Category Archives: Falkland Islands

Ambush in Argentina. A Falkland veteran’s trial by television. (pt 1 of 3)

(first published Guardian Weekend, 25th May 1996)

For the 14 years since he served in the Falkland Islands, KEN LUKOWIAK has struggled to understand his experience of war.  This month he visited Argentina to talk to the people he’d met only in battle and, he hoped, to find the resolution he craves.

weekend cover

Mothers, Brothers, Buenos Aires and Me

On May 9th, 1982, a Thursday I believe,  I turned 23.  As birthdays go, it’s one I can look back on and remember exactly where I was, and who I was with, and where I was heading, for every second of the whole 24 hours.  And yet ask me for a detail, or a conversation that took place, a meal I ate, even a card I opened – and it’s all gone.

Where I was was aboard the NV Norland, a North Sea ferry requisitioned from it’s owner, P & O, so that it could take me (and the rest of the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment) to the Falkland Islands.

“The where?”  The Falkland Islands.  One of the guys in B Company, who collected stamps before he joined the Cadets, said they were off the coast of Argentina. “Oh”.

14 years on, on May 9th this year – which was definitely a Friday – I turned 37. Where I was, was Buenos Aires, Federal el Capital of Argentina.  The country of origin of the soldier’s who I had been heading towards aboard the MV Norland. Incidentally, every one of those soldiers knew exactly, as of day one of infant school, where their beloved “Malvinas Islands” were.

I was told before I travelled to Argentina, that the first sight that would greet me on the road out of the airport was a large billboard carrying words that, roughly translated, say:  “The Malvinas belong to Argentina.”  It turned out that this particular piece of information was a falsehood.  The first billboard is for American Express, the second for Diners Club, the third for Mastercard, and so on. The Malvinas sign was actually a good mile or so from the airport and was a good eighth of the size of the advertising boards.  Made me wonder.

The place I had to visit first in Buenos Aires, and naturally enough, was the memorial for the one-time infants who grew up to become the recent “just” deaths for the “Malvinas”.  I planned to see it before I did anything, even before I checked into my hotel, and bar one cup of coffee and a sweet croissant in a corner cafe-bar. So it came to pass.

The memorial stands in the corner of a smallish city park, the Plaza San Martin. It’s main eye-catcher is a long, curved wall that holds 25 stone plaques that between them hold 649 names. On the left-hand side of the wall, above the plaques, is a metal-plate map of the islands, and above that, a flame, which I guess is meant to burn for ever and ever. Amen.  In front, two armed soldiers  dressed in combats, stand on guard.  Opposite, a clock tower faces them which must make guarding the names the most tedious honour on earth.

Any wish I may have had of paying my respects to my fallen enemy in silent solitude, I soon realised was just that – a wish.  The Plaza San Martin is surrounded on all four sides by at least eight lanes of traffic which swerve and toots and yells and curses itself from dawn to dawn.

I visited the memorial every day, and most nights.  Every thought I pushed into my head while I was there led to a voice in my head telling me not to state the obvious. “War is wrong”. Don’t need to say it. “Man killing man is a crime”.  Thought it a thousand times.  “Why does it happen?”  Why even bother asking any-more?

12 months earlier I had stood before another wall of names.  Our wall, for “our boys” which stands looking out over the still waters around Port Stanley.  It’s a curved wall, with names on, just like “their wall”.  So similar are the two, you would think they were brothers.  The only notable difference is that our wall has fewer names, and names that are raised above the stone, while in Buenos Aires they are carved into it.  There are only 252 names on ours.  Only.  Which means that we won by over two-and-a-half to one.

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Ken Lukowiak at Our wall. Our Names, Our Boys.

When I walked our row of names, I looked for the ones I could build a memory around. I found Tam and Stevie P and Smudge and all of our Ruperts and even him that I’d never heard of before he bought it at Goose Green, Corporal.  I touched each one.  Slowly ran my fingers over them, like I was reading braille.  Even shed a tear or two. Obvious again.

