The Argentine dictatorship believed that Britain would be unwilling to liberate the islands, and the US navy believed any effort to do so would be a “military impossibility.” Despite the received wisdom, the UK assembled a taskforce at breakneck speed—the first since the second world war to use all elements of our armed forces. What followed were 74 days of extreme hardship, intense violence and unspeakable bravery. It is right we remember that collective sacrifice, 40 years on.
Thirty thousand sailors, royal marines, soldiers, airmen and merchant mariners took the long voyage south. Tragically, 255 of them did not make the return journey home. Many thousands more still live with the mental and physical effects of that bloody struggle. No matter what we think of the decisions that sent our people into conflict down the ages, whether to Gallipoli, Goose Green or Gereshk, we have a duty to support the men and women who step forward to serve in our armed forces and a duty to bear witness to their sacrifice.
We are all indebted to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I have been contacted by two constituents in particular, one lives in Carrowdore and the other in Comber, who served in the Falklands—there are others, too—and who live with the trauma 40 years later. Last night’s television programme gave an example of that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to note this anniversary not simply for the families of the 258 British personnel who were killed and the 777 who were wounded but as a reminder to the residents of the Falkland Islands that they were and are worth our support? We will continue to support them for as long as they wish to be considered British and entitled to our defence support. We stand as strongly with the Falklands today as we did 40 years ago.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I completely agree with the important point he has made, as I am sure all Members of this House will. Further to his point, and in deference to him as a good friend and colleague, I wish to take this opportunity to say that the contribution from our friends in Northern Ireland cannot be understated. I recently read about Sue Warner, a Belfast nurse who received a peace prize in Buenos Aires 40 years after serving on the SS Uganda, where she treated both British and Argentine personnel who had horrific injuries. That is a reminder of just how collective the Falklands effort truly was and of course of the contribution made by those from Northern Ireland.
There have been considerable recent efforts to ensure that the Falkland Islands conflict is properly commemorated, and I commend everyone who has contributed to that important process. I had the honour of attending a commemoration at Sheffield cathedral to mark the loss of HMS Sheffield and all those who perished aboard it. I was particularly pleased to see that Mr Speaker braved the south Atlantic ice and snow to take the opportunity to remember all of those who fought and died at the battle of Goose Green.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentions the events being held at the moment to commemorate the Falklands war. Will he join me in paying tribute to all those who have been taking part in the Falklands 40 bike ride, which came through my constituency last week, particularly my constituents Gus and Angela Hayles?
The ride is 255 miles long and is going from Cardiff to Aldershot. Gus was a Royal Engineer Paratrooper, and Angela served in the Royal Army Nursing Corps. Gus has been a committed campaigner, not just for Falklands veterans, but for veterans’ mental health. Knowing the hon. Gentleman’s experience, I wondered whether he would join me in congratulating them on their achievement.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. Of course I take the opportunity to congratulate all of those who have been involved in what sounds like an epic bike ride. Further to the contribution she has just made, I wish to say something else. I will go on to talk about the character and fighting spirit of all of those who deployed down to the Falklands. That was a very significant element in enabling our being able to secure a victory in very challenging circumstances, but another element underpinned that victory: training. Much of that training will have been conducted in her wonderful constituency, which, as she knows, I hold in the highest regard. I have mostly, though not exclusively, happy memories of my time on the Brecon Beacons and on Sennybridge, in good and bad weather. I am grateful to her for her contribution and for the work she does representing our armed forces community.
I was just reflecting on the various attempts and contributions that have been made by different organisations to ensure that we properly commemorate this important milestone, not least by the Royal British Legion. It has, in customary fashion, gone to great lengths to organise a service to mark the end of the conflict, and that will be taking place at the national memorial arboretum tomorrow. On Wednesday, Parliament will come together in a remembrance service. I know there have been hundreds of services, tributes and pilgrimages conducted over the past few weeks, both here and on the Falkland Islands.
Many of us will have our own memories. I think particularly of Brian Hanrahan’s legendary quote:
“I counted them all out and I counted them all back”.
