An unsocial distance

For this last week, we’ve been flightless here in the Falklands – a mildly concerning state of affairs as the option of getting away, such as for a medivac, is reassuring in case of emergencies. The latest news suggests that our Airbridge is due to restart at the end of the week. The link it gives us to the outside world is perhaps more symbolic than anything else at this surreal time but many are happy to see its return nonetheless.
Our situation remains similar to many other countries during this increasingly difficult challenge and the upsurge in blog posts is absolutely tied to the amount of time we’re spending at home, away from other people.

Thankfully for us, there is something that we can do in isolation here that gets us outside with plenty of room to keep our distance, it’s free and we end up with something tasty to eat without risking a trip to the shop: it’s teaberry season!

Particularly sweet and tasty, they are hard to describe as they don’t compare to anything else. They are traditionally baked into teaberry buns, but we like them with Easy-Yo yoghurt (the Falklands standard) and sprinkled on our cereal in the morning.Teaberries 25-03-20I’ll aim to add a few other articles over the next few weeks: perhaps more informative and less topical ones! I’ve got a few in mind and hopefully you might learn something  interesting with all this added time we’re all spending at screens.

Stay home, stay safe.

Can you dig it?

It seems that my attempts to be a good husband aren’t always completely on target: taking Han to an abandoned woollen mill on her birthday last year seemed to cause some amusement among our friends.

I got the message. Industrial sites, it seems, are not the correct kind of historic location for treating the wife. Fear not, readers, for I have learnt my lesson!

I present, then, for her very first Mothers’ Day, my wife and baby at their first ever archaeological dig:

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Allow me to explain this one: the fascinating history of the Falklands has become something I’ve become fairly interested in during our time here.

One other project I’ve been working on is the development of an area to the West of Stanley called Bennett’s Paddock. You can actually see the site on Google Earth and see the outlines there for yourselves. The shapes you can make out are the last remains of what was probably Britain’s most remote WWII garrison, ordered to the islands by PM Winston Churchill himself. I’ll include a short(ish – you know me) history of the site below, but the Paddock is scheduled for development in the coming few months, leaving no more remains from a significant but much-forgotten part of the islands’ history.

The Museum & National Trust were put in touch with a project officer from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. He was very fortunately able to fly down, with his friend from Oxford University, and run an archaeological dig on the site before it gets demolished and all trace of it is lost forever. Thankfully, volunteers were forthcoming and the dig successfully went ahead. Thus, on Mothers’ Day weekend, we found ourselves at our first ever archaeological dig site trowel in hand.

Some interesting artefacts, structures and questions were all uncovered in the process and we all look forward to hearing more about the findings in upcoming academic papers, Museum publications and, quite possibly, a return to FITV for this budding historian. Oh yes!

The presence of this ominous 4×4 did, however, put an end to the efforts of these wannabe Indiana Joneses:

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Yes, that’s the British Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal vehicle, turning up to give us the latest on the ongoing saga duly reported by FITV on their Facebook:

FITV WWII postsIt transpired that an Argentine 105mm artillery position hadn’t quite been tidied up as well as it should have. A controlled explosion might have rendered the shell safe, but it has meant that the whole site is now ‘suspect’ and deemed inaccessible for the time being. Thus ended our first Mothers’ Day and dig.

If you’re concerned that I had my wife and child on a site with unexploded ordnance, I should add that this was a different part of the dig site, the de-mining team had done a detecting survey of the paddock beforehand and highlighted the risk areas and we were in no danger in our trench.I’m not that careless – I do quite like them both.

Unexploded ordnance is, sadly, still present across the islands. Those 74 days (and the aftermath) were chaotic enough to ensure that an EOD presence will be required in the islands for some time to come.

As for our fate during this uncertain time in global affairs? It is just that: uncertain. Following the pattern of pretty much all other countries affected, lockdown seems to be the inevitable destination, but it isn’t one we’ve reached yet. If/when we do, expect Pengoing South to gain some added content.

Now, without further ado, some much-needed history:

The West Yorks’ Camp – WWII in the Falkland Islands:

These islands are no stranger to military aggression and World War Two was no exception. Fortress Europa might have seemed a world away, but Japanese success in the Pacific and the Pearl Harbour attack showed just how ambitious the Japanese Navy could be. By December 1941, signals intelligence suggested that Japan was planning to take the Falkland Islands as a further symbolic blow to the crumbling British Empire.

Both Canada and the USA turned down the calls for assistance and Churchill knew that the flat, open islands could never be made truly defensible at short notice. The only option was to send enough men to cause the Japanese to think twice about committing a sizeable force for the attack. The 11th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment was despatched as soon as possible. Their commanding officer was Lt Col Howard Green. When he was told of his mission, he sarcastically pointed out “so, it’s the West Yorks against the Japanese Empire”? His briefing officer simply replied “well, yes”. Interestingly, they were at least given mobile artillery support, making them one of the most heavily armed infantry battalions in the British Army.

