In St Carlos Bay
At very early o’clock the next morning, Canberra slipped in San Carlos Bay. It was a very crisp, clear, beautiful night, with a full canopy of stars and the outline of the islands clearly skylined. I was on an open deck with musician Graham Smith when the first shots of the war appeared before us. Royal Marines had found the Argentine forces guarding this water and were engaged in shifting them off the hill. Red machine gun tracer went one way and green the other as they fought in the dark. It was a pretty show until there were several very loud bangs nearby, sending Smith and myself fighting to both get through a single door. Once inside we heard the tannoy say not to be alarmed as this was a Royal Navy ship assisting the Marines with naval gunfire support.
The day dawned to a perfectly clear, crisp morning. Around us were various naval and auxiliary ships, most of who were busy shuttling small boats with men and equipment ashore. Various landing craft and motorised pontoons moved between vessels accepting stores before setting off for the beachhead a few miles away. It would have been a day to enjoy, but even at that stage we realised the good weather was better suited to the enemy air force than ourselves.
On board the SS Canberra
We were blessed on board Canberra with two good senior officers, Captain Scott Mason, who was the ship’s civilian mast, and the senior Royal naval officer Captain Christopher Burne. Captain Burne made sure we were all kept aware of how the air battle was progressing, including minute by minute warnings of “AIR RAID WARNING RED, TAKE COVER” to “GOT HIM, THAT WILL TEACH THE B*****D.” He seemed to know everybody aboard Canberra and had time to stop and speak to people as he moved around the ship. The day progressed with many air raids, with some bombs falling too close for comfort but without hitting us. For those in lockdown it was worse as you only had Captain Burn’s voice to talk you through the event. It was much better to be up top during a raid so that you could see what was happening. Part of our role was to unload the wounded off helicopters and take them down to Canberra’s operating theatre and ward, and for this we had constructed a special rope powered ramp to keep the patient secure and horizontal. It seemed as if all our work would have been in vain as it was suddenly decided to move the main body of the medical squadron ashore under the leadership of Surgeon Commander Rick Jolly, but leaving us aboard Canberra. As it happened, we had more than enough business to keep us busy, including wounded Argentine troops. During one air raid, Musician George Latham was handling the rope when several Mirage jets appeared and attacked the ship next to us. So as to not risk the patient, George refused to take cover and stuck to his post, being still stood there when the rest of us sheepishly surfaced. He was commended for this brave act by the boss, but talk of a medal was lost in the higher echelons.
That night, Canberra was sailed out of the relatively small anchorage of San Carlos for safety and sent to rock and roll in the open sea. It was sometime soon after that the duty stretcher crew were summoned to the flight deck to receive wounded personnel. It was a reality check to find we were unloading body bags with British servicemen, some of whom we actually had known. One was a Royal Marine sergeant pilot who had been shot down in his Gazelle helicopter before then being killed while swimming ashore. That moment changed a lot of things for me and no doubt for many of the musicians. If we needed further reinforcement that this really was a shooting war, then that came during the moving burials at sea we took part in in. How our buglers managed to play the Last Post with the emotions running so high is beyond me. The next day, Canberra returned to San Carlos to unload more rations and ammunition by helicopter. The band stood to and moved many thousands of boxes and cases into underslung loads for the stream of hovering helicopters. One helicopter landed on to unload a group of enemy walking wounded. They were escorted to a separate ward and put under armed guard, the guards being Royal marine musicians. There were several more air raids that day but again Canberra was lucky and escaped without damage or injury. Most of the mainstream Marines and soldiers had done everything they could to get shore with their comrades, so the band were the main remaining military body still aboard. While unloading a helicopter, an air raid suddenly developed sending bandies scuttling in all directions.
