Saturday, September 30, 2006

Called up in my "gap year" - preview photos
Falkland Islands Hijack 1966

Full story - see below

Photo 1 - spectators keeping their distance two or three hours after the landing.

Photo 2 - two of the highjackers posing with my colleague Geoff and a construction worker.

Photo 3 - the Aerolinas Argentinas DC4 crash landed on the Port Stanley racecource. - shown in December 1966 during the Tug of War contest.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Called up in my "gap year" - the author
Falklands invasion 40 years ago

See separate postings for photos of the hi-jack on Stanley Racecourse and full story of the invasion of September 1966.

Photo shows the author, Chas Ball, rowing towards the settlement at Keppel Island, West Falkland in the summer of 1966/67.
Called up in my “gap year”
Falklands invasion 40 years ago

September 28th is the anniversary of an early invasion of the Falklands that will not go unnoticed in the South Atlantic. 40 years ago a hi-jack of an Argentinian airliner and its crash landing on Port Stanley racecourse created one of the most significant episodes in the build up to the 1982 war. I witnessed this at first hand and led to my first - and last - period of military service. I have also tried to consider the significance of this political event then and now.

Britain is preparing for the 25th anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War amid predictions of a confrontation with Argentina over the coming months. Argentina is holding a presidential election next year and the future of the Falkland Islands - Las Islas Malvinas – is expected to be a key issue – as it was in the 1960’s!

Evidence of confrontation emerged with a statement on July 6th by Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela. He met with his Argentinian counterpart Nestor Kirchner and signed a document urging Argentina and the UK to renew talks over the Falkland Islands. In the document Venezuela urged a "peaceful, fair and definitive solution to the sovereignty dispute ... including the principle of territorial integrity" and called on Argentina and the UK to renew negotiations "as soon as possible".

The Guardian has reported new militancy in Buenos Aires. The Argentinian war cry Las Malvinas son Argentinas (the Falklands are Argentinian) has resurfaced in graffiti and posters. “The Malvinas are a matter of wounded pride, not over the calamitous end of the war, which is universally dismissed as the last lunatic act of a floundering dictatorship, but over the original British occupation of the islands in 1833.”

Britain has repeatedly rejected Argentina's claim to the islands - about 400 miles off the Argentinian coast. But after this first invasion forty years ago, discussions with Argentina in 1967/8 resulted in a secret 'Memorandum of Understanding' (MOU) that indicated a British willingness to cede Falklands sovereignty under certain conditions. The 1966 “invasion” deserves to be recognised as significant step in shifting British thinking on sovereignty.

It started around the six in the morning of Wednesday 28 September when 18 armed young Argentines hi-jacked flight 648 of Argentine Airlines. It was the beginning of the Operation El Cóndor. The Aerolinas Argentinas DC4, with 44 people on board, was on a flight from Buenos Aires to Rio Gallegos, 1,750 miles to the south, when five of the men moved to the cabin and forced the pilot to fly eastwards to the Falkland Islands. The plane only just landed safely, nearly out of fuel, on the colony’s racecourse a mile from the centre of Stanley.

This event did not create much excitement in Britain, even though hi-jacked planes were a relatively rare event. Photographs of the hi-jack did not reach Britain until well into October – there were no flights connecting the islands to the outside world - and the Falklands were virtually unknown at the time.

The hijackers, who were fired by the Peronist government’s propaganda and claims about the islands, intended to land the plane on the island’s airfield, seize control of the terrain and ‘liberate’ the inhabitants. They made two serious mistakes. Firstly there was not any airfield and secondly the inhabitants did not want to be ‘liberated’.

The claims made by the government of Argentina, supported in 1960 by a Committee of the UN, had for a long been loudly proclaimed within the country to influence and divert the attention of the population from more serious internal problems. This continued barrage of propaganda had inspired a token invasion in September 1964, when a flag was planted and a letter delivered by a pilot of a light aircraft.

However, in September 1966 I found myself en route to the Falkland Islands – a journey that took nearly a week. My “gap year” was to be spent as an itinerant teacher in the islands. I had made successful application to spend a year working with Voluntary Service Overseas, (VSO). I discovered I was one of three students selected to teach children living in the remoter parts of the islands. But first we had to get there. We flew from London to Amsterdam, and on to Montevideo in Uruguay. We stayed a few days awaiting the monthly departure to the Falklands supply vessel, the ‘MV Darwin’. At that time all freight, passengers and mail went through Uruguay – there were no flights and Argentina was ‘out of bounds’ for travel to and from the Falkland Islands.

The ship took four days to reach the islands, with plenty of time to watch the dolphins and porpoises; we finally disembarked at Port Stanley on a cold biting and damp Saturday morning, (24th September 1966). We were made most welcome and introduced to many people with whom we would be living and working, and our digs were in a Victorian terrace overlooking the harbour. The next few days were intended for us to develop our experience of teaching and familiarisation with the Island’s curriculum.

It was early on the Wednesday morning, September 28th that, during teaching practice, I heard the noise of a large plane flying very low overhead. The children all knew it was not the Beaver – the local twin engine seaplane transport – so perhaps it was a reconnaissance plane? But soon news came through that it had landed! This was quite a shock and - as big planes were unheard of - it could only be a forced landing.

Amidst all this excitement, I had to leave school mid-morning. Arrangements, already made, had to be kept - the three of us were due at Government House for lunch with the governor’s wife, Lady Haskard, (Sir Cosmo Haskard, the Governor, was away in the UK for ‘talks’). I called at my digs to change and learned that the police sergeant and other locals who had gone to the plane, to re
nder assistance, had been taken prisoner!

