British troops en route to the Falklands gird for battle—and try to tame their jitters.
At the start of the 1982 Falklands War, the BBC’s Brian Hanrahan was embedded with the troops on the British aircraft carrier Hermes as it left Ports – mouth. For the next month, he reported on the mood of the men as they prepared for their first action.
April 5 We departed with gentle punctuality. Promptly at 10:45 the ship nudged out from the quay, at first so slowly it was hardly noticeable.
Long naval tradition brought the ship’s company to the rails in their best uniforms—among them the green berets of the Royal Marines brought aboard to be part of any landing force. The Sea King helicopters and Harrier jets were drawn up on deck—a display of the ship’s strength. For hours past, sailors and marines had swayed aboard tons of ammunition, but now the breakneck activity was over. There’ll be a long pause while the Task Force steams to the other end of the world.
The Invincible, Britain’s other carrier, steamed out ahead of us—swapping signals with our flag deck, from where the fleet will be controlled. Crowds waved us away from every vantage point. The ship’s company lined the sides to exchange salutes—courtesies were swapped with HMS Victory, Nelson’s old flagship, still commissioned for the Royal Navy. But this fleet, which the government has warned it’s willing to use in anger, is by far the most powerful the Royal Navy has ever put to sea.
April 6 Hermes has been exercising extensively all morning. Flying stations were piped immediately after breakfast, and since then the Harrier jets and the Sea King helicopters have bobbed and weaved around the carrier as their crews recovered their skills. Once the pilots were airborne, the captain sent all hands to action stations. A routine-enough drill, but one this voyage invests with deadly significance.
All of us have been asked to wear antiflash masks during action stations. They are cumbersome and uncomfortable but they’ll be vital if there’s real danger of attack. And we’ve also been warned that all beards will have to be shaved off, in order to make the gas masks fit properly.
There was one break from flying today, to give the Royal Marines time to exercise. But with all the below-deck space full of men, machinery, and ammunition, they have to use the flight deck, so for an hour each day even the precious flying time is given up to keep the Marines fit to fight.
April 11 HMS Hermes put to sea in haste. Her crew was straggling back from leave as hundreds of tons of stores piled aboard. The first hours were crazy ones, tidying up people and equipment and then buckling down to build a fighting ship. The navy has boarded every Harrier it had and scoured its ground stations for the pilots to fly them. Skilled combat pilots though they were, they needed first to recover the skill of operating from a moving deck at sea.
As the ship turns steadily south, a bustling island on an empty sea, the crew becomes more thoughtful. The news reaching us from home suggests that war is becoming thinkable, that Hermes, the flagship of the fleet, will be a primary target. There’s a real chance that all this drill and practice will be needed.
May 4 [after an Argentine missile attack hit a Type 42 destroyer, HMS Sheffield.] Sheffield was on the edge of our defensive screen. From the deck of the Hermes, I could see a pillar of white smoke on the horizon, which continued to climb until dark and the decision was made to abandon her. Throughout the afternoon a shuttle of helicopters moved between us— taking doctors and firefighting equipment to Sheffield; bringing the injured back here, a few on stretchers, but most, though obviously dazed, were able to walk.
May 10 The fires aboard [the Sheffield] were under control or out. But the sea roughened, water poured into the huge hole on the starboard side where the missile had struck, and the crew of the tug had to cut the towline and then watch her sink.
Before this happened, the ship had made for an eerie sight drifting in and out of the mist banks, steam still rising from hatches on the foredeck. Around the hole were black patches where the paint was blistered off by the fire within. The radar domes on the upper deck were burnt and twisted by the heat, the helicopter hangar on the stern full of ash.
May 11 When HMS Hermes steamed from Portsmouth, her officers dined in traditional normal splendor. They wore cummerbunds and evening dress, sat at tables laid with a silver service, and ate by the light of candelabra.
Now these tables are frequently overturned in the middle of the floor, tied firmly down by thick rope, the chairs locked on top like barricades in a Belfast street. Around them men in grubby overalls eat snack meals, taking 10 minutes away from their action stations. At their waist the colored cummerbunds have given way to blue webbing belts. On each is clipped a gas mask, a life jacket, and a survival suit—an all-embracing garment made of day-glo orange rubber. It looks like a pair of baggy pajamas, but wearing it in the chilly waters of the South Atlantic increases survival time from minutes to hours.
Like the men, the ship is wound up tight. Every watertight door is closed and walking around means constantly knocking off the metal clips that hold the doors in place and ramming them back after passing through. Some of the hatches used to be left open, but since the disaster of the Sheffield, when fire and smoke spread within seconds, they’re all closed and nobody complains.
Normally, the ship stays at defense watches, moving up to action stations only when there’s considered a high threat of attack. Defense watches are quite hard enough. Every position on board is manned, the crew does six hours on and six off, and they sleep in clothes ready to rush in position if the alarm sounds.
With the ship sealed up against attack, nobody is allowed to sleep below the waterline, so on the upper deck there’s a system of “hot bunking,” one man taking over a bed as another leaves it. It isn’t to all tastes and some of the crew have been bringing their mattresses up to sleep near their action stations. More than one officer with a long memory has been bewailing the phasing out of hammocks from the navy.
The call to action stations is a klaxon— a routine sound in peacetime exercises, a chilling one in war. For minutes there’s frantic activity as the off-watch rushes into position, slamming closed the hatches behind them, pulling on their anti-flash gloves and masks, the white material growing grubbier with frequent use. Then the ship settles into a tense stillness, braced for attack. In the long corridors nobody moves; it could be a ghost ship.
So far I’ve not seen an enemy, but I’ve been aware of every hostile aircraft. It’s a nerve-wracking business. Some of the younger sailors will admit quite frankly that they’re scared. Perhaps they have more courage than those who don’t.
Adapted from I Counted Them All Out and I Counted Them All Back, by BRIAN HANRAHAN and ROBERT FOX. Copyright © 1982, BBC Books. Reprinted by permission of the Random House Group Limited.
Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.