Echoes of the past
The Battle for Mount Longdon, which took place on June 11-12 1982, was an engagement between the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (3 Para), and the Argentine 7th Infantry regiment. It was one of many battles fought by Britain to recover the Falkland Islands during a 9-week campaign.
By June 11, one of the last remaining pieces of high ground still under Argentinian control was Mt. Longdon. Located 5 miles west of Port Stanley. After a grueling 4-hour night march in which 3 Para advanced carrying only the essentials, weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies, the battalion quietly maneuvered into assault formation and then crossed the start line. In a scenario similar to the Western Front in 1944, young men faced one another with rifles, bayonets, and grenades. Using artillery and naval gunfire support 3 Para pushed forward, slowly, bunker by bunker. Described as one of the fiercest engagements of the whole campaign, the outcome was a costly British victory.
Since 1982 many veterans have returned to the islands and walked the battlefields. Reliving memories of camaraderie and youth. Fixated on a circumstance when they couldn’t imagine thinking beyond the following day! Pondering as I did on more than one occasion, “will I still be here, this time, tomorrow?”
My own journey back to the Falklands was not by choice. In March 1988 while serving with Patrol Company 3 Para, which was an element of the newly designated British 5 Airborne Brigade, the company was tasked to act as Argentine Special Forces in an exercise to penetrate the new Mt. Pleasant Airfield.
After a tiresome 20-hour flight from RAF Brize Norton to Port Stanley the company was given two days rest prior to the exercise. I cannot speak for other veterans, but for myself, returning to those islands after 6-years evoked feelings of hesitation. War damage was still visible everywhere. Minefield signs, damaged homes, buildings, and artillery impact craters. When the company was given an opportunity to return to Mt. Longdon to walk the battlefield, those feelings turned to apprehension.
I’m sure walking the battlefield today can stir strong emotions in any veteran that took part. But back then, six years after the event, I was shocked to find Longdon still littered with battlefield refuse, boots, blankets, food tins, empty cartridge cases, field-dressing wrappers, and even a grenade. The experience was quite overwhelming! I could almost smell the phosphorus and cordite. It’s a strange circumstance to be involved in an exercise over the same ground where you took part in a major battle 6-years earlier. Playing out a similar scenario, only this time acting as the enemy. Where the ground is still littered with the signs of pain and distress, where so many lost their lives. I cannot think of any other situation where this is true! To this day the smell of damp gorse is a bone-chilling reminder of that night.
As I get older I constantly reflect back on those days, but strange, wouldn’t change a thing! The time I spent on the Islands in that South Atlantic winter of 1982 is some of the most cherished memories of my life. In later years, I’ve given thanks for the opportunity. I do not relish conflict, and I certainly don’t consider myself a warmonger. Like many, back in 1982, I was proud to serve my country. There was a feeling of National pride in what we were doing.
The lifelong friendships that are established through warfare go beyond big-screen movie heroics. The reality of these friendships is nothing more than a simple bond that’s inherited through a shared experience of fear. When you emerged from such an experience knowing that you’ve played your part, held yourself high in the eyes of others, and, more importantly, not let them down! That is an exhilarating feeling of self-satisfaction.
I’m not saying that facing death in any other manner cannot promote a bond of friendship. Anyone that’s shared a traumatic situation with another has a unique connection. Whether it is a natural disaster, a plane crash, or similar tragedy, facing death through trauma invokes feelings of self-preservation? If shared, it can display unique characteristics of self-sacrifice toward others. But situations such as I mentioned are short-lived. Admittedly, they can vary in length of time, but war is different! The deadly circumstances in which a soldier is involved are prolonged for weeks or months. Soldiers are expected to operate and function within this environment. Working together in situations of extended stress builds trust. Only war can provide this! But this unprecedented bond comes at a cost and it’s not cheap!
I can’t describe the heartbreak I felt when I learned the names of those that died; it turned me to tears. Not a simple welling up, but a full-blown heartfelt cry. I remember choking and sobbing in the dark, biting on my glove desperately trying to mask the sound of weakness from others. I had known everyone that was killed. All were young, lean, fit, and oblivious to danger. Private Jason Burt and Ian Scrivens were 17-years old when they were killed. Private Neal Gorse was killed on his 18th birthday. I still recall their boyish faces and remember our last conversations. I remember the immense fortitude of those that died, and for many so young, their immeasurable commitment to the task. I considered myself extremely fortunate to have served with such men.
My army career was a life experience; and, I wouldn’t seek a different path if by some miracle I were given an opportunity to do so. But the loss of close friends in a long-term military career is the inevitable outcome of service. I’ve lost friends through medical reasons, others through mistakes in training, and some, through senseless accidents. But nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of losing someone in your arms in the middle of a firefight. It’s a strange feeling when life is ebbing through your fingertips and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it!
Understanding the meaning of living day to day is something that is bestowed upon the very few. I lost that over the years. The simple prayers for survival that were offered up near the Murrell River so long ago; all those promises were broken. The loss of so many friends, the pain, the cold, the misery, were all for a greater good.
I witnessed that greater good on the face of one particular woman shortly after the Argentine surrender. She was liberated! That look of joy gave me a better understanding of why we were there. I’ve often fantasized about going back and reliving the whole experience again. I have often thought if things had been different; what if I had never gone, would I be who I am now? If those that died lived, and others died, would we be different people? It’s a complicated tapestry with multiple threads, each tugging on a different weave. The path I followed was worth the personal sacrifice. But tug the weave in a different direction, to keep a friend, and you could lose the look of joy on a woman’s face and the feeling of liberation.
Other than the 1988 visit, for one excuse or another, I’ve never made the journey back to the Falklands. Many have told me that it’s a healing experience, but other than a feeling of emptiness, through the absence of friends, I feel no reason to reconcile. The loss of so many good friends is the inevitable outcome of war, trekking across the Falklands is not going to bring them back.
~ Steve McConnell
I was once asked, “do you have any regrets from the Falklands War?” I’m not a religious man, but I do have one! That I didn’t have the strength of character to keep the hasty promises bargained, on a cold moonlit night 34 years ago, 9000 miles away.
Title: A Spanish EA-M5 Fragmentation Grenade.
Description: A Spanish EA-M5 grenade left over from the battle of Mt. Longdon, found during the March 1988 visit to the battlefield. The grenade could be used as a ‘Flash Bang’ for training, or turned into a fragmentation grenade with the use of a metal fragmenting sleeve (as seen in the photograph). It used a delay impact fuze mechanism.
Date: March 1988.
Source: © 1988 Stephen McConnell – www.stephenmcconnellphotography.com
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