Lord Ashcroft's new book, Falklands War Heroes, celebrates the courage of the British men and women who risked, and in some cases sacrificed, their lives

Lord Ashcroft’s new book, Falklands War Heroes, celebrates the courage of the British men and women who risked, and in some cases sacrificed, their lives

During the long sea crossing from England to the Falklands, Sergeant Ian McKay wrote to a friend in the spring of 1982: ‘I have no intention of taking any risks and getting killed. If I do, then it will be to protect my men, to save lives.’

He spoke with tragic accuracy. His selflessness and extreme valor would cost him his life. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the most prestigious award in the 20th Century.

The 29-year-old’s call to arms had been sudden and unexpected as events in the South Atlantic escalated.

He was finishing up a game, with his friends. Then he got an urgent message from Aldershot to get back to his barracks.

‘He came in and went out,’ his wife Marica later recalled. ‘I put his dinner in a Tupperware container and he went straight away. He just said, “I’ve got to go.”

‘I never saw him again.’

McKay and his 3 Para comrades arrived at Port San Carlos, on the west coast of East Falkland, on the evening of May 21, 1982. As the war moved towards what would prove to be its bloody final phase, his men’s instructions were to dig in, knowing that if they remained visible, they would be easy targets for the Argentine air force.

The Paras reached Mount Estancia after enduring long marches in darkness. One man carried 120lb of cargo, and the Paras covered more than 50 miles on foot from their landing point.

From there they would be part of the final assault on Port Stanley, the Falklands’ capital.

It was at this point that McKay and his men became aware of the deaths of Colonel ‘H’ Jones and 14 others from 2 Para during the hard-won victories at Darwin and Goose Green. Other Paras were also wounded. Three Para realized it was necessary to continue, to make sure that those tragic losses were not in vain.

On June 2, they undertook a reconnaissance mission to Mount Longdon, a key target in the battle for Port Stanley, while McKay’s patrol moved forward to the bridge over the Murrell River, another vital strategic location. After coming across mortar fire from the Argentines, they pulled back to dig deeper.

The next week saw more patrols send out pleas. On June 6, and 7, there was a modest firefight, but not a full-scale fight.

Meanwhile, tactics to decisively end the enemy’s occupation of the Falklands were being worked out. Mount Longdon, which loomed like a fortress between the Paras’ position and Port Stanley, was identified as the Argentine defence’s strongest point. On June 11, the final push over the mountain towards the capital started. By dawn the men were preparing for the impending battle, and McKay was, in the words of one comrade, ready to ‘look after the lads almost like a mother hen’.

His platoon included 28 soldiers, which was more than he. Friends said that he felt strong doubts about his ability to survive the fight.

Sergeant Ian McKay (left) and Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Jones (right)

Sergeant Ian McKay and Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Jones

‘I remember Ian coming up to me just before the battle for Mount Longdon,’ recalled Company Sergeant Major John Weeks. ‘He said, “I am not going to come back from this.” This was maybe an hour before we crossed the river and got into our formations for the battle.’

The long citation for McKay’s posthumous VC takes up the story of a single episode in the long, fraught and confused battle:

‘During the night of June 11/12, 1982, 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment mounted a silent night attack on an enemy battalion position on Mount Longdon, an important objective in the battle for Port Stanley.

‘Sergeant McKay was platoon sergeant of 4 Platoon, B Company, which, after the initial objective had been secured, was ordered to clear the northern side of the long east/west ridge feature, held by the enemy in depth, with strong, mutually supporting positions.

‘By now the enemy were fully alert and resisting fiercely. As 4 Platoon’s advance continued, it came under increasingly heavy fire from a number of well-sited enemy machine-gun positions on the ridge, and received casualties.

‘The enemy fire was still both heavy and accurate. After taking Sergeant McKay (a corporal) and some others, the platoon leader moved forward to reconnoitre enemy positions. However, Sergeant McKay was struck in the leg by a bullet and the command passed on to Sergeant McKay.

‘It was clear that instant action was needed if the advance was not to falter and increasing casualties to ensue. McKay, Sergeant decided to make this reconnaissance an attack to destroy the enemy positions.

‘He was in no doubt of the strength and deployment of the enemy as he undertook this attack. He received orders from the commander and took three of his men along to break cover as he charged the enemy.

‘The assault was met by a hail of fire. One private died, one was wounded and the corporal suffered serious injuries. However, Sergeant McKay continued his charge on the enemy’s position, despite these injuries.

