After a bloody battle a Royal Marine found an enemy camera. Thirty years later Nick Taylor tracked down the Argentine soldier in the pictures
It was a long, hard and often terrifying battle fought in the bitter cold of a midwinter’s night in the South Atlantic. Decades have since passed, but Nick Taylor remembers every detail of the assault on the mountain peaks of the Two Sisters: the snow, the shouting, the rock-strewn ascent through the darkness, the red tracer bullets and exploding mortars launched by the Argentinian troops entrenched on the mountain above. Bayonets were fixed as Nick and his fellow Marines inched up the bleak incline towards the enemy machine guns.
Their brave capture of the twin summits in June 1982, was a small moment in history – a strategic victory that opened the way for the liberation of Stanley two days later, and the Falkland Islands themselves.
But for Nick there is a deeper, more personal significance to the terrible events of that night, which is why, 30 years on, he is to be found back on the same slopes, the same Falklands wind beating his face as he embraces a middle-aged lawyer from Buenos Aires.
To friendship: Nick Taylor, left and Marcelo Llambias Pravas, right, raise a glass in the Falklands
Nick Taylor was just 20 and had been in the Royal Marines for little more than a year when his unit left Condor Barracks on the outskirts of Arbroath, in the north-east of Scotland, for the Falklands. Stopping for two weeks on the sunny island of Ascension, the young Marines (like the majority of the British military) thought war in the distant British settlement seemed unlikely. But when they disembarked from their landing craft at Ajax Bay, on the north-west coast of East Falkland, the reality was all too evident.
This picture was the one which intrigued Nick most, sparking his thirty year search
Nick, a member of X-Ray Company, 45 Commando, celebrated his 21st birthday there on June 5, 1982. He remembers it because he spent that day and night on the verge of hypothermia, huddling for warmth for 36 hours in a sleeping bag with a more senior Marine, known as a Sea Daddy.
‘When things get desperate and you are soaked to the skin and are going to die of hypothermia, you’re taught to get naked and the two of you get into a sleeping bag so that you can combine your body heat. So that’s what we did.
‘My birthday present was to see Stanley for the first time from the top of a mountain. And not dying of the cold.’
There was an 80-mile yomp across rocks, peat ridges and tussock grass before 45 Commando even reached the Two Sisters. The helicopters that were supposed to ferry their kit, as well as their re-supplies and heavy stores, had been sunk on the container ship, the Atlantic Conveyor, on May 25. Worse still, the men had been forced to ditch their British military ‘Bergens’ (or rucksacks) and cram what they could into light daysacks before the long march, leaving them at the mercy of the elements.
By June 11 they were cold, tired and hungry, but in position. Snow began to fall just as the assault on the Two Sisters was launched.
It was bloody. The summit was protected by Argentinian troops, well dug-in. As they climbed the slopes, Nick and the men of 45 Commando took cover behind rocky outcrops, pinned down by machine gun, mortar and heavy artillery.
But the ferocity and superior firepower of the British forces gained the advantage and the Argentinians retreated, leaving behind more than just a red-hot machine gun. The Marines snatched up abandoned Argentine kit: tents, clothes, boots, rations and drink.
‘The Argentinian guys up there were brave,’ says Nick. ‘We put down a serious amount of fire until they knew they would be overrun and then they retreated. But it was a wise decision, not a cowardly one and they left with their honour intact.
‘We all recognised that and we were grateful to have avoided more bloodshed. But we were equally grateful for what they left behind. We only had the uniforms we stood up in and the equipment we could carry; no extra clothing or food. We were out of everything. We had to take boots and other items from their dead. We also took their ammo, weapons, rations – it was corned beef – and whisky and orange powder. We mixed it with water out of bomb craters and it was lovely. We found blankets and woolly hats.’
Of less immediate consequence was the 126 Kodak camera Nick found in an abandoned bag. It was, by coincidence, the same model as the one he had carried from the start of the Falklands campaign.
The 21-year-old turned and took pictures of the terrain across which he had yomped. Then he discarded the camera, put the film in his pocket and forgot about it.
Marcelo, holding his son Mariano, and pictured with his wife Stella
Nick with his wife Deb and their two sons Josh, far right, and Joe, far left
At home a month later, his curiosity aroused, Nick went to the chemist in Arbroath to collect the developed film he laughingly referred to as his ‘holiday snaps’. Opening the yellow and red Kodak pouch, his eyes lit up as he flicked through images that would remain with him for the rest of his life. For there, in his hands, were pictures of a young man no older than himself, standing defiantly in his Argentinian officer’s uniform, cigarette in mouth. He was armed with grenades, a light automatic rifle slung across his shoulder and a heavy bandolier around his neck. Behind him were the crags of the Two Sisters.
