Hero with a legacy of grief

VC hero Sergeant Ian McKay
VC hero Sergeant Ian McKay
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Sergeant Ian McKay was killed two days before victory in the Falklands. On the 30th anniversary of his death, his mother Freda remembers her eldest son, the last soldier to be awarded the VC in the 20th century. Sarah Freeman reports.

Some people believe that life only throws at us what we can cope with. Freda McKay isn’t so sure.

In the space of 13 years, Freda attended the funeral of her three sons, her first husband suffered a fatal heart attack and her new partner died of cancer. In between, Freda has undergone both a mastectomy and quadruple heart bypass.

“I used to think things could only get better, but they didn’t, so I had to stop thinking that way,” she says, her words remarkably untouched by bitterness or pity.

Freda’s heartache began on the morning of June 14, 1982. She was working in the offices of British Steel in Sheffield when the telephone rang. The voice on the other end informed Freda her eldest son, Sgt Ian McKay, had been killed in one of the last battles of the Falklands War.

He was 29, married with a four-year-old daughter. Later that evening, white flags were flying in Stanley and at 10.15pm Margaret Thatcher informed the Commons that after 74 brutal days the Argentine forces had surrendered. To some, victory was the ultimate justification for the sacrifice.

“As the troops began returning home it turned into a celebration, but there were a lot of people like me who were grieving,” says Freda, who still lives in Rotherham, where Sgt McKay grew up.

“I was told Ian had died very bravely, but did that make it worth it? For me, not in a thousand years.”

Under darkness, a silent attack had been mounted on a Argentinian machine gun post which was threatening the British advance on the capital. As one by one, his comrades fell dead or wounded on Mount Longdon, Sgt McKay went on alone, charging the enemy position. He succeeded in overpowering the Argentine troops, but was killed at the moment of victory.

Sgt McKay’s courage under fire saw him awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross – one of only two awarded in the conflict. However, in subsequent reports of the war, his name has often been overshadowed by the other recipient, the more senior Colonel H Jones.

Perhaps not for much longer. A new book on Sgt McKay’s early life, his Army career and those final moments in the Falklands has just been published. It’s sitting on Freda’s living room table and while she hasn’t finished it yet, she did work closely with author, the military historian Jon Cooksey.

“Ian had a good brain, but he put all his energy into his muscles,” says Freda. He didn’t want to stay on at school and I knew he would never stick an office job, but when he said he wanted to join the Paras I was shocked. He used to get sick even on the shortest car journey and suddenly he was wanting to throw himself out of planes, but I never tried to dissuade him.

“His dad was more vocal, he said he wouldn’t sign the papers, but Ian’s response was, ‘If you don’t, I’ll just wait until I’m 18.”

Army recruiting officers also tried to persuade the teenager to sit his A-levels. Their words fell on deaf ears and within seven months he was in Northern Ireland. Later at the height of the Troubles, his company was ordered into Derry’s Bogside to conduct an arrest operation during a civil rights march. January 20, 1972 will always be known as Bloody Sunday and subsequent inquiries, including the one carried out following Sgt McKay’s death, have been understandably traumatic for Freda.

By the time Sgt McKay reached the Falkland Islands, a place he expressed little love for, Freda says her son had begun to think about life after the Army.

“Leaving had crossed his mind, but I remember him joking, ‘What good am I? I could either be a police officer or a mortar bomber for the IRA’.”

As events played out, Sgt McKay was robbed of the rest of life and of the chance to see his young daughter, Melanie, grow up.

“For most people, 30 years on the anniversary of the Falklands is a celebration of beating the Argentinians. For me it’s about what happened in the 30 years since Ian died.”

Freda and Ian’s father, Ken reacted differently in grief. She desperately needed to talk about her son, he preferred to say nothing, and as so often happens following the death of a child the marriage broke down. Freda, returned to work and met a new partner Jeff, who gave her, she says, 10 happy years.

“When my marriage broke down, I realised that at least one of us might have a glimmer of happiness. Jeff and I shared a love of dancing and it was wonderful, but in 1994 we were on holiday in Spain when he became ill. It was cancer and just a few weeks later he was gone.”

Freda was also kept busy with her two younger sons, Graham and Neal, who both had cystic fibrosis. Neither had been expected to survive childhood, but while they both lived to their 30s, Neal died shortly after a heart and lung transplant in 1989 and four years after the same operation, Graham died in 1989.

She had always remained close to Ken and the space of separation allowed both to deal, at least in part, with their grief, but on Remembrance Sunday, 1995 Ken died suddenly of a massive heart attack.

The walls of her home are in many ways a tribute to those five men, with photographs of her three sons hanging in between Parachute Regiment memorabilia and a framed copy of Sgt McKay’s VC citation.

Elsewhere, there’s a few mementos Freda brought back from two trips to the Falklands.

There she visited the spot where Sgt McKay was thought to have died. It’s marked by a granite memorial to which a local artist later added 29 black poppies – one for each year Ian was alive. While researching the book, Jon Cooksey now believes he died a little way further on, but Freda says she feels no need to return.

“I had three marvellous sons,” she says. “Wherever I am, they are.”

Falkland’s Hero – Sgt Ian McKay – The Last VC of the 20th Century, by Jon Cooksey, is published by Pen and Sword, priced £15.99. To order through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk