“Some had nasty leg wounds, some had trod on mines and stuff. There was one guy, he was carrying someone, and he said he didn’t need any treatment … as it came to light, he had taken shrapnel to both his legs and chest and had a punctured lung … and he had carried somebody back.”
These are the words of Falklands War veteran Kevin Lambert, as he tells the second part of his own story from the conflict, in which he describes the trepidation he felt of the eve of the invasion and the monotony of operations once the war was underway.
His story culminates by recalling the danger-close vicinity to death he and his crew mates came as the war drew to an end five weeks after land operations began.
This is a soldier's perspective of the Falklands War.
You can catch up on Part One here.
A 200 nautical mile maritime exclusion zone (MEZ) around the Falklands was established by the British in the days following the invasion of the islands by Argentinean forces in April 1982.
The message to the Junta was clear: any Argentine naval vessels sailing into the exclusion zone were liable to be attacked by British nuclear-powered submarines operating in the area. By the end of the month, this rule was upgraded to become a total exclusion zone, threatening any ship or aircraft of any nation with attack without notice.
Such an exclusion zone was not sat perfectly within the accepted legal parameters of the international law of sea convention. Some cast doubt of the validity of such sanctions. Given the grey-nature of the total exclusion zone, neutral nations did however abide by the measures and the existence of it remained. The zone, or more specifically the defined boundary of it, would become significant ahead of the arrival of the liberating task force.
In response to Britain’s highly publicised task force making its way southward, the Junta ordered reinforcements from the mainland to the islands in anticipation of its arrival. In coincidence, Argentina also positioned naval assets off the islands which by the end of April included an Argentine Navy light cruiser - General Belgrano - which had originally seen service in the US Navy at the close of the Second World War before being sold to the South American nation in 1951.
On April 30, 1982, Belgrano, two accompanying destroyers and a tanker were sailing south of the islands when they were detected by the British nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror. The following day, away from Belgrano and her unbeknown pursuer operating silently beneath the waves, Argentine Admiral Juan Lombardo ordered his naval assets to launch a “massive attack” on any units of the British task force spotted by them. Perilously for the crew of Belgrano, this message was intercepted by British secret agents and essentially sealed their fate.
Back in London, Cabinet met to discuss Lombardo’s intercepted orders and the known locations of Argentine Navy ships – notably Belgrano which was being secretly shadowed by HMS Conqueror. It is important to note that during this time, crucially, Belgrano was outside of the 200-mile total exclusion zone, and as such intense deliberations were held between Margaret Thatcher, her war cabinet and military chiefs as to the validity of engaging and sinking the Argentine ship in what were international waters.
After hours of discussions, a decision was made. Belgrano was to be sunk.
On May 2, Conqueror’s commander Chris Reford-Brown received orders from London to engage and destroy the ageing light cruiser. At 15.57 hours locally, his crew fired three torpedoes - two of which hit the Argentinean ship. The torpedo impacts, among other things including successfully ripping off the ship’s bow, knocked out radio communications thus removing the means to send a distress call. Belgrano’s Captain, Hector Bonzo, gave the order to abandon ship 23 minutes after the first torpedo struck. It had been an excellent attack by Conqueror, but the resulting loss of life was substantial, and the fact the attack took place outside of the total exclusion zone set by the British themselves resulted in questions for the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, which she would have to answer even into the years after she left office in 1990.
“The Empire Strikes Back.”
News of Conqueror’s success reached the young Kevin Lambert, a 21-year-old Lance Corporal in the Blues and Royals, four thousand miles away at Ascension. With it brought two distinct emotions: one of adulation – the sort of instant joy felt when one’s enemy is dealt a blow, and one of dreaded reality … Belgrano’s sinking removed any final doubts, of which there had been many, as to whether or not he and his colleagues would actually go to war. This was then compounded by the news that so many men had died during the attack on the side of the Argentinians. Would Kevin and his comrades face the same fate?
Speaking to BFBS about the moment word reached him while preparing for a land invasion at Ascension, Kevin described the rush of adrenalin the news brought, explaining that there were even cheers from some, but the mood soon became muted. He said:
“Do we take that as ‘yes, we have done something’, or ‘yes, we now know something is going to happen?’ I think it is probably that. I think some might not have realised that’s what it was, you know. ‘Yes … it has gone down’, and then you find out how many lives were lost … and I don’t think anybody relishes that.
“Someone’s sons, someone’s parents or whatever it is. But, if we don’t expect to get into that situation, being in the military is the last place for you.”
