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.

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