Saturday, May 21, 2022

Falklands vet recalls battles

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AS the 40th anniversary approaches of the Battle of Goose Green, the first major conflict of the Falklands War, we speak to a former paratrooper from Newtownards who fought in the South Atlantic war. Graham Eve, a gun team commander, recalls what it was like to be in the thick of what he calls the UK’s, ‘last conventional war, man to man, no holds barred’.

 

GRAHAM Eve was five years old when his father, a Londoner, took him across the water to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

It was a key moment in his young life because Graham decided there and then that he wanted to join the army and no amount of persuasion on the part of his concerned parents would change his mind.

Later, as a teenager in the 1970s, the Parachute Regiment paid a visit to the youth club Graham’s father ran in Belfast, with the result that Graham now not only knew he wanted to join the army, but also had his regiment.

One week before his 17th birthday Graham joined the ‘Paras’ and recalls that from his first day it became clear that it was not a career choice for the faint-hearted.

He recalls: “The NCO said, ‘We are here to teach you how to kill people and in the parachute regiment we do it better than anybody else’.

Graham was a 21-year-old lance corporal and a member of 4 Platoon, B Company 2 Para when the Falklands War broke out in April 1982 following nearly a century of contested sovereignty.

Most of the islanders were of British descent and opposed the Argentinian claim but Argentinian President Leopoldo Galtieri nonetheless decided to take control of the islands by force.

Graham and his wife Sandra had just returned from their honeymoon after marrying on March 13, when, as he says, ‘it all kicked off’.

He explains: “I got a telegram saying simply ‘Bruneval’ and nothing more. But when you get a telegram saying ‘Bruneval’ that means get back ASAP (to the Parachute Regiment barracks in Aldershot).

“We knew from the press of course what was happening, that it was the Falklands and if somebody was going to be sent down there, we would be.”

Graham spent one night in his new married quarters in Bruneval before beginning the 8,000 mile trip to the Falkland Islands on board the MV Norland, a North Sea ferry that had previously covered the Hull to Rotterdam route.

Graham recalls: “When we sailed all the families came down to Portsmouth and the band was on the quay. As we were sailing off young girls were whipping their tops off to us and we were standing watching. This was the first time since the (Second World) war that a ferry had sailed off with all the fanfare and wishing us well.

“Two Para were on the Norland and Three Para were with the Marines on the Canberra, which was a luxury. We got the short-straw, they had a very different journey down than we had.

“When you are on a flat-bottomed boat like the Norland in the South Atlantic, with waves coming right up over the boat, you do get your sea legs,” he says, somewhat ruefully.

The mood on board was generally upbeat, he says, most of the young soldiers looking forward to cutting their teeth in a real-life war.

In order to keep fit the soldiers would run five or six miles a day around the ferry’s decks and up and down the stairs.

It’s surprising to learn that Graham spent much of the journey out to the Falklands engaged in a rather lucrative business enterprise – cutting hair at £1 a head.

He explains that prior to being called to serve in the Falklands he had done a 20-month stint in Northern Ireland where his company captain, captain Mike Jackson, who went on to become the head of the British Army, had asked for a volunteer to learn how to cut hair so that the troops could maintain a professional standard of appearance.

“Going to war everybody just wanted their heads shaved, so it was easy money. I was getting hundreds of pounds and putting it into envelopes and sending it home to my wife who was doing up ‘the pad’, as we called it. So when I got back from the Falklands the married quarters we had were all furnished. 

He recalls that ‘the banter was good’ on board during the three-week sailing, with ‘sharks everywhere’, not to mention Russian aircraft and submarines keeping an eye on what was happening.

As they got closer to the islands, the mood on board started to change. Says Graham: “You always think there are going to be negotiations but as we realised this was actually happening the mood started to get a wee bit more sombre, but the excitement was still there for the lads.

“I’m not a religious man at all but our padre was a guy called Dave Cooper who was an army shooting champion. We called him Ravin’ Dave and he would tell blue jokes from the pulpit and the lads respected him, whether they were religious or not religious.

“The night we were getting off the boat he had a service for us as we were all getting ready to get onto the landing craft. Every man was there and we all sang Land of Hope and Glory and the hairs went up on the back of your neck.”