‘On reaching it, he despatched the enemy with grenades, thereby relieving the position of beleaguered 4 and 5 Platoons, who were able to redeploy with relative safety. But Sergeant McKay died at the moment when victory was won.

‘Without doubt, Sergeant McKay’s action retrieved a most dangerous situation and was instrumental in ensuring the success of the attack. It was an extremely calculated and cool act. He must have known the potential dangers. He was unflinching in his efforts and displayed extraordinary selflessness, persistence, and courage. With a complete disregard for his own safety, he displayed courage and leadership of the highest order, and was an inspiration to all those around him.’

His friend Corporal Ian Bailey said of McKay’s final moments: ‘The last time I saw Ian McKay alive, he was still moving on my right. He hit me, and I fell to the ground. Then, I tried to climb up, but he was gone.

‘There was firing going on, two explosions. Then it stopped and then there was nothing.’

McKay is said to have been hit with at least three bullets as he was dying.

Just two days later on June 14, the Argentine surrender occurred.

Ian McKay’s body was recovered and brought back to England. On November 26 1982, he was joined by 15 of his battle comrades in an all-military funeral at Aldershot Military Barracks.

The last two men to see him alive were among the pallbearers: Corporal Bailey and Colour Sergeant Brian Faulkner, who said of his friend: ‘Mac was the bravest of the brave.’

Marica McKay, a widower from Lincoln, shared her pride and affection in an interview she did with me. She told me: ‘Ian was a real gentleman. He was a family-orientated man – straightforward and quite private. There were lots of things in his past career that he never discussed with me and that I learnt about only after his death.’

British troops arriving in the Falklands Islands during the Falklands War

British troops arrive in Falklands Islands, during the Falklands War

Mrs McKay had just returned from Aldershot to her Army home when her husband, father of four-year-old daughters, was killed. She had felt the same as him that he wouldn’t return from Falkland.

‘I had said to someone I was working with, “Ian is not coming back.” I just knew that things would change after the British sank the Belgrano.’ [An incident that remains controversial to this day, when, on May 2, the Argentine cruiser was sunk with the loss of 323 lives.]

‘I heard the news of his death on a Monday. My friend just called to tell me her kettle was not working and that she needed a replacement. The doorbell rang and I was greeted by Sue Patton and Colonel Simon Brewis.

‘I knew then, as soon as I came down the stairs, that Ian had been killed. News of his death was not a surprise because I had been expecting it.’

Mrs McKay said she knew little about her husband’s astounding bravery until four months after his death, when news of his posthumous Victoria Cross was announced.

‘I was incredibly proud when he was awarded the VC,’ she said. ‘But a part of me just wishes he had hidden behind a rock. It was bittersweet. Ian didn’t fear, and his only thought was to save his men.

‘If Ian was alive today, he would say his VC was not just for him, it was for all his comrades.’

Sergeant McKay’s heroism will never be forgotten. In his honor, numerous monuments have been built in the last decades. In 2012, the 30th anniversary of the conflict, the military historian Andrew Roberts wrote: ‘The word “hero” is used all too easily and often nowadays, even to describe sportsmen and entertainers.

‘Ian McKay was a genuine hero, someone who at the age of 29 quite deliberately sacrificed his own life in battle so that others – his comrades in the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment – might live.’

A few years after his death, Mrs McKay said that while at home she was ‘visited’ by an image of her husband, who was ironing one of his shirts. He told her: ‘I wouldn’t have changed anything.’

DESCRIBED by his head teacher as ‘one of the most gifted pupils ever to pass through my hands in 42 years of teaching’, Jeff Glover studied engineering at Oxford University, where he made his mark as a pilot in the University Air Squadron before deciding on an RAF career.

By the time of the invasion of the Falklands – on his 28th birthday – he was a Harrier pilot at RAF Wittering, on the Cambridgeshire/Northamptonshire border.

‘The squadron had been put on a footing for possible deployment,’ he told me in an interview at his Lincolnshire home. ‘There was a feeling of excitement, because this was what we had been trained for.’ Glover was chosen to fly one of his squadron’s six Harrier jets from RAF St Mawgan in Cornwall to Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean – a journey of nearly nine hours that required mid-air refuelling.

The ship completed the last stage of the journey.

Glover was on his first mission in wartime, taking part in the early morning of May 21, 1982. However, things didn’t go according to plan. ‘We took off at around 8am – it was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. I just wanted to perform to the best of my ability, and not let the side down,’ he said.

‘I lined up behind my boss on the [aircraft]Transport [Hermes]. Each of us had loaded two guns and two cluster bombs units. He chose full power. Four seconds later, I too went to full power.

