Hero Para who led charge on an Argentine machine gun post - and won last VC of 20th Century: Sergeant Ian McKay’s disregard for his own life was awe-inspiring
Serialisation published in The Mail on Sunday on 14 November 2021.
Sergeant Ian McKay
Squadron Leader Jeffrey Glover
Captain Gordon Mather
During the long sea crossing from England to the Falklands, Sergeant Ian McKay wrote to a friend in the spring of 1982: ‘I have no intention of taking any risks and getting killed. If I do, then it will be to protect my men, to save lives.’
His words were tragically prescient. He would go on to be awarded the last Victoria Cross earned in the 20th Century for the extreme valour and selflessness that cost him his life.
The 29-year-old’s call to arms had been sudden and unexpected as events in the South Atlantic escalated.
Finishing a game of football with a group of friends, he had received an urgent message to return to his barracks at Aldershot in Hampshire.
‘He came in and went out,’ his wife Marica later recalled. ‘I put his dinner in a Tupperware container and he went straight away. He just said, “I’ve got to go.”
‘I never saw him again.’
Along with his comrades from 3 Para, McKay landed at Port San Carlos on the western coast of East Falkland on the night of May 21, 1982. As the war moved towards what would prove to be its bloody final phase, his men’s instructions were to dig in, knowing that if they remained visible, they would be easy targets for the Argentine air force.
After exhausting marches under cover of darkness, the Paras arrived at their destination, Mount Estancia, unscathed. Each man had carried loads of up to 120 lb, with the total distance covered on foot since landing amounting to more than 50 miles.
From there they would be part of the final assault on Port Stanley, the Falklands’ capital.
It was at this point that McKay and his men became aware of the deaths of Colonel ‘H’ Jones and 14 others from 2 Para during the hard-won victories at Darwin and Goose Green. Many other Paras had been wounded. But 3 Para knew it was time to press on, and to try to ensure those devastating losses had not been in vain.
On June 2, they undertook a reconnaissance mission to Mount Longdon, a key target in the battle for Port Stanley, while McKay’s patrol moved forward to the bridge over the Murrell River, another vital strategic location. Here they had come across well-placed Argentine mortar fire and decided to pull back and once again dig in.
Over the next week, more patrols put out feelers, and on June 6 and 7 there were modest firefights, but no full-scale battles.
Meanwhile, tactics to decisively end the enemy’s occupation of the Falklands were being worked out. Mount Longdon, which loomed like a fortress between the Paras’ position and Port Stanley, was identified as the Argentine defence’s strongest point. The final push across the mountain to the capital began on June 11. By dawn the men were preparing for the impending battle, and McKay was, in the words of one comrade, ready to ‘look after the lads almost like a mother hen’.
He had 28 men in his platoon, including himself. But, say friends, he had a strong feeling that he might not survive the battle.
‘I remember Ian coming up to me just before the battle for Mount Longdon,’ recalled Company Sergeant Major John Weeks. ‘He said, “I am not going to come back from this.” This was maybe an hour before we crossed the river and got into our formations for the battle.’
The long citation for McKay’s posthumous VC takes up the story of a single episode in the long, fraught and confused battle:
‘During the night of June 11/12, 1982, 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment mounted a silent night attack on an enemy battalion position on Mount Longdon, an important objective in the battle for Port Stanley.
‘Sergeant McKay was platoon sergeant of 4 Platoon, B Company, which, after the initial objective had been secured, was ordered to clear the northern side of the long east/west ridge feature, held by the enemy in depth, with strong, mutually supporting positions.
‘By now the enemy were fully alert and resisting fiercely. As 4 Platoon’s advance continued, it came under increasingly heavy fire from a number of well-sited enemy machine-gun positions on the ridge, and received casualties.
‘The enemy fire was still both heavy and accurate. Taking Sergeant McKay, a corporal and a few others, and covered by supporting machine-gun fire, the platoon commander moved forward to reconnoitre the enemy positions but was hit by a bullet in the leg, and command devolved upon Sergeant McKay.
‘It was clear that instant action was needed if the advance was not to falter and increasing casualties to ensue. Sergeant McKay decided to convert this reconnaissance into an attack in order to eliminate the enemy positions.
‘He was in no doubt of the strength and deployment of the enemy as he undertook this attack. He issued orders, and taking three men with him, broke cover and charged the enemy position.
