A Falklands War – 35 Years On

Still in Easter holiday mode, so no completely new post this week. But as it’s currently the 35th anniversary of the Falklands War, I thought I’d re-blog this post from the very early days of this site – five years ago, to be exact, at the time of the thirtieth anniversary. I’ve not changed the text, but have added a few of the photos I took at the time, albeit on a fairly basic camera (operated by a fairly basic photographer, i.e. me). Although I’ve done some elementary photoshopping on them, they’re a long way short of ideal – but the important thing is that they convey something of the flavour of the time.  

Next week, I hope to report on the conference I’m attending later this week, which is on the history of Greenwich Palace. This’ll be an interesting departure for me, as those attending will overwhelmingly be court historians, and I’ll be pretty much the sole naval interloper – talking about Charles II’s unfinished palace and how it relates to his claims to the sovereignty of the seas. Will they be gentle with me? Will I suffer a fate akin to that of Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man? Watch this space to find out!

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There have been plenty of blogs to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands / Malvinas conflict, along with day-by-day ‘as live’ Twitter feeds and so forth, so I’ve been a bit reluctant to add to the mix. But finally I decided that some might find my recollections and observations interesting; as far as I can see there’s been very little coverage of civilian reactions, and I suppose I was both a particularly interested civilian and one who, for various reasons, had some unique insights into what took place.

Friday 2 April 1982 was an ordinary working day for me. I was teaching at a comprehensive school in Newquay, Cornwall, although I’d already resigned in order to return to Oxford in the summer to begin work on my doctorate, and was living in a quite astonishingly decrepit flat known throughout Newquay as ‘the Hovel’. The first I knew of that day’s Argentinian invasion of the Falklands was when I turned on the BBC’s six o’clock news, and I can still vividly remember my reactions. Astonishment, certainly, despite all the news stories in previous weeks about escalating tension and scrap dealers on South Georgia; trepidation about the potential implications; but also I have to admit that I felt a certain excitement when I heard Margaret Thatcher’s words about a task force being made ready to sail south. I’d been a ‘warship spotter’ since childhood, but the 1960s and 1970s had seen the Royal Navy (and, apart from Northern Ireland, the armed forces as a whole) involved in very little real action. So the prospect of the ships whose careers I’d followed for so long actually preparing for even the possibility of serious combat was something I felt I had to witness at first hand. On Saturday, therefore, I drove over to Plymouth, about an hour away, and stood on the Torpoint shore watching as the LSLs – the ‘Knight’ class landing ships like Sir Galahad – were loaded. I then returned to Newquay as I was due to play in a darts tournament that night (for those who don’t know, I was once a pretty decent darts player, even reaching the dizzy heights of the Varsity match!). I vividly remember that one of the opposition players was already wearing something that he must have obtained that day from one of the many T-shirt printers in Newquay – a shirt bearing a Union Jack and the legend ‘F*** Argentina’.

Hermes at Portsmouth, 4 April 1982

During the course of the tournament I decided that I would drive to Portsmouth the next day to see what was happening there, despite the fact that it was a journey of four hours or more. Getting up at 3.30 AM, I drove along the main roads along the south coast, past Lyme Regis, Weymouth and Bournemouth, so I was probably one of relatively few witnesses to the streams of military traffic going in both directions at that hour of the day. At Portsmouth I spent most of the day on the Gosport shore watching Harriers flying onto the deck of Invincible; the carriers never usually sailed with their air wings embarked, but it was clear that the planes were being flown on to them in harbour so that the ships could sail with the Harriers arrayed on deck, an obvious show of force and a warning to the Argentinians. It was clear from what I had seen at both Plymouth and Portsmouth that the dockyard workers were making astonishing efforts to get the ships ready for sea within such an unbelievably short timescale. I contemplated staying over in Portsmouth to see the carriers sail on the Monday and phoning in ‘sick’, but conscience prevailed (something which I regretted, so when the chance came some months later to see Fearless, Intrepid and Brilliant return to Plymouth, sailing behind the latter up the Tamar in one of the harbour cruise boats as the tugs fired red, white and blue waterjets in salute, I duly manufactured a tactical ‘stomach bug’ – unprofessional, perhaps, but seeing history always beats teaching it).

