Falklands War Jottings – 30 years on……………  

I was requested to write a piece for 'Full Ahead', the Merchant Navy Association Magazine, which was published in the Summer 2007 edition. 



“The Falklands War will go down in history as one of the most brilliant maritime operations of the twentieth century. Certainly, everything about it – the incredible speed with which the Task Force and its specialist supporting shipping were assembled and manned; the ingenuity and improvisation which were displayed in modifying those ships and their equipment to meet a whole multitude of tasks was remarkable.”  Captain David Hart Dyke MVO, CBE, RN – Commanding Officer HMS Coventry.    

 The United Kingdom ’s strategic use of merchant ships was never more in evidence than during the 1982 Falklands War.  Faced with insufficient troop and military transport lift capacity, the necessary Statutory Instruments were signed on 3rd April, in order to permit the Ministry of Defence to take ships up from trade. 54 merchant ships were taken up from trade (STUFT) to assist the armed forces during the South Atlantic conflict. 43 sailed for the South Atlantic with Merchant Navy crews and Naval Parties embarked, before the Argentine surrender on 15th June.  5 deep sea trawlers were taken up from trade, manned by the RN and used as Minesweepers. The first ship to be 'STUFT' was the P&O flagship Canberra , Master : Captain Dennis Scott- Masson, homeward bound for Southampton with a full complement of  cruise passengers. She embarked two full Commandos and 3 Para. Much of their heavy equipment and ammunition, as well as eight light Scimitar tanks of the Blues and Royals, was loaded into the P&O Roll-On-Roll-Off ferry Elk, Master: Captain John Morton. John had extensive experience of the Antarctic, having once been a deck officer with the British Antarctic Survey. 


                                     P&O's Flagship, SS Canberra                                                           P&O Ferry's MV Elk

During 1981, I had sailed as the Convoy Commodore's First Lieutenant on the major NATO Exercise, Ocean Safari, from which lessons were learned, resulting in my giving a paper at the Post-Convoy Conference at the Naval Academy in Lisbon. The subject was 'The Integration of Merchant Shipping into a Naval Task Force for out of NATO area operations. At the time I was a lecturer on the staff of the Maritime Trade Faculty at the School of Maritime Operations, Portsmouth.

  On 6th April I was ordered to report to the Headquarters of the Commander in Chief of the Fleet, Northwood, Middlesex – an underground NATO bunker, known throughout the military  as ‘the hole’.  Guarded by heavily armed Royal Marines, it was an impressive place, and like an iceberg, most of it was hidden well below the surface.   

Once briefed by Commander Tom Allen RN, Staff Officer Naval Control of Shipping, my first task was to get the salvage tugs away. Captain Freddie Fox, Assistant Chief of Staff Operations and Plans and our immediate boss asked me to work out how long it would take them to reach the Falklands area. I found a chart of the Atlantic Ocean , north and south, and ran off the distance with a pair of borrowed dividers. With eight thousand nautical miles to steam, it would take them the best part of a month.   Irishman, Salvageman and Yorkshireman had already been requisitioned and were deployed to Portsmouth . A naval car was organised and I set off down the A3. After briefing their Masters, Captains W.Allen,  A J Stockwell and P.Rimmer - and supervising the loading of  additional equipment, I informed the Queen’s Harbour Master in his lofty eerie, the semaphore tower overlooking Portsmouth Naval Base, that the tugs were in all respects ready for sea, and waved them off with a somewhat heavy heart. Eight thousand miles of inhospitable sea is a long way to go in a seven hundred ton salvage tug. Each had a small Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service party embarked and were as prepared as civilians can ever be for the daunting tasks that lay ahead.  


