Unsung Falklands heroes who helped liberate the islands 40 years ago include vet who used castrating scissors to sabotage Argentine army phone cables and a farmer who led British soldiers to safety under cover of darkness
First published in The Daily Mail on 12 March 2022.
Today, Trudi McPhee, a sixth generation islander, farms her 8,500 acres of land populated by 1,700 sheep on East Falkland, where she was born and raised.
In fact, her ‘little plot’ is too small to be economic, so she also, with her partner, manages three other farms with a further 10,000 sheep.
Her peaceful existence is in stark contrast to the dangers she faced exactly 40 years ago when a huge Argentine force invaded the Falkland Islands.
From the moment Governor Rex Hunt was forced to surrender, all the islanders faced an uncertain future, at best, and a dangerous one, at worst.
Once the battle to regain the islands began, Trudi was one of several islanders who put their lives at risk by helping the British troops as they advanced towards Port Stanley. Three islanders, all women, died in the fighting.
It is little-known that during the occupation, many other islanders also took significant risks by forming a loose resistance group that tried to sabotage the communications and other operations of the Argentine invaders, while also passing on vital information, including the locations of enemy troops, to the British.
Some say the islanders’ courage has, to this day, never been fully recognised.
In November last year, I published my latest bravery book, Falklands War Heroes, in order to tell remarkable stories of gallantry performed by our soldiers, sailors, airmen and support staff during the 1982 war. This bravery resulted in numerous gallantry decorations being awarded, including two posthumous Victoria Crosses.
Now, just days before the 40th anniversary of the invasion, I want to tell the story of the valour of the islanders themselves — as well as of some other unsung heroes — in two articles, continuing in tomorrow’s The Mail on Sunday.
When a large Argentine force descended on the Falkland Islands in the early hours of April 2, 1982, the remote British Overseas Territory of 1,820 inhabitants was defended only by a platoon of Royal Marines. They put up a short but spirited defence until ordered to surrender in the face of a far larger enemy force.
The Falklands Islands Defence Force had been alerted the night before the invasion and the 40-strong civilian militia was up for a fight.
However, few had any military experience or training and it was decided, wisely perhaps, not to put them into the front line.
The men, who drew comparisons with ‘Dad’s Army’ and who were under the command of Major Phil Summers, had assembled in the Drill Hall at Port Stanley from 5am on April 2, but they surrendered later that day, without firing a shot in anger, on the orders of the Governor.
Over the next fortnight, the Marines and most government officials, including Rex Hunt, were flown off the island. Before invading, the enemy had done their homework, perhaps aided by Argentines already living on the islands, and had identified some islanders by name as potential troublemakers to watch.
The islanders debated in private from the start what they should do: some favoured out-and-out disobedience but most opted, in the face of overwhelming odds, to build a working relationship with the invaders but to fall short of total cooperation. A few even bided their time waiting for the best moment to take up arms.
Dick Barker, Hunt’s right-hand man as Chief Secretary, chaired a committee set up to debate the occupation before he left the island after ten days.
He later recalled: ‘We had to do a bit of restraining with Steve Whitley [the island vet] because he was all for going out and sabotaging things, and sticking knives in a few Argies.’
Baker pointed out that if enemy servicemen were killed, the retaliation might be to shoot dead some islanders, including women and children.
Bill Luxton, who had long been a fierce critic of Argentina, was a councillor on the island and he and his wife defied the enemy orders to stay in Port Stanley, fleeing instead to their remote farm on West Falkland. The couple were soon rounded up by a Special Forces team and deported.
But Luxton left with useful intelligence information that he handed to the British and he became a fierce critic of Argentina from afar over the next few weeks.
As the occupation went on, the invaders adopted a new policy of detaining potential troublemakers, including Dr Daniel Haines, the Senior Medical Officer, at the remote Fox Bay settlement.
The men of the Public Works Department, who ran the electricity and water supplies under armed guard, considered trying to sabotage both services, but they realised the islanders would suffer as much as the invaders.
One man whom the Argentines seemed to disregard as a threat was vet Steve Whitley, who was allowed to keep going round the islands tending to farm stock and pets. Phil Middleton, a teacher, helped him secure the homes of Government officials who had left the Falklands after April 2.
However, Middleton later recalled how the vet used his surgery equipment to cut enemy communications. ‘Steve Whitley had his “magic scissors”, a gelding tool that he used to cut the army telephone wires.
