Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Sky At Night, and morning

Just a quick update as the skies have been amazing this week.  They have stayed clear, and there are 4 planets visible to the naked eye, some even after sunrise, which is around 9am.  And there is virtually no pollution, the Falklands being so far from any industry.   There are not even vapour trails from aircraft.  So, there are some positives to the long winter nights.....
Dawn over a remote British outpost
Jupiter and Venus are low in the east  before dawn, and Saturn and Mars are in the evening sky (sunset is around 5pm).
Sunset in June - midwinter
This morning, as I was trying to spot Jupiter and Venus, I watched what looked like a star traverse the sky above Stanley from west to east.

Talking to some locals, it seems that the Falklands is a great place to watch the International Space Station orbit the Earth at a height of 330 miles, and travelling at 17,000 mph!

Dawn Turkey Vulture
 And as the sun rose, the colours were breathtaking.  The photos can't do it justice.   Also appearing in the sky were the local Turkey Vultures, setting off to clean the streets and gardens.
Today's  dawn display
If you want to see the Space Station, this site might help -

You can change the city to one near you.  Hope you have clear skies!

Enjoying the warmth of the engine!

Somewhat easier to spot around Stanley are the scores of horses that graze on common land.  As I found, stopping near them sends them the signal that food is on the way, and it is tricky to get away again.  Some even use the the engine warmth to make up for the lack of coat!

I have a friend who loves horses, and she would be in heaven here.


Monday, 25 June 2012

It's FIXMAS!!!!!!

"So here it is, Merry FIXMAS, everybody's having fun!"
(After Slade)
10 minutes to splashdown
 Today is June 25th, six months from Christmas, but as we are in the southern hemisphere, and everything is upside-down, many people celebrate a form of Xmas around now.  Or maybe it's an old pagan ritual, taken over by the Church to keep interest during the long dark nights....?
The Falklands method of fire-starting.  No rubbing of twigs, here..
 The nights certainly are long and dark now in the Falklands, but after the recent snow, the days have been bright and crisp.  Temperatures hovering around freezing, but with wonderful cloudless skies.  (Needless to say, since I started writing this, it has changed to grey, low clouds.....)
Getting in the mood
 So, last Saturday, the annual Midwinter Dip took place.  Loosely based on the Loony Dook in Edinburgh, it entails a lot of well-wrapped people watch a lot of scantily-clad people run into the sea, getting wet and run much more quickly out again.
Local Air-Sea Rescue crew reckon that someone falling into the sea might have about 10 minutes before they succumb to the temperatures.   I can vouch for the speed at which your body shuts down to protect itself....within less than a minute, I could feel nothing below my knees....
The waves have lapped Antarctica
 The venue was Surf Bay, about 2 miles east of Stanley, and I have noticed that, no matter how little swell or wind, there are always big waves here.  Sure enough, we could only wade out about 30 yards (to about knee depth), when the rollers rolled over us, ensuring everyone got their hair wet.
The dentist. Last man standing.  Must be on Novocaine. 
 On trying to stand up again, it felt as if someone had unscrewed my feet - there didn't seem to be toes and ankles down there.  Very soon,  fingers and hands were also numb, so I listened to my body and tried to find my faithful photographer and towel holder, Annie.  Annie also held my glasses, (as to lose them would be more than inconvenient when the optician only visits once every six months), so finding her wasn't easy.
Look behind you!  Armed Forces Day.
 But, we'd agreed to meet beside a oil drum brazier where I could defrost as I waited....
Falklands car park
Very quickly, I dried off and put several layers of clothes, on except on my feet, which is not a mistake I'll be repeating.  The sand on the beach was frozen, and my crocs were all that were preventing frostbite.
Dolphins often surround boats.
Later in the day, we had a pre-FIXmas dinner walk, along the frozen sand dunes.  From here, we watched  dolphins cavort around a small boat. And we also saw some resident Gentoo penguins strolling along the beach. ....  
Local gentoo penguins soaking up the sun....
If anyone is interested for their own Christmas celebration, I followed this set of easy recipes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  Lovely roast brussels sprouts to go with the beef, and roast potatoes!  Easy-peasy!