That will stay with me forever. However, we reach this milestone when the Falklands is at some risk of becoming a forgotten war, as research from Help for Heroes has recently revealed. Such an outcome would represent a collective failure to ensure the sacrifices made on both sides stand for all time. I truly hope that efforts over the past months will rebuild public awareness.
Once again, I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate to the House. I spent a fair bit of time in the Falklands and I am very familiar with the environment, having served down there. Those who have been to the Falklands know that it is a very austere, difficult, tricky environment, particularly in the winter. It is appalling under foot. Madam Deputy Speaker, we can both recall the images on the screens back in 1982, when I was 12 years old.
I want to make two points. First, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should pay tribute to the 255 members of Her Majesty’s forces who were killed, the three islanders who lost their lives and the Argentine fallen, who were just doing what they were ordered to? Secondly, does he agree that the demands we made of our armed forces in 1982 are as applicable today as they were then and that, as we have seen over the years in Afghanistan, Iraq and all the other theatres we have asked our people to serve in, we need to maintain our forces at the very highest readiness, with the best kit and the best training, so that if the Falklands or anything like it happens again, we are ready?
The hon. Gentleman has made some incredibly important points, and done so very eloquently. Of course I agree with everything that he has just said.
There are many chapters of the Falklands story that need to be told. There is the bravery of the Royal Marines on the ground, and that of the pilots and aircrew in the skies above them. There is also the determination of the sailors, without whom no operation, let alone victory, would have been possible.
The success of our Royal Navy and Royal Marines would not have been possible if not for the work of the civilians supporting the fleet, including the dockyard workers at Devonport, in the constituency I represent. They do not always get their story told in the commemorations, so will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute not only to the Devonport dockyard workers but to all the civilians in dockyards throughout the United Kingdom who supported the fleet in preparation and on the way back?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The great ocean city of Plymouth has an important story to tell in the context of the Falkland Islands conflict, and he makes an important point about the huge contribution made by civilians. Those who step forward to serve in the armed forces do so knowing that they are backed by the outstanding efforts of the hundreds of thousands of good men and women who serve as civilians. My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for them and makes an important point, and I am grateful to him for doing so.
We should also reflect on the terrible suffering endured by the Welsh Guards on the Royal Fleet Auxilliary Sir Galahad, and on the hard-won victory of the Scots Guards on Mount Tumbledown. I am always enthralled by what the Gurkhas, recruited from south Asia, made of their deployment to the south Atlantic. The Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service played a crucial role, but much of their heroism remains untold. As James Sunderland rightly said a moment ago, we should also remember and commemorate the hardship experienced by Argentine forces, who lost 649 personnel.
I hope the House will understand why I now wish to speak primarily about the legacy left by the forefathers in my own regiment—a legacy that my generation and those that followed attempted to live up to. The Paras who went down south occupy a legendary place in the annals of airborne history—none more so than the platoon sergeant of 4 platoon, B company, 3 Para, Sergeant Ian McKay.
Sergeant McKay was born in Wortley, Barnsley, and his story is still recounted and learned by every single fledging paratrooper to this day. Marica McKay, Ian’s widow, remembers that it began when her late husband sat down for dinner one evening in their home and the phone rang:
“I put his dinner in a Tupperware container and he went straight away. He just said, ‘I’ve got to go.’”
With that, Ian and his comrades prepared to set sail. Intensive training was conducted on the voyage: signals, weapons, fitness, medical and fieldcraft over and over again until the battalion arrived six weeks later at Port San Carlos.
After assuming defensive positions, 3 Para were ordered to move to Teal Inlet— the first leg of a 60-mile gruelling march under brutal conditions. They would then advance to set up a headquarters for the assault on Mount Longdon—part of a three-phase plan to capture Port Stanley and end the war.
