Invasion! Under fire, as the Falklands come under attack
Chris Todhunter didn’t expect to pick up a gun in anger when he became a hydrographic surveyor in the Royal Navy. Then he found himself under fire as the Falklands were invaded on April 2, 1982. STEVEN RUSSELL hears his astonishing story
IT had been a memorable six months or so for Chris Todhunter, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He’d joined HMS Endurance, the ice patrol ship, and had enjoyed “an absolutely fabulous time” carrying out surveys among the icebergs as the vessel sailed south, to a British Antarctic Survey research station about 1,000km off Chile. On the voyage down – in the rather gentler climes of Madeira – he’d met his wife to be, staying there with her mother. Yes, the 1980s were shaping up nicely.
But trouble was brewing.
The first sign came during a stop at the Falkland Islands on the way back to England. News came that a party of 39 Argentine scrap metal merchants led by Constantino Davidoff had landed on the British-ruled island of South Georgia, about 600 miles away, to dismantle a whaling station. Davidoff later insisted it was a proper commercial deal and that he’d spent a long time liasing with the British authorities before sailing, but it was an incident that had tragic consequences. Within about three months nearly 650 Argentinean lives had been lost and more than 250 British had perished.
Some within the British establishment had seen the scrap metal workers as an advance party, heralding an invasion of South Georgia by Argentina’s military government, the junta. British Royal Marines were sent from the Falklands to find out what was happening. The scrap merchants were held; Argentina despatched troops to rescue them, and also invaded the Falkland Islands, which it had long claimed.
Chris Todhunter was at a party – thrown by the manager of the Cable & Wireless office in Stanley, the Falklands capital – when he realised something was afoot.
“A signal came in that the Argies had landed (on South Georgia). The governor, Rex Hunt, and our captain, and the two Royal Marine majors and two or three of our other officers, all went into a huddle in the kitchen about what should be done. That was fine, except all the booze was in the kitchen! And so our hostess went in and said ‘Excuse me,’ and picked up the booze and came out,” he laughs. A plan was hatched to send HMS Endurance to South Georgia the next morning to try to defuse the situation, “because (Captain) Nick Barker happened to know the captain of the Argentine ship there, because they’d been neighbours in Sunderland when they had respective ships being maintained or modified in the shipyard”.
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Endurance’s survey team – about 11-strong, including Chris – stayed put. “The ship sailed away and never came back!” There was plenty to get their teeth into, though, while they waited: transforming the raw data they’d collected during the survey season into charts of the ocean. Rex Hunt – governor, commander-in-chief and vice-admiral of the Falkland Islands – offered the use of the conference table in Government House for their work!
Towards the end of March, Major Mike Norman, in charge of the Royal Marines, said “Look, the Argentine fleet appears to be at sea and getting closer. We’ve got to prepare for an invasion. Where do you guys think the most likely landing areas are?”
“And so we hoisted out our charts and surveys, and we gave him a few ideas.” For Chris, it was all slightly surreal. Part of his brain said “This is the late 20th Century and these are our friends, the Argentines. This kind of thing doesn’t happen!” There was “this extraordinary dichotomy between what logic said and what the heart said”.
It was on April 1, he thinks, when Mike Norman said the latest intelligence suggested an invasion overnight. He asked to supplement his Royal Marine forces (about 17-strong) with the survey team. “I said ‘Yes, of course, but you’ve got to bear in mind that my guys are only sailors, engineers, cooks, stewards, mapmakers . . . and you’ll have to remind them which is the sharp end of the rifle!’”
When Chris joined up in 1975, the likelihood of seeing hostile action was slim. Should it come, sailors were likely to have to deal with missiles, torpedoes, heavy shells, fire damage control and so on. “You’re less fighting an enemy; you’re more fighting natural phenomena of fire and water.
“What you don’t anticipate, although you know it’s a possibility, is actually behaving like an infantryman, confronting the enemy 20 or 30 yards away.”
They braced themselves. Helicopters could be heard flying behind the ridge of the hill during the night, and darkened ships had been seen approaching the entrance to Port Stanley. “So we knew it was all for real,” says Chris.
At 6am, “pretty much on the dot, we heard heavy gunfire – mortar fire, grenades, you name it – up in the direction of Muddy Brook, the Royal Marines’ barracks, about two miles out of town. The marines, of course, had vacated that and were all in and around Government House, and in a number of patrols in outlying areas.”