There was little excitement on their journey down the West African coast, but rumour and speculation about their final destination must have been a constant distraction. Being issued with both cold weather and tropical kit gave little clue to their fate. The convoy arrived at Cape Town ready for some much-needed shore leave in July 1942, which they evidently took full advantage of. It was only after leaving port that they found out that they were bound for the Falkland Islands. As if to prepare them for being isolated from the rest of the War, it was to be another three weeks before they saw any other sign of land or humanity again.

Here in Stanley, word had spread about an upcoming garrison and the likely need to house the men, but no-one knew exactly how many men were coming or when they might arrive. No-one could even rule out a Japanese invasion before then so the arrival of an advance party to make preparations must have been some comfort to the local people. On the 11th August 1942, the main force anchored in Port William and the next few days were spent frantically trying to find billets for the men. Civilian houses were quickly occupied and HQ was set up in John Street in Stanley. It would be another 5 months of hard labour before the main force was able to move to its new Camp to the West of Stanley. With no other option available, every man would be involved in constructing the new Camp.

It was incredibly hard work, clearing rocks, laying over 15 miles’ of barbed wire and erecting huts in the difficult Falklands weather. Before long, the men were so exhausted that they requested for their evening meal to be served early so they could finish work at 4pm, eat and go straight to bed. Unusual soldierly behaviour by anyone’s standards.

Located so close to town, the new arrivals quickly became an active part of the community here, taking part in sports events, shows and helping to train the local forces. Look-outs and gun emplacements were set up around the islands and the soldiers soon established what would become their war-time routine.

Before long, the tide had turned in the Pacific and the Japanese retreated, leaving behind their threat of invasion. The West Yorks, however, faced another enemy: boredom. Some men turned to local crafts or keeping pigs and chickens. The Yorks had even shipped a small pack of beagles across the world to occupy their time with hunting each week. Others, however, turned to the bottle. Their War Diary records 16 different court martials, one unexplained fire and another 13 inquiries into ‘unexplained injuries’. Clearly, not everyone was having a peaceful deployment after all. Other details of their time in the islands are remarkably scant. Despite such a significant number of men, few records exist about their time here and more will hopefully be revealed over time.

As the war dragged on and the need for their presence decreased, rumours began to circulate that their time in the Falklands would soon be up. The War in Europe beckoned and the West Yorks finally departed Stanley (with mixed emotions) on 1st February 1944. They didn’t know it, but they were bound for England to help with the D-Day preparations.

If any doubt remained about the Camp’s significance to the Falklands, the Governor addressed the men with a heartfelt goodbye. Their time, he told them, had “re-forged and strengthened the already strong link that has always bound the Falklands to the Motherland”. They weren’t the Japanese, but the islanders would forever remember the men brought to these shores by the War in the Pacific.

Today, in the year 2020, that bond continues to be maintained and the West Yorks’ service is remembered by the ongoing investigation into their time here.

Little is known about the Camp’s demise after the War. Much of their footprint was destroyed but the circumstances remain unclear. The Nissen huts were eventually spread throughout the islands, becoming as much a part of the community as the men who once called them home. The rest of this story remains to be told.

Note: while there are photos of the men, their camp and their exploits here, copyright permissions remain with the Museum and National Trust and I will leave their publications to do this story justice in full.

Outbreak

It brings me no pleasure to be adding to internet furore but, I’ll be honest, this post is all about the posterity. It also holds many of my own thoughts/opinions and I am a historian, not a medical professional. Historians do, however, often have the advantage of the ‘big picture’ perspective and it seems that something historic has been happening of late.

I’m sure we’ll be looking back on our time here decades down the line and I’ve little doubt that it’ll be worth recording that Covid19 has made itself known to the world during our stint on these islands. There will be many lessons to learn from this. To what extent we, as a global society, learn those lessons still remains to be seen. Sadly, the only thing we often learn from studying history is that we simply don’t learn so I personally remain sceptical.

Right now, on 16th March 2020, the Falkland Islands can’t REALLY complain (yet) as there have been no recorded instances of Covid19 on the islands. That being said, the remote nature and small population has the inevitable result that medical services are limited; tests for the virus will need to be carried out in the UK (estimated turnaround time: 10 days). So no RECORDED cases doesn’t necessarily mean no cases.

Still, you might think, count yourselves lucky: we’re not in lock-down or unnecessarily wrestling over bog-roll in the aisles. No, we are not. Perhaps a hostile military invasion in living memory has made this community slightly more resistant to mass hysteria. Time will tell.