The battle for Mount Longdon was ferocious, chaotic and bloody. The accounts of close-quarter combat are among the most violent ever recorded. The ground had been occupied for weeks by Argentine forces. They were dug-in and well-defended by machine guns, mortars and artillery. All approaches had been mined. Despite the threat, it was an era when body armour was not issued. The only protection provided was parachute helmets—great when a soldier smacked their head after a heavy landing, practically useless in a gun fight or mortar strike. If they did get hit, wounded soldiers might have to wait 10 hours for evacuation. One Army surgeon from the campaign later compared the casualty evacuation procedure of the Falklands to the first world war and even to the Boer war.
It was not just the enemy with which 3 Para had to contend. The June South Atlantic weather is an unforgiving, unrelenting beast, as Mr Speaker will no doubt recently have observed. The second-hand winter clothing that was issued belonged in the bargain bin of an Army surplus stores, not on the backs of some of our most elite troops. Icy rain and biting wind swept across the barren landscape, quickly forcing temperatures well below zero. Some of the most robust collapsed with exposure and exhaustion. As times go, they were tremendously hard. None the less, overcoming such adversity is what is demanded of those who wear the coveted maroon beret.
It is impossible to put into words the courage, selflessness and valour displayed by Sergeant McKay in the dark, cold early hours of the morning of
“The enemy fire was still both heavy and accurate, and the position of the platoons was becoming increasingly hazardous. Taking Sergeant McKay, a corporal and a few others, and covered by supporting machine gun fire, the platoon commander moved forward to reconnoitre the enemy positions, but was hit by a bullet in the leg, and command devolved upon Sergeant McKay.
It was clear that instant action was needed if the advance was not to falter and increasing casualties to ensue. Sergeant McKay decided to convert this reconnaissance into an attack in order to eliminate the enemy positions. He was in no doubt of the strength and deployment of the enemy as he undertook this attack. He issued orders, and, taking three men with him, broke cover and charged the enemy position.
The assault was met by a hail of fire. The corporal was seriously wounded, a private killed and another wounded. Despite these losses, Sergeant McKay, with complete disregard for his own safety, continued to charge the enemy position alone. On reaching it, he despatched the enemy with grenades, thereby relieving the position of the beleaguered 4 and 5 platoons, who were now able to redeploy with relative safety. Sergeant McKay, however, was killed at the moment of victory, his body falling on the bunker.
Without doubt, Sergeant McKay’s action retrieved a most dangerous situation and was instrumental in ensuring the success of the attack. His was a coolly calculated act, the dangers of which must have been all too apparent to him beforehand. Undeterred, he performed with outstanding selflessness, perseverance and courage. With a complete disregard for his own safety, he displayed courage and leadership of the highest order, and was an inspiration to all those around him.”
Sergeant McKay was an inspiration not just to all those around him, but to every paratrooper who came after him, myself included. The war was over two days later. He was subsequently awarded a Victoria Cross, one of only two recipients in the campaign. The other award, also posthumous, went to Lieutenant Colonel “H” Jones, commanding officer of 2 Para, for his valour at Goose Green days earlier. There were, of course, countless acts of extraordinary bravery that were not formally recognised, not least the actions of Corporal Stewart McLaughlin, also killed in action on Mount Longdon. My hon. Friend Dame Angela Eagle, who is not able to be with us this evening, has long championed ending that oversight.
Yesterday marked 40 years since Sergeant McKay relinquished his chance to go home so that others could. On the memorial erected at the spot at which he fell are inscribed the immortal words from the Gospel of John:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Never were those words more fitting. While at sea, Sergeant McKay wrote a letter to a friend to say:
“I have no intention of taking any risks and getting killed. If I do, then it will be to protect my men, to save lives.”
To write such a thing is one matter; to act when the moment arrives is quite another, but that is exactly what Sergeant McKay did.
Today, 40 years on, we recognise Sergeant McKay’s sacrifice and the sacrifice of everyone who fell during the Falklands conflict. We pay tribute to all those who went down south, and we stand with the many who still bear the scars of the conflict. It is a debt we can never repay, but one that we must always remember.
I congratulate Dan Jarvis on securing this debate and his excellent exposition of the conflict.
