The story of the Falklands War is most commonly told through headline events. The sinking of the Belgrano, the battle of Goose Green, the loss of Royal Navy ships including the Sheffield and Coventry. And rightly so … these matters were the pivotal moments of what was an unexpected war.
But perhaps lost within those significant chapters of the Falklands War story is the experience of the everyday soldier.
Now, 39 years on from the three months that he says changed his life, Falklands War veteran Kevin Lambert, a former member of the Blues and Royals, has spoken to BFBS about the conflict from a first-hand, no holds barred perspective.
Kevin, who was a 21 year old Lance Corporal at the time and deployed as a gunner for his Troop Leader in their Scorpion CVRT (Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance Tracked), discussed in detail the experiences he faced from the moment he learned of the invasion on the news right through to surviving a vehicle mine strike at the foot of Mount Tumbledown on the last night of the war. His story is that of surprise, doubt, reality, survival and loss.
Alongside his frequently frank feelings about the memories he has, Kevin has also shared a vast collection of photographs taken by him as the war unfolded. These images, which have never been seen by the wider public, depict some of the lesser known factors of the 1982 conflict, showing the war from behind those famous news headlines.
Kevin's story is told in two parts. Here, in part one, the story focuses on the early stages of the Falklands War, including the long journey south.
“We didn’t know where it was. I thought it was off the coast of Scotland.”
Kevin was not alone in feeling this way. When the invasion happened by surprise on April 2, 1982, much of the population was the same. Yes, there was a national consensus that it was bad, and that a retribution should commence, but most families could not point to the Falkland Islands on a map. Part of that was due to them being so far away, no less than seven thousand miles, but part of it was because, generally, the islands and their British Overseas occupants did not really exist in the everyday awareness of the typical early-1980s Brit. That would change.
The word “bubble” is used by Kevin when discussing his memories of the immediate days following the news of the Argentine invasion:
“We existed in a bubble. We didn’t have time to notice if our regimental colleagues were envious that we had been chosen to go. And really, everyone thought it was a bit of a mess around anyway.”
The invasion occurred on a Friday, a week before Easter. Because of that, members of the Armed Forces up and down the country were either already on leave or about to be so. Kevin and his colleagues in B Squadron, The Blues and Royals, were an exception. Instead, he and his mates were preparing for Exercise.
By Sunday, two days on from the invasion, Kevin’s regimental headquarters had received word that they were to supply two troops of Scorpion based armoured reconnaissance assets, including a recovery vehicle crewed by REME soldiers from the LAD. All in all, the regiment was to send 30 men to the islands. This would represent one of the smallest units in terms of numbers sailing south as part of the task force, and as Kevin explains later, this itself caused issues where settling into a rhythm onboard a ship overwhelmingly occupied by Marines and Paras.
Nowadays the passage of time between events as they unfolded allows us to forget that everything that happened in response to Argentina was not so fluent.
From the invasion occurring, to the task force sailing south and the islands being recaptured, back then Kevin and his buddies felt that the whole matter would probably come to nothing, and other outcomes would be more likely in line with the diplomatic discussions going on in places like the United Nations in New York.
In the days before departure, the Blues and Royals base at Combermere Barracks, Windsor became extremely busy.
“We had never seen helicopters landing in camp before. They landed on the parade square. Kit just started arriving. Warm weather kit, comfy fighting kit. We were so isolated, in a bit of a bubble really.”
But those doubts of seeing war ever coming to pass remained …
“We thought at the time, yeah … we are going, but we will probably only get to Southampton and go no further. Then if we get on board, we will get to Ascension, and go no further.
“To put it bluntly, it was a bit of a f**k about.”
By Wednesday that week, Kevin and his Household Cavalry colleagues had prepared their wagons and phoned home their goodbyes. But there was still time for one “final” last night out on the town …
“We were getting lots of attention downtown, as you would. But then we would end up down there again the next night because the move notice had been put back. It did a few times.”
“Boys will be boys. It was a great time and we made the most of it.”
The following morning, six days on from the invasion of the Falklands seven thousand miles away, Kevin boarded ship at Southampton. The first leg of the journey to the Falklands would be to the remote mid-Atlantic rock-like territory of Ascension and would take 12 days. There would also be the briefest of stop-offs for refuelling at Freetown, Sierra Leone.
His ship and home for the journey to the equator would be the cruise ship SS Canberra, which had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy while mid-cruising the Mediterranean with hundreds of holidaymakers onboard at the time of the invasion. As such, and in a similar fashion to that of Kevin and his buddies, her civilian crew had to turn around the ship within a week ready for its part in the war. Many of those crew members were then tasked to run the ship while occupied by the men of the task force.
But as Kevin’s pictures show, Canberra was unable to shake-off the holiday-like environment it was designed to provide, particularly during the initial 12-day trip to Ascension.
