Plymouth remembers the Falklands War, 30 years on
Thirty years ago today the Argentines invaded the Falklands. Here Tristan Nichols talks to servicemen about their memories of the time.
PLYMOUTH veterans of the Falklands conflict say they believed the first news of the Argentine invasion was merely an "April Fools'" joke or a "stunt".
Thirty years ago today news first emerged of the shock Argentine move which would ultimately lead to about 900 deaths as the conflict unfolded over several months.
Servicemen and civilians in Plymouth were hugely involved in the effort to liberate the South Atlantic colony.
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But on hearing the news back then, many servicemen said they simply could not believe it.
At the time in 1982 David Sayer was serving on HMS Plymouth as a 33-year-old Squadron Gunnery Officer.
The sailor and his colleagues had just finished a major NATO exercise off Gibraltar, and were set to head to the West Indies for a goodwill visit.
"We sailed from Gib and I remember thinking 'Why are we heading South and not West?'" said David, who now lives in Roborough and works for the Tomorrow's People Trust in the city centre.
"We were looking forward to our trip to the West Indies. We didn't think for one minute that we were going to war.
"It was seen as a political spat more than anything else.
"But as each day went by, it became more and more real."
Nick Vaux, the Commanding Officer of Bickleigh's 42 Commando Royal Marines during the Falklands, said he will never forget the events of April 2.
"It was pretty unforgettable for me," said the 75-year-old, who lives near Yelverton.
"I remember it was about 2am and there was confusion about whether the news was an April Fools' joke or not.
"I was at RAF Brize Norton just about to fly to the US for a conference with the US Marine Corps when I got the call.
"I was told I had to cancel the trip and get back to Bickleigh immediately.
"I got back to Plymouth at about 5am. The most amazing thing was how within 48 hours marines – who were on holiday all over the world – began arriving back, many at their own expense ready to go.
"It was quite wonderful."
Mark Davis – who lives in Chaddlewood – was serving in the Mediterranean as a Leading Radio Operator on Devonport-based HMS Active when he heard the news.
"We were all getting ready for an exercise at the time and I was one of the first to hear as I was on the radio," said the 54-year-old who now works for the Queen's Harbour Master.
"I didn't think much of it at the time.
"The word 'invaded' wasn't really used. Personally I thought it was merely a statement by the Argentines for negotiations to take place with the UK over the sovereignty issue. We thought it was a stunt.
"It became very real when we got back to Devonport and saw the first images on television of the marines being held at gunpoint in Stanley. It was then that we realised it was very real."
THE WHOLE OF PLYMOUTH WAS INVOLVED
"IT WAS a very personal time for me," Lord Owen reflects with a deep sigh recollecting the events surrounding the Argentine invasion.
"I knew that the invasion could have been avoided. We should have had a submarine down there as I had suggested before."
In 1977, when David Owen was Foreign Secretary in James Callaghan's Labour Government, he ordered a nuclear submarine – and two warships – to be deployed to the South Atlantic when Argentina began casting its eyes over the Falklands.
By 1982 Margaret Thatcher's Tory Government had removed much of the Royal Navy cover from the Falklands.
And on April 2 that year the Argentines invaded the islands they refer to as 'Las Malvinas'.
Instead of making reference to his previous decision and using it to attack the current Tory Government, the then Mr Owen stood side-by-side with his politician colleagues.
He was at the special Saturday sitting of the House of Commons on the day of the invasion.
This was the first such sitting since the Suez crisis, 25 years earlier, and followed an emergency Cabinet meeting which approved sending the task force.
"We took the view that whatever had happened in the past, had happened in the past," he said.
"We knew we needed to get the Argentines out and I supported the Government completely.
"There was pretty much unequivocal support in the House and a real feeling of patriotism.
"We knew we had to get the Falklands back but we knew following the invasion, it would be hugely difficult to recapture the islands.
"The hardest part was working out how to do it.
"When the invasion happened it was not our finest hour, but we all realised we had to turn the page and move on.
"At the time the defence budget was under great strain and we were arguing for a stronger Royal Navy.
"Margaret Thatcher was very shaken by what had happened.
"There was a big issue about the role of Britain in the world. Were we past it? Were we burned out? Or did we have some fire in our belly? Can the lion roar?"
Of course history now dictates that Britain was up for the challenge, despite the huge strain of sending a task force down to the South Atlantic.
And as Lord Owen says, Plymouth itself was on the "frontline" of the conflict.
"Alan Clarke (MP for Plymouth Sutton at the time) and I discussed the Falklands on an almost continuous basis, whether in the House of Commons or in a restaurant in Plymouth.
"A huge number of people were leaving [to go to the Falklands] from Plymouth. And a huge number of dockyard workers were also involved.
"In a way the whole city was involved to some degree. We all knew the risks."
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