By the way, 25kg sacks of potatoes are now being sold for £5 here, which is the same price as the large Rib of Beef joint.  However, meat and potatoes are the only cheap food in the shops - Sprouts are about 50p each;  and an individual leek is over £2.

I'll just have to look out recipes for potato bread, potato scones, potato soup...... and I'll need to do more Nordic Walking to work off these tatties....!

Merry FIXmas!


Monday, 18 June 2012

Liberation; snow; and Mouse Survey Team wanted..

Well, after the long anticipation, the 30th Liberation Day, June 14th, arrived.  The day that the Falkland Islanders remembered those that died so that they could have their freedom.  255 British servicemen died 30 years ago, and many of their comrades returned this year to join with the Islanders in paying respects and to re-live traumatic times.
Liberty Ball - flags everywhere, even on frocks.
Many events were planned to commemorate and celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the War.  Knowing I was a bit under-dressed at the previous social event - Queen Night - I decided to wear my kilt to the Liberation Ball on the eve of Liberation Day.  Unfortunately, this coincided with a downturn in the weather, and it was a bit chilly around the South Atlantic, I can tell you.
Unexpected change in the weather....

Miss Liberation contestants - winner has patriotic dress.
However, many of the local youngsters had made a big effort, and were impressive in their suits and ball gowns.   There was a contest to see who would be voted "Miss Liberation", so I repaired to the bar in case I confused the judges.  Unlike the dance floor, the bar was absolutely heaving with dignitaries, Veterans and locals.  It seems that because there were under-18s at the Ball, the drink was restricted to a small bar area and couldn't be taken out to the dance hall.  So the choice was - get squashed and inebriated but find a  interesting character to talk to, or watch the alcohol-free ballroom dancing.  Decisions, decisions.....
The band played on through the snow
Perhaps because of my kilt, several people mistakenly thought I'd been with the Scots Guards on Mount Tumbledown during the war, but I had to explain that  I was hiding out in Bootle at that time.  I did chat to a helicopter pilot from the conflict who calmly explained that it was quite "hairy" at times, with troops from both sides firing at aircraft, in case they belonged to the enemy.  Of the three machines and crews in his unit, his team were the only survivors.
Liberation line-up
The next day, the weather took another turn for the worse, and I made some more dressing mistakes.  This time, I left the house without a hat, and soon realised that my mum had been right all those years ago.... Worse was to come as the heavy, wet snow started to stick to my clothes, hair and glasses, and I discovered that my jacket was no longer waterproof.  Still, when I looked around the large crowd, I could see that most of the military and ex-military people were wearing fewer layers than I was, so I decided to stick it out, hoping the snow would ease off.
These guys wore no gloves!
How the bandsmen played their instruments with frozen fingers was beyond me.  But they did, and then they marched past the recently-laid wreaths to waiting buses, which took them to the Government Reception in the Falklands Islands Defence Force Hall, where most of the population, young and old, gathered to thaw out and meet up with neighbours and saviours.

"We will remember them!!"  3 Para Group
  Everyone on the Islands - residents and visitors alike - was invited to the Reception, and I'm sure it would have been well-attended even it hadn't been a free bar! It was a very convivial occasion, with strangers greeting strangers with a handshake and "Happy Liberation Day".  The Veterans were the Guests of Honour, obviously, and many toasts were made to them and their comrades. As it says on many memorials -  "For their tomorrow, we gave our today"........
Liberation Monument

Meanwhile, the sun had come out, and it was a perfect day for kids to sledge down the hilly roads that hadn't been gritted.  There was very little traffic on the roads, as it was a public holiday!

Good sledging hill, Stanley

Lots of horses moved down from the hills after the snow

There is very little crime on the Falklands, which is just as well, as I don't think I would have had much of an alibi if anything untoward had happened that evening - "Where we you between the hours of 8pm and 11pm on June 14th?".  Well, I remember watching a BBC radio show being broadcast live from the bar in the Malvina House Hotel, and I recall seeing His Excellency The Governor in the Victory Bar some time later, but apart from that, it's all a bit blurred...

