It has been 40 years, but Michael ‘Iddy’ Iddon can still taste the smoke pouring from Sir Galahad. Almost every night, as he lies in bed, the burning carcass of the Royal Navy ship looms into view, and the nightmares of the events of June 8, 1982, return to haunt him.
During these flashbacks, he is trapped once more in the smoke-filled corridors of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ship, wires sparking and lights hanging off the wall, giving urgent medical care to the dead and dying around him.
Sometimes, he pictures the hold and exploding ammunition stores ignited by one of three 500lb bombs dropped from an Argentine Skyhawk jet. Or he feels the freezing waters of the South Atlantic, where he nearly drowned trying to escape, closing in around him.
“I see it all,” the now 59-year-old says quietly of the day that changed his life, sitting in the living room of his Burnley home. “Looking back at the pictures, it is all grainy – but in my head it is crystal clear.”
This weekend, marks the 40-year anniversary of the beginning of the Falklands War. But amid the commemorations, there are, Iddon says, just two dates that remain seared in his mind: June 8, when the bombing of the Sir Galahad and fellow RFA ship Sir Tristram, as they moored in Fitzroy Sound, led to the worst British loss of life throughout the Falklands campaign; and June 14, when victory was ultimately declared.
More than 50 were killed and 150 injured in the bombing of both ships, with casualties suffering, in particular, from horrific burns. The Welsh guardsman Simon Weston was the most seriously injured on Galahad to survive, returning to Britain with 46 per cent burns so severe, even his own mother did not recognise him.
Those physical scars notwithstanding, many of the survivors, Iddon included, have been left severely traumatised by the attack. According to the Royal British Legion, around 350 Falklands veterans have taken their own lives since the conflict, and the aftermath of the June 8 bombing has led to a shockwave of trauma.
For the young troops who had sailed out in convoy across the Atlantic, cheered by flag-waving crowds and surrounded by the assembled might of Britain’s armed forces, it was a day that brought home the devastating reality of war.
And nearly 40 years on, question marks remain over the decisions that led to the ships being left in such a vulnerable position so close to enemy lines, which ultimately led to such a catastrophic loss of life.
These are the stories of some of those involved, and the questions that still torment them today. “That was the day when I first realised I wasn’t immortal,” Iddon recalls. “I suddenly understood, out there I could die a very horrible death.”
Back in April 1982, Lance Corporal Brian Seggie was among the excited troops heading to the Falklands. The 23-year-old marine engineer, serving with the 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, had just completed his army diving course when he was summoned by his commanding officer and told he would be heading out to the Falklands on RFA Sir Lancelot.
Seggie, who grew up on the west coast of Scotland, was given two days to say his goodbyes and write a will before sailing from Southampton to Ascension Island, in a convoy of 100 military and merchant vessels. “We did feel invincible, but then things started to sharpen up,” the now 63-year-old says, speaking from his home near the New Forest.
After a few days on Ascension Island, preparing the assembled ships for an amphibious assault, they sailed on to the Falklands. On May 21, Seggie and his crew docked at San Carlos, Red Beach, on East Falkland, in a stretch of water nicknamed ‘Bomb Alley’, for the regular Argentine air attacks they were subjected to.
For more than two weeks, Seggie and his crew operated a flat-bottomed landing raft known as a Mexeflote, ferrying troops and ammunition on to shore and bringing the dead, wounded and prisoners of war back as they were bombed and strafed from above.
On June 6, they were told they were being detached from Sir Lancelot to Sir Tristram, to conduct a beach assault in a place called Bluff Cove.
They sailed through a minefield between East and West Falkland before meeting up with the anchored Sir Tristram in the early hours of June 7, and tasked with discharging 1,500 tonnes of artillery ammunition from the ship on to a nearby beach, which had been deemed suitable in earlier reconnaissance.
Although, Seggie says, they soon discovered due to the tides and gradient of the beach, they could only successfully unload for four hours in every 24 – meaning the job would take far longer than initially thought. (A Ministry of Defence report subsequently claimed the beach could be used for 16 in every 24 hours.)
