When next you have a bad day at the office; think of the story that is to follow.
I’ve always been in awe of the Royal Navy. Like many soldiers, I much prefer the idea of finding safety in a hole in the ground when a bad thing happens than I do the concept of bobbing around on the ocean in a big tin can which seems to scream, ‘I’m over here, come and get me if you can.’ A sentiment that is repeated below.
The Navy and her sailors are indelibly hard coded into the nation’s history and DNA. As one of my Naval friends likes to remind me, ‘95% of all the Christmas presents under the tree come here through the shipping lanes.’ Who could forget then, the shock wave of incredulity that pulsed through the country when the first ship, HMS Sheffield, was sunk by an Exocet strike in the Falklands, our first loss of a ship in action since the Second World War. "In the course of its duties within the Total Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands, HMS Sheffield, a type 42 destroyer, was attacked and hit late this afternoon by an Argentine missile. The ship caught fire, which spread out of control. When there was no longer any hope of saving the ship, the ship's company abandoned ship. All who abandoned her were picked up." It sparked a moment of collective national disbelief and kept us glued to television screens thereafter during the 71 day war. Brave, brave boys; all of them.
What though was it like from a sailors perspective? Imagine if you can, being in a ship in 'bomb alley,' with two unexploded bombs on board, one of them conveniently parked the missile magazine, having lost power and steering.......... for five days while under constant air attack. That is exactly what happened to HMS Argonaut, a Leander class frigate.
Here is one mans story from that crew. It is an absorbing read and my grateful thanks to Rob Lockyer for allowing me to post it.
HMS Argonaut; One Man's Story
The notes accompanying the pictures are not necessarily in chronological order and are just things that were sporadically typed as they were recalled, thirty or more years after the event. Doubtless there will be some inaccuracies.
My primary reason for joining the Royal Navy as a Marine Engineering Mechanic in February 1981 was due to my Dad’s sage careers advice: “Don’t join the Army son, you’ll just get blown-up in Northern Ireland”. I don’t ever recall thanking him fully.
About 14 months after joining the Navy and completing my training as a Specially Selected Marine Engineering Mechanic , I joined my first ship late March 1982. Technically, I’d served briefly on HMS Fearless, the amphibious assault ship and HMS Norfolk, the guided missile destroyer, to complete my training over a four month period. My new ship was Devonport based – HMS Argonaut, the Leander class, Exocet-armed frigate.
Argonaut had not long come out of an epic 5 year refit, hampered and delayed by a variety of strikes. It should’ve taken about year. There were even teeshirts proclaiming "HMS Argonaut - THE refit". Little did we realise, we would be returning it to Devonport within 3 months for another extensive refit for battle damage repair. When we took the ship into the sheds, after the conflict, and it settled on the blocks as the water was pumped-out of the dry dock, it became apparent there was more damage than we thought. The keel had bowed - damaged by the underwater blast of near-miss bombs that exploded in the water around us. The superstructure welds were splitting away from the deck due to the twisting action of the South Atlantic ocean swell. Down aft we discovered canon holes on the underside of the propellor guards - that explained why we couldn't find any damage after we heard the canon shells hitting us down aft.
I joined just in time to 'enjoy' shakedown at Portland as the ship was becoming operational once more. There was no bunk for me in the Stokers mess, so I was accommodated in the Gunners Mess initially (3EA Mess).
Around about this time we heard of the Argentinian scrap metal merchants' antics in South Georgia and eventually the invasion of the Falkland Islands. Like most people my age (19) I wasn’t particularly interested in the news, and like most of the population of Britain, I wondered why Argentina was invading somewhere in Scotland.
Quick as a flash, the buzz spread – we were going South to link-up with the initial task force which was diverted from Gibraltar. A weekend off, store ship in Devonport, then on our way.
It happened so fast, it didn’t really sink–in. My older brother came to the train station to see me on my way. It occurred to me that it must be something serious for my brother to accompany me to the station.