‘The assault was met by a hail of fire. The corporal was seriously wounded, a private killed and another wounded. Despite these losses, Sergeant McKay, with complete disregard for his own safety, continued to charge the enemy position alone.
‘On reaching it, he despatched the enemy with grenades, thereby relieving the position of beleaguered 4 and 5 Platoons, who were able to redeploy with relative safety. Sergeant McKay, however, was killed at the moment of victory.
‘Without doubt, Sergeant McKay’s action retrieved a most dangerous situation and was instrumental in ensuring the success of the attack. His was a coolly calculated act, the dangers of which must have been only too apparent to him beforehand. Undeterred, he performed with outstanding selflessness, perseverance and courage. With a complete disregard for his own safety, he displayed courage and leadership of the highest order, and was an inspiration to all those around him.’
His friend Corporal Ian Bailey said of McKay’s final moments: ‘The last time I saw Ian McKay alive, he was still moving on my right. I was hit, went down, tried to get up and never saw him again.
‘There was firing going on, two explosions. Then it stopped and then there was nothing.’
It is understood that as he lay dead or dying, McKay was hit by at least three bullets.
The Argentine surrender came just two days later, on June 14.
Ian McKay’s body was recovered and brought back to England. He was buried along with 15 comrades from the battle in a funeral with full military honours at the Aldershot Military Barracks on November 26, 1982.
The last two men to see him alive were among the pallbearers: Corporal Bailey and Colour Sergeant Brian Faulkner, who said of his friend: ‘Mac was the bravest of the brave.’
In an interview with me at her home near Lincoln, Marica McKay recalled her husband with affection and pride. She told me: ‘Ian was a real gentleman. He was a family-orientated man – straightforward and quite private. There were lots of things in his past career that he never discussed with me and that I learnt about only after his death.’
Mrs McKay was at her Army home in Aldershot when she learnt that her husband, the father of a four-year-old daughter, had been killed. Like him, she had had a strong feeling he would not return from the Falklands.
‘I had said to someone I was working with, “Ian is not coming back.” I just knew that things would change after the British sank the Belgrano.’ [An incident that remains controversial to this day, when, on May 2, the Argentine cruiser was sunk with the loss of 323 lives.]
‘I heard the news of his death on a Monday. A friend had just rung me to say her kettle had broken and could I get her a new one. Then the doorbell rang, and it was Colonel Simon Brewis and Sue Patton, the wife of another senior officer.
‘I knew then, as soon as I came down the stairs, that Ian had been killed. News of his death was not a surprise because I had been expecting it.’
Mrs McKay said she knew little about her husband’s astounding bravery until four months after his death, when news of his posthumous Victoria Cross was announced.
‘I was incredibly proud when he was awarded the VC,’ she said. ‘But a part of me just wishes he had hidden behind a rock. It was a bittersweet award. Ian had no fear and his thoughts would have been to protect his men.
‘If Ian was alive today, he would say his VC was not just for him, it was for all his comrades.’
Sergeant McKay’s heroism will never be forgotten. Over the past decades, many monuments and memorials have been put up in his honour. In 2012, the 30th anniversary of the conflict, the military historian Andrew Roberts wrote: ‘The word “hero” is used all too easily and often nowadays, even to describe sportsmen and entertainers.
‘Ian McKay was a genuine hero, someone who at the age of 29 quite deliberately sacrificed his own life in battle so that others – his comrades in the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment – might live.’
A few years after his death, Mrs McKay said that while at home she was ‘visited’ by an image of her husband, who was ironing one of his shirts. He told her: ‘I wouldn’t have changed anything.’
DESCRIBED by his head teacher as ‘one of the most gifted pupils ever to pass through my hands in 42 years of teaching’, Jeff Glover studied engineering at Oxford University, where he made his mark as a pilot in the University Air Squadron before deciding on an RAF career.
By the time of the invasion of the Falklands – on his 28th birthday – he was a Harrier pilot at RAF Wittering, on the Cambridgeshire/Northamptonshire border.
‘The squadron had been put on a footing for possible deployment,’ he told me in an interview at his Lincolnshire home. ‘There was a feeling of excitement, because this was what we had been trained for.’ Glover was chosen to fly one of his squadron’s six Harrier jets from RAF St Mawgan in Cornwall to Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean – a journey of nearly nine hours that required mid-air refuelling.
