‘You never get over it, but I have a double problem. I was fighting against Brits, people who were as good as family’
By Sophie Arie
In their peaceful home in the depths of the Argentine pampas, Michael Savage and his family eat mint sauce with their lamb and then tuck into apple crumble for dessert. Their home is uncannily British, right down to the tea cosy. Only the barebacked horses roaming freely in the garden remind you this is Argentina.
Two shaggy-haired Highland cattle stare down from a painting above the mantelpiece. And on one wall there is a photo of Savage’s grandmother – whose British parents emigrated to Argentina when it was a land of hope and prosperity early last century – posing proudly in a kilt and beret.
On the other side of the fireplace is the more recent past, in the form of Savage’s personal “war museum”: a brightly lit display cabinet, complete with 20-year-old bullet-torn relics from the Falklands battlefields and photos and letters. This is the hard evidence, which Savage’s family live with every day, of a “war without hate” that began on 2 April, 1982 and left over 1,000 dead and shattered many more lives by 14 June.
Savage, whose intense eyes make his face look both young and old at once, sips a cup of tea and, in an almost perfect, old-time BBC English accent, he reminisces about going to war for Argentina against the British task force.
“I was 19 when they sent us to the Falklands,” he says. “I had done my military service, but I think I’d only touched a gun once for about 15 minutes. I didn’t have a clue how to load a rifle.
“We never really believed we were going to war. And we never thought they’d use complete novices instead of real soldiers. The thing is a lot of the professional soldiers somehow weren’t around when it came to call-up time. It felt like it was just some army exercise. None of us had any idea what horrific things we were going to see.” And for Savage, with his British roots, it was all the harder to realise what was happening. When he arrived at Port Stanley, wearing his Argentine army poncho, helmet and goggles, the first thing he did was ask around for an islander called Jamie Robertson. They had played cricket together at the same English boarding school in Buenos Aires. “The islanders thought I was completely loony,” he laughs.
Savage spent nearly two months huddled in holes in the peat at the foot of Mount Longdon, with the Seventh Mechanised Regiment of La Plata, waiting and hoping not to have to fight. At first, the regiment passed the time shooting at sheep and roasting them on an old bed frame they had found nearby. Gradually food ran out and sleeping bags became permanently sodden. Hunger gnawed at their shrinking stomachs, fed only by watery soup and stewed Argentine mate, a bitter herbal tea.
“On 25 May, Argentina’s independence day, our stupid officer forced us to stand out in a lashing storm and sing the national anthem,” remembers Savage. “We were so cold and so weak we couldn’t sing loud enough. He got furious and made us do press-ups as punishment for not singing loud enough. They weren’t all such fascists, but I have never forgiven those who were.”
On the night of 11 June, when the battle of Mount Longdon, one of the most bloody of the Falklands War, began, the hungry 19-year-old and his unit shelled the British positions as hard as they could, while other units fought face-to-face with British 3 Paratrooper Regiment.
“That night, watching tracers light up the sky, feeling terrified and hungry, will always haunt me,” he says. “By about four in the morning we were in shock, exhausted and we decided to have a nap. We were too weak to carry on. We didn’t think we’d be alive the next morning.”
“When the men came down from the battle they were stunned. One of them was carrying a maroon beret – a grim trophy lost by a British paratrooper. The hungry conscripts, who could hardly hold up their guns they were so weak, had managed to gun down about 25 British paratroopers. And as they started telling the story, the shells started raining down, with uncomfortable precision. One landed about a metre away from me, and killed a friend. I shouldn’t have looked. But I did.
“The image of his head cracked open, with brains spilling out into the mud, will always haunt me. They bombed us until four o’clock that afternoon. I think they must have stopped for a cup of tea.”
The Argentines were cowering in a hole, terrified and reciting the rosary as the surrounding earth shook under the impact of shell after shell. They were desperate to surrender but couldn’t wave a white flag because there was not a single white thing left in their mud-caked camp. In the end, those who could turned and ran. Michael and other bony, filthy stragglers were the first front-liners to wander dazed into Port Stanley, greeted with some shock, he recalls, by spotlessly clean officers.
“They had been sleeping in houses, in warm beds. They had shiny shoes, pristine ironed uniforms and waxed moustaches. They even had heating in their cars. I was so furious with them.”
Savage became a prisoner of war, along with thousands of others, on SS Canberra. His face lights up at the thought.