Upon return to the ship, the mood was buoyant. There was an air of confidence and excitement. One of the Chefs had got married, rumour had it – to a prostitute. That seemed more significant than the Argentinian stuff at the time. Besides, the consensus was they would bugger-off once they knew we were on the way.
Argonaut and Ardent escorted 3 Commando Brigade & the Amphibious Group which included assault ships Fearless & Intrepid, RFA Stromness, Tidepool and transport Canberra & oiler, Elk.
It all became real on 2nd May when Belgrano was sunk. There was no going back, we knew the Argentinians would retaliate, we thought by submarine attack. At the time, the general consensus was pity for the sailors who lost their lives. We knew there would be a lot of casualties. We rendezvoused with the initial task group at Ascension Island and joined HMS Ardent in anti-submarine duties around the anchorage, wasting several days chasing submarines that turned-out to be whales.
When Sheffield was hit by Exocet, though much as it was a shock and a huge blow, it was not unexpected. The worry & frustration was not so much for ourselves but our families at home who we could not communicate with.
The day before the landings it was, so far as I remember a grey, overcast evening, a huge, rolling swell. As far as the eye could see, there were ships horizon to horizon. The carrier battle group and the amphibious task force looked huge. It looked like a second world war movie.
On the ship, we were briefed in watches in the dining hall, by the Captain. He had a map of the islands pinned to a board and described how the task force would steam initially toward Stanley. We were told the SBS & SAS would conduct a “son et lumiere” (his words) as a diversionary tactic, just South of Stanley. The task force would then split . We would jink right, then left, passing between the East and West islands into the amphibious landing area. Our job? Anti-aircraft picket for the amphibious landings at San Carlos.
Our first enemy contact came early on 21st May, as we turned into Falkland Sound, an Aeromacchi aircraft 'bounced' us firing rockets & cannons, injuring the FDO (our Master at Arms, shot through the chest) and a couple of Gunners on the hangar roof (one lost an eye, the other had shrapnel through his heel). Due to a breakdown in comms the casualties were brought to the Forward Fire & Repair Party Post instead of the First Aid Post. It shames me to say we just stood their aghast at their injuries, frozen in shock, not knowing what to do initially. Eventually the first aid teams & POMA stabilised the guys & a helicopter was called in to evacuate the casualties ashore. The Master at Arms was eventually evacuated, I think, to Montevideo, and was extremely lucky to have survived.
The PWO(A) made a "sitrep" pipe announcing we had our first casualties, one of whom was the Master at Arms. A raucous cheer echoed around the ship.
"First?" I thought, gloomily.
Initially, we were doing OK. The PWO(A) kept an excellent running-commentary over the main broadcast. We appeared to be hammering the enemy aircraft.
Years later, I spoke with the Commanding Officer of HMS Fearless, now a retired Admiral. He said one of his lasting impressions of the conflict was Argonaut out in the sound steaming full ahead, firing at the aircraft, a huge white wake behind her. She disappeared behind several huge plumes of water, thrown-up by the bombs that exploded in the water around her and it seemed like a heart-stopping eternity before she re-emerged, unscathed, still firing from behind the spray and mist.
Obviously it was a bit different below decks. Those on the upper decks relayed back to us how the battle was going: "If you could see the amount of 'sh1t' we are throwing up at the aircraft, you would feel a lot more confident..." My inner monologue doubtfully replied: "Yeah, right".
The thing I learnt about absolute fear is it is best left unspoken otherwise is toxic and highly contagious. Think it, by all means. Never express it, until after. The stench of vomit hung in the air below decks; the smell of absolute fear.
The Gunners became the heroes of the day. When you think of it, 260 on the ship, but only a couple of dozen actually firing weapons & missiles. One of the killick Gunners was firing a GPMG and followed the aircraft as it passed-overhead. He managed to shoot away one of our whip aerials in his enthusiasm, but hey, most of the bullets were heading in the right direction.