Graham recalls that the landing craft, piloted by a Marine, came for them at around 2.30am and, anticipating that they would be dropped off at the beach, the men did not give immediate attention to the freezing cold water that surrounded them

Says Graham: “I don’t know whether this pilot couldn’t get onto the beach or whether he was scared in case he couldn’t get off the beach and get back to safety.

“It was pitch black, there’s a company of soldiers all huddled together crouched down and the Marines say, ‘troops out’ and then put the front down. Paras are ‘green on, go’. The Marine said ‘troops out’ and the blokes at the front said, ‘Out? What depth’s that water? It’s freezing cold.

“He said ‘troops out’ again and nobody listened. Then one of our lads shouted, ‘green on, go’. That was Parachute Regiment language and we got out into the water up to here. It was miserable and that was us wet for the whole of the war.”

Each soldier carried a weight of 120lb on their backs, consisting of food, ammunition, change of clothes, medical equipment, plus a weapon and a belt around the waist weighing another 40lb.

The mortar team was unable to carry all their rounds so each soldier was also required to carry two mortar rounds in addition to their personal equipment.

Added to that was the hostile terrain and climate, says Graham. “In the Falklands there can be a gale force wind coming from one direction and then it’s coming from another direction. There can be snow, hail, rain, sunshine, it’s unbelievable and the ground that you’re walking over is elephant grass. There are no trees, there are just rocky hills, elephant grass and bogland.”

It is, he says, poor ground for fighting on. “The whole of the Falklands is like that.”

On arrival 2 Para made for the San Carlos hills, climbing a massive rocky outcrop to get there.

Says Graham: “We were up there for the week while London decided what was going to happen. We were on the land now, this was real, it wasn’t pretend and you knew you had a job to do, you just had to get on with it.”

He will, he says, never forget his bad luck when the zip on his sleeping bag broke on his first night sleeping in the hills.

“You can imagine the conditions there and you have no protection, it’s freezing cold and how we kept warm was we spooned with our mates beside us,” says Graham.

While they waited in the hills for further orders the SAS shot down an Argentinian Pucara aircraft which was trying to take out British soldiers with its air to ground attacks.

The plane landed in a valley and Para 2 CO John Crosland ordered Graham’s section to go down and check on the condition of the Argentinian pilot.

“We eventually found the Pucara,” says Graham, “but the pilot wasn’t there and we learned later that he had parachuted out and escaped.

“Everybody wanted a wee bit of a souvenir so I broke off the nosepiece of the aircraft and thought, ‘that’s something to show the grandchildren in years to come’.”

On May 28-29 Graham and his platoon got their first taste of combat at the Battle of Goose Green, a strip of land in the east Falklands which they were ordered to take control of.

Though the Marine commander at the time did not agree with this Downing Street directive and instead wanted 2 Para to head for Port Stanley, Graham says that history shows the seizing of Goose Green, ‘was the right thing to do’.

Graham’s was the first battalion to go into combat at Goose Green, a battle that lasted for 48 hours during which the most dangerous enemy they faced, he says, was the Argentinian snipers.

It was, says Graham, one of the few times in his life that he looked to God for help.

He explains: “We had the airfield to the left which had a big perimeter fence and my platoon started to head up to Goose Green itself. The rest of the troop were at the back and they had occupied Argentinian trenches and stayed in those.

“We got that close that we started to get machine gun fire and mortar rounds coming from Goose Green and they were coming down over our heads at the back of us, so we were now stuck so that we couldn’t go back to the rest of the company in the trenches.

“Then on our right flank Argentinian helicopters started coming in and we thought, ‘they’re bringing in reinforcements’.

“Ernie Haughey, my platoon commander, said to my section, ‘get your bayonets out and scrape yourselves deep into the ground’. We knew there was no way we were getting out of this, we were cut off by the airfield, artillery rounds were starting to come down behind us and here they were bringing in reinforcements.

“We didn’t know how many were in Goose Green so I prayed. I said: ‘I’m going to die here but if I’m going to die here, if there is a God, he knows I’ve done no wrong’.