“Becoming a prisoner of war was lovely. It was like arriving in the First World. We were literally in tatters. Our clothes and skin were black with grime and mud. We all got baths, but the British didn’t have any fresh clothes and there weren’t enough machines to wash our stuff, so we had to keep wearing our filthy uniforms.”
In the first days after the war, emotions were raw and there were tense moments. One of very few English-speaking Argentines, Savage ended up in a shouting match with one paratrooper who kept screaming that the Argentines had killed his friends. He screamed the same thing back.
“One day I discovered there was a British soldier on board with the same name as me, Michael Savage. It just seemed to make the point,” he says. “We were all the same, just victims of the politicians and their epic nationalist jaunt.
“I enjoyed being British with the Brits. They couldn’t work me out. They kept asking me where in England I was from. For a while I answered ‘Tottenham’. It was the first place I could think of, because there was an Argentine footballer playing for Tottenham Hotspur at the time. But eventually I explained to them that there are quite a lot of English-speaking Argentines with strong roots in Britain. I became an interpreter for a couple of British officers – Martin “Fatty” Osborn and Corporal Burnett. I helped translate during crucial operations on wounded Argentine soldiers.
“We had so much in common as soldiers then and we still do now. I told them once how angry I was at the way we were treated by our officers. The worst of all was when they helped themselves to the best of the rations, piling them up in their tents, and leaving us starving on thin watery soup.
“So one day they barged into my officers’ cabin and marched the gibbering fools round to the toilets. They had them down on all fours scrubbing out the loos for hours. That was normally the job of your average conscript. I tried to keep a straight face and insisted I had nothing to do with it. But I was grinning inside. It was the only small revenge I could get.”
When Savage reached mainland Argentina, he had lost 17 kilos and was down to a total body weight of 55 kilos. “I went into a sort of euphoric state for a while,” he remembers. “I call it ‘survivors’ happiness’. I used to wake up early to enjoy the day.
“My grandfather was the one who suffered the most while I was fighting out on the islands. We used to call him ‘Che Dad’ – Che, like Che Guevara, Argentine for mate. He was born in Argentina but, like so many Anglo-Argentines, he felt more British than the British. He had served for four years as an RAF intelligence flying officer at Nijmegen, Holland, during the Second World War. He never got a pension for his trouble, because he wasn’t a British citizen.
“He had offered his life for Britain and, next thing he knew, the British were at war with his country and his own grandson was on the front line.
“How absurd all war is. It is incredible that in the times we live in anyone should think of forcing change on other people’s lives. And it’s unbelievable that young conscripts should have had to face such horror. It was like picking people off the street and forcing them to fight in a professional army.”
In January 2000, the year after relaxed relations between Argentina and Great Britain allowed Argentines to fly to the islands for more than 24 hours, Savage packed up his whole family – his wife Andrea and children Patricio and Maggie – and set off to “lay the ghosts to rest”. The family stayed with an islander friend, painter James Peck, whose father, Terry, had joined the 3 Paratroopers Regiment during the war and fought against Savage’s regiment at Mount Longdon. The two veterans sat down on the overgrown rocks where they had fought and swigged brandy together, swapping old battle tales.
“He told me how he and other paratroopers had secretly watched our regiment for days before the battle,” says Savage. “They had a chance to attack a group of us on a reconnaissance mission, but decided not to bother as it would reveal their positions. I realised I was sitting next to a man who had saved my life.
“The whole visit was a great catharsis. I had to see it in times of peace. I was flabbergasted to find all our stuff still out there just as we had left it. There was a huge old rusty cooking stove that the mice used to freeze in at night. I found my old tea pot, a tin plate and the old bucket we used to serve the soup from.
“You never get over such horrors and you always ask yourself how they could possibly have happened. I have a double problem of also digesting the fact I was fighting against Brits, people who, for me, were as good as family. We have the same cultural background. I grew up speaking their language.
“Some people choose to ignore the whole experience and never mention it. Others say nothing and act fine until one day they pull out a gun and shoot themselves. I have tried to face up to what I went through by talking about it. It is part of who I am. It troubled me and of course it changed my life, but I have moved on.
“I am not part of any veterans’ movement and I don’t campaign about the war. I just try to live a normal life, running a metalworks business in the countryside, with my family.
“I have never had nightmares about the war and I had kept the memories well under control. Until a few months ago. I had dreamt that I was in the trenches on Mount Longdon, shells falling all around, and then a mobile phone started ringing. It was my bank manager telling me my cheques had bounced.”
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