Life

Thirty-five Years On

Thirty-five years ago, The Portman Estate's CEO found himself in a setting very different to his current Portman Square office, being relentlessly shelled on the barren, boggy ground of the Falkland Islands. Bill Moore talks to the Journal about the conflict that shaped his life and career

Words: Mark Riddaway

At the age of 24, most young men are responsible for little more than paying their rent on time and making it home from the pub in one piece. At the age of 24, Bill Moore—now the chief executive of The Portman Estate—found himself in command of 120 men on a bleak, boggy island thousands of miles from home, confronted by relentless violence. 

“You’re either fortunate or unfortunate to be involved in these things early in your career,” says Bill, referring to the short but bloody convulsion of the Falklands War, a conflict into which he found himself flung as a callow young officer.

“I was fortunate, because I learned a lot about myself; it shaped me for the future.” He pauses for a beat or two, composing himself ever so slightly.

“A lot of people weren’t so lucky. A lot of people didn’t come back.”

Recounting his war stories is not something that comes naturally to Bill. Vocalising the experience of combat—and Bill endured many, in a decorated 32-year military career that saw him serve in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq—can be hard for anyone who has been through it. “Soldiers aren’t very good at talking about their experiences,” he says. “If I meet my mates who I went down south with, to the Falklands, we’ll chat about it the whole time, it’ll be like we were there just yesterday—but it’s different with other people. It’s very difficult to share these things with people who don’t have the context: you almost feel like you’re telling a tall story.”

Recently though, 35 years on from the conflict, he has found himself reflecting a great deal on his time in the south Atlantic and the impact it had on his worldview—his Falklands comrade, Tom Martin, is publishing his journals from the campaign, and later this year the pair will visit the islands: Bill’s first return since the end of the war in June 1982. Now, he’s happy to talk—quietly, modestly and with remarkable self-possession.

A big story it may be; a tall story it most certainly isn’t.

Located around 300 miles off the Patagonian coast, the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas, in Spanish) consist of a small, sparsely populated archipelago whose status as a British overseas territory has long been disputed by Argentina. On 2nd April 1982, the military junta that governed Argentina launched an invasion of the islands—an act of naked aggression that the generals hoped would distract from the economic stagnation and civil unrest that had begun to choke their regime. Like most people in Britain at the time, Bill had until that moment lived in blissful ignorance of this far-away powder keg. “I didn’t have a clue,” he says. “When we heard about the invasion, I remember thinking, where are the Falkland Islands? Are they somewhere near the Shetlands? I had no idea.”

In 1982, Bill was a young lieutenant in the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery, not long out of university and recently returned from an operational tour of Northern Ireland. As the British military response to the invasion began to take shape, he and his colleagues were finishing six hard weeks of training on Salisbury Plain and heading off on leave—many of them, in Bill’s words, “going on the pop in the north-east”, the region from which the regiment recruited. Before they’d had a chance to fully unwind, each of them received a telegram containing the code word ‘Pegasus’. “Wherever you were and whatever you were doing, you had to get back to barracks in Aldershot the next day,” explains Bill. “There were some great stories of people making that trek. Somehow or other, we made it.”

Bill’s gun battery had been tasked with providing artillery support for the Second Battalion the Parachute Regiment (known as 2 Para). They would travel on the MV Norland, a North Sea ferry sequestered by the Ministry of Defence, which had been hastily fitted with two helicopter decks but in every other respect was hardly tailor-made for a war zone.

Undaunted by the prospect of a four-week journey across an inhospitable ocean on a cramped vessel not designed for such lengthy confinement, the troops left in high spirits. “We drove down to Southampton in late April, the whole battalion group piled onto the ships, and off we sailed to the tune of Don’t Cry for me Argentina. It was all a bit jingoistic. I don’t think we really believed we were going to war. We thought that a lot of it was posturing.”

Spirits on the ferry remained buoyant until 2nd May, when a palpable shift in tone occurred. “We used to listen to the World Service in the morning, it was piped through at breakfast,” says Bill. “That morning there was a telling moment. The newsreader said, ‘The General Belgrano [an Argentinian Navy cruiser] has been sunk...’ And everyone cheered. And then they said, ‘with the loss of 300 lives.’ And the whole place went deathly silent. That was the moment we realised that this had got really quite serious.”

