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Rob Milburn was in the Falklands for just twenty-eight days in 1982, but his role in the conflict has come to shape his life. Rob looks back to his time in the Royal Marines and reflects on what happened in the South Atlantic over 40 years ago.
INTERVIEW: PAUL ATKINSON
PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN TURNER
MAY/JUNE 2023 ISSUE
I was at school, doing my A-Levels. I wanted to be a PE teacher. But I just got fed up. I went to my father and said, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to go join the army.” He said, “Join the Marines, they’re supposed to be the best.” So, I went down to Wellington Street in Leeds and said I wanted to join. I didn’t know anything about the Marines. I passed through, got to the training bit. Nowadays there’s a bit of a selection process, but all I needed was to pass my eyesight and weight test – then I went down to Lympstone [Commando Training Centre for the Royal Marines]. It was Valentine’s Day 1978. It wasn’t very romantic. There weren’t roses welcoming you at the camp. I hadn’t wanted to join from being a kid, I wasn’t in the sea scouts. I just went with what my father said. I did about 9 months basic training. A year and a half later, my brother joined up too. So, within 18 months, we were both in the Marines.
I was at school, doing my A-Levels. I wanted to be a PE teacher. But I just got fed up. I went to my father and said, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to go join the army.” He said, “Join the Marines, they’re supposed to be the best.” So, I went down to Wellington Street in Leeds and said I wanted to join. I didn’t know
anything about the Marines. I passed through, got to the training bit. Nowadays there’s a bit of a selection process, but all I needed was to pass my eyesight and weight test – then I went down to Lympstone [Commando Training Centre for the Royal Marines]. It was Valentine’s Day 1978. It wasn’t very romantic. There weren’t roses welcoming you at the camp. I hadn’t wanted to join from being a kid, I wasn’t in the sea scouts. I just went with what my father said. I did about 9 months basic training. A year and a half later, my brother joined up too. So, within 18 months, we were both in the Marines.
The Falklands had a detachment of Royal Marines there all the time. Around twenty people. You would do a year’s tour there. In the early 80s, I was moving from Arbroath to Plymouth – you had to state three choices of where you wanted to go. I actually put the Falklands as my third choice. I thought it might be easy: a year on an island, out of the way, doing whatever you wanted. We had the detachment on the island to stop the Argentinians invading. But nobody ever thought there’d be a conflict. But things started happening. Rumours they might have invaded. It all happened quite quickly. We were on leave when it happened! I was going to be going to Plymouth to join 42 Commando. I remember being in my mum and dad’s Working Men’s Club in Lofthouse. I was having a drink and I was talking to this bloke who was in the Wakefield reserves. He said, “It looks like I’m going to be called up, to go to the Falklands.” I said, “Mate, I think I might be called up before you!” A lot of people thought the Falklands were in Scotland. They thought the Argentineans had invaded Scotland. There was a lot of talk about it – a lot of jokes about it – but no-one really thought it was going to happen. But it did. They rung the Club and told my brother to come back immediately. My brother was already based at 42 in Plymouth. And I went too, off leave. I hadn’t officially started there yet. I turned up anyway. It looked like I might have to be on Rear Party – which meant I’d be stuck at home, looking after the camp. Then I bumped into a boxing coach I knew – I used to box for the Marines. He said, “Two of our lads are stuck in Spain on leave and they can’t get back. They’re in Mortars. Do you fancy doing that?” I said, “Yes! Anything to get down there.” He had a word with his Commanding Officer. And I was in. I went to Support company and I was on Mortars. They said, “We’ll show you what to do on the way down.” Firing mortars is a three-man team. Putting the actual shell down the barrel is probably the easiest job, so that’s what they gave me. I was the one carrying the big barrel. They’d give me a bomb, I checked it was the right one, threw it down the barrel and off it went. I learned all that on the way down.
We went from Plymouth to Southampton to get on board the SS Canberra. They called it the Big White Whale. It was a cruise ship - it had swimming pools, bars, all that. We were lucky! We went down on that. We were on the Canberra with the Paras. The Paras are like the elite of the army. The Paras and the Marines very rarely meet and get on. But on the Canberra, we were all going down to fight the common enemy. They’d come into our bar and have a drink; we’d go to theirs. There was a friendly rivalry, not a hostile rivalry like normal. Once it all finished and the Argentinians had surrendered, it was back to normal – and the Paras couldn’t come back on the Canberra with us – someone would’ve ended up overboard!
