Article The Quiet Heroes: The Falklands War Medics


Mi Lance corporal
MI.Net Member
Feb 4, 2004
The quiet heroes: The Falklands War medics who had to amputate limbs with a Swiss Army penknife - and no anaesthetic.

By John NicholandTony Rennell

No one writes about them. Their deeds go unsung. Which is why, for this gripping series, two writers decided to track down the awe-inspiring stories of the Army medics who have saved countless lives in recent British wars.

Yesterday, in the second part of our gripping series about the doctors and nurses who go into the heart of battle to save the wounded and dying, we revealed the exceptional bravery of the RAF nurse in Basra who saved a gunner engulfed in flames after his tank was petrol bombed. Today, in the third instalment, we go back to 1982 and the freezing cold and mud of the Falklands, where courageous Para medics stopped at nothing — including amputating a leg in the middle of a battlefield using nothing but a Swiss Army knife — to save the lives not only of their comrades, but those of the Argentinian enemy, too.
As he advanced with his battalion through a barrage of enemy mortar shells towards the hamlet of Goose Green, Para medical officer Captain Steven Hughes desperately wanted to be on some other enterprise.
‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ he muttered into the drizzle of the South Atlantic winter, recoiling as a round from a sniper’s rifle whistled over his head.

Flying the flag: 2 Para celebrate victory at Goose Green, but the battle saw many of their comrades killed or wounded

‘Take me back to the NHS and I’ll work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,’ he pledged. ‘This is not what I spent all those years at medical school for.’
When appointed as an Army doctor, he had been treated as a waste of space by the macho fighting men of the Paras, as insignificant as a cook or a clerk — until they went to war.
On the British Task Force’s long sea journey south to retake the Falkland Islands from their Argentinian occupiers, he watched these tough guys wake up to his importance to them.
As he drilled them in the basics of first aid and what to do if their bellies were split open by a bullet and their guts spilled out, he sensed respect. ‘I was no longer considered an idle knacker, but someone who might well save their life,’ he said. And now he was in the killing zone with them, doing just that.
He set up his aid post in a gully. It was freezing cold and the smell of cordite was acrid in the air. There was no shelter, not a single tree and scarcely a bush. It was hard to believe how recently he had been working in the warm and dry, in an over-heated London hospital.
The battle was just yards away. Gunfire was too close for comfort. Incoming mortars were as loud as express trains.

Wounded soldiers were being brought in all the time, and Hughes and his small team of medics moved between the rows on the ground, dressing injuries and administering fluids, morphine and antibiotics.
Deciding priorities was heartrending. Every case was urgent, but which ones should he concentrate on?
He knelt over a soldier with multiple cannon fragments in his side and neck, and air leaking through punctures in his throat. His shredded battledress was like blotting paper soaked in his own blood.
Another soldier was half-hidden under a sheet of corrugated metal with part of his brain squeezing out of his head like toothpaste from a tube. He was still conscious.
Surprisingly, he was the least of Hughes’s worries. This soldier could wait, he decided. ‘If he’s survived this long, he isn’t in immediate danger.’
In any case, there wasn’t a brain specialist at the Task Force’s field hospital — a ramshackle warehouse once used for packing mutton — a helicopter ride away at Ajax Bay. The surgeons there would be better off operating on someone with a more easily treatable wound.
Some of his assistants misunderstood and thought Hughes had put the man to one side to die. One was preparing to do the humane thing and give him a fatal dose of morphine.
Hughes intervened just in time. Eventually, the man got his place on a helicopter. He survived. But, on the battlefield and in the fog of war, that was how narrow the line was between life and death.
Lance Corporal Bill Bentley, a medic assisting Hughes, was learning this firsthand as, with a medical pack on his back and Sterling sub-machine gun slung over his shoulder, he went out into the fighting to find casualties.

