Gale's View - August 5th 2009

On top of Poon Hill, overlooking the Mount Pleasant military base in the Falkland Islands, there is a roughly made "signpost" erected by some homesick servicemen. It points towards Wembley, East London ………and Herne Bay.  Standing in the biting wind in two feet of snow on that hilltop alongside one of the Rapier missile batteries that defend the base last week I mentally thanked that soldier for a reminder that many of us tend to forget that the task of defending our security and our interests in the far-flung and sometimes bleak corners of the earth is carried out by real men and women whose homes and families are not very far away from our own.

While attention is clearly and rightly focussed at present on the conflict and the loss of life and injury that is taking place in Afghanistan we need to remember that the second-largest overseas commitment of soldiers, sailors and airman around the globe is still in the Falkland Islands.  And with very good reason.  These islands, which one of my young constituents gave his life seeking to recapture nearly thirty years ago, are not only home to a significant British population but are geographically and strategically vital to our global security and to our presence in the Southern ocean and Antarctica. In tandem with the staging post of Ascension Island, in mid-Atlantic, they offer a base and the eyes and ears of our security services that reach across half of the world.

We left RAF Brize Norton, two members of the House of Peers and three Members of the House of Commons, a week ago. We went to visit, in Antarctic midwinter, our troops, our airmen and our sailors to both learn of their needs and difficulties and to express our appreciation for the job that they are doing, day and night, on our behalf.  In the event our arrival and Falkland experience were curtailed by the worst snowstorm that the Islands have experienced in twenty years, that closed the Mount Pleasant airfield for three days and that left us temporarily marooned on that lump of volcanic rock that is known as Ascension Island and that has been a British Outpost, now an Overseas Territory, since Royal Marines were first stationed there in 1815.

While the delay cost us some time on the ground in the Falklands it also gave us the opportunity to receive in-depth briefing from the Commander British Forces, South Atlantic, who was travelling with us, and from our military escort. The latter has just finished a spell of duty with his regiment, 2 Para, in Helmand province in Afghanistan and we were usefully able to hear at very first hand and with chilling detail the reality of life and death on reconnaissance patrol in that theatre of war.

We made it to The Falklands in time to spend one night on board our South Atlantic patrol ship, the frigate HMS Gloucester, and to meet and talk with at least some of the personnel on the Mount Pleasant base. We were also privileged to watch as one of our very few women fast-jet pilots took off on a sortie in her Tornado to clock up a record-breaking two thousand hours of jet flying time.

We travelled some sixteen thousand miles during our week away, the last twelve thousand of them in thirty-six hours. It was worth every inch and every minute of the time.  I am left in no doubt at all that what we are militarily engaged in is both necessary and right and that those ill-informed armchair liberals of the "commentariat" who seek to belittle the work that is being done deserve only our contempt.

Next time you visit a supermarket in Margate or Herne Bay please pause and reflect that if you took way from the store everything that arrives in the United Kingdom by sea there would be just 20% of the goods left on the shelves.  It is the men and women of our armed forces that go a very long way towards ensuring that we are able to enjoy, in relative peace, not just the essentials but the luxuries of life that we take for granted.  We owe them a huge and enduring debt of gratitude - and if the man or woman who erected the "Herne Bay" sign at the top of Poon Hill is reading this, I owe them a very large drink: please get in touch and claim it!


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