Stratford woman's search for peace after losing brother in the Falklands War
THE 23rd April is known in England as St George’s Day and, among many, as Shakespeare’s birth and death date.
This date, however, has completely different associations for Stratford’s Kim Casey. It was on 23rd April, 1982, that her beloved older brother, Kevin, known as Ben to his family and friends, became the first casualty of the Falklands War.
Petty Officer Aircrewman Ben Casey died before a single shot had been fired. He was 26-years-old.
He was reported missing, presumed drowned, after the Sea King helicopter he was aboard crashed into the sea during bad weather. The incident happened en route to the South Atlantic, south-west of Ascension Island, off his ship, HMS Hermes.
Forty years on, his only sibling Kim, who works in Morrisons, is planning a trip to the Falkland Islands in an attempt for find peace and heal old wounds. She calls it her pilgrimage.
With the support of a small charity, the Falklands Veterans Foundation, 63-year-old Kim and her partner Steve Welton will fly out on 3rd October and spend 10 nights in Port Stanley.
They will stay at the charity’s lodge which was built as a place for veterans, their families and next of kin of those killed in action to stay whilst visiting the Falkland Islands. The trip was originally scheduled for 2020 but was postponed due to Covid.
Kim told the Herald: “I’m looking forward to it with mixed feelings. It will obviously be a very emotional trip but it would be good to see the Falkland Islanders going about their lives in a free country like we can. I would like to meet the people and understand how grateful they are for the lives that were lost to save theirs.”
Ben (a teacher mis-named him at school and it stuck) and his sister were born in Pailton and grew up in the village of Long Lawford, both near Rugby.
They were exceedingly close as siblings. Kim said: “We were best friends as children, he was my protector, we played together. He had a Saturday job on a baker’s round when he was about 13 and would get up at 2am. When he came home he would leave me some pocket money on top of the fireplace before going back to bed.”
One Christmas the pair both got new bikes, however, Kim preferred her brother’s and decided to ride that instead.
Kim said: “He had a Chopper and I had a Raleigh RS2000 but he was happy that we swapped. He never minded that I was riding his bike.”
Ben went to Long Lawford Primary School and then to Newbold Grange High School, now Avon Valley. He was popular with his mates, played rugby for school and was in the local football team.
“Although he was academically bright, he never applied himself at school. He knew from four years of age he was going into the Navy.”
Their late father, Dennis, had been a petty officer at HMS Raleigh in Cornwall before they were born.
“He was a bit of a joker, a bit of a naughty boy, he’d be the one who would put jam on the teacher’s register!”
At 16, Ben joined the Royal Navy in 1972 as a naval air mechanic and was posted to Royal Navy Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose.
“When he went off on his basic six-weeks training I cried. I was 13 and my mum said it’s only six weeks, but it seemed like a lifetime.”
The pair kept in touch by writing. Whilst off on tour, Ben would always think about his little sister and bring her a gift on his return.
“He would always buy me a present from wherever he’d been, for example America, Brazil, or Rio. Whilst in Rio he visited Christ the Redeemer and bought me a little statue which takes pride of place on my dressing table.”
He loved Navy life and within three years had married Wren Ellen Wallbank who he had met at RNAS Culdrose in 1975.
Kim said: “He got married at 19 and by time he got killed he’d been married to Ellen for seven years, so I suppose I’d lost him a little bit anyway.
“As a helicopter mechanic he thought ‘I’d like to fly these things’ and so he progressed. He’d got the ‘bug’.”
Ben was awarded his ‘Flying Wings’ in 1977, became a petty officer in 1980 and, after completing a commando course, he joined 846 Squadron on the HMS Hermes navigating Sea King Mk4 helicopters.
He was popular with his fellow servicemen. “As soon as he went into the Navy, he matured but kept his sense of humour. He was a really nice guy, I never heard anyone say anything bad against him. He had a good bunch of mates. When he got lost and was killed my goodness me those boys cried.
“He loved the life of the Navy, his next step would have been to have gone for a pilot’s job. He would have stayed on and done his 22 years’ service without a doubt.”
Regrettably, that was not to be.
Two weeks ago, Kim received the official Ministry of Defence report into Ben’s accident. Their father had tried to get it after Ben’s death but didn’t get very far. However, Steve contacted secretary of state for defence, Ben Wallace, and within a fortnight it was with them.
