Remembrance Day: “We didn’t fight for Queen and country, or Maggie. We fought for each other”
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David Gillies is an award-winning member of the Serious Crime Directorate’s anti-fraud team and a Falklands War veteran.
Prior to his 36-year career with Essex Police, he spent 11 years in the British Army, serving in Northern Ireland, Kenya, Cyprus, Canada, the USA and Germany.
In 1982, David – then a 21-year-old Lance Corporal in 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers – was sent to the Falkland Islands following the Argentinian invasion.
He survived the bombing of troop ships the Sir Galahad and the Sir Tristram and helped to rescue injured colleagues from the water. Fifty-six soldiers and crew died. It is the biggest loss of life in a single day for Britain’s armed forces since the Second World War.
This October, David returned to the islands for the first time with eight fellow veterans to commemorate those who died in battle and meet locals who offered him food and shelter during the conflict.
Forty-one years on, he said the trip brought memories “flooding back like it was yesterday” as the group visited memorials to lost comrades and took part in a remembrance motorcycle ride.
David had been parachuting from a balloon in Aldershot when news of the invasion came though.
“None of us knew where the Falklands were,” he said. “We all thought it was in Scotland, and why would anyone want to invade Scotland?”
David’s squadron travelled to Falklands by ship via Ascension Island. He said it was scene of “mass logistical confusion” as they had mobilised in a hurry, with all the stores and ammunition on different ships.
“We did as much research as we could on the Argentine army and did a lot of first aid training on the way down but still nobody really knew what to expect,” he said.
The engineers were split up among infantry battalions with David joining the Welsh Guards on board the Sir Galahad.
David’s section disembarked when the ship arrived in the bay at Fitzroy, but hundreds of troops were still on board when the Sir Galahad and the Sir Tristram were attacked by Argentine Skyhawk jets. Both ships took direct hits and burst into flames.
A 1982 ITN news report on the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram attacks.
“To this day I count myself lucky,” David said. “Even back in Fitzroy this time, I can still smell the burning flesh from rescuing the blokes. It was horrific.”
One of the memorials the group visited was to Lance Corporal John Pashley who was killed fighting on Mount Tumbledown.
“John was a very good friend of mine. That was a tough day visiting his memorial,” said David. “Every battle was fought at night, and that night we had to clear a path through the minefield.
“The weather was appalling, and I can’t remember being dry till the end of the campaign, when we moved into abandoned houses in Stanley and lit peat fires. During the conflict we found shelter where we could, sometimes packing into sheep sheds. Looking back this week I wondered, how did we do it?
“You are bone-achingly tired. You don’t when it’s going to end, and the enemy missiles, bombs, shells and bullets threaten to make ever day your last.
“But through it all there is humour, courage and fortitude, and you’re privileged to witness the heights to which the human spirit can reach when bolstered with the comradeship and respect forged in such circumstances.
“War is a young man’s game. I was 21 but we had 18 and 19-year-olds with us. You feel invincible - it’s only when the conflict ends that you’ve got time to think. That’s when the emotion and the trauma kicks in.”
In 1982, post-traumatic stress disorder was not recognised by the British military or the medical profession. David said returning to the Falklands had been cathartic as, like many of his fellow soldiers, the conflict has had a lasting effect on him.
“At the time, when we came back there was no such thing as therapy, no such thing as PTSD. You were just left to get on with it. You put it in a box, hide it and don’t let it out.
“Going back there and being with the blokes did help. It was really emotional. We cried, we laughed, we hugged. We supported each other. A lot of us have gone through therapy. A few blokes we know have been sectioned, one committed suicide.
“To see the island thriving makes you think what we did wasn’t in vain, there was some good to come out of it. The islanders and even their children are appreciative. It’s humbling.
“Was the war worth it? In war, tragedies happen. It’s part of the price of war. We didn’t fight for Queen and country, or Maggie. We fought for each other. But this doesn't lessen the pain for those who lost husbands, fathers, sons, loved ones and friends, or reduce the mental trauma that most of us carry to this day.”
Falkland Islands TV covered David and his group's Ride of Respect.
David joined Essex Police soon after leaving the army. He retired as a sergeant in Colchester after 23 years on the frontline before joining the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate where he is currently a Prevent and Protect Fraud Officer.
He runs the ground-breaking fraud peer support group and recently won the outstanding contribution accolade at the National Tackling Economic Crime Awards.
Through the group, he brings victims of fraud together to share their stories in a non-judgemental environment.
David said the benefit he’s had from talking about his experiences has shaped his desire to support others.
“It led me down the route of wanting to help people. In the peer support group, we’re dealing with people who’ve experienced emotional trauma. I can put myself in their place because I’ve been through it.”
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