On a beautiful afternoon in the Plaza San Martin, I watched a very beautiful woman with long, coal black hair, walking the Argentine wall.  She stopped at one of the stone plaques, fourth from the right, and remained  motionless before it for a good five minutes.  Then she reached out, touched a name, then stroked it.  Like she was reading braille.  And once again I go all obvious: “I did that”. She turned and walked away, past me and my Walkman, then sat alone, on the bench next to mine.  For the next half-hour, between our questioning stares at the wall, we kept catching each other’s eye.  I wondered what she wondered about me, and I wanted to go over and hear her story.  Who was it?  Was he your father, brother, husband, lover?  Couldn’t have been son – you’re too young.  I looked and made to get up and then stopped and sat down again and looked some more and thought again about going over – but I couldn’t.  What could I say?  “Sorry about that.”  Even though I really truly was.  Naturally enough.

Ken Lukowiak at Their Wall.  Their Names.  Their Boys.

Ken Lukowiak at Their wall. Their names. Their Boys.

A big surprise for me was just how European the people of Buenos Aires look.  Because when I first got to Goose Green and saw row after row of Argentine prisoners, once past the initial “Fuck, there’s thousands of the bastards”, the next thought was how Indian they looked, how Mayan they looked.  Not all of them, but certainly the vast majority.

Yet in Buenos Aires I hardly ever saw a face that looked remotely Indian. Couple of beggars, the odd street-vendor selling phone cards or disposable lighters.  But none of the shoppers.  None of the of the people sipping expensive cappuccinos in the stylish cafe-bars.

Then one night, at 3am, I paid my fancy drinks bill and set off for home.  The street-cleaners were out then, and the garbage collectors, and whole teams of people, families for sure, were searching through black plastic bags which contained the waste left by the row after row of shops that sold Cartier watches and Armani suits, and any other luxury item that will do nicely sir.  And I wondered, as a percentage, how many sons of the expensive-suit owners of Buenos Aires, got to give their all for “Argentina, Argentina, Argentina”, in the Malvinas war.  About as many as get to clean the streets was my conclusion.

Ambush in Argentina  part 2 

‘Soldier, Soldier’ (pt 2 of 2)

‘Soldier, Soldier’  (Part 2)

Some of dad’s war stories I once wished I hadn’t heard before.  In fact, back when I was able to use “I’m a paratrooper” on my quest to get between girls legs, I had no sympathy for him whatsoever when he talked about the time he surrendered.  It use to get to me the way he would say, “it was during Holy Week”, as if Holy Week was the reason it all happened.  The only person in the tale I could feel any sympathy for was one of dad’s officers, a lieutenant, who took his own life with a hand grenade rather than throw in the towel.  He was apparently a staunch Nazi.

As a British Paratrooper I had been taught to believe that surrender was something that happened to the weak.  It also meant defeat, and if it did ever happen, say if you were wounded (“Yeah, or had run out of ammo and couldn’t fight no more anyway”), then the last thing your self-respect would allow you to do is talk about it.  Never mind to your own son.

Now that I have no need to believe in the wisdoms of the Parachute Regiment (and I concede that at one time I really did need to), I am able to see that there’s no real loss of respect in saving your own life.  In dad’s case they had been on the receiving end of Allied artillery for two months and were left with nowhere else to run.  With dad though there was more, because after his surrender he changed sides.  Something that I could never imagine doing even now as a civilian.

But then I could never imagine how it was to be Polish and in the German army.  Dad’s problems began in May 1939 when Hitler’s over-efficient Nazi government held a national census.  To help the cause of ethnic purity, there were four questions that placed people into categories, ranging from blonde haired, blue eyed member of the master race to only suitable for railroad cattle trucks.  The black type asked:  What religion are you?  What nationality? What was your mother tongue? And, of what country were you a citizen?

Dad was a Catholic.  Which was ok – Hitler was a Catholic (and one, dad would point out in his Jehovah’s witness days, who was never ex-communicated by the Roman church).  Dad’s citizenship was also ok – it was German.  Where he scored badly was on his nationality and mother tongue:  both Polish.

And just in case dad wasn’t already aware of his predicament, five days after German tanks blitzkrieged into Poland, has father was arrested by the Gestapo and shipped to a concentration camp.  Which is the equivalent of me fighting in the Falklands, while at home my family is rounded up and imprisoned.