We never really thought we’d get to the Falklands. We thought politics would kick in; the Americans will come in, everybody’ll shake hands – and we’ll all go home. We went to the Ascension Islands first. It was red hot. We did a bit of speed-marching, some practice-firing. Then it was a case of heading further south. We still thought it was never going to happen. On board, it was all excitement. We’d be in the bar,
having songs and jokes. But then the Belgrano got sunk and the Sheffield got sunk. You were thinking, “Oh, it’s happening.” And everybody got told, “We’re landing tomorrow.”
It was a shock how unprepared the Argentinians were. They’d been there quite a long time before we arrived. We call it “digging in” – you’d dig down into the ground and cover it up to create shelter. They had big oil drums with bits of wood over the top and were using those as shelter. They weren’t prepared or trained. When we landed, you expected World War 2 beach landings – with the enemy attacking. But when we landed, there was nothing. They’d run away, they’d gone. Initially, you think, “Are they trying to draw us into an ambush?” But there was nothing. As we moved through the Falklands Islands, you’d see things they’d done – and observed how they acted – we realised that not many of them had any experience at all. Afterwards we found out that a lot of them didn’t even know where they were. They’d been put on a plane, thinking they were on an exercise. And they were flown into the Falklands. A lot of them tried to run away. At the time, they were just the enemy. But looking back, you think, “Poor sods.” But you can only fight what’s put in front of you. Sometimes they’d hold their positions. Especially around Port Stanley. They put up quite a fight. There was resistance. We were shelled and people died. But it always felt like we were on top.
One example of how they behaved: we’d taken over an area the Argentinians had been in. It looked like they’d run away. A friend of mine needed the toilet, so he was going to go behind some rocks. He had a toilet roll in his hand – nothing else. As he went round the rocks, there were ten Argentinians – and they surrendered to him! All he had was a toilet roll.
The terrain was horrible. Absolutely horrible. It was boggy; there were rock slides. Big boulders, 200 metres wide. If you fell, you’d break your ankle. Some of our forces couldn’t manage the yomps. Hardly any trees. No shelter. The weather changed all the time. Four seasons in one day. The wind and the rain were horrendous. Everybody ended up with Trench Foot. Your feet were soaking wet. I wore the same pants and socks for about 4 weeks. The kit was all World War 2 kit – a lot of the clothing and the boots were ancient. A lot of people would buy their own kit. A Barbour oil jacket, some decent walking boots. We used to go to Norway and buy our own Norwegian jumpers and shirts. Fantastic compared to what we were issued.
During the time we were there, there were two instances where I came close to something really serious. One was when a helicopter was dropping off some ammunition for us. We were underneath the helicopter and we couldn’t hear anything – it was so loud. They were hovering twenty feet above. We didn’t realise – because of the noise from the helicopter – that we were being shelled by the Argentinians. They box you in. They fire long, then short; right, then left. And they come in and in. And we’re just curled up into balls. There were 4 or 5 of us. You just hope that our artillery can get to their artillery before they hit us. And they did. You could hear the shrapnel flying above your head. It was one of those times – and I’m not religious – that you were praying. “Please stop!”
The next time, we were in a bit of “dead ground”. We were coming up to the end of the conflict. We were walking down a track, down a hill, side by side, chatting away. We were taking it in turns to step in front. All the time, artillery was going over the top, each way. You get to know which way it’s going. We were in dead ground so we thought we were safe. But just as my friend stepped in front of me, one of the Argentinian shells hit some rocks above us and ricocheted down and landed in front of us. It was like a war film, where the mud flies everywhere. The air gets sucked out. It was like being punched on the end of the nose. Your ears pop. The next minute I’m on my back, a bit dizzy and disorientated. My mate in front of me, he started screaming. The lad at the side started screaming. I thought, “I’m alright – but where am I?” I got hold of my mate and dragged him to the side. I thought we were being shelled directly. He had a hole in each leg, a hole in each arm and a hole in his stomach – from shrapnel. The lad at the side, Smudge Smith, still creaming, we bandaged him up. There was a helicopter, it could only take one person, so they decided to take Smudge Smith. They thought he had shock. They couldn’t find any injuries. At the time, I was a bit put out – why are they taking him? It’s just shock, my mate’s full of holes. They flew Smudge to the Uganda, which was a hospital ship. We found out later they had to stop twice to revive him. When they got to the ship, they stripped him of his clothing; they found a tiny piece of shrapnel that had hit him in the back and lodged at the side of his heart. There was no blood – but, unfortunately, he died. Then they came back for my mate. But nothing hit me at all. My mate survived.
