Since Monday, May 15, anyone passing the Triangle may have noticed an unfamiliar flag with a sheep on it flying alongside those of the Union and St George. Those of a certain age will know it as that of the Falklands Islands, a territory 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic, and that it continues to fly because of a tumultuous chain of events that occurred 41yrs ago in spring 1982. More than a few people who live in and around Sidmouth were part of that chain.

Next Saturday, May 20, with the support of the Town Council, Sidmouth & District Royal Naval Old Comrades Association and the Royal British Legion will commemorate the sacrifices and achievements of British forces and the Merchant Navy in the Falkland Islands campaign.

Unlike last year’s 40th anniversary commemoration, this will not be part of a nationwide initiative, for the MOD has decided to observe only periodic milestone anniversaries - presumably the next one being the 50th in 2032. The RNOCA felt that this was not wholly reasonable, because it is entirely possible that many veterans will not be around then, so it was decided to mark the event annually.

Until he was transferred away in early 1982, the president of the RNOCA Chris Pink had been second-in-command of HMS Coventry - sunk with the loss of 19 lives. He said: “There’s no intention to raise the Falklands to equivalence with the prolonged campaigns of two world wars, the Conflict was a very short affair, though it was certainly singularly intense for all services. To my mind, there are a few reasons to hold this commemoration: firstly, I want to be able to pay personal respects to the blokes I knew well and to others who sacrificed the life or health for British territory - second, to celebrate what was an absolutely phenomenal achievement, thirdly, to ensure that the desire of Falkland Islanders to remain British does not slip out of focus, and lastly to enjoy a good old-fashioned get-together.”

The Falklands Conflict saw all three British forces enhance their standing as the world’s very best, yet probably the greatest triumph was logistical - the matter of developing strategy to address a problem, and then assembling the manpower and material to execute it.

Since the 1960s there had been a consistent stream of wishy-washy messages about the sovereignty of the Falklands emanating from Britain’s Foreign Office, and this was an important factor in convincing the Argentine government to invade. The Buenos Aries regime was also aware that in the six years prior to 1982, Britain’s Royal Navy had decommissioned a third of its ships. Both factors combined to convince the Argentine leadership that Britain had neither the will nor the capacity to travel 8,000 miles and mount the operation.  

Had it not been for a lady called Margaret Thatcher, it is doubtful that the political decision to send forces would have been made, and even she, in her first years in Downing St., had been drawn down the path of negotiating a lease of the Islands. However, in late March when the invasion became a reality, she was angered by Argentinian aggression. Most of her cabinet did not think that a military mission was feasible, but then, on the evening of 31st March, uninvited, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, interrupted an emergency cabinet meeting to assert that it was both possible and imperative to respond with force. He stated that that Britain’s reputation in world affairs was at stake, adding that he could assemble a task force within 48 hours.

Admiral Leach’s intervention convinced the PM that it could be done; however, the Defence Secretary John Nott was not of the same opinion; he believed that it might take five months to assemble sufficient ships. History shows that he had seriously under-estimated the calibre and qualities of Admiral Leach, his military staff and the British working man.

The task was to assemble fleets of ships - half of which were in private hands - to carry two brigades of troops with their hardware and equipment, squadrons of planes, helicopters and vehicles, medical facilities and of course, fuel, food and ammunition; and all of this had to be carried over many thousands of miles into an oncoming winter. A super-human effort and the most positive of attitudes was required from each and every man and woman involved - from the most senior admiral and general, down through the ranks to the most humble stores clerk and dockyard welder.

Developing a strategy on such a scale and in such a short time period demanded the utmost professionalism and knowledge, then the managerial competence to implement those plans and finally a vast array of practical skills, diligence and team-work to physically procure the desired outcomes - by force, if necessary. Ships had to be refitted, indeed, re-purposed, and a lot of manual labour had to be done very quickly. In dockyards, warehouses and factories all over the country - and in Gibraltar - men and women laboured with staggering speed, accuracy and cheerfulness.

Martin Dunkin, who lives up at Stowford saw it all at first hand. In 1982, he was a 20yr old drafted to the landing ship HMS Intrepid. He was one of a mere handful of men remaining of a full crew of 550 who had been dispersed; he said: “We had returned to Portsmouth in late 1981, our ship had been decommissioned and was to be ‘mothballed’. By the end of March, almost all stores, equipment and even machinery had been removed, and 95 per cent of the ship’s company - including the captain - had transferred to new ships, and many of the two dozen who remained had gone off for the weekend. Then, mid-morning on Friday 2nd April we were informed that the Falkland Islands had been invaded, and that Intrepid was to be put back in service. Within a few hours the dockyard was a hive of activity, crews were summoned back and over that first weekend we received stores and about 500 mattresses for the Royal Marines’ mess-decks. Within a week, all our missing machinery had been reinstalled, and pretty much the whole crew from the previous deployment had been retrieved from across the Navy. Weapons were re-armed and deliveries of ammunition, food and medical gear came thick and fast.

