Thirty years on from the Falklands conflict, what made you decide to write The Yompers?
No one had written with any authority about that iconic feat of the war, 'The Yomp'. Neither had they written about the brilliant Battle of Two Sisters where the highest and one of the most difficult objectives of the war was captured with very few casualties. 45 Commando Group was one of the finest, most professional units in the world. I was privileged to be a member of it and I sensed that others in the unit felt that it was high time its story was told. I was well placed to tell it, and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
What sets your book apart from other accounts of the conflict that are available?
There are aspects of the Falklands War which have not been properly explored in other books: for instance, the part it played in the Cold War, and the interest the Soviets had in the unfolding drama. The fragile position of the Royal Marines in the British defence firmament at that time has never been set out. Moreover, the higher command arrangements were imperfect and there were some dire cock-ups which were obscured by the overall success. The book highlights all of these. No other book pays the tribute due to the logisticians who, in the face of every disaster, picked up the broken pieces and kept the show on the road. And apart from telling a hitherto untold story, the book is a gritty, moving, sophisticated, reflective first-hand description of what it is like to do the most difficult job in the world: to be an infantry soldier in battle. The combination of all these things makes it unique.
Did you keep a diary of events during the conflict, or did you re-live your experiences and write it from memory?
I didn't keep a diary. If I had been captured, or if I had been killed and my body captured, it would have been useful to the enemy. But on the journey home, I sketched out the essence of what happened. Years later, this formed the basis for my book. But as I wrote the book, I sent chapters out to those who were there with me to do a lie detector test on it. These men often then added some of their perspectives and stories. So the book is much more than my story. It is in part a tribute to those who were there with me.
Did you find it necessary to undertake wider research of the Falklands conflict in order to write your book and if so how did you go about this?
Without the assistance of those who were there with me it would have been a very thin book. I also read many books about the Falklands War covering all its different facets. And while the central story was very familiar to me, over the years my own knowledge and understanding of the conflict grew and matured. So the book is also the product of 30 years of reflection, and I don't believe it is any the worse for that.
What advice would you give to yourself of 30 years ago as you set out to the Falklands?
Remember that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and some plans don't even survive that long. Train yourself and your men to expect the unexpected at every corner. Teach yourself and them to revel in the ability to thrive in chaos. And when things go wrong, remember you shouldn't have joined if you can't take a joke. Oh – and take a camera!
Have you revisited the islands since the war?
Once in 1987 when memories were still very fresh, and again briefly with my wife in 2011. Professionally, the first visit was the most interesting because I was able to study in daylight things I had only had a worm's eye view of in the dark in 1982. In 2011 my wife and I climbed Two Sisters on a beautiful summer's day and that was rather moving for both of us.
What are your most outstanding memories of the war overall?
I have ten thousand vivid memories. The surprise of being called to war from my bed; the sight of our ships exploding burning and sinking, and Argentine aircraft exploding in mid air; the grindingly heavy weight of our rucksacks, the pain in one's feet while trying to put one's boots on; the turmoil in one's guts when one has no food; the thought, while watching the sun setting, that one might not live to see it rise again; the smell of shattered bodies, cigarette smoke, sweat and urine; the sensation of 155 mm shells crashing around one's ears threatening to physically rip the sanity from one's head; the sense of helplessness during a night battle when things are beyond your control; the thought when seeing young dead Argentines, how like one's own men they looked: sleeping in the open with no sleeping bag at minus 10 degrees; the exhilaration and relief when we knew it was over: ...ten thousand memories ... but above all the memories of my own Marines who came with me, and risked and endured everything with a joke and smile, and upon whose shoulders my life and reputation rests.
If you were to relive those days, would you change anything?
Nothing that was within my power to change. But I wish that nearly a thousand young men and three Falkland Islanders did not have to die because the Argentines wanted to colonize the Islands, simply because they are nearer to Argentina than they are to Britain.
What do you hope readers will get out of reading the book?
I hope they laugh; I hope they cry; I hope they are uplifted; I hope they don't want it to finish, or to put it down. I hope they get a genuine understanding about the real dynamics of this war and all wars, and what it is like to fight one. I hope above all that they will have thoroughly enjoyed reading an intelligent, thoughtful, well written, highly readable book.
You have written several books now. Are you currently working on any new projects?
History has its well beaten paths. I enjoy discovering and writing about things that have been lost off the beaten path and can only be found in the long grass of history. My first two books followed this theme, and I believe The Yompers too tells truths that have not been told elsewhere. I have nothing specific in mind, but I'm sure there will be something. Watch this space!
Do you have any advice for budding authors or anyone wishing to record their military memoirs?
History evaporates unless it is recorded. Unless it is written down, it is as if it never happened. So if you have anything at all to write – and everybody has something – then write it down. But don't expect to get it published easily. The easy part is writing the book. Agents and publishers need to make money and the market is very crowded. It is also very populist, and the sort of book you want to write may not be the one which the public will pay to read. So if you want a commercial publisher to take you on, be ready to shape your book to their requirements. But beware: you may not like the results. You may have to decide between taking money and preserving your reputation. Remember too that in marketing your book, quality is not the primary consideration: timing, perseverance, and the ability to spend money are more important.