April 18, 2012
I had spoken to my boyfriend, David, on the ship-to-shore telephone that is rigged up when a ship is alongside in port. He was off to Portsmouth for some exercises and would be there the following weekend if I wanted to talk to him. I was going over to the Hockenheim circuit in West Germany to watch the first Formula 2 race of the season and catch up with some motor racing friends who I hadn’t seen since the previous season; lots of winter gossip and car changes to catch up on! I said I’d try to call him over the weekend.
I arrived in Germany on April Fool’s Day, Thursday 1 April 1982. When I had settled into my hotel, I put in a call to Portsmouth Dockyard. I asked to be put through to HMS ANTELOPE and they said that she wasn’t due in this week. I tried to correct them(!) and said that I knew she was in over the weekend; my boyfriend was serving on her. They said she had been due in, but was now back in her homeport of Plymouth. Strange, I thought, but sometimes plans are changed. I telephoned Plymouth dockyard and went through the same process of getting put through to the ship. I could hear the tannoy announcement summon David to the flight deck to take my call. He was there in a couple of minutes and sounded a little excited as he said hello. I asked why he wasn’t in Portsmouth but back in Plymouth. “We’re off to war!” he exclaimed! “What?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him properly. “We’re at war with Argentina! We’re off to war in the Falklands Islands!” War? Falkland Islands? Argentina? My mind was trying hard to process all of this. I know the Argentinians had been exercising with the Royal Navy off Pembrokeshire in the early spring; I was pretty sure that the Falkland Islands were part of the Faroes or something off Scotland; and war? That wasn’t something that was happening with Great Britain in my lifetime. It took David about 20 minutes or so to explain it all to me and convince me that this wasn’t an April Fool! My boyfriend was going to war. It took a few hours for the news to sink in after we had finished our call; and a few days to dawn on me what he might be sailing into. I wished him all the luck in the world and sent him all my love.
I returned to England and back to work. The BBC News was watched at 9 o’clock every evening, but nothing much seemed to be happening. There was lots of diplomacy going on across the Atlantic; maybe this would come to nothing and was just a show of strength? Maybe the politicians would sort this one out?
Bits of news drifted back through the papers and television. We had no internet; no email; no mobile phones. We only had papers, television and occasional letters from the Task Force heading South (usually containing old news because of the time they took to reach home). Our Task Force were gathering – buzz words started to appear: Ascension Islands, Total Exclusion Zone, Galtieri, Malvinas, Port Stanley, Vulcan bombers, Exocets, South Georgia …
Then, on Sunday 2nd May, the unthinkable happened. One of our submarines had sunk The General Belgrano, one of the flagships of the Argentinian Fleet. It was all so surreal. This was war! Real men were dying, drowning, being blown up. Real men were making the decisions to fire live weapons. This wasn’t an exercise. This was real. It took a while to get my head around it. Britain seemed to be in a state of shock. It seemed like a far off dream in a far off place; people went to work on Monday morning and read the papers with dramatic pictures on the front pages.
Then on Tuesday evening, 4th May, I went to Tottenham Court Road to meet up with a couple of friends who were at college and whom I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. We’d arranged it a while ago and had finally managed to sort out an evening when we could all make it.
We sat in a sort of college common room – pool table, bar, television in the corner. Then someone turned the television up … Ian McDonald, the serious-voiced Ministry of Defence spokesman, was announcing that HMS SHEFFIELD had been hit by an Exocet missile and badly damaged. Then the television was turned down again; conversations picked up where they had left off. People were laughing, drinking beer, playing pool. I was in a bubble. Everything around me was muffled. I knew people on HMS SHEFFIELD. I knew the ship. I’d seen her a couple of times. I had plotted her throughout her Gulf tour on the charts for the Admirals’ Briefings when I was in the Royal Navy just a couple of months ago. This wasn’t happening. That’s one of OUR ships. There are British sailors on board. This was peacetime.
The next day or so was a haze, but every newspaper was scanned, every news bulletin listened to more intently, every snippet of overheard conversation on the train was analysed. I needed more information, I needed to know where all my friends were, who was in the Total Exclusion Zone, who was on which ship, where my boyfriend was, where his brother was, what was going to happen.
I was working at a shipping company in the City of London, a job which I took on shortly after leaving the Navy in February. Prior to leaving, my job had been to update the world charts with all our ships’ positions and aircraft flying zones so that the Admirals’ and senior officers were always up to date with our Royal Navy’s movements. I had known, every six hours, where everyone in the Fleet was. Now I knew nothing. I had no information to calm my worried mind. I imagined things that weren’t happening and I didn’t know about other things I wanted to know about.
Time passed and we knew that a landing on the Falkland Islands was the next step and that there would probably be battles to retake the Islands for the British.
