General Johnny Rickett gives us a personal retrospective on his experience as an officer in the Falklands War of 1982. In early April of that year Argentina invaded this British overseas territory 8,000 miles from the UK. The ruling Argentine junta claimed sovereignty and felt that Britain would not forcefully intercede. The British prepared a task that arrived in early May and landed on the islands on the 21st. The Argentine army was mostly ill-trained conscripts but they were entrenched well. After a series of engagements Argentina’s forces surrendered on 14 June.
The Falklands War 1982
By Johnny Rickett, Commanding Officer 1st Battalion Welsh Guards during the conflict
Part 1 Preparation
All of us, soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen felt we had a just cause for which we were prepared to fight. As one of my Warrant Officers said, and his words appeared in the Observer Colour Supplement soon after we all got home, ” Galterie thought we were 8000 miles away and as a country, we hadn’t shown much interest in the Falkland Islands. I reckon a lot of countries were watching to see what we were going to do. It was a much bigger situation than just the Falklands.”
Together with my Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), I was en route in my staff car to Swansea in South Wales for a regimental veterans’ dinner on 2nd April 1982, when we heard the news of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands.
After frantic activity, the initial Task Force consisting of 3 Commando Brigade was on its way some six days later. This was an amazing feat considering the Brigade was partly on leave with certain key personnel in Denmark and a company of 45 Commandos in Hong Kong. Added to the mix was that a lot of needed equipment and stores were not immediately available. The Royal Naval element by this stage was already en route to establish the 25-mile Exclusion Zone around the Falklands.
My Battalion had just been standing down from Operation Spearhead (which means one battalion is ready to move anywhere in the world at a high state of readiness). Rumours abounded everywhere that more troops would be needed to supplement the Task Force and, sure enough, my Battalion was stood to for an intensive period of training in South Wales as part of the 5th Infantry Brigade.
Together with the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards and the 1st/7th Gurkha Rifles, we trained in the most lovely weather for two weeks, which would be quite the opposite to what we would expect in the Falklands. After being held in South Wales for a further day or two the decision was made that the Brigade would sail south on the Queen Elizabeth 2 departing from Southampton on May 12th.
As can be imagined there was a scramble of activity with equipment, much of which had been denied to us for months. It was arriving by the hour, some of it purloined from other units that would not be going on the mission. A day before we sailed I had a call from a Royal Naval friend, who had been appointed to be the senior Royal Navy officer aboard the QE2 and was responsible for the control of the ship on our way south. He asked me which deck I would like for my Battalion; we settled on the top deck as it was much easier to get out for exercise and training. I was very grateful to him for this as the poor Gurkhas had been allocated the lowest deck of all!
The Voyage South
Our departure from Southampton was truly emotional with crowds gathered to see us off and the Regimental Band playing and, of course, the inevitable stripper showing us her wares! (Actually it was the young wife of an embarrassed enlisted man who gave an abbreviated performance.) We were escorted by countless small vessels out of Southampton Water and just off the Needles we picked up a Soviet spy ship, bristling with antennas, which followed us all the way into the South Atlantic.
Training was the rule of the day and the decks thundered with the noise of running soldiers from dawn till dusk. Gash (black bags of rubbish) was floated from the stern for target practice and we honed up our drills on the Sea King, a twin-engine amphibious helicopter, which was to accompany us. The delicious cuisine served, was the same for all ranks and there were ample choices of wines as well. What a way to go to war!
Our support weapons, ammunition and all heavy equipment had been stowed everywhere on other ships in the haste of our departure and I badly needed to know where everything was located. We were told that there would be time enough for that when we were off Ascension Island, where we would be taking in water, Mail and the Land Force Commander, General Jeremy Moore together with his staff.
None of us had any feel of what to expect when we got to the Falklands. I only wished that my father had been still alive as he happened to have been there for a while before Word War I. During our voyage, we had to familiarise ourselves as much as we could from maps and air photographs and of course we needed to recognise the aircraft and weapon systems the Argentines were using.
The plan for stopping off at Ascension Island changed and we were now only to pass by and pick up the General en route by helicopter. However, the ship needed to take on water and importantly Mail so we were diverted to Sierra Leone instead. Since this was a malarial area just below the equator, we were issued tablets to combat this. We began with doses two days prior to arrival there and had to continue taking them for 14 days afterwards.
We duly took the General and his small staff aboard near Ascension as we sailed south at a good speed. Although it was vital for him to get to the Falklands as soon as possible, I was becoming anxious about getting all our kit on the other ships under my control. This we were unable to do until we reached South Georgia.