His father had been arrested and shipped off for being no more than a voice within the Polish community in Kirchlinde.  With the help and advice of his battalion officers, who were all “good Wehrmacht men”, dad wrote a letter addressed to “Mein Fuhrer”, asking, as a faithful soldier of the Fatherland, for the release of his father.

The reply came from no less an animal than Heinrich Himmler himself.  Short and sharp, it said that his father would be released. (Dad kept Himmler’s letter as a memento, but in the final months of the war it was looted from the family home by American soldiers).  On his next period of leave dad travelled home to find his father thin and silent.  For everyone’s  good in the family, the arrest and internment were to be forgotten, never spoken about.

To show just how life twists and turns, a year after his surrender and change of sides dad took a group of German prisoners himself.  He stumbled across them in a wood in Holland, and says that at first he tried to shoot them, but his gun jammed.  Luckily, they didn’t want to shoot him and were only too happy to surrender – even to a jammed gun.

Like father like son, I took some prisoners in the Falklands, at Goose Green and on Wireless Ridge.  I didn’t do anything brave – they just kept appearing with their hands up.  Like dad’s prisoners they were also only to happy to surrender, especially the wounded ones.

Except that one Argentine soldier didn’t get to become a prisoner because unlike dad, my gun didn’t jam.  I came across him in a trench.  He still shouldered a rifle and with no hesitation I moved my finger, it squeezed a trigger, and then he died.  By then the war had been officially over for almost an hour, but I don’t think he had heard, and I don’t think that I was prepared to risk the time to tell him.

Before I went to the Falklands another thing dad would say – something that used to rub against my, kill, kill, Para grain – was that a soldier’s shovel was worth as much to him as his rifle.  I mean, whoever heard of being able to kill someone with a shovel?

Shovels are something you hate.  They’re heavy and awkward to carry.  You dig trenches with them – three in the morning after a 10 mile march, digging into slate in the pisssing wind and rain.  Shoulder fucking deep.  Then I was sent to the Falklands, and I tell you, after the first shell at Goose Green I was digging free of charge.

We were on the way somewhere and had stopped to look at a map and have a smoke.  Me? I was getting below ground.  I dug in.  We all dug in.  It became as natural a thing to do as to breath.  And if “worth” is life – then my shovel was worth more to me than my rifle.  I’ll grant you that it didn’t kill anyone, but it saved me from being killed – which enabled me to tell dad just how right he had been after all.

Dad’s war finally ended in August 1944 when he was injured by grenade shrapnel in Holland.  He was shipped back across the Channel to England and then on to a hospital in Scotland.

By the time of his discharge from hospital the war in Europe was almost over, but dad was to make one final journey.  As a newly promoted Second Lieutenant in the free Polish army, buttons polished, cap and tie straightened, he set off to return home to Kirchlinde on leave.

It took him 5 days, hitch-hiking across the Channel into liberated France, gettings lifts in jeeps from jubilant GIs, sleeping nights in stations where trains had no timetables.

Over two years had passed.  His family had learned via a card from the Swiss Red Cross that he had been captured in Tunisia, but after Holy week, 1943, they  knew nothing.  There was no way for dad to tell them that their lost son was coming home.  So he walked the streets he had played as a child, up the stairs that led towards his old front door, and knocked.

And then there was a joyous, terrible confusion.  He held his dad and his sisters again.  But discovered that his mother had died of cancer in his absence.  My poor dad.  Grandad was as proud as vodka punch though to have a returning son who was an officer in the Polish army.

Dad visited his mother’s grave on the first afternoon and on every day of the week that he spent in Kirchlinden.  He also visited the local Nazi who handed in the list of names in 1939, the man who had got his dad sent to a concentration camp.  “Oh, I gave him a fright,” dad says today, smiling.  Though he never drew his revolver.  Just tapped it’s holster.

