GOSPORT COMES TO A STANDSTILL FOR 40th ANNIVERSARY OF CONFLICT
By Globe Editor Robin Young, with photographic coverage from Chief Correspondent Rob Thomas and former Associate Editor Peter Maguire
THEY came in their dozens, rank upon row of veterans, marked by the passing of years but proudly upright, neither beaten nor bowed.
Sunday, May 29, marked the 40th anniversary of the South Atlantic conflict, when a combined forces task force sailed from Portsmouth to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina and an invasion initiated by its ruling military junta.
And Gosport’s ceremonial parade along the High Street from the Town Hall to the Service of Commemoration in the waterfront Falkland Gardens was watched by hundreds of silent onlookers, all of them paying their respects to the Service personnel who came home… and their 258 comrades-in-arms who never will.
Many of the Armed Forces veterans taking part – particularly those who had served in the Royal Navy – hadn’t far to come for the first major commemorative event since the 35th anniversary in 2017.
But others arrived from all corners of the United Kingdom, representing all branches of the Armed Services.
There was no shortage of ‘brass hats’ either – Hampshire’s Lord Lieutenant, Nigel Atkinson; Deputy Lord Lieutenant Admiral Sir Philip Jones, former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff; Gosport Mayor Councillor Jamie Hutchison, himself a long-term Naval Warrant Officer and who, in his foreword to the Order of Service, quoted the formidable force that had launched the British ships, the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher. Iron Lady she might have been but the then Prime Minister was revealed to have sobbed as news of the mounting UK casualties reached home and she consoled herself later with the simple comment: “Their sacrifice was not in vain.”
However none of the civic and military dignitaries present would disagree that the true VIPs packed into the town centre for the March Past and Salute were the ex-servicemen and women, together with their current counterparts.
The service in the Falklands Gardens was conducted by the Rev Godfrey Hilliard, who had served as chaplain to 40 Commando Royal Marines in 1982 and, in honouring the sacrifice of the Task Force, praised the courage of the people in Ukraine, themselves involved in a desperate struggle against a dark and sinister invading force.
Mention was also made of the fact that similar ceremonies were taking place in Port Stanley, the Falklands Islands capital, and Sao Paulo, Argentina.
He was joined by another ‘muscular Christian’ cleric, the Rev Bernard Clarke RN.
One of the many poignant aspects of this simple, moving ceremony was when three students from St Vincent College, Gosport, took it in turns to read out the names of all 258 who fell in the Falklands. The length of time it took underlined the scale of the tragedy and a flower and small wooden cross was laid down as a tribute to each casualty.
By early afternoon the old sailors, soldiers and aviators started to fade away. But before they headed home, some headed up the High Street to Walpole Park, catching up with each other on the passing of time and too many friends, gone but never forgotten.
Among them was ex-Navy diver John Dadd BEM, formerly of the Unit Fleet Clearance Diving Team and a stalwart at the Stokes Bay Diving Museum which features artefacts recovered from lost Royal Navy vessels, including HMS Coventry.
John was joined by another sprightly ‘shipmate’ to have survived the alarmingly dangerous job of defusing and removing unexploded ordnance, was 82-years young Mick Fellows, one of the world’s most highly decorated and respected explosives clearance specialists.
Mick, MBM, DSC, BEM, came to the attention of Mrs Thatcher when he defused an unexploded bomb on HMS Antrim, saving 450 lives in the process and without the opportunity to get the crew out of harm’s way if anything backfired.
A further 250 lives were saved when Mick carried out a similar operation on HMS Plymouth, in the process making safe the first and last bombs to have hit RN ships during the Falklands War.
Mick will be giving a talk on his experiences at the Diving Museum on June 19. Details of times and tickets are available on the museum’s website.
EDITOR’S FOOTNOTE: It was a day for remembering how the whole country responded to the invasion of what the Argentinians call the Malvinas, a territory they still claim as theirs. The outcome unquestionably saved the Thatcher government from electoral defeat and I spent the duration of the Falklands conflict as a sub-editor on the Bristol Evening Post, handling pooled despatches received from – among others – Max Hastings and the late Brian Hanrahan. It was, in a sense, both the best of times and worst of times. The sense of national unity was, arguably, at its highest since the Second World War and only next weekend’s Platinum Jubilee for the Queen stands a chance of matching it.
Special thanks must go to my friends and colleagues Peter Maguire and Rob Thomas for their excellent photographic coverage, which can be seen on these pages. And a mention in despatches, too, for Assistant Editor Connor Steel’s hours of editorial production work while formatting the images.