1 November 2014

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David Colville's final Falklands War episode

I’m lucky to be here

Dave Colville, a sub-editor on The News, Portsmouth, witnessed the Falklands War at close quarters – as editor/owner of The Falklands Times from 1977-82.

Here, in the last of his four articles, he recalls the perils which still waited for him after the Argentines expelled him.

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The only way into the Falkland Islands via plane was by courtesy of the Argentine air force. Its Fokker F27 turbo prop planes, later, the Fokker F28 jets, were always seen as the biggest plane the airstrip could handle. Yet here I was, ready to leave, and a bloody big airliner was on the runway. How the hell could that thing take off in the relatively short distance the Stanley Tarmac was laid?

The answer was simple. On board, apart from the cockpit of course, were just three seats. The rest of the aeroplane was stripped bare – an amazing sight. Like standing inside a cigar tube. The figures 727 were moulded into the plastic window blind by my seat. The Argentine military policeman accompanying me said that it was stripped bare for two reasons. The first was so that they could cram as many troops into the plane as possible. The second was that it was so lightened by the removal of unnecessary trimmings (like seats and liferaft/jackets!) that it was able to take off from a short airstrip. We were ready to go. I looked down and wished I had worn my brown trousers. Too late now.

The emotions welled as the jets fired. There goes seven years of my life down the drain. I could see the faces of those who had been allowed to come and see me off by the perimeter fence. Then we were airborne. The take-off was like a rocket’s, almost, with the nose straight up. They were far from stupid these Argentines. Their military pilots were highly-skilled.

The treeless, wind-raked, water-splattered green and browns of the Falklands terrain gave way to open sea. The time passed in a dream. I was dying of thirst but you don’t see trolley dollies on a military plane. The plane dropped sharply and the Argentine coast was to my left. Christ, we were low. Time to grip the seat again. The sea was rough but the sun was blazing. Funny, but the sun cheered me up a bit. That life-giving golden globe doesn’t venture to the Falklands very often.

A couple of hours later and the approach to Comodoro Rivadavia was being made. This was where I had stayed for about four days on my way to the Falklands in 1975. It was a dry, dusty town fronted by the vast bay called the Golf St Gorge (St George Gulf), in southern Patagonia. I remember there were seemingly hundreds of those oil-producing ‘nodding donkey’ thingies that bob up and down. Now, the place was a hive of military activity. No gauchos or pampas grass here, pal. Just war preparations. I counted 30 Hercules aircraft neatly lined up, plus there were hundreds of troops lying or sitting about their gear. I was taken off the plane and into the airport. No checks or anything, I was escorted by the policeman and shoved into a little cell-type room. No window. And it was hot. After all, I wasn’t given much time to pack so I was wearing three jackets – one of which was stolen by some git at Montevideo airport, but that’s another story.

Naturally, in all that South American heat my giant bar of Cadbury’s had melted into itself. Chocolate covered tin foil. Bin it. Six hours passed until they let me out. I managed to get a drink of water before I was ushered on to a civilian plane to Buenos Aires. I did a quick double take and recount on the parked Hercules. Inside the plane, packed with ordinary folk, were a few militia who walked up and down making sure all the window blinds were closed so no-one else could see the Hercules or troops as we took off. The flight was long, hot and uneventful. Welcome to Buenos Aires.

I was left there. The military cop told me I had to find my own way out of the country. I knew the British Embassy was closed because of the conflict. I didn’t fancy trying to find my way through the vast city on a quest for the US or perhaps Swiss embassies. I still had the £20. Would that be enough to get me across the border to Uruguay?

I went to the desk where the flights to Uruguay departed. There were no flights for another six hours or so. In those days, all foreigners in Argentina had to carry a little white photo-ID card. They asked for mine. When I showed them, they shouted something like: ‘He’s from Malvinas’. I was quickly surrounded by people. One old woman punched me repeatedly in the back. An old man spat all over me. One woman, who could speak good English, was ranting on about how Thatcher was going to nuke Buenos Aires (a bloody good idea I thought) and how Britain had forced her son to go to war. I couldn’t argue. They left me alone after a while. I’d had a good kicking. I felt pleased I hadn’t cried although I desperately wanted to.

About an hour later, I was amazed to hear voices speaking with an English accent. I looked around and there was a business-type man and a woman jabbering away in what I was sure was a middle-English accent. I got talking to them and was amazed to find the chap was a Brian Deane who ran a business in Montevideo and had married a Uruguayan. Immediately he went to the desk, had a loud argument with the clerk and I was booked on the short hop. He and his wife were the epitome of kindness and sympathy. It was time for departure, but not before the clerk made one pointless gesture by throwing my passport down the floor. It seemed to skim for miles along the polished tiles. I had barely enough time to retrieve it before the runway bus pulled away.

Brian and his wife were met by his brothers-in-law at Montevideo. I was about to say goodbye but they insisted on dropping me off at the British Embassy. Even though it was 2am, the ambassador – a tall, slim elegant woman – made me very welcome. The consul was summoned from his bed and found me a hotel. After countless form filling sessions and being asked stupid questions such as: ‘Can your mother and father afford to pay the fare back to the Government?’ (Of course they can, I lied), I was flown out from Montevideo to Gatwick on a British Caledonian plane.

I was taken through the bowels of Gatwick to a ‘debriefing’ room where some officials asked me to mark on a map of Stanley where gun emplacements etc. were. I was able to show them where the Argentines had laid strings of pram-type wheels along the shore with guttering between them so they looked like loads of anti-aircraft guns. I also showed them where the mines were alongside the airport road and told them of the Hercules transport planes at Comodoro Rivadavia. That was it. My parents had moved from Fareham to Southampton so it was there I headed. Now for my 15 minutes of fame. Andy Warhol was so right. I was interviewed by Southern TV’s Khalid Aziz. The I had another slot ‘beamed direct’ to News at Ten, and another round of interviews with BBC South. I even had a large share of column inches in Southampton’s Daily Echo. As soon as it all began, it ended. The conflict was over. The media went on to the next crisis. A chapter of my life closed.

Now as I sit at my terminal at The News, Portsmouth, trying to motivate myself to write a half-decent headline on yet another Portchester parish hall nib, with the chief sub cacking his pants because I am three minutes past deadline, I sometimes realise how lucky I am to be here. I lost some good friends to stray bullets as the Argentines took the Falklands. Thankfully, my name wasn’t etched on one.

Back to part one of David’s story

Back to part two of David’s story

Back to part three of David’s story

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