Saturday, 23 June 2012

Book Review-Scram by Harry Benson

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Having followed the Falklands War as a school kid and read quite a number of other books on the subject from many differing participants; I eagerly looked forward to reading this unique account. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed, though the ‘memories’ presented do seem to get a little blurred occasionally.

So why is it a ‘unique’ account? Well as far as I’m aware, this is the only version of the Falklands War written through the eyes of the helicopter pilots, or as I now know them, the ‘Junglies’. The author, Harry Benson was a young, 21 year old helicopter pilot straight out of training. As a result, Harry didn’t sail with the task force but went in one of the later waves of pilots sent down to the battle, only arriving towards the end of the conflict. As a result, his own experiences of the war largely concern his immensely slow and frustrating voyage down there and then his flying in the last couple of weeks of the war.

The lack of personal experience doesn’t detract from the story as Harry has spent a significant amount of time interviewing his former colleagues, many of whom have never told their story before. He now presents a chronologically correct account of helicopter operations from the task force setting sail to the Argentine surrender and beyond.

Many of the stories told are pretty rivetting such as the landing of SAS troops on the Fortuna glacier on St Georgia and their subsequent evacuation with the loss of two out of three of the helicopters involved. Descriptions of the rescue operations of the Welsh Guards after the attacks on Sir Galahad and Sir Tristan in Bluff Cove are particularly poignant.

A major takeaway from the book is the number of errors made by our own forces along with the lack of organization, leadership and co-ordination of resources that occurred. There are also details of a ‘friendly fire’ incident involving an Army Gazelle helicopter that I wasn’t previously aware of.

Notwithstanding the lack of leadership, the bravery of the Junglie crews comes through, especially as the war progressed. This is where Harry’s own story comes to the fore; flying night time rescue missions on the battlefield right up to the front line to ferry back the wounded from both sides whilst under artillery fire. It shows how adrenalin can often overtake experience.

One of the scariest moments was a sortie on Mount Tumbledown. They found themselves in an incredibly exposed position on the ground for, “little more than a minute but it seemed like an eternity”; they were being fired upon and could clearly see the heads of enemy soldiers moving around in their trenches. Only when they reached their debriefing were they informed, it had been an operational error - they had been sat right in full view of the Argentine front line.

A particularly obvious theme throughout the book is that of the inter-service rivalry that exists in our armed forces, I noted there being a particular lack of respect between the ‘Junglies’ and the ‘Pingers’ (anti-submarine helicopter pilots). Another neat put-down by Harry was of the RAF’s efforts to bomb the runway at Port Stanley via the long range Vulcan raids, the implication being it was just a token effort and a complete waste of time!

There is a level of bitterness in the book from the author with a recurring feeling that he was cheated out of a proper war by his late arrival on the frontline. Overall though, this doesn’t detract from what is an immensely readable and enjoyable book.

Mark Bowden

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