Thrown into the Falklands at the deep end
FOR Harry Benson, as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, the defining moment of the Falklands War came just days after his arrival in the South Atlantic, as he found himself piloting a Wessex helicopter solo for the first time – ferrying Gurkhas out of the recently taken Goose Green, while in the distance smoke poured from the wrecks of the Sir Galahad and the Sir Tristram.
"I had come out of training just a month before," recalls the former Royal Navy commando helicopter pilot.
"Talk about being thrown in the deep end. I'd spent the first few hours of flying over there working alongside a more experienced Royal Navy pilot, but then I was on my own.
"To be honest, even though I was only 21 years old, and I'd never experienced anything like it, I actually couldn't wait to be going it alone.
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"That first flight that I took alone at the controls of a Wessex will always stay with me – landing on Goose Green amid the debris of battle; the still-smoking buildings, the bodies strewn all over the place, then that sense of confidence building up inside me once my first load of Gurkhas were onboard, and I could take off and head over the islands with them – the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram still billowing with smoke in the bay.
"It was an awesome sight. I spent most of the day ferrying Gurkhas off Goose Green – I made that run at least a dozen times, and it was just such a dramatic backdrop of war, that it's something that never leaves you.
"It's the terrible paradox of warfare. Actually you're surrounded by dreadful scenes – people killing each other; humans doing things to fellow humans that they should never do.
"Of course it's horrible. But at the same time, it's incredibly exciting and exhilarating. You are doing what you have been trained to do, and actually it's an incredible adrenaline rush.
"There were numerous occasions when I came under fire from the enemy in my time on the Falklands, but the danger to you personally is not something that strikes you until much later – at the time, it's just pure adrenaline at work."
Harry, who was based at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton, later settled in Bristol after leaving the service. He studied psychology at Bristol University – achieving a first class honours degree – and later set up the Bristol Community Family Trust, a charity specialising in relationship advice.
With his understanding of psychology, Harry was well placed to tackle the story of the Falklands helicopter commando pilots for the first time with his new book, Scram!, which aims to tell the story of his unit during the 1982 conflict.
"I met up with a lot of the old pilots I'd known in the navy at a remembrance event a few years ago, and when we got talking to each other, I realised there were many experiences they simply hadn't talked about at the time – we didn't know about the individual dramas we'd all experienced out there.
"It's quite natural I think, that when you're there you don't have chance to tell tales to each other about the horrors of the day, and once you're back home, you simply don't want to talk about it for a long time."
Harry interviewed more than 40 of his former comrades for the book, and found they all opened up with extraordinary memories of close scrapes and moments of tragedy.
"That's where the book will play a particularly useful role I think," he says. "Nobody has ever properly documented the role played by the commando helicopter pilots during the war, and I think that's because they wouldn't have opened up as well to a writer who hadn't been there and experienced it for himself.
"I personally had an experience, towards the end of the conflict, when I was misinformed about a landing site, and instead of landing relatively safely behind the British lines, I found myself bringing the helicopter down right in the middle of the battlefield – with the Argentines lobbing artillery at me, but miraculously missing my aircraft.
"I was angry at first because of the bad information I'd been given, and it was only later when that passed that the reality hit me of just how close I had come to being killed that day."
Harry is less than optimistic for the UK's chances of winning another war in the South Atlantic.
"There were two reasons why we won the Falklands War," he explains. "One was that HMS Conqueror sank the General Belgrano which took the entire Argentine Navy out of the equation. Without diminishing the deaths of the Argentineans on Belgrano that did save thousands of lives.
"The second reason was the Sea Harriers. They won the air war. But now we've got rid of them. Having now lost our aircraft carriers, we have absolutely zero chance of reclaiming the Falklands if a similar situation were to happen today."
â Scram! by Harry Benson, is published by Random House, priced £18.99.