The two men were the mirror of each other, but the stranger in the pictures had been fighting for the other side, believing just as strongly that his cause was right.
‘The photos showed an Argentinian officer in precisely the same position as I had been on the mountain,’ says Nick. ‘I was looking at a man I’d waged war against. I wondered if I was looking at a ghost.’
After the Falklands campaign, Nick had remained in the Marines, then joined the Special Boat Service, with which he took part in clandestine operations across Europe, the Middle and Far East, Central, South and North America and Afghanistan. From the moment he saw those photographs, however, he knew he had to return them to the owner.
Last year, conscious that the anniversary of the conflict was approaching – it will be marked later this spring – Nick began his quest in earnest. And thanks to the global reach of the internet, he eventually tracked down the mysterious enemy soldier.
Marcelo Llambias Pravas had been a second lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Regiment of the Argentine army 30 years ago. Like Nick he had been just 21 and, again like Nick, came from a military family. Marcelo had even been educated in an English-speaking international school. He was decorated with the Gallantry in Combat medal for being the last Argentinian soldier to withdraw from Two Sisters.
Nick says: ‘For years I have wondered about the soldier that camera belonged to and questioned whether he was still alive. He must have been through a lot of the same things as me, freezing, marching, starving, being excited by the heat of the battle, maybe even being a little scared.
‘The Falklands experience formed me and became part of my character and whenever I looked at the photographs of that time they brought back a flood of memories.
A camera just like the one which was found by Nick and discarded after he had removed the film
‘I started doing some research into the Falklands conflict and in particular the battle for Two Sisters. Marcelo’s name and unit kept appearing, but I was not certain he was the right man. Posting his picture on an Argentine military forum led me to a friend of his and, finally, I got a hold of an email address. That’s how I found myself in contact with the man in the photo, no longer a two dimensional image but a real flesh and blood person.
‘I emailed him. A couple of days later he wrote back. I couldn’t quite believe my good fortune as I opened it up.
‘This is what he had to say, “It is an honour to me to have been contacted by a former member of such a brave force as the Royal Marines and I am deeply touched by your gesture in wanting to give me back my photographs.
‘ “Serving with the UN in Iraq and Kuwait, I had the opportunity to work with British military men and I came to know the special bond of comradeship and respect that has grown between our two forces, and I saw it again when I served in Cyprus and Eastern Slavonia.
‘ “We are no longer enemies because we both fought fairly for our countries. I am certain that you may understand me better than any civilian from Argentina.” ’
Nick knew then he was dealing with a like-minded man: a soldier who was now a civilian, a husband and father. A man who could finally be his friend and not his enemy.
And from that delighted email exchange grew an extraordinary meeting between ex-combatants who learned that they really were brothers in arms even if they didn’t know it at the time. It was a meeting of raw emotion played out on the mountaintop where they had faced each other for the first time 30 years ago. And it took place last December, when once again they found themselves on the slopes of Two Sisters, the fortress-like mountains whose fall into British hands changed the course of the Falklands War.
Nick is the first to arrive and sits in the sunshine nervously drumming his fingers on the photo album he has specially made for his new Argentinian friend. As Marcelo comes bounding towards him, he stands up, his hand outstretched for a British handshake only to find himself engulfed in the warmth of a South American embrace.
Mr Taylor, left, sporting the commandos’ famous green beret during the war
They both laugh and then Nick asks Marcelo if he really was the last man standing in accordance with the citation on his medal.
‘And if you were the last man, how come I missed you?’ he asks, military humour still to the fore. It is a foil to the tenderness of the moment as he hands over the photograph album they have unwittingly shared for more than half their lives.
As they flick through the pictures the two marvel at how in so many ways they were the same.
‘I don’t remember any of these photographs. Look at me, I was a kid,’ laughs Marcelo. ‘And so were you.’
From up here on the mountain, the men can see Mount Tumbledown, Mount Longdon, Mount Harriet, Wireless Ridge and Sapper Hill, all key strategic defensive positions. As they point out each of these landmarks and talk about their part in the battle, they seem to speak to each other in some kind of code. They are like members of a fraternity.
‘I was with 5 Section, 2 Troop, X-Ray Company and our bayonets were fixed,’ says Nick. ‘We got two- thirds of the way up before anybody started firing at us, but then you kept us pinned down with a machine gun. It took us three-and-a-half hours to cover that last 100 yards, you know. We were hiding among those rocks getting absolutely hammered. Our gun section was up ahead and we were pinned down.
‘A shell went off next to me, and hit three of the guys but they were just wounded. We were so lucky that we didn’t lose anyone.’
Nick points down to a patch of open ground between some boulders, and asks Marcelo: ‘Do you remember any guys running from the left to the right?’
He responds: ‘Yes, I could see them very clearly with my night vision.’
