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Five-year-old Melanie McKay refused to wear the new maroon dress bought specially for her father’s investiture in November 1982.
Instead, the little girl insisted on wearing her favourite black velvet dress, with her long brown hair in bunches, when she went to Buckingham Palace with her mother, Marica, and half-brother Donny, 14.
The moving images of the three of them with Sergeant Ian John McKay’s posthumous Victoria Cross, taken after their meeting with the Queen, appeared in newspapers and on TV screens worldwide. Sergeant McKay had been killed five months earlier at the Battle of Mount Longdon during the Falklands War.
He was one of just two recipients of the VC — Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious medal for gallantry — in the conflict.
Just 48 hours after his death, Argentina surrendered and the ten-week war was over — but Melanie had lost her father for ever. For four long decades, Sergeant McKay’s only child has felt unable to speak publicly about him — until now, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of his death on June 12, 1982.
Ian John McKay was born in Wortley, near Sheffield, and brought up in Rotherham. When the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina on April 2, 1982, he was 28 years old, had served in The Parachute Regiment for 12 years and was a sergeant with 4 Platoon, B Company, 3 PARA
Tragically, her first clear recollection from childhood relates to the moment when her family learned that Sergeant McKay had been killed. ‘An officer’s wife coming to tell my mum that my dad had died is literally my first memory,’ she says.
‘I don’t know why, but it sticks in my mind. I can remember this glamorous woman knocking on the front door of our Army house in Aldershot, me going into our front room and her and my mum going upstairs.’
That ‘glamorous woman’ was Sue Patton, the wife of Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Roger Patton, then second in command of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment — or 3 PARA — in which McKay served.
For a long time, Marica McKay, in deep shock and grieving, could not bring herself to tell Melanie that her father was dead. The little girl did not attend her father’s funeral and was simply told: ‘Daddy’s gone to another place.’
Today, Melanie still cannot recall the exact moment when she finally understood she would never see him again. She believes she has suppressed her grief and her decision to give her first ever interview is, she told me, part of the process of finally coming to terms with his death.
Melanie, a youthful 44, dressed in a sunshine yellow blouse and skinny jeans, also wants to pay a public tribute to her father.
According to her mother, his daughter was ‘the apple of his eye’. ‘Melanie was his joy. You’d have thought he was the first man to have a daughter,’ she once said. And during our interview, Melanie wept as she described how much she had missed her father as a child.
‘For years, all I really wanted was a normal life. I wanted to be part of a regular 2.4 [children] family.
‘I remember thinking that to be happy and to be grounded and for everything to be OK, I needed a mum and a dad. But as I got older, and went to university and started working, I realised that families come in every shape and size.
‘The trauma and the sadness never goes away. It’s just so difficult because I have never dealt with my grief. I have just put it to one side.’
Later this month, Melanie, a primary school teacher from Lincolnshire, intends to visit her father’s grave in Aldershot for the first time. She also plans to travel to the Falklands, with her partner, Graham Atkins, and their seven-year-old son, Harry, to see where her father fell in battle 8,000 miles from home.
Melanie, a youthful 44, dressed in a sunshine yellow blouse and skinny jeans, also wants to pay a public tribute to her father. According to her mother, his daughter was ‘the apple of his eye’. ‘Melanie was his joy. You’d have thought he was the first man to have a daughter,’ she once said
Ian John McKay was born in Wortley, near Sheffield, and brought up in Rotherham. When the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina on April 2, 1982, he was 28 years old, had served in The Parachute Regiment for 12 years and was a sergeant with 4 Platoon, B Company, 3 PARA. At home on leave, the alarming events in the South Atlantic cut short precious time with his young family. He’d been out playing football and had not long returned when the phone call came to say he must return to barracks.
‘He came in and went out,’ Marica later recalled. ‘I put his dinner in a Tupperware container and he went straight away. He just said: ‘I’ve got to go.’ I never saw him again.’
Along with his comrades in 3 PARA, McKay landed at Port San Carlos on the west coast of East Falkland on the night of May 21. By June 11, after a tough three weeks on the island, the British forces were ready for the final push towards the capital of the Falklands, Port Stanley.
McKay, one of 28 men in his platoon, was, in the words of one comrade and friend, preparing to ‘look after the lads almost like a mother hen’ as they advanced towards the strategically important target of Mount Longdon.
In the early hours of June 12, as they approached a well-defended Argentinian position, their platoon commander was wounded in the leg. McKay took his place leading the men. With heavy fire from the enemy position halting the advance of the platoon, McKay decided to turn what had been planned as a reconnaissance mission with three other Paras into an attack.
Together, they rushed the machine-gun post and were met by a hail of fire. With his corporal seriously wounded, one private killed and another injured, McKay charged the enemy position alone, destroying it with hand grenades and allowing his fellow Paras, trapped by machine-gun fire, to redeploy to safer positions.
