Monday, November 28, 2022

My father survived the bombing of HMS Ardent but 22 sailors died – and I met one of their children 40 years later

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I WAS a year old when my father sailed to the Falkland Islands as Captain of the Royal Navy’s Type 21 frigate HMS Ardent.

My mother waved him off from the Round Tower at Portsmouth’s harbor entrance.

Cpl Jack Welson

Alex West and Claire Kemp from The Sun wear their Elizabeth Cross[/caption]

The ship’s captain, Alan West, who survived the attack, with baby Alex on HMS Ardent in 1981
The greatly missed Gary Nelson with daughter Claire

A month later, on May 21, 1982, his ship was sunk in San Carlos Bay when two 1,000-pound bombs from Argentine warplanes destroyed her stern, killing 22 sailors.

I was incredibly lucky that my father, then Commander Alan West, survived and returned home after issuing the call to abandon ship.

He was the last to leave the ship and was carried to safety by the crew of HMS Yarmouth, who came to the rescue.

But Claire Kemp, who was born just a month later than me, would never know her father. Her father, Gary Nelson, was the “club swinger” – or fitness trainer – on board HMS Ardent and was stationed in the tiller plane (a compartment of the ship) where the bombs fell.

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He was killed by the explosions.

Claire, now 41, was only 13 months old and an only child.

I met her as we boarded a plane this week to visit the Falkland Islands for the first time for Remembrance Sunday in the capital, Port Stanley.

Claire was among the 100 returning heroes and families of those who lost their lives on a memorial tour marking the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War.

worst nightmare

The group of veterans, most of whom never returned, took a tour of the key battlefields in the struggle to liberate the islands known by Argentina as Las Malvinas.

Among them were tough commandos known to march 56 miles through East Falkland with heavy equipment over difficult terrain before fighting entrenched enemy positions in the mountains around Stanley.


Others were sailors aboard warships sunk by enemy warplanes using bombs or Exocet missiles.

Against the haunting, desolate backdrop of the South Atlantic’s peat bogs, rugged hills and frigid waters, the group paid their respects to the fallen and remembered their part in the campaign that claimed the lives of 255 British forces and injured hundreds more.

Claire, who now works as a healthcare assistant in Plymouth, told me: “Coming to the Falkland Islands was high on my wish list.

“There’s an element of closure and peace and it’s amazing to be in the place where Dad was lost.

“When I was 13 months old, I grew up not knowing who my father was and relying on what people told me.

“Everyone who knew him said the same thing about how much a happy man he was and how strong and physical he is.

“My mother was devastated. She didn’t want to know.

Crown Copyright

HMS Ardent was sunk in San Carlos Bay when two 1,000-pound bombs from Argentine warplanes destroyed her stern, killing 22 sailors[/caption]

A special memorial service was held in Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, on Friday
Crown Copyright

Soldiers disembark from one of the landing craft of HMS Intrepid in San Carlos Bay during the Falklands War[/caption]

James Gillanders traces his steps on the jetty where he disembarked in 1982 – seen in the photo above
Cpl Jack Welson

“This is your worst nightmare. Your whole world is collapsing. But she is so strong and she made it.”

Speaking of her father’s final moments, Claire explained, “Because of his ability and strength, he was told to take the wheel.

“He survived the first bomb and went down with the second.”

I told Claire I was sorry my father survived and hers didn’t. It could have been so different if the bombs had landed just a few meters away. Claire’s husband is in the armed forces and the couple have four children together.

She keeps the memory of her father alive at memorial services every year. She said: “That’s what he signed up for. There was always a possibility that he would have to go to war.”

On Thursday we traveled by bus across the desert islands from Port Stanley to San Carlos Water – off the west coast of East Falkland – where the invasion began amid a barrage of Argentine missiles and bombs.

On a beautiful sunny day, with a light breeze, the veterans gathered at the Blue Beach Cemetery in San Carlos, where the names of Britons killed in the war are immortalized.

A Gurkha played a haunting tune on the bagpipes before the Last Post was played on a bugle and the crowd bowed their heads for a two-minute silence.

San Carlos had been the starting point and an amphitheater of death where the combined troops had watched from their dug-in positions around the bay as the Royal Navy ships were attacked by Argentine fast jets.

Scottish Guardsman James Gillanders, 58, had landed on a boardwalk in San Carlos. He ran again this week.

James received orders to march on the capital, Port Stanley, and was involved in the deadly attack on well-entrenched troops at Mount Tumbledown, later immortalized in the 1988 film Tumbledown.

He said: “When it was finally over, the joy was pure.”

Craftsman Alex Shaw was an armourer with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) in 3 Para and was safe at headquarters when the war was almost over when tragedy struck him dead.

His widow Ann, of Beverley, East Yorks, said: “His friend asked him to come and help fix a jammed gun and bring cigarettes to some soldiers at Mount Longdon and he said ‘Yes, OK’. He shouldn’t be there.”

Alex and three friends were up the mountain when they were hit and maimed by an artillery shell. Alex had shrapnel wounds to his groin and was bleeding profusely. Ann said: “They thought he was fine but it had hit a femoral artery and he was losing a lot of blood.

“They got him down from the mountain but they couldn’t calm him down or stop the bleeding. He really fought it to the end.”

It was Father’s Day, June 13, just hours before the truce, when Alex died, leaving Ann a widow and their five-month-old son Craig without a father.

Ann said: “We had planned that we would meet him from the boat when he came back.”

They were living in a conjugal flat in Tidworth, Wilts at the time.

She said: “I remember they knocked on the door. There was this little man and he didn’t know what to do with himself. He said, “Are you Alan Shaw’s wife?” And I said, ‘No, you have the wrong wife, my husband is Alex’. He said, ‘Sorry, he meant Alex Shaw’.”

The couple met when they were 12, dropped out of school, got engaged when they were 16 and married two years later.

Ann said: “We had a whole life in just a few years.

“He was a very handsome man with a big, thick mustache.

“I couldn’t bear to come back after it happened. I hated the military, the government and the Argentines, all of them, for what happened.

“After 40 years you think everything is over. But as soon as you start thinking about it, all the feelings come back.” She explained, “I lost my husband, my home, my friends, everything, everything was gone.

“We recently learned that an Argentine officer kept Alex’s blood-stained helmet for 35 years.

“He felt guilty and decided to return it. Alex’s sister flew to Madrid to get it back.”

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Jacqui Giffin, 60, from Ferndown, Dorset, was 19 when her brother, Lance Corporal Brett Giffin, of 3 CDO Brigade Air Squadron, was killed.

He was flying a Gazelle helicopter to position Rapier weapon systems at strategic points when he was hit by a retreating Argentine patrol.

Jacqui said: “It was devastating. I have some fond memories of him.”

Ann Shaw at the memorial to the fallen in Port Stanley
Alex Shaw with son Craig
A naval beret is displayed on the bust of Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister during the conflict
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