Falklands Hero recounts the battle of his life thirty years on
THIRTY years ago this week, Dungannon man Bill Nicol came within inches of losing his life when he went to the rescue of one of his men under fire from an Argentinian sniper during the Battle of Tumbledown Mountain.
Tumbledown was an engagement in the Falklands War, one of a series of battles that took place during the British advance towards the town of Stanley on the night of 13–14 June 1982.
The British launched an assault on Mount Tumbledown, one of the highest points near the town of Stanley, and succeeded in driving Argentinian forces from the mountain.
“I was a 36 year old Sergeant Major in the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards at the time,” Bill, who is originally from Scotland, told the Times. “It is hard to believe that I’ve got a 30th anniversary function in Blackpool on 15th, 16th and 17th! Hundreds of veterans from the Scots Guards are going to attend and there will be a parade on the Sunday morning and the Mayor of Blackpool will be taking the salute.
“There was an official function in London, but this one is for other ranks who were privates or guardsmen at the time. I’m the senior person going, but that’s purely by chance. They’re being very poignant about it. It is quite a poignant I suppose.”
Bill, now a court official at Dungannon Courthouse, described how his battalion were given only a few weeks to train in the Brecon Beacons before being shipped off to the South Atlantic.
“We were on Guard duty at Buckingham Palace. We came straight of that duty and off we went! The conditions in Wales turned out to be very similar to the Falklands. The weather was bad, the ground was terrible and it was very similar to the Falklands itself.
“We had a couple of exposure casualties during the actual training but nothing like what we got on the actual Falklands.
Nobody had a clue about the Falklands. It wasn’t something that came up in your geography lessons. Nobody had a clue whatsoever. It was just there, a British Protectorate.
“If Margaret Thatcher’s election hadn’t been coming up the Falklands War probably wouldn’t have taken place. They’d probably have capitulated and said we’ll reach an agreement.
“We went straight from the Brecons onto the QE2 and away we went from Southampton. There were thousands of people with Union flags, the regimental bands, lots of tears from the wives mainly and the kids.
“We’d a marvellous time on the QE2. I can’t even remember how long the journey took, possibly a week if not more.
“All the waiters who usually worked on the QE2 as a cruise-liner were serving us. They enjoyed it as well of course. It was something out of the blue and something to get really wrapped up in.
“I thought it’d be finished before we got there. People would dispute that now, but the truth is we thought we’d get there and we’d be looking after prisoners of war or doing a sort of liaison until everything just got back to normal in the Falklands. We didn’t think we’d be fighting. We got there and ships already were beginning to sink.
“We were very lucky in a lot of ways. The Argentinians had limited flying time over the Falklands. We were very lucky they didn’t have more time over the Falklands itself otherwise it could have been a sheer disaster.
“We went off the Canberra on open landing craft and landed unopposed at a place called St Carlos Bay. Once again we were so lucky there was no air activity at the time.”
There were 160 men in Bill’s company when they landed and were led by Major (now General Sir) John Kiszely with whom Bill “gelled terribly well”.
Bill was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal when, as Colour Sergeant Major of the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, he “maintained exemplary standards of personal courage and leadership which inspired similar standards in all members of his company”. The DCM was then considered second only to the Victoria Cross.
On June 6, after a six hour sea voyage at night in open boats, the Battalion was ordered to occupy defensive positions on high ground in freezing rain and sleet. Although a number of exposure casualties were taken in other companies, none occurred in Left Flank. This was due to Bill’s tireless efforts in controlling and encouraging his company throughout the night.
“We were getting artillery and shell fire from we didn’t know who, whether it was the Royal Navy or the Argentinians we were sure. The journey was meant to last and hour maximum. It took six and a half hours and it was absolutely freezing.
“Your mind was elsewhere of course. We got at Bluff Cove and we went into sheep shearing sheds. My company were sent up onto the high ground to take over a position the Parachute Regiment where holding for defence but we couldn’t find them. They weren’t there.
“We dug in and that kept us busy and working all night. There were a lot of exposure among static companies but because we were working and dug in we were fine.”
Two days later, some 12 enemy aircraft involved in the attack on shipping at Fitzroy flew in three sorties at low level over the company’s position at Bluff Cove. Bill rapidly and skilfully organised his company in firing rifles and machine guns with no thought for his own safety, that two or three enemy aircraft were brought down by the Battalion. Nonetheless 56 British servicemen were killed and hundreds more, including Simon Weston, were injured.
Finally, at Tumbledown Mountain on 14 June Bill’s company were ordered to take a strong enemy position as part of a Battalion night attack. After the initial assault, the company came under constant and devastating machine gun and sniper fire.
“The place was just a blaze of tracer,” Bill described. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. Never seen it in a war movie. It was unbelievable.
One of the platoon sergeants was wounded and Bill went forward under sniper fire to rescue him. Wounded in the hand while doing so, he continued to tend the dying sergeant.
“I got shot just as I got to him. The bullet went through the hand and then ricochetted off my rifle butt. People still write to me saying, “I’ll never forget the morning on Tumbledown when you were standing there with your rifle destroyed and your hand smashed”.
“I was just sort of destroyed in as much as I’d been hurt and I couldn’t carry on. But I made sure my lads carried on.”
One report said how Bill, “Remained cool and calm under heavy fire encouraging and exhorting his men and at the same time advising one of the young platoon commanders how to defeat a seemingly impregnable enemy position. He remained unperturbed by the weight of enemy small arms fire, artillery and mortar fire thus installing great confidence in men who might well have been frightened.
“He refused to be evacuated himself, although the pain must have been intense until all other casualties in the company (26 in all) had been evacuated.”
Bill’s “distinguished conduct and conspicuous personal bravery” throughout the campaign “proved an inspiration and example to all ranks and have made an outstanding contribution to his company’s exceptional achievements”, according to one report.
“It was all so stupid,” Bill recalled. “It was soul destroying. I was helicoptered out then to the hospital ship and finished up in hospital for a rehabilitation. My Northern Irish wife was pregnant with twins and she had the girls virtually the same day as I went to bury the dead.”
In a strange turn of events, earlier this week and thirty years after she was born, one of his twin daughters told her father that he would be a grandfather again later in the year.
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Weather for Dungannon
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 4 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 21 mph
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Temperature: 4 C to 9 C
Wind Speed: 21 mph
Wind direction: North