2 Apr 2012

The Falklands – the war I never quite reached

I didn’t make it to the Falklands until I traveled there with Mrs Thatcher after it was all over. My war was spent in Punta Arenas in Southern Chile – a cold remote town at Chile’s Southern tip. It was the nearest “neutral” landfall to the Falklands. In reality it was very far from neutral. There were considerable tensions between Chile and Argentina over who owned the Beagle Channel which ran South to Cape Horn. The Pope subsequently successfully drew a line down the middle. But for that moment she was in the British camp.

Though the Falklands looked close on a map, in reality they felt as far away as Portsmouth itself. Early on we hired a Catalina flying boat – an old Second World War horse – which had been converted into a flying fire engine to fight forest fires in the North. It was a discreet bright red. This was the first draw back in our plan to fly secretly to the islands and land in Falkland Sound. It was a madcap idea hatched over too many beers in the Hotel Cabo de Hornas. It did have its uses though. After the Belgrano was hit we found its escort ship the Hippolito Bouchard with decks groaning with survivors and dead, toiling in stormy seas toward the Beagle.

Very early on we became aware of secret operations underway around us. The SAS and SBS lurked in the shadows occasionally dashing into Argentina to cripple the countries fighter jets. One day these secret ops broke embarrassingly into the open. An RAF Sea King helicopter crash-landed in noisy sight of our hotel. The crew was spirited to the local airport and earthmovers dug furiously to try to bury the thing.

Our naval intelligence contact would tap conspiratorially on my hotel door and whisper fast Spanish before lapsing into even faster broken English. We nicknamed him “Hat”. Hat always wore a skew-whiff workman’s cap – was he bald, or had he suffered some catastrophic war wound to his skull – it could have been either or neither. His information was wild, but sometimes true. The trouble was, we rarely knew which.

Read more: David Cameron renews commitment to Falklands

We sat for days waiting for our landing on the islands. But it never came. We did find a suspected German War criminal but he didn’t seem to know much about the Malvinas and we let him go.

In all we were there for the three and half most frustrating months of my reporting career whilst we listened to the handful of “pool” reporters on the task- force ships who seemed to have got all the jam.

In truth we saw almost nothing. The high spot was flying to Antarctica. I had hood winked my news desk into believing that the war had terrible consequences for the Antarctic treaty. The weather kept us there for a freezing week on a Chilean base. The Russians next door came over to play football on the ice. And we cavorted with chinstrap penguins and elephant seals.

The Falklands War was not my finest hour, but like many others I have managed to dine out on it ever since.

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