I was sitting at home with my parents on Friday 21st May – my Mother’s birthday – and we turned on the 9 o’clock news. Ian McDonald came on with, “A Type 21 Frigate has been hit” – I burst into tears and my hand shot to cover my open mouth. My boyfriend was on a Type 21 Frigate, but I knew there were several of them in the Task Force. I silently begged the announcement to tell us which one, knowing that they wouldn’t release the name of the ship until several hours if not days later. No news was instant. Everything needed signals and confirmation. Everything took an eternity. I jumped up and grabbed my list of telephone numbers – I knew the main dockyard numbers for all the home ports, so I started with Plymouth, my boyfriend’s home port. It was permanently engaged. We didn’t have a ‘redial’ button on our telephone. It was the old ‘dial’ phone with the Perspex circular dial with fingerholes in. It took forever to dial any number. I finally got through and managed to ask someone whether it was HMS ANTELOPE that had been hit. I was told, “No.” That was all I needed to know. I replaced the handset and sank back into the chair sobbing with relief. I had been so certain it was my boyfriend’s ship. My stomach had churned to the point of sickness and my head was spinning. I took a while to compose myself enough to go back into my parents and tell them it wasn’t David’s ship. They look relieved for me. Looking back, I can only imagine what it must have been like for them having me rush out of the room like that.
The next day, Saturday, seemed a pretty normal day and we did a bit of food shopping, some gardening, the normal things. Sunday, too, was pretty much as usual.
Again, gathering around the news on Sunday evening, 23rd May, another announcement with Ian McDonald: “Another Frigate has been hit.” Again, I dashed for the phone. Frantic dialling and redialling began again … I lost track of how many times I tried. The pit of my stomach felt so sick. Plymouth telephones were jammed. I kept trying. I couldn’t get through, so I tried Portsmouth in desperation. I tried again and again. I was incredibly lucky to finally get through to the information desk in the dockyard. “Are you a next of kin?” I said no, I was a girlfriend. “I’m sorry, but we can only give out information to the next of kin.” I asked if it was the ANTELOPE that had been hit? “I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to give out that information.” Could they just tell me whether my boyfriend is dead or alive, injured or okay? “I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to give out that information.” Call it fate or luck, but the person who answered the phone was a sailor who was actually part of HMS ANTELOPE’s ship’s company – my boyfriend’s ship! He had been injured during a football game just before they sailed in April and had been unable to sail with his mates; he was put on the information desk while the ship was away. I suppose because I had mentioned the ANTELOPE, he asked who I wanted to know about. I said David Trish, Dave Trish, radar operator. He knew David and said, “I’m not meant to tell you anything, but I will tell you that he isn’t on any casualty lists.”
Again, the relief was indescribable. I don’t really remember much more of that evening, it was just a blur.
Monday morning, 24th May, I went off to work as usual – train to Blackfriars, tube to Tower Hill, walk to Mansel Street, up several flights of stairs to the office. As I remember, it was a pretty normal day. I wasn’t dwelling too much on the South Atlantic because I’d been told David wasn’t on any list. My Mother telephoned me in the office at around lunchtime. She never called. I remember her saying that she had just heard it announced in Parliament that it was HMS ANTELOPE that had been hit and that it was now sinking. I was struck dumb again. No-one in my office had military connections; no-one knew what I was going through on a daily basis. A bizarre mix of normal life, unreality, surrealism, fear, worry, anxiety, wandering thoughts, lack of concentration, my mind completely somewhere other than with my body. I took myself out of the office to the Ladies’ toilets and had a quiet cry. I knew David wasn’t injured but didn’t know what he’d seen. His brother was serving on HMS HERMES – would he have been told? I composed myself (again) and returned to my desk. I told my boss what had happened and asked if I could make a personal call. I telephoned David’s Mother and asked her what she knew. She knew no more than the papers, although she had managed to get through to one of the dockyards and found out that David was alive and uninjured and all the crew had been transferred to other ships in the Fleet.
I left work that evening and saw the spectacular photographs on the front page of the Evening Standard showing HMS ANTELOPE’s magazines exploding against the night skies like a vast firework – incredibly dramatic and, even then, fairly iconic. I’m not sure how I got home. I think I was on auto-pilot and don’t really remember that evening.
Little did I know then what a week it was going to be. The next day, Tuesday 25th May, we lost HMS COVENTRY and the ATLANTIC CONVEYOR – carrying vital Chinooks and other aircraft to support our troops. I wasn’t really able to process all the numbers and casualties … none of it seemed real. It was all too much in too short a space of time.
And then we had the first land battle – Goose Green – on Friday 28th May. We heard fairly shortly afterwards that Lt Col ‘H’ Jones had been killed.
I went off to work as usual on the Monday morning but days were becoming muddled and I wasn’t really aware of which day of the week it was. I remember being in the office on either the Tuesday or the Wednesday (1st or 2nd of June) and opening up the Sun newspaper to read the casualty lists. There was a list of everyone killed so far on the ships and in the air, and also at Goose Green. I read the names and one jumped back at me. Lt Richard James Nunn Royal Marines. Well, I had dated a chap called Dick Nunn when he was on the Lieutenants’ Course at Greenwich in 1979/80 and, although no longer boyfriend/girlfriend, we had kept in touch as friends. Hang on! Dick is short for Richard. No, it can’t be. Dick was a Lieutenant, yes. He was a Royal Marine, yes. He flew helicopters, yes. Richard Nunn, Dick Nunn? Oh my god! It must be him. I looked again and again. It was like kitchen towel soaking up a spillage … it was slowly sinking in, against everything I prayed for, that it was Dick, it was my ex-boyfriend, it was my friend. Someone I cared about and shared things with had been killed.