Following the departure of the salvage tugs, there was a steady stream of  STUFT to brief and equip with replenishment gear, radio equipment compatible with that of the fleet, commercial satellite communications systems, additional fuel tanks, fresh water production plants, extra accommodation and facilities for operating helicopters. Portsmouth Dockyard led the way, with as many as five merchant ships at a time being fitted out, during the period 8th April to 21st May. A total of twenty-five  tankers, freighters, tugs and short-sea ferries were modified there, under the expert management of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors – who were celebrating their centenary. I remember arriving at Devonport, early one morning, courtesy of an RAF Gazelle helicopter. As we hovered above the landing pad, Sea Container’s MV Contender Bezant, was being warped into a dry-dock. By the time I arrived onboard, oxy-acetylene torches were burning brightly and steel was already being cut. She was soon underway, with a Sea King, 2 Wasps, 4 Harrier GR3s, 4 Chinooks and 2 Gazelle embarked.  On returning to my cabin at Northwood two days later, at around 04:00, I discovered all my kit piled outside the door in bin bags and an RAF Group Captain snoring loudly in my bed. After an unfriendly altercation, which only served to reinforce my opinion of RAF senior officers, I made my way into the underground bunker and informed the duty officer, Captain Jeremy Reed, Assistant Chief of Staff (Warfare). "Some bloody crab has nicked my pit, Sir!" I complained, somewhat peevishly. "Leave it to me Nick", replied the kindly Jeremy, urging me to follow him topside. Explaining to the sleepy RAF-type, in no uncertain terms, that "some of us are fighting a rudddy war and NATO staff can sling their hooks", he evicted the pyjama clad groupie, which quickly saw me reunited with my bunk, where I was able to snatch forty-winks before resuming watchkeeping duties in the underground STUFT cell at 07:00.

MV Contender Bezant

Elk arrived at Ascension Island on 20th April, having refuelled at Freetown en route and quickly earned a tremendous reputation as a key element of the Task Force. Fitted with Satcom, Crypto, Extra Fuel Tanks, RAS (Replenishment At Sea) Astern Rig and VERTREP (Vertical Replenishment by Helicopter) equipment, her enthusiastic ships company quickly pressed her case as a ‘ship of the line’.  With the assistance of Army Engineers, her bulwarks were cut away to give her a Chinook heavy lift helicopter landing spot, while up forward, a hangar was constructed, capable of housing three RN Sea King helicopters. Meanwhile, the focsle mounted a pair of 40/60 calibre Bofors anti-aircraft guns. One gun being manned by the MN and the other by the ship’s embarked Naval Party. For extra firepower, the Scorpion light tanks were ranged on deck in such a way as to provide a broadside, in case the opportunity arose to engage an enemy vessel at close quarters, in true Nelsonian style. Plans were also considered to use the steel that had been cut away from the bulwarks to construct a Sea Harrier ski jump – but were later shelved – much to the disappointment of Captain John Morton and his Merchant Navy crew. In his report dated  16th April, Captain Morton stated: ‘A great variety of emergency drills, intelligence briefs, first aid lectures, vehicle running, weapons training and physical jerks continued throughout the day with the ship’s staff, surprisingly enough, joining in. The last time I saw the cook-convenor, he was learning to strip and re-assemble a machine gun.’  

Ascension Island

Elk sailed from Ascension as part of the Amphibious Warfare Task Group, tactically loaded for support of an amphibious landing and with a full complement of helicopters. The group, which also included Canberra, Norland, Europic Ferry and Atlantic Conveyor, together with HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless, sailed from Ascension on 7th May, fully darkened, without navigation lights, and with radar and radio silence imposed. Elk was to make three overnight runs into San Carlos water, to land essential stores and vehicles and re-supply rations and ammunition.  Captain Morton was later awarded a well earned CBE in the Falklands Honours List.

MV Atlantic Conveyor  

The P&O School Ship SS Uganda was requisitioned at Alexandria on 10th April, disembarking her school children at Naples and arriving Gibraltar on the 16th.  She was declared in accordance with UN regulations as a hospital ship and adorned with a large red cross on both sides of her immaculate white hull. Surgeon Captain Snow, the Fleet Medical Officer and I had to scour the Korean War archive in order to find the correct routine for fitting out a hospital ship. The regulations were strict: no secure communications equipment and definitely no weapons – not even for self defence. I will never forget the look of disappointment on the face of the Fleet Missile and Gunnery Officer, when I informed him in no uncertain terms, that he was not going to mount his fifty-calibre general purpose machine guns on Uganda ’s immaculately holy-stoned bridge wings.

MV Europic Ferry

The Townsend Thoresen Company’s Europic Ferry sailed from Southampton on 23rd April, under the command of Captain Chris Clarke. Chris and I had sailed together as Third and Fourth Officers in the Orient liner Orcades. We were good friends and it was with mixed emotions that I shook his hand and said my goodbye. Loaded with a mixed cargo of 105mm light guns, ammunition, vehicles, fuel, aircraft and equipment for the Second Battalion the Parachute Regiment, 29 Battery Royal Artillery and 656 Army Air Corps, she made a brief call at Ascension, where she joined the Amphibious Group, under the command of Commodore Mike Clapp RN,  COMAW - Commodore Amphibious Warfare.  On 17th May they met up with the carrier battle group, under the command of Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, and began final planning for the amphibious landing.  The following day, Europic Ferry went to action stations for the first time in earnest, ‘Air Raid Warning Red’ sounding throughout the ship, as incoming enemy aircraft were detected.

