FEATURE: Sunderland Falklands veterans remember the Battle of Mount Longdon

L-R Pete Higgs, Colin Charlton and Paul Bachurzewski

L-R Pete Higgs, Colin Charlton and Paul Bachurzewski

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IT was one of the bloodiest battles of the Falklands Campaign and paved the way for the final march on Port Stanley.

And for two Sunderland paratroopers the Battle of Mount Longdon and its preparations saw them narrowly escape mortar fire, cheat death in a mine field, shelter from bombardment in a toilet pit and suffer the loss of a close comrade.

The engagement, which took place on June 11 and 12 1982, saw 23 British and 31 Argentinian troops killed, with dozens more wounded on either side.

But just weeks before as Colin Charlton, of East Moorside, and Paul Bachurzewski, of Fulwell, set sail on the SS Canberra, the pair were full of hope that such a bloody conflict would be averted.

“On the way down there was a good atmosphere,” said Colin.

“We thought we were going to get a tan, and by the time we got there, there would be a peace-deal signed and we would be sent back home.

Colin Charlton

Colin Charlton

“It wasn’t until later that I realised Margaret Thatcher needed that war to get re-elected.”

Colin, then 25, and Paul, then 19, were part of the parachute regiment’s elite D Patrol Company, carrying out Close Target Reconnaissance on Argentinian forces before the battle.

“The patrol’s function was to operate behind enemy lines and get as much information as possible about Argentinian positions,” said Colin.

Their team were dispatched to Mount Longdon twice on foot – and were lucky to return.

“The first time we went up there we were seen by the Argentinians,” said Colin.

“We nearly got hit by their mortars. All we heard was ‘pop, pop, pop’.”

The mortar shells landed either side of Colin and Paul’s patrol, close enough to kill or injure the men in other circumstances.

“We saw the shells land but the peat absorbed the impact. Had it been concrete, there would have been a lot of debris,” said Colin.

It was not the only time the pair, who served with 3 Para, were saved by the elements.

The men were among those to enter a heavily-sown minefield on the mountain, miraculously escaping when all but two landmines failed to detonate. British sappers later counted 1,500 mines on the Western slopes of Mount Longdon.

“We knew the area was mined, but the Argentinian’s hadn’t put up a sign saying ‘minefield’,” said Colin.

“We could never work out why the mines hadn’t gone off. I only found out years later it was because it was so cold, the mines had frozen.”

Colin and Paul’s patrol were returning to their base at Estancia House from an observation post when the British troops began their advance on Mount Longdon.

They were then given orders to follow the advancing troops, and found the enemy positions had fallen by the time they arrived.

The Argentinian forces, however, still held the nearby Two Sisters Ridge, which the Royal Marines 45 Commando had not yet taken.

The Argentinians were able to use those positions to fire on the British troops on Mount Longdon.

Colin and Paul spent the night under cover in a hollow beneath a cliff out of reach of the enemy shells.

“Because the cliff curved inwards, they just couldn’t hit us. We couldn’t work out why no one else had taken cover there, then we realised it had been used as a toilet pit by the Argentinians,” said Colin.

“But by that point we weren’t moving. It was earplugs in and keep down.”

Colin said it was at some point during the bombardment that he and Paul learned their friend and fellow patrol member Pete Higgs had been killed.

The 23-year-old Lance Corporal, who had been moved to another patrol team, was walking with wounded Corporal Stewart “Scouse” McLaughlin when they were hit by mortar fire. Both men were killed.

“There wasn’t time for mourning. There isn’t time to mourn. You’ve got a job to do and you’ve just got to get on and do it,” said Colin. “It’s only later that you have time to mourn.”

At first light, after the Marines had finally taken the Two Sisters and the bombardment had ended, Colin and Paul’s orders were to move on for the next battle at Stanley Racecourse.

With the hills in British hands, the Argentinian forces were in the streets of Port Stanley preparing for a bitter battle – but it would never take place.

Colin said: “We were ready to move on Port Stanley when a radio message came through – the Argentinians were prepared to surrender. It was helmets off and berets on.

“I felt very relieved.”

He added: “We were originally told we were to stay where we were and the Royal Marines would march through us and into Port Stanley

“But we weren’t having any of it. The paras were the first into Port Stanley.”

Colin is now a dad-of-two and works as a bike leader at Blue Watch youth project in Ryhope.

Paul, also a dad-of-two, is a watch manager at Rainton Bridge fire station.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) left many sufferers emotionally scarred, often unable to work, suffering from flashbacks, depression, anxiety, alcoholism and prolonged personality disorders.

More British Falklands veterans are said to have committed suicide since the campaign than were killed in the fighting.

The South Atlantic Medal Association released figures in 2002 on the 20th anniversary of the campaign which estimate 264 veterans had taken their own lives compared to the 255 killed in the conflict.

Colin said he had been lucky not to suffer from PTSD, but the horrors of what happened would never leave him.

“I went back in 2002 and although I don’t suffer from PTSD, it did bring things back.

“Old soldiers will tell you that it’s as time goes on that memories start coming back.”

Recent years have seen a renewed focus by the Argentinians on the Falkland Islands, with pressure stepped-up on Britain to enter into talks over the future of the archipelago’s sovereignty.

While Colin now has mixed feelings on the Falklands campaign, he still believes the island’s population – most of which are of British descent – has the right to self-determination.

“The people of the Falkland Islands should be able to determine their own future,” he said.

“If you look at the history, the Argentinians may have a claim there, but there is a quote that says to know the truth of history is to realize its ultimate myth and its inevitable ambiguity.

“We also have to remember that Argentina itself was a Spanish colony.”

Paul added: “Going back for the 20th anniversary made us realise how much the sacrifice of the task force meant to the islanders and how proud they are to be British.

“We could not have been shown more hospitality and respect by the people there and that extends to all veterans who visit the islands.

“I believe that sovereignty should only be decided by the people of the Islands.”

THOSE who fought and died in the Falklands and other conflicts – including fallen Tunstall para Nathan Cuthbertson – will be remembered at a special event on Saturday.

The Sunderland branch of the Parachute Regiment Association is holding an Airborne Forces Day at Ashbrooke Sports Club, from 2pm.

The free event is open to all and will feature live music, a barbecue and a display by 4 Para – the Parachute Regiment’s reserve battalion.

Colin, secretary of the Sunderland branch of the association, hopes as many former and serving airborne services personnel, Falklands veterans and others as possible will attend.

“The event happens to coincide with the anniversary of Mount Longdon, but its also to remember those who fought and died in all conflicts.

“We’re hoping to make this a big annual event.”

The Ashbrooke event will also mark the end of this year’s Cuthy’s 200 bike ride, organised in memory Nathan, 19, who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2008.

Nathan’s parents Tom and Carla are among those taking part in the event, which will see about 70 riders cycling from Catterick Garrison to Sunderland.

The annual charity ride was founded by Colin, a family friend, and this year is in support of the Afghanistan Trust.