Just two years after joining the Army, Paul Clayton boarded a ship destined for the Falkland Islands, part of the British Task Force sent to counter the Argentinian invasion. He was among the very first to be deployed on the ground. 40 years on from the conflict, those critical weeks of battle remain vivid in his memory. Support from The Poppy Factory is now helping Paul to get through a difficult period and move forward into employment with a successful return to the waste industry. Here, he recalls the events that had such a deep impact.
Training in air defence
Paul said: “I joined the Army in 1980. My dad had done National Service and fought in Africa and my uncles had been soldiers too. Hearing all their stories made me think I should have a go at it myself.
“After training in London I joined my unit in the 12 Air Defence Regiment of the Royal Artillery, based in Dortmund in Germany. I trained to use the new surface-to-air missile system, rapier, because I thought it would bring me closer to wherever the fighting was happening. Eventually I was assigned to T battery, part of the mobile force that would give air support to 3 Commando Brigade. None of us ever thought that we would ever be involved in a real conflict.
“In April 1982 we were based at Kirton in Lindsey, North Lincolnshire. We were all expecting to go out and enjoy ourselves for a few days over Easter. Then we were told that our leave was suspended, because Argentina was rumoured to have invaded the Falkland Islands. There was pandemonium as we made sure all the equipment was ready for deployment within 24 hours.
“Everything happened very quickly, and on April 4 our regiment set sail on board the Sir Geraint, a logistic landing ship. It was the first time I’d ever been on a troop ship. Everyone was asking a lot of questions. Once we were on board we were given one hour to contact our families. There were no mobile phones and long queues for the phone booths. I managed to get through to my mum to say sorry I can’t come home, I’m going away for a while. That was the last time I spoke to her until we came back.
Long journey to battle
“Initially there was excitement on board, because we were young men who had never seen war or fighting of any kind. This was a chance to do what we’d been trained to do, with all the bravado that went with it. I remember looking back and thinking, I hope this isn’t the last time I see the UK. But it was still all an adventure.
“We were on that ship for seven weeks. We didn’t see land again until Ascension Island, 4,000 miles from home. It looked like the tip of a volcano sticking out of the ocean, and we couldn’t go in the water because of sharks. We practiced beach landings and did some test firing, but in short order we were all back on the ship.
“I felt vulnerable, but watching the whales and the sunrises, it was as if I was noticing the beauty in the world around me for the first time. There was a great sense of comradeship, and you could feel a change in the mood as everyone realised this was actually happening. We were being briefed by BBC World Service and over the intercom on board, hearing how the Argentinians were going to be dug in and in position to defend quite well.
“We came in to land at San Carlos Water at daybreak on May 21. Our unit was going to be among the first off by helicopter, and within a few minutes we had landed above Ajax Bay, where the field hospital would be set up. We were positioned at the top of the hill looking down on to the sound, watching the ships coming in.
Experience of conflict
“Just before our helicopter took off, a spotter aircraft went over and within 15 minutes the first Argentinian Mirage jets appeared and started to attack the ships. We saw them being hit and it was frustrating because we were racing to get our equipment set up. After a while, we realised we’d been dropped forward of everyone else. We felt very alone. Then some of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers climbed up the hill to check our communications, and that’s when the fighting started for us.
“I saw some terrible things. Looking through the rapier targeting system, I could see the while helmets of the Argentinian pilots as they flew past, dropping bombs. One landed in a shell crater where I saw two of our men had run for cover.
“On one day, I had a jet in my sights and fired a missile, which I was guiding through the viewfinder. As the jet banked to move left, I moved the missile slightly and it took the lower wing off completely. The plane started rolling and went straight into the sound. At the time, I didn’t think for a moment about the person who was in it.
“Later, a missile came directly at us. I felt the ground rise up as it came towards us and the next thing I knew, I was being pulled out of the sea by the back of my neck. It was a roller coaster of emotions the whole time.
After the fighting
“After the fighting was over, we helped guard the prisoners of war on a ferry at Port Stanley. There was no animosity between us. When they were being transferred on to another ship to be repatriated to Montevideo, it was snowing and a snowball fight ensued between us and the Argentinians. Two weeks before, we’d been killing each other.
“Being on the Falkland Islands was a bit like going back in time. It was as if the 21st century had been forced upon them. But everyone who lived there was so welcoming and so thankful.
“When we flew back into RAF Waddington, all our families were waiting and TV cameras were there to film us coming down the steps. It was amazing to see them after so long away.
I go to a reunion every year in Blackpool and when I meet up with other people who served in the Falklands, we’re like one big family. It doesn’t matter what rank people had, we were all there doing a job together.
“It was many years later that I developed post-traumatic stress disorder. I never expected to have any comeback from what happened, and I was pleased to have played my part in a bit of history and come away relatively unscathed. In the civilian world, I’d gone from being a driver to the national transport manager for a big waste company.
“But then the break-up of my marriage knocked me. It allowed some difficult thoughts to come forward and I just went off a cliff. I felt like people were dismissive of what we’d been through in the Falklands, because a lot of people didn’t come back on both sides. I was getting flashbacks and comparing things that were happening now to things that happened then. I was drinking and I got myself into debt.
“It took me a long time to get back to the point I’m at now. The Poppy Factory helped in lots of ways. I felt Zarah, my Employment Consultant, cared enough to listen to me and she was interested in what I had to say.
“Zarah helped me find a new job as a waste coordinator, similar to what I was doing in the 1990s. I’m 60 now and I’ve been in and out of hospital with a spinal injury which is affecting the use of my legs. But I’m getting a decent income and I’ve married again, and wife is very supportive.
It’s good to know that the support from The Poppy Factory is there, and if push comes to shove I can talk to Zarah and she will understand. She’s able to read between the lines and ask the right questions, and I feel like she’s got my back. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting there.”