“Darkness came and a Pukara flew over and was shot down, and as it came down right in front of us, it somersaulted but it didn’t blow up. One of the lads had his epaulette ripped off by a piece of the wreckage of the aircraft as it was coming down, and the aviation fuel splattered some of the lads in front of me.

“We said, ‘how do you want to die, do you want to get shot or blown up’ and I wanted blown up because I didn’t want to get shot and not die and be lying here in this freezing place for maybe days.”

During the firing a member of Graham’s battalion was shot in the jugular and died instantly, while another close friend was shot in the shoulder with horrific consequences.

Says Graham: “The bullet came out through his mouth and took his lower jaw out so his jaw was hanging. People were laughing at him because he wanted a cigarette and as he was smoking the cigarette it was coming out the side, but that’s the humour. Even now he is still undergoing reconstruction surgery on his mouth.”

 

Also killed in action at Goose Green was battalion leader, Lieutenant Colonel H Jones, who was replaced by Major Christopher Keeble who used a psychological ploy to trick the Argentinians into surrender, believing they were about to face a full scale attack.

Recalling his experience of that moment, Graham says: “In the darkness they [the Argentinians] suddenly stopped firing and we looked at each other wondering if this was their time to knock off.

“There was a kind of disappointment because you were so psyched up that we were making history here and if we were going to die, we were going to make the Parachute Regiment proud that we did it well.”

The men were then ordered by John Crosland to go back and take cover in the old Argentinian trenches and Graham credits Crosland’s savvy leadership with saving many lives.

The next day the Argentinians surrendered, in all around 1,200 of them pouring out of Goose Green with their arms up, tricked into believing they had been about to be subjected to a large-scale British attack.

Instead, says Graham: “They saw this ragbag who were soaking wet and battle scarred. Keeble had called their bluff, they didn’t know how many of us were there.

“We had covered open ground while under fire and our reputation was starting to gather amongst the Argentinian ranks. They didn’t want to take us on, so they all came out and put down their weapons.”

Graham remembers seeing the bodies of dead Argentinians piled up in rows and he admits he took something that day, removing the boots of one of the dead soldiers.

“There were bits missing off the bodies and they were frozen stiff, it was horrendous,” says Graham, adding that, nonetheless, “Argentinian boots are pure leather, our boots were rubbish and he didn’t need his boots anymore, so I took them and wore them for the remainder of the war.

“They are still in my garage to this day, dead man’s boots. The only problem with them was that he had bigger feet than me but nevertheless I was just pleased to have a pair of boots that were waterproof.”

The importance of such things as a decent pair of boots cannot be overestimated in war, says Graham.

His feet now feeling better in his ‘new’ boots, Graham and his battalion were ordered to travel to Fitzroy on East Falkland. They were enjoying some freshly slaughtered lamb that had been made into a stew by the islanders, who Graham calls ‘the salt of the earth’, when the Sir Galahad was blown up at Bluff Cove.

Two Para played a key role in bringing ashore the Welsh Guards who were injured in the bombing, which claimed 48 lives.

Famously, Prince Andrew helped with the rescue mission in his capacity as a helicopter pilot with the Royal Navy.

“I don’t like the man,” says Graham. “But what he did down there – he was a brave man. The Sir Galahad had lots of ammunition on it and he could have been hit by exploding ammunition at any stage he was doing that.”

Graham was helping to pull ashore the lifeboats containing injured Guards when he was asked to relocate to higher ground so that he could bring the injured off the helicopters.

Says Graham: “I went to help one of the Welsh Guards off and I said, ‘Jesus Christ’, because of the heat off his body where he had been burnt. I remember another one was put onto a stretcher with his leg blown off.”

As the only battalion to fight two battles, 2 Para were then ordered to advance towards the Argentine occupied capital of the Falkland Islands, Port Stanley.

In order to do so the British forces, including 2 Para, had to secure Wireless Ridge, one of seven strategic hills located within five miles of Port Stanley.

As Graham and his battalion waited on low ground for the Marines, the Ghurkas and the Guards to secure their position on the hills they were fired on by the Argentinians.

“Then we got to the start line to take Wireless Ridge and over the far side of Wireless Ridge was Port Stanley, the goal.