The Falklands war touched every part of the UK, including people in my Meon Valley constituency. I was a student during the Falklands conflict and followed it closely, not least because several of my parents’ friends, whom I had known for most of my childhood, were deeply involved. Sir Robin Fearn was head of the South American desk at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; General Sir Richard Trant was land deputy commander, and Captain Lyn Middleton was captain of the HMS Hermes.
Meon Valley, with its closeness to Portsmouth, has many connections to the Royal Navy. Two of my constituents, Captain David Hart Dyke and Ian Young, served on HMS Coventry; many will remember hearing of its attack and sinking. Another friend, John Troy, was in his first year in the Royal Navy, and was also on HMS Coventry. It was hit by two bombs and rapidly flooded, capsizing within half an hour with the loss of 19 lives. What they saw must have affected them for the rest of their lives but, typically, they rarely talk about it. Some 22 ships were hit, with 82 lives lost and many more physically affected.
I have since met many others, such as Chris Purcell and his wife Louise, who do so much for other Falklands veterans and raise huge amounts for the Poppy Appeal. They also raise awareness of the mental health of many of those returning. So many young men returned with physical scars, but also mental ones.
I was privileged to know Lieutenant Commander Brian Dutton, who died a few years ago. |He was a Royal Navy diver, who defused many mines and bombs, including one 1,000 pound bomb on HMS Argonaut. Another friend, who has sadly died of ovarian cancer, was Vikki. She was married to John Hamilton, who got the Military Cross and died in a firefight on West Falklands, allowing his troop to escape. Recently, his extraordinary part in the war as part of the special services has been released.
There are many more heroes whom I have not met, but my trip to the Falklands as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme helped me to understand what it must have been like on the ground, and those names that we were to hear many times in 1982, such as Goose Green, Bluff Cove, Mount Tumbledown and Stanley, became real.
I pay tribute to the sacrifices of our service personnel and their families. Even 40 years after the events, I understand the pain and grief that the relatives of those who lost their lives must feel, but I have also seen the deep gratitude of the people who live there, who have been honouring our forces and those who worked with them.
We must not allow unprovoked aggression to pay, and the Falklands conflict should be a lesson to anyone who tries. We will not forget.
It is a singular honour for me to have the privilege to respond to the debate. The House is moved by and very grateful for the contribution made by Dan Jarvis and I am glad that we also had contributions from Jim Shannon, my hon. Friends the Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland), Luke Pollard and my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond, who reflected on themes such as the important role of the Royal Navy and the remarkably austere conditions in the Falkland Islands. I was also pleased to hear about the Falklands bike ride to Aldershot by Gus and Angela—something that I will look out for this week.
Let me pick up some of the themes considered by the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central. First, there is the theme of commemoration. We are all making a collective effort to ensure that this is not a forgotten war. I am pleased that over the past 74 days there have been some very significant commemorative events. Back in April, I was honoured to commemorate the start of hostilities in St Paul’s cathedral with members of the South Atlantic Medal Association. You yourself, Mr Speaker, held a magnificent beating the retreat last week. All those various activities will culminate in the national moment of commemoration at the arboretum tomorrow. I will be privileged to attend that very significant event, and Members from both sides of the House will also attend. Of course, all Members will attend events in their own constituencies. It will be my particular privilege to meet a large group of Parachute Regiment veterans at the home of the British Army in Aldershot for a very special moment this coming Saturday.
The fact that 255 men were killed in action, seven ships were sunk, three Falkland Islanders were killed and 30,000 men and women served and received the South Atlantic medal gives us some sense of the scale of all this. We must put on record very clearly our sincere thanks to all those forces in all three domains, whether land, sea or air. In commemoration of the important role played by the Falkland Islands civilians, we are very pleased that city status has been granted to Stanley by Her Majesty the Queen in this jubilee year. That is a fitting addition to the programme of commemoration and celebration.
