Falklands

Forty years on: The woman embedded with Thatcher's Task Force

Linda Kitson was the official war artist of the Falklands War.

Linda Kitson is no ordinary 77-year-old woman.

As an esteemed artist, you would likely expect her to be a little more quirky than other older women – and that she is.

Her face, her memories, tell many stories: meeting interesting people, travelling the world, and having a top education at Saint Martin's College.

And yet, the most curious and, perhaps, exciting chapter of her professional life was around a subject one doesn't normally associate with the world of an artist. War.

In 1982, Linda was appointed as the official war artist of the Falklands War. Alongside thousands of members of the Armed Forces, she travelled the 8,000 miles south to the islands as part of Margaret Thatcher's Task Force. And when the war began, she was embedded in with the men as they fought their way to victory.

I recently shot an interview with Linda in her Chelsea-based studio and apartment, a setting far removed from the cold, damp horrors of Goose Green or Tumbledown – the locations of famous British victories. Battles that this woman saw first hand. 

At the end of our two hours together, I left her knowing I had just met one of the most remarkable and unsung characters of our time. The following paragraphs contain the memories and thoughts she was willing to share. 

Linda Kitson holds up a drawing created by her 40 years ago, depicting officers from the Scots Guards resting in a tin shed just hours after battle at Mount Tumbledown.

When Linda found out she would be deploying to the Falklands as the official war artist, the first woman ever to be appointed in the role, she was told by the Ministry of Defence in no uncertain terms to keep her mouth shut about it.

Although it was no secret Britain intended to wage war on the invaders – after all, the initial chunk of what became known as the Task Force sailed soon after the islands had fallen – her deployment as part of a second wave on one of the most famous ships in the world – the QE2 – was something the Government wanted to keep out of the tabloids.

She found herself locked in her own mini pre-war, trying to uphold those wishes.

"There was a journalist of the cutthroat type. I won't say which newspaper," Linda tells me, recalling the clandestine nature of the days before joining the ship.

"He camped outside my flat. And if I left the house, he was going to try and squeeze me, and I would have lost the job. That, with trying to run around with trying to get more pencils and whatever, was really an alarming time. 

"I have to say, on my way to Southampton in my little tinpot car, it was a moment of relief. It was frightening, yes, but I was relieved."

Scots Guards at Tumbledown by Linda Kitson.

Wars can act as corner marks for those who have to experience them. They are turning points in life; there's a pre-war you and a post-war you.

Linda's no different. But interestingly, the turning point in her life, she said, came right at the start of her Falklands experience.

"Soon after the leaving, and my God, that was a memory I'll never forget. You've got to remember, as an artist, it was extraordinary. I thought, 'what on Earth have I done?' 

"We had the band of the Royal Marines, and what were they playing?" Linda exclaims. "'Sailing' by Rod Stewart."

At this point in the interview, Linda's eyes had filled with tears. 

"It was so theatrical. So tremendously emotional. You could look down and see all the men and women waving us goodbye. And there was no room anywhere on the decks.

"The ship was made up of 21 cap badges, thousands of men, and I was stood in a lifeboat, as were many others, and next to me was this big chap who I thought I wouldn't want to mess with. 

"And in his hands was a sign. It simply said 'Mag' – the name of his wife who was out there somewhere in the crowds. He held the sign until the bitter end."

A depiction of life onboard a vessel en route to the islands. Soldiers can be seen practising with their rifles off the ship's stern.

Ten days before that emotional farewell, the fate of another ship, General Belgrano, was sealed when the British submarine HMS Conqueror fired three missiles at her. Two of them hit, and 323 sailors lost their lives. 

The event caused shockwaves worldwide, but in Britain, the attack on such a vital enemy ship was seen in largely favourable terms. Yet Linda explained, quite to my surprise, that she had, in fact, been uncomfortable with the circumstances of its sinking.

"I understood that there was a parameter that you must not cross, and the Belgrano was on it. Hence, she got caught. But then I then learned, months later, she was facing the wrong way."

Linda would meet Margaret Thatcher on several occasions upon returning from the war. The first time, the two women exchanged pleasantries.

The PM had even suggested meeting again to discuss Linda's project, affectionally referring to Linda as her war artist.

But on the second occasion, their meeting did not go so well… 

"I happened to come across Mrs Thatcher. It was a big dinner or lunch or something and I'd drank way too much – as had become my habit since mixing with soldiers – and I heckled: 'well, what about the Belgrano?'

"And whoever she was with said, 'Do not say that. It's a very touchy area with her'."

Linda Kitson's drawings depicting the Falklands War on display at the National Memorial Arboretum.

Linda described how the Prime Minister chose to blank her, deciding it better to leave without engaging further.

For a moment, I considered if Linda was, deep down, a pacifist who had just let the cat out of the bag.