Given the vulnerability of their position, in the early hours of June 8, they were shocked to see Sir Galahad cruising into the same anchorage, fully laden with ammunition and men. Cloud cover was dissipating and this was Seggie’s 18th day of enemy air attacks. In other words, he says, they realised they were “sitting ducks”.
On board Sir Galahad was a large detachment of Welsh Guards, many of whom had just sailed over from England on the repurposed cruise ship the QE2.
Private Iddy Iddon, then a 19-year-old in the Royal Army Medical Corps from Garstang in Lancashire, had also joined the QE2 with members of the 16 Field Ambulance at Ascension Island, and recalls a jovial atmosphere.
In defiance of reports that the Argentinians might try and sink the cruise ship, he says the soldiers on board would walk around doing fish impressions. “We were all excited,” he says. “We thought nothing could touch us.”
Eventually, the men were transferred to Sir Galahad and told they would be sailing through to Fitzroy. They arrived in darkness, but when the sun came up, Iddon says, they spotted Sir Tristram moored nearby.
Unbeknown to the troops waiting on board Sir Galahad, Brian Seggie and his fellow six-man crew on the landing raft had attempted to start unloading them on to shore at 5am, as soon as the ship was anchored. But, he says, they were told by the commanders on board to focus on unloading the ammunition first and return for the troops later.
As the engineers spent all morning ferrying crates of ammo from sea to shore, Iddon and his fellow passengers on Sir Galahad lounged about on the ship.
With nothing better to do, the troops packed into the canteen and started watching the porn videos they had smuggled on board. Iddon joined them for a while before going below decks. “It was then that I heard the alarm sound,” he says.
Another of those on board Sir Galahad was Private Yanto Evans, who was serving with 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment. The then 20-year-old had already been in the Falklands for much of the war, operating in forward reconnaissance patrols so close to the Argentinian lines he could hear them talking in Spanish. The men were forced to endure terrible weather conditions and Evans had been airlifted on to Sir Galahad on June 7 to treat his feet which had swollen so severely he could no longer pull on his boots.
On the afternoon of June 8 he was sitting in his cabin in a pair of shorts, his soaking clothes hanging up to dry around him and reloading magazines with ammunition preparing to return to the front line. That was when the bombs hit.
“There was the most horrendous bang,” he recalls. “It went dark and I remember being lifted up and thrown across the room. The air was just sucked out of me and I think I hit the wall. I ended up unconscious but when I came round the emergency lights were on.”
Brian Seggie was standing on the headland just above the beach around 2pm when the Argentine Skyhawks screamed in. He watched frozen in horror as the aircraft dropped their bombs and strafed both ships. Almost immediately, he says, Sir Galahad’s ammunition and petrol stores “went up like an inferno”.
He sprinted down on to the landing raft and they motored over to the port side of Sir Galahad to rescue whoever they could. “People were screaming and jumping into the water, and others were in shock,” he says.
The bombs had exploded in the tank deck, galley and engine room, and as they loaded survivors on, the scale of the burn injuries started to become clear.
In particular, Seggie recalls one man being placed on a stretcher. “I looked at him and could not even recognise he was a human being, he was so badly burned,” he says. “I opened up my sleeping bag and put him inside.” He doesn’t know if he survived.
They managed to unload about 100 casualties from the burning ship, but in the chaos, the landing raft’s engines had become seized up with rope so Seggie borrowed a knife from a Royal Marine and jumped into the water to cut them free and evacuate them to shore.
Others on board were airlifted to safety or jumped off the ship into the lifeboats floating below. Iddon was trapped in a smoke-filled corridor filled with wounded and already dead men.
Eventually, an escape door was prized open and he made it out on deck. “That was my first experience of proper war,” he says. “I just remember people screaming and seeing lads with uniforms shredded, the smell of burning skin…”
The medics were among the last to leave Sir Galahad and were eventually evacuated by a landing raft. As he was taken off the ship Iddon fell into the sea and, unable to swim, nearly drowned before being rescued.