Eight days later, Kevin and his Household Cavalry colleagues, like the rest of the task force based at Ascension, boarded their vessels and set sail south to war. The only thing between him and combat was the southern part of the Atlantic Ocean … it was not lost on him that it was that same body of water so many Argentinians had been killed upon just a week earlier with the sinking of Belgrano.
Asked to describe what, if anything, Kevin felt in terms of respect towards his soon-to-be enemy, the veteran recalled that in reality, there was very little and cited the messages he and his colleagues had received during intelligence briefings aboard Canberra during the long journey to Ascension as to why they felt that way. Kevin said:
“I didn’t have any conscious respect. That’s not for any reason, we didn’t know if they were good or bad, or professional. It was just that we did not know enough about them.
“We did not have anything to respect at the time.
“Since, I know the Argentine Air Force demanded a lot of respect. They were very brave people. They knew there was a very high chance they would not be coming back.”
Kevin’s private collection of photographs captured by him during the Falklands War include several that depict the final days of the journey to the islands, during which the task force passed into the total exclusion area set by London to offer the liberating servicemen every chance of landing safely.
During this time there were airdrops delivering mail, further intelligence briefings for commanders, vehicle maintenance and final preparations for the beach landings. There were also opportunities to reflect on the nature the forthcoming couple of days and weeks would have on world history … events that would be talked about for decades and even centuries after.
When Kevin crossed into the total exclusion zone, 10 days after setting sail from Ascension, it represented what he described as “real danger” particularly from air attacks by the Argentine Air Force.
May 21 was to be D-Day. Kevin and his comrades in 4 Troop, lead by Lt Mark Coreth, were to be attached to 3 Para whose task it was to take Port San Carlos. But what sort of reception would the landing troops face from the Argentinean forces holding on to the islands? This weighed heavily on the mind of the 21-year-old JNCO.
Recalling that final night before offensive operations began - D-Day - Kevin said:
“We were basically told, probably two thirds would be lost on the beach. ‘You probably won’t get past the beach head’. And so, the expectation is there, and you get yourself ready for it … and actually you go ashore, and you don’t fire a shot and nobody fires a shot at you, and you think … what was that all about?
“Looking back, that’s a little bit strange. But you don’t process that at the time. It’s just … you’ve done that, the next thing is going to a position, it’s getting dug in, it’s moving to an OP … and each time you do something else, there’s that bit more trepidation.”
Although rounds had not landed at the feet of Kevin as he made his way ashore, action was not absent from his introduction to the islands. While Four Troop were making their way ashore to the near west of Port San Carlos, in the port itself roughly 40 Argentinian troops engaged whatever targets they could, successfully downing two British helicopters. Those enemy troops, perhaps annoyingly for the arriving British liberators, escaped from the settlement into the hills overlooking the port prior to the area being won by the soldiers of 3 Para.
Once the port was held by the British, the Argentinians responded by sending wave after wave of air raids targeting both the troops in the hills overlooking the captured port area – Kevin among them – and the Royal Navy assets situated in the shores off land. Those raids were captured on film and have since become some of the more recognisable footage of the conflict … the fast jets of the Argentine Air Force thundering low over the bay and hills of Port San Carlos, dropping bombs as they flew by. Kevin, too, captured the experience from the viewpoint of his vehicle or the foxhole he found himself existing within watching history unfold around him.
“The crews on the helicopter, certainly the ones coming out of the helicopter in the water, were shot up in the water.
“So, that was a bit unpleasant to hear but also made tempers and emotions raise a bit. If it was an opposed landing it probably would have given us a boost … made us a little bit more angry possibly, and anger is always good if it’s controlled. So, it was strange. We weren’t sure what was going to happen, when we could move etc.
“I have been back to the physical beach we landed on and instantly recognised it. Instantly recognised it.”
In the 1983 regimental journal of the Blues and Royals, published within a year of the Falklands War, Kevin’s troop leader Lt Mark Coreth described the experience of the war from the perspective of a young troop leader. In the four-page feature, Lt Coreth detailed the significant movements his men were ordered to conduct as the liberating troops advanced across the islands and discussed some of the more mundane realities of the operation – the banality of logistical matters such as preserving fuel for the vehicles – but with a clarity perhaps only possessed by a leader on the ground.