Nick laughs: ‘We had no radios at the time so our boss shouted, “Five Section on me” and the three of us ran across open ground. I have never run so fast in my life – rounds were pinging around everywhere.’
Marcelo puts his arm around Nick: ‘You ran fast! Too fast for us to shoot at you,’ he says.
Then the two men scramble around the peaty mountainside like goats, finding old telephone wire, sleeping bags, tent pegs and even some of those long-empty whisky bottles. They are careful as they pick their way down, as the slopes are still littered with landmines.
As we walk, Marcelo says: ‘I am surprised and deeply touched by Nick’s search for me. It’s not a common thing to do – as soon as I heard from him I realised he was a good man. He didn’t have to do this: 30 years have passed. He is such a gentleman.
‘Yes, we were enemies. But I think on my side – and I assume Nick is the same – we never hated each other. This was something between Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri: generally speaking, no Argentinian during the war hated any British soldier. We were soldiers, we were doing our job, both sides, we were fighting for our country.
‘The Malvinas or Falklands War was very different compared to other wars where civilians or children are involved or crimes are committed. You don’t feel the same as you would if you were fighting a terrorist. It’s good to fight enemies when this enemy has the same code, the same values.
Marcelo, right, 30 years ago when he was in the Argentine occupying force on the ‘Two Sisters’ in the Falklands
From our side there was some kind of admiration for the British forces, so, even during the combat, there was no hatred.’
Nick agrees: ‘I don’t feel any animosity towards Marcelo or the Argentine forces. At the time of the war we were young men fighting for our country and each other, both sides with similar values. It was an old-fashioned war with old-fashioned rules.’
Both men are concerned about the rattling of sabres in the lead-up to the 30th anniversary of the conflict. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has been trying to strangle the Falklands’ economy, turning two British cruise ships away from her shores and she has also been critical of the deployment of Prince William to the Falklands as an RAF search-and-rescue helicopter pilot. Britain has announced it is dispatching the £1 billion Type 45 destroyer HMS Dauntless to patrol the islands’ waters.
But on a sunny southern hemisphere summer day last December concerns for the wider geo-politics have given way.
Marcelo says: ‘It’s nice to be here. Sometimes I think, “Was it a dream? Was I there?” But now I have the pictures, the proof.’
Nick smiles broadly: ‘To think that we, as enemies, were trying to shoot each other from just 50-60 yards away 30 years ago and now, as friends, we’re here again. You’re right, it is incredible.’
Their lives have followed similar trajectories since that first deadly meeting in 1982. Both enjoyed distinguished military careers and success on civvy street. Nick, now 50, rose to the rank of warrant officer in the SBS. He retired in 2003 and now travels across Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East assessing security for an American oil company. He lives in Poole – the Dorset home town of the SBS – with his wife Debra and sons Josh, 20, and Joe, 17. The family spends time together in a seafront beach hut from where Nick swims and cycles to maintain his fitness.
Marcelo spent 19 years in the army serving on UN missions in Iraq and elsewhere before retraining as a lawyer in Buenos Aires, where he lives with his wife Stella and seven-year-old son Mariano, and sees his sons from a previous marriage, Marcelo, 21, and Francisco, 19.
The pair pay their respects at the Argentinian Military Cemetery, which lies west of Darwin Settlement, close to Goose Green and is the final resting place of 230 men, including one of Marcelo’s troops. Five of his soldiers were killed in the course of the war. Two others underwent amputations as a result of frostbite.
Nick Taylor, left, during the war with a fellow Royal Marine
Later, Nick and Marcelo visit the Royal Marine memorial, to pay tribute to the 255 British and 649 Argentinian lives lost, before walking into the now spruce little town of Stanley, filled with brightly-painted clapboard houses with corrugated iron roofs.
Nick recalls the chaos and joy of the day he was last here, the day Argentina surrendered: ‘We went to Government House and I remember being in the drawing room there, with all the pictures of the Royal Family, and we – I’m embarrassed to say it now – broke into the drinks store and stole some brandy, mixed it with tinned fruit cocktail, and sang songs while someone played the guitar. I ran across the road to Cable & Wireless and sweet-talked the girls into sending a telegram to my mum and dad and my girlfriend.’
The thought prompts the pair to head for the Globe pub, a single- storey corrugated iron roofed building bedecked with Union Flags which pre-date the war.
‘It’s amazing that 30 years later I am having a beer with the man whose camera I found,’ says Nick. ‘That film was a record of his war and his experiences and for all the years it was in my care I felt that it deserved to be with its rightful owner. If the camera had been mine, I would always have wondered about its fate. It’s been an honour.’
And then the men turn to look at the sea, each lost in quiet contemplation. Two old soldiers, one the Queen’s enemy, the other her defender, now brothers, not in arms, but in peace. Return To The Falklands will be on ITV1 at 9pm on Tuesday.