“It was very much a cruise-like mentality.
“Sailing out was poignant. There were a lot of people on the quayside and as we were sailing out there were lots of boats around us. I went back through there on a cruise about five or six years ago and I just felt the need to go outside and spend my time on the deck. That was touching going past Spithead all those years later. The navy are very into that, I can understand why now.”
Kevin and his colleagues, which included two junior officers, Lt. Mark Coreth and Lt Lord Robert Innes-Ker, found themselves onboard a ship sailing to war that was predominately filled by long-standing rivals, the Paras and Royal Marines. In discussing those early hours and days onboard, Kevin said that it was a challenge to find their place onboard …
“There becomes a pecking order on ship. We settled into life. Very often we would be in one of the dining rooms or bars – you could still get drinks – playing cards and chatting. We didn’t mix with other units at all really. But it was a cruise mentality. The rooms we were in, it was an old type cruise ship and there were bunk beds. We were treated just as well as a paying guest would be.
“The staff were superb. They didn’t have the full complement but what they did have they were polite and pleasant.
“The food was better than the cookhouse back home.”
The journey was not all fun and tomfoolery.
Each day, all personnel on board took part in physical training, as well as other theatre specific training in preparation of the eventual beach landings at the Falklands. But as before, the vibe on board was generally that of the eventual war not coming to pass. This is perhaps why so many of Kevin’s pictures have an air of holiday relaxation in the sun as the ship steadily steamed down the Atlantic. But perhaps another part of this was due to the fact that the whole Falklands War episode had come completely out of the blue. Whereas other conflicts have tended to offer warning before shots needed to be fired, the Falklands was different.
“We did our physical training running around the decks. We didn’t join in with the Paras or Marines, but we made sure we were seen doing it, we were seen putting the millage in. But there was a lot of sitting around reading.
“We did commandeer the swimming pool. It was supposed to be officers only and then there was a group or Marines and Paras who said, ‘we’re having it’ … but there was never any question. There was always the same group around the swimming pool, and that was us.”
During the 12-day journey to Ascension, Kevin sent home his first or several letters to his parents in Liverpool.
The letter, which was sent one week into the journey to Ascension, offers an insight into life onboard Canberra, as well as snapshot into some of the distractions Kevin and his seafaring mates had to pass the time. Charmingly, the letter also refers to a love interest that Kevin has had to place on hold while the episode in the South Atlantic was being resolved … a story as old as time for soldiers, their waiting lovers and war.
Dear Mum and Dad
Sorry about the delay in writing but this is the first chance we’ve had of sending mail since we sailed last week. The weather is great so as you can imagine I am quite red. The food is quite an improvement on what we got in Windsor (not too difficult).
My injections are lying in the medical centre back in Windsor, I didn’t get chance to have any before we left. Not to worry though, you don’t get hay fever at sea.
Yesterday we were watching a whale at the front of the ship. Until it disappeared under the ship. It came out ten minutes later in pieces the size of hamburgers. Today we were swamped with hundreds of dolphins leaping around. There’s something to be said for these cruises. Hope you had a good weekend at the caravan, with decent weather.
Going for a meal with Marlene has gone by the board for a while. So let her know if you write to her.
With a bit of luck we should get some mail tomorrow, there should be a couple from Jodie. So, I’ll have to reply to them tonight after I’ve been for a run so I can get them in the post tomorrow. Nothing in it is likely to be relevant to what she writes to me though, not that really matters. We’re still writing and she’s supposed to be coming over in June to go to Denice’s wedding, so with a bit of luck I’ll see her then. She didn’t know that I was going to the wedding so she said that she’d come to Windsor to see me, so things must still be OK between us.
I’m spending quite a lot on sun tan lotion at the moment trying to stop myself from burning, you know when I’m sunbathing or swimming in the swimming pool. It’s a hard life.
Anyway, bye for now. Love to all.
During the stop off for refuelling at Freetown, the coastal capital city of Sierra Leone, Kevin and the thousands of other taskforce personnel onboard Canberra were not allowed to disembark ship. But that did not stop the locals from trying to engage the potential sudden mass market with some quick trade.
Kevin’s photo collection shows the excitement on board as local Freetowners attempted to sell goods from small canoe-like vessels at the port.
Of course, after more than a week at sea Canberra’s occupants were excitable to things other than local traders.
Kevin described the scenes as delegates from the British High Commission in Freetown turned out to wave the would-be war fighters off …
“We did have somebody from the consulate come on to the quayside to wave at us with his daughter, and all she got was typical squaddie humour.
“Several different units have been blamed for what was said.”
The journey from Freetown to Ascension would take another three days during which Kevin and his Canberra-based colleagues continued to wonder whether or not the whole thing might actually come to pass.