Two Sisters, 3 miles away
 Luckily, I was able to work off any excesses with some Nordic Walking on the frozen ground the next day. The clear nights had produced a severe frost, resulting in ice on the inside of the car windscreen, and my trusty water bottle turned into a solid block of ice.  Luckily the beach is normally frost-free.
Resident wildlife
Although I usually have my camera at the ready to capture the local wildlife, I was too slow to capture a wonderful scene.  As our group strode along, there was a line of dorsal fins breaking the surf about 100 yards offshore.  Just as we stopped to watch the dolphins, they turned as if in formation and swam, side by side, straight towards us, catching up and then riding the big rollers that were washing ashore.  Then they turned, and headed out to sea.   It was amazing watching wild animals doing something just for pleasure!

Seal surfing
On a more mundane level, there was a bumper souvenir issue of Penguin News.   But I was grabbed by the  variety of Vacancies advertised -

Teaching Assistants,
Learning Support Assistants,
Home Help,
Aircraft Engineer, and
Mouse Survey Team !

The last position is for a Team Leader and Assistant to work in remote locations and adverse weather.  Assessment of rodent-bait uptake is essential!  (The work is sponsored by the RSPB  (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) to find out how many mice are out there - they devour birds' eggs).

The week ended with the sudden cessation of electricity coursing through the house, as our pre-paid meter ran out of funds.  The meter is fed by cards bought from a local shop, but is inconveniently located in the garage, and I haven't been going in there much recently so had forgotten to check how much was left.

So, just as the England/Sweden match (Euro 2012, for those not aware) was coming to its climatic finish we were plunged  into darkness.  I now realise I should keep spare cards in the house, but even if I had had some, I don't think I would have been venturing outside when it's -5C.  So, head-torch attached, it was off to bed, watch the stars, and await the sunrise  (9am).

Sunrise over a British outpost.


Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Evita, Mr Darcy, and the fight for the Falklands.....

As I write, I've just seen on Sky News a British MP ask the Prime Minister why the UK taxpayer is still making loans, via the World Bank, to Argentina!  Yesterday, a Referendum on sovereignty in the Falklands was announced.  The media spotlight is returning to the Falkland Islands for a few days.  Meanwhile, tomorrow is Liberation Day........

Overlooking Stanley Harbour

In my previous post, I went into some detail about the battle for Mt Longdon.  In the following 36 hours, the entrenched paratroopers were to lose another 4 comrades to the incessant and accurate Argentine artillery.  After going into some detail about the Battle for Mt Longdon, I won't subject you to a repeat.  But, for the British Forces, the battles on the 13th/14th June saw a repeat of the successful tactics which had enabled three hills to be captured on the night of the 11th June:  heavy naval artillery fire and close-quarter fighting at night, using highly-trained young soldiers.

In fact, so effective were the British troops, that captured Argentine officers assumed the decisive advantage had been the use of night-vision goggles.  The couldn't believe that the Task Force only had a handful of these goggles and all had been issued to helicopter pilots and none to ground troops!
Scots Guards - Killed In Action
 The Battle of Mount Tumbledown, and the impact on one participant - Lt Robert Lawrence - was depicted in the film "Tumbledown", starring a young Colin Firth (completely naked in one scene, if anyone needs an incentive to watch it!).
Memorials on Mt Tumbledown

Abandoned Argentine field kitchen 
 Like many of the surroundings hills, Tumbledown has a low cliff of sheer rock around most of its summit, so the defenders had to be engaged bunker by bunker, rock by rock.
North face showing its defensive properties
 About 900 British troops, comprising mostly Scots Guards, attacked the heavily-fortified hill during the night, simultaneously with attacks on neighbouring mountains.
Remains of defensive stone fortifications (sangars) dot the landscape.
 After 10 hours of bitter, hand-to-hand fighting, the high ground was under British control and the street lights of Stanley could be seen about 3 miles away.  At least 40 combatants lost their lives during the night.

