Profile – WO2 Ian Thompson
They say that people are immortalised in bronze or marble, but if you really want to hang around for centuries, get immortalised in plastic. Such is the case with this person of interest: WO2 Ian Thomson, Assistant Curator at the Australian Army Infantry Museum, Singleton and Falklands War veteran.
‘I was born in Sydney in 1958. My dad was in the Army 2/13 Battalion: Tobruk, El Alamein, South-West Pacific Area. ‘When I left school I did an apprenticeship with Qantas as an Aircraft Maintenance Engineer. I joined the CMF (Citizen’s Military Forces)*as an Infantryman. I always thought that if I was going to join the Regular Army, then it’d be the British Army. At least you might have a chance of going somewhere. ‘My grandfather was in the Royal Field Artillery before immigrating to Australia in 1912 and becoming a stockman near Dubbo, but when WWI started he “returned to colours” and served at Gallipoli at “V” Beach (Cape Helles) with the 29th Division.
In September 1977 I went to London with my parents. I went out for a drink by myself at a local pub. It was almost empty except for a couple sitting in the corner. The gentleman called me over to join them. Talk about “Sliding Doors”. He was WO1 Jack Frost of the Royal Signals Corps and an airborne signaller. We got to talking about the Army and I told him I had thought about joining the Royal Marines or the British
16 Despatches Army. Jack said to meet him the next day and he’d take me to lunch.
Well he took me to the London District Sergeant’s Mess and he knew all the RSMs there and all the RSMs knew him. ‘I headed back to Sydney to finish my apprenticeship. I kept in touch with Jack Frost.
I quit Qantas, sold my car, and headed back to the UK. ‘We had a family friend in London: Elma. She had been the secretary to David Stirling, the founder of the SAS. I stayed with her while I went through the recruiting process. ‘In 1980 when I went through the recruit exit centre, a Green Jackets Major pulled me aside and asked me why I didn’t want to go to the Army Air Corps with my AME qualification where I could be a corporal on the second highest pay grade. I told him I didn’t want to fix another aeroplane and wanted to be a Para.
When I did my basic training they made me do it three times even though I never failed anything. I later found out that they were testing me because I was an Australian, to make sure I really wanted to be there, and they hoped I would self-scrub and get out of the Paras and go to Army Air Corps where they were desperately short of aircraft engineers! ‘I got posted to C Company, 3 Para. My OC was a US exchange officer from the 82nd Airborne, a big Texan— Major (later General) William “Buck” Kernan—a veteran of three tours of Vietnam. He was a great bloke. ‘A few weeks later I was told to report to the CSM. I thought I was in trouble, but there were two “suits” in the office who wanted to interview me. They asked me a bunch of questions and if I liked to travel. They were interested in hearing my Australian accent. They asked me if I still had my Australian passport and told me that they’d be in touch through my CSM with an exciting opportunity. When they left I asked my CSM “What was that about?” He told me to steer clear of them.
They were COPs – Close Observation Patrols – and they wanted me for jobs in Northern Ireland. They were looking for operatives who could pose as foreign tourists. My CSM warned me against it. “People who go there just disappear,” he said. ‘Our battalion was at that time the “Spearhead” battalion which meant we were on short notice. We were doing our support weapons training and I jagged a sniper course because I was a good shot. We were down at the range when this truck comes up honking its horn. The driver tells us all to get back to the barracks and we were locked down.
The Argentinians had commenced hostilities in the Falklands and the CO decided to get us ready in anticipation of being deployed. Sure enough, we were. A week later we were on the SS Canberra sailing for the South Atlantic. ‘They had tradies on board doing modifications while we were sailing. They made two helidecks and sealed up the portholes on the lower decks where we were. We could hear the sea lapping at the port holes we were so overloaded.
We stopped at Sierra Leone to offload the tradies and we headed to Ascension Island. ‘The Argies had some modified WWII-era US subs and German Type 209 subs which had acoustic torpedoes, so we trailed some acoustic noise makers as decoys. ‘One of my mates who became my number 2 on the section gun, used to work as a cook on the Canberra which used to do England to Australia cruises, so he knew all the cooks and we got extra rations.
They’d only take stores on in Britain or Australia because of the reliability of supplies and their quality so all the beer was Australian! I went to war on a cruise ship drinking VB in the Alice Springs bar! ‘In the South Atlantic, it got bloody cold. They decided to fatten us up because we were heading into the southern winter. The seas got too rough so no more PT was held.