Back in my short hair and short trousers days, I travelled with dad to Germany.  The first time I went I was 9: grandad would have been maybe 80.  Dad knocked on the door, it opened, a lot of people all appeared at once, and then everyone started crying.  Dad was hugged and kissed and wept on and laughed at – even by other men.  At meal times someone would remember the family’s past, their bottom lip would quiver, tears would follow, and then the whole table would join in the sorrow.  Or was it joy?  I was too young to know.  I was just embarrassed by it all.  Older now, I understand the years they lived through to reach that dinner table.  And I realise it was all both a joy and a sorrow.

Grandad in Germany is dead now but his son is still alive.  He’s sitting in the room next door.  I know because I can still hear him.

So I try to wonder if it was the same for him, when I bang, bang, banged on a biscuit tin as he maybe thought of a field and a potato in Russia.  Or the same for him when he needed to cut my meat for me because it was much quicker, less trouble to watch.

Maybe one day I’ll remember my war and hear a voice say: “I know dad, you’ve told me about the Walkman batteries before.”

‘Soldier, Soldier’ (pt 1 of 2)

(first published GQ magazine July 1996)


Soldier, Soldier

In 1940, as an infantry private in the German army, my father invaded France.  Four years later, as an officer in the Free Polish Army, he invaded France again.  In the years between, he also got to invade Russia, march into Belgium (twice), advance into Holland, and fight with the German Afrika Korps in Tunisia.  He was fit, tough, prepared.

Fifty years on he’s sitting in the room next door.  I know because I can hear him.  He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and with an annoying repetition his hand taps the arm of his chair, or rustles his clothes, or rattles anything he’s holding.  The noise, and the helplessness of it, sometimes drives me mad. It nearly always drives him insane.

“I feel like a wanking dog,” he once said to me.  Which is a sad thing for a son to hear his white-haired father say.

Life allotted dad a space in the ranks of the German army, because he was born 79 years ago, of Polish parents, in Kirchlinde, a small town in the industrial heartland of the German Ruhr.  Though German inhabitants, the family lived in a Polish community, and at home and to friends and to God, Polish was spoken.  Dad calls Polish his “mother tongue” and says, because of it, “I am Polish”.

Once, I said to him that if was born in Germany, educated in Germany, first worked in Germany, and first went to war as a German soldier, then that made him German.  “Face it, dad,” I said, “You’re a Kraut.”  He replied: “If a cow is born in a stable, it does not make it a horse.”  He had me on that one.

In The late Fifties and throughout the Sixties, we lived on a Swindon council estate, in the red brick house that I was born in.  Dad made a living selling Betterwear household cleaning products from a suitcase, and held things together spiritually by being a devout and proselytising Jehovah’s Witness.  He did both door to door.

In the school playground at the time, along with my fellow under-tens, I sung “We won the war in 1964” (because it rhymed) and played at World War Two with sticks and stones and water-filled washing-up liquid bottles.  Most of the other kids had plastic toy guns, Johnny Sevens if they were lucky, but as a young Jehovah’s Witness dad never allowed me to play with replicas of things that killed people, so none were ever bought for me.  But still, we acted out “Best Death”, which involved charging at a pretend German bunker to get pretend killed by pretend weapons for marks out of ten.

How much any of us knew about the war we played at, I’m not sure.  I’m not even certain when it was that I discovered exactly my own father’s role in it.  I think quite early on that I knew about his time in the Free Polish Army, when he was on our side, the good side, but it wasn’t until much later that I learnt about the times when he stood under Swastikas with his fellow baddies.

We only knew a black-and-white war.  Right and wrong.  Good and evil.  There were no grey areas depicted on the bubble-gum cards we swapped, no moral dilemmas contemplated by the soldiers who fought battles on our families rented black and white televisions.  Even our action men couldn’t talk and were years away from having real hair.  It also happened a long, long time ago.

Dad’s back to being a Catholic, and the times I played out his war in short trousers, in and around the bushes at the end of our street, start to feel like they never happened.  Maybe it’s because I now have memories of a real war.

My war was in the Falklands in 1982; it was 37 years and 8,000 miles away from dad’s one.  Before I sailed, he travelled through the night to see me.  When he reached my camp in Aldershot, what he said surprised me.  “If the Argentines are anything like the Italians I knew when I was in the Afrika Korps, you have nothing to worry about, son.”  I’d never heard my father say anything so macho before.  Certainly not about war.