When Canberra approached the Mid-Atlantic island, Kevin and his buddies found themselves having to cross-deck to an accompanying ship, the requisitioned roll-on roll-off ferry MV Elk, which was carrying the armoured vehicles they would be operating if and when they landed at the Falklands. Travelling on Elk from the UK had also been a skeleton crew of soldiers from the regiment, and so there was a minor reunion among the men of B Squadron.
But frustrations between the different units that made up the task force continued to show.
“An instant that showed the difference was on board the Elk, we’d cross-decked at Ascension to do some work on the vehicles before we went ashore to train. And the first day we went onboard, somebody gave the shout lunch was on top deck, a big buffet set out. We finished what we were doing and went and washed up.
“We got up there and the Marines had eaten everything.
“So the next day we didn’t bother washing up, we just went up there. And the Marines were most disgusted because when they went to the plates, the sandwiches had big dirty oily handprints on them.
“There weren’t impressed, and they got quite upset about it. Quite upset.
“To them we weren’t just mean or tight, we were really grotty horrible slobs.”
The journey to Ascension was over … but thoughts quickly turned to what was next. This included for Kevin and the other members of B Squadron, Blues and Royals, a range package that he described as being second to none.
“The ranges on Ascension were superb. We had ammunition which was trial and development ammunition to play with and it was different. We had plenty of it. You were to fire at old vehicles and petrol tankers and that sort of stuff, but also you were firing at 25 litre oil drums at 1000 metres with radon.”
Anybody close to the military, specifically those who are familiar with armoured regiments, will know that range packages are well executed and immensely disciplined activities, and although often fun they are also serious periods of training with little room for fooling around.
However, Kevin recalled the ranges at Ascension as being a little different.
“It was good, and it was a wee bit more relaxing than normal ranges. It still ran by the same rules, there’s pictures of it … of the green flags and the red flags being flown on the vehicles.
“It was a great honour doing it, driving around, it was just something really, really different.
“But again, it was definitely a training atmosphere, not a real atmosphere. It was looked at as a good opportunity for training.”
It was still training, yes … but that did not make the experience free from danger.
While the task force was preparing hard for the ever-growing probability of war, soldiers being soldiers began to get hurt. This was true of the Blues and Royals as it was the other units situated at Ascension. Kevin recalled:
“We lost two from Ascension
“There was a REME craftsman, a VM, on board Fearless. The Samson was parked on one of the vehicle decks, and to the side of it there was a ramp going down to the lower decks, if you have been on a car ferry you will know what those types of ramps are like, and so the lad went to get off the vehicle, and as he jumped or climbed off, there was a guy working on the vehicle below him so he bounced off him and went straight over the side of the loading deck and went down. He took out his kneecap in quite good form. We are still in touch with him.
“He got evacuated from there.
“Then we lost Phil Henney. On the ranges, he slipped and grabbed a hot barrel on a Gimpy to balance himself and because we had plenty – there was no shortage of ammunition to play with and practice with on Ascension – it had had several thousand rounds through it, so yeah, he burned his hands and he got evacuated then.”
While the days on the ranges for Kevin and his mates passed by, elsewhere on Ascension a huge logistical operation got underway in preparation for the opening stage of the would-be war. The ships amassed at the strategically well positioned island territory were filled with weeks’ worth of ammunition, rations, fuel and other relevant supplies.
There was also ample opportunity for downtime. Several of the images released by Kevin show the men of his unit making the most of the soaring heat and beautiful beaches.
Who can blame them? It would be their final chance to unwind before coming face to face with the enemy.
Diplomatically, efforts had continued trying to reach a peaceful outcome primarily at the United Nations in New York, events that Kevin was able to keep abreast of on the BBC World Service. But, as the days passed by it became ever more clear that the task force would need to set sail south, and in anticipation of it, the men made their final preparations for war.
“We were aware of the toing and froing of the diplomatic attempts by the Americans.
“As part of our training, as part of the intelligence briefs etc, it’s a bit of building you up, telling us what it was like in Argentina, you know, their reasons, what was coming up, what their motivations were.
“And certainly, it was telling us about how bad the Junta were. It does gee you up, you know you’re doing it for the right reasons and that.
“Were we being indoctrinated a bit? Possibly, but you gotta be and it wasn’t lies at the end of the day.”
The reality of the situation would be driven home to Kevin by two key events.
Firstly, the taking off of bombers from Ascension that he knew were en-route to engage targets at the Falklands, and secondly, the news of the sinking of the Argentine ship Belgrano, an action that resulted in the loss of 323 sailors.
Kevin was days away from war.
In part two: Kevin discusses the loss of life on Belgrano; he describes the events of landing at San Carlos Bay, we hear about the skill and the determination of both the Argentine Air Force and the Royal Navy helicopter crews, and Kevin describes surviving a mine explosion. Plus, many more photographs from his war in the Falklands.
Part Two of Falklands: The Soldier's Perspective is available here.