Then one of the construction workers, temporarily resident at my digs, offered us a quick trip en route to Government House in his Land Rover to see the aircraft. We went with him and arrived at a stage when the hi-jackers were willing to talk to anyone bold enough to approach the plane. So taking a chance to pose for a photograph with the armed hi-jackers, my colleagues advanced closer to the plane. I offered to take the photos rather than engage in direct contact with the hi-jackers – I was concerned about being taken hostage. The plane nestled below a ridge on the 600 hundred-yard racecourse and was slightly tilted with its armed El Condor guards around it in small groups. At this stage they were still talking to some of the locals who were watching curiously from outside the rope and post perimeter on which the Argentine flags were hung. Some printed declarations had been handed out, aimed at explaining the hi-jack to the “oppressed inhabitants”, but it was barely coherent.

After this we went to lunch at Government House, aware that something both unreal and yet momentous was happening. To start with there was some discussion of these events, but this did not change the progression of the meal in a calm and formal way, although Lady Haskard was called away more than once. During lunch we learnt that a State of Emergency had been declared!

We departed after the meal, expressing our thanks for the hospitality, and went to the Drill Hall. We learned that the mobilization of the Falkland Islands’ Defence Force troops had started and that we three newcomers had ‘volunteered’ for the force. My two colleagues, who had attended public schools and were familiar with guns, had volunteered me too! At the age of 18, I had yet to handle a rifle, but could not opt out – I just hoped someone would show me how to use it. We were told to wait until we received a call.

We learned that there were a lot of passengers, including women and children on the plane and apparently more than a dozen hijackers, led by a woman, later named as Maria Cristina Verrier aged 27, who would feature two weeks later on the front page of the Daily Mirror. Also some local people, including police officers, were taken hostage. They went to help thinking it was a crash landing. Conditions on the plane, we learned later, were getting increasingly cramped, cold and miserable.

We returned to our digs and by listening to the radio ‘messages and announcements’. We learned that the state of emergency applied to all men over 18 and we were required to report to the Drill Hall at 5.30am for our first taste of military service in the Defence Force, now organised to surround the plane. With support of a small number of Marines stationed locally, the FIDF consisted of all available men - and weapons were being issued from the local armoury.

As the cold damp day wore on some negotiations resulted in the release of the women and children passengers and even some luggage was unloaded. But the hijackers were still belligerent, although a night in the plane in near freezing co
ndition undoubtedly reduced their expectations.

We mustered at 5.30am and prepared to relieve the nearly frozen night guard. The leader of the squad we were allocated to give me basic instruction in handling the .303 rifle I was issued with - and we were off! We were instructed not to fire without an order and then to fire above the heads of the hi-jackers. We lay down behind a six-inch concrete ledge and set to concentrate on activity at the plane. The locals – called ‘kelpers’ - in our squad looked quite formidable and I was sure they could shoot alright. From time to time we could move back a little, to warm ourselves on a fire and get coffee and sandwiches. We learned that our shift would be relieved at about 1pm. At times we were called to ‘stand to’ when activity at the plane appeared threatening. A cold drizzle did not help so relief at last was welcome, although I worked out that our next shift would be 6pm to midnight - if the resistance lasted that long.

Shortly after 3pm on Thursday (29th) Fr. Roel, the Catholic priest, who had acted as intermediary, met again with the hi-jackers and tried to get them to give up. Although he met with a negative response, the end was close. Finally, exhausted and without food or water, they accepted a surrender with the condition that they be allowed to stay in the Catholic Church, in the charge of Fr Rodolfo Roel. This was accepted by the Falkland’s authorities.

At about 5pm, the 18 Peronists, with the airline captain and Fr Roel, formed in front of a mast with the Argentine flag and performed a brief ceremony and surrendered weapons to the airline captain.

After two days in detention, the hi-jackers were handed over to the Argentine navy and deported for trial on hi-jacking charges. Most served only three months and were seen by many in Argentina as heroes. Their actions accelerated a changed attitude by the British Government, following on from the growing UN pressure to accept a phased decolonization of the Islands. The signals given in the talks between islanders and British government ministers in 1967/8 further encouraged nationalist sentiment and some of the actions that followed in Argentina in the years that followed built on this claim to the Islas Malvinas as a convenient diversion from domestic issues. So when the 25th anniversary is commemorated next year, the impact of this earlier invasion and the reaction of the British government, should not be underestimated.

I went back to teaching practice, my two colleagues went to teach in places near to Port Stanley and in mid-October I flew west to Pebble Island. Here in a community of 28 people I was to teach two pupils juststarting school. But I had a larger beat on West Falkland to work - teaching in three different settlements for about two and a half weeks at a time. I had charge of about nine children, covering the whole curriculum - their only teacher for a year. I travelled on the Beaver seaplanes of the Falklands Air Service (FIGAS), and using a mixture of horses, Land Rovers and boats I reached my pupils. I spent a most of my year in these tiny remote communities, enjoying the solitude and getting a mail drop every month, after the Darwin arrived from Montevideo. I have since lived and worked in the Scottish Islands and it only takes me the smell of a peat fire to take me back to the solitude of Pebble Island.

Meanwhile, the Falkland Islands have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. First there were two enquiries led by Lord Shackleton that explored new ways to develop the local economic and social life. But in the last 40 years the islands have been transformed to emerge as a relatively rich territory no longer dependent on wool prices. Since the Argentine invasion, the Falklands have gained protection of their own fishing waters and fishing revenue is now the mainstay of the economy.

But could there be a better way of managing the resources in the South Atlantic? Now democracy is restored in Argentina, a new partnership with Britain and the Falkland Islanders is possible - but unlikely given the entrenched positions of all parties.

[see later posting for additional photos of the hi-jacked plane on Stanley race course]