‘We’d stop and Steve would just drop down and cut the wires with a big pair of castrating scissors. My job would be to keep watch . . . Every time we went into a house that we knew the Argentines were about to take over, we’d walk around and make sure it was “all right”. Snip, snip!’
Whitley also used his camera equipment to good effect during so-called house-clearing missions, photographing various enemy positions and the like for the UK Task Force to use at some point.
Speaking from his home on the Falklands, Middleton told me: ‘At the time, we [Steve Whitley and himself] were fundamentally angry that someone had come to take over our island, our homes, and were telling us what to do.’ Mr Middleton, who was 32 at the time of the invasion, added: ‘Steve and I were having a bit of a lark — thumbing our noses up to the [Argentine] authorities. We didn’t consider that we were doing anything heroic.’
The enemy, however, would have looked upon such activities as spying or even treason, but the two men were never caught.
At the time of the invasion, most islanders relied on the government operated ‘RT’ (radio-telephone) system for their communications. After the invasion, this RT network could only be used with special permission and the invaders ordered radio hams to dismantle and hand in their sets. They knew who had equipment from the licences that had been issued.
The principal RT operator was Eileen Vidal and, by chance, shortly after the invasion she had Captain Nick Barker, of the patrol ship HMS Endurance, on the line when the enemy were not listening.
His Marines were on South Georgia preparing to defend the island the next day. Vidal told him valuable information: there were an estimated 15,000 Argentine troops on the island, plus aircraft carriers, helicopters and other military equipment and ‘enough ships out there to blow you out of the water’!
Some of the braver amateur radio ham operators were also seeking to pass on intelligence, including Reg Silvey, who had lived on the Falklands for 13 years. Immediately after the invasion, he handed in his ‘rig’ at the Town Hall, making sure it was signed for, but he then managed to obtain a radio and transmitter that had been secretly hidden by another islander.
Soon, he was linking up over the airwaves with a radio ham in the north of England and passing on useful information. This included the fact Stanley airport was being used by the enemy for supplies but there were no locals nearby, so it could be safely attacked.
‘The trick was to transmit while watching out of the window for the military police,’ Silvey later recalled. The invaders knew someone was transmitting but their direction-finding equipment was not sufficiently accurate to identify the culprit.
Perhaps the bravest islander was Terry Peck, a former police chief turned councillor, who wandered around with a Russian camera and telephoto lens, concealed in a drainpipe. His images of anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons were eventually smuggled to the British forces. However, Peck had come to the attention of the invaders. Constable Anton Livermore, originally a member of the island police force and a Spanish-speaker, overheard two Argentines saying they planned to arrest Peck the following morning.
Alerted to the danger, Peck, who was in his early 40s, fled Stanley on a motorbike, armed with a semi-automatic pistol and ammunition hidden earlier in his spare tyre. He headed for a remote location known as Green Patch.
For the next few weeks, Peck, who had waterproof clothing, hid out, sometimes sleeping rough and at other times seeking help from islanders who fed him and allowed him to sleep in their outbuildings and use their bathrooms.
The fugitive, who had also recovered weapons hidden by the Marines before their surrender, had also been provided by locals in the area with a forged Argentine ‘white card’ which permitted movement between islands, changing his own name of ‘Terry Peck’ to ‘Jerry Packer’ in case he was caught.
On April 24/25, South Georgia was retaken by the British, which lifted the spirits of islanders. They knew that the Task Force would next try to recapture the Falklands. Peck, who had the codename ‘Rubber Duck’, was determined to meet up with members of the British Armed Forces once they arrived on East Falkland.
After the men of 3 Para and Royal Marines landed at Port San Carlos on East Falkland, Peck successfully sent a radio message to them that he was riding to meet them on his motorbike and they should not fire on him.
Peck later described riding through the men, sporting their red and green berets. ‘I was frantically waving to everybody and they were waving at me.’ Over the next few days, he was debriefed by intelligence officers.
Peck was happy to be attached to 3 Para’s D Company as they marched towards Mount Longdon, a key target in the battle for Port Stanley. Over a two-way civilian radio, he made contact with farmer Trudi McPhee, urging her to get ‘as many drivers and vehicles together as you can’ and meet them as soon as possible.