Fierce: Smoke rises Paras fight to gain victory in the Falklands War

‘You’re driven on by the thought that your mates are out there, dying and injured,’ he said.
One of those he brought back was an old friend, his brains blown out. As he carried a corner of the poncho in which the body was laid, Bentley’s knee kept banging against the dead soldier’s slumped head. It made a hollow, knocking sound he would never be able to erase from his memory.
On another foray, he leapt into an enemy trench and felt a body beneath a tarpaulin move under his feet. The soldier in him outweighed the medic and he fired into the bundle. This was no time to take chances.
But he did just that with another Argentinian soldier, a youngster shot through the leg and in deep shock.
‘He made no aggressive gestures, so I hoisted him over my shoulder and carried him to our own lines,’ he said.
Only later did he stop to consider that the enemy dangling down his back could have snatched his bayonet and killed him.
Even braver was his rescue of Private Dave ‘Chopsey’ Gray, who was bleeding to death in no-man’s-land after a mortar shell had practically torn off his right leg, shattered the other and filled him with shrapnel. Bob Cole, one of Gray’s mates,
distraught and in tears, managed to reach the aid post to beg for help. ‘No problem, I’ll go,’ said Bentley.
He ducked down and followed Cole up a hill and through a gap in a stone wall. They could see Chopsey 25 yards away on the other side of the slope, lying in a shallow crater in a pool of his own blood and fully exposed to the enemies’ guns. Bentley crept down to him.
Para legend has it that when Gray was hit, he shouted: ‘I’ve lost me f***ing leg!’ One of his mates behind a nearby tussock replied: ‘No, you haven’t, Chopsey. It’s just landed over here.’
In fact, it was still attached, though not by much. When Bentley reached him, he realised that a desperate situation called for desperate measures. ‘I would have to amputate what was left of his right leg.’
He took out his Swiss Army knife, one blade of which he kept razor sharp for emergencies. Lying flat as bullets flew over his head, he sliced away the flesh and sinew, which was all that was keeping the leg attached.
Gray ‘just cringed’ at this battlefield amputation without anaesthetic — shock must have gone some way to dull the pain.
The medic was tourniqueting the stump when a stretcher party came racing across the hillside towards him. The enemy fire intensified and more bullets peppered into the peat.
‘The hill seemed to be exploding. It felt as if the whole Argentinian army was opening up at us,’ said Bentley.
The rescue team threw Gray on to the stretcher and, not forgetting the severed leg, ran back up the hill, chased by a line of bullets detonating in the dirt behind them like fireworks.
Back at the aid post, Hughes fought desperately to save the wounded soldier, who had lost so much blood that the doctor couldn’t find a vein in his deathly white skin. He had to cut away with a scalpel to make an opening for fluids.
Hughes put him at the top of the queue for immediate evacuation by helicopter. ‘But I didn’t hold out too much hope for his survival,’ he said.
Bentley helped lift the man he had risked his life to save into a casualty pod on the chopper’s side. The sawn-off remnant of his leg went, too.
‘I don’t think it was until that moment that he realised exactly what had happened,’ said Bentley. ‘He just stared at it.
‘I hugged him, gave him a kiss and said: “You’ll be all right.” Then I closed the top of the pod and they flew him out.’

Defeated: Argentine PoWs being marched from Goose Green after surrendering

Gray was conscious when he was brought into Ajax Bay, breathing hard as if he had just run a marathon and gabbling nonsense.
He had no discernible pulse or blood pressure. When the tourniquet was removed, the leg stump was dry — no blood was getting through. He needed an immediate transfusion.
A medic grabbed some bags of blood — it was kept ‘refrigerated’ outside in the Antarctic cold, wrapped in wet hessian — and warmed them under his armpits to take off the chill before the blood was dripped into veins that were already beginning to collapse and close up.
Three litres later, on the sixth bag, the stump began to ooze blood. There was colour in Chopsey’s cheeks — he was going to make it.
Night was falling at the end of a dreadful day. At Goose Green, the battle slowed and then halted. A desperately tired Hughes could at last take stock. His records, scrawled on notepads smeared with blood, showed he had treated 34 Paras and dozens of Argentinian casualties.
Stretched out in a gully behind a gorse bush were those who had been beyond saving. They looked, he thought, like shop dummies, except for the bullet hole in the middle of one forehead.
‘It felt unreal. A few hours ago I had spoken to some of these people, and now they were gone,’ he said.
As for all those casualties he had sent to Ajax Bay, he found it impossible to believe any of them could have survived, so basic had been the emergency care he felt he had been able to give them.
The next morning, he awoke to hear that the Argentinians had surrendered.
The battle of Goose Green — the first step in recovering the Falklands — was over.
Hughes did what he could for the enemy wounded, though they were mystified by his compassion.
‘Why you treat me?’ one asked in faltering English, as the doctor put him on a drip.
The answer was that it was his duty to treat everyone equally, friend or foe. The Geneva Convention demanded it of him, but he also demanded it of himself. All medics did.
The last Argentinian casualty was brought in, more dead than alive, and everyone worked to save him. He had lain on the battlefield for a day-and-a-half before he was discovered at the bottom of a pile of corpses in a waterlogged trench.
With a bullet in one eye, and a broken hand and leg, he was rigid with cold, but also running a fever.
He should have been dead from the gangrene that was eating into him, except that the cold had paralysed the infection and the fever had kept him from freezing. He was warmed up and given blood. When he was operated on, the anaesthetist ventilated him by hand for two hours, squeezing the life back into him breath by breath.
The soldier survived and went home, one-eyed and one-legged.
Others would not be going home. At Ajax Bay, the dozen dead Paras from Goose Green were lined up on stretchers side by side on a concrete strip.
It was a grim, sad business as their clothes were cut away and their personal possessions bagged to be returned to their relatives.
It fell to Surgeon Commander Rick Jolly, the doctor in charge, to examine each body, ****ounce on cause of death and complete a field death certificate.
He crouched as he went from man to man and called out his conclusions to a clerk, who scribbled them down — gunshot wounds to the heart, multiofple wounds to chest and abdomen, blast injury.
On the face of the dead Colonel ‘H’ Jones, the 2 Para commander whose heroic but fatal dash had played a large part in breaking the Argentinian resistance, Jolly saw a quizzical smile. His eyes were open, but he looked peaceful. A single bullet had killed him. ‘I closed his eyes gently. Then we lifted him, placed his body into a plastic shroud and then into a body bag.’
Shortly afterwards, Steven Hughes, his face grey with fatigue, flew in for the funerals.
He avoided Jolly’s eyes, which surprised the surgeon. He knew and liked the Para doctor, and had heard nothing but praise for him from the casualties who had passed through his hands.
Jolly opened his mouth to speak, but was silenced by an outburst from Hughes, apologising, absurdly, for not having done enough in the middle of the battlefield and for sending back so many casualties in poor condition.
Jolly interrupted this flow of desperate remorse. Hughes had nothing to blame himself for. Every one of the wounded paratroopers ferried from Goose Green to the hospital was alive.
Hughes was incredulous. All the way in on the helicopter, he had been dreading discovering how many more his men had died from their injuries. Jolly gripped his arms and, almost shouting to get home his point, declared: ‘No, Steve, no! They are all still alive.’
Hughes shook his head. It could not be so. He pulled out his field notebook and picked a name. ‘What about this one? Private Gray?’
Jolly jumped in: ‘Do you mean Chopsey? I looked after him myself. Virtually ex-sanguinated when he got here, but he’s fine now.’
Hughes stared in amazement as the truth sank in. Then the colour returned to his cheeks, just as it had to Chopsey’s. He was transfused with relief and joy.
All those battered young bodies he had administered to on the edge of a raging battle, patched up as best he could and then sent back down the line, were alive! But his sense of achievement did not last.
‘We had been through an experience none of us had ever expected,’ he would recall. He felt himself shutting down emotionally, blanking out the awful pictures of suffering. Later, years after he had left the Army, they would come back to haunt and overwhelm him.
He learned what few other people, soldiers or civilians, realise: that medics are steeped in the horrors of war in a way that no one else ever can be. All the carnage comes funnelling through them. They can’t look the other way.

