Subscribers to our Search magazine, will have read that this year sees the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands. In the current edition, the Revd Patrick Irwin has written about the service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving that he attended at Hereford Cathedral in June. Hereford has a special link with the SAS, who are based nearby, and one of the ships sunk in the Falklands War, the frigate HMS Antelope, was affiliated to the City of Hereford.
During the service, the address was given by Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks, who served on the frigate HMS Ambuscade during the Falklands War. He has very kindly agreed for us to share his address this Remembrance Day. It is reproduced below, with grateful thanks.
Address by Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks CB DSC DL, for the Falklands commemoration and Thanksgiving Service at Hereford Cathedral on 19th June 2022.
Two weeks ago today, we were coming to the end of 4 days of wonderful celebrations to mark the Platinum Jubilee of HM The Queen – 70 years of outstanding service to our country, to the Commonwealth and to their peoples. It was wonderful to see the variety of events that marked the occasion, bonfires and beacons lighting up the night skies, a national service of thanksgiving in St Pauls Cathedral, military displays, a superb concert outside Buckingham Palace and street parties across our nation. These all culminated in the pageant along the Mall, reflecting an occasion that is unique in the history of the United Kingdom, something that will not be seen again for generations to come. Whatever else is recalled from last weekend, the Queen’s tea with Paddington Bear was surely amazing and I am sure that all the ladies here are following Her Majesty’s example as both grandmother and great grandmother. Who now, I wonder, has a marmalade sandwich on them, just in case?
We know that our Queen takes all her responsibilities very seriously and none more so than Commander-in-Chief of her (and our) armed forces. For 70 years her armed forces have been deployed on operations around the world. Day in and day out, 365 days a year. Many of those operations came with the potential for real danger and a number have involved conflict. Sadly 4,384 of our service personnel have died during this period in conflicts ranging from Korea to the Malayan confrontation, from Cyprus to Oman, from Yemen to Northern Ireland, from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan and Iraq, and from the Gulf War to the Falklands. The only years when there were no operational deaths were 1968 and 2016. And of course, it is also so important to remember the impact of those deaths on those left behind. How appropriate therefore that in 2009, the Elizabeth Cross was instigated in HM’s name, awarded to the immediate next of kin of those members of our armed forces killed in action since 1945.
I joined the Royal Navy at the age of 18 in 1971 to go to sea, with an ambition to command a ship. Like many I suppose in those days of deterrence and the Cold War, I did not expect to have to fight. While I knew that there was a risk of such a thing, the concept of actually fighting was certainly not at the forefront of my mind. And it never came up in conversations I had with my wife Kym before we got married. And yet 40 years ago last Tuesday I was in a frigate off East Falklands listening to a radio report that the white flag was flying over Port Stanley. Just the night before the surrender we had fired 228 4.5-inch shells in support of 2 Para during their advance along Wireless Ridge. The war that cost the lives of 255 from our Task Force had ended after 10 weeks of hostilities; 755 had been injured and countless thousands have been affected and are still affected in mind and spirit because of their experiences. And we must not forget the impact of conflict, of war, on our families at home who suffer apprehension and fear, especially of the unknown, of the uncertainty, of supporting those who return from war changed forever.
Sadly though, like so many in the armed forces, my 37 years in the Navy has shown that a key reality of war is that death is intentional and that people will die. It is close, immediate and invariably impersonal. To go to war is to accept that we are asking people to stare death in the face. The risk is all around you, all the time. And yet bearing the enormity of that risk is shared. It is shared with the person next to you, who becomes hugely important to you. They are your support. They are your best buddy. They are your family. They keep an eye out for you. You care much more about them than anyone else. Your life depends on them as much as it depends on you and so you will watch out for them, even sacrificing yourself so they may live. Fighting for Queen and country , or in support of a noble cause, is no longer the important issue. Rather the lives of those to your left, or right, or within your ship or aircraft, is the predominant factor in your life – day in and day out. There is a saying that applies so much to those in the armed forces, “today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”
Courage then, in the face of adversity, is key. I looked in the Gospels for a specific reference to the courage that Jesus must have demonstrated in those final hours before his death. Although Bishop Richard and Dean Sarah may correct me after this service, I couldn’t find one. Consequently, we have to infer, to imagine, what he went through. For all we are told is that he was scourged, that he collapsed on his way to Calvary and was then crucified. For as human Jesus must surely have felt the raw emotions that we all feel, and knowing that he must have suffered immense pain, anguish and indeed fear. Surely then, we must recognise his outstanding courage through those dark hours up to and including his crucifixion. And all this for us. And yet like the Bible, so many examples of courage go unrecorded. While the bravery and leadership of 153 individuals was recognised by the award of medals, 17 of them posthumously, so much is left to our imagination, of personal recollection, to ensure that those individual acts of courage and bravery are remembered.
Service to others invariably involves some form of sacrifice and, as our second reading tells us, there is in effect no greater service one can give to others than sacrificing one’s life for another. And yet when we recall those who have died in the service of others, remembrance by itself is perhaps never quite good enough for them, for what they gave us is beyond our power and capacity to repay. When a member of the armed forces dies in action, there is a tear in the fabric of their family, friends, community, ship, regiment, or squadron. And yet 40 years on we still see them as they were – young, exciting and full of enthusiasm. However, we should also reflect on what they could have been – old and wise, grey haired mature members of our society.
In effect, in their sacrifice they gave us 2 lives – the one they were living at the time and the one they could have lived. So many gave up their chances to be parents, grandparents, to be married and to see their children marry, to see their grandchildren. They gave up everything – For our country, for the people of the Falklands, for us.
We owe them a debt that we can never repay. All we can do is remember them, not just as a group but as individuals, by name as we did earlier. Remember what they did and why they were brave and courageous.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, there is an extract which is probably apposite for this occasion – and slightly paraphrased Henry reflects:
At the end of that superb drama series “Band of Brothers” there is a scene where a veteran of Easy Company looks wistfully into the camera saying, “I treasure a remark I made to my grandson who asked, “Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?” I replied, “No…. but I served in a company of heroes”
Like all the Falklands veterans with us today, it was my privilege to serve within a task force of heroes. We were a band of brothers, 255 of whom did not return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land. May they rest forever in God’s love and peace.