“In the early hours of the morning our battalion was lying like a big snake in the ground waiting to move and advance onto Wireless Ridge. The Blues and Royals (part of the Household Cavalry) were behind us and they put down continual fire, thousands and thousands of rounds onto Wireless Ridge.

“If you imagine a massive fireworks display and multiply that by 100,000 times, that’s what it was like. We thought, ‘we’re going to be okay here’, nobody’s going to survive that.

“D company were fighting on the Ridge and it was later found that there were Argentinian paratroopers on the Ridge – they weren’t all conscripts – and they were fighting back.

“D Company fought them off and then word came we were to move up into the Ridge. There were dead bodies all over the place but quite often you put a round in them to make sure they were dead.

“We then got to a massive peat bog that was about 10ft high, where my section platoon was and beside me was my commanding officer John Crosland and the sergeant major. John Crosland said, ‘right lads, dig into the peat’. It was quite easy digging and remember you’ll never get the same adrenaline again as you do on the battlefield.

“We put the peat in front of us; it was like being in a cave and having this bank of peat in front of you. Then we heard the whistle (of a mortar round) and I said to the guy next to me, ‘this is going to be close’, and it came down just the other side of the peat in front of us.

“Outside of that was more peat ground. The round went off but the heat of the round was lovely. If we hadn’t done what John Crosland told us, not only was I getting killed but four others would have been dead too.

“The next morning we got up and moved onto the forward slope overlooking Port Stanley. As we did that it came across the radio, I think from Keeble, ‘tell the lads to put their berets on’.

“We took our helmets off and you always carry a maroon beret and we put our berets on. As soon as we did that the Argentinians started running from their trenches shouting, ‘British Paras, British Paras’.

“They all ran into Port Stanley and that again was the power of the beret. What a feeling, we put this beret on and the enemy started running from their trenches. We had got the reputation we had from Goose Green and it came over the radio that they had surrendered.”

Two and Three Para were given the order to go ashore, with Graham’s company being first into Port Stanley.

He says: “We were a ragtag band. You can imagine we were freezing, we’d been fighting for three weeks solid and we couldn’t believe it, it was surreal again.

“They [the surrendering Argentinians] all went into the centre of Stanley and you just hoped they’d respect the terms of war. At that time some of the Stanley residents who had been held captive came out of their houses and we took shelter in their houses.

“I wasn’t involved with the prisoners and someone came out of one of the houses and told us where we could find some drink. We had a drink and then we just walked around, the war was over.”

In all, the Falklands War lasted for 10 weeks between April 2 and June 14, 1982, though just three weeks of that saw actual fighting.

Graham believes it is a war that, on paper, the British should never have won. He says, “To travel 8000 miles and then some of the ships had trouble with their guns, especially during the battle for Goose Green, so there was very little cover from the ships.

“The weather prevented a lot of the Sea Harriers from coming in and doing what they had to do, too.

“However, it is pride in your regiment, your brother beside you and sheer adrenaline – that’s how you survive, no matter what they throw at you.”

He bears no ill will, he says, towards the Argentinians they were fighting, many of whom were young conscripts.

He adds: “I have no conscience over anything I may have done down there but you did feel sorry for them, it wasn’t their doing. They were sent there at the time because Galtiera wasn’t very popular and he wanted to make himself popular.

“He sent those young lads over there in desperate conditions. They are used to the sun and the heat whereas we trained in all conditions all over the world, so we were used to whatever they threw us into.”

The devastation of war and the loss it brings is brought home by Graham’s story of a young Argentinian soldier who was being taken home aboard the Norland.

“He had a big sausage bag over his shoulder which was full. He was about to get onto the Norland when he was stopped and asked what was in his bag.

“It was his dead brother and he was taking him back home.”

Nonetheless, Graham says he has ‘no problem whatsoever’ with the Argentinian death toll, adding: “If we didn’t kill them they were killing us.”

These days Graham puts his passion into Comber parkrun, of which he is event director. Unfortunately, his own running days are behind him, he says, the abuse his body took in the army leaving him with a hip replacement and osteoarthritis in his neck, back and knees.

He also laughs as he reveals an unusual legacy of the Falklands War, explaining: “I used to have very hairy legs and now I have no hairs. The weeks of wearing wet trousers I just lost all the hairs on my legs and they never grew back.”

 

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