In their own Words
To mark the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, we reached out to people to come forward and share their memories of the conflict.
Tony Peacock, served a four-year Shipwright apprenticeship in Chatham Dockyard, and in 1973 was promoted to Draughtsman. His task in the Design Division, Chatham was to prepare refit working drawings for a range of compartments onboard Royal Navy surface vessels. In 1977 Tony transferred to a drawing office within the Defence Intelligence Staff, London.
“In London my task was to prepare detailed drawings of equipment fitted to surface vessels of foreign navies. Following promotion in London, I moved to analysis of technical aspects of submarines of foreign navies.
I was serving in this post when the Falkland Island crisis occurred. Unfortunately, the work undertaken while in post in London remains covered by the Official Secrets Act.
After the end of the Falkland Island crisis the work undertaken qualified me to be entitled to be presented with a Falkland Island Tie.”
Today, Tony is a member of the Visitor Experience Team and a Volunteer with the Collections Team in the Reading Room at The Historic Dockyard Chatham.
Geoffrey Cox, Chief Marine Engineer Mechanic, risked his life on board HMS ENDURANCE to supply British forces with invaluable intel. Despite much of Geoffrey’s activity remaining classified under the Official Secrets Act, his letters home to his family reveal some insights into his experience in the conflict:
“To keep our departure secret we blacked out the ship as best we could…we are not designed for this sort of thing… The frightening periods when there’s enemy aircraft in the area, wondering if you can cope with the damage that might occur.”
The ship’s distinct red colour posed a problem for the crew, who needed to pass unseen in a glacial landscape and they didn’t have the paint to conceal her.
Geoffrey’s letters further tell us that he, along with his crew, was tasked with repairing enemy vessels and aircraft for repurposing in the Royal Navy. They are often poignant, particularly when discussing his and the crew’s emotions surrounding losses at sea and their families at home.
He describes how the conflict made him appreciate “the support and prayers of all at home are helping me and the rest of the ship’s company cope with each day as it comes.”
Geoffrey was awarded the British Empire Medal for his service in the Falklands.
Michael Townsend joined the Royal Navy in 1959, and he joined his first ship HMS PALLADIN at Chatham Dockyard in 1960. In 1982 Michael was a Chief Petty Officer on HMS ARGONAUT.
He remembers that when told they were being sent to the Falklands “We thought it was a big laugh”.
The PLYMOUTH and the ARGONAUT were the first ships to enter San Carlos Water providing close fire support for the Royal Marine landing.
Michael says “suddenly the ship jumped … we had been hit by two thousand pound bombs”. He led the fire party forward and found two colleagues killed. After great difficulty the fires were extinguished. The ship limped back to the UK with her crew eating emergency rations – some dated 1943.
Isabella Williams worked in the Colour Loft at the Dockyard.
As part of the exhibition Hidden Heroines: the Untold Stories of the Women of the Dockyard, Isabella’s friend Chris wrote “I have one of Bella’s photo albums of her time working in the Colour Loft, here at the Dockyard. She recalled working up to 18 hours a day making flags during the Falklands War and how tough it was. Each ship setting off for the Atlantic would have to have six full sets of all the flags – due to the extreme weather conditions, a flag could be shredded to ribbons within a couple of days.”
Isabella passed away aged 93.
Before the Falklands invasion, Chatham Dockyard was already scheduled for closure. Several Chatham ships and submarines including HMS CONQUEROR, HMS PLYMOUTH and HMS ENDURANCE had spent time in her docks. So hopes were raised of a reprieve.
Dockyard worker John Masters wrote in his diary: “Many people within this yard thought the Falklands Conflict would make the Government change its mind.” Sadly “it was not to be.”
In June 1981 the UK Government announced that Chatham Dockyard would soon close. Despite this, the Dockyard went on to have a direct role in the Falklands conflict, providing support to the Royal Navy in a variety of ways. The Dockyard was also home to the ‘Stand-by Squadron’, frigates poised to replace warships allocated to the Falklands task force. The Dockyard workforce was placed on a 24-hour working day to cope with the volume of work involved in preparing the ships and submarines for recommissioning.
HMS ENDURANCE served as a Royal Naval Antarctic patrol vessel from 1967 to 1991. Based at Chatham she was due to be withdrawn but the Falklands conflict meant she continued in service. In March 1982 ENDURANCE was tasked with delivering a Royal Marine detachment to evict Argentinians occupying South Georgia. Following the Marines surrender Endurance returned to the Falklands and spent two weeks hiding in the ice from Argentine submarines, ships, and helicopters (her bright red paint made this rather difficult).
ENDURANCE returned to Chatham Dockyard from the Falklands on the 20 August 1982. It is estimated that 20,000 people lined the River Medway to welcome her home. She had been at sea for 11 months and was the first and last Royal Navy ship present in the conflict. Captain Nicholas Barker recalled “it was the greatest day of our lives…the people of south-east England waited to welcome her in their tens of thousands”.
Teresa Dench, Visitor Experience guide at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, recalls the day ENDURANCE came home: “Once the ship had docked, and the crew were ‘released’ they were running down the gangway and their wives and girlfriends were running towards them. Women were literally climbing up their men. There were tears and laughter – an extremely emotional scene.”
In the years leading up to the conflict the Dockyard had also been responsible for the refuelling and refitting of the Royal Navy’s Nuclear submarines which were sent to the Falklands: HMS CONQUEROR, HMS COURAGEOUS, HMS VALIANT and HMS WARSPITE. This work took up to 2 million hours and consumed around 50% of the Dockyard’s ship work capacity.
HMS WARSPITE post-refit trials had to be compressed into four weeks before she left for the Falklands, her Captain was commanded to “get out of refit and get into action as soon as possible”.
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