The next day, an Argentinian Exocet missile sank HMS Sheffield, and it became brutally clear that this was a real war, and one for which the odds of British victory did not look favourable. “You did the sums. There were 5,000 British soldiers on ships going down to an island where there were 10,000 Argentinians. You knew the air threat that would come from Argentina. You’d seen what the Exocets could do. Whichever way you carved this up, it was a bit of a concern.”

Arriving in San Carlos Water, where the task force had gathered, the team’s luck initially held—“just as we were coming into range of their air threat, when we were at our most vulnerable, the mist came down”—but fortune soon abandoned them. At first light on 21st May, Bill and his colleagues boarded a helicopter, underslung with the battery’s L118 light guns, and set off for the islands on a mission to secure San Carlos Bay. “We had a very nice plan all laid out, but the problem with any plan is that the enemy always gets a say.”

This came in the form of an air raid, which forced the dangerously exposed transporter helicopter to land a few kilometres from its intended destination. “Because the ground was so inhospitable—it was a peat bog—and there were no roads, wherever we were dropped, we had to stay,” says Bill. “We managed to get the guns set up just as the next air raid came in. I remember a Mirage heading towards us, and there was a moment of not knowing whether you were at war and what you could do; there was a bit of hesitation.”

That hesitation didn’t last. “You can’t normally persuade soldiers to dig—it’s a really boring thing to do—but after that first raid you couldn’t stop them digging.”

The battery’s improvised position was far from optimal. Moored out in the bay, the British ships were more vulnerable to attack than the fast-moving, well-equipped land forces, so became the Argentinian military’s prime target. Cut off the logistical support offered by the Navy, the thinking went, and the British attack would wither on the vine. For days on end, Argentinian planes poured across the sky in an all-out assault on the boats—and because of what he calls “an unfortunate quirk of history”, Bill’s gun position was right in their flight path. “Every air raid came directly over us. They were flying so low we could see the pilots. We actually managed to shoot one down with small arms.”

This was clearly a visceral experience, made worse by the ringside seat it offered of the pounding absorbed by the Navy. “None of us will ever be able to forget seeing HMS Antelope exploding in the darkness,” says Bill. “The flash was extraordinary.”

Despite such horrors, the battery remained upbeat. “There are moments in your life when you go somewhere with the right team, and everything slots into place. It happened there. We’d been together for a couple of years, we’d been in Northern Ireland together, and we just clicked. You’re lucky when that happens: it’s better to go into adversity having built the team than to build a team in adversity. We were close-knit. The north-easterners have a real sense of humour—there was a lot of black humour around.”

It was needed. Unable to dig—peat bogs drain upwards, so every hole they dug quickly filled with freezing water—the team built rudimentary shelters, but were still desperately exposed both to air raids and the elements. “It was winter. It was blowing blizzards at night, and they were long, dark nights. It was brutal.

It focused your mind, put it that way.”

A week or so after landing on the islands, Bill’s captain was reassigned, leaving the young lieutenant in charge of the battery and its 120 men. Unsurprisingly, given the calmness that continues to exude from him, Bill appears to have been fairly sanguine about this intimidating rise in responsibility. “I had some really good sergeants and sergeant-majors,” he says with a shrug. “And you’re a team—you may be in charge, but they have the experience to help you. There’s no deference there. I remember running for shelter in one air raid and getting barged out of the way by a sergeant-major. We’ve laughed about it since...”

From San Carlos Bay, Bill’s gun battery moved up to Bluff Cove to support 2 Para. It was here that he experienced a moment of uncertainty that continues to terrify him. One night, during a brief period of rest, Bill was ripped from his sleeping bag by a report of enemy landing craft appearing in the bay—seemingly the start of an Argentinian counter attack. His desperate attempts to radio for verification floundered. “We could see them coming in. We brought the guns into the direct fire role, which would have absolutely pasted the landing craft. I was on the radio saying, ‘You’ve got 30 seconds, then I’m going to have to open fire.’ Right at the last second, they said: ‘Don’t fire, it’s the Scots Guards.’ Nobody had told us they were coming.”

