By Lord Ashcroft, KCMG.
It is heartening that the media coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War has been so extensive. For it is right that we remember those who made such sacrifices so that the islands invaded by Argentina could be reclaimed by their rightful owner. It is right too that the courage of certain individuals has also been recalled: Baroness Thatcher for her decisive political and military stand; Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert “H” Jones for his leadership and bravery which cost him his life as he charged an entrenched Argentinian position during the Battle for Goose Green.
However, there is one Falklands War hero whose name seems to have been forgotten. He is Sergeant Ian McKay, who, along with Colonel Jones, received one of only two VCs awarded during the conflict. Indeed, since their decorations were announced in the London Gazette on October 11, 1982, only two more Britons – Private (now Lance Corporal) Johnson Beharry and Corporal Bryan Budd – have been awarded Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for bravery in the face of the enemy.
As the owner of the largest collection of VCs in the world (currently 174 decorations), I have taken it upon myself to champion the gallantry of our medal recipients, largely through the new gallery that bears my name at the Imperial War Museum. The gallery, which opened in November 2010, houses my VC collection and VCs that were already in the care of the museum. Yet it saddens me that Sergeant McKay’s bravery has been so overlooked during the 30th anniversary coverage, perhaps because he did not have the rank or the charisma of the unforgettable “Colonel H”.
Indeed, according to his own family, Yorkshire-born Sergeant McKay, who as a boy turned down an offer to play soccer for Doncaster Rovers, was “a quiet, introverted character”. However, make no mistake: the bravery shown by him on the night of June 11-12 1982 compares favourably with any displayed by our servicemen since the VC was instituted by a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria on January 29, 1856.
On that fateful June night, the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment had mounted a silent attack on an enemy battalion position on Mount Longdon, which was an important military objective as the British forces advanced on Port Stanley. Sergeant McKay, aged 29 and a family man, was platoon sergeant of 4 Platoon, B Company, which was given the task of clearing the northern side of the east/west ridge, at the time held by the enemy with strong supporting positions.
By this point, the enemy was fully alert to the attack and was resisting vigorously. As 4 Platoon advanced, it came under increasingly heavy fire from several well-sited enemy machine-guns positions, and it received casualties. Realising that no further advance was possible, the platoon commander ordered his men to move from their exposed position to shelter among the rocks on the ridge itself. As they did so, they met up with part of 5 Platoon, which had also been advancing. However, the heavy and accurate enemy fire still made the position of the men extremely hazardous and so the platoon commander decided to reconnoitre the position ahead.
He, Sergeant McKay and a small number of other men advanced, covered by machine-gun fire, but the platoon commander was hit by a bullet to the leg and so the command passed to Sergeant McKay. In the words of his VC citation, “It was clear that instant action was needed if the advance was not to falter and increasing casualties to ensue.” After a careful assessment of the situation, Sergeant McKay decided to convert the reconnaissance into an attack in an attempt to eliminate the enemy position. Sergeant McKay, who was in no doubt of the dangers that he and his comrades faced, issued orders and took three men with him before breaking cover and charging the enemy position. In a hail of gunfire, his corporal was seriously wounded, one private was killed and another injured.
Yet still Sergeant McKay continued to charge the position alone and on arriving he saw off the enemy using hand grenades, thereby relieving the position for the beleaguered 4 and 5 Platoons. Sadly, at the moment of victory, Sergeant McKay was killed and his body fell on the enemy bunker. His VC citation later ended with the words: "Without doubt Sergeant McKay’s action retrieved a most dangerous situation and was instrumental in ensuing the success of the attack. His was a coolly calculated act, the danger of which must have been too apparent to him beforehand. Undeterred he performed with outstanding selflessness, perseverance and courage. With a complete disregard of his own safety, he displayed courage and leadership of the highest order, and was an inspiration to all those around him.”
At this point, I should perhaps declare a small “interest” for I purchased Sergeant McKay’s VC, with his family’s blessing, many years ago and it is one of the decorations now on public display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery. However, it is for his family’s sake that Sergeant McKay’s brave actions must be fully recognised. I can still remember the dignified manner in which Marcia McKay, Sergeant McKay’s widow, received his VC at Buckingham Palace on November 9, 1982. Their daughter, Melanie, then five, was photographed with her father’s medal pinned to her black, velvet dress.
I remember too the earlier wide and emotional words from Ken McKay, the soldier’s father, on hearing that his son had received a posthumous VC. “I’m the proudest man in the world,” he said, before adding, “but I would rather have Ian alive.” And, finally, I remember the tribute from Colour Sergeant Brian Faulkner, Sergeant McKay’s comrade and one of the last men to see him alive. Colour Sergeant Faulkner, who was also coffin bearer at Sergeant McKay’s funeral, summed up his friend’s gallantry in just six words: “Mac was the bravest of the brave.”
*Lord Ashcroft’s books on gallantry include Victoria Cross Heroes.