Some troops moved on to the next objective, but already it was becoming obvious there was a general retreat of Argentine troops back into Stanley (where the main body of troops were stationed).  It was now the role of the British commander of land forces, General Jeremy Moore, to ensure the Argentines surrendered quickly and didn't prolong the conflict with street-to-street fighting amongst the residents of Stanley.  He moved into the outskirts of the town, and skilfully secured the surrender that day, the 14th.
Tumbledown, with Mt Longdon about 2 miles to the north.
All that remained to do was to round up, disarm, feed and then repatriate 10,000 Argentine troops; rescue 1,800 Stanley residents trapped in various buildings; detect and defuse 25,000 unmapped mines (work pending); destroy hundred of tons of ammunition and weapons;  repair roads, houses, water supplies, airports, as well as return the victorious troops back to their loved ones as soon as practical.
Tumbledown, this week, from near Stanley.
All in all, a shed-load of work which took years to complete, and some, like the mine clearance, remains deliberately incomplete.  (Several soldiers were injured in the aftermath while trying to clear minefields (with captured Argentine assistance), and the commanding officers felt it was too much of a risk for too little reward.)

However, the political and economic post-war resurgence in the Falklands has left a legacy of good schools and health care;  a network of roads (albeit without tar) connecting remote settlements; an international airport; a world-class fishery; excellent wildlife tourism infrastructure; a large military garrison, and the prospect of an oil industry.

The blot on the horizon of this South Atlantic idyll is the Argentine President's continuing call for the Falkland Islands to be "returned" to Argentina.

No Islander takes her proclamations seriously. (She never gives interviews or debates in Parliament, preferring to issue announcements from the balcony of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, a la Eva Peron (Evita)).

However, her lack of acknowledgement of the status of the Falkland Islanders and the huge sacrifices made by both antagonists,  is a great regret to all who feel that the war should have been an end to the matter.

"Those that cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it".  Tomorrow, and in the future, the Falklanders will remember the sacrifices made on their behalf.

Wildlife tourism - the future's bright.
13th June, 2012

Monday, 11 June 2012

Battle of Mt Longdon. The beginning of the end..

This week in the Falkland Islands, the events of 30 years ago will be vividly remembered.  June 14th is Liberation Day.  The Falklands are very different to what they were like 30 years ago.  To understand why, I think it's important to understnad what happened in 1982.

255 members of the British Task Force lost their lives liberating the Falklands.  3 civilians were killed in Stanley.  649 Argentine lives were lost.

The surrender of Argentine forces was preceded by a series of battles for the high ground overlooking Stanley.  Three battles were fought on the mountains during the night of the 11th June - Mt Challenger, Two Sisters and Mt Longdon.

A few weeks ago, I walked up Mount Longdon, about 3 miles west of Stanley. Like the other hills around the town, it's not that high, or difficult (from the east) - more a ramble than a scramble.  But it was the scene of a bloody battle towards the end of the Falklands War.
105mm rifle.
Getting to the Falkland Islands these days is not that easy - the only options are a twice-weekly flight from RAF Brize Norton, or via Chile once per week (or a cruise ship during the summer).  The nearest big city, Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, would be a convenient place to fly through from a logistical, but not historical, point of view.

The hill is dotted with crosses.  This gully was heavily defended.

Feelings stemming from the Argentine invasion, and subsequent British retaking, of the islands still run high in Argentina and the Falklands.  The most obvious impact is transport difficulties - people and goods need to take a roundabout route -  and there's a continuing sense of mistrust (at best) between neighbours.
Looking south through the natural fortifications to Mt Tumbledown
 So, that's why I mention the War.  Not to do so would ignore a major aspect of Falklands Islands life.  Whilst I would love to show more picture of penguins, one reason I can't is that I can't access the beaches near Stanley where penguins gather, because they may be mined!  Another unwelcome and lasting reminder of the war.
105mm gun, pointing west.  Two Sisters' summit on horizon. Mt Longdon summit to right.
To recap, Argentine troops invaded in large numbers on April 2nd 1982.  British forces landed at San Carlos on 21st May, at the western coast of East Falklands.  The troops then found that all but one of the Chinook helicopters they had intended using to take them into battle, had been lost when the merchant ship, Atlantic Conveyor, was sunk by Exocets.  12 merchant seaman, who presumably had no say if they went into a war zone or not,  were killed.

There was no  alternative but to walk 50 miles across the trackless terrain in mid-winter, with full packs and equipment.  The 3-day "Yomp" became a iconic symbol of the toughness of the British troops. (Last week, I listened to a ex-company commander, Mike Cole, give a talk on the battle of Two Sisters.  He re-lived the Yomp by walking the full distance again, and sleeping in the hills, to raise funds for a Royal Marine charity.)