As we crossed the equator we took part in the ceremony of Crossing the Line. Obviously, this was an excuse for thoroughly bad order; I came before King Neptune’s Court accused of having the disease “Ricketts.” I was then daubed in paint and thrown into the ship’s swimming pool! We held countless concerts and sing songs and other happy events during the voyage. The padre had never had it so good and the further south we went the greater attendance at his services. We anxiously listened to the BBC World Service and as events were reported we became increasingly concerned that everything would be done and dusted before we arrived, we need not have worried on that score however. It still seems to this day that the media never understand operational security. They had, in this instance, announced the pending attack on Goose Green by 2 PARA (Second Battalion Parachute Regiment) before it happened. There were quite a few instances of this sort during the conflict which easily could have spelt disaster.
A day or so before we reached South Georgia a RN vessel, HMS Antrim, took off the Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, who was overall Task Force commander, our Brigade Commander and small advance parties from our battalions. Mine was commanded by Major Jo Griffiths-Eyton my 2IC (second in command). It was very important to get the General there as soon as possible in order to take the pressure off Julian Thompson, the Commando Brigade Commander. He, besides planning the initial landings, had everyone from the Prime Minister down breathing down his neck telling him what to do.
As we approached Grytviken in South Georgia we saw the damaged Argentine submarine, Santa Fe. She had been badly shot up during the operation to capture South Georgia a fortnight before.
It had been decided by this time that the QE2 should not go anywhere near the war zone as it would have been an enormous propaganda coup if she had been hit. Consequently, we found the Canberra waiting for us when we arrived. There was now feverish activity to find all our kit and to cross deck it all to the Canberra. Additionally we had to earmark which of the other ships had our support weapons and heavy equipment, which was a complete logistical nightmare. We sailed that night.
We found that conditions on the Canberra were certainly not the same as the luxury we had encountered on the QE2. The civilian crew appeared shell shocked and huddled together and the whole atmosphere was different. We were at action stations on account of the Argentine air threat with our machine guns fully manned. The food was distinctly mediocre and it became very rough as we crossed the roaring forties (latitudes). I am normally a good sailor but I remember feeling very queasy at the time, along with quite a few others.
As we drew nearer the Falklands we began sailing through the fleet: this was a truly emotional experience with signal lamps flashing and helicopters buzzing about. It gave us all a true feeling of confidence, and raised our morale greatly. By the time we landed, the Commando Brigade were well forward in the mountains, ready for phase one of the attack on Stanley, the capital located on East Falkland and 2 PARA had captured the Goose Green Settlement in Lafonia. Our Brigade was to get in line with the Commandos, open up the southern route and carry out phase two for the attack on Stanley.
We landed at San Carlos, slightly bewildered after 22 days at sea and staggering under an enormous amount of equipment and extra ammunition, we moved off to our assembly area about two miles to the north. We soon learned that as the water levels on the Islands are so high, digging trenches was not possible. Instead we built sangars out of dry rocks and stones to give us some protection. The Scots Guards took up positions in San Carlos itself while the Gurkhas were flown up by Chinook helicopter to Goose Green to relieve 2 PARA.
While we were getting into position Brigadier Wilson flew into Darwin near Goose Green to approve a very bold plan which Major Chris Keeble devised. Keeble was the acting CO of 2 PARA after Lt. Colonel Jones had been killed in the fighting to capture Goose Green. The plan was to fly a small group forward from Goose Green to the next settlement at Swan Inlet some 15 miles to the East where they could use the civilian telephone line to speak to the Fitzroy Settlement to find out if there was any Argentine activity there; this was only 20 miles from Stanley itself.
After a highly successful insertion at Swan Inlet a telephone call was made to the Fitzroy Settlement Manager, who confirmed that there was no Argentine presence either at Fitzroy or Bluff Cove nearby. A coup de mainoperation was organised immediately and a Chinook helicopter with 80 men from 2 PARA landed at the Settlement much to their joy. There was a near disaster as nobody in the excitement had liaised with the Commando Brigade and their Gunners were planning an immediate fire mission. Suddenly there was a break in the clouds and the soldiers below realised that friendly troops were approaching so they removed their helmets and donned their maroon berets. The Chinook brought another 80 men into Fitzroy just before dusk but 2 PARA were now out on a limb and urgently needed reinforcing. Though needed, reinforcements would cause an enormous logistic problem. How was this to be done with the paucity of large helicopters? The vast majority of these had gone down when the Argentines sunk the Atlantic Conveyor along with HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry some days prior. As a result, there were simply not enough helicopters to go round and both brigades were competing for the few remaining assets.