At 6.10am Argentine forces opened fire around Government House “and those of us who were inside raced out, clutching our rifles. All I had was two magazines of ammunition. Of course, the professional marines had whole bandoliers hanging round their necks, but I in my innocence had grabbed only 20 rounds. I found cover just outside, and waited for them to pour over.”
Chris watched tracer flying through the air, “and suddenly I became very aware of my very delicate, soft, pink body”. Grass on the short lawn was kicked up by gunfire and bullets made “one hell of a mess of the wooden wall of the Government House office immediately behind me.
“I have to confess that I was confronted by my own inadequacy: my own fear and knowledge that I actually wasn’t a terribly brave person after all.” His impulse was to release the adrenaline by firing back, as the marines were doing, but he realised he was short on ammunition and also couldn’t see the enemy – apparently taking cover, in the darkness, behind bushes about 20 or 30 yards away to the rear of Government House. Basically, the British contingent – including some marines “not much older than schoolboys” – kept the invaders at bay for several hours. “They never showed themselves – certainly not within my sector.”
Bangs at one point sounded like grenades going off. “Mike said ‘Don’t worry about it; the blast normally goes straight up . . . except if you’re hit by the base plate.’”
So what do you think when you realise you could be hit by a bullet or be blown apart? “I’m in compartments. One is terrified; another compartment is saying ‘Don’t loose off like a goon; keep it for when you need it.’ Another compartment is thinking slightly longer-term: how is this going to play diplomatically and strategically? So there’s a welter of things going on.”
Mike Norman, who had seen action in his career, told Chris the assault was about as intense as he’d experienced. The firing died down as time went on. By about 9am, the Argentines were calling on the pinned-down Brits to surrender. “That was usually a cause for the marines to open up and send a lot of very blue language back!”
Unfortunately, there were reports that planes were disgorging Argentine troops, and amphibious vehicles and armoured cars were being landed on the beaches. By 9.25am there were ranks of vehicles lining up below Government House, “and basically I think that the governor, who’s the commander in chief, said to Mike Norman ‘Can we defeat this lot?’ Mike knew damn well that 17 marines and 11 sailors couldn’t defeat the weight of what was now effectively pointing big guns towards us. We knew the game was up”. Chris can’t remember the term “surrender” being used, but the word went round to make one’s position known and make weapons safe. Only then did the invading forces begin to emerge.
He says the Argentine troops were very professional and actually quite mild. “The first ones we saw were clearly special forces – commandos in woolly hats, blackened faces; their webbing harnesses had grenades and ammunition. Very quickly they were replaced by more ordinary field units. I remember that we were all herded down the track and made to lie along Ross Road.”
Chris recalls being appalled that the marines were ordered to lie on the road . . . and he did something instinctive that could have ended with a bullet in the back of the head.
“When we were surveying, we just wore jeans and pullovers, and not uniforms, so I was essentially in plain clothes. I had a combat jacket on, but I clearly didn’t look like a marine. So when we got down to Ross Road and the commando indicated for me to lie down with the rest of them, something in me rebelled.”
Chris made a gesture – as if counting the marines. “All I was trying to indicate was that I was ‘someone administrative’, and therefore not one of these ‘awful marines’ – and then turned round and went back up the road. No-one said a word!”
Slipping off his jacket, and thus appearing to be a civilian, he wandered around freely during these early hours of occupation – even going to the journalists’ press conference to find out what was going on! “What I think that did was establish me as pretty much a non-combatant – just a floating bod.”
He had early thoughts of using an islander’s radio to help in the possible re-taking of the Falklands. “I didn’t use the word ‘spy’ to myself, but in effect I was thinking that. Troop build-ups and their dispositions . . . I could radio all this information back to the MoD or whatever.” Quickly, he realised “Who are you kidding? Britain will send a strongly-worded note to the UN, deploring the invasion, and that is where it will grind to a halt. I’ll be stuck down here: no passport, no history, and no way of going home. Forget that – that’s a bad idea!
“My next thought was that in Government House are the entire records of our survey season, and we’re going to lose the bloody lot!’”
Astonishingly, he walked into the room and began picking up the echo rolls, sounding books, field books. “From that we could reconstruct all our work. I picked them up and stuffed them under my jumper!”
Ignoring the Argentine troops and keeping his eyes on the ground, Chris found he could move around freely. Meanwhile, the marines and sailors had been installed in a small paddock. Chris was able to wander among them, passing over the survey records and telling his colleagues “Stuff them in your pockets!”
