Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (23 September 2011)

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Date of Auction: 23rd September 2011

Sold for £90,000

Estimate: £40,000 - £50,000

“I was sure there would be many stories of heroism to come out of it, but of them all, I remain most impressed by the conduct of John Leake who manned the machine gun in Ardent. He was not really in the Navy, but, as we say, we are all of one company, the Captain and the NAAFI man. And we all go together.”

(Extract from, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander Admiral Sandy Woodward)

The outstanding ‘Falklands War’ D.S.M. group of three awarded to Petty Officer John Leake, Royal Navy, formerly Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, an experienced army machine-gunner, he elected to sign on to the Royal Navy from the civilian NAAFI in order that he could adhere with the Geneva Convention and accompany his ship, H.M.S. Ardent on active service to the Falklands, having left the army ten years previously - extraordinarily and much celebrated at the time, on 21 May 1982 during the so called ‘Battle of Bomb Alley’ he found himself manning a G.P.M.G. on the decks of H.M.S. Ardent firing at successive waves of Argentine Skyhawks, one of which it was later confirmed he had shot down, prior to the eventual sinking of his ship with the loss of 22 lives

Distinguished Service Medal, E.II.R., 2nd issue (PO J S Leake D197741A); General Service 1962, 1 clasp, Northern Ireland (24107815 L/Cpl. J. S. Leake D & D.); South Atlantic 1892, with rosette (PO J S Leake D197741A HMS Ardent) very fine (3) £40000-50000

Footnote

D.S.M. London Gazette 8 October 1982.

The published citation states:

‘Petty Officer Leake originally joined H.M.S. Ardent as a civilian N.A.A.F.I Canteen Manager. On the declaration of Active Service he volunteered to enrol as a Petty Officer on 15th May 1982.

On 21st May 1982 H.M.S Ardent came under heavy attack by Argentine aircraft. Using his previous Army training, Petty Officer Leake was stationed as a machine gunner. Throughout the air attacks he remained cool and calm even though the ship was being hit by bombs and cannon fire. He fired large quantities of accurate tracer at the attackers and inflicted damage on a Skyhawk. His courage, steadfastness and total disregard for his own safety undoubtedly saved the ship from many further attacks and was an inspiration to all those in the vicinity.’

Only twelve D.S.M’s. were awarded for gallantry during the Falklands war.

The following comprehensive interview with the recipient is extracted from the book,
Above All, Courage, by Max Arthur

‘After I left the Army at twenty-four, I worked with security firms, including Securicor at Birmingham Airport. Then, in 1977, I saw an advertisement in the local paper for people to work for NAAFI on the warships. It was the best of both worlds, like being a civilian in the services: you could have your independence but there was still some sense of discipline. I’ve been with them ever since.

On HMS Ardent I worked in the shop, selling toiletries, sweets, souvenirs, stereos, all that sort of thing. I used to order the provisions and the duty-free beer and cigarettes. I originally started as Grade 4 Manager in the POs’ Mess, and as the grades went up I went to the Chiefs’ Mess. It wasn’t very often, but sometimes I felt I wasn’t really part of the ship’s company, although I knew I was an essential part of the crew, especially at action stations, when my job would be the Medical Co-ordinator in the sick bay.

We’d just got to Ascension Island when I went up on deck to get some fresh air and I saw a Petty Officer sitting on the deck with a manual, trying to work out how to use a general-purpose machine gun. I said to him, ‘Ah, the good old GPMG.’ He said, ‘Oh, you know about it?’ I said, ‘Yes, I used to be an instructor on it in the Army.’ He said, ‘Well, you can have a go if you want to.’ But I said I couldn’t because as a civilian I wasn’t entitled to carry arms. Later he had a word with the Captain, who said only if active service had been declared and I’d actually signed on in the Navy would I be able to use it. After we’d sailed from Ascension, active service was declared and we were then given the option of signing on with the Navy or getting off the ship and having NAAFI fly us back to England. I had no hesitation – I signed on in the Navy as a Petty Officer. It had to be done under the Articles of the Geneva Convention, stating that I was a combatant; otherwise, had I been captured, I would have been treated as a civilian and not covered by the Convention. But all the time I thought, ‘We’ll just get near the islands, rattle our sabres and that will be it.’

Then as we approached the Falklands, and the Belgrano and the Sheffield were sunk, we realised we were close to war and that we were not invincible. The Sheffield was a much bigger boat than the Ardent. When the news came, everybody went quiet. It was then that we started reflecting on actually going into combat and for a couple of days the ship was subdued. But everyone realised they had a job to do and things soon got back to normal. Every day Captain West would visit each mess in turn and give us a situation report, which was good for morale. I always think the Ardent was a one-off ship anyway; such a happy ship.