It had been pointed out that the ship’s red hull and high, bright blue funnel, made a good aiming mark for incoming Argentine aircraft.  Resilient to a man, the crew turned to, with stages rigged and pots of paint to hand, they bravely went about the task of repainting the funnel battleship grey. And as each air raid was broadcast, the crew shuffled round to the down-threat side, and continued painting there until the threat had subsided and the all clear sounded – whereupon they resumed painting the up-threat side again. Captain Chris Clarke was awarded a well deserved OBE in the Falklands Honours List, which he modestly accepted on behalf of his stalwart Merchant Navy crew.


SS Canberra, The Great White Whale, flagship of the mighty P & O, came to represent all that is best about the British Merchant Navy – courage, flexibility, innovation and dedication in the service of Queen and country. I was fortunate to have been there at Southampton on 11th July, along with my four-year old son Timothy, as she hove into view, rust streaked and worn, her decks thronged with the men of 3rd Commando Brigade, Naval Party 1710 drawn up smartly on her forward flight deck, and a Royal Marines band playing their hearts out - drowned by the roars and cheers of the assembled crowds of well-wishers, welcoming her home. Will we ever see such a magnificent sight again?  Canberra transported 2,400 men to the Falklands War and carried 4,400 weary, defeated Argentines safely home again after their surrender. Captain ‘Beagle’ Burn RN, commanding Naval Party 1710 reported that at San Carlos and elsewhere, a first class P & O ‘geriatric passenger landing and reception organisation’, manned by the Senior Assistant Purser, and the gallant ladies of the Bureau, took Royal Marines, Welsh Guards and Argentineans in its stride. The 4,400 POWs were handled, for convenience sake, as P & O luggage; each man had a company luggage label, coloured to denote the appropriate deck, attached to his left shoulder throughout his stay onboard. The ship operated without an engine room breakdown for the 13 ½ weeks of her deployment and Captain Burne reported that the P & O Deck Officers were of a particularly high calibre, “seeming to relish the pace of military activity, compared to their normal cruising routine. The niceties of life aboard a P & O Liner were not allowed to be interrupted by hostile action either, and each day, come hell or high water - underway or anchored in San Carlos water, pink gins were served on the bridge at noon. I had the privilege of serving under Captain Dennis Scott-Masson, Canberra ’s Master, in 1972 when I was First Officer of the SS Chusan. A courteous, dignified, kindly Captain, he was a superb seaman and the very epitome of an ocean liner captain. His CBE in the Falkland ’s Honours List was a worthy reward for his loyal service to both company and nation.


MV St Helena

The Curnow Shipping Company’s Motor Vessel St Helena , under the command of Captain M L M Smith MN, sailed in company with HM Ships Brecon and Ledbury on 13th June. Her role was that of a Mine Hunter Support Unit, and she had been extensively modified to fuel and store her two valuable ‘charges’ while underway. A helicopter hangar and flight deck were constructed aft and an RN Wasp Flight embarked. Thirteen containerised modules were loaded, seven of which were in constant use as workshops and offices during her deployment. We jury rigged a lightweight hose handling system, under the flight deck, which could be used to refuel the mine hunters astern in heavy weather. It consisted of a high tech Kevlar hose, which we ‘borrowed’ from the US Marines. Folded flat it took up very little room and had been designed to refuel helicopters as they hovered above the tree canopies of Vietnam . The hose reel itself was modelled on my mother’s garden hose device, only much bigger and driven by a compressed air motor. Years later, I was attending a presentation by the Royal Naval Corps of Constructors at Bristol, and was amused to see my ‘invention’ highlighted by the speaker, as a ‘Heath Robinson gadget invented by an RNR Officer - just another example of the ad hoc improvisation and innovation that was the order of the day in 1982’. From 10th July to 14th August St Helena served as mother ship to the MCMVs as they hunted for mines in Falkland Sound. 