Father and Son

Father and Son

In the end, he was right.  The Argentine army was pretty much like his Italian one and in those early days, in victory, we were the boys: “British Parachute Regiment mate.  God bless Maggie and don’t fuck with us.”  Also, my war lasted only three weeks.

“Three  weeks!” Dad once teased.  “I spent more time clipping my toe nails in my war”.  “Yeah,” I replied, “but how many times did your batteries run out on your Walkman?”  My turn to have him.

The first dead thing I saw in the Falklands was a horse, lying in a field on our approach to Goose Green.  It was about an hour so before I saw my first dead man, the horse had been killed, I guessed, by artillery fire.  When I got close to it, I stopped, looked down, thought “fuck” at what shrapnel can do to flesh, and then had a memory of my dad.

He was sitting in his chair, I was standing next to him, and together we were flicking through an old album of small black-and-white photographs.  I remembered that one of them captured a pile of dead horses that had lain rotting on a battlefield in France.  The photograph had been taken by my dad during World War Two.

I didn’t carry a camera in the Falklands, though I’ve wished many times since that I had.  I could have taken a picture of my dead horse and put it next to dad’s one with a caption reading:  “Things don’t change much, do they?”

Though I wonder how much our memories have changed us.  It’s now nearly 13 years since the Falklands, and I’m a twenty plus a day, 36 year old.  I look out of my window and see trees and fields in Cornwall.

When it was 13 years on for dad he would have been 42 and looking out on to that council estate in Swindon.  There would have been a wife and 3 children in the kitchen next door, a suitcase of samples in the hall, a bible on the table.  So much to look back on.

And not only the war.  His childhood had passed through the great German depression.  Times when wheelbarrow quantities of money couldn’t buy you a pea.  Times when his mother and father didn’t eat so that he and his sisters could.

The early hunger left it’s mark as much as any later shell did.  So much so that I’ve never once seen my dad throw food in the bin, and even today he maintains a level of respect for potatoes like only true Eastern Europeans and the Irish can.  He still has a small plot of potatoes out in the back garden and it gives him great pleasure to harvest them.  He holds them up, smiles, and then builds a memory around them.  Like when he was in a trench on the Russian front and saw a potato sticking out of the earth a few yards from his trench.

I’ve heard this one before, so I say: “I know dad.  You’ve told me already.”  But maybe because his hearing aids are switched off, or because that’s what I’m there for, he carries on, and tells me again how he crawled towards it and tried to scoop it up, but couldn’t because it wasn’t a potato but the knee of a dead man.  He says he still thinks about it nearly every time he sees a potato.

I must have heard near enough all of these stories by now.  Stories of his first day as a young German recruit, through to his time in occupied France and Russia, to his surrender in Africa, right down to his demob as a Polish officer.  The details though – a particular shell, a damp field they crossed at dawn, even a corpse they created – didn’t come out until I returned from the Falklands.  I guess it was because, for the time, we could confirm to each other that it really hadn’t changed that much.

When I told him how some of the shells at Goose Green had landed with no more than a harmless plop because we were fighting on marshy ground, dad told me about artillery fire in France that had screamed into hard ground, and threw skyward hundred-foot plumes of white chalk dust.  The fear was exactly the same.

I talked about a wounded Argentine boy I saw take a burst of bullets in the back from 10 feet.  He told me how his Free Polish patrol in France came under fire from a German defensive postion.  How one of his men was hit.  How he picked the wounded man up, put him on his back and carried him towards safety.  How he felt the impact.  How when he put the man down he was dead.

“They shot him on my back” were the exact words he used when he first told me, and then he nodded, and stared at nothing, and sighed “yes”.

I asked dad once, with no more than a fellow soldier’s cover of curiosity with bravado, what was the most gruesome thing he had seen in his war.  He replied that it was a dead black soldier he had seen lying under a stone bridge in France.  The soldier, a now very ex-American GI, had his trousers around his ankles, was being eaten by maggots, and stunk the way only rotten death can.  He also had a large erection.

He’d certainly never told me that before.

Part 2…..