An excerpt from Lt Croeth’s 1983 regimental journal feature described a close shave he and some of his men faced while Argentinean aircraft buzzed over head …
On 7 June, 4 Troop was ordered to Bluff Cove to support the Welsh Guards. 3 Troop stayed in Fitzroy. Whilst there 23B lost its first three gears, necessitating a gearbox change. It was the first and only major failure we suffered. On 8 June, 3 Troop less 23B, moved to join us in a quarry where we had established ourselves. As they approached, LCoH Fisher and Tpr Hastings waved cheerfully at two Harriers as they flew low overhead. Their hearts jumped when they saw they were Skyhawks. Taken by surprise by the first wave, nearly every weapon fired at the second. Tpr Fugatt even managed to empty two SMG magazines at them. I was asked to bring some rations up to a forward company and, since we were at Air Warning Red, I did so with a degree of trepidation. Well justified for, once in the open, another wave of Skyhawks came low overhead. Gunfire everywhere, a lot of it dangerously close. This, however, turned out to be the Welsh Guards and the Blues and Royals trying to shoot down the aircraft over our heads.
Success was achieved as Tpr Tucker hit a Skyhawk with his 30 mm cannon as did Tpr Ford back at Fitzroy. This was the day of the tragedy of Sir Galahad and Sir Tristam. 23B and the Sampson helped carry casualties.
Kevin, who was in the vehicle alongside Lt Coreth when those rounds fell “dangerously close” recalled the event 38 years on …
“I think they had come over from the Galahad attack, and they came over and everybody behind us opened fire. But unfortunately, we were between the aircraft and them firing. It was pretty close. Jed [the driver] swears to this day he hit seventh gear reversing in the Scorpion.”
It had been a close call for Kevin and his crew mates … but it would not be the closest shave with death the trio would face during the war.
Four weeks after landing on the beaches to the west of Port San Carlos, the war reached its penultimate day … but it would be a day that Kevin would long remember as the day he very nearly lost his life. It was going to be a major operation.
In the weeks between the initial landing and this, an operation that promised to be the last major push for victory, Kevin and his colleagues had bore witness to two sides of conflict. One of war emotions - action and tragedy – and Kevin had captured photographs of some of the true lows of conflict - the aftermath of the Argentine attack or the landing ship Sir Tristram, which had resulted in British deaths. And secondly, of the frequently felt reality of boredom that so often goes hand in hand for soldiers fighting wars. Hollywood tells audiences that wars are action packed, but the reality is quite the opposite. In the five weeks Kevin had been in the Falklands War, the fighting had not been constant, and due to the fact he was one of a few soldiers operating on a vehicle (the Blues and Royals possessed the only armoured tracked vehicles on the islands), he frequently found that he and his buddies were being used as a taxi service for Marines or Paras, or to shift logistical supplies to and from key locations.
But on the final days of the war, that all changed.
Recalling the story, Kevin told BFBS:
“We got the order to do the attack … the attack on Tumbledown. 4 Troop, we were attached to the Scots Guards.”
Within the Scots Guards present at the Falklands was an old friend of Kevin’s from his time based at Depot. For the attack, and by chance, Kevin and his friend Danny, found themselves working together … Kevin in his armoured vehicle, Danny commanding his section of guardsmen.
“We had a good chat and a cigar or two while we were waiting at the form-up point and I remember him saying to me, ‘I have got a bad feeling about this’ …
“So, yeah … he had this strange feeling."
As the action commenced, matters closer to Kevin placed a distance between the groups that he and Danny were each working within. Kevin said:
“We got forward, and we went up, they went off to one side, we went up the main track … drove up it. There had been several craters that had been blown which had been cleared by the Engineers and we just came up against another one – a crater in the road – and the Engineers hadn’t been there so we didn’t know if it had been blown or if there had been a heavy artillery shell that had blown it, so it was a conscious decision … you hear it … ‘give it a go.’”
Kevin’s driver Jed put his foot on the peddle and the vehicle entered the crater in the road. Suddenly, a great explosion blasted the three men. Their vehicle had struck a mine.
“All I remember is the flash coming through the turret and the pressure coming through. I can remember me and Mark saying, ‘right, we need to get out.’
The three of them had survived the mine strike, but while on the ground they would later find that they were perilously close to yet more mines. Kevin said:
“There were 57 mines left in a V shape around where the vehicle was. Two inches either way we would have possibly hit two mines at once.”
The mine strike took Kevin’s vehicle out of the war on what would turn out to be the final night of fighting. But, while Kevin and his driver remained at the rear preparing the aid post for, as Kevin put it, “what was coming” from the attack that had continued without them, Mr Coreth went forward in command of another vehicle keeping his leadership knowledge in the battle.
