As an SAS captain is honoured 40 years after his death in a fierce firefight behind enemy lines
Published in The Mail On Sunday on 05 June 2022.
LORD ASHCROFT recalls the day the Queen paid a teary-eyed tribute to the Falklands hero, whose enemy called him ‘the bravest man I’ve ever seen’.
To mark this month’s 40th anniversary of the end of the Falklands War – when Argentina surrendered – military historian Lord Ashcroft has written about the last hours and legacies of two heroic British service personnel.
Yesterday’s Daily Mail published his interview with the daughter of Sergeant Ian McKay, who was shot dead just two days before the conflict ended. Here, he tells the story of another supremely brave commanding officer.
On Friday, more than 150 family, friends and former comrades will gather in a quiet corner of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to pay their respects to an extraordinary man.
Those visiting the Allied Special Forces Memorial Grove will formally unveil a new tribute to Captain John Hamilton MC, who was killed while operating behind enemy lines during the Falklands War of 1982.
His sister Jane Mellor, his half-brother Lieutenant Colonel Julian Greenwood and his half-sister Jackie Mulholland will be among guests who will mark the 40th anniversary of his death.
Yet only now can the full story of Hamilton’s eventful life and astonishing bravery for much of the ten-week conflict be told, thanks to the co-operation of his family and former soldiers who served with him.
This is the story of a man of duty whose grave on West Falkland is still lovingly tended by residents of Port Howard who have, in the words of Captain Hamilton’s sister, ‘adopted him as their special person’. His gallantry was admired from sources as diverse as enemy officers to the Queen, who questioned why he had not received a more senior gallantry award than his posthumous Military Cross (MC).
Gavin John Hamilton (always known as John) was born in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, on May 15, 1953.
His father, also Gavin, was a civil servant while his mother Betty was an auxiliary nurse. John attended Grosvenor House prep school in Harrogate, followed by the Royal Masonic School for Boys in Bushey, Hertfordshire.
He was extremely close to his only full sibling, Jane, who was three years and five days younger than him.
‘John and I were brother and sister but also best friends,’ she told me. ‘For example, I was his wing man when he was a boy and used to abseil out of his first-floor bedroom window!
‘As his wing man, I was given the very important task of making sure that the rope didn’t come off the bedroom door handle where it was rather dangerously tied.’
Sporty and adventurous, as well as bright and ambitious, Hamilton surprised no one when he decided on a military career. After graduating from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, he was commissioned as a subaltern into the Green Howards in 1975, aged 22.
‘Ever since he went to Sandhurst and passed out, he had this mission that he was going to be the best possible soldier and join the SAS. John never did anything by halves,’ his sister said.
For seven years, Hamilton served with distinction, including during tours of Cyprus, Belize and Northern Ireland, the last destination at the height of the Troubles. He was super-fit and, even on days off, would go for long runs with his dog, an English setter called Marcus.
The dog, however, could not keep up the pace and sometimes had to be carried, returning home draped over his owner’s shoulders like a scarf. On a tour of duty in Berlin, Hamilton’s comrades recalled that he spent his coffee and lunch breaks doing extra assault courses and other training.
In 1981, Hamilton was transferred at his own request into the SAS, serving in D Squadron.
When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, he was a 28-year-old captain commanding 19 (Mountain) Troop.
On April 4, D Squadron was flown from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, to Ascension Island.
Hamilton was soon chosen for the force tasked with regaining control of South Georgia as part of Operation Paraquet. Remote and inhospitable, the mountainous island had initially been seized by so-called Argentine scrap metal dealers in March, then subjected to a full-scale invasion on April 3 when defended by just 22 Royal Marines.
It was decided that Hamilton and his men would fly in three Wessex helicopters from the ice patrol vessel HMS Endurance to the Fortuna Glacier on April 21. They had expected harsh weather conditions but they were even worse than anticipated, and heavy rain and gale-force winds twice prevented them from landing.
