Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Day 4

At Rio, a new crew took over including a new pilot who introduced himself as ex RAF Squadron Leader Bob. Twenty five years ago he was a Victor tanker pilot heavily involved in the Vulcan bomber raids on Stanley airfield. I felt in very safe hands, despite the heckles from some of the lads, as these raids were incredibly dangerous and required great skill. The four hour flight to Stanley turned out to be more like six, as the headwind was very strong. But eventually the islands came into view and we landed at Mount Pleasant airport which is now the main base here in the Falklands for the garrison.

My initial thoughts on arriving were that of almost disbelief that I am actually back here after all these years. It is really hard to take in that I am back at the very place which has played such a huge part of forming the character I am today. My mother always said that I left a boy and came back a man so the change it made to me has always been something very profound.

We disembarked, thanked the crew (I shook the pilots hand) and then made our way into the arrival lounge. The first thing I noticed was the abundance of old Argantine equipment dotted around, being used as ornaments such as old 120mm mortars and 105 howitzers. There was a small committee of islanders waiting to welcome us. One of them remarked I couldn’t have been old enough to have been here as I looked so young!

The arrival procedures were quick, as we had filled out the immigration papers on the plane. They stamped our passports (something to remember the trip by, though I am sure this is standard) and we filtered through. While I was standing in the queue I got talking to the lad in front of me and it turned out he had been a cook attached to 3 Para. He recognised the name written on my poppy and we discussed our experiences. It turned out he was used as an ammunition mule and stretcher bearer on Mount Longdon and had a bad time of it. His mate who he shared a cabin with him was a young REME armourer who was flown in on the morning after the fighting to fix one of the Sustained Fire (SF) guns. His friend was hit by shell fire and died in his arms with his leg ripped open by a shell fragment. They have been hard memories for him to live with and haunted him ever since.

We boarded a bus and spent forty five minutes getting into Stanley, driving along what is about the only decent road to the capital. The young lady who was acting as our tour guide, pointed out various places of interest such as Fitzroy, Bluff Cove and the various mountains. It was strange actually seeing the places that have been such familiar names in my memory. The first thing that struck me ,was that things don’t look the same as they did all those years ago. In fact things felt in some respects a lot smaller (Bluff Cove looked tiny) while others looked a lot bigger (such as the distance from Bluff Cove to Tumbledown). Of course this is really surprising as memory plays tricks so I am really looking forward to walking over the battlefield again.

The arrival at the FIDF (Falkland Island Defence Force) Hall was emotional as the place was crowded with islanders all smiling and greeting us. We were ushered into the hall and given an introduction speech by the governor and some of the SAMA committee. After this we retrieved our bags and then met up with our hosts. Mine turned out to be Teen Short a very lovely widow who has lived on the islands all her life as did her mother, a very hardy lady who has had a very tough life but with a heart of gold. She gave me a wonderful chicken stew for lunch, followed by trifle with evaporated milk and lashings of tea. I felt that I had been transported back to another era as I hadn’t had food like this since my youth. We chatted for a while and it turned out that she lived on the far west of West Falkland and the war for her had been very quiet and she had only moved into Stanley about six years ago. The house I am staying in is one of the original ones and was wrecked by the Argentines, though now it is of course a clean and comfortable bungalow.

After lunch I walked into town and met a couple of lads down by the WWI memorial who turned out to have been with Teeny Weeny Airways. I walked with them into Stanley and went looking for a mobile chip for my phone. Susie had been a little upset that I had been unable to contact me since last night as my O2 mobile didn’t work and the number I gave her wasn’t being picked up. We did get a chance to chat and the new mobile number worked fine and I am reliably told it will work all the way out to Goose Green.

I got a chance to say hello to Teena Short who is the niece of the lady I am staying with. We walked to where she was living, at which time I turned around and walked back with 4 guys from the Welsh Guards. They remembered Paul Ackerman and my neighbour in Hereford Andrew Davies who they said had the nickname of Mary. I must ask him why he got that nickname next time I see him!

They wanted to go into the Globe for a drink so, I said my goodbyes and instead had a cup of tea in the little café behind. This was run by an islander who remembered my friend Rachel's mother, Alison Bleaney who had been living in one of the outlying settlements. Rachel was also a nurse here and seen very hard times.

Michele was nice to chat to. Just as I was about to leave a chap from 2 Para turned up looking for something to eat. I am finding that this pilgrimage is containing quite a cross section of people and some of my preconceptions are slowly being chipped away. He told me of his memories of Wireless Ridge watching the Scots Guards gradually fighting up Tumbledown and what a hell of a mountain it was we took. He was very quiet, something I don’t really associate with the Para’s. It just goes to show you how one shouldn’t make assumptions.

I walked back to the house and had a shower before getting changed and heading up to the Drill Hall again where we had a reception. I met many islanders and chatted with loads of people. The universal feeling here, is one of huge gratitude towards us and a deep appreciation of the sacrifices made during that war of twenty five years ago and of the suffering and scars since. One lady had been not much older than us and was living at Fitzroy. She remembers the Sir Galahad being hit and helping the casualties. A lasting memory for her were the dozens and dozens of Welsh Guardsmen lying on the grass with the hands wrapped in plastic because of the burns they had sustained.

I got to swap cards with Mike Seear (who wrote the book about the Gurkhas) as he would like to interview me about my experiences on Tumbledown. I walked back to the house and headed to bed. The first day has been an emotional experience but I feel good emotions, not bad ones, and if the rest of the trip turns out to be like this it is going to be great!

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