just stared for what seemed to be an eternity. Then without hardly a word being said some of the jocks got up and walked over to the prisoners and asked them if they were ok. Minutes earlier we were killing them, now we fell over ourselves trying to make them comfortable with a sleeping bag, hot tea, cigarettes and a helmet under their heads. I have never been amazed by human nature to this day” The author, Tumbledown, June 14th 1982

Many of the prisoners were in a poor physical condition suffering from the terrible field conditions, shortage of food and injuries. There was simply nowhere to put them as the only tents that the British had sent to the Falklands had gone down with the Atlantic Conveyor. 8,000 were moved to the area around Stanley airport where they could easily be watched and efforts were made to improvise shelter. However there were no provision for such large number of prisoners and it became a top priority to repatriate as many as possible quickly. 2 days after the fighting 4,167 prisoners were taken onto the Canberra and on the 19th June they were disembarked at the obscure Argentine port of Puerto Madryn. On June 21st Norland returned a further 2,047 prisoners. Most of the remaining prisoners were repatriated by the Bahia Paraiso and the Almirante Irizar. It is ironic that the defeated arrived home earlier than the victors who had to wait a further three weeks before they began the journey home.

One group was left still on the Islands. 593 Special Category prisoners were being held at Ajax Bay living in primitive conditions inside the bomb-damaged refrigeration plant. This group consisted of General Menendez, pilots, officers and other specialist troops. They were considered to be key personal and would not be released until the Argentines had formally recognised that hostilities were at an end. This was legally questionable as Article 118 of the Geneva convention states that POWs must be “repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities”. On June 23rd the Scots Guards Right Flank company took over from the Royal Marines.

“They were kept in 5 large rooms, one for officers, one for SNCOs and three for the “chicos”, the other ranks. They were kept apart as each group didn’t like each other very much. The officers were very correct in their manner, disciplined and quiet. They said mass regularly and sat in small groups and chatted. The SNCOs were very sullen and withdrawn and as their room was to one side we had little contact with them. The other ranks were noisy and happy that the war had ended. They made ingenious things out of old tin cans and bits of rubbish. One group that sat by the main guard post had quite a decent chess set. We didn’t have a Spanish speaker amongst us so one of the conscripts, “George”, volunteered to translate. He had a lot of fun as he was responsible for choosing the ever popular fatigue parties. We had a visit from the Red Cross, three of them turned up and looked at the conditions. They were very upset with the lack of showers and demanded that we provide washing facilities. The fact that no-one had access to washing conditions didn’t seem to matter so Major Price, Right Flanks company commander, held a meeting with our REME armourer and some 9 Para engineers who were
staying with us. In the end they placed a plastic water bowser on top of an old shed and diverted an artic stream into it. Then 4 Scots Guards with hard brooms were positioned around the shed while groups of naked prisoners were marched across the snow in sub zero temperatures and given a cold shower and scrubbed with the brooms. I guess the Geneva convention doesn’t mention that the water had to be hot and I must say the Red Cross were not very popular for that.” The author, Ajax Bay, June 27th 1982.

On June 30th the remaining prisoners were transferred to the MV St Edmund and on July 13th they finally set sail for home. The Falklands conflict was at last over and the last combat troops returned to England. For all those who have fought in wars though I think that we are all prisoners, the memories will never leave. “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”.


Middlebrook, Martin: Task Force; Penguin 1987
Biji, Nicholas van der: Nine Battles to Stanley, Leo Cooper 1999
Oakley, Derek: The Falklands Military Machine, Ravelin 1989

The author is Steve Cocks was a Lance Corporal attached to the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards. During the Falklands War he served with Right Flank, one of three rifle companies, as a combat medic, ammunition carrier and on a GPMG team. During the Battle of Tumbledown he was the NCO responsible for evacuating walking wounded for the company. However the injuries inflicted by modern rifle bullets meant that all casualties had to be carried off the mountain so he spent the battle supplying ammunition to one of the GPMG teams during the final assault. In June 1982 he was 18 years old and if killed would have died a virgin.

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