Feature: Falklands war hero Mike Mercer tells his story to the Observer

Mick Mercer from Hastings, who served as a chef on HMS Fearless during the Falklands War
Mick Mercer from Hastings, who served as a chef on HMS Fearless during the Falklands War
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THIRTY years ago this month thousands of young men from across the country travelled to the other side of the world to repel a foreign invader of British sovereign soil.

Among those who travelled to rid Argentina from the Falkland Islands in April 1982, were a handful of brave men from Hastings.

Former chief chef Mike Mercer from Hastings receiving his British Empire Medal from Admiral Leech

Former chief chef Mike Mercer from Hastings receiving his British Empire Medal from Admiral Leech

This searies of features examines their role, their memories and the effect the bloody conflict had on them and their families.

Chief reporter SOL BUCKNER and reporter RICHARD GLADSTONE went to meet those brave individuals who fought 8,000 miles away for Queen and country.

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MIKE Mercer was preparing breakfast for the 1,500 crew aboard the HMS Fearless when he overheard the company sergeant addressing the soldiers: “I expect 50 per cent of you to be wasted when you try to get on the beach.” he said.

HMS Fearless sailing from Portsmouth in 1982 to the Falksland Islands

HMS Fearless sailing from Portsmouth in 1982 to the Falksland Islands

“I never forgot those words for the rest of my life.

“I was looking at these lads, some as young as 16, and thinking this is the end for many of you. I just could not take it in. But thankfully it never happened and not a single shot was fired in anger as our boys landed on the beaches that morning.”

What was to follow would be much more harrowing for the 36-year-old chief chef who was one of the few ship-based personnel to get close to the action.

“I saw some horrific sights. Things you would never want anyone to see yet alone a 16-year-old boy.”

FIGHTING TALK

Born and raised in Hastings, Mike joined the Navy in 1963 at HMS Raleigh in Plymouth aged 17.

He joined HMS Fearless in 1979 and was put in charge of 24 galley chefs. A few days before the Argentinian invasion he was told to mobilise for departure. It was a day he will never forget.

“We were told to get ready to sail by next Tuesday. We were going to the South Atlantic. We hardly had time to say goodbye to anyone yet alone stock the ship fully.

“We set sail from Portsmouth heading south. We had the Fifth Brigade on board and there were soldiers everywhere.

“We placed tins of beans and chocolate everywhere. They were sleeping on the tank deck underneath the heli pad, they were in the cabin doorways and corridors. We had three times as many people on board was we normally do.

“It was like a floating sardine can.

“We got down to the Ascension Islands after three weeks and we had to change a lot of our cargo around. We had to swap our stock for what the squaddies needed.

“Once we saw all the military hardware, it suddenly dawned on you that this was it. We were actually going to war.”

After another two weeks at sea the convoy sailed into the Falklands under the cover of darkness.

“We arrived about 4am in San Carlos Bay and the troops all prepared to go ashore, in full combat gear. Their sergeant told them half of them would be wasted on the way. They had real fear in their faces.

“And then I saw the amphibious landing craft head out. But there was no firing, not a shot.

“The Argies weren’t on the shore line. They were dug in at strategic places across the islands. But their airforce was waiting for daybreak to come. They knew we would be anchored in the bay like sitting ducks. And sure enough as soon as the sun came up the first Mirage shot across our bows.

“I got a picture of one flying between the ship’s funnels. They came in hard and fast across west to east. I saw the Antelope get hit and then break up before going down two days later. It was just terrifying. Sitting there waiting for the next attack.

“I managed to get flown ashore quite a bit as we were supplying food to some of the islanders who were caught up in it all.

“They told me what to do if the sea king helicopter got shot down. I was getting access to a lot of things. I went everywhere escorted by two armed Royal Marines. They always said walk in our footsteps because of the risk of mines.

“I saw some of the wounded and dead bodies scattered about the place being licked by dogs. It was not a nice thing to see at all and I was always glad to land safely back on my ship’s deck.”

Mike was prepared for a long and bloody conflict. Most of the crew thought it would take at least six months to shift the Argentinians and another six months before they could go home. But after just two months British forces had swept across the islands and seized the capital Port Stanley in breakneck speed. Mike distinctly remembers the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano.

“I remember when we heard the Belgrano was sunk and the lads let out a huge cheer,” said Mike. “I said ‘don’t be like that boys – that could be us down there at the bottom of the sea.’

“They were just young lads then – some of them just 16. I don’t think they really understood what was going on. The ship’s captain came up to me at one point and said – we’re all frightened down here. That really said it all.”

On land, many Argentinian conscripts were only too happy to surrender once they saw the British soldiers coming towards them.

Once Argentina decided to surrender on June 16, Mike’s vessel played a key part in the negotiations between the two sides.

The man in charge of the Argentinian forces General Mendes was taken aboard HMS Fearless to conduct negotiations.

“It was surprised at how quickly it all ended. We really did think we were there for the long-term may be up to a year. When I went along the streets of Port Stanley I could see rows and rows of shipping containers. The Argies had brought so many supplies over you could tell the were planning to stay a long time.

“But our boys did one hell of a job. Some of them used to ask me – what on earth are we fighting for this place for?

“And it was difficult to answer sometimes. It was a lonely, barren place a long way from home – but it was British and the people were British. We could not just ignore that fact.”

GOING HOME

After returning home Mike did another four years in the Navy before retiring in 1986 after being awarded the British Empire Medal.

But the memories of those few short weeks in the South Atlantic would haunt him for years to come.

“One day I was watching the Red Arrows flying over Hastings during the Hastings Carnival and I just dived for cover in a shop doorway. I was crouched there terrified. I thought it was a Mirage jet coming over and I just instinctively dived for cover.

“At night time I kept getting flashbacks from the Falklands and I started to hit the bottle. At one point I was drinking 14 pints of beer a day and a whole bottle of rum. I was in a really bad way but I didn’t realise I was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. It was not recognised then.”

Mike managed to get help from his family and eventually overcame his problems. He went on to run work for the borough council as catering manager for 11 years before taking over the Smugglers at Pett Level in 1999. He retired in April last year aged 65.

He now lives in Mount Pleasant Road in a home for people aged over 55. “I still get the odd flashback and you just can’t forget about what you saw and experienced,” he added.

“I can’t believe it’s 30 years ago but the British public seems to have short memories. I was surprised the Falklands veterans weren’t remembered in such high esteem as other campaigns.

“I don’t think we got the recognition that we really deserved. We achieved something that really has not been done since. It was a hell of an achievement. I just don’t think we could mount that kind of campaign today and I don’t think there would be the same appetite for it. The Argentinians are sabre-rattling again but that always happens when there is an anniversary. They only really want it because of the oils and minerals in that area. I hope that everyone could just live in peace but 30 years on that seems to be less and less possible in this day and age.”