But in that moment of victory he was shot dead, his lifeless body falling on the bunker. Just two days later, Argentina surrendered and the war was won. Sgt McKay, who was 29 when he died, and Lieutenant Colonel Herbert ‘H’ Jones, who was killed at the Battle of Goose Green, were both awarded posthumous VCs.
McKay’s citation in The London Gazette of October 11, 1982, concluded: ‘Undeterred, he performed with outstanding selflessness, perseverance and courage. With a complete disregard for his own safety, he displayed courage and leadership of the highest order, and was an inspiration to all those around him.’
Sgt McKay’s status as a war hero has, however, done little to ease the pain for Melanie. ‘It’s sad, but I don’t have actual memories of my dad. Most of what I know about him are things I have been told or read.
Five-year-old Melanie McKay refused to wear the new maroon dress bought specially for her father’s investiture in November 1982. Instead, the little girl insisted on wearing her favourite black velvet dress, with her long brown hair in bunches, when she went to Buckingham Palace with her mother, Marica, and half-brother Donny, 14
‘I found a photograph the other day of me on my fourth birthday and my dad is behind me. It made me realise that ten months later he was gone for good from my life.’
But as she has grown older, she has come to appreciate how rarely the VC is awarded and understand why several roads and buildings had been named in honour of her father.
‘His decoration came at quite a cost for those he left behind. I’ve had waves of feeling very sad and waves of feeling quite angry. Everyone else looked upon what my dad did as . . . a heroic act but I never benefited from it. I just lost my dad.’
When I interviewed Sergeant McKay’s widow, Marica, last year for my book, Falklands War Heroes, she told me: ‘I was incredibly proud when he was awarded the VC, but part of me just wishes he had hidden behind a rock [so he would still be alive today].’
I asked Melanie if she shared her mother’s feeling that she wished her father had been less brave and survived. ‘Yes, definitely,’ she replies, tears rolling down her face. ‘There were so many times in my life when I needed him to be there for me. I think we would have had a special bond.’
Melanie was very close to her paternal grandmother, Freda McKay, who would attend occasional official functions and Remembrance Day parades as the mother of a VC recipient.
Sometimes Melanie went with her, but she always felt uncomfortable at such occasions. ‘I just tried to put on a brave face, but it was difficult for me to be there,’ Melanie says. ‘My nan told me about my dad because she lived lots of her life doing things in his honour. I also have a scrapbook she was given that was compiled by other members of the Parachute Regiment who served with my dad.
‘My nan spoke a lot about him. I would sit down for a meal with her and she would say: ‘You are just like your dad. When you eat meat, every scrap of fat is cut off it, just like he would do.’ We were both quite sporty and perfectionists, striving to do everything to the best of our ability.
‘With my dad it was football, with me it was lots of different sports, including tennis, netball, hockey and athletics. From what I have been told, he was quite serious and also a good listener. I think I am so like him even though I didn’t grow up with him and that’s a lovely feeling.
‘It’s such a shame we weren’t able to share more of our lives together. He never got the chance to teach me to swim or to ride a bike. And 29 seems such a young age to lose your life — he missed out on so much.’
When her grandmother died four years ago, she left all her photographs and other memorabilia relating to her son to Melanie.
As a teenager, Melanie considered joining the Army, but was put off by the lack of enthusiasm from careers’ officers at her school. At 21, having just qualified as a teacher, she pondered joining the RAF, but a suspected heart murmur prevented her pursuing it.
When her son, Harry, was born, Melanie gave him ‘Ian’ as a middle name in honour of her father. She says that if one day Harry wants to follow in the footsteps of the grandfather he never knew and join the Army, she and partner Graham would support him.
Every year at Remembrance weekend events, Harry proudly wears a replica of his grandfather’s VC medal group.
Despite her personal loss and its legacy, Melanie considers that then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision to send a Task Force to take back the Falkland Islands and defend the freedom of 1,820 islanders was the right one. However, she does not bear a grudge against Argentina for invading the Falklands or towards the man who killed her father and whose identity remains unknown. ‘I certainly never felt anger towards any country or any individual,’ she says.
During the Falklands War, 255 British military personnel, 649 Argentine military personnel and three Falkland islanders died.
‘It seems a high price to pay but I suppose for those who lived there it meant a great deal,’ Melanie says.
At the time of Sergeant McKay’s investiture, his distraught widow, Marica, said she feared his decoration and his bravery ‘would all be forgotten in 20 years’ time.’
Fortunately, that did not happen and today Melanie McKay is determined to play her part in championing the life and bravery of Sergeant Ian McKay VC, the father she knew all too fleetingly but still misses every day.
Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on his work, visit lordashcroft.com.
Follow him on Twitter and/or Facebook @LordAshcroft. For details on his new book, go to falklandswarheroes.com. All author’s royalties are being donated to military charities.