A Time to Remember: Plymouth and the Falklands campaign – 40 years on.
This essay was written by Colonel Ian Moore to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands conflict. A shorter version was originally published in Luke’s White Papers 2022, an annually-released collection of articles written by individuals and organisations across Plymouth, which you can read here: https://www.lukepollard.org/the-plymouth-white-papers/
Plymouth, our Ocean City, has through history been the launchpad of ventures of great moment. A visit to The Box Museum reminds us of these chapters: Drake , the Mayflower, the voyages of Captain Cook, Darwin in the Beagle, the convoys of the world wars, the return of Sir Francis Chichester. To be an Ocean City presents opportunities, challenges and crises. History happens here.
In April 1982 – 40 years ago – a significant convulsion occurred. The armed forces of Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory, peopled by a small rural community who all wished to remain British. How would UK respond?
This paper certainly cannot tell the whole story, but will specifically focus on how Plymouth rose to the challenges that were demanded: Plymouth ships, Plymouth’s huge dockyard, the Royal Marine and Army commando forces based in and around Plymouth, and the widespread network of families, and acquaintances – throughout and around the city.
Mid 1981 brought bleak news for Plymouth, largest dockyard in the Western world, and home to large parts of the Royal Navy, and Royal Marines. In June Defence Secretary John Nott defined plans in the Commons to dispose of the aircraft carriers Hermes and Invincible, the amphibious ships Fearless and Intrepid, nine destroyers and frigates, and to cut 10,000 men from the Naval service.
Such pronouncements were welcome 8000 miles away in Argentina. In December 1981 a junta of three military officers led by General Galtieri, took power; a trio in which the hard faced deputy Admiral Anaya was the man who made the weather. In a climate of constant riots in Buenos Aires against the repressive regime, a galvanising mission was needed. The junta declared that 1982 was to be “the year of the Malvinas ‘- the Argentinian name for the Falkland Islands, 400 miles away in the South Atlantic, and a British possession since 1824. Invasion was precipitate and unexpected. On the morning of 2nd April a force of over 1000 came ashore on the Falkland Islands. After gallant delaying tactics by the Royal Marine detachment numbering 80 and a battle around Government House, Governor Sir Rex Hunt ordered the officer commanding to surrender. The Argentinian flag flew above government house. The inhabitants glared out at this horrifying blight upon their future: the opposite to a liberation.
What was Britain to do? The roar of the debate in the House of Commons on that Saturday still rings in one’s ears, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared through the hubbub that the task force was forming and would embark for the South Atlantic in the coming week. She had the vociferous and angry support of the house, including the opposition led by Michael Foot.
The fact that the Prime Minister was able to make such a statement was due to prescience and crisis planning by the naval service, led by first Sea Lord Admiral Sir Henry Leach, who in the previous week before the invasion read the runes in the South Atlantic. The Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet at Northwood and his staff carried out a supercharged effort of contingency planning.
This declared policy caused ripples and exertions throughout the land, not least in Plymouth.
3 Plymouth Royal Naval ships.
The task force was required to demonstrate the capacity – if necessary – to land a force to expel the invader and retrieve British territory, 8000 miles away in the South Atlantic. The naval fleet to achieve such an effect was considerable.
In the first weeks following deployment there were strenuous efforts to effect a diplomatic solution, led by the United States Secretary of State, Al Haig. This followed an early United Nations resolution that the Argentinians should withdraw from the Falklands.
Many felt that the task force would provide the leverage necessary to effect this result, and make war unnecessary. However as the weeks went by it became apparent that the Argentinians would not withdraw.
The Plymouth ships that deployed in the task force were 15 frigates and 3 survey ships. In addition many Royal Fleet Auxiliary Store ships, Tankers and Container Ships were modified in the Dockyard under extreme time pressure then loaded, then deployed. ( See part 5 below.)
Other major ships of the task force such as the carriers HMS Hermes and Invincible, and the amphibious ships HMS Fearless and Intrepid left from Portsmouth.
The decision to deploy the task force was made fortuitously at the culmination of a major exercise in the Western Approaches where many ships were deployed . On completion several ships gathered under the command of Admiral Sandy Woodward in Gibraltar.