There is one incident that has caused me many a chuckle down the intervening decades.  It took place onboard the Ocean Fleets heavy lift cargo ship Myrmidon, while loading at Sunderland . I was in the process of briefing her amiable Master; whose name I’m afraid now escapes me. His wife and daughter were staying onboard while the ship was alongside, and had popped ashore for a spot of shopping. We were just getting started on ‘darken ship and evasive manoeuvring’, while beyond the captain’s big cabin window, a large wooden crate, clearly marked ‘PORT STANLEY’ hove into view, the union purchase gear humming as it was carefully swayed into  position over number three hold. “You told me you were going to Hong Kong !”  exclaimed a woman, suddenly from behind us, as she stepped across the threshold. It was the Captain’s wife, laden with carrier bags, just returned from shopping. “We’ll see about that!” shouted the Captain, completely unperturbed, hurrying to the starboard side of his vast suite and stepping out onto his private sundeck. “Get that off my ship!” he bellowed, “we’re not going to the ruddy Falklands !” He very nearly got away with the subterfuge, but then his daughter appeared. She was at university and knew all about electronics. “Amazing secure comms equipment being installed in the radio shack, Dad. I’ve just been chatting to your Royal Navy communications team. All terribly hush-hush!”

Myrmidon, above, and Sapele of Ocean Fleets, transported hutted accommodation and much needed stores to Port Stanley .

The Nautical Institute's announcement of the loss of Captain Ian North, DSC, MNI, MN

Master, MV Atlantic Conveyor 

Captain Ian North, DSC, MNI, MN

It is known that Ian North successfully abandoned the ship, but could not make it from the rope ladder to the life raft. He disappeared, possibly following a heart attack induced by the very cold water. He has no living relatives, and was unmarried. His officers liked him very much and especially his ecentricities, which included clever cartoons sketches of people. Perhaps the loveliest tribute to him comes from Captain Jorge Colombo, the commanding officer of the very effective Super Etendard squadron which sank the Atlantic Conveyor as well as HMS Coventry. He has written "Captain North was a real sea-dog with his snowy beard, he was a great and brave man. And when I think of him, I think of these lines by the English poet John Masefield:"

          "I must go down to the sea again,
           to the lonely sea and sky,
           and all I ask is a tall ship,
           and a star to steer her by.
           And the wheel's kick,
           and the wind's song,
           and the white sails shaking,
           and a grey mist on the sea's face,
           and a great dawn breaking ..."

The 'butcher's bill' was high, too high by far.

In the war against Napoleon, when Admiral Nelson wanted to know how many people were dead, he'd yell to his orderly, "What's the butcher's bill for today?" 

Great Britain’s national maritime fighting force was born in the 14th century, and for three-hundred years or so, the Royal and Merchant Navies were nigh on indistinguishable and interchangeable, in terms of both ships and personnel. Thereafter, although the warship evolved into a dedicated fighting machine, merchant ships continued to be used for military purposes, and on numerous occasions, provided the essential support of men and materiel, without which the Royal Navy could not have achieved many of its greatest victories.

 I will leave the last words to the illustrious naval commander, under whom it was my immense privilege to have served, the late Admiral of The Fleet, The Lord Fieldhouse of Gosport  GCB, GBE, Royal Navy.  ‘He was an inspired leader’, wrote Baroness Margaret Thatcher. ‘His unruffled and easy manner at times of great crisis calmed and steadied all those around him, and his unwavering belief in victory lifted our spirits even in the blackest hours.’

Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse said:  “ I cannot say too often or too clearly how important has been the Merchant Navy’s contribution to our efforts. Without the Ships Taken Up From Trade, the Falklands operation could not have been undertaken, and I hope this message is clearly understood by the British nation. In April of 1982, the Merchant Navy went to war in 48 hours. That first weekend in April, the industry swung into its role as our nation’s  ‘fourth arm of defence’.”

The Boarding Officer departs.......

 In the presence of greatness, HMS Warrior, Northwood Middlesex.

Left to right: Myself;  Lt Cdr R E A Shrub, Fleet Press Officer; Admiral of The Fleet Sir John Fieldhouse,GCB,GBE, Commander in Chief of the Fleet,  Commander Task Force 317;  Admiral Sir David Halifax, KCB, KCVO, KBE, Chief of Staff;  Rear Admiral Peter Hammersley CB,CBE, Fleet Engineering Officer.

A picture is worth a thousand words......  

First mess dinner at Northwood following the cessation of hostilities.

Praise indeed!

The great lady herself gave me a hug.....


Home again.......

 ©Nick Messinger 2012