Veterans at the service described the war as the "greatest adventure of their lifetime", as Lewis Warner reports
Prime minister Boris Johnson has paid tribute to the “incredible daring and bravery” of armed forces personnel on the 40th anniversary of the end of the Falklands War. Veterans, civilians and bereaved family members attended a service at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, on Tuesday, along with senior members of UK defence staff, to remember the conflict. Mr Johnson, who laid a wreath at the service, said: “The first thing is remember what an incredible thing it was that they achieved back in 1982.
“To make an opposed landing, to take back territory in the way that they did. The incredible daring and bravery of those young men and women. And we salute that – we remember that today.”
Mr Johnson, who spoke at the service as military helicopters carried out a fly-past, said the “greatest tribute” to those who had laid down their lives was that the Falklands Islands had since “thrived in peace and freedom”.
The undeclared war claimed the lives of 255 British forces personnel. The attack came on April 2, as Argentinian forces targeted the islands located 8,000 miles from the UK mainland, deep in the South Atlantic. Just three days later, a vast combined arms British task force – Task Force 317 – steamed from Portsmouth intent upon re-taking the British overseas territory.
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The British effort eventually involved 26,000 troops and 3,000 civilian personnel. The conflict claimed 907 lives in total, including 649 Argentines and three Falkland Islanders. More than 2,000 were wounded during the fighting, and many more suffered – and still live with – the unseen injuries of conflict. During fierce fighting on land, in the air and at sea, a total of seven British ships were lost, including the Sir Galahad, HMS Coventry and HMS Sheffield which was struck by an Exocet anti-ship missile.
Meeting veterans before the service, Mr Johnson heard from one sailor who had been aboard the Coventry the day it was sunk during a bombing raid with the loss of 19 crew, replying “that was a terrible thing, what a thing that was”. San Carlos Water, where the Coventry went down, became known as Bomb Alley by British troops, such was the frequency of low-level bombing raids by Argentine pilots. But after 75 days, it was on this day in 1982 that British forces advanced on the capital of Stanley and enemy troops fled in disarray, with prime minister Margaret Thatcher informing the House of Commons the Argentinians had surrendered by 10:15 BST. The Falklands are remembered by those who fought as much for the gruelling weather conditions and terrain, as for the Argentinian soldiers’ abilities. Pte Nigel McNeilly, who lives near Walsall but is originally from mid-Wales, served in the machine gun platoon of 3rd Battalion (3 PARA) the Parachute Regiment. He said that on the day of the surrender, they had “loaded up with ammunition ready for the advance on Stanley” when the soldiers’ radio sparked into life with welcome news. “Radio communications came through to say that there’s a white flag flying over Stanley and that they had surrendered,” he said. Mr McNeilly, 61, said the anniversary was a “double-edged sword” because he had “compartmentalised” what he experienced, and had kept it “boxed away for many years”. He added: “I’ve been getting flashbacks and weird nightmarish sort of things.” “But I felt it was important to come here to commemorate comrades who lost their lives (and) those who got injured.” He was at the Battle of Mount Longdon and remembers two comrades being killed by Argentinian artillery, while a man in his section got hit with shrapnel. He recalled setting up their machine gun positions “on our bellies”, because “when you stood above waist height you got shot up by the enemy because they had night sights, decent night sights”.
Chris Caroe was a 21-year-old troop commander with 45 Commando Royal Marines, and described being aboard the landing craft, going ashore, as feeling like “Saving Private Ryan at the front of the craft, thinking ‘I hope they don’t start firing’.” With the loss of many of the task force’s helicopters, when container ship Atlantic Conveyor was struck by two Exocet missiles, the marines “did the epic yomp (march) with about 120 lbs on our back,” said Mr Caroe. He was involved in the successful assault on Mount Kent, and the later Battle of Two Sisters, during the British advance towards the islands’ capital, Port Stanley. Mr Caroe, now 61, recalled how accurate Argentinian artillery was and told how he had a “live-and-learn” moment, when his troop made a fire to keep away the bitter cold, by setting light to empty cardboard ration boxes. “It was damn cold and the cloud was down,” he said. “So we lit the fire and the cloud cleared and we got shelled.” He described the experience of combat as being “terrifying”. Mr Caroe said his troops were initially motivated by “payback” after the island’s small contingent of captured marines were paraded on television by the Argentines. However, when arriving as liberators in the village of Douglas he said “the settlement came out in open arms crying and hugged us”. “And after that, it was that’s who it’s for. It was for the locals, it was for the islanders, and it became very, very personal,” he said. He added: “We remember them all. 255 (British casualties), plus the Argentinians. They were there, doing the same job. “As a result of the actions; of my troop, our company, there are people in Argentina today who are mourning.”