Men were dying and this was for real

A three-day Falklands Liberation commemoration across 8,000 miles and four time zones to mark the 25th anniversary of the conflict, begins on Thursday.

HMS Exeter

A three-day Falklands Liberation commemoration across 8,000 miles and four time zones to mark the 25th anniversary of the conflict, begins on Thursday. Audrey Forbes revisits the war through the memories of a North Tyneside veteran.

Albert Pearson narrowly missed the fate suffered by HMS Sheffield and so many of its crew.

The marine engineer was aboard HMS Exeter when an Exocet missile came flying at the Type 42 destroyer.

But it missed - and hammered into Sheffield, killed 20 of her crew and injured another 28.

"Someone on the deck rang the bridge and asked what an Exocet looked like.

"They said they didn't know and he replied that something black and orange had flown past down the portside."

It was May 4 1982, the fourth day of the war, and the loss of their sister ship brought home to everyone aboard Exeter the reality of what lay before them.

Their lives had been saved by a system which confused and deflected missiles' targeting systems.

Albert said: "We were lucky. The system was silver foil in the engine uptakes which put up a wall above the ship. The flack above the ship was like a big screen and the missile went towards it.

"It saved us. That was the only near-miss."

Albert, 64, originally from Rugby, now living in West Moor, North Tyneside, was 39 when he was sent to the Falklands - islands about 300 miles off the coast of Argentina which were home to just over 1,800 mainly British citizens.

The British dependent territory had been claimed by Argentina for more than 200 years. In 1982 most British people were only vaguely aware of the sovereignty issue, but to Argentines it was a matter of national pride - and on April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falklands.

The next day a second force landed on the island of South Georgia, a Dependency of the Falkland Islands about 800 miles away.

The same day, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced that a Task Force to include aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and Invincible would be assembled to restore "British administration" to the Falkland Islands.

Albert heard the news aboard HMS Exeter stationed off Belize in the West Indies.

With 18 years of Navy service under his belt he had served around the world on assault ship HMS Intrepid, destroyer HMS Diana and aircraft carrier HMS Eagle to name a few.

"We were ordered to do 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to Ascension Island and from there we went to the Falklands Islands. It was very sudden. We weren't expecting anything like this.

"We were on a tropical island wearing shorts and suddenly we were going south with no cold weather gear."

At home his wife Christine - whom he had met while posted on North Tyneside - and their sons Andrew and Steven, both under 10, waited.

Exeter entered the territorial zone, an exclusion area around the islands claimed by the British on the first day of the conflict.

"We had long distance radar. We were to pick up the Argentinian aircraft coming in to the islands to bomb the ships."

The feeling among the lads was that the conflict would be sorted out by the politicians before they got there.

But on May 2 British submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Argentinian warship Belgrano with the loss of 368 lives - just over half the number of deaths Argentina would suffer in the entire conflict.

"Suddenly the Belgrano sank and we realised it wasn't play-acting anymore. There were no more games. It was very early on in the conflict and really affected us. This was for real."

The father-of-two remembers the sinking of Sheffield, which had around a dozen North-East sailors in its crew.

"That made us apprehensive. Maybe it would be out turn next."

HMS Exeter, built on Tyneside by Swan Hunter and now the last ship left in commission from the Falklands, downed four planes, saving the lives of countless comrades.

Albert said: "They were coming towards the island and we were there to protect it. Your training kicks in and you realise you have to do a job and just accept it." Exeter was one of the last ships to leave the Falklands and Albert returned aboard it to work at Newcastle General Hospital in the engineering department, until his retirement last year.

"I was happy to be somewhere I could come home at night," he remembers.

He feels uncomfortable that history is repeating itself in the Iraq war.

"Do the politicians ever learn any lessons? Terrorism has to be kept at a distance, but whether it would deter it or worsen it I don't think they really thought.

"At least our enemy had a uniform on and we knew who they were."

Albert, whose eldest son Steven, now 34, followed in his footsteps and is stationed aboard HMS Hurworth in the Mediterranean, believes the commemoration of the war will be an important lesson for younger generations.