Trudi, then aged 29, was farming the land where she still lives. During the occupation, she had shielded up to 16 people, including women and children, in her two-bedroom farmhouse and neighbouring caravan. Most had fled from Port Stanley, more than 30 miles away, because they were frightened or they wanted more freedom.
Once she had her request for help from Peck, Trudi, who is passionate in her love for the Falklands, wasted no time getting several volunteers with Land Rovers, tractors and other supplies to join her cross-country convoy.
‘I am a pretty strong-willed character. There was no way I was going to miss out. I wanted to get rid of those bloody Argies,’ she told me. At 4am on May 31, much to her parents’ concern, Trudi and her group of 22 islanders drove through the Para lines and on to nearby Mount Estancia, with enemy soldiers all around the mountains.
Soon they met up with Major Roger Patton, of 3 Para, who was full of admiration for their courage and their willingness to guide the troops towards Mount Longdon. It was not long before the volunteers were taking 300 Paras and their kit up Mount Estancia.
As an attack on Mount Longdon was being formulated, Peck, Trudi and the rest of the volunteers agreed to stay with the British forces and helped over the next ten days with night patrols as they knew the terrain so well.
‘It was unreal,’ Peck later recalled. ‘We would get as close as we could get without spitting in their eye. We’re talking tens of metres. Sometimes I got a bit nervy, particularly on moonlit nights.’
As the battle loomed, both Peck and Trudi stayed with the British forces. At one point, Trudi led a military convoy while wearing white gloves so they could be seen easily as she pointed out the best directions in the gloom. She had also been warned the area was mined and was given a field dressing and a hypodermic with morphine in case she was wounded by a mine or a bullet.
Trudi said she was not really scared, even when she came under enemy fire. ‘I just felt so damn cross that these people [the enemy] had done this to us and I wanted to do all I could to help,’ she said.
Once they reached Longdon, Major Patton told the civilians that their role was over — they could not be involved in the hand-to-hand fighting to take the mountain. Nine locals headed towards the foot of the mountain where they later saw wounded troops arrive by helicopter.
Physically and mentally exhausted, Trudi remembered it was her mother’s birthday the next day — June 12 — and so she went home to the family farm, Brookfield.
The Battle for Mount Longdon was won on June 12. On June 14, Port Stanley was captured and the enemy surrendered. Sadly, during the fighting on June 11, three civilians, all women and including the vet Steve Whitley’s 30-year-old wife Sue, were killed by a stray missile, while Steve himself, then 35, was injured. But their fight to help regain their homes and their freedoms had been won.
Terry Peck, who fought with the Paras, was awarded the MBE for his contribution to the resistance and supporting the British advance. He was also given honorary membership of 3 Para and stayed on the islands until his death in 2006, aged 68. [His quotes in this article were given to Graham Bound, an islander and journalist who remained on the Falklands during the occupation.]
Sue Whitley was buried on the Falklands and her husband was made an MBE for his brave deeds in 1982. He subsequently moved back to the UK and remarried, but has always been reluctant to discuss his role publicly.
Trudi McPhee (then using her married surname, Morrison), received a letter of commendation from Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, commander of the British forces in 1982, that ended: ‘At times under enemy artillery fire, Mrs Morrison remained resolved to continue, showing tremendous steadfastness in dangerous and unfamiliar circumstances.’
Six other farmers received similar commendations for their brave efforts and others were recognised for keeping services going during the occupation.
Today, at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, there is a memorial tribute to the bravery of the islanders who resisted their invaders and oppressors.
‘The contribution of the islanders themselves seems to have been forgotten over the years and so I wanted to do something for them. They were incredibly brave,’ said former SAS soldier Mike Colton, 74, who founded the Friends of the Allied Special Forces Memorial Grove at the arboretum.
However, the Willow Upland Goose memorial, featuring a bird widely found on the Falklands and designed to represent the islanders’ freedom, is falling into disrepair. I have made a contribution to the £50,000 appeal to construct a more permanent memorial made from metal.
Perhaps the final word on the islanders’ courage should go to the-then Major Roger Patton, the former second-in-command of 3 Para in 1982 and who recently celebrated his 80th birthday.
Patton, who eventually retired from the Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel, said of recapturing the Falklands: ‘We couldn’t have done it without the help of the islanders. Many of them were incredibly brave and they have never really received the recognition they deserve.’