A quick focus upon all the Plymouth RN ships that finally deployed and what they brought to the campaign is timely:
- Two Type 22 Frigates: HMS Brilliant and Broadsword. These were the most modern ships of the Plymouth fleet. They were fast. They significantly had the Seawolf anti-air missile, and four Exocet anti ship missiles, instead of a gun. There were two Lynx helicopters aboard, able to launch missiles including the formidable SKUA against ship targets.
- Seven Type 21 frigates : HMS Active, Alacrity, Ardent, Arrow and Avenger, to be re-reinforced later by HMS Ambuscade and Antelope. Type 21s were also modern : fast, small and light, with aluminium superstructure, nicknamed ’boy racers’. The ship had a small crew. Each carried a Lynx helicopter and had a 4.5 inch Mk8 gun.
- Two Rothesay class frigates from an older generation: HMS Plymouth and Yarmouth – amongst other weaponry these had twin barrelled 4.5 Mk6 gun turret, very useful for gunfire support of troops ashore.
- Four even older Leander class frigates with names from Greek mythology: HMS Andromeda, Argonaut, Minerva and Penelope . These were broader ships, good in heavy ocean weather with a larger crew… One – HMS Andromeda had been fitted with Seawolf.
- And finally, two Swiftsure Class submarines: HMS Spartan and Splendid.
The main challenge for this large fleet of frigates was that they were equipped to counter the submarine threat (which was slight), far less equipped to counter the air threat, which was to prove considerable.. When action was joined it was the Type 22’s that were to hold pole position, in ‘Bomb Alley.’
All these Plymouth ships would see action, in a way not experienced since the Second World War, and two would be sunk, as will be recounted in Part 6.
The Plymouth ships that deployed directly south on 3rd April with Admiral Woodward were the two type 22’s Brilliant and Broadsword, the two Rothesay class frigates Plymouth and Yarmouth, and two type 21s Active and Arrow (the Submarine Spartan had gone ahead.) No family farewells for them…. the rest would follow soon after.
These were all Plymouth ships, out of Devonport, whose crews saw Guzz as home, many with family connections based in or near the city.
4.Plymouth’s Commando Forces
In 1982 the head and body of this highly trained amphibious force, ever ready for the unexpected, were principally Plymouth-based.
General Moore commanded Commando Forces, based with his staff at Hamoaze House, Mount Wise. He was subsequently to be the Commander of the whole Divisional landing force in the Falklands. The teeth of the landing force was to be 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines. The Brigade Commander, Julian Thompson, had his Headquarters at Stonehouse Barracks, happily colocated with the Commodore of Amphibious Warfare Mike Clapp and his staff.
The brigade consisted of three commandos (battalion sized units of 600) of which two were Plymouth based: 40 Commando at Seaton Barracks Crownhill, and 42 Commando at Bickleigh barracks on the moor. The Brigade Air Squadron of Gazelle and Scout light helicopters was at Coypool. Also at Coypool was the Commando Logistic Regiment – which enabled the brigade to go to war with the necessary ammunition, fuel, rations, and medical support. At the Citadel was 29 Commando Light Regiment Royal Artillery, with two batteries of 12 105 MM Light Guns; and at Crownhill fort was found 59 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers, with their heavy plant. All were commando trained and wore the green beret.
Nor should we forget the Commando Forces Royal Marines Band, whose vital war task was as medical assistants , and who considerably sustained morale on the long trip south with concerts in a number of ships. (Total land force deployed from Plymouth : over 3,500)
It was a close-knit group, with much comradeship going back many years. In those days many of the families lived in their own homes locally, or in quarters close to their bases.
In early April 1982 all were greatly looking forward to a deserved fortnight of Easter leave, with plans well hatched. 42 Commando, gunners, sappers, and logisticians had just returned from three months arctic training in North Norway – a most testing period. 40 Commando were completing training in north-west UK. The Brigade commander and his staff were coming back from exercise planning in Denmark.
Then in the middle of the night on April 2nd the balloon went up, and the recall systems went into overdrive: telephones rang and kit was repacked in countless homes . Dad was not home for leave, dad was bound for islands 8000 miles away in the South Atlantic, and who knew what would happen? Overheard in the Adjutant’s office at Bickleigh : ‘ Yes lad, I do know where Marrakech is, but I still expect you on parade at 1200 tomorrow !’
Once back from Denmark the Brigadier swiftly moved his working headquarters to Hamoaze House , where they were in immediate receipt of orders coming from Northwood and MOD London. In Hamoaze exists a fine old ballroom, where maps could be spread out on trestles and on the walls. Here the Headquarters team got on frenetically with the outload; briefings and directions were unremitting. Brigadier Thompson held his first orders group on Sunday 3rd April before being helicoptered out to the Command ship HMS Fearless.