Argonaut claimed a shared hit on a Dagger with HMS Plymouth, and claimed to have downed a mirage and an Aermacchi with Seacat unaided on day one alone. That said, with literally hundreds of people pointing weapons in the same direction, it's without a doubt that many claimed hits were at least duplicated. The tally on the first day of the landings (21 May) over San Carlos, I remember hearing at the time, was 17 aircraft shot down.
One incident I remember hearing was that the flight-deck crew got rather jumpy after the first raid - completely understandable in my book. What didn't help however was the gunners tap-dancing on the deck of the hangar roof to simulate cannon-fire each time an aircraft passed close-by. Much to their mirth, the flight deck crew could be seen diving for cover...until they "clicked", after which a short, sharp "altercation" ensued.
One evening I had a walk around the upperdeck and was surprised how close we were to land. I thought the islands would just be a blip on each horizon - but there they were - within easy swimming distance. You could even see the Royal Marines on the headlands digging-in and establishing defensive positions, should they be required.
As we walked around the decks there were dozens and dozens of spent green-painted metal cartridge cases scattered about the decks. At first we thought they were left by our Gunners, but they were too big to be from hand-held firearms such as GPMGs and too small to be 40/60mm bofor cartridges. It then dawned on us - they were actually 20mm canon cartridge cases that poured out of the wings of Argentine aircraft as they overflew us, shooting at other targets ahead of them.
When the big hit came-in, later that day, just as the casevac helicopter came to the hover, we had just passed a brew down to the lads in the Seacat Mag & dropped the hatch, settling back for a cup of tea. Listening to the Command Loop, huddled outside the Exocet Power Room, we could hear the Captain calling "Check" on the weapons systems and the Gunners screaming "They're Argies, they're Argies". The Captain came back - "I repeat: Check, Check..." boom!
The Captain got a DSO.
At the moment of the hit, my plastic mug of tea (two sugars) catapulted upwards as the deck whipped, so everyone got some. At the same time we had isolated salt water to the heads, a galvanised steel bucket, brim-full of pee, landed squarely on the head of one of the stokers. Unlucky.
Ever since that day, 21st May 1982, I've never drunk tea as my preferred hot beverage. Superstition? Maybe... but, I've not been bombed by an Argentine A4 Skyhawk since.
After the hit, there was a total steam failure & the diesel generators could not be started as the High Pressure air system was ruptured. We were in total darkness, two guys entered 3Ea Messdeck & extinguished a small fire. The first earned a mention in despatches.
Simultaneously two of us leaped into the pitch-black 3Ez messdeck, immediately aft, above the magazine, landing knee-deep in diesel fuel. The magazine test plug in the magazine hatch (presumably blocked by debris) indicated no difference in pressure. There was virtually zero visibility - thick white smoke, but no visible fire. We knocked the clips back off the hatch & a solid column of fuel and water spewed about 4 foot upwards. At the time we didn't realise the compartment was open to the sea & as the ship rolled & dipped in the sea the water level inside was equalising with that outside. Try as we might, working with just miners headlamps to help us see, we couldn't get into the magazine to rescue the guys in there. Later we found out they were pretty much killed the instant the bomb came through. We thought we were sinking & four of us stood on the hatch to close it & shore it up with 4"x 4" timber The water/diesel in the Messdecks increased the ships loll, the force of the liquid actually ripping out bunk & locker fittings, making it lethal as they surged across the half-flooded compartment whilst we plugged splinter holes on the ships side
The bomb, underneath us, struck the full magazine, only four or five yards beneath our action station. The hydraulic pressure peeling the deck back, exploding a Seacat missile warhead in the hoist, killing the two sailors in the weapons handling team. The magazine was flooded by the diesel in the adjacent ruptured fuel tank, miraculously extinguishing the blaze. The bomb bounced off the starboard side of the magazine, exploding a case of 40/60 Bofor shells, then smashed through a row of Seacat missiles, shearing the warheads off, before coming to rest embedded in the side of the last missile in the row.