They decided to transfer us to the HMS Intrepid because they thought that Canberra couldn’t land us. When I was on Intrepid, where D Squadron 22 SAS was, all the SAS patrol commanders were called to a briefing on HMS Hermes, so they all headed off on a Sea King helicopter. That night, when it was on its way back, it hit an albatross and went into the drink not far from the Intrepid. The call came out for anyone with night vision gear to go onto the deck to look for survivors. I had a starlight scope on my rifle so I headed up and I saw the helicopter in the water lying on its side. Only one bloke got out. When they brought him on board wrapped in a blanket they were taking him past us. He told us: “Don’t go for a dip tonight, fellas. It’s freezing.” That’s when I thought “This is for real.” ‘
On 21 May we landed by landing craft at Green Beach near Port St Carlos and we stayed there for a week at Windy Gap. That’s when the air raids started. We’d watch the Skyhawks and Daggers trying to bomb and strafe the ships in Falklands Sound. We’d have 30mm rounds hitting the ground around us. There was a Rapier missile system that had a generator powering it day and night. It was a bloody nuisance, but it needed to keep its gimbals powered. A ‘Technological Miracle’. On the next air raid, the Rapier was profile Despatches 1 spinning around and going crazy tracking enemy aircraft. When they finally launched a missile we watched it go straight up and then straight down into A Company’s position. No deaths, luckily. ‘One day a Dagger fighter was flying low and slow looking at our OP. We could see the pilot watching us, when all of a sudden there was a bloody big “Whoosh!” One of the guys grabbed a Milan anti-tank missile and let it fly against the fighter. It almost got him!
The CO and his tac party came storming up the hill, antennas waving everywhere, demanding to know who fired it. He told him that that’s not what the Milan is for, but if he’d shot him down he would have given him a bloody medal! ‘We were then told to head off across the island to Port Stanley where the Argies were dug in. They told us “No large packs. We’ll bring all your gear later by chopper.” Well, we fell for that, didn’t we. We tabbed* across the island and didn’t see our packs or any rations.
The Atlantic Conveyor was sunk with all our rations and all but one of the Chinook helicopters. So we had very little food except we did get a lot of Mars bars! ‘The enemy could see us coming so we didn’t use field signals. We just shouted to each other. Anyone who used field signals was obviously a commander and was likely to be targeted. It’s like in the Aussie Army, all the time the commanders want to grab the radio. When I did my sniper course they told us “Look for the guy who grabs the radio from the signaller. That’s the guy you want to shoot.” ‘
Everyone started to get trench foot. It was dreadful. Your feet felt like they were on fire but when you felt them they were stone cold. Some guys lost toes. We had to leave them behind with the medics ‘til they could get casevaced, then the medics would have to run to catch up with us. They were bloody terrific!
‘It was 70 miles across the island. As we got closer to Port Stanley we approached Mt Longdon. At that stage, we’d been surviving on Mars bars. They were the only thing that didn’t go down on the Atlantic Conveyor. I saw SGT Mackay who was in 4 Platoon, B Coy. “You look fighting fit!” I said to him. He’d lost a lot of weight but hadn’t we all. “I’m bloody starving, Tommo!” he said to me. That was the last time I saw him. It was then that 3 Para was told to attack the Argentinian positions on Mt Longdon. He got a posthumous VC for that action. It was terrible to lose such a great guy. ‘We occupied Mt Longdon which was the vital ground and sat there for two days while we were being shelled with airburst 105mm and 155mm arty. ‘
Soon after we got into Port Stanley when the Argies surrendered. C Company was pretty much at full strength so we were used to taking the POWs back to Argentina. We offloaded them at Puerta Madryn. First, the ambulances arrived for the wounded, then a whole bunch of limousines for the officers. Buses arrived for the NCOs, but for the soldiers, well they got carted off in open trucks. That’s what they thought of their diggers.
We sailed for Ascension Island and I flew by RAF VC10 back to the UK. I became a bus driver for a while, then was a railway copper which led me to be a detective with NSW Police. I then went back to the railways as a train driver. I was hassled to re-join my old ARES battalion, which was 4/3 RNSWR, and had to do my IETs again (Paul Mitrovich, Manager AAMD was one of his instructors – Ed). I was called by Colonel Fleeton at Army Personnel Agency who said: “Have I got a job for you! It’s the Army History Unit.” That was 2009. I was at Victoria Barracks at Paddington at AMNSW, but then I had a house fire and lost everything.
If there’s one piece of advice I can give everyone, it’s to make sure you’re not under-insured. We lost everything. But I’d always liked Singleton and I was keen to get a position at the Infantry Museum. Neil (Dailey) got me a position and here I am… very happy!’
—WO2 Ian Thompson AAIM
THANK YOU TO THE HISTORY UNIT.