It’ll also be tempting to highlight that we’re on a remote set of islands and surely, therefore, a low-risk location. After all, island nations have a long history of keeping outside issues at sea. This could well be the case if bold, decisive isolationist action were to be taken at the sacrifice of the tourism industry and wider economy. As it is, we have had c.60,000 cruise ship tourists alighting this season and three weekly flights (including one MoD resupply service) that have been continuing to bring people from all over the world to these islands for work and tourism. These haven’t stopped (yet). An element of inevitability is detectable in many communications about the disease here but by the time it is confirmed, of course, it will have been here for some time and so it’ll likely be too late to contain in such a tiny community.

So we find ourselves on an island that has limited medical facilities (I don’t envy the person whose job it is to weigh up numbers of beds, medication, staff,ventilators etc), unable to test for the virus and reliant on emergency medical evacuation to countries that, understandably, may soon refuse international patients on account of infection or capacity. It’s statistical fact that, like the UK, comparatively high obesity levels, alcohol consumption and rates of smoking combined with an ageing population also mean that there are a significant number of ‘at risk’ individuals (elderly and/or with co-morbidities) in the community.

The islands are also highly reliant on the international community: many people need to come and go from the islands for medical care. As well as that, the islands are always host to people from all over the world carrying out work, research or training. The last census recorded people from over 65 different countries here. Several people that we know have either given up attempting to get home already or have been recalled early, having to fly out to avoid being stuck here when borders inevitably come down elsewhere.

So there is significant public concern being voiced on all platforms, with regular updates from our government and medical services. I’m sure individuals have their own plans too: one thing this place has got in abundance is space. Remote settlements and outer islands here have long been ideal hideaways for those hoping to avoid social contact.

Should the government have closed the borders? Will the virus even hit here? What will the effects be? How will people respond? How will our own lives be affected? Will we learn?
The only thing that can and will truly answer these questions is time.

For us, so far, life continues as usual and so we took advantage of some fine weather over the weekend to head out to my favourite spot on East Falkland: Whale Point. It was GREAT to be back out in the 4×4, off-roading and enjoying the sunshine, scenery and wildlife. As well as the St Mary, of course. I do love a good shipwreck story! Only a few obligatory photos taken this time as it’s our 100,000th visit there:

I’ll steer clear of in-depth analyses of this crisis as it unfolds on a global scale; that is the place of scientists and medical professionals and there are already far too many people on the internet weighing in where it is neither helpful nor necessary. Instead, I’ll now leave this as just what this blog has always aimed to be: just a different perspective from a wild and remote community in the South Atlantic.

 

EDIT: After I wrote this, Time Magazine did a much better job of explaining the whole thing than I did. As I live here, I have to play things differently, but fair play to them: https://time.com/5811309/coronavirus-falklands/

A Welcome Return

Our baby being born in Ireland in October has necessitated some reverse seasonal migration on our part. Having endured two winters in a row, we’ve returned to the Falklands in time to catch the last  few weeks of the Summer tourist season. Pushed into swift action by our severe lack of vitamin D, we no sooner unpacked and a phone call was made to one of our favourite haunts: Sea Lion Island.

As is so often the case here in the Falklands, the journey is part of the adventure and it was exciting to hop on a FIGAS flight again after so long away, even with a baby in tow this time:

We were a little concerned that we’d be arriving so late in the season that we’ll have missed some of the wildlife highlights (the Gentoo and Rockhopper chicks are pretty cute and curious)  but anyone following Sea Lion Lodge’s Facebook page recently will have noted that there was still plenty of interesting behaviour to be witness to. The island served up the usual array of outstanding penguin encounters, including viewing from the Lodge:

Sea Lion Island is particularly notable for its other bird life as it has no sheep, rats or mice to bother the ground nesters, but you never really know what you might see whenever you’re wandering around:

Regulars will know that Sea Lion is a crucial habitat for its long-studied Elephant Seal population. We might have missed the breeding season (not always a bad thing: “that’s not lovemaking” was a favourite quote by Han’s Dad on witnessing the process) but they haul out in Feb/March time to moult so there were still plenty of the beasts knocking around to cause some much-needed amusement:

This time of year, the animals that kindly lend their name to the island are well worth spending some time with as the pups are just starting to swim, play (king of the castle on a rocky outcrop) and, apparently, investigate washed-up Sei whale ribs:

Han was very much able to empathise with the suckling sea lion mums, as she found herself doing some cliff-top feeding of her own at the same time.

You’ll know that we have been very regular visitors to Sea Lion Island over the past few years (including a short stint guiding there) and you might think that we’ve seen and done it all, but there is a NEW addition to the island this year! One important highlight that only joined the island recently and has had a marked improvement on the whole experience:Sea Lion BookletIt’s as I always say: wherever you’re going, always bring a historian!

P.S. For our friends and family, a connection we’d like to point out: in the Falkland Islands, a male Sea Lion is called a Jasper!