When they managed to land, it soon became clear that the prevailing weather conditions were so severe that the mission would have to be aborted.
Of three helicopters dispatched to pick up Hamilton and his men, two crashed, fortunately without serious casualties. Thanks to the flying skills of Lieutenant Commander Ian Stanley, the downed air crew and Hamilton’s team were eventually extracted. Stanley was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
Undaunted, Hamilton and his men were keen to return to the fray, and just three days later they were back in a Wessex, which this time landed successfully on South Georgia. They were dropped close to the British Antarctic Survey station at Grytviken. With a mixture of Royal Marines, the SAS men soon witnessed the surrender of the Argentine garrison.
On the night of May 14-15, Hamilton led Mountain Troop in a classic SAS operation to attack enemy positions on Pebble Island, one of the smaller Falkland Islands used by the Argentine invaders to establish an airstrip.
The hit-and-run raid using Sea King helicopters saw his men destroy vital equipment, including 11 aircraft. Hamilton had personally supervised the destruction of seven of them on the ground.
Just five days later, however, tragedy struck the SAS. Several of the 45 men who took part in the raid without serious casualties were killed being transported from one ship to another in a Sea King helicopter that plunged into the sea. In all, 21 men died.
Hamilton was not among the dead or injured and, typically, was soon on the offensive again, this time as part of an SAS mission 40 miles behind enemy lines on East Falkland, close to Mount Kent. Their role was to observe enemy positions in and around Port Stanley.
When an Argentine patrol advanced towards their position, Hamilton captured an enemy soldier as a prisoner of war after a successful firefight.
The next night, his troop held off another enemy attack, in doing so enabling 42 Commando, Royal Marines, to fly in to reinforce the position. The following day, his troop ambushed another Argentine patrol, capturing five members of it, three of whom were wounded.
His next mission involved being dropped as part of a four-man patrol on West Falkland on June 5 to observe enemy positions in and around Port Howard. The men, under Hamilton’s command, established an observation post on the high ground of a ridge called Many Branch Point. Radio reports were dispatched from this position, just 2,500 yards from the enemy.
In the late morning of June 10, Hamilton and a radio operator, Corporal Roy Fonseca, were manning the post at Many Branch Point when they were discovered by an Argentine patrol. Hamilton’s instincts were that they would not surrender and that they would try to fight their way out of trouble.
The citation for Hamilton’s posthumous Military Cross – which also refers to his earlier gallant exploits – takes up the story: ‘Shortly after dawn on 10th June he realised that he and his radio operator had been surrounded in a forward position.
‘Although heavily outnumbered, and with no reinforcements available, he gave the order to engage the enemy, telling his signaller that they should both attempt to fight their way out of the encirclement.
‘Since the withdrawal route was completely exposed to enemy observation and fire, he initiated the firefight in order to allow his signaller to move first. After the resulting exchange of fire he was wounded in the back, and it became clear to his signaller that Captain Hamilton was only able to move with difficulty. Nevertheless, he told his signaller that he would continue to hold off the enemy whilst the signaller made good his escape, and then he proceeded to give further covering fire.
‘Shortly after that he was killed. Captain Hamilton displayed outstanding determination and an extraordinary will to continue the fight despite being confronted by hopeless odds and being wounded. He furthermore showed supreme courage and sense of duty by his conscious decision to sacrifice himself on behalf of his signaller. His final, brave and unselfish act will be an inspiration to all who follow in the SAS.’
The only withdrawal route available had been to the rear of the two men but this was exposed to enemy observation on the up slope of the ridge for 50 yards to the summit. So Hamilton ordered radio operator Fonseca to retreat on the word ‘Go!’ and gave him covering fire, knowing he personally then had little chance of surviving the enemy response. As it turned out, Fonseca was captured. The two other members of the patrol avoided capture. Just four days later, the war was over after the Argentine surrender on June 14.