As darkness fell, the wounded were transferred to nearby ships for treatment and the dead slowly accounted for. Brian Seggie and his crew, meanwhile, pulled up at a nearby jetty at Port Pleasant and were told to take up position in a waterlogged slit trench 5ft deep and fix bayonets and prepare for a rumoured assault by Argentinian paratroopers.
The attack never came. Instead, he stayed up all night watching the burning hulks of Sir Galahad and Tristram just half a mile or so away out to sea.
“The haunting thing was seeing both ships still blazing, hearing explosions going off and being able to smell them,” he says. “Knowing there were people still on board was very difficult. It felt helpless.”
Less than a week later, the war was over. The Argentine surrender was declared on June 14 and the Union flag hoisted over Port Stanley. Iddy Iddon recalls sailing back to Southampton greeted by cheering crowds – including his parents, who had made the trip down from Lancashire – saluting the returning heroes.
But it did not take long to realise he had not left the Falklands behind. Soon, he started to become withdrawn from his fellow troops and developed a chronic fear of water, to the point where he would suck a damp sponge rather than take a drink, and could only wash with a dry cloth.
Having previously only drunk alcohol a few times in his life – including being poured rum in his coffee to celebrate the end of the war – he started drinking heavily.
Back then, he says, there was little recognition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) within the Army, with soldiers terrified to admit they were struggling. In June 1983, when his condition grew so severe he could no longer hide the extent of his trauma, he was discharged from the military with “services no longer required”.
Iddon moved back into his mum’s house, but by this stage was suffering such extreme paranoia that he couldn’t even sleep inside. Instead, he dug a trench in her back garden and camped out each night where often his screams would wake up the neighbours. “After a while, she managed to coax me into a tent, then a shed and eventually sleeping on the floor of the front room,” he says. “But it took bloody ages.”
Brian Seggie remained in the military but says he too started to notice signs of trauma. On a six-month tour in Belize, he started drinking heavily and at night would scream and shout orders in his sleep.
Other tours followed, including Iraq in 2003 – but, he says, June 8, 1982 continued to plague him as what is known in psychiatric parlance as his “index trauma”: the moment in time he could never escape.
Eventually, he was forced to seek help in 2014, after admitting contemplating suicide to his wife, Teresa (who died of ovarian cancer in 2018, after 25 years of marriage). He attended Combat Stress, where he was diagnosed with PTSD. One of the first people he met at the centre was a former colleague who had been on Sir Tristram.
Iddon, meanwhile, was referred to Combat Stress in 1999, where he similarly met a number of veterans who had been present on the ships during the bombings. He says a significant number of those serving with 16 Field Ambulance have suffered mental issues. He, too, has contemplated suicide.
Both Iddon and Seggie have been supported by the Royal British Legion in helping overcome the trauma, but the unanswered questions over the day make the memories even harder to bear.
In 1982, the Ministry of Defence conducted a board of inquiry into the loss of both ships. Despite acknowledging poor communication and delays in the command which delayed the offloading of troops from Sir Galahad prior to the attack, ultimately the report found the decision to transport the troops by ship along the south coast was “justified”.
Critics – including General Sir Michael Rose, who commanded the SAS during the Falklands – have branded the report a “complete whitewash”, and castigated the decision to open up a southern front as a failure which could have lost the war.
In 2012, meanwhile, declassified documents were released by the National Archives, including an account by Lieutenant Colonel John Rickett which revealed the Welsh Guards would have been taken off Sir Galahad far earlier were it not for “problems with landing craft”.
Like many present that day, Brian Seggie struggles to make peace with what he feels is a tragedy that could have been largely averted.
“Looking back now, it was a logistic mistake that could easily have been avoided and those guys would not have been killed and burned,” he says. “I know that event could have been easily avoided – and it still haunts me to this day.”