"To the great relief of the whole crew, Captain Dingemans, who had taken another appointment returned to us, and in just 10 days, we had gone from being an almost dead hulk to a full fighting ship again. Astonishing. When we put to sea we could hardly move along the passageways, so great was the amount of food and stores that we were carrying. It was a magnificent achievement to get us back to sea so quickly, everyone played their part, from the ship’s crew, the dockyard staff and all the various industries that worked constant overtime to ensure we had everything we needed for success”.

Things were similarly hectic for the frigate HMS Broadsword, aboard which was Nigel ‘Moose’ Elks. He said: “I’d got married on 15th March, went to sea on 17th for NATO Exercise Springtrain, we finished that, and were due to sail for the Med, East Africa and the Far East - I’d even booked myself a safari in Kenya for my downtime. Things did not work out like that, before we got to Naples, the ship turned around, and we woke up back in Gibraltar (and I didn’t get my bloody money back from that bloke in Kenya!).

"We were on the ‘outer arm’ of the huge harbour, and stayed there about 48hrs. Half of the crew had one day off to go ashore to make phone calls, write wills and have a few beers, and the other half the next day. When I came back the ship’s passageways were full of stores, I particularly remember sacks and sacks of potatoes lying alongside cases and cases of Sea Wolf missiles.

"We sailed on 8th April with HMS Yarmouth and an RFA. Arriving at Ascension Island, we were assigned to the Carrier Battle Group, and from there we went South. The battle-group was a very impressive sight, but none of us really thought it would come to a fight, but it did. My ship was hit by a bomb that did not go off, we were lucky, others were not and I lost a number of friends. I think of them often, particularly at this time of year."

Martin’s experiences were touched upon last year; at times they have caused him prolonged distress, but having revisited the Falklands he found greater serenity. He made some very good friends down there, one of them is Lisa Watson who is the editor of Penguin News, the Falklands' only ‘home-grown’ newspaper. Lisa was 13 years old in spring 1982, and was staying with her grandmother in Stanley for ease of getting to school, as her parents’ farm was quite isolated. She has vivid memories of gunfire and explosions as the Royal Marine detachment resisted the invasion for as long as possible, without risking civilian casualties. There was also the sense of shock and nausea at the thought of having their way of life utterly dislocated.

Lisa moved from Stanley to her parents' farm for safety, and recalled Argentinian helicopters landing there and being questioned by occupying troops. Then, within a few weeks, her father was driving British troops onwards to Stanley. It must have been a strange experience for a teenager.

Lisa wrote:“……(overall) I have my own way of remembering. I’m a rock climber and the crags  where I climb ……are those around Stanley - Two Sisters, Tumbledown, Mt Harriet, Longdon - and when the sun glints off the quartzite on a warm sunny day while we ascend these classic Falklands slabs I always think what startlingly beautiful places they are; dignified and silent on a calm day, wild and intimidating when it’s windy, stunning and absolutely fitting natural memorials to those who gave their lives. Everyone here is still very grateful”.

President of the local Royal British Legion Ralph Hickman said: “The RBL is pleased to lend its name and support to this event. Chris Pink is quite right, waiting another nine years for the 50th anniversary is of no use to so many of us. Of course, WWII actions were bloodier and much more prolonged, but that’s not the point, the British fighting man of 1982 was told to do a job, and he did it to the very best of his considerable ability.”

Sidmouth RNOCA Chairman Peter O’Brien added: “The Falklands Conflict was a great triumph for the country, and I mean that principally in terms of us being reminded what we would accomplish as a nation. To go from a standing start at the end of March 1982 to full steam within a week, can be compared to the acceleration of a Formula 1 car. The single-mindedness and dedication of everyone involved is a great example to us all today - there was certainly no ‘working from home’ back then’! Anyway, we are pleased to put this all together, and hope that we have good weather, and a positive response from the town’s people - we don’t think that any other town in the country will be doing this.”

So, any townsfolk - or tourists - in Sidmouth next Saturday are welcome to attend the short service, and then afterwards to toast memories and celebrate the achievement, over a few drinks in Sidmouth Rugby Club. This invitation is also extended to anyone of Argentinian heritage who happens to live/be in the area, and wishes to pay respects to their own family, friends and countrymen.