‘A soldier wants to go to war – until they’ve been’: Falklands veteran relives conflict for 35th anniversary
- Credit: Archant
When Steve Richards left school at 16, without a clue as to what to do next, he had no idea what the future held for him.
Two years later, he was fighting for his life on Mount Longdon in the Falklands Islands, firing a gun lying on his back with bullets flying in a frenzy overhead, the night sky illuminated by tracer ammunition.
Steve and his 3 Para comrades had marched for miles in extreme conditions, and this mountain was one of the final obstacles between them and capital Port Stanley.
The Falklands War between Britain and Argentina (April 2 to June 14, 1982), reaches its 35th anniversary on Sunday, and to Steve it feels like hardly any time at all has passed.
The 53-year-old, who lived in Braemore Road, Goodmayes, for most of his teenage years, had no intention of joining the army, but was “completely sold” when he accompanied a friend to a Romford recruitment centre in 1980.
Signing up for the highly-trained Parachute Regiment, Steve was thrown into an intense selection process. “Everything you do, you have to be a little bit, well a lot, better than everyone else. You had to be first at everything.”
Months of training followed in Tidworth, Wiltshire, and soon after 18-year-old Steve qualified, war broke out. “I was quite excited because a soldier wants to go to war – until they have been to war,” Steve told the Recorder.
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“At first people thought the Falklands were off the coast of Scotland, we thought why would the Argentinians want to invade Scotland of all places? Everyone thought it wouldn’t come to anything.”
But when 3 Para arrived, they were transferred from the cruiser Canberra to the battleship Intrepid.
“That’s when we knew it had got serious.”
3 Para landed at Port San Carlos in May and embarked on a gruelling march, suffering “trench foot” from the continual rain and frostbite when temperatures fell to below freezing.
Each soldier carried 150 pounds of gear and the sweat from their exertion would freeze if they were still for too long.
3 Para marched 30 miles to Teal Inlet, and then continued to Estancia. They were soon given their main objective: to take the “impregnable” Mount Longdon in a night attack on June 11.
Steve said: “We had 4, 5, 6 Platoon, us in 6, 4 went round to the left, 5 went up the mountain and we went to the right.
“We got quite a long way up, we were almost at the top when everyone just started firing. All I could see was tracer coming towards me. I was lying there and all this tracer was flying over my head, smashing into the rocks behind.
“When it first starts, like a normal person you’re scared. After a while you don’t really have a lot of regard for your own life. But I had a good reason for staying alive, it was my sister’s birthday and I didn’t want to die on her birthday.”
Twenty-three British soldiers were killed (18 attached to 3 Para) and 47 others were wounded. Medals for 3 Para included a posthumous Victoria Cross for Sgt Ian Mckay.
Of the Argentinians, 31 died, 120 were wounded and 50 captured.
The Brits stayed on the mountain for two days after the victory, with constant shellfire from the Argentinians. They then raced 2 Para to Port Stanley, but 2 Para arrived first.
“Really the Paras won the war,” said Steve. “2 Para went up about 650 [men] to 1,500 [Argentinians] at Goose Green and won. 3 Para had the bloodiest battle.”
Steve left the army in 1987, having “never wanted to make it a career”, and moved to Grove Hill, South Woodford, relocating to Chingford last year. He works for Network Rail and has three children, Will, 31, Marcia, 27, and Emily, 23. He reunites with his comrades several times a year.
“What was special about the Falklands was it was the last conventional war fought in a conventional modern way,” said Steve.
“It doesn’t feel like 35 years, it feels like 10. Lots of the guys have been dying off, lost about four already this year so we’re getting fewer.
“I definitely feel proud of what we did. I don’t think we would have got through it without each other.”
With thanks to Redbridge Museum, which featured Steve’s story in the 2009 exhibition Exploring 20th Century Redbridge. The museum, in Redbridge Central Library, has a large archive of oral histories, which tell the stories of a wide range of residents.