In 2009, while serving in Iraq, Bill met one of the Scots Guards who had been on that beach. “He had absolutely no idea how close we’d got to firing on them; they were completely unaware of the danger they were in. People talk about the fog of war. That’s what happens.” Since then, he has refused to remain passive in the absence of information. “If you don’t have the information, you have got to go and find it. Don’t sit there waiting for it. Step into the vacuum. That thing with the Scots Guards, that really stuck with me. “

After Bluff Cove, with shelling from the Argentinian artillery slowing the British advance, Bill’s battery was pushed further forward, ahead of the front line—an unusual and risky tactic—in an attempt to get at the enemy’s guns. “We were shelled for probably four or five days straight. We were very lucky: we came out relatively unscathed, although all our shelter was shot to pieces. The peat bogs were so soft that the ground would absorb a lot of the explosion, so although blokes were getting hit by shrapnel, they were being bruised rather than killed or badly injured. We were behind a ridge. It was a fantastic position: the Argentinian artillery would either hit the ridge or fall to the back of the gun position, so they couldn’t quite hit us. It may have looked like really good planning, but it was just luck really.”

Bill’s battery unleashed thousands of rounds in support of 3 Para on the Twin Sisters, the Scots Guards on Tumbledown, and the Ghurkhas on Goat Ridge. For days on end, cold, hungry and increasingly fatigued, they were either firing their guns or trying to haul them out of the soft ground into which they sank after every blast. “You don’t sleep really, except during short lulls in the fighting. Nobody was washing or shaving. Water was running low. We ran out of rations. We had a couple of cooks, but they had no equipment. One of the cooks managed to grab a sheep, slaughtered it, butchered it, we all handed over the few bits we had left in our rations, we found some vegetables in the garden of a little house, we put it all in a dustbin and he cooked us the most amazing mutton stew. That was very good. It was one of those moments.”

Comforts were taken wherever they could be found. “Everything could go wrong, but if you had a mail drop, that’s what would raise the spirits. That was the big morale booster,” says Bill, with a broad smile. “A helicopter would come in with a big bag of mail. I remember my grandmother, bless her, sending me a Crunchie bar and two Mars bars.” Ever the loyal comrade, Bill shared them with his friends.

When the end came, it came both quickly and uncertainly, with the official Argentinian capitulation so sudden and communication so haphazard that it all seemed a bit too good to be true. “I remember getting an order on the radio saying that I was to move and set up a camp that was geared more towards peacetime, and it’s the first order I ever refused.

I thought, after all we’ve been through, I’m not letting us get caught by some lone Argentinian pilot who wants to make a name for himself.”  

It was only after the conflict had ended that Bill came face-to-face with his antagonists for the first time, on board a ferry on which Argentinian prisoners were being held. Seeing them interact was, he says, an education in itself. “The teamwork that we produced and the respect that our officers and soldiers had for each other just didn’t seem to be there. You had conscripts, and you had the rest. When we were disarming them, some of the officers were asking to keep their pistols in case they got attacked by the conscripts. It was quite an eye-opener really. In the end, we felt sorry for a lot of the Argentinians. They fought hard, they really did, but I don’t think the leadership was there for them.”

He continues to bear no ill-will towards those who lined up against him. “In 1994, I went to Cyprus to do a pretty benign United Nations tour on the old green line there. There were three contingencies: the Brits had Nicosia, the Austrians were on our right, and on our left, the Argentinians—the first contact I’d had with them in 12 years. The thing is, we got on famously. They’re quite like us in their sense of humour. I remember talking to one bloke, he had a medal which had the shape of islands on it—it was pretty obvious what it was. But we got on really well. Not the slightest frisson. Soldiers will always find common ground; it’s the politicians who cause the issues.”

While he will always carry with him the sadness of losing friends in the Falklands, Bill is grateful for the acumen he gained by being thrown into the deepest of deep ends at such a young age. “These early times in your life shape you for later, good or bad,” he says. “The war taught me a bit about myself and a lot about the importance of a team—how essential it is to get a culture right. The most important thing I learned is that people will put up with a lot, but only if they know they’re being listened to and if they can see that you’re thinking hard about what they’re doing. You probably think that in the army, if an officer says something then everybody just does it, but it’s not like that at all. If you’re putting people in harm’s way, you have to persuade them. They won’t put their lives on the line if you don’t.”

 

Falklands Gunner: A Day-by-Day Personal Account of the Royal Artillery in the Falklands War by Tom Martin is available now.