Tuesday, 10 August 2010

UNFORGOTTEN JOURNEY

Goaded by the ferocity of the force ten arctic winds, grim and ominous swells emerged from out of the surrounding blackness and rolled menacingly into steep contours of mountainous rage that would repeatedly and brutally thrust the ship’s bow steeply upwards and out of the ocean shelving us for a split second, like punctuation, before smashing us down insignificantly, deep inside the wave’s low ensuing trough.

It was as if Poseidon himself was expressing his rage at being woken by mans frivolous squabbling and each time the ship rolled over, perhaps too far, meal trays would slide off tables crashing onto the floor while in the ship's toilets, stale urine, inches deep, would lap the floor covering the feet of whoever was in there at the time while the ship’s hull would groan so obtrusively, the noise would stifle the unremitting and monotone drone of the ship's massive engines.  

I was on one of several ships heading south and mine was called The Sir Bedivere. A virtually flat bottomed roll on/roll off beach landing ship stretching one hundred and thirty seven metres long and just twenty wide, it endured admirably the wrath of the south Atlantic ocean that tormented and threw us around with such vehemence that while we slept in our bunks, we were forced to strap our bodies to the framework using our rifle slings, to stop ourselves from being flung off each time the ship leaned right over.

Due to the nature of our deployment, we were seriously over crowded with around five hundred fully equipped personnel on board not including the ships crew and this meant in the already cramped sleeping quarters, dozens of men were forced to sleep in hammocks erected literally wherever space allowed and at one point, the ships desalination unit, pushed to it's limit, malfunctioned and all showering was banned for about a week until it was fixed to conserve fresh water and the stench below deck became practically intolerable.

Finally after nearly three weeks, we ultimately sailed within striking distance of Argentine fighter bombers and at nights, a blackout policy around the entire ship was strictly enforced and this made  'watch-out' duty a perilous task especially at shift changeover because this involved having to negotiate your way along the outside decks in complete blackness as the ship rolled precariously from side to side with giant waves crashing over your head. When we eventually reached our position on a standing platform forward of the vessel and to one side just outside the bridge, we tied ourselves very securely to the railings using a thick rope through fear of being swept overboard.

I remember so clearly that first morning during breakfast when the air raid alarm was sounded loudly, echoing throughout the entire ship then followed by one of the ships officers speaking through the ships announcement address system, firstly in English and then in Chinese for the benefit of the Hong Kong/Chinese crew; ‘’AIR RAID WARNING RED . . . AIR RAID WARNING RED . . . EXOCET ATTACK . . . . EXOCET ATTACK   . . . . ONE THREE ZERO DEGREES . . . ESTIMATED TIME OF IMPACT . . . .SIX MINUTES . . . MOVE TO THE LOWER DECKS IMMEDIATELY . . . I SAY AGAIN  . . . MOVE TO THE LOWER DECKS IMMEDIATELY!”

In the next few days we got used to this and became rather proficient at eating our meals promptly rather than risk having them end up on the floor.

When the HMS Sheffield was blown up beforehand by an exocet missile killing twenty of her crew, it was revealed that most injuries occurred from flying debris as a result of the explosion. For this reason, the drill was to make our way quickly to the lower decks below sea level and lay down covering ourselves with anything possible, for example, by pulling a mattress off a nearby bunk.

Laying on the floor waiting for impact, knowing that at that precise moment in time, an Exocet missile carrying a 165 kilogram warhead and cruising just feet above sea level at three hundred metres a second heading in your direction, but unsure exactly which ship the missile’s targeting system had locked onto, induced stomach butterflies and a feeling of dread on a level of intensity I never imagined was possible and this occurred up to several times a day until we reached the Falkland Islands. And when we did finally reach the beachhead of San Carlos bay, where the air strikes came in almost hourly throughout the daytime and always aggressive, did I begin to seriously consider the possibility I might not be returning home after all.

I recall vividly the day when I climbed up and out onto the outer deck and saw the Islands for the very first time. We were anchored in San Carlos Bay, surrounded by a flotilla of other ships belonging to the task force. The sea was still and barely visible, obscured by a thin blanket of pre dawn mist  that remained behind and hung low just above the water line and the surrounding panorama was swathed in an unexpected yet wonderful noiselessness that was only interrupted perhaps twice by a zippo lighter snapping shut somewhere in the distance. It was as bewitchingly scenic as any English estuary at first light and for the next half an hour, time seemed to stand still and I stood gazing out into this real life watercolour painting.

Then without warning four A-4 Skyhawk jets shrilled over the skyline and descended, swooping low as they came in fast to attack. In fact they came in so low, their pilots were clearly visible and the noise as they thundered overhead was deafening and anti aircraft gunfire could still be heard as the jets vanished high into the sky as quickly as they had come and on the horizon, the silhouette of a Rapier missile system abruptly woken, could still  be seen rotating, watching and searching for a target.

Their pilots would strike at extreme low altitude following the contours of the land to avoid detection. Fortunately however, too often, they were ‘so’ low that when they released their bombs, they were hitting their targets before the sophisticated mechanism inside the bomb, even had time to arm itself for detonation and during the period of time we had to wait to disembark, my ship was targeted and damaged three times by 1000lb bombs that hit the side and glanced off failing to explode.

The ferociousness and consistency of the sorties earned the beach-head of San Carlos the name Bomb Alley and it was here where I probably experienced some of the most harrowing and traumatic moments of my entire life. I’ve since had the image of jet dropping a bomb with the words Bomb Alley, tattooed on my right forearm.

Having spent that length of time on an amphibious landing craft, a floating target, under such extremee and difficult conditions made me feel vulnerable, susceptible and maybe even a little humble. Sadly it wasn’t long afterwards when our sister ship the Sir Galahad incurred at least two direct hits when targeted by three A-4 Skyhawk bombers killing 48 of her crew.

I was only nineteen at the time of conflict and for some time afterwards I wished I had been perhaps older because I believed that maybe, just maybe, I would have understood more about why I was there and why all of those young men died. And I don’t mean just our own men, but the hundreds of young Argentine conscripts many of whose bodies were later found left laying around Port Stanley after the surrender, who later under my supervision, had to be body bagged by a small working party of Argentine prisoners.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but when I joined my ship halfway at the Ascension Islands for the final four thousand mile voyage south, it would change my life forever. Because from the experiences that ensued, irreplaceable and lasting memories were born that nourished and embraced the very core of my soul, enriching me with a knowledge and understanding of the issues in life that really matter. The things we take for granted. The problem now thirty years on, is whether these memories have been processed correctly for the benefit of those around me, particularly those closest to me who I love so dearly such as my two dear little boys and my darling wife who only two weeks ago announced she was carrying our third.

Is it wrong that I carry the burden of guilt for bringing my children into a world that can never promise true happiness and contentment? In the opening paragraph of David Livingstone Smith's acclaimed book, The Most Dangerous Animal; Human Nature and the Origins of War, he writes 'Right now, as you read this, somebody somewhere, is planning a war". And it is because of this my dear children, that I am so truly sorry.






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