Elm Park veteran recalls Falklands War experiences 35 years on
- Credit: Archant
The 20th century, as so many others, was a hotbed of conflict, with continents ravaged by two world wars, and smaller campaigns waged in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf states.
Among these is a war largely forgotten today, overshadowed by others, but one which will come back to the fore this weekend.
Sunday, April 2 marks 35 years since the start of the Falklands War, when the dispute between Argentina and Great Britain over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands spiralled out of control.
The death toll numbered 255 British and 655 Argentine military personnel (and three Falkland Islanders), and Ron Hearn counts himself lucky to be among the survivors.
The 63-year-old lost one of his best friends to the war, and had a near miss with a deadly Exocet missile.
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“The Falklands changed me a lot,” he said. “It makes you realise how lucky you are, you actually survived.
“I found it quite difficult to talk about when I got home.”
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Ron, of Laburnum Walk, Elm Park, was 28 in 1982, stationed in the West Indies. A leading seaman (radar) – equivalent to a sergeant-major in the army – he was attached to HMS Exeter and had served in the Royal Navy for close to nine years.
When war broke out, Ron and his comrades expected to depart immediately, but ended up sitting on the sidelines for a few weeks.
“When we heard, we thought we were going off straight away, but had to wait for the Royal Navy to get a ship out to relieve us. They sent one of the oldest ships they had left.
“We sailed from Antigua on May 6 or 7, the Sheffield got hit on the fourth.”
HMS Sheffield, struck by an Exocet missile, was the first Royal Navy vessel sunk in action since the Second World War. Twenty crew died, Captain James ‘Sam’ Salt was among the survivors.
The Exeter was then deployed, with Ron working as a supervisor in the operations room. The ship’s job was to detect and destroy enemy aircraft, to protect the valuable aircraft carriers on board.
Exeter’s successes included shooting down two A-4C Skyhawks on May 30 and a Learjet 35A on June 7, with Sea Dart missiles.
But mystery surrounds another incident, involving one of the “nasty” Exocets.
“We realised there was an Exocet and were told to hit the deck, we knew in just moments we were going to get hit,” said Ron.
“But we didn’t, and to this day we don’t know why, whether it missed or was hit. The look on everyone’s faces when nothing happened...”
One of Ron’s closest comrades, Able Seaman (Electronic Warfare) Adrian Sunderland, was not so fortunate.
Previously in the Exeter’s crew, he was serving on HMS Coventry when it was sunk on May 25 by Skyhawks. Adrian was killed, along with 18 others.
“Adrian was a bit younger, 22 or 23, and one of my best mates,” said Ron. “We had a tot of rum for him as naval tradition.”
Argentina surrendered on June 14, and Ron credits Britain’s victory to the combined efforts of its armed forces, as much as there was banter about which was superior (those in the RAF were known as ‘crabs’, while soldiers were ‘pongos’).
Ron’s nine-year term in the navy was drawing to a close and he was tempted to sign up again, but meeting his wife Linda, 52, gave him “another incentive to stay out”.
They went on to have a son, Shaun, now 25, and a daughter, Gemma, 20, and Ron attends naval reunions every year, though the meetings are touched by sadness as time goes on, with numbers dwindling.
“My mates from the ship are my best friends for life,” he said. “I’m very proud of what we did, though the best day of my life was when I came home from the Falklands, other than when my children were born.
“The navy changed me as a person. It teaches you to have confidence in yourself, and makes you have a sick sense of humour.
“I miss it a lot sometimes, that’s why I like going to my reunions. It’s amazing how you go back to what you were like then.”