Other soldiers may see mates wounded or be injured themselves. But only the medics see the non-stop pain and misery of war. They run their eye over the butcher’s bill and many of them, like Hughes, pay the price with their peace of mind.

· Extracted from Medic: Saving Lives From Dunkirk To Afghanistan by John Nichol and Tony Rennell, to be published by Viking on October 29 at £20. © John Nichol and Tony Rennell 2009. To order a copy at £18 (P&P free), call 0845 155 0720.

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A brilliant and emotive read mate salute;
The beginning of this story reminds me of a snippet out of my book - ‘The Royal Army Medical Corps is the butt of most jokes in the forces - especially from the Regiments who think that to be a medic is to be a sissy.
In battle situations when a man is injured, his voice will carry high above the noise of shot and shell. The one word he shouts is, “MEDIC!” It is then realised that the medic is not such a sissy after all.
To all medics, I say: Keep your head down, look after yourself, and keep making those house calls on the field of battle.’

As for the Swiss Army penknife, in my day (1956) I was issued with an army knife which was one bladed, with a tin opener and screw driver blade on the end. My knife was always attached to my lanyard and was as sharp as a scalpel, for I regularly honed it on an oilstone. That same knife is still with me today.

I think in the last few years the British army realise the importance of a good Medic.
I have always held them in high esteem ;)
You are right Bombardier. Northern Ireland changed that I think, when we had to make sure that all the soldiers were up-to-date with their first aid training and though a few lives were lost, a lot more were save.

Silky what a very good post and let us not forget as non combatans the Medical Corps has 33 Victoria Crosses to its credit along with other various medals won for bravery.
I would also like to mention that 2 doctors won the V C twice one during the Boar War and then again in the first war, the second doctor won it twice during the first war he
also had a M C to his credit killed in action cannot recall their names but will look it up but i suppose you already know Silky.
Kind Regards
I would just like to say i will be in Halifax next week for armed forces day with the West Yorkshire Branch of the Aden Veterans Association staying at the Imperial Hotel.
Hi all, this may interest anyone who has an interest in the Falklands war and the medical role, I have just written an account detailing The 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment during the last three days of the war, it includes the battle for Mount Longdon and a more accurate account of the Sgt McKay VC, also the final chapter is a 50 page account of the medical teams on Longdon, over 60 members of 3 Para were interviewed from the CO to various Toms, please a look at the reviews on Amazon,
bye for now Jimmy

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Wow, what a story. I have nothing but respect for him... and now I have to buy the book.
Just yesterday evening I’ve finished two books. Two Sides Of Hell (awesome book, by the way) being one of them. Or wait... it was few minutes after midnight, so technically speaking it was today. It´s a diagnosis then.
GREAT STUFF Mate!! Good of you to take the time for the proper accolades to these wonder chaps and their stories!! ,-uknotworthy;

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