The Band That Went To War

Brian Short

The veteran of the Falklands conflict has written about his experience.
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Having joined The Royal Marines as a musician to play in the band, when the Argentines invaded The Falkland Island in 1982, I was surprised to find myself being sent as part of the task force to retake the islands. Having few military skills like the Royal Marines Commandos, the band I served in had a high musical reputation and the year earlier we had played at the wedding of Prince Charles & Princess Diana. Why then would musicians be required to go off to a war. Well, the answer was that along with our basic military training we also received elementary medical training, so someone in an office somewhere deemed this would be important and we were put on 48hrs notice to deploy.

Arriving at Southampton, we joined the cruise liner Canberra, which was hastily being converted into a troop ship. Along with thousands of marines and paras, myself and the band members were soon thrown into intensive training, as along with a naval task force Canberra sailed south towards the Falklands.

As part of the medical squadron, it seemed the bands’ role would mostly be as stretcher bearers, but ultimately there were around forty different jobs we undertook, from medical to military and eventually as armed guards for the many Argentine prisoners of war.

Hoping that the international diplomatic efforts would bear fruit and war could be avoided, the task force continued South, arriving at Ascension Island, where training in the equatorial sun helped keep everyone happy. As well as our training duties the band brought out their musical instruments and entertained the fighting troops around the ship.  It seemed war could be avoided and we would all be home soon with a story, a medal and a suntan!

Sadly, this was not to be as news came in of the sinking of an Argentine ship, the General Belgrano, followed a few days later of the Royal Navy ship HMS Sheffield. There was a hardening of resolve on Canberra as our fighting troops stepped up their training as we now knew we were in a shooting war and further lives would be lost.

The menu card with Argentine POW signatures

Our D-Day on 21st May 1982 was a memorable one for everyone who was there that day. Sat in a relatively small bay called San Carlos, Canberra and the ships around us were subjected to a seemingly endless waves of air attacks by the Argentine air force. Ships were hit, men were killed and planes shot down before my young eyes. All credit to the Argentine pilots who despite their heavy losses returned to fly through the crucible of fire time and time again, before running the gauntlet of our Sea Harrier attacks on their way home to the mainland.

The war is well documented as our fighting troops completed the epic ‘yomp’ across the islands, fighting and beating the entrenched Argentines in a series of hard fought battles as they went. The end result came relatively quickly, with a decisive victory for the British forces and the liberation of the Falkland Islanders.

However, with victory comes responsibility and compassion, as around ten thousand Argentine PoW’s now needed looking after and feeding in the increasingly bad southern hemisphere weather. My ship, the Canberra was ideal short-term accommodation and so her passenger cabins were packed with the [mostly] grateful Argentines, grateful to be looked after and happy to be alive. The band were issued weapons and we began long shifts guarding the PoW’s to ensure the security of the ship. A further surprise was that Canberra was now going to be sent to the Argentine mainland [for us still enemy territory] to repatriate the PoW’s. It was a strange feeling sailing into an enemy port under the Red Cross convention but the subdued welcome, unloading and departure went without incident, except perhaps for one moment of thanks and compassion. Before docking, a group of Argentine PoW’s returned to me what must rate as ‘the’ most unusual of war souvenirs, namely a ‘signed thank you card from the enemy’.  [see picture] This A4 sized card has been a treasured possession of mine in the intervening years and features in a book I subsequently wrote. Last year an Argentine historian made it his mission to research the names on the card and has managed to find and put in touch around twelve of the card signatories!  My war was very different to most of the participants, but i was pleased to have played a small but important part in it.

So, If you are interested in learning more about the  interesting, exciting, dangerous, sad and even funny experiences of musicians sent to a war, then I might suggest you might like to read my award winning book The Band That Went To War.

Brian Short is the author of The Band that Went to War.