The considerable deficit in troop lift had been solved by the very necessary procurement of SS Canberra.
The commander of the Logistic Regiment had the responsibility to ensure that 13,400 tons of war stocks were shifted from multiple stores depots to available shipping: LSL’s, the stores RFAs and tankers, the container cargo ships and ferries all at different ports.
Being a weekend British Rail was unable to reposition the rolling stock , so the fleet of 80 x four ton vehicles of the regiment set to work. (In 4/5 days they covered a mileage of seven times the distance to the Falklands and back). This effort was augmented by TA heavy trucks and 100+ taken from trade.
Between 4 – 9 April the whole brigade was embarked and sailing south 3000 miles to Ascension Island to carry out a complete sorting out of the war stocks.
5.Devonport dockyard – 1982
( Extracts from a Paper by MD Devonport Dockyard – 1982)
In 1982 Devonport dockyard was the largest repair organisation in Western Europe. The workforce numbered 13,500 and there were nine blue-collar and five white-collar trade unions. It is a trait of the British that wars and conflicts bring out the best in people. This was dramatically demonstrated in the Falklands conflict.
It was quickly realised that the task force would require merchant Ships Taken up From Trade (STUFT) to transport the men and equipment to the war area. Many of the ships were dotted around European ports, and these vessels were commandeered and sailed to UK dockyards so the conversion work could be undertaken very swiftly to equip them for war.
A cell in MOD (N) decided what was required in each vessel, and which yard should do the conversion. MOD nominated a professional officer who would visit the ships. By experience and thumbnail sketches he would then telephone back the material requirements; hence the material would be waiting on the dockside when the ship arrived. There was no time for detailed drawings, and usual procedures. Professionalism and experience were the order of the day.
Upon the ship’s arrival an acceptance meeting was held to agree the work package . Everyone was encouraged to volunteer ideas. Middle management spent most of their time on board in direct supervision or discussing additional requirements with the customers. Immediate decisions were made.
Usual administrative procedures were abandoned for these projects. It was recognised that this was a national emergency and there was only one trade union viz Great Britain. There was no need for the MD to encourage the workforce; he was carried forward on a wave of patriotism.
Demarcation of work between trades unions was completely set aside: shipwrights did joiners work, coppersmiths did plumbers work, officers swept up dirt and did labourer’s duty…… The one aim was to get the job done as quickly as possible and get the ships ready to join the task force.
On 16 April the first merchant ship, the ill-fated Atlantic Conveyor arrived at Devonport for her conversion. During the next 10 weeks, 10 more ships arrived for conversion to their military role: 4 containerships, 2 Rollon / Rolloff ferries, 2 tankers, a cable repair ship, a dry cargo vessel and an ocean tug. The average time taken for conversion was eight days using two 12 hour shifts.
The major task converting the merchant ships lay in the manufacture and fitting of large structural units: aircraft landing platforms, aircraft hangars, and structural extensions for accommodation. 600 tons of steel were fabricated for this purpose, and 400,000 feet of welding was deposited.
The workforce involved in these conversions averaged around 250 men per shift on board with an additional 100 involved in shift working ashore in support. The workforce was organised into 12 hour shifts. Twice daily meetings were held at the start and end of the shift, when the management team working on the ship met and discussed the progress of work.
Most of the management team and the workforce had been together for a number of years and were able to build on known strengths . The whole exercise was able to achieve quite remarkable targets.
This section would not be complete without a word about Atlantic Conveyor and her Captain – Ian North. His service contract was extended for the Falklands crisis and he was sent to Devonport to take command of the Atlantic Conveyor. Ian North was a character, christened Captain Birdseye by the dockyard workforce; his spirit and enthusiasm were a tonic to the men working on his ship.
6. The Sharp End and the Home Front
The main bulk of the task force sailed from Ascension Island on 8th May. As the weeks passed it became increasingly apparent that a peaceful solution was not to be obtained, and a miasma of anxiety thickened over Plymouth in the spring days.
An early development was the dispatch of an element of the force to retake South Georgia. Two Plymouth ships were involved: HMS Plymouth and Brilliant. After an appalling start to this mission, with the crashing of two helicopters on a glacier, the second in command of 42 Commando ( Bickleigh) – a mountain and arctic specialist – retrieved the situation and ensured Argentinian surrender (22 April). The island was then garrisoned by a company of 42 Commando.
