In the half-light of dawn, a blanket curtain suddenly parted in the enemy trench. Two Argentinian soldiers struggled to get out. A pair of English paratroopers fired first.
“We didn’t give them the option of getting out.” Dean Jenkins recalls simply. “We just killed them.”
Speaking in 2002, to mark the 20th anniversary of the war, every detail of the incident during the battle of Goose Green remained with him.
“I’ve never felt ashamed. I feel the whole war could, and should, have been avoided but I’m proud to have been part of it.”
In 1982 he was a teenage para, serving under the legendary Colonel ‘H’ Jones who died at Goose Green, winning a VC for his one-man assault on an enemy trench. The memory of his Commanding Officer still makes Dean Jenkins shift uneasily in his seat, torn between loyalty and the brutal truth.
“How can you describe him? Let’s say he was everything you’d expect in a paratroop CO – twelve-and-a-half feet of screaming airborne fury. If ever a man was born to die in battle, it was him.”
In May 1982, Dean from Castlecroft, Wolverhampton, was Private Jenkins, a 19-year-old rifleman in the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, 2 Para. He was 5ft 8ins and 10 stone, weighed down with 100 lbs equipment and astonished to be off to war.
“We all thought, where the hell are the Falklands? Someone said, what are the Argies doing in northern Scotland?”
A few weeks later, at dead of night, 2 Para’s landing craft sneaked into San Carlos. They expected to meet a wall of enemy fire. In the calm, a moment of farce as hundreds of battle-ready paras failed to understand a Navy order.
“The ramp went down and this Marine said, ‘troops out’. He said it again. It was a Navy order. No-one knew what he meant. Finally, someone said, “go!” and we went. It was a big anti-climax. I don’t remember being frightened but we were really excited. But there was no firing. We all thought, where are they?’
After a few days, top brass ordered an attack on the settlement of Goose Green, held by about 2,000 Argentinians. After a ‘horrendous’ night march of six hours, Dean Jenkins and his pals crossed a wire fence. The shooting began. “There was this sniper. He must have killed three of our lads. Every time anyone climbed over the fence, he fired. It reminded me of the First World War and going over the top.”
The attack faltered. The paras were pinned down in a shallow gully. It was then that their furious colonel arrived.
“Everyone recognised H Jones. He was tall, wearing this padded jacket and he was shouting and moaning that we had all stopped. We were a bit aggrieved. We’d been under fire for two hours and here we were, getting the blame.”
At that moment H Jones launched his one-man attack on an Argentinian trench. As he reached it, he was killed by a burst of machine-gun fire from another trench. The debate on whether he was a hero or a fool has raged ever since. What no-one denies is that the paras, robbed of their CO, fought like demons.
“Someone used an anti-tank rocket to destroy an enemy bunker. The Argentinians didn’t seem to know what to do next. We went into our trench-clearing drill using phosphorous grenades. We literally overran them. We ran out of grenades. My partner covered me and I got to the edge of a trench. These two Argentinians were coming out...”
He speaks quietly with not a profane word. There is no swagger, no remorse as this former Para and policeman recalls the deed.
“I didn’t think about killing at the time but afterwards we were all in this state of shock, tired and amazed that we should have survived. I can see us now after the battle, all white-eyed and white-lipped.”
The Falklands War had not finished with 2 Para. With 17 dead, and dozens wounded or suffering from trench-foot, they expected to be withdrawn. Instead they were sent to defend Bluff Cove where they witnessed the worst British disaster of the war when the landing ship Sir Galahad was bombed.
“We knew the Welsh Guards were coming but we never imagined they would come in two big ships. We watched them milling around on the deck. We knew someone would see them. We heard the air-raid warning. We knew what was going to happen. We did what we could but, honestly, the injuries...”
Waiting for an exocet missile to strike
It’s the word any sailor in the 1982 Falklands War came to dread. ‘Handbrake!’ was the operations-room warning of an Exocet missile attack On board HMS Exeter on May 25, Steve Stonard and his comrades froze for a split-second as the electronic-warfare operator shouted the word.
“It meant that the Exocet’s signal had locked on to us,’ recalls the former sailor. Someone blew a whistle and we threw ourselves to the deck.”
No-one on HMS Exeter had any illusions. An identical Type 42 destroyer, HMS Sheffield had already been destroyed by an Exocet.
“We were very busy all the time. I remember long periods when nothing seemed to happen. But you could almost set your watch by the air raids.”
The job of the Type 42s was to defend the aircraft carriers at the heart of the British fleet. If that meant taking hits, so be it. For a desperate few seconds as the Exocet approached, Leading Seaman Stonard, a twenty-six-year-old sonar operator, and his shipmates waited for the impact. And waited. It never came. The destroyer’s defence system fired a cloud of metallic strips known as ‘chaff,’ deflecting the missile.
Nearby, the huge cargo vessel Atlantic Conveyor was not so lucky. Two Exocets struck her, wrecking the ship, writing off vast quantities of equipment and claiming twenty lives, including that of Wolverhampton sailor Adrian Anslow. HMS Exeter survived the South Atlantic conflict unscathed and a quarter-century later was the only Falklands ship still serving with the Royal Navy.
“Which is remarkable when you think how small the Navy is today,” smiles the ex-sailor, living in Bartley Green, Birmingham.
The war ended suddenly when Argentine forces surrendered to the British in Port Stanley. By then, another Type 42 destroyer, HMS Coventry, had been destroyed by bombs. Britain lost twenty-one ships sunk or damaged. If all the Argentinian unexploded bombs had detonated correctly, the fleet would have been decimated.
“The surrender was a bit surreal. The captain announced over the ship’s Tannoy that it had taken place. People were very relieved to hear it. We were pleased but, of course, for those of us in the Navy there was also a great sense of loss.”
Steve Stonard joined the Royal Navy aged 16 in 1973. He served until 1984, followed by 17 years in the Royal Naval Reserve. While some 1980s servicemen never expected to go to war, he was a veteran of the 1975 Cod War with Iceland which saw some deliberate rammings in a dispute over fisheries. When the Falklands conflict erupted in the spring of 1982 HMS Exeter was based in the West Indies and looking forward to a peaceful cruise home to Britain. Then came the summons south. When it was over the destroyer was one of the first into Port Stanley.
“It was a mess. There was ammunition and missiles scattered all over the place.”
HMS Glasgow – the Navy’s lucky ship
Martin White was a 20-year-old radar operator on Sheffield’s sister ship, HMS Glasgow and saw Sheffield’s destruction.
“We had seen videos of Exocets in training so we knew what to expect,” he recalled. “Seeing Sheffield on fire was terrible.”
Eight days later Glasgow was in the thick of it. Martin was on duty in the ship’s war room as Argentinian warplanes attacked.
“You could hear bombs going off and guns firing, and missiles misfiring. We had just come from missile training without any problems. But when you really needed them the missiles failed. It was scary, very scary. And suddenly there was this thump.”
Hours later, the ship’s company were told that the thump was an enemy bomb which had struck Glasgow but passed straight through the ship without exploding or causing any injuries. By the time the war was over the damaged ship was heading home to a heroes’ reception. Cheering crowds lined the docks at Portsmouth.
“I don’t think there was a single member of the crew not on deck. It was a nice reaction, the thanks of the people of the UK. Looking back, I am glad to have done it and very, very proud of taking part.”
Back on dry land, Martin White, of Wednesbury, raced north to make his younger brother’s wedding in Yorkshire. He turned up unexpectedly in his best uniform “and everyone was in tears”. As the reception ended he went to pick up his navy hat. He found it resting on a bottle of Champagne.