I worried what her fellow Falklands veterans might think if they saw her talking this way; surely, among those who had fought, nobody considered the sinking of an enemy capital ship a bad idea? Or did they?

My worries were soon terminated. After a short water break, Linda was back in the chair talking about how she had changed her mind on the matter in the years after the war, deciding Belgrano was a good idea after all.

What's more, she even sent a letter to Mrs Thatcher explaining why her position had changed. I wondered if the letter was, in some way, an apology for heckling the woman across the dinner table.

Those earlier worries were quashed further when Linda, turning to the subject of actual fighting on the islands, explained how she found the men at Goose Green dug into their positions.

"It was so cold. I remember at Goose Green and being potentially under an air attack. As an artist," Linda laughed, "there isn't any training for that sort of thing."

Linda's expression returned to reflect the seriousness of what she was about to tell me: 

"But at Goose Green, there was a bomb disposal [expert] who had come over from France, who was detecting anti-personnel mines. He strolled over to me and said, 'I'd like you to come and see this'. 

"It was an Argentinian pilot's head, still in its helmet on its own, and a complete atrophied hand – someone completely different – and because it was so cold, they were beautifully preserved."

Why would somebody do that? I asked her if she thought it was some sort of sexism at play?

"I think he was trying to shock me. He treated me like a member of the press who was just there to see the sights.

"It was very disarming, and I was horrified. They had been there for weeks those things, and he took me around as if I was a tourist."

Linda Kitson in her London-based studio in March 2022.

And what of being a woman? Did the men treat her differently on the ground?

Her answer was yes, but not necessarily in a bad sense, or at least given the context of the 1980s when women were not permitted to deploy to war in combat roles. Her remarks on this caught me off guard.

She explained how, as a woman older than most men by some years, their interest in her did not stretch to sexual attraction.

Instead, they saw her as more of a mother-type who could be approached and spoken to in ways the other men could not. How refreshingly honest I thought this statement to be.

Linda's artwork has been held by the Imperial War Museum since her return four decades ago. To mark the 40th anniversary, 12 of her drawings have been put on display at the National Memorial Arboretum.

A few weeks back, I drove there to experience her work up close and found them all to be remarkable. Some of the drawings are complex. Others are much simpler or, as she says, "abbreviated".

That's because she often had just a few minutes to complete her work. It's easy to forget when looking at them in the safety of a warm museum, she was risking her life to create them.

That's what makes these pieces so unique; it's what makes Linda's story so special.

"There are so many types of art," she told me, "and I'm very aware I would have loved a photographer to be out there, too, or lots of artists.

"Mine is only one kind of art, and people don't always relate to drawings. But they were described as being like letters from home. There were so many, and they caught so many people doing different things.  

"I meet artists who say 'I don't know how you did it at all'."

After pausing and considering how best to articulate what she wanted to say next, Linda continued by accepting that these works, as unique, and in some cases brief, as they are, "have stood the test of time".

She adds: "They mean a great deal to people because of their simplicity and directness."

Linda had just a few minutes to make some her drawings. Here, we see landing craft in a bay in the distance.

On a couple of occasions during our time together, Linda referenced Ukraine, events she fears will result in British troops being pulled into another war, one that is both similar and dissimilar to the conflict she found herself in the middle of 40 years ago.

Back then, there was a larger aggressor in the wrong. Like now, the country pulled together to respond; it was a Task Force back then. Today it's Homes for Ukraine.

For future conflicts, perhaps including Ukraine, Linda's wish is that decision-makers will choose to send war artists, just like they did in 1982 and in the great wars before that.

"It's nothing to take an artist with you. It's such a simple way to understand. I would like to say to those who make the rules do take an artist with you because what's happening now in the world, you always need a witness.

"Drawing is not something that everybody can do, but I would say everyone relates to it. It's timeless."

Linda Kitson, 40 years on from her appointment as the official war artist of the Falklands War.

When our time together ended, it transpired we had overrun. Linda realised she would be late for her next appointment, a catch-up afternoon tea with her closest friend and fellow illustrator, Quentin Blake.

Rushing to get my lights packed, worried I was delaying a meeting of the creative heavyweights, it occurred to me that this story of Linda's is one that most people are entirely unaware of.

I've written extensively on this war. I thought I had all the bases covered in my Falklands general knowledge.

Yet, Linda's unique and brilliant story has stopped me in my tracks. Sometimes, we know everything and nothing all at once. 

But, in the future, whenever I ponder what it was like for the men dug in at Goose Green, or how the Scots Guards fared at the Battle of Mount Tumbledown, I'll picture Linda Kitson right there in the thick of it.

She's calmly sketching away, creating those irreplaceable depictions of war.

Falklands 40: Sketches From The Frontline by Linda Kitson runs until 19 June at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Head to our Falklands 40 page, where you can find our memorial wall, as well as more Falklands stories, videos and podcasts.