Monday, 2 April 2012

The family followed military tradition and buried him where he fell; a Devon war memorial remembers his history

This is the Devon War Memorial that has been occupying my thoughts for the past year.  Not the memorial itself – designed, in that age of deference, by the local squire – but the names on it.  There are twenty three; you can see them on the plinth, in sans serif letters attached to the granite.  They don’t give away more than they need to: just the surname of the individual who died and his (and in one case her) initials.  But each has a story, which I have been applying myself to uncover.

There is nothing particularly unusual about the memorial itself.  Crosses were a standard form, particularly in Devon where wayside crosses had been erected since the time of the monasteries to help travellers find their way across the moors.  But the names include a young pilot who died in the Falklands, the first British casualty of the war, and a boy paratrooper, just eighteen years old, killed in Iraq.  The pilot was Nick Taylor.  He died attacking the air field at Goose Green, the target being principally the runway and the Pucara planes parked round about.  It was later discovered that the Argentines had constructed a primitive facility for making napalm there.

To assemble the 20 Sea Harriers that left with the Task Force was a considerable task.  They took every available plane that they could find – including the very first Sea Harrier ever built, which had been retained by British Aerospace so that it could be used to test new equipment.  That is the one that Nick flew. 

Thirty seconds from the target, the pilot in front of Nick, heard the whine in his headset which told him that the radar of a pair of Oerlikon 35mm anti-aircraft cannons had locked onto his plane.  He released a scatter of metal chaff to deceive it, and swung the plane violently left.  This broke the lock; he continued the attack.  But Nick’s plane, retained by the manufacturer as a test aircraft, was not fitted with a radar warning receiver.  He would not have known that the enemy radar had got a lock – probably transferred from the first plane as he flew through its chaff. 

By the time Nick’s death was reported in Britain, it had been overshadowed by the loss of HMS Sheffield, hit by an Exocet launched from a Super Etendart, later that day.  But his loss nevertheless affected the development of the war.  When the Argentines studied his plane, they saw that it had been fitted with Sea Eagle, a more advanced weapon than Exocet.  This amost certainly contributed to the decision to keep the Argentine Navy in port for the remainder of the conflict.

History is full of chances.  Loved ones are left to grieve.  Nick, who came from a military family, was buried when he fell.  This is a picture of his grave.

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