The Welsh Guards War
It was vital though to somehow reinforce that 2 PARA at Fitzroy. I volunteered to march my Battalion some of the way but this would not work in practice as we had no heavy tractor lift to carry our heavy weapons and ammunition so we abandoned the idea. The only way for the Brigade to get forward was by sea. The Scots Guards moved first on June 4th. They were shipped by an LPD (an amphibious landing tractor/dock) to Lively Island where they transferred to landing craft for the final run in to Bluff Cove. They had an awful time and many of them suffered from hypothermia. It was our turn on the following night but there was a muddle over landing craft and I had to leave half the Battalion behind on the LPD to come up the following night. It was highly risky for any ship to move during daylight because of Argentine observation posts in the mountains.
We (minus 2 companies) and the Scots Guards were then in line with the Commandos above us in the mountains and we were patrolling our front aggressively. There was however no sign of the balance of my Battalion and nobody at Brigade HQ, now at Fitzroy, knew anything about them. I was up visiting my forward company when about 5 miles away I saw a column of black smoke rising from a ship anchored in Fitzroy Sound. I somehow had the premonition that my men were on that ship and I was immediately called to the radio. I was to get back to Battalion HQ as we had a mass of casualties at Fitzroy. We had been waiting all day for news of them and now it had come.
There was a helicopter waiting to take me, the Padre and the Regimental Sergeant Major down to the Fitzroy Settlement. When we arrived, I can only describe the scene as unbelievable. Groups of soldiers running hither and thither, others being brought ashore in all manner of rafts and boats, helicopters seemingly having arrived from nowhere lifting appallingly wounded and burnt men to the Base Hospital near San Carlos or direct to the Hospital Ship, the Uganda which was anchored off West Falkland. We were under fairly heavy air attack for the rest of the afternoon and I remember the calm discipline of the senior NCOs calling the role in the sheep shearing shed, but it was quite impossible to ascertain who had been killed and where the majority of wounded had been taken. It turned out we had lost 39 killed and over 100 wounded and with a heavy heart I returned to Battalion HQ. I realised then what the loneliness of command really means for there is nobody on whose shoulder to cry on. However, from that moment I was determined that none of us would look backwards on these tragic events but instead concentrate our minds on the tasks before us.
My two companies plus the mortar Platoon were returned to the Base Admin Area as they only had the clothes they stood up in and not even that in some cases. They took no further part in the battles ahead. I felt so sorry for them but there was nothing I could do and their morale must have been rock bottom but we had a war to fight and we had to get on. The Battalion was reinforced by two Commando Companies so de facto we had become a working unit again and our morale soared.
Henceforth we played our part in the battles for Stanley after some difficult incidents losing two men in a minefield, and another under Argentine shell fire. We held the start Line for 42 Commando’s attack on Mount Harriet on 11th June and we captured Sapper Hill, the final feature overlooking Stanley itself, just as the Argentines had surrendered on June 14th. Finally. we had several bad injuries when a party of my men were clearing the Stanley runway of snow when a live sidewinder missile fell off a departing Harrier aircraft.
I suppose one would say that it was short, sharp and sweet as the War was over so quickly after the Landings. However, the aftermath was not easy. Prisoners of War had to be returned to Argentina, mines had to be cleared (they are still being cleared today) and generally the place had to be tidied up. Stanley itself was left in a terrible state with piles of Argentine weapons lying about and abandoned equipment left around everywhere. We all came home but the poor Falkland Islanders had to clear up the mess we had all left behind. I have been back there twice now and I am so grateful to the wonderful hospitality that my veterans receive, particularly from Tim and Jan Miller. Tim lost an eye in the conflict and they have supplied the Garrison with fresh produce. He has been among the first to regularise relations with Argentine Next of Kin, who have come over to visit their cemetery near Goose Green on several occasions since.
About General Johnny Rickett
Johnny Rickett was born in Wales and entered Military Service in 1959. He became a regular in the Welsh Guards and left the Army as a Brigadier after 35 years. He has served all over the world principally in the Middle East, Far East, East Africa, Europe and the USA. He speaks Arabic, German and French fluently. Johnny saw active service in Aden, Northern Ireland and commanded his battalion in the Falklands War in 1982. His final job in the Army was Military Attaché in Paris where he began intense study of WWI and WWII.
After leaving the Army in 1994 he ran the Union Jack Club in London for 15 years. Since retirement he has been active in charity work as Honorary Life President of Veterans Aid and the President of Colonie Franco-Britannique near Paris. He is President of the RAF Air Cadets Squadron at Chipping Norton near his home and is a Freeman of the City of London.
While his passion is military history, his hobbies are shooting, fishing, falconry and gardening. He is married and has two children and three grandchildren.