‘We started to climb to around 25,000ft but the boss could not retract his undercarriage. He had to abort his mission because of the problem, leaving me to complete the mission… I was given targets in the Port Howard area of West Falkland. After dropping to around 200ft from a height of 20,000ft above the ground, I was able to descend for four minutes.

‘I was flying at 535 knots [615mph]. After I had identified the area of the jetty, I made a sharp turn to my left. Then I felt and heard “Bang! Bang! Bang!”

‘The aircraft entered a maximum-rate roll to the right – the roll taking no more than a second, but it was as if it was happening in slow time. I had three separate thoughts: the first was “I cannot control the roll”. The second was “that sea is awfully close” and the third was “I have to time my ejection right”.

Marcia McKay, widow of Falklands Victoria Cross winner Sgt Ian McKay outside Buckingham Palace after she received his award

Marcia McKay (widow of Falklands Victoria Cross winner Sergeant Ian McKay), outside Buckingham Palace, after receiving his award

‘After the aircraft had gone through 320 degrees, I looked down and saw my right hand pull the ejection seat handle. After hearing a metallic bang, I was unable to remember.

‘I woke up about 4ft underwater, sunny-side up, and flapped to the surface. I had been hit by a Blowpipe missile that had been fired from the ground by an Argentinian.’

The missile had hit and taken off half of the aircraft’s right wing, remembered Glover. ‘After I ejected, my parachute opened and I dropped into the freezing sea.

‘So, I was in the water in my protective immersion suit, and after what seemed like five minutes of being in shock, I started to think about getting into my self-inflating dinghy, which was attached to me by two quick-release clips.

‘My left side was completely incapacitated from various injuries. After hearing voices, I turned around to see what was happening. I saw a small rowboat with some Argentine soldiers in it. They were holding rifles.

‘In my stupidity, I reached for my RAF-issue pistol but, thankfully, I had mistakenly left it on Hermes. The soldiers pulled me out of the water and I was from then on, for the next 50 days, a prisoner of war.’

After treatment for his injuries – a broken arm, a broken shoulder blade and a broken collarbone – at a makeshift medical centre, Glover was asked if he wanted to meet the man who had shot him down. ‘I said OK, and I was then introduced to Lieutenant Sergio Fernandez. We shook hands and I said, “Good effort.” ’

Glover was transported to Comodoro Rivadavia on May 25th, a military and civilian base located in the Argentine continental. Four to five Argentine pilots had already been killed by the British.

Glover became a powerful propaganda tool as Argentina fought the war. He was – falsely – quoted in newspapers in Buenos Aires as saying: ‘My people are wrong, and that is dangerous. The Argentine offensive is affecting our forces. Their morale is deteriorating due to the confusion caused by air attacks.’

Glover explained to me that while he was not aggressively interrogated, or mistreated at all, it was tough for him over the next two months. His future is uncertain. ‘For the first week, I was locked in a room and not allowed out, but then an International Red Cross man pitched up,’ he said.

‘I was initially suspicious of him, but then I warmed to him when he started taking measurements of the size of my room [to try to get Glover a larger room]. I warmed to him even more when he left me 200 cigarettes.’

Glover was released on July 8, and he flew home soon after.

‘It took seven months before I could fly solo again,’ he said. ‘It was eventually discovered that I’d had a paranoic reaction to isolation and captivity. My problems were more mental than physical.’

Glover was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air and three years later became a member of the Red Arrows aerobatics team, subsequently spending many years as a commercial pilot. In a surprising twist, Glover’s connections to his captivity have survived. When he was employed by the Qatari royals, he discovered himself in Buenos Aires, Argentina for twelve days, and decided to search for Major General Sergio Fernandez, who had killed him over 30 years before.

‘He had tracked me down about ten years after the war and we had swapped emails,’ said Glover. ‘But this time we went out for dinner, and it was only then that he told me that I had been in the sea after being shot down for 40 minutes, when I had always thought it was for about five minutes. The evening was wonderful. He speaks good English and he was, and is, a smashing chap.’

Reflecting on his role in the war nearly four decades ago, Glover, now 67, said: ‘At the time, as a POW in 1982, I thought I had let the side down and lost one of our six planes [from his squadron]. But, nearly 40 years on, I have got over it.’

Gordon Mather was a 35 year-old SAS Trooop Sergeant, who had just finished learning Arabic in his undercover work when he learned that the South Atlantic war was breaking out. ‘Our Egyptian instructor turned on the television and we learnt that the Falkland Islands had been invaded,’ he told me. ‘Word soon came through that the Arabic course was cancelled and we should prepare to deploy.’