My life changed.
I was inextricably linked to the Falklands War by that one week in May – a Friday to a Friday – a week in which so many lives and friends had been lost. My world was devastated. I crumbled and burst into tears. My boss sent me home. I couldn’t think straight or put one foot in front of the other properly. I just managed somehow to get home.
I really don’t remember much chronology or detail of the following two weeks.
I remember the different battles, the different regiments and ships and aircraft.
I remember seeing my ex-boyfriend, Richard Nunn, buried with such dignity, ceremony, care and love in his silver body bag in a wet, muddy grave with his Parachute Regiment colleagues after the Battle of Goose Green. I remember the service that was conducted by David Cooper.
I remember hearing that David’s brother, Andy, had only found out just before David was due home that he was indeed alive and well after the sinking of the ANTELOPE – he didn’t want to bother anyone and assumed they would tell him when they were ready. ‘They’ (those senior to Andy) in turn thought Andy would have asked if he hadn’t already had the news. He found out through a letter from home that his brother was due into Southampton on the QEII.
My boyfriend David sailed into Southampton docks on Friday 11th June, the QEII had been delayed, originally due to arrive on the 6th. I met up with David’s parents and his family and we were taken to a large shed alongside the jetty. The public were on the dockside, but we were together – ANTELOPE, ARDENT and COVENTRY – three ships’ companies’ families waiting for their men to come home; knowing that some of those crews were never coming home. We watched through the cracks in the doors of the vast shed as the tug came into view; we watched as the enormous bow of the QEII came into view; we watched as Capt David Hart-Dyke, commanding officer of HMS COVENTRY, was the first to come through to be greeted by his wife and daughters. I shall never forget the burns to his face, the look in his eyes, the fear in the eyes of his wife, not knowing whether to hug her husband would hurt him, whether he had burns and injuries hidden from view. Then the men came through to meet their loved ones … you could touch the emotion, feel the relief, understand the pain. All three ships had lost shipmates, colleagues, young lives ripped from their families. So relieved to have them home, but so sad for their losses.
David came through with just the clothes he stood up in. Everything else was at the bottom of San Carlos Waters, Bomb Alley. His brother was still “down South” on HMS HERMES and the war was still going on.
We drove to see David’s sister’s family in Poole, then drove north to Liverpool, to Bootle, to David’s home. Big banners and flags welcomed him home and remember the feeling of him being completely overwhelmed. We wanted to show him how happy we were that he was home and safe, but he told us he could never celebrate so long as the war for still going and his brother was still at sea in that war. I hadn’t really thought of that.
I stayed with his family for a couple of days … we watched the disaster at Bluff Cove unfold – Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad, unforgettable images.
I returned home on the train and went back to work. I was feeling less and less like working, less and less motivated, more and more drained. It seemed ‘wrong’ to be working and being ‘normal’ while people I knew were dying, being injured, losing limbs, being burnt. The Falklands was now my reality, not London and commuting and eating supper at the normal time.
Then I remember the news on Monday 14th June: “There’s a white flag flying over Stanley! Bloody marvellous!” I looked at my Mother and said “It’s over!” It’s impossible to describe the relief when you know there will be no more killing, no more waiting for news, no more pain.
I remember hearing that Dick’s brother, Chris Nunn – also a Royal Marine – had read about his own brother’s death in the casualty lists; he had not been personally informed.
In the days, weeks, months and years to come, I realised there were different kinds of pain – shellshock (which became combat stress, which became PTSD and which has finally been recognised and is beginning to be addressed and people helped), bereavement, not having a funeral, long-term fear of talking about experiences, constant nightmares and dreams, and many other forms.
We have learnt many lessons from the Falklands and other wars and conflicts. And we now have email, the internet, instant news from around the world, reporters embedded with the troops, mobile phones, Skype. We don’t have to wait for news – we know any news will be with the people that need it within 24 hours, usually sooner. We see pictures and film, we have footage of our troops in combat, at work, we have documentaries about them and their role while the conflict is still progressing. The world has changed. The results of combat, sadly, have not.
I will leave it for David and his family and for Richard’s family to tell their stories; but I have learnt compassion, understanding, empathy and sympathy through my experiences. I have learnt not to judge, to value life, to enjoy the simple pleasures and the process of aging and growing older and hopefully wiser. I value my children, I value the life I’ve had when others have not been able to have that long life. And I can now look back and smile at some happy memories as well as never forgetting the dark days and the passing of many friends and fine, strong, young men.
We Will Remember Them x
Lt Richard J Nunn was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the bravery and skill he displayed during the operation that cost him his life.
Anne Richards is a devoted supporter of both ABF the Soldiers’ Charity and The Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund and created the Facebook support groups for 3 Commando Brigade, 40, 42, 45 and 30 Commando and CHF, CLR and CTC RM.