At the moment of the hit, a young Sub Lieutenant Morgan, ran from the bridge to the foc'sle as the ship ploughed full ahead toward Fanning Head, out of control because the engine & boiler room were evacuated. He slipped the anchor bringing us to a juddering halt. The same guy later dived in the flooded magazine to check whether the bomb had passed clean through – it hadn’t, it was lodged in the magazine. He also sighted the bodies. A very brave chap: he actually had to take off his diving set and pass it through the bomb entry holes first so he could swim after it The next 24 hours were spent trying to strip-out the Messdecks whilst we were towed further into San Carlos Bay by a couple of Fearless's landing craft.
HMS Plymouth, our heroes of the hour amidst the action, that evening tied-up alongside us as we anchored, providing us with food and passing air lines to try and get a generator going. Immediately after the hit, Plymouth put herself between the aircraft & ourselves, throwing up a barrage of 4.5" shells, effectively stopping a coup de grâce.
Argonaut was silent, no power, no ventilation noise, battery lighting & you could hear each footfall echoing around the ship. Very eerie. Earlier, the damage repair patrol reported back to the section base, laughingly recounting catching an MEM(L) 'Spider' (name changed to protect the guilty), wearing a miners headlamp in the Switchboard, “reading an adult magazine”.
Several hours later, there was a "click" on the main broadcast, followed by a pause. To a man, we waited expectantly - was it going to be a "Sitrep?". Presumably internal comms had switched it onto battery back-up. A whispered, quizzical deep voice boomed around the ship in a stage whisper: "Spider?" *long pause*..."Spider... we're watching you" came the ominous mystery voice, echoing and hanging in the air. Muffled pockets of laughter could be heard throughout the ship.
The aft bomb came through on the waterline, flooding the boiler room as the crew escaped. It took away the top of the Turbo alternator (generator), the high pressure air ringmain, split the engine-room/boiler room bulkhead,smashed the High Pressure saturated steam pipe & stopped the "blower" which was feeding air to the port boiler. The boiler imploded & exploded, the casings holding the boiler together. There was a total power failure, all lights were out, but the Chief Stoker managed to plug the hole using a sledgehammer & wooden wedges. It wasn't until the damage repair party shone a battery powered floodlight into the compartment that the Chief Stoker realised he was swinging a slegehammer whilst actually stood on top of the UXB.
The sheet aluminium tail section of the boiler room bomb had separated from the main charge. Later, several stokers cut bits off the sheet metal and made "bomb-shaped" highly polished pendants as mementos, about 2 to 3 cms long. I later ditched mine. Who'd want a bomb-shaped, bloody pendant anyway? I reasoned.
The bomb had the words "A present for Mother England" painted upon it (in Spanish).
The UXB was lodged, nose first in a Seacat missile, submerged in diesel & could not be made safe.
The task of removal involved plugging the submerged entry hole, recovering the bodies, pumping out, removing the whole missiles, removing the damaged missiles, cutting holes above the bomb, securing the bomb & missile, then cutting a hole in the ships side to hoist it out & lower it into the sea. After that, weld the holes.
Snag is, the welding caused a huge fire because the explosive had leached out of the missiles.
Our action station was on the deck where the photograph was taken, as number two (firefighter) fearnought-suitman in the for'd damage repair party, with two of the team in the PO's lounge.
When the bomb came in, the deck whipped, but the blast wasn’t felt. There were only minor fires in 3Ea messdeck & the magazine fire extinguished pretty much instantaneously as it flooded & burst the deck upward in 3Ez messdeck. The immediate area filled with thick white acrid smoke but the priority was to get to the source of the fire forward and get the guys out of the magazine aft. The remainder of the damage repair team moved aft whilst two guys extinguished the blaze with extinguishers and a 'dying firemain' as we experienced a total steam & power failure. The two of us who went down to the magazine hatch first, found ourselves leakstopping in firefighting gear - a novel concept. This was after we realised we couldn't get the weapons handlers out of the mag.
Initially the flooded magazine was open to the sea, the water level inside the ship raising and falling as she rode on the swell, still at ‘full ahead’.