He would go on to be decorated with the Military Medal for prolonged gallantry during a daring mission lasting four weeks behind enemy lines – the longest such deployment of the whole Falklands conflict.

The Victoria Cross medal

Victoria Cross Medal

In an exclusive interview, Mather, who led a four-man patrol in treacherous sub-zero conditions to gain valuable intelligence on Argentine positions, told me that the key to his team’s success had been the ‘thorough, extremely demanding’ SAS selection process.

‘Much of it is based on carrying heavy weights and navigating over difficult ground both by day and night,’ he said. ‘This is combined with very high standards of field craft, best use of ground and camouflage and concealment.’

They had made extensive preparations. ‘Everything that we would need to survive, communicate and perhaps fight with had to be carried,’ he told me. ‘We had the standard issue ration pack: one feeds one man for one day, but it weighs three and a half pounds, so 14 days’ rations alone equals 49lb per man, just food. Therefore, we needed to decrease the amount of rations.

‘We each carried AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles and 200 rounds of ammunition, along with hand and smoke grenades. As standard procedure, the patrol commander always carries a white phosphorous grenade to destroy code books if required.’

He is still full of praise for Sea King helicopter pilots that he said was a great feat. They were dangerously low and landed them behind enemy lines. ‘They were superb,’ he said. ‘Part of the difficulty, of course, was that we had no idea where the enemy might be. This was the mission. Were they there? Which number do they have? What weapons do they possess?’

Mather, and the other commanders of patrols, were told that they would be on their own in case an attack occurred long before the mission. They could normally expect the Quick Reaction Force, if in trouble to help them. But, because these were the Falklands’ first troops, there wouldn’t be back-up. ‘That helped concentrate the mind a bit,’ said Mather.

It was not easy to communicate their information to their superiors. High-frequency radios with hand-speed Morse Code were given to them. The messages were encrypted – a slow but secure system. I would radio information perhaps daily or every two days – we had to stay in touch to pass on the information we had obtained and to indicate that we were OK.

‘But all the time we were worried about the direction-finding capability of our enemy. Two signallers and one man would leave our base after about one hour. They’d set up an antenna, transmit and receive, then take it down and return to the station. Two signallers and one other man would then move away from our base for about an hour, set up the antenna, send and receive, take down the antenna, return to our base again. We hoped it would mean the enemy could never identify exactly where our base was situated.’

Mather said that they were looking at their targets through binoculars. ‘The closest we got was about 400 metres. I never felt we were in immediate danger of being spotted.’

Mather stated that, despite difficult conditions, Mather never needed to motivate his men, because all of them were extremely fit and professional.

‘Yes, of course, when you are on Day 21 or whatever it is, cold and soaking wet, you might look at each other and say, “I would rather be in our favourite pub in Hereford.” But basically you just get on with it; heads never went down. I would occasionally tune the radio to BBC World Service, and find out the latest happenings. On May 21, they reported “British forces have landed on the Falkland Islands”. The smiles that grew on our faces made us both smile a little. We thought, “We are not alone – the cavalry have come!” ’

His squadron’s patrols eventually resulted in the disabling of four enemy helicopters and the destruction of a substantial aviation fuel dump – a satisfying contribution to the effort.

They were collected at a agreed rendezvous point, and then, tired and filthy from their 28-day journey, flew to an anchored ship off the island.

‘I told my guys in a whisper to unload their weapons,’ he said. ‘I was whispering because of course we had got so used to it over the past four weeks.’

Mather (now 74) has been back to Falkland twice, the last time being in 2012, for the 30th anniversary.

Lord Ashcroft's latest book, Falklands War Heroes: Extraordinary true stories of bravery in the South Atlantic

The latest book by Lord Ashcroft, Falklands War Heroes – Extraordinary stories of courage in the South Atlantic

‘On Remembrance Sunday, a very moving service was held in Stanley Cathedral,’ he recalled. ‘I asked one Falkland Islander what she thought about us veterans returning year after year.

‘She replied, “While you are here this week, Gordon, we will take care of you. We will also take care your children when you bring them to the islands.

‘ “When your grandchildren come, our grandchildren will take care of them, too. Because this is a debt that we can never repay.” ’

Abridged extract from Falklands War Heroes, by Michael Ashcroft, published by Biteback at £25. To order a copy for £22.50, with free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2973 before November 28.

Lord Ashcroft KCMGPC, is a businessman as well as philanthropist and author. You can find more details about Lord Ashcroft’s work at lordashcroft.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @LordAshcroft