A few days after Argentina’s surrender ended the Falklands War in 1982, the seven-year-old Helen Parr was woken by her mother and told that her Uncle Dave – a private in the Parachute Regiment – had been killed. Thirty years later, she attended the ceremony at Aldershot Military Cemetery to mark the anniversary of the war and stood beside the neat lines of graves with the men, now in their fifties, who had been her uncle’s comrades. She realised that she “had a relationship with the Parachute Regiment…and was part of the regimental family”.
A historian, she had already begun to write her book on the conflict, but it was that relationship that led to her listening to the personal accounts of the battle for the Falklands from men who had previously kept their experiences and mingled pride and grief to themselves. “Who were these men who wore the maroon red berets?” she asked herself – and, if that question is at the heart of Our Boys, so is the other question she considers: how does such a regiment relate to modern British society? The combination of her historical ability and her knowledge of the soldiers who fought and died in the Falklands makes this a remarkable book, which combines military and social history.
Britain has never been happy with compulsory military service, and the end of national service was greeted with relief by both the population and the armed forces, but, it has been argued, the return to a reliance on volunteers set the armed forces apart from the rest of society. An army regiment may be based overseas for long periods, so soldiers may spend most of their careers abroad and living in the world of their regiments – a world in some ways divorced even from the rest of the army because each regiment has a distinct pride, culture and ethos. Parr considers this supposed separateness in relation to one particular case and concludes that: “Although the Regiment was in some ways separate from society, and this war happened a long way from home, neither the army, nor war, makes sense in isolation. The British Army, the Parachute Regiment and the Falklands War were part of the same society I lived in: the unmilitary niece of a man who was killed in the Falklands.”
Formed in 1942, the Parachute Regiment soon established an identity and an ethos. It attracted officers who were adventurous and unconventional and men who, as Parr writes, “wanted to have a go at Jerry”. Many of those who joined it came from regiments such as the Black Watch, which had a reputation as fierce fighters. A visual identity was found in the maroon red berets and the emblem of Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek legend, but more important was the reputation for toughness and determination, epitomised by the notoriously difficult entry course. (Those who pass are not necessarily the fittest, but those who refuse to fail.) More meritocratic than many regiments, the “Paras” became a brotherhood within which officers and men were close and would give their lives for each other, but put the success of the regiment before any life.
Parr’s succinct history of the Regiment prior to the Falklands includes its record in North Africa, the Normandy landings and, most famously, Arnhem, where Field Marshal Montgomery gave it an impossible task, which, dropped in daylight and denied necessary support, the Paras did their best to fulfil, suffering great casualties. The Suez crisis saw them make their last mass parachute assault in a war that the armed forces won and the politicians lost. After this, the main role of the regiment was in counter-insurgency operations: whether in Malaya, Cyprus or Aden, its ability to work in small units, to live and fight in difficult conditions, from forests to deserts, with pugnacity and expertise, made it invaluable. The Paras’ success in such operations confirmed their bravery, but also earned them a reputation for ferocity and for “not taking prisoners”. They were, thus, not the best choice for patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland, where they met violence with violence, still less for controlling a protest march in Londonderry.
The Falklands campaign gave the regiment an opportunity to prove again its skill and courage in a war. Many among the political elite were hesitant to retake the islands that Argentinian forces had illegally seized, considering the idea of sending British forces to the South Atlantic a post-imperial spasm bereft of economic advantage, but a determined prime minister and the bulk of the British public thought otherwise and the task force sailed. Our Boys does not purport to be a history of the ensuing war, for that was won by all three services and the merchant navy, nor even of the war once troops had been landed, for other regiments and units also fought bravely. It is, rather, an account of the part played by two battalions of the Parachute Regiment and the courage and ferocity of the paratroopers in the bloody and close-quarter fighting at Darwin, Goose Green, Mount Longdon and Wireless Ridge, battles fought for the bleak hilltops where the Argentinian army was ensconced.
Parr manages brilliantly the difficult task of following in the footsteps of her uncle and his comrades while maintaining her academic objectivity. Battles are always difficult to describe, but she combines a clear account with the voices and memories of the men who fought, and those voices give her work an intimacy that makes it at once gripping and poignant reading. Here is the feel of battle: elation, fear and tragedy; the death of comrades and hatred of an enemy one has never known; the fall, mortally wounded, of Colonel Jones, a revered and charismatic leader; and then the joy of triumph. Parr is even-handed and, even if she has become one of the family, does not deny or condone the dark side of the Paras, the killing of men trying to surrender and the mutilation of their bodies. Yet she understands that it is not easy in the heat of battle to refrain from killing a man who has moments earlier been killing your comrades and trying to kill you, or to show respect for an enemy’s corpse when you’ve had to leave your best friend’s body stiffening in the frost and press on. Dave Parr was one whose body was left close to where he had fallen, victim not of an Argentinian bullet but of “friendly fire” from British artillery; war is a messy business and death is arbitrary.
Throughout this fascinating book, the Parachute Regiment is placed within the changing society from which it recruited. The Falklands War, Parr argues, changed not just the British view of the armed forces and the Parachute Regiment, but Britain’s view of itself. The 1970s had been a drab period with strikes, rapid changes of government and apprehensions of national decline. The bold and decisive but risky action in sending the task force and the consequent victory gave Britain heroes and confidence. Margaret Thatcher, in a matriarchal manner, called the soldiers “our boys”, a term that epitomised a new relationship between society and the armed forces. Esteem for the Paras after their prominent role increased, and Parr considers that an enduring effect of the war was a great increase in respect for the army.
A. W. Purdue is a visiting professor of history at Northumbria University.
Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper
By Helen Parr
Allen Lane, 416pp, £20.00
Published 29 September 2018
Helen Parr, senior lecturer in international relations at Keele University, was born in Bristol but grew up all around England. Arriving at Cambridge from a comprehensive school in the north, she recalls, left her “quite bewildered by the freedom and intellectual confidence of the place, but…the independence we were given, the opportunities we had, and the presumption that what we wrote should be taken seriously, were important to me”. She was enriched in a different way by going on to the new MA in contemporary British history at Queen Mary University of London, where the “enthusiasm for archival research and for trying to put yourself into the mindset of the past were infectious, and remain so”.
An essay by Parr titled “The Eurosceptic’s Moment” was co-winner of the 2017 Hennessy Prize. It shares with her new book a concern with the uses of history and the divisive figure of Margaret Thatcher.
“I think there is danger”, she reflects, “that if memory of the past, particularly perhaps Britain’s wartime past, becomes too distilled, and taken out of context, then it can become nostalgic – and nostalgia cannot take us forward. Margaret Thatcher was able to couple language of preserving national sovereignty with much deeper integration into what was then the European Community – she was one of the architects of the single market. She is too easily seen as ‘anti-European’.”
Although Parr acknowledges that “the triumph of victory was contested at the time and the mood it generated faded”, she argues that the Falklands War did mark a turning point: “bodies of those who died on land were repatriated from the combat zone for the first time in Britain’s history, and consequently, soldiers were commemorated not just as servants of the nation – a corner of a foreign field that is forever England – but as individual men, with families who loved them.”