‘It was like coming back from the dead’

Falklands veteran Philip Williams
Falklands veteran Philip Williams

PHILIP Williams will not be watching television around the time of the 30th anniversary of the end of the Falklands War because he doesn’t own one.

His experiences during the war and the time he was missing for two months have affected him so deeply he can’t watch scenes of war or conflict because he suffers flashbacks and nightmares.

Philip who is from Halton, now lives in Scale Hall in a flat provided by the British Legion.

A former guardsman in the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards, he was missing for two months during the Falklands War and his parents thought he was dead, but he survived and his amazing story was featured in a book and on television.

In October 1980, when he was 17 and living in Halton, Philip wanted to become a soldier. He said: “I wanted to see a bit of the world. It was either that or factory work. I trained at the Guards depot in Surrey and my first posting was to London. It was very interesting work for a year and a half and then the Falklands War broke out and I was sent there.

“I was quite young and excited about doing my job. It was quite a novelty. When we got there it happened. The war came to me quite quickly.

“We were manning the machine guns for aircraft – everyone jumped to it and it just seemed to work. We were on the ship near the islands and then we were shipped in on landing craft at night.

“There were 100, all from my regiment. We had no resistance on the beach. Some of the locals arrived on tractors to help carry all our kit. It was quite surreal to see a local farmer and his wife turn up and help these soldiers.

“I saw the Sir Galahad being sunk with heavy losses, I saw it get hit. I saw the casualties being brought ashore, which was a very disturbing experience. I’ll never be the same again. That was the reality check and that made us become fully aware – we’re in a war.

“We rarely got food and sleep and if you got wet, you stayed wet.

“Some had dysentery and cold exposure. The regiment suffered as a consequence of the elements.

“I was taking part in a battle on a mountain. The regiment took heavy casualties and we became short of medicine because of the casualty rate.

“I got two off the mountain with serious gunshot wounds and went to take a third. I knew the man on the stretcher, he had a terrible gunshot wound but was awake.

“I was given directions up the mountain to the first aid post but I couldn’t see it. It was night-time and a blizzard kicking in.

“I was one mile up the mountain when a shell hit the ground behind me.

“I felt a massive impact pain from the blast and lost consciousness, but I had survived. When I came to, everything was quiet and it was daylight. I was covered in snow and there wasn’t a sound.”

Unable to get a bearing on his position, Philip walked for months, living off the land, hearing the sounds of battle in the distance until he came across a sheep station.

“I knocked on the door and a woman answered wearing two towels. She was shocked to see this filthy, confused soldier. She took me in and her husband made me a home-made burger on the kitchen range.

“I never thought I would survive, I expected to die of cold or the mines. I was overwhelmed by a bit of simple food.

“They phoned the RAF in Port Stanley on a relay phone and said they had a soldier there. I wasn’t the only one who went missing apparently.

“The war was well over, they had surrendered, hence it being so quiet. The reality was pretty hard to grasp hold of.

“I was taken to the hospital in Port Stanley and I was shocked at the physical state of the other casualties on the ward, some badly maimed and limbless.

“After a week or so, the press were all over me. One day I was out walking when ITN pulled me over and did a live interview.

“Eventually, I joined my regiment and we got a plane to Brize Norton. A member of the Royal Family, I think it was Princess Michael of Kent, was there to greet us.

“I was separated into a room to meet my parents. They allowed us to be photographed by a small army of photographers.

“My mum and dad had had a memorial service for me. They received a telegram saying their son had been killed in action.

“They had a service for me at the village church in Halton and 300 people turned up.

“My mum said it was as big a shock that I was alive. It was like coming back from the dead.

“I was struck off the pay list straight after the war because I wasn’t down on the records. My belongings were gone. I did get paid and carried on soldiering but I felt ill. I couldn’t remember simple things and I was confused all the time.”

Unable to cope, Philip received hospital psychiatric treatment.

“I was treated very shoddily and left on the streets of London with no belongings, no home, no job and no money.

“I remained homeless for six years. A lot of ex-servicemen were left homeless and more than 300 committed suicide, more than the total that died in the Falklands.

“I picked fruit and committed petty crime and shoplifted to eat. I had a tent and stayed on Dartmoor. I earned small amounts from press exclusives and, as a result, a publisher got in touch with me to write a book.

“I was given a rented author’s cottage in Scotland and I had a ghost writer because I couldn’t read or write.

“After a year and a half, the book Summer Soldier was published by Bloomsbury.

“St Pancras films approached me and asked if they could do a film for Channel 4 based on my story called Resurrected.

“Help did come eventually, in the form of the veterans mental health charity, Combat Stress.

“If it wasn’t for the organisation I wouldn’t be as well as I am today, for their persistence and therapies, so I could learn to live with my symptoms.”

He returned to Lancaster in 1991. “I’m now a voluntary worker in the local community for people with mental health difficulties and issues, and I’m also vice-chairman of a charity called Peer Support at Trinity Church in Lancaster,” Philip said.

“I do have bad days when I have nightmare flashbacks and panic attacks.

“I’m 48 now and I’ll probably never work again. I’ll carry on with my voluntary work because it’s satisfying and I like to engage with the community.

“I was a hero when I was ‘dead’. My name is still in St Paul’s Cathedral – officially I’m still dead.

“I would like to find some sort of peace so that when I wake up I’m not quite so angry with myself.”