"I'm going down to London for the march-past," he said.

"When they are older maybe they will be in a position where they can influence people that they should bear the past in mind."

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Timeline

April 2 - Argentina invades Falkland Islands.

April 3 - UN Security Council demands immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces.

April 5 - First task force ships leave Portsmouth.

April 7 - Britain announces its intention to impose 200-mile exclusion zone around the Falklands.

April 19 - Argentina rejects US secretary of State Alexander Haig's peace proposals.

April 25 - South Georgia retaken by Royal Marines.

May 1 - British bomb Stanley airfield.

May 2 - Argentine cruiser General Belgrano sinks with loss of 368 crew.

May 4 - British destroyer HMS Sheffield is sunk by missile with the loss of 20 crew.

May 15 - SAS launch attack against Argentines on Pebble Island, an outpost which could have given early warning of the British fleet.

May 18 - Argentine junta rejects British peace proposals.

May 20 - UN peace talks fail, ending any hope of diplomatic solution to the crisis.

May 21 - British troops land on San Carlos Water on East Falkland.

May 23 - British frigate Antelope hit and later sinks.

May 25 - British destroyer HMS Coventry bombed with 20 deaths. Container ship Atlantic Conveyor hit with loss of 12 crew.

May 28 - Battle for Darwin and Goose Green.

May 31 - Argentine positions on Mount Kent and Mount Challenger taken.

June 3 - British landing craft Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram bombed, 51 troops killed.

June 11 - Mount Longdon, Two Sisters and Mount Harriet taken. Three islanders killed during naval bombardment of Stanley.

June 12 - British destroyer HMS Glamorgan hit by shore launched Exocet missile, 13 die.

June 13 - Final Argentine positions on Mount William, Wireless Ridge and Mount Tumbledown taken.

June 14 - British forces liberate Stanley.

June 20 - British forces declare end to hostilities.

July 11 - Requisitioned cruise liner Canberra arrives home at Southampton.

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Falkland facts

* The war was fought in 1982 between Argentina and Britain over the disputed Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

* The Falkland Islands consist of two large and many small islands in the South Atlantic east of Argentina. Their name and ownership have long been disputed.

* The initial invasion was considered by Argentina as reoccupation of its own territory and by the UK as an invasion of a British overseas territory.

* In the period leading up to the war, Argentina was in the midst of an economic crisis and large-scale civil unrest against the repressive military junta who had governed the country since 1976.

* The Argentine military government, headed by General Leopoldo Galtieri, sought to maintain power by diverting public attention.

* On April 2, Galtieri ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands, triggering the conflict.

* Britain was initially taken by surprise, but launched a naval task force of 110 ships and 28,000 personnel to retake the islands.

* It was on May 21, 1982, that Royal Marines from 3 Commando Brigade conducted an amphibious assault that secured the beach at San Carlos, from which British forces were able to retake the Falklands.

* Argentina's forces surrendered the island's capital Port Stanley on June 14, 1982.

* Nearly 1,000 people died during the 74-day battle, including 255 British servicemen, 655 Argentines and three islanders.

* There were also 1,188 Argentine and 777 British casualties in addition to the war dead; some of these service personnel were later to die of their injuries.

* The South American country still lays claim to the islands, which it calls the Malvinas, but in the years since the conflict it has sought a diplomatic resolution.

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Did you know?

* During the occupation, the Falkland Islanders were commanded to drive on the right side of the road. Following liberation, they immediately reverted to driving on the left. But the Argentines continued to drive on the right.

This led to occasional games of "chicken".

* The local vet and a school teacher friend used the former's gelding shears to cut Argentine military telephone lines.

* On the night of the battle for Longdon, a local woman led a caravan of medical vehicles, blacked out to avoid attracting Argentine attention, to the front line.

She wore white gloves to indicate to the drivers in the darkness, and carried a morphine needle so that she could inject herself in case she stepped on a mine.

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