He made several trips. On one, he rolled up the charts they’d begun, slid them into cardboard tubes, “put them on my shoulder and whistled as I walked out!” On his next visit he was rumbled. He’d just left through the front door and walked past a window when there was a very sharp tap from inside. “An Argentine officer with eyes of obsidian black pointed at me and I thought ‘Ooh, s--t.’ But there was no point trying anything smart. I went back in, dead nonchalant, and he introduced himself . . . he sounded as English as you and me. It turned out, we heard later, that he was in charge of military intelligence. He demanded to know who I was and what I was doing. So I told him. (Leaving out the fact he was a Royal Naval officer!) I just said I was a surveyor. He said ‘OK. Well, we now own those surveys.’”
Out in the paddock, the Argentine soldiers gave the marines their own rations after learning the Brits hadn’t eaten for close to 24 hours – tripe in tomato sauce, Chris suspects. The tins were rapidly chucked into a heap!
The captors then allowed him to fetch the marines’ own ration packs from their rucksacks, piled nearby.
By this time he’d effectively become part of the group, which also included governor Rex Hunt. In the late afternoon the men were taken to the airport, put on a Hercules plane and flown to Comodoro Rivadavia in southern Argentina. Told they would go to Buenos Aires to be locked up, they were transferred to an elderly Boeing – arriving at about 4am to be unceremoniously turfed out onto the Tarmac. The plane flew off.
The bewildered Brits looked around. Then the penny dropped. They were not in Argentina at all but Montevideo in Uruguay. “They’d taken us to another country and dumped us as, if you like, undesirable aliens!” The next day the RAF sent a VC10 to take them to Brize Norton. They landed in Oxfordshire at about 9am on the Monday. Chris remembers Government Minister Richard Luce delivering a message from Margaret Thatcher, to the effect that “The Prime Minister is aware that you will very likely be approached by members of the press. If you are, please don’t talk to them.”
“The last official to speak was a customs officer. ‘Look chaps; I’ve got to ask you this: has anyone got . . .’ and at that stage the place erupted into cat-calling and laughter.” The Royal Naval contingent went home to await developments. Early the following Friday they flew to Ascension Island. “For the second time in a week we were kicked off onto the Tarmac and the aeroplane turned round and flew away!” An official didn’t know why they were there – he had a notion to put them on the first plane back home! – but decided to helicopter them to a task force group lying at anchor.
Chris found himself on HMS Antrim, a destroyer loaded to the gunnels with stores, ammunition and special forces troops, such as the SAS and Special Boat Service. “All these long-haired people straight from Northern Ireland, faces chiselled out of granite. Amazing.” Chris says the surveyors were “peripherally involved” in plans to re-take South Georgia, helping to make sense of aerial photos and explaining to the SAS men the conditions they could expect. “It was during that time that they formulated the plan that they wanted to be helicoptered onto a glacier, above one of the whaling stations where the Argentines were.”
The vessels headed south and rendezvoused with HMS Endurance. Chris and his colleagues rejoined their ship. Endurance, he says, was “hardly armed”, though her elderly air-to-sea missiles did help disable the submarine Santa Fe. Chris was detailed to help lead the boats – carrying SBS men – through the ice-floes at night. He knew the harbour and also how to deal with the floes. “Potentially it was precarious,” he admits, “and to be honest, having tasted it a week previous, I was more nervous than I might otherwise have been. However: it turned out to be an unopposed landing.” Endurance stayed in South Georgia, acting as a staging-post for the forward operations. Mind you, there were a few scares when Argentine bombers flew over . . .
The war ended in mid June, though it wasn’t until the end of July that the ship was told it could leave. Chris believes it was penalised because Captain Nick Barker had been publicly critical about how his warnings about the threat from the junta had fallen largely on deaf ears. During the survey trip people had known things were politically sensitive. The Government had made it clear this was Endurance’s last trip before being sold. “The Argentine junta saw this as the green light for ‘Right; we can walk in, because the Government is withdrawing.’”
The ship’s officers had talked to diplomats from both nations. “We very much got the impression the Argentines were convinced the British Government was losing interest.” On a happier note, 1982 ended on a high when Chris married Rosemary in the December, at St Paul’s Cathedral. Nowadays, the couple live near Stowmarket – where life is a touch less turbulent than it was three decades ago . . .