For Kevin’s old friend Danny, the action at Mount Tumbledown would end in tragedy.
“We knew they were going to be extracting the [injured] Jocks … so we went to the aid post to prep it for what was coming. We were there a short time, I got myself a new weapon because mine was still in the Scorpion which had been blown up.
“Then the other vehicles came back carrying the casualties.
“Some were on the vehicles, some on foot … and there was a lot of them … a lot of them. Some had nasty leg wounds, some had trod on mines and stuff. There was one guy, he was carrying someone, he said he ‘didn’t need any treatment’ … and as it came to light, he had taken shrapnel to both his legs and chest and he had a punctured lung … he had carried somebody back.”
Among those injured was Kevin’s friend, Danny, who just moments prior to the attack had spoken of his bad feelings about the night ahead. He had been right … Kevin’s old friend Danny had tragically been killed in action.
“Next day, we got the story of how Danny had been killed and as far as we know, and again there’s probably slightly different stories, when they were advancing on positions, they had actually gone through the first positions before they realised it. So, when they opened up, there were people behind them. Danny dropped a grenade in what he thought was a trench which was actually further behind him … so he dropped the grenade in the trench, went to sweep it with an LMG and when he got in the trench to sweep it the [enemy] just let rip and took Danny out.”
That night on Tumbledown, the Scots Guards lost eight guardsmen and one attached Royal Engineer. It would later become, alongside other key battles that made up the Falklands War such as Goose Green, noteworthy for the bravery displayed by the attacking British soldiers. That attack had included a bayonet charge and saw further injuries for more than 50 men. On the Argentinian side, the casualty numbers were almost triple that of the British.
The heavy fighting seen not just at Tumbledown that night but at other locations – the battles of which are now famous – would prove to be the final actions of what had been a tough and unexpected war. The following day Port Stanley would be won and the war over.
But what did Stanley look like once victory was assured? Kevin described to BFBS sights that remain as vivid today as they were 38 years ago.
“I always had a memory of going in, and it was several days [after the war had ended], and the memories I had were of driving past in a vehicle and [seeing] some corrugated sheets of iron on the side of the road and seeing hands and feet sticking out the side of them … ”
“… What they had done at first, when the Argentineans were moving away, they were not burying the bodies, they were just covering them … if that.
“The British organised it [burying the enemy dead], but they used the Argentine troops to do the burials. I was not involved in that. There are all the historic stories of how much they did, the damage they did … I don’t think you would have got many islanders at the time helping to bury them. The islanders went through hell … not a lot of people realise that, it was not big news. But they went through hell.”
On the way home there would be no stop-off at places like Ascension or Sierra Leone … as described by Kevin it was to be “one long hog back to England” on board HMS Fearless. Waiting for them would be family, a jubilant British public and a proud Prime Minister who realised the significance of the work those liberating members of the Armed Forces had achieved – the Falklands War would cement her status as one of two brilliant Prime Ministers of the twentieth century.
For Kevin, arriving home meant reuniting with the wider regiment who had not been deployed to the South Atlantic, and a very proud mother. To his colleagues, the 21-year-old would be able to explain the experience of fighting in a real, old fashioned war. To his family, Kevin would choose not to go into too many specific details about the memories he would keep for the rest of his life, particularly of the night so many Scots Guards were injured on Tumbledown, and where sadly his friend Danny’s life had come to an end.
Following the war, Kevin would spend a further 11 years in the Household Cavalry, eventually leaving the regiment as a Lance Corporal of Horse. He moved back to the region he hailed from and today lives in Wales. He has recently been involved in the delivery of the response to covid 19, managing his regional coronavirus testing site.
In 2013, Kevin travelled back to the Falklands to visit the key locations of his time there during the war in 1982. Describing the reasons behind his return, Kevin spoke of the closeness he feels towards the islanders.
“I feel close to the Falklands now more so, at one point I never thought too much of it ... until I realised we had the opportunity to visit. Jed and I went back in 2014 for a visit and it just grabbed me.
“Part of that is the almost idolisation, hero-worshiping from the islanders. The gratitude is just immense, and I think that’s part of it. When you look at the beauty of it, the wildlife … and OK what was given for it, but you really know they appreciate it.
“If I were twenty years younger, I would not think twice about settling down there. The Falklands is an absolutely amazing place.”