“I have not read the report as it is too raw,” Kim said.
Argentina invaded the British territory of the Falkland Islands on 2nd April 1982 when a unit of troops landed near the capital, Stanley, on the orders of military dictator General Leopoldo Galtieri.
The islands, off the coast of Argentina, had been a cause of friction between the two countries since Britain claimed them in 1833.
Following a decision by the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, a British carrier group of war ships set sail for the South Atlantic Ocean on 5th April. By the 10th the task force gathered at Ascension Island with HMS Hermes arriving on the 16th and leaving two days later for the Falkland Islands.
The MoD report, which includes an interview with the pilot who survived, details that on 23rd April, as the evening was approaching, there was intelligence that Argentine submarines were in the area. Three helicopter crews were scrambled to transfer cargo from supply ships to the Hermes and other vessels so that the unarmed ships could turn back.
Steve said: “Another pilot was panicking because he couldn’t see as it was dark and stormy, they were on low light, all instruments were dimmed, including the Hermes because of potential enemy action. They could hardly see their own instruments. Ben’s pilot said he needed help.”
Ben was at the back of the helicopter, assisting with the supply drops and was not strapped in. The pilot was told to return to the Hermes to pick up another pilot to assist and was in the process of doing this when at a height of 700 feet, the helicopter plunged into the sea and broke in half.
The pilot managed to escape and swam to the tail as he knew Ben had been thrown backwards, but the wreckage sank.
The family got the news the next day. Kim and her parents travelled down to be with Ellen, who had set up home with Ben in Portland, Dorset.
“By the time we got there the newspapers had got hold of it, and it was on the TV news,” said Kim. “There was a media furore.”
She remembers seeing BBC journalist Nicholas Witchell reporting Ben’s death while back in Warwickshire they discovered members of the media had been knocking on Kim’s uncle’s door as well as calling at a neighbour’s home.
“It was such a shock. We were obviously worried when the task force set sail, but my dad said at the time ‘it’ll be alright, he’ll be alright’. Obviously our armed forces do train for these jobs and know what to expect, like any of the emergency services, you sign up for Queen and country. Thank goodness that we do have people who join up.”
The Falklands conflict ended on 14th June when the Argentine garrison at Port Stanley surrendered to British troops. The war cost the lives of 255 British, 655 Argentine servicemen and three Falkland Islanders.
While many of the dead were laid to rest, Ben’s body has never been recovered.
“It’s been difficult having no grave but then I touch the sea when I go holiday and think he’s there,” she said.
To add to the family’s tragedy, 14 months after Ben was lost, her dad Dennis died, aged 47, of a heart attack. Kim believes he died of a broken heart.
It left Kim with the bulk of caring duties for her mother Margaret, now 89, who has lived with her for decades.
“Had I had other siblings, someone else to rely on, it might have been different but Ben’s death left me with no nieces or nephews, my children with no cousins. My family imploded but is now blossoming again.”
With her former husband, Kim had two daughters, Sophie and Charlotte, and now has three granddaughters.
Her mum, dad and sister-in-law visited the Falkland Islands in 1983, but Kim was not able to join them as the trip was limited to three family members. She never really thought she would make it, but Steve contacted the Falklands Veterans Foundation which was very supportive.
The trip, which will include a meeting with the Falklands’ governor, will be a mixture of social visits, sightseeing and private reflection. There is a current initiative to name the many unnamed coves, ponds and streets in honour of 255 Brits who lost their lives and Kim hopes she will be able to visit a landmark named after her brother.
“Having grandkids makes you think how good it is for the next generation to walk freely. Your heart goes out to the Ukrainians now, they are in a similar situation. The fallen should never be forgotten, it’s vital to keep their memory alive, to keep them in the forefront of people’s minds and hopefully the generations that come thereafter will think ‘let’s not go to war’. It’s important to understand what the repercussion of war does to families for as long as they are live.”
Kim has taken some comfort from seeing Ben’s name at the Falklands 40th anniversary events she has attended around the UK in recent months,
At RNAS Yeovilton where Ben was based, his name is on a memorial stone and tree, at St Paul’s Cathedral his name is in the crypt and it is also on the wall at the National Arboretum.
“You realise his name is in so many places. He’s everywhere.”