This is Somerset Tue 20th March 2012
There was one word you did not want to hear in the operations room of a warship operating in the total exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands in the late spring of 1982 – “Handbrake”.
Let me explain. The Royal Navy had two aircraft carriers (HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible) operating 40 Harrier fighters which formed the sum total of our ability to engage the 120 aircraft of the Argentinian Air Force. If we lost a carrier, we lost the war. Each of the aircraft carriers had a “goalkeeper” in the shape of a Type 22 Frigate.
HMS Hermes was paired with HMS Broadsword, while HMS Invincible had the ship on which I was serving, HMS Brilliant. It was the job of the “goalkeeper” to move up alongside their carrier and to engage any incoming missile with our ‘Sea Wolf’ missile system. If we failed in that task then we would take the consequences.
The main threat to the carriers was from an AM 39 Exocet Missile launched from an Argentinian Air Force Super Entendard fighter-bomber operating out of Rio Grande Air base in Patagonia. The “Super E” would fly east from its base, fast and very low to avoid radar detection to the “in range” distance from the task force. At this stage the Argentine pilot would have to gain altitude, switch on his I-band radar and have just a couple of sweeps to provide the missile below him with the information required. He could then launch the Exocet (the French word for Flying Fish) and head home for a well earned steak chimichurri in the officers’ mess. In the darkened operations rooms of the task force the two sweeps of the I-band radar would be detected and the message would flash round the task force – “Handbrake!” This meant that an Exocet missile had been launched and would be with us quite shortly.
May 25 is Argentina’s national day and it is also the name given to their aircraft carrier Veintecino De Mayo. It was clear that on such a day the Argentine Air Force would come out to engage us and so the task force was on heightened alert. One crucial thing the Argentines did not know about was the Special Air Service presence watching their air bases and providing the Northwood HQ with information about aircraft taking off from them; these reports were then sent to the task force. Onboard HMS Brilliant that day we were operating in our usual goalkeeper mode close to HMS Invincible. Our Commanding Officer was the softly spoken Submariner Captain John F Coward – who not only commanded HMS Brilliant but also commanded the respect and absolute confidence of his ship’s company. The Captain came onto the main broadcast shortly after breakfast and said “D’ye hear there, captain speaking, we have received a report from the flagship that Super Etendards have taken off from Rio Grande Air Base and we can expect some trade in the near future, so I think it best at this stage that we proceed to action stations” The action stations buzzers then sounded and we made ready.
It was a bright, clear, sunny day and the ships of the task force were all locked down at the highest state of readiness. Watertight doors and hatches were closed to prevent fire and flood spreading. Anti-flash hoods and gloves were worn. Guns were manned. War-shot missiles were on the launchers. Sea Harriers were patrolling the skies in Combat Air Patrols. We were as ready as we had ever been.
“Handbrake!” The call went out. Exocet release had been detected. Chaff rockets were fired from the warships to confuse the radar of the incoming missiles. The captain came onto the main broadcast again, calm as ever and said “D’ye hear there, captain speaking, Exocet release has been detected and missiles are in the air so I think it best at this stage for those who can to take cover as best you can”.
We waited. And waited. The main broadcast then crackled and Lieutenant Iain Shepherd spoke “D’ye hear there, navigating officer speaking, missiles visual” Two AM 39 Exocet missiles were doglegging their way through the chaff clouds seeking a target. They then found one. “D’ye hear there, navigating officer speaking, the missiles are now heading for Atlantic Conveyor”. The Exocets slammed into the largest and most vital of merchant vessels in the taskforce, carrying the Chinook helicopters that were going to enable the Royal Marines and Paras to move onto Port Stanley.
I watched the fires in Atlantic Conveyor engulf the ship. We took some of the survivors onboard with the majority of them saved by the frigate HMS Alacrity. I remember an RAF wing commander climbing the rope ladder on our port side. He stepped on deck, gave an extremely smart RAF salute and said “permission to come onboard, sir”. The Merchant Navy purser of the Conveyor came down to the wardroom wearing a Michelin man suit, which he unzipped, stepped out in immaculate uniform and asked when the bar would be open.
The sailors in my department formed the first-aid parties and I will never forget the sight of an old Atlantic Conveyor chef being comforted by Junior Assistant Cook John Batterby, still 16 and the youngest Royal Navy sailor in the task force.
Atlantic Conveyor went down with the kit we thought we needed to win the war. The Royal Marines ashore at San Carlos were asked by an embedded reporter how they would get to Port Stanley now. “We’ll yomp it” was the reply – the rest is history.
HMS Brilliant returned to Devonport to a rapturous welcome on July 12, 1982. The two aircraft carriers were never hit. I returned to the Falkland Islands in HMS Brilliant the following year and deployed again in HMS Euryalus in 1987.
This article is dedicated to my good friend Lieutenant Dick Nunn DFC Royal Marines, whose grave is in the military cemetery at San Carlos.