War detritus

The bad weather made sleeping rough in flooded foxholes purgatory, and troops suffered badly from Trench Foot for the first time since 1918.   But it also meant that Argentine aircraft could not attack the long lines of walking soldier in the treeless "Camp" (the Falklands name for the countryside).

Whilst the advance troops waited for a second formation to land in the south (this was delayed when ships carrying the Welsh Guards were bombed, with many casualties), patrols were sent out at night to find out enemy troop positions.  Small teams would walk miles in darkness across the boggy landscape, right up to enemy positions and return with this vital intelligence.

Royal Marine Commandos were to attack hills to the south, 3 Para (3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment) were given Mt Longdon as their objective.

Looking west, where British troops attacked from.  Open ground meant night attacks were the only option.

On the night of the 11th June, 1982, 3 simultaneous attacks on Argentine positions took place. 3 Para's target was Mt Longdon, a rocky outcrop rising about 1,000 from the peat bogs.

There are many accounts of the events of that night, but there is no disputing that there was a long, closely-fought, engagement.  British forces fixed bayonets just prior to the attack, and fighting continued throughout the night.

Walking around the summit, there are numerous memorials to fallen comrades.  It is easy to see why it would have been so difficult to winkle out the defending troops, who had had a month to set up their defensive positions.  But the Argentine defenders would also have been debilitated by the cold and poor food.
The remains of a defensive sangar.
In the end, it is difficult to comprehend what happened there that night.  It's a very moving place.
On my way down from the summit, I met another walker on his way up.  He had been there that night, 30 years ago.  This was the first time he'd been back, and he found it a difficult journey on several levels.  For one thing, he had never seen the terrain in daylight.  Immediately after the Argentine forces had been cleared from the hill, their artillery around Stanley zeroed in on their former positions, now occupied by the Paras.  The bombardment was relentless and accurate.  He had fought all night and taken cover all day.
Remains of a heavy machine gun.  The field of fire is huge.
Stone bunker, built around natural feature.
Argentine crosses, with summit cross on skyline.

For the Fallen, Los Caidos.
Tribute from a Para
 "In Memory of all the soldiers who died on this  mountain both British and Argentinian.  May their God watch over them.  May they never be far from our thoughts.  God bless them and their families."
Memorial to Sgt McKay VC, and other paratroopers, who lost their lives here.
Sgt McKay won the last VC of the 20th century.  Pinned down, he attacked a machine-gun bunker with grenades, and was later found dead on the bunker. But the machine-gun had been knocked out, allowing the attack to continue.  You may want to read the Citation -
His medal is on display at the Imperial War museum, courtesy of Lord Ashcroft.
Some of the many tributes on the hill.

Open countryside in every direction, forcing night battles.
Steel poppies for the fallen.
Memorial to Ian McKay VC.  Yellow ammunition box contains cleaning materials. Summit cross behind.

The local plant, Balsam Bog, acts as a cross holder.
The men (on both sides) who fought on those hills were very young.  Sergeant McKay VC, was 29, and two Paratroopers who died were 17.  Another was killed on his 18th birthday.  I can't remember what I was doing that day, but I wasn't risking my life for my country.

Here is a photo of the hills around Stanley taken this weekend.  Imagine sleeping rough on these hills for a month at this time of year....

Several miles offshore, HMS Glamorgan provided firepower from its guns in support of the night battles.  However, as the battles dragged on, dawn approached and Glamorgan was spotted and hit by an Exocet missile.  The quick reactions of the crew meant the missile hit the ship a glancing blow, and the ship survived, although 13 crew were killed.

As the 11th June became the 12th, the Royal Marines and Paras dug in on the mountain-tops.  They had achieved their objectives.  The Argentine forces still held the three hills closest to Stanley.  But the final phase of the war was imminent.

I find it hard to believe that any lives were worth losing.  An avoidable conflict after a massive failure of diplomacy.  However, the people of the Falklands were, and are, extremely grateful for the sacrifices made.  They will always remember what was done on their behalf, and they will commemorate the British losses every year on Liberation Day.

 "In Memory of all the soldiers who died on this  mountain both British and Argentinian.  May their God watch over them.  May they never be far from our thoughts.  God bless them and their families."
Jimmy O'Connell, ex 3 Para