For all the good it would have done, I found myself trying to burrow under a pile of life jackets as bombs went off nearby. When I surfaced from the pile, one of the few Marines on board shouted at me to get more ammunition for his GPMG. Having helped get his weapon loaded, he suddenly swung it around and started firing over my head at two enemy skyhawks that were below the level of the rail. He paused briefly to tell me to get on the other GPMG and start shooting, except his choice of language was somewhat more colourful and to the point. Firing in the general direction of the enemy planes, I popped away in two-second bursts as we had been trained. This brought another ripe Anglo-Saxon tirade from the Marine next door as he told me to use the weapon as a hose and a deterrent. The next few minutes were perhaps the most exciting of my life as several more aircraft came into view and I had free reign to shoot at them. Did I hit anything? I suspect not, but the feeling of actually being able to try after many hours of being below decks was exhilarating. With that raid over we returned to unloading the helicopter that was sat turning and burning on deck.
That night, Canberra set off for the 900-mile crossing to South Georgia to rendezvous with the Cunard ship QE2. I gather it was deemed too high a risk for the QE2 to enter San Carlos, so once we had met up, her troops were shipped aboard Canberra for transport back to the Falklands. It soon became clear to us that these troops were not quite of the same calibre of the Marines and paras we had been used to. This is not my own cap badge rivalry creeping in, just an honest observation of troops who had just come from public duties and were not, shall I say, ‘match fit’. Even when we deposited them ashore, I noted some basic errors such as kit not attached properly, safety catches off and coins jingling in pockets, and that in the light that I was a musician not an infantryman.
Guarding Argentine Prisoners
The war then progressed mostly without us, with Canberra only going close enough inshore to receive more wounded or prisoners. It was while guarding a prisoner that one of them had urgent need to use the toilet and needed a guard, me, to go with him. Without going into too much detail, his use of the facilities left the place in a mess and the toilet blocked. I allowed him to use a coat hanger to try and clear the blockage but after several attempts and wary my mate was left guarding a dozen prisoners alone, I told him to stop. In a moment of madness or desperation he turned and rushed at me brandishing the piece of wire. My weapon that day was an old fashioned stubby SMG (looks like and not too dissimilar to the WWII Stirling). Having a fixed firing pin and needing to release the safety catch before it could be cocked and fired left me with no thinking time, only time to react. I struck my attacker twice with the weapon, catching him on the chin and shoulder. Instantly he fell back and put his hands over his face, shouting in Spanish and obviously no longer a threat. I took him back to the ward and eventually stopped shaking myself before continuing my shift. In the cold light of the next day, the human in me was very pleased not to have had to shoot him and I told everyone who would listen my own little part of the war. The incident soon came to the attention of one of the senior warrant officers on the ship who sent for me. Expecting a pat on the back, I was totally astonished to get an old-fashioned bollocking for not shooting the prisoner, based on the grounds that he could have got my weapon and then the security of the ship was at risk. It was a long time ago, but I am sure that I made the right decision then and, as I have got older, happier at the result.
The war is well documented elsewhere. The bit where our gutsy soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen succeeded, against the numerical odds, in beating the Argentine land army should be read and remembered. Bear that in mind when you hear someone in a pub call for National Service. It was the professionalism, training, guts and also a little cap badge rivalry that secured a win in the Falklands war.
Once the enemy had surrendered and hostilities finished, there came the problem of what to do with all the enemy prisoners of war that were on the island. For reasons best known to someone else, the RM band were briefly moved across to the hospital ship SS Uganda, where we met up with another small RM band who were serving aboard her. We had a few days to party and relax while the Canberra sailed around the islands picking up prisoners of war. Having obtained what I thought amounted to permission to go ashore, I jumped into the next passing helicopter and went ashore for a look-see. I was present when the first British Hercules C130 landed with some of the world’s press aboard. Now very much looking for war souvenirs and armed with a list from comrades on the ship, I started clambering over a Pucara aircraft, seeking anything that was not screwed down in the cockpit. I became aware of an unconventional looking land rover that had pulled up alongside me, containing two unconventional looking men. They had long hair, were sort of wearing uniform and carried what we then called Armalites (M16s). Having enquired as to what I was doing, again using words that I was quickly getting used to, I sheepishly explained. They pointed out that the next aircraft was booby trapped and waiting bomb disposal to visit, so likely the one I was stood in was also rigged. No doubt noting my lack of military bearing and clean-cut appearance, they instantly formed an opinion of me and drove away shaking their heads. I returned carefully to the safety of the control tower and cadged a lift back to Uganda in a navy Wasp helicopter. The story should have ended there, but on my return I was summoned by the band boss who, seemingly having forgotten giving me permission to go ashore, ranted about going AWOL in a war zone! Having made his point, he let me off with a mild ticking off, so all was well in the end.