Those who knew Hamilton best were unsurprised by his response to a life-or-death situation.
Shortly after the end of the war, he was buried with full military honours close to where he fell near Port Howard. He was 29 years old, having had a birthday while in the South Atlantic the previous month. He left a widow, Vikki. The couple had no children.
The end of the conflict meant the full extent of Hamilton’s bravery emerged quickly. The Argentine commander of Port Howard, Colonel Juan Ramon Mabragana, was questioned by the victorious British forces.
He said that Hamilton was ‘the most courageous man I have ever seen’ and recommended he be decorated. On his release as a PoW, Fonseca also confirmed details of the incident. ‘John was like any SAS soldier. Pushing the limits,’ he said.
Hamilton was awarded a posthumous Military Cross in the Falklands honours list. His widow Vikki, his sister Jane and a fellow officer, David Emsley, attended the investiture at Buckingham Palace.
Jane told me: ‘Because it was a posthumous award, we were granted a private audience with Her Majesty.
The Queen had clearly read his citation in detail because she told us, ‘I am surprised it wasn’t a higher award.’ The Queen is such a compassionate person and she had tears in her eyes when she was talking to us. She was so kind.’
Jane, 66, who works as a radiographer, also had a poignant story to tell about June 10, 1982.
‘It was a glorious day and I was playing tennis – a doubles match – in Ross-on-Wye where I then lived. I was just about to serve when I suddenly got this chill as if someone had poured a bucket of ice over me. I stopped and the other players said, ‘Are you all right?’
‘I replied, ‘I just feel something awful has happened.’ And then I shook it off and carried on.’
She later learnt that was the moment her brother had been killed 8,000 miles away, news she received in a phone call four days later. ‘Until then, I thought John had a charmed existence and was untouchable, indestructible,’ she said.
Vikki Hamilton did not ask for his body to be returned to the UK because her husband had told her before going that it was Army tradition to lie where you fell.
Jane added: ‘John and I were very close and the impact of his death has been immeasurable. There is not a day which passes when I don’t miss him.’
She has twice visited his grave, the first time a year after his death. ‘It was a cathartic exercise. It was the first time that I properly realised he really wasn’t coming back.
‘Until then, we had never seen his grave. It was wonderful to see that the residents from Port Howard were tending his grave and had adopted him as their special person,’ she said.
In December 1995, during a visit to the Falklands, I too went to Hamilton’s grave to pay respects to this courageous officer.
In 2002, 20 years after the end of the war, Hamilton’s widow met the Argentine patrol commander from the engagement, José Martiniano Duarte. At their encounter at the Argentine embassy in London, he told her of his regret for the incident that claimed her husband’s life and spoke of his admiration for his gallantry.
Sadly, Vikki Hamilton is also no longer with us, after dying of cancer ten years ago.
As the 40th anniversary of Captain Hamilton’s death approaches, former comrades have been queuing to praise his skills and his bravery. Major Grahame Birchall, who served with Hamilton in the Green Howards, still remembers his friend with huge affection.
The retired officer said: ‘John was a team player at all times and one for whom team morale was always at the heart of everything he did and said.
‘What was so annoying for the rest of us was that for John, it all came so naturally.’
Lieutenant General Sir Cedric Delves, Hamilton’s squadron commander, said: ‘Great institutions, regiments included, are laid down, built over time, founded upon many, many selfless acts and individual deeds. So it was at Port Howard that day. John and Roy knew what they were doing, knew the possible cost.’
Mike Colton, who founded the Allied Special Forces Memorial Grove, and who himself served in the SAS, said he was delighted that Hamilton’s bravery will be recognised on Friday.
He said of Hamilton: ‘For three months, he served in the most challenging conditions in South Georgia, Pebble Island, East Falkland and West Falkland. Yet his bravery has never been fully recognised, which is why we want to dedicate his memorial exactly 40 years after his death.’