Recalling the evacuation of casualties

Falklands War memories. After 25 years service in the RAF which included three active service tours, and with a son still serving as an engineering officer, the anniversary of the cease fire, reminded me that it was also 30 years since I took part in the evacuation of the wounded from that conflict.

Even after all this time, I have the most vivid recollection of events, and also a very moving memory of the homecoming which was in stark contrast to that of the majority of the victorious troops.

Here is my account which I have extracted from my book, The Rock and Roll Years of a Parachuting Medic.

“After over 25 years service in the Royal Air Force Medical Branch, and just weeks before I was demobbed, I took part in the evacuation of the servicemen who were severely wounded in the Falkland War, and up until the final ceasefire and end of the conflict, had been treated on hospital ships. The ships subsequently sailed to the Uruguayan port of Montevideo, and the start of the long journey back to the United Kingdom, in a fleet of Royal Air Force VC 10 aircraft with specialist aero medical evacuation teams.

“I was a member of a team that took over the management of the casualties at Ascension Island. On boarding the aircraft I was initially shocked by the sight of an aircraft full of stretchers, many of which were occupied by Welsh Guardsmen, who were badly burned, when the troopship HMS Sir Galahad was bombed just before the disembarkation of the troops at the Falklands. Incidentally, the most well known burns casualty of the bombing, Simon Weston, was on another aircraft. In addition to the stretcher cases, there was also some walking wounded. The wounded were mostly in surprisingly good spirits, and this was no doubt helped by somebody making the decision to let the patients who smoked, continue smoking for the flight. Some had bad facial burns and needed assistance to smoke, such as continual moistening of the tip of the cigarette by saliva. This was clearly not a time to stop smoking for anybody, either the patients or indeed the aeromed crew. Unlike other aeromed flights, I assisted with nursing of some of the stretcher cases, mainly those suffering from severe burns, for the whole of the flight, other than when relieved for a meal break. This was one occasion when I certainly did not mind carrying out some basic nursing care, which was some 24 years after training.

“There were problems concerning reporting of this war right from the start. Who will ever forget the bulletins broadcast nightly in a funereal tone, or the controversy regarding The Sun headline of ‘Gotcha’, after the sinking of the Argentinian ship Belgrano, which resulted in the death of 323 sailors. Problems continued after the end of the conflict, when television crews were refused permission to film the patients aboard the aircraft at Ascension Island. A row took place with the media representatives, but the Royal Air Force authorities remained adamant that no filming would be permitted on board the aeromed aircraft. From my view of the scene aboard the aircraft, this was not exactly what most people in the UK would have wanted to see, which is probably why permission was probably refused.

“It seemed that our arrival at Brize Norton would be very low key, which it was with no camera crews in evidence as the stretcher cases were off loaded into waiting ambulances for transfer to military hospitals, particularly those with specialist burns units. However as we taxied in on the runway, somebody who must have known who was on the aircraft, was seen standing just off the runway waving a huge Union Jack. It was a most memorable and moving moment, and for myself the very last time that I would be involved in any way with casualties resulting from active service. I accompanied some of the patients who would be admitted to Princess Alexandra Royal Air Force Hospital at Wroughton, which sadly closed in the 1990s along with all other service hospitals in the United Kingdom”.

Mick Thompson

Byward Drive