Canberra now had several thousand prisoners aboard and once again needed her RM Band back. We thought it was to perform but alas it was to help guard these prisoners as they were transported back to mainland Argentina. We did play in various combinations around the ship, along with taking turns in guarding the long passenger corridors and cabins where the prisoners were housed. We had little trouble from the defeated enemy, many of whom were glad just to be alive, especially since they had been told horror stories about what ‘the British would do to them’. There were a few surprises among them, including many English and Welsh names and speakers from long-held traditions. One of our Welsh musicians was a keen rugby player, so having heard one of the prisoners was an Argentine National Puma team player, invited him to his cabin for beer and rugby talk.
As we approached the coast of Argentina, we were met by a British built destroyer, which we had sold to them. In the international traditions of the sea, flags were hoisted and we found ourselves flying under the Argentine flag. We were escorted into Puerto Madryn, which looked like a fairly desolate mining port. The quayside was lined with many thousands of Argentine marines, sailors and soldiers, along with a line of waiting military ambulances. The band was in the forefront of guarding the stairwells and gangways in these tense few minutes as the prisoners were keen to leave the ship. We were, it appeared, flying under some sort of neutral flag, which had specific protocols. Therefore it was disconcerting to hear Captain Burne ordering an Argentine officer off his ship or he would order his Marines to open fire. You should understand that the Marines in question were mostly us musicians, carrying a hodgepodge of weapons that we had managed to keep after the surrender had taken place. Tony Richardson was at that time a diminutive figure, carrying an SMG around his shoulder on some string. Other ‘armed musicians’ had an equally unlikely looking array of weapons. An Argentine general welcomed the first couple of hundred men back home as we carried stretcher cases along the dockside to waiting medical personnel. I looked up and saw the journalist Robert Fox and a photographer taking pictures, so I posed behind the Argentine General. I then took out my camera and took the reverse picture, which I thought unique.
The journey home
Within a few hours, the prisoners had all left and the ship seemed deserted. Leaving our Argentine escort behind us we sailed east towards the Falklands again to recover and return our troops home. Once under way, the band reverted to its core business of providing music and entertainment for the long journey home. We were still a few days out when an announcement was made about war souvenirs and being delayed getting home if any weapons were found. There was it declared, an amnesty and all contraband should be deposited on a blanket in the main bar. At first it seemed as if our boys had been very good or were being very shy, but after the first few rounds of ammunition were dropped down someone threw in a pistol. Slowly the shedding gained momentum as people became more confident. Rifles, machine guns, rockets and what can only be described as a Bazooka soon filled the blanket and spilled over the sides. Several members of the band spent hours tossing it over the side into the briny, one of who, Bugler Phil Smith, had a picture taken to prove it was being done. The band played some spectacular concerts on the journey home, culminating in a spectacular beat retreat on up-Channel night. The crew of the Canberra, to say thank you, put on a special party for the band, which included a cake and dancing girls that had been flown aboard the night before!
On arrival in Southampton, we were greeted by a fantastic spectacle. Ships and boats of every size were afloat and escorting us into Southampton water. Some boats had women aboard and for some reason these kind ladies showed us what sort of summer you had had in the UK and how brown they were… all over! Once docked and ashore heading back to Plymouth in coaches, the route was lined with flag-waving well wishers, some of whom stopped the coaches to throw on crates of beer.
So, that was my war. Nothing brave, nothing daring and certainly a lot less risky than it was for the Marines and soldiers who went ashore and did what they had trained to do, namely defend this country. I should mention if you have any doubts about the Britishness of the Islanders, you should make a visit. They are like Scottish islanders or farmers from Dartmoor, and they are proud of it. Now I am older I wish a political solution could have been found and then perhaps a lot of good men on both sides need not have died. However, since the war took place, I am glad I was there to play my small part and perhaps in some small way will have made a small difference.
Miss the first part of Brian’s story? Click here.