The sinking of HMS Sheffield by enemy Exocet on 4th May darkened the scene considerably. This was for real and tension at home ratcheted up.
Back in Plymouth many different groups and units had formed wives clubs, and these met with greater frequency to exchange news and give comfort to each other (a typical group gathering would involve 70 – 80 people). Dingles and Paignton zoo provided fun days for families and children – just two examples of many . When plumbers and electricians were required in homes, many often “forgot” to bill the customer. All over the city people were aware of what families were going through, and exerted themselves to express support, particularly when news came through of fatalities and wounded.
Such moral support became critical from 21 May during the landing of commando forces in San Carlos Water in the Falklands, and the subsequent advance across the island to defeat the enemy.
On that day and thereafter HM ships were under persistent attack by waves of Argentina Skyhawks and Mirages, coming in at 500 knots, firing missiles and dropping bombs. HMS Argonaut was particularly damaged and threatened, and soon after HMS Ardent was attacked by three Skyhawks, and set ablaze – while fighting on, and losing 23 dead. The captain abandoned ship onto HMS Yarmouth ( a Plymouth ship) . Two days another Plymouth ship HMS Antelope – recently arrived – sank when an unexploded bomb went off and the ship became an inferno.
Through these terrifying days Plymouth ships fought enemy aircraft in ‘bomb alley’ skillfully and valiantly, and destroyed a number of enemy aircraft. This ensured that a largely Plymouth-based commando land force and war stocks got safely ashore – to carry the task forward.
Danger was imminent ashore. On 21 May two Gazelle aircraft of the Brigade Air Squadron (Coypool) were destroyed by ground fire, with 3 out of 4 aircrew killed. On 27 May bombs were dropped on the stores depot and the hospital of the Logistic Regiment, killing five and wounding twenty seven. The surgical teams of the “Red and Green life machine” carried on operating.
On 25th April two Exocet missiles struck at the Atlantic Conveyor, with its precious cargo of Chinook helicopters. Captain Ian North was drowned soon after his ship went down. All these losses struck deep back in Guzz…
The loss of the Chinooks scuppered the plans of 3 Commando Brigade as it meant that the commando forces would be required to march, fully laden, across more than 80 miles of grim uplands and rock runs of East Falklands, to do battle with a dug-in enemy. As the force moved forward they suffered on the hillsides in increasingly bitter weather. Previous training on Dartmoor and in the Arctic proved a life saver.
At this distance – 40 years on – only veterans and their families will recall the mounting stress and tension of those weeks, when every element of the land force described above – so many Plymouth-based men – and the crews of Plymouth based ships, were tested and tried to the utmost. Back home news of progress was received with relief and admiration; at the same time families waited on tenterhooks for bad news coming to their door.
The critical time came on the nights of 11/12th June. Major commando/battalion night attacks went in on separate defended peaks, fired in by Plymouth artillery, and the guns of RN ships (many from Plymouth). All these operations sustained casualties, but all were successful, none more so than 42 Commando’s assault on Mount Harriet. The following night Charlie company 40 commando (Crownhill), the route with an army battalion, took a further ridge. Two days later white flags could be seen over Stanley.
The joy and relief of the homecomings in late June – in Plymouth, in Southampton, in Scotland – are all remembered and treasured. Remembered in a different way is the sorrow of those who lost their loved ones and comrades, and the suffering of the wounded -often prolonged.
To conclude it is worth recalling the telegram of General Moore, of Hamoaze House, having accepted the surrender of General Menendez on 14th June 1982 : “The Falkland Islands are once more under the government desired by their inhabitants. God save the Queen.’
In Argentina the repressive rule of the Military Junta was dislodged, and replaced by a democratic form of Presidential government, which has existed since.
Out at Merrivale Quarry . through the subsequent winter was carved in Dartmoor granite a massive memorial to those who gave their lives. This was shipped to Port Stanley, where it stands, proud and prominent…. a great chunk of the West Country.
In conclusion, 40 years ago this national crisis triggered in the various communities of Plymouth an urge to work together for the common good. Goodwill and neighbourliness abounded. This sense of outrage finds a strong echo today with our reaction to the heroic courage of the Ukrainians, battling against the Russian invasion.