The final stage of the journey was completed by ship.
On the morning of May 21, 1982, Glover took part in his first wartime mission. But things did not go to plan. ‘We took off at around 8am – it was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. I just wanted to perform to the best of my ability, and not let the side down,’ he said.
‘I lined up behind my boss on the [aircraft] carrier [Hermes]. We each had two cluster bomb units and guns loaded. He selected full power and four seconds later I, too, went to full power, chased him down the flight deck and left the end of the ski jump at 140mph.
‘We started to climb to around 25,000ft but the boss could not retract his undercarriage. He had to abort his mission because of the problem, leaving me to complete the mission… I was given targets in the Port Howard area of West Falkland. I let down from around 20,000ft over land and dropped down to 200ft for about four minutes.
‘I was flying at 535 knots [615mph]. Once I identified the jetty area, I went into a hard turn to the left. Then I felt and heard “Bang! Bang! Bang!”
‘The aircraft entered a maximum-rate roll to the right – the roll taking no more than a second, but it was as if it was happening in slow time. I had three separate thoughts: the first was “I cannot control the roll”. The second was “that sea is awfully close” and the third was “I have to time my ejection right”.
‘After the aircraft had gone through 320 degrees, I looked down and saw my right hand pull the ejection seat handle. I then heard a metallic bang and I lost consciousness.
‘I woke up about 4ft underwater, sunny-side up, and flapped to the surface. I had been hit by a Blowpipe missile that had been fired from the ground by an Argentinian.’
The missile had hit and taken off half of the aircraft’s right wing, remembered Glover. ‘After I ejected, my parachute opened and I dropped into the freezing sea.
‘So, I was in the water in my protective immersion suit, and after what seemed like five minutes of being in shock, I started to think about getting into my self-inflating dinghy, which was attached to me by two quick-release clips.
‘My left side was completely incapacitated from various injuries. I then heard voices and looked around. There was a little rowing boat with some Argentine troops in it, holding rifles.
‘In my stupidity, I reached for my RAF-issue pistol but, thankfully, I had mistakenly left it on Hermes. The soldiers pulled me out of the water and I was from then on, for the next 50 days, a prisoner of war.’
After treatment for his injuries – a broken arm, a broken shoulder blade and a broken collarbone – at a makeshift medical centre, Glover was asked if he wanted to meet the man who had shot him down. ‘I said OK, and I was then introduced to Lieutenant Sergio Fernandez. We shook hands and I said, “Good effort.” ’
On May 25, Glover was taken to Comodoro Rivadavia, a city and military base on the Argentine mainland. With him were four or five Argentine pilots who had been shot down by the British.
As the war continued, Argentina used Glover as a propaganda tool. He was – falsely – quoted in newspapers in Buenos Aires as saying: ‘My people are wrong, and that is dangerous. Our forces are suffering the effects of the Argentine offensive. Their morale is deteriorating due to the confusion caused by air attacks.’
Glover told me that although he was never aggressively interrogated or mistreated, it was a tough two months, with his future uncertain. ‘For the first week, I was locked in a room and not allowed out, but then an International Red Cross man pitched up,’ he said.
‘I was initially suspicious of him, but then I warmed to him when he started taking measurements of the size of my room [to try to get Glover a larger room]. I warmed to him even more when he left me 200 cigarettes.’
Glover was freed on July 8 and flown home shortly afterwards.
‘It took seven months before I could fly solo again,’ he said. ‘It was eventually discovered that I’d had a paranoic reaction to isolation and captivity. My problems were more mental than physical.’
Glover was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air and three years later became a member of the Red Arrows aerobatics team, subsequently spending many years as a commercial pilot. But in a remarkable twist, his links with his capture have endured. Five years ago, while working for the Qatari royal family, he found himself in Buenos Aires for 12 days and decided to look up the man who shot him down more than 30 years earlier, the now retired Major General Sergio Fernandez.
‘He had tracked me down about ten years after the war and we had swapped emails,’ said Glover. ‘But this time we went out for dinner, and it was only then that he told me that I had been in the sea after being shot down for 40 minutes, when I had always thought it was for about five minutes. We had a great evening. He speaks good English and he was, and is, a smashing chap.’
