ANDY Salmon, the last British General in Basra, was educated at Clitheroe Royal Grammar School and his father was a publican in East Lancashire.
Tony Dewhurst talks to the former Royal Marines Commandant General who is returning to Clitheroe in February to reflect on an emotional personal journey via three life-changing tours of war-torn Iraq and a highly distinguished military career.
STEAMING towards the Falkland Islands, Andy Salmon stood on deck of the ocean liner Canberra and stared down into the depths of the murky South Atlantic.
“It was a clear moonlit evening and as if from nowhere a Royal Navy frigate eased alongside, and the sailors were lining the decks,” he recalled. “They lifted their caps and cheered, and then the frigate accelerated away into the night, leaving behind a churn of foam in the sea. “It sent a chill down my spine and I knew then that we were going to war.”
He adds: “When we left England, I didn’t think anybody thought we’d get past the Isle of Wight before the politicians had found a resolution.”
Salmon admits what he experienced as a young officer during the 1982 Falklands campaign had a profound effect on his life.
“We yomped (walked with full kit) across the Falklands and were trapped in a minefield for six hours. “I saw a great friend blown up in front of me.”
He adds: “The savagery of modern warfare is a terrible thing – those experiences stay with you for a lifetime.”
Salmon’s first tour of Iraq was a humanitarian operation to rescue the Kurds from the mountains following Saddam Hussein’s brutal response to an armed rebellion at the end of the Gulf War in 1991.
He said: “I was 31 when I went to Iraq for the first time, a young man in command of a unit with a great responsibility.
“That was hugely fulfilling, though, helping save many lives from disaster. “Then I worked for the Americans in the Green Zone in Baghdad, after the invasion of 2003.”
His final Iraqi posting was as the last Commanding General of Coalition Forces in South Eastern Iraq (2008-09), paving the way for the British forces to return home.
“The world seems to have gone crazy since 9/11, but that was the biggest experience of my life,” he said.
His powerful message, though, is one of redemption and hope and was the reason he decided to share his stories to inspire peace and reconciliation.
“I’ve been in many conflict zones all over the world and have always found great music, poetry and art to be a good medium to open the soul and mind. “When you are negotiating in difficult situations, creating the right environment and getting people to relax can sometimes be a precursor to help create the right atmosphere for a much more optimistic scenario.
“In Basra, part of that was by bringing people of different faiths together using music, food and culture as a medium. “I brought the Royal Marines band in armoured vehicles to conduct the Christmas Carol Service in Basra.”
Salmon’s grandfather was a commando in the Second World War – but it was his father, a publican, who proved to be his greatest mentor.
“Dad had a real sense of social conscience and there was a brutal honesty about our upbringing when dad ran that pub,” he said. “The pub was rough, sometimes violent, but that environment made me more socially adaptable, and provided that extra resilience and determination I’ve used in many challenging situations. “I had a mis-trust of authority as a teenager and sometimes you look into your own abyss before finding a different pathway.”
He added: “I’ve really fond memories of Clitheroe, though.
“It was a busy life – school, sport, music and working in my father’s pub. “I remember the brutal cross-country runs up Pendle Hill, playing football in the first team and singing in the choir.
“Clitheroe holds a lot of fond memories and it will be my first visit there for 40 years.”
Journey Through Conflict, February 12, 2020.
Grand Theatre, Clitheroe.