The return of HMS Brilliant to Devonport, 13 July 1982, saluted by tugs Capable and Careful

The war itself was an utterly surreal time. For a long time, of course, nothing happened – the task force was sailing south, the UN and the Americans were attempting mediation efforts, and inevitably, in the classrooms and bars of Newquay punditry and rumour-mongering were rife. I followed developments avidly: all sorts of ships were being acquired (the SS Uganda, on which I had spent my first extended period at sea during a schools Mediterranean cruise in 1971, was converted into a hospital ship), old Tribal-class frigates in reserve at Chatham were recommissioned to cover the North Atlantic as the newer ships sailed south, and so forth. But matters were clearly getting more serious and closer to home. Two of the players on our darts team were air crew at RAF St Mawgan, and one week they were at the match, the next they weren’t; their Nimrod surveillance aircraft had been deployed to Ascension Island. Finally the ‘shooting war’ started with the sinkings of the General Belgrano and the Sheffield, then the landings at San Carlos and the advance overland. Even by pre-Internet 1982 standards, the information available was frustratingly sparse. I still remember the sombre tone of the Ministry of Defence spokesman Ian MacDonald presenting the terse official bulletin that recounted the loss of HMS Sheffield – the first sinking in action of a Royal Navy warship in my lifetime, and thus an event that shocked me profoundly. There was a hushed silence in the pub, and afterwards people spoke in whispers; there was talk that Margaret Thatcher would see the Queen that night for a formal declaration of war, and the ever-bullish and down to earth darts team captain advanced his own theory that Britain should simply sail a Polaris submarine up the River Plate and anchor it in full view of Buenos Aires.

Of course, there was worse to come, notably the attack on the landing ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram at Bluff Cove on 8 June. The casualties among the Welsh Guards were terrible, but even then I realised the dreadful irony that there were probably casualties with Welsh blood and Welsh names on the other side too – the heirs of the Welsh colony in Patagonia. What I did not know, and only learned many years later when I researched my family history, was that one of those who perished on Sir Galahad was a distant cousin of mine, Guardsman Eirwyn Phillips – a cousin I had never known, and now never would.

Portsmouth, 17 September 1982, awaiting the return of Invincible. Health and Safety inspectors and fashionistas, eat your hearts out

And then, quite suddenly, it was all over. Despite the steady advance and encirclement of Port Stanley, very few seemed to have expected the surrender to come quite as quickly as it did; indeed, some of my older and more gung-ho pupils were clearly disappointed that it had ended so soon. For me, though, I suppose the end came on 17 September 1982, a couple of weeks after I’d moved to Oxford, when I took a train down to Portsmouth very early in the morning to watch Invincible and Bristol return home. I was there early enough to scramble up a drainpipe onto the roof of the Round Tower’s flanking battery, a distinctly unsafe vantage point given the lack of fencing – but many were already up there (and helped to haul me up), and many more joined us. The day was very hot and there was an intense heat haze in the Solent. Finally the huge bulk of Invincible loomed out of the mist, and as she appeared a chant went up from the crowd: ‘Easy! Easy!’. Even then, I felt uncomfortable about such rampant triumphalism; regardless of the rights and wrongs of the war, and of the rival claims to the islands, one thing the war of 1982 had certainly not been was ‘easy’.

Invincible emerges from the morning mist

2 Comments

  1. David Pilgrim says:

    I was in Holland on the day the announcement was made of the sinking of the Sheffield, staying at a small hotel as part of a car club meeting. The barman was Argentinian, and we got on famously, both before and after the event, and ‘Argie Bargie’ as he graciously accepted to be named by all the Brits there became a firm friend – we exchanged addresses and kept in touch for a number of years. I still remember the sense of shock which came over the breakfast room the morning of that announcement. Before that sinking the war was a bit of a romp (in public perception) but after the sinking it became a deadly serious business, as are all wars. I was in Portsmouth late May 1982 at a Soc for Nautical Research event on board the Victory when HMS Glasgow returned. She had been hit by a bomb which had gone right through one side of the engine room and out the other, luckily without exploding but nonetheless causing serious damage to one engine (and considerable alarm, no doubt, to the engine room personnel). She steamed slowly, unheralded and unescorted, late one afternoon into the harbour, her hull stained and rust streaked and with a very visible bomb hole above the waterline, and portraying without words the effort, strain and sheer endeavour of her experiences down South – we watched in silence, and I was reminded of a wartime picture – the return of HMS Exeter from the River Plate action in 1939 which as a boy I had kept on the wall of my bedroom in my line -up of naval deeds and daring-do !

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