We were on defence watches when we were told that the Ardent was going to lead the ships through the passage between the two islands. The Captain said he didn’t know if the channel was mined, but we were going to chance it, and find out. We knew then that we were going to war – the talking was over. But I don’t remember having any fears.

Their first attack came from a Pucara, but when we fired the Seacat at it, it veered off. I then went on to the GPMG. For me, taking hold of that gun was the most natural thing in the world. I’d lugged that gun thousands of miles; I’d taken it apart in daylight, darkness, rain and snow. I had such an affinity with it; I’d fired it under so many conditions. But when I left the Army I never expected to use it again, yet here I was, in action again, on a ship.

Then their aircraft really started coming. It was one big mass attack all day. The first few, probably Skyhawks and Mirages, came in from the port side, low and fast. I remember the bows of the ship being straddled by bombs but fortunately she wasn’t hit. There were explosions about fifty yards in front of me, where the bombs had missed. But in one of the next few attacks we were hit by a plane that flew over the length of the ship. I could feel further attacks hitting other parts of the ship, but I was so preoccupied that I didn’t have time to find out the extent of the damage. It seemed I was in action all through the day. At one point a couple of lads came up from the aft end, which they told me had been badly hit. They were in a bad state of shock so I got them to sit down by my side and gave them some Nutty bars. Then somebody shouted to us, ‘Aircraft bearing green 90.’ I looked over our starboard side and there were two aircraft coming in low. I opened fire on them, but they both dropped their bombs on the ship. Then two more turned up, and this time I hit one. I could see bits coming off his wing and underneath fuselage.

Then more came over and the ship was hit again. At one point I ran out of ammunition. One of the lads had gone to get more but we were under heavy attack and there was nothing else to do but hit the deck. While I was lying there I looked up and there was a Skyhawk coming across. I watched his bombs leave the aircraft and they passed so close to the ship’s mast that I thought, ‘Christ, this is it.’ I felt fear then, because I knew the ship was being badly hit. Then PO Chef Goldfinch, who’d bought me ammunition throughout the attack, shouted, ‘Come on, John. We’ve got the stuff,’ and back we went. I could keep going. It’s in moments like that when fear seems to spur you on, as long as it is not unreasonable fear, which makes you not know what you’re doing. But I did know, so I got back and could keep on firing.

Then suddenly the aft end of the ship was covered in one big pall of smoke. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t see anything at all, so I moved over to the other side of the ship with my GPMG. It was only then that I realised how much of a tilt the ship was at. She was settling over to starboard. I stood there for a while and watched all the lads coming up from below decks. Then the Yarmouth came alongside and we stepped off. I took the gun with me because I was hoping they would give it to me as a souvenir – but I was out of luck. I had to hand it over on the Yarmouth. But, even then, there was more fear, because when we were below decks on the Yarmouth, ‘Air Raid Warning Red’ came over the tannoy. I realised there was absolutely nothing we could do stuck down below, having spent a day with everything to do. Eventually the Yarmouth took us into one of the bays where the Canberra was and we were taken in a landing craft to her.

I found out afterwards that the Ardent had been hit by seventeen bombs and missiles, plus rockets and cannon fire. I think that with all they threw at us that day it was a miracle we only lost twenty-two men. I thought of the Coventry, a big destroyer, which was hit by five bombs and went down in minutes, yet we’d been there all that afternoon being hit, hit and hit, and all at the aft end – I’ve never worked out how. I often think, ‘Why did they sink the Ardent?’ She wasn’t a significant ship, especially when you take into account all the others that were there, like the Canberra. Perhaps they were actually out for a kill, and with our main armaments out they knew it was an easy thing. Because there wasn’t a lot of fire coming from us, they had a sitting duck.

I suppose if it hadn’t been for my affinity with the old GPMG, there wouldn’t be a story to tell. I did what I could. I never thought when I left the Army that I’d ever see action again, let alone get involved with it, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else in the circumstances.

Those boys on the ship were like a family to me. I remember when I was walking down on the jetty, before the Ardent sailed, and saw some of the lads painting the ship. One of them shouted, ‘Are you coming with us, John?’ I stopped and said, ‘Of course I’m bloody coming with you. I’m like a father to all you lads. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t come with you.’ Just before we came under attack I bought up stacks of Mars Bars and Nutty and a crate of Gotters, because I thought we might need them. So, whenever I could, while the action was on, I’d throw them a Mars Bar or a tin of drink and say, ‘I’ll be round tomorrow for the money.’ I took some movie film of the lads on the way down. I’ve only played it back twice since. It’s wonderful to see all those faces laughing – then suddenly you’ll see one of the lads who was killed.

On a happier note, a year after the sinking I got a phone call to say that I had been credited with shooting down a Skyhawk. The pilot had bailed out and they picked him up and took him to Stanley; he said he’d had his fuel tanks hit while attacking the Ardent.’