Reflecting on his role in the war nearly four decades ago, Glover, now 67, said: ‘At the time, as a POW in 1982, I thought I had let the side down and lost one of our six planes [from his squadron]. But, nearly 40 years on, I have got over it.’
Gordon Mather, a 35-year-old SAS Troop Sergeant based in Hereford, had been learning Arabic as part of his undercover duties when he heard that war had broken out in the South Atlantic. ‘Our Egyptian instructor turned on the television and we learnt that the Falkland Islands had been invaded,’ he told me. ‘Word soon came through that the Arabic course was cancelled and we should prepare to deploy.’
He would go on to be decorated with the Military Medal for prolonged gallantry during a daring mission lasting four weeks behind enemy lines – the longest such deployment of the whole Falklands conflict.
In an exclusive interview, Mather, who led a four-man patrol in treacherous sub-zero conditions to gain valuable intelligence on Argentine positions, told me that the key to his team’s success had been the ‘thorough, extremely demanding’ SAS selection process.
‘Much of it is based on carrying heavy weights and navigating over difficult ground both by day and night,’ he said. ‘This is combined with very high standards of field craft, best use of ground and camouflage and concealment.’
Their preparations had been exhaustive. ‘Everything that we would need to survive, communicate and perhaps fight with had to be carried,’ he told me. ‘We had the standard issue ration pack: one feeds one man for one day, but it weighs three and a half pounds, so 14 days’ rations alone equals 49lb per man, just food. So we had to cut down on rations.
‘We each carried AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles and 200 rounds of ammunition, along with hand and smoke grenades. As standard procedure, the patrol commander always carries a white phosphorous grenade to destroy code books if required.’
To this day he is full of praise for the Sea King helicopter pilots who inserted them behind enemy lines on May 1, flying dangerously low. ‘They were superb,’ he said. ‘Part of the difficulty, of course, was that we had no idea where the enemy might be. That was our mission. Where are they? How many are they? What weapons do they possess?’
Long before the mission, Mather and other patrol commanders were warned they were on their own if attacked. Under normal circumstances they could expect a Quick Reaction Force to come to their aid if they got into difficulty. However, these patrols were the first troops on to the Falklands, so there would be no back-up. ‘That helped concentrate the mind a bit,’ said Mather.
Communicating their information back to their superiors was far from easy. They were issued with high-frequency radios using hand-speed Morse Code. The messages were encrypted – a slow but secure system. I would radio information perhaps daily or every two days – we had to stay in touch to pass on the information we had obtained and to indicate that we were OK.
‘But all the time we were worried about the direction-finding capability of our enemy. So two guys, one signaller and one other man, would move away from our base for about an hour, set up the antenna, send and receive, take down the antenna and then come back. The next time the other two would go out in a different direction. We hoped it would mean the enemy could never identify exactly where our base was situated.’
Their targets were viewed through binoculars, said Mather. ‘The closest we got was about 400 metres. I never felt we were in immediate danger of being spotted.’
Mather said that, despite the challenging conditions, he never had to motivate his men because they were all tremendously fit, professional and resilient.
‘Yes, of course, when you are on Day 21 or whatever it is, cold and soaking wet, you might look at each other and say, “I would rather be in our favourite pub in Hereford.” But basically you just get on with it; heads never went down. Occasionally, I tuned the radio to the BBC World Service and found out what was happening. On May 21, they reported “British forces have landed on the Falkland Islands”. We looked at each other and that raised a bit of smile. We thought, “We are not alone – the cavalry have come!” ’
His squadron’s patrols eventually resulted in the disabling of four enemy helicopters and the destruction of a substantial aviation fuel dump – a satisfying contribution to the effort.
At the end of their 28-day mission, they were picked up at an agreed rendezvous point and, exhausted and filthy, flown to a ship anchored off the islands.
‘I told my guys in a whisper to unload their weapons,’ he said. ‘I was whispering because of course we had got so used to it over the past four weeks.’
Mather, now 74, has returned to the Falklands twice since, including in 2012 for the 30th anniversary of the war.
‘On Remembrance Sunday, a very moving service was held in Stanley Cathedral,’ he recalled. ‘I asked one Falkland Islander what she thought about us veterans returning year after year.
‘She replied, “While you are here this week, Gordon, we will take care of you. And when your children come to the islands, our children will take care of them.
‘ “When your grandchildren come, our grandchildren will take care of them, too. Because this is a debt that we can never repay.” ’