THE FALKLAND ISLANDS
Albatross, penguins and seals
On the 2nd of April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. At the time I was 4 Troop Leader, B Squadron of the Blues and Royals based in Windsor. I and a fellow troop leader, Robin Innes-Ker were placed with our troops on immediate standby to join the task force which was rapidly formed to retake the Islands. We set forth with both trepidation and the excitement of youth aboard Canberra to rendezvous with the bulk of the fleet at Ascension Island where we transferred over to HMS Fearless and where the war footing became more real. After considerable on board training and live firing both on Ascension and on the landing craft, we sailed for the South Atlantic. Amongst mounting military drama and rough seas, we got the occasional glimpse of whales, sea birds and most dramatically, the albatross.
We arrived in San Carlos Sound on the night of the 21st of May where the realities of war, naval gunfire, air-raids and the initial encounters with the Argentinian forces took place. Soon 2 Para was involved in Goose Green and we, with 3 Para and the Commando Brigade drove through inhospitable country towards Port Stanley, becoming involved in numerous engagements and high drama before Stanley fell to the British forces on the 14th of June 1982.
In 2005, I was approached by Robert Mason, who in 1982 was Adjutant of the Welsh Guards and is now a trustee of the Falkland Islands Chapel Memorial Trust, to create a sculpture to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the conflict in 2007. He also asked me to make a few pieces with which we could raise money for the Chapel at Pangbourne. I was duly sent back down to the Islands in February 2006 to revisit the battlefields and to find the inspiration for the memorial. I was accompanied on the visit by my friend Rupert Merton and his trusty camera. We travelled a path around the Islands made smooth by the Falkland Island Government Representative in London, Sukey Cameron and by Brigadier Jeff Mason from the MOD. It was inspiring to revisit the country I had seen twenty four years ago but some of the sights brought back frightening memories. It was also an eye-opener to meet many of the islanders who had been involved during the conflict, members of the Falkland Island Council and the Governor, His Excellency Howard Pearce.
I learned through talking to these people how the Islands have progressed from the difficult years of pre-1982 to the current day where the Islands are not just self-governing, but self-financing in all respects other than military protection. It is however tragic to realise the extent of animosity shown to the Islands from the Argentine. Argentina still claims sovereignty over the Islands. They appear to be trying to bring the Islands to their knees through what amounts to economic warfare through measures like punishing the fish stocks and preventing flights to the Falkland Islands flying over Argentinian Territory, thus making a viable airline impossible and hindering the growth of the tourist industry. Relations between the Falkland Islands and Argentina is regrettably every bit as bad as it was in 1982. As my journey went on, it became clear to me that the work that I was to do for the Chapel should not only commemorate the war of 1982, but should salute the Islands’ past, present and future, reflecting its strengths and fragilities.
To get a broader overview of the Islands, I wanted to see some of the more outlying areas and get a feel for life in the camp (the term for the countryside). I travelled down to Sealion Island in the south and saw the remarkable antics of the elephant seal, colonies of gentoo, magellanic and rock¬hopper penguin as well as the beautiful king cormorant. I was highly amused by the varying characters of the penguins I saw throughout the Islands. The rock-hopper penguin, bouncing from rock to rock is surprisingly small with an amusing and unkempt hairstyle, the king penguin has a military arrogance to it and the magellanic looks at you with a shy eye, but you must be aware that it is the only penguin that breeds its own fleas! If I found one penguin more amusing than the rest to observe, it surely had to be the gentoo, which scuttled along the beach in groups, quite often of three or four just like our children might; they were delightful.
The sea is the elephant seal’s element where it dives to huge depths and swims and catches fish with such freedom. When it climbs out onto the beaches it drags that huge, blubberous weight and collapses in an exhausted heap every few yards as it heaves itself up amongst the rest of its mates! You would not believe that any further movement is possible. Equally unbelievable though is the reaction it makes to the tussock bird, a small, finch-like bird that lands on its back and pecks mites from its body. The elephant seal arches itself up like a Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth sculpture shouting and screaming at this very small but sharp irritation. The other time that it transforms itself is when one male tries to outgrow the other. It is remarkable, considering their immense weight, that they are able to stand up almost onto their tails as they reach higher and higher. We also saw other wildfowl – the flightless steamer duck and many upland geese, a bird ubiquitous to the Islands and known by every soldier who has yomped across them. There were many other species like the striated caracara and the giant petrel to name just two. Although Sealion Island was not involved directly in the conflict, it was off its shores that the fleet lost HMS Sheffield.
We also flew up to Saunders Island in the north, an island farmed by the Pole-Evans family. It is a working sheep farm that is served occasionally by a boat, but is visited, weather permitting, by tourists as it has a remarkable array of wildlife, most particularly in the area called the Neck. We stayed in the Pole-Evans’s guest house, a self-service, very typically Falkland corrugated iron hut, painted bright white with a red roof.
We were taken by day to the wildlife colonies in the Neck. There is a huge diversity of species and they have their own, small, colony of king penguin, but in my humble opinion the jewel in their crown is the enormous colony of black-browed albatross. As I sat on the cliffs with the South Atlantic pounding in, bringing with it spray, high winds and all too often rain, I found myself close to heaven with hundreds of these beautiful albatross wheeling above and below me. Albatross would land yards from where I was sitting and sculpting. Their nests, which resemble flower pots, had their extraordinary grey, fluffy chicks sitting in them, all clack, clack, clacking their beaks at me. The adult birds seemed much more trustful. I could sit quietly while these huge seabirds with their fine plumage and deep, dark eye shadow wandered past and around me. To take off, they just open their wings and dip into the rising air currents, launching straight into that effortless, swooping flight on their wings that span over eight feet. I watched the birds flying inches above the waves with complete control and then their antics as they approached to land; head up, tail feathers splayed and their feet dangling as airbrakes. I was close enough to these birds to watch the contour feathers flutter as the air broke from the top surface of their wings as they approached to land.
It seemed to me then that the albatross was surely the very subject I needed to tackle for the memorial. Although some may be spooked by the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, we must learn to look after and respect the albatross, so that its demise does not become a weight around our necks. Like the soaring albatross, the Falkland Islands and their future should be cherished. The albatross speaks of enormous endurance in its flight, reflecting the distances that the Task Force travelled to reach the Islands, the endurance of the sailors and soldiers throughout every aspect of the campaign and the airmen who flew so bravely. It also, not only reflects the extreme fragility of the operation, but of the Islands as a whole both past and present. The albatross is a bird that is under serious threat. It is estimated that one albatross is lost every five minutes to the long-line fishing fleets. Yet again man’s greed and lack of care for wildlife is hammering another species. All species of albatross throughout the southern hemisphere are in danger, the tragedy being, in many respects, that simple measures and more care would prevent these pointless deaths.
As a veteran of the 1982 campaign, I feel it an honour to have been given the chance to create this memorial.