Express & Star

Horrors of the Falklands War still run deep for veteran Nigel

The preparations had been meticulous. Thousands of rounds of ammunition had been carefully laid out as the men of 3 Parachute Regiment patiently bided their time for a midnight attack.

Falklands veteran Sgt Nigel McNeilly from Wednesbury

At least that was the plan. But as the saying goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

"Then the corporal stood on a mine, and all hell broke loose," recalls Nigel 'Taff' McNeilly.

"Suddenly, it was like you saw in the films, there was gunfire everywhere. It was terrible, we lost 23 men in a day and a half."

The Battle for Mount Longdon would be the bloodiest and costliest fight in the campaign to retake the Falklands, and 40 years on, Nigel is still troubled by it.

"I do get occasional flashbacks, I have suffered with anger issues, particularly when I'm driving, as my wife will tell you. When somebody cuts me up, I'm just not having it."

Falklands veteran Sgt Nigel McNeilly from Wednesbury

Nigel, who hails from Mid Wales but now lives in Wednesbury, was among the Falklands veterans who recently joined the Prime Minister for a memorial ceremony at Alrewas, near Lichfield.

But so painful are the memories, that he nearly didn't attend.

"I have boxed up my army career now," he says. "I have just put it into a compartment, and I don't think about it. But my grandson wanted to go, and he is my inspiration now."

Paratrooper Nigel McNeilly (centre) with Pte Steve Ratchford (left) and L/Cpl Vince Bramley, right

Nigel was a 21-year-old private with 3 Para when he was called into action within hours of the invasion on April 2, 1982.

"At that time we were the "spearhead" battalion, on standby, ready to fly anywhere in the world at just 24 hours notice," he says. And when he was informed that the Falklands had been invaded, his response was pretty much the same as what everybody else's seemed to be at the time: "We thought the Falklands were up in Scotland, and 'why would the Argentinians come all this way?'"

A picture taken by Nigel McNeilly, from Wednesbury, of a lance-corporal and rifleman from B company, during the conflict. Nigel is keen to know who they are.

Nigel set sail with his battalion aboard SS Canberra on April 9, not seriously expecting to see any action.

"We knew there were negotiations going on, and thought a deal would be done before we got there," he says.

"It was when we sunk the Belgrano that we realised 'this is starting to get serious', I think that is the point that we we realised we were going to have to fight."

Nigel's first thoughts were a desire to crack on and get the job done.

"When we landed on the islands at San Carlos, we formed a beachhead, and we were there for a week," he says. San Carlos quickly became known as "Bomb Alley" when it came under regular fire from enemy aircraft, but the atmosphere was still one of relative calm.

"I was surprised the Canberra didn't get hit, a big white ship in the bay," he says.

"But most of the time it was like a big exercise, but it was also surreal. We would dig into the ground every morning, we would do our patrols, and every so often the siren would go off warning us of an air attack.

"We had always trained hard, but it was repetitive. We just wanted to get on with it, and go home."

The advance was hampered by the loss of 11 helicopters with the sinking of supply ship SS Atlantic Conveyor on May 25.

Two days later, 3 Para received orders to march to Teal Inlet, a small settlement about 30 miles away. To ensure swift progress, the troops were ordered to move with just basic kit, and as much ammunition as they could carry.

The weather and terrain made the journey extremely difficult.

"I come from Mid Wales, where we are used to having sunshine once a year, but over there you could have all four seasons in one day.

"The ground was horrendous, and you were constantly at risk of falling into some pot hole."

Mounts Longdon, Harriet and Two Sisters were strategically important mountains which British forces needed to control before taking the capital, Stanley.

The plan was for 3 Para to take Longdon, at midnight GMT, followed by 42 Commando attacking Harriet 30 minutes later. Then at 1am, 45 Commando would hit Two Sisters.

Reconnaissance had shown the Argentinians were expecting an attack from the north, so 3 Para’s commanding officer, Lt Col. Hew Pike, decided B Company would silently approach from the west.

It was known that minefields existed on the north, west and southern approaches, so the troops navigated their course with caution.

Nigel's comrade Pte Chris Dexter being carried after being hit by shrapnel on Mount Longdon

There would be no artillery bombardment in advance of the assault, as this would alert the enemy, and attacking uphill against an alerted enemy position would be especially difficult.

It was thought if B Company 6 Platoon could advance up the western slope and get as close to the top of Mount Longdon as possible before being discovered, the element of surprise would enable them to take the peak. If pose they would then push further east and secure the eastern end of Mount Longdon. Nigel remembers the weaponry and ammunition being carefully laid out, ready for the midnight attack.

But the carefully laid plan went out the window when Brian Milne, a corporal with 4 Platoon, stepped onto a mine. The muffled explosion followed by his agonising screams cut through the night air, waking up Argentinian soldiers who had been sleeping nearby.

"When the mine went off, it alerted the enemy to our position, and we lost the element of surprise," says Nigel.

By this time, Nigel had been in the Army for two-and-a-half years, and his time in Northern Ireland meant he was no stranger to being shot at. But this was unlike anything he had experienced before.

"It you think that a modern machine gun can go through 200 rounds at a time, and every fifth round is a tracer that lights up the sky. We had to reload lying on our stomachs because the Argentinians had good American night-sights, so if you stood higher than waist-height you would be shot."

Among the 23 killed were Nigel's friends. Pte Philip "Geordie" West, who Nigel had done his military training with, was just 19, and fellow Welshman Cpl Keith "Ginge" McCarthy, who was 27. His friend Pte Chris Dexter was also injured with a shrapnel wound.

Former Paratrooper Nigel McNeilly and his grandson Riley Zak Roberts at the service to commemorate 40 years since the liberation of the Falklands

While the battle for Longdon was the bloodiest since the Korean War, it would also prove crucial, and as Nigel and his comrades advanced towards Port Stanley, news filtered back that the white flag was flying over Port Stanley.

"We were all relieved, but at the same time, I thought 'I'll believe it when I see it'," he recalls. July 14 would become known as Liberation Day and, as among the first troops to return home, Nigel was greeted by Prince Charles at Brize Norton.

He served with the Army for another 20 years, rising to the rank of sergeant, and serving with 23 Para Field Ambulance in the aftermath of the Rwandan Civil War – another traumatic experience.

Former Paratrooper Nigel McNeilly and his grandson Riley Jak Roberts

Despite these ordeals, Nigel has no regrets about his time in the Army. And he is in no doubt that the decision to go to war over the Falklands was the right one, and disagrees strongly with those who say the islands should now be handed to the Argentinians.

"The people of the Falklands consider themselves to be British," he says.

"It's like what is happening in Ukraine, the people of the Ukraine don't want to be Russian, and the people of the Falklands overwhelmingly want to remain British. People have a right to their own determination."