You get that survivors’ guilt. You hear about it. But I’ve felt it.
You get that survivors’ guilt. You hear about it. But I’ve felt it. After they’d all gone off to be treated, I ended up smashing a rifle against some rocks, in anger, in frustration – the fact that that they’d been injured and nothing at all had happened to me. You still ask, “Why me?” You ask the question. At that time, they shielded me from what was coming. Why? It’s strange.
And my brother was nearby too. The commanding officer stopped him and said, “Your brother’s been injured. He’s alive, but he’s injured.” They thought my mate who was injured was me. So obviously, it affected my brother. Later that day, he was marching past me to go to a start-up point for an attack. I came out of my bivvy [a little tent] and I’d just made a cup of hot chocolate. Now, you only get one ration of hot chocolate a day, so it’s like gold dust. My brother saw me and was shouting, “Rob! Rob!” I said, “You’re not having any – I’ve only got one!” I thought he was after my hot chocolate! He told me what had been said – he was so relieved.
That attack was near the end of the conflict. We found out that they surrendered. After they surrendered, we were still there for a week or so, to move all the prisoners-of-war back to Montevideo. The worst thing was that we all ended up with dysentery. It was horrendous. Your rations bung you up – but then we found this Argentinian corned beef and bottles of brandy. Fried up the corned beef in butter. Then dysentery. There wasn’t enough medication to go round. It was awful!
We went back on the Canberra, took a long sail back to Southampton. On the way back, we never really understood the impact it was having back in England. We didn’t hear anything. It wasn’t like today with social media and telephones. We docked the day of the World Cup Final in 1982. And getting back was bizarre. You’d go down to breakfast on a morning and there were these great big mailbags full of letters – they were from women, wanting to be pen pals! “Will you come and see me?” There were all sorts of charity dos – people would invite you and raise money. It was great for a while. We rode the wave! We had about 6 weeks leave and we enjoyed it!
The whole conflict lasted 28 days. From beginning to end. We left in the April and came back in the June. So, from going to coming back was a longer time. But the actual conflict was 28 days. That’s what we said to each other at the time. The terrain was muddy, it was boggy, it was awful. But we said, “This is only 28 days. Imagine what it was like in the two world wars – four years of it!” What they must have gone through. You never felt sorry for yourself. It was something you’d joined up to do. It was a bad 28 days, but in the bigger picture, people have had much worse.
Looking back, you hear different stories about why it happened. What is the significance to the Falkland Islands to anybody? The people on the island wanted to be British – and they were fantastic people. But I imagine if you offered each of them £10 million to come and live in a house wherever they wanted, they might have taken it. And that money would be a fraction of what was spent on the war. At the time, Maggie Thatcher was a hero to the troops. She was a hero to us, because she said, “Let’s stand up for Britain, let’s not let people bully us.” And that was our job, so she was popular. But, looking back, politically, it did get her out of a hole! She rode that wave for a while. At the time I was just a Marine. I did what I was told, that was the mentality. We didn’t think of why at the time.
Being in the Falklands taught me that you have to rely on people. But you know you can survive without that help. You learn things about yourself, about others, about how people react to difficult situations. It’s a camaraderie. To say you went through what happened – together. It doesn’t make sense militarily that we won. So, you look back and think, “We did something.” Personally, it’s taught me that I can get over things. No matter what you think you can go through – you can go further. There was no opportunity to take a day of sick. A lot of it is about mental strength. Knowing you can get through it.
My brother has always been my best friend. I was his best man; he was mine. We shared a room. We played rugby together. We were best mates. In the Falklands, it was easier because my brother was there. We both wanted to do it. I never once thought anything would happen to him – or me, to either of us. It sounds daft, but we knew we’d get through it. We’ve always been close and strong together. We’ve both been through the same things together.
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