Patrick Watts collected me from Bennett House, my B&B in Stanley, and drove me out of town, past the Government House and the site of the old barracks, the first two places attacked by the Argentinians when they invaded thirty years ago. The more I got to know Stanley -- and the Falkland Islands -- the more I was convinced that I was looking at a place more British than Britain. It's like being in pre-Beatles Britain: People don't lock their doors and everyone here flies the island's flag from their cars and lapels.
I had asked for a tour of Mt. Longdon, a mountain within view of the capital city and the site of the bloodiest battle of the Falklands War. We drove out of town on a paved road, which disintegrated into gravel,then headed overland through peat beds and patches of a low-slung heather-like plant called Diddle-Dee. Up we went, climbing the side of a hill and parking on Wireless Ridge. Patrick -- a tall, lanky man with a hawk-like nose and close-cropped gray hair -- was wound tight.
It was a cool, blustery day on the ridge and we walked over to the almost vertical slabs of quartzite where Argentinian soldiers holed up for two months during a particularly nasty and cold winter in 1982.
We looked at an abandoned 105 artillery gun, rusting on the ridge, that had once been able to take out targets on the mountain across the valley. The soldiers would find spaces between the slabs of rock and then build up another side with boulders to proved a three-sided shelter. And there they stayed -- cold and hungry -- waiting for something to happen.
We headed to the next hill -- Mt. Longdon -- and parked at the base. The wind had picked up and when I opened the door of the SUV it nearly blew off. As we walked up the mountain, Patrick took me through the battle, blow by blow. Three PARA attacked an entrenched Argentine B Company on the night of June 11 and fierce fighting raged for about twelve hours. Crosses were placed where each British soldier fell in battle, many with red-poppy wreaths and messages. A curious Falkland thrush, a pretty soft brown bird the size of our robin, followed us up the hill, flying from rock to rock, as Patrick pointed out Argentine positions, many still very visible and scarred from grenade and phosphorous attacks. In "the bowl," an Argentine stronghold on the mountain, about a dozen foot-high white crosses were clumped together. Patrick said they had been placed where Argentines had been killed, but that "young fellas" would came up from town occasionally and ripped them out.
Patrick has been up the mountain hundreds of times and has taken veterans from both sides onto Mt. Longdon, trying to piece together the elements of the chaotic battle. We wandered over every inch of the mountain, jumping into Argentine shelters and pulling out bits and pieces of wire and tarp and fabric and canteens. I stood at another 105 gun and tried to imagine manning that gun as I looked across the valley. Rivers of stone ran down the side of the mountain, the leftovers of a previous ice age. Gray skies were breaking up and, as I stood at the rusty gun looking at Stanley in the distance, I got a chill realizing I was standing on the bloodiest battle site of the war. Many here resorted to hand-to-hand combat.
By the end of the battle, 23 Brits were killed and 47 were wounded. Thirty-one Argentinians were killed, 120 were wounded; 50 were captured. Several days after the battle, Patrick, who ran the radio station in town, was asked to come up to the foot of the mountain to witness the burial of the Argentinians in several large graves.
"Words were said, taps were played -- it was done properly," he said. These bodies were later moved to the Argentine cemetery in Darwin.
This is a bittersweet anniversary for people like Patrick Watts, who lived in an occupied Stanley during the conflict and has spent many years trying to make sense of what happened on these little islands. The past can be as remote as the South Atlantic.