Twenty five years ago, the first destination for the Scots Guards on our journey south was the
QE2 waiting for us in Southampton.
The night before we left was pretty crazy as almost without exception the battalion went out on town and got a little drunk. We rolled back into the barracks some time around midnight and collected our rifles from the armoury in a some what unusual fashion, since the armourer was very drunk and just handed the weapons out without any control. Something he was to regret later when he was fined. When we finally left we were poured into coaches for the brief trip to the waiting ship, passing on our way some Guards (top brass) who had turned out at 3am in full ceremonial dress on horse back to salute our departure. The lads weren’t too impressed and much to the disgust of the various assembled dignitaries, they were subjected to being mooned and various hand gestures. On arrival it was a question of hurry up and wait as it took for ever to load the ship.
My departure this time was a lot more dignified. The night before wasn’t some wild drinking session at the local but instead consisted of a lovely evening with my wife and a close friend. Instead of a 3am departure we had a nice breakfast together before going to the airport where I was waved off and given a hug and a kiss. Very different from all those years ago indeed. Funnily enough though the destination for today was the same city of Southampton as I stayed with Paul Ackerman and his wife.
The flight was uneventful (always a good sign) and very pleasant. I had a chat with the air stewardess as I had given her my wreath to look after so it wouldn’t get crushed. She was intrigued to know what was in the box, so when I explained I was a veteran who was returning to the Falklands for the first time in twenty five years and that the box contained a wreath and some crosses that I intended to leave on Tumbledown she became very interested. We chatted for a couple of minutes and she wished me the very best and said what a great job we had all done. I was quite glad to have flown British Airways today.
The coach trip to Southampton was good and my impression of National Express went up a notch since the last time I used them. They seemed to have redesigned the coaches so you didn’t have to be 4ft pygmy to have any leg room.
Travelling through the Berkshire and Hampshire countryside was like going back in time. This area has been somewhere I have lived and worked in for many years but I haven’t been back here much in the last twenty years. Familiar landmarks slipped by and it was an interesting journey back in time. Southampton itself has changed considerably and undergone major redevelopment due to the resurgence of the cruise industry.
On arrival, I took a taxi to Paul’s but I arrived thirty minutes early and the house was empty. However a kindly neighbour came to the rescue with a cup of tea, so the wait was very pleasant. Very friendly neighbours I must say! Thanks for the cup of tea Steve. Paul and Lois turned up having just returned from their band practise. Lois is a singer in a band and Paul plays lead guitar. I must say I admire Paul’s thirst for life. As he explained to me later ever since surviving the Galahad he made a determination to live a full and rich life. He and Lois have a small but very comfortable house and spend their time and money on the pursuit of happiness. This entails travelling, sailing, playing in a band and just about any other activity their heart desires. They certainly thrive on the life style and I must say they look happy and content. Paul and I have known each other for twenty eight years now (we met in 1979) and though we only met again this year for the first time in twenty six years, it seems like only yesterday. Lois remarked that it was uncanny how similar we are. As I explained it probably has something to do with the fact that we have walked a similar path in our lives. We went into Southampton for a Japanese meal (which was delicious), before going to a pub that played music from the 1980's. We watched the youth of today at play and reminisced about what we were like at their age. Then, being the old people we are, we headed home at a sensible hour to get our beauty sleep, though we did stay up an hour or so more to swap war stories and show each other some photographs and movies.
Paul had a truly remarkable experience in the Falklands and it’s very sad he was unable to return this year. He missed the initial draw so decided instead to go sailing in Turkey thus using up his vacation for this year. Then four weeks ago totally out of the blue he got a phone call asking him if he wanted to go. Sadly he couldn’t so this time he has to stay behind. However hopefully he will get to go soon as the trip is something he feels he needs to do. Paul was on the Sir Galahad and lost many friends. He was one of the lucky few to escape injury and he was instrumental in helping many wounded Welsh Guards off the burning ship. Having lost all his gear he was re-equipped and attached to 40 Commando and put in charge of a Karl Gustav anti tank weapon. He later went on to escort prisoners back to Argentina on the Norrland. Like me, has had some hard times, and like me, this year has been a year of reconciliation where many ghosts have been laid to rest. We have both had the chance to really talk and share our experiences with other veterans and have taken part in a number of activities which have helped answer some of the burning questions of “why me” that we have carried with us for so many years. Paul has also had a chance to take part in some of the celebrations in and around Southampton such as spending a day on the QE2 and meeting various dignitaries in Yeovil. At the last event he attended the military attaché to the Argentine embassy was present. Paul was introduced and they shook hands. Paul had been on the Sir Galahad, the attaché had been on the Belgrano.
Paul asked me how had we been able to do what we did all those years ago. What was it about us that had allowed us to fight a war eight thousand miles away, against a numerically superior force. I replied that I think we were the product of the Thatcher years and that we thought we were capable of anything, none of us had even contemplated defeat or that we couldn’t do what we were being asked to do. What I do know though is that the Falklands War was a righteous war. The good and the bad guys were clearly defined in the eyes of the world and that nobody questioned our actions or political motives. Both sides fought with honour and bravery and we had the almost universal support of the British people. They supported us without questions then and they still turn out to cheer us today. I just wish one day to shake the hands of some of the Argentine veterans and wish them well and hope that some of their demons are laid to rest just like Paul and myself have been able to do this year.
Thanks for wonderful stay Paul and Lois and I hope you enjoy the Stranglers concert tomorrow.