Falklands: 30 years on

Flying the flag in the Falklands Credit: Meridian

Thirty years ago the Falklands War was at its height. It was the first time Britain's armed forces had been in action for many years. Most of the servicemen who fought had joined what were effectively peacetime forces. So the outbreak of war came as a bit of a shock. Richard Jones has been talking to some of them about how they coped before, during, and after the Falklands.

In the last 20 years Britain's armed forces have seen action across the world, from The Gulf to Bosnia, from Iraq to Libya. Anyone signing up now can realistically expect to go into combat.

Back in 1982, few expected to see action. It was the height of the Cold War and the biggest threat was the Soviet Union. Any conflict that broke out would not be a conventional one. Many people joined to see the world.

"Not many people expected to go to war, some senior rates said hang on, I joined to learn a trade, I didn't think I was going to have to go to war," says Chris Parry, who was a helicopter pilot on board HMS Antrim. His diary of the war "Down South" has just been published.

The Falklands changed all that. This was going to be an old-fashioned war, with ships, aircraft, and soldiers in close combat. Were the navy, the army, and the air force ready for the challenge?

"In some respects yes they were," says Joe Erskine who served aboard HMS Hydra and now helps to run the veterans' organisation the South Atlantic Medal Association.

"In other respects they weren't. The people who served in the majority of the units were well trained, they knew what to do, but what was going on in their minds was an individual thing."

On the long voyage south, servicemen had time to think and reflect. Would they be able to cope with going into war? Would they be heroes or cowards?

Canon Roger Devonshire was a naval chaplain aboard HMS Hermes and remembers several conversations with servicemen. One was with a young pilot.

"Here he was a young man, flying a helicopter, having to answer questions he thought he could put off until he was old and grey," says Roger.

"Questions like what comes after this life, does anything come after this life, is faith important, things like that, issues he thought he could leave until later in life but now with his own life on the line he was having to think about them."

Joe Erskine says many members of the task force were not only new to war, but new to life in the military.

"A lot of young lads had only been in the forces for a couple of years or less, some were straight out of training as 17 year old lads and some of them would have been quite frightened and wouldn't have had time to acclimatise themselves to even living aboard a ship before they were thrown into a war situation.

Even on the voyage south, many thought the war wouldn't happen, that peace would break out between Britain and Argentina.

"Nobody really expected we would go to war with Argentina." says Chris Parry. "We thought there would be a political fix and we'd go home again having missed some leave but having had a good cruise to the South Atlantic."

So when the first shots were fired and war became a reality, the servicemen had to respond. They rose to the challenge and after just 74 days the war was won.

For Chris Parry it was one of the highlights of his career. He'd been questioning what the navy was for and what his role was in it. The Falklands persuaded him there was a point to it all.

"I can honestly say that I stayed in the navy because of that and a lot of my colleagues did as well. As soon as we came back it was extraordinary the number of people in Dorset and Portsmouth who said I want to join the navy or the marines because there is something to be done," he says.

"There is no doubt that the opportunity to be in action in Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Falkands gives you a fantastic opportunity to test yourself, test how good you are, and whether you are capable of sustaining morale in conditions of considerable stress and at the end of the day it tells you a lot about yourself."

For others the end of the war brought a different challenge. Joe Erskine says the military weren't ready to help servicemen when they returned home. Many suffered post traumatic stress disorder and some are still affected 30 years on.

"They were just thrown back in the deep end. no mental counselling whatsoever, that was the big issue that was taken away from the Falklands, they were not given the mental support they needed," he says.

"We came back completely expended, then nothing. No counselling, it didn't exist in those days."

A report by Richard Jones on the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War.