I think we were all moved by the reflections of the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central, particularly about Sergeant McKay VC. That has a broader relevance— what I would describe as the remarkable airborne ideal. The example shown by and the reputation and commitment of Ian McKay VC had an impact on this generation like no other. Like the hon. and gallant Member, I am sure, it was reading accounts of Mount Longdon, Goose Green and Tumbledown that first drew me to an interest in the Brigade of Guards and subsequently airborne forces. The airborne ideal had a very fine expression during the Falklands conflict, but it is broader than just the Parachute Regiment. It applied to the remarkable men of 3 Commando Brigade, 40, 45 and 42 Commando, the 5th Infantry Brigade, the Welsh Guards and the Scots Guards. It applied to the 1st and 7th Gurkhas, who performed so valiantly on Mount William. It applied to all attached arms of Royal Engineers, gunners, air defence, artillery, Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force. It was a remarkable feat of combined arms, because no one arm would have been successful without the contribution of the other. In a simple metaphor, we might see the land forces—the Army—as the fist that was launched by the Royal Navy to liberate the Falkland Islands while being protected by the remarkable heroics in the air of the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force.
We were pleased as a House that the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central was able to read in complete length the citation of Sergeant Ian McKay. I thought that was a very important moment. I should mention, in parallel, a source of inspiration for me, one which many people who have come into the military in the past 20 years have. On my first day at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, I saw my first company sergeant major, Mark Cape, who was there in his Blues jumper, wearing his South Atlantic medal. It was the sight of that medal and hearing later about his experiences as an 18-year-old guardsman, fighting his way victoriously up the scree and crags of Tumbledown, that at that point provided such a deep source of inspiration. After my very short and entirely undistinguished military career, it has nevertheless continued to be a source of deep inspiration. I am therefore grateful for the hon. and gallant Gentleman’s similar reflections on the role of Ian McKay in his military career, and I am sure that all those who have served would have similar experiences and similar points of reference because of the formational nature of the Falklands war.
Drawing to a conclusion, I want to touch on two other enduring lessons of the Falklands conflict that are particularly in our minds during this 40th anniversary. The first is the legacy of human cost. I mentioned the South Atlantic medal, and we have some 30,000 awarded. As Churchill said:
“A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow.”—[Official Report,
That is the case for the 255 British service personnel and the three Falkland Islands civilians killed, but also for the 649 Argentinians who were killed, because behind every casualty statistic, there is a family. For that family, their experience and their burden started in 1982, and it did not end. Earlier last month, I was privileged to meet the families of those killed in the Falklands conflict in St Paul’s, and I am looking forward to seeing some of those airborne families again in Aldershot this Saturday. That is a very significant, enduring impact. We must always remember the human legacy and the human cost of war. That theme will be reflected in events over the next week.
The last lesson I want to draw is a simple one, which is very relevant today, about the power of resolve in military affairs, and the power of what we can achieve when we conduct combined arms warfare properly. The Falklands conflict demonstrates all that is good and best about the power of British military determination and what it can do when it is combined with a very clear and resolute foreign policy in the interest of freedom and as a guardian of freedom. In 1982, our Prime Minister at the time said:
“peace, freedom and justice are only to be found where people are prepared to defend them.”
We have heard about the men and women who were prepared to defend them in 1982. That is still the case, because they set an example to us all, for which we are eternally grateful.
It was a long time before a Speaker visited the Falklands—in fact, I was the first to do so. I thank Dan Jarvis for making the point about the conditions: I had never seen snow or frost like it. When I got there and saw the moving situation of where Colonel H. Jones fell defending democracy, it was unbelievable. I will never be moved in that way again, and to lay the wreath was so important for me. On my previous visit, I went to Mount Longdon and saw where Sergeant McKay fell as well. There is nothing more moving than seeing, in the worst weather conditions ever, what we had to do to fight for the rights of the people and the Falkland islanders. John David Stroud, my constituent—well, he was not at the time; I am not old enough—died on HMS Glamorgan, so we all have a connection, we all know somebody, and we all want to unite. There is no better time for the House than when we are brought together at times such as this—a very important 40th anniversary. I remind hon. Members that the service for the Falklands will be in St Margaret’s after Prime Minister’s questions. I want as many hon. Members as possible to turn up and take part.
Question put and agreed to.