My personal memories of the Falklands war are not those of hand to hand fighting on Mount Tumbledown, digging a slit trench to avoid enemy artillery or yomping miles across the barren Dartmoor-like landscape. My war was different in many ways, less dangerous but no less important to me, and certainly a character-changing experience.
My Falklands (Operation Corporate) story starts long before 1982, in fact way back to November 1956, to another of the UK’s small wars, The Suez Crisis. The reason for this is my father was a serving Royal Marine in 42 Commando, who sadly was one of only 13 Royal Marines killed during the fighting. I was born a few short months later, given his name and of course a firm belief that I was also one day going to join the Royal Marines. Fast-forward a number of years, and for reasons probably best forgotten, I found myself with an interest in playing the drums, along with a new unhealthy relationship with my neighbours. When I was old enough to visit the local careers office, either my drum hobby or the career’s sergeant’s quota nudged me in the direction of the Royal Marine Band Service. A visit to Deal for an audition and suddenly I was at the Royal Marine School of Music in Deal learning how to play the drums the marine way.
Following various postings and some sea time on HMS Ark Royal, my career took me to the RM band based in Stonehouse Barracks in Plymouth. The Commando Forces Band, as it was called, was under threat of being disbanded by the defence moratorium of the day, but that aside it was a happy and busy band, filling the full range of musical duties. Life was good, and with a fair amount of private musical gigs to supplement the poor wages of the time, and the prospect of my first promotion looming, I was a happy little drummer.
‘Argentina invades the Falklands’ was the headline on the day that I started my Easter leave and a two-week stint at a holiday camp playing drums. I was not overly worried, not least because I had no idea where the Falklands were, and besides we had the commandos who would take care of all that ‘roughty toughty’ stuff.
I was therefore most surprised to get a phone call telling me to report to Stonehouse Barracks as soon as possible, in fact sooner than that. The band were all gathered in the rehearsal room to listen to what we thought would be the bad news, namely we would be guarding the barracks while the commandos went south and did their business on the Argentines.
There was a loud dropping of jaws as our officer told us that because our official war role was with the Royal Navy Medical Squadron, we would be going south with the commandos aboard the recently commandeered SS Canberra. That is all except me, who would be sent to Lympestone on a promotion course. For reasons that were no doubt crystal clear at the time but have left me now, I chose to forgo the course and stay with the band for the little jaunt south to the Falklands, probably because most of us thought it would not come to much. We were wrong.
A few frantic days of goodbyes and packing and we were off to Southampton to join Canberra. There was a growing air of excitement among the young bandies, marines and paras as we all boarded the ship and settled into passenger cabins and began finding our way around the big white whale, as she affectionately came to be known. We sailed amid all the flag waving, band playing and tearful goodbyes, before heading out into the channel and turned left for the long journey.
Life aboard a passenger liner, even going to a war, was not all bad.
We practised drills in the morning, PE around the promenade deck, before medical and weapons lectures in the afternoon. The boss had agreed we should take musical instruments, so it was not long before we embarked on a series of various musical performances around the ship. One of our number, Martin Dale, was a great jazz saxophone player, so he formed a jazz quartet of myself, George Tate and Bruno Brown. This smaller combination meant we could play in smaller spaces and to some of the forces who did not have much in the way of entertainment. In fact, we were the only four green hats to be allowed in the paras’ mess when we played for them, and even then we stuck together!
Politicians were flying around the world trying to avoid actual conflict as we sailed slowly around the equator. After a brief stop we were quickly told to sail each night as there was a perceived Argentine submarine threat. This did not go down well with the band as at that time our cabins were below the waterline. Ironically when the threat became real and from air attack, the band were moved into cabins up top, giving us a little chuckle.
The band and embarked troops settled into their various training regimes, with the cap badge rivalry between the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment just starting to peek through. Their mortar team would run six miles in the tropical heat with all their gear, so the next day the Marines would do eight miles and so on. If you can stop them fighting each other, then the cap badge pride really makes the British soldiers and Marines the best in the world. One evening during this period, the whole of 42 Commando were ordered onto the flight deck to listen to a concert by us. Some of them were not very happy at being there and looked sullenly over the top of their three tins of beer.
We managed to wear them down by throwing in some funny tunes and getting their colonel to conduct the band for a short piece. Sunset and Rule Brittania played in a tropical setting had them eating out of our hands before we finished off with a piece with a selection that starts slowly but then includes the famous theme tune of The Lone Ranger. The whole commando went wild at this point, some jumping up and down, while others piggy backed across the flight deck in mock horse race style. Once order had been restored, the colonel thanked the band and said he wished he could send his commandos ashore tonight to fight the Argentines. The previous strained relationship between ‘bandy and bootneck’ was now gone and a new one forged.
Still helping to maintain good morale among the troops, the band was busy at music and other duties around the ship. It was therefore timely when the big white whale ‘secretly’ put into Freetown in Africa to refuel and restock with fresh victuals. We were soon surrounded by local bum boats, who would trade anything for plastic containers to carry water in.
Soon troops were throwing overboard anything plastic in exchange for an assortment of trinkets, native spears and a monkey. Yes, a monkey was purloined and soon dressed as a marine officer before being displayed around the ship. Whether it really was for medical reasons it was ordered off the ship or because it had been dressed as an officer, we will never know. Heading deep south, the weather took various turns for the worse and some of us took turns throwing up. Then, with some buzz happening around the ship, we were summoned to the cinema for a briefing. It was like a proper O group, with a series of NATO-style orders, followed by intelligence briefings and the date for taking landing on the islands in San Carlos the next day. It was suddenly very real.
Check back into http://historyanswers.wpengine.com/ next week to see part two of Brian’s story!