We eventually got the Rover Gas Turbine Salvage pump onto the foc’sle (another later arriving by helicopter from Fearless), with the suction hose lowered two decks through the foc’sle hatch into the flooded magazine directly below. Whilst starting the pump, two of us were winding the turbine like crazy. The noise, perhaps not surprisingly, was like a jet engine, so we didn’t hear the pipe: “Air Raid Red”.
The next thing we saw was a Dagger aircraft no more than 50 foot directly above us flying belly-first on the apex of the arc of a sharp turn, afterburner screaming raw noise at us, empty spent cartridge shells spilling out and literally landing all around us as it cannoned another ship already in it’s sights. Two huge columns of water exploded upwards either side of the foc’sle , completely drenching us with icy water. The two bombs exploded underwater in a kind of stuttered “ba-boom” not 25 yards away on each side. The two of us stood gaping at each other, hair plastered on our heads, soaked through, unable to talk, thinking to myself: “Jeez, that was a bit close”. Jonah, my stoker oppo, on the other hand, was elated: “That was effing brilliant!” he mouthed with no audible sound.
As the whistling hiss of temporary deafness subsided we could hear an angry bloke shouting at us in the distance, getting closer. It was the Chief Stoker who had come up onto the soaked deck, kicking empty cartridge cases angrily out of his path, to find out why we hadn’t started the pump. “Effing stop loafing you two!” He uttered affectionately . Eventually we had two Rover Gas Turbine salvage pumps running in the hope we could pump out faster than the water was coming in, but all they were doing was recirculating the South Atlantic by drawing water through the 3 foot wide bomb entry hole and pumping it out again.
It took 40 hours, without sleep, to stabilise the effects of the damage & contain it fore and aft.
The next job was to plug the holes to the sea, remove as much fuel & water as possible, then hand over to the Fleet Clearance Diving team for the removal of the bomb. The shipwrights from Fearless came over to assist as we needed to cut an evacuation route in the deck of 3Ez mess , the PO's mess above then in the ship's side in the PO's mess. To cut the bomb route we had to strip the messdeck and PO's mess bare - the debris simply being 'float tested'.
We recovered the bodies as we began to pump out the magazine in earnest. They were placed in the paint shop right at the forward end of the ship, later handed over with due ceremony to HMS Plymouth, who did us the great honour of committing them to the deep.
There was a lot of anger and resentment on the lower decks regarding the loss of our shipmates and this flared-up particularly when we recovered the second body. One member of the ships company took it upon himself to "have a word" with the Captain. Perhaps fortunately, he stormed into the empty day cabin rather than the occupied night cabin and was intercepted by the POMA who was also Acting Master at Arms following the guys being shot-up on the flight deck on the day of the landings. Whether the Captain ever heard what was shouted about him I'll probably never know, but we hoped he did.
At the time of recovering our casualties, both our Hong-Kong Chinese laundrymen learned that in the event of an Exocet attack, the tactic was to turn the port quarter of the ship to face the incoming missile, to minimise the target area and limit the operational damage potential. Bearing in mind, it this point, we had no fresh water available for things like washing clothes, so it was not vital that they remained in that zone during the daily Action Stations.
The laundry was in the port quarter and needless to say, the laundry staff were understandably perturbed about this. They began a search to find somewhere out of harms way. As luck didn't have it, as no-one had thought to tell the poor chaps, they stumbled into our temporary mortuary. Needless to say, if they were worried before, they were even more worried now.
The Boiler Room crew escaped into the Tech Office directly above, tripping the boilers as they exited whilst the Boiler Room was filled with steam from a burst steam pipe, smashed by the bomb & flooded through the hole in the ships side on the waterline. The Chefs in the Galley managed to haul the Stokers through the escape hatch. One of them was a big lad, who we had always joked wouldn't have fitted through an escape hatch - he did with a bit of steam propulsion to help him on his way, broiling his backside. Everyone in the vicinity swore they felt their ears pop as he emerged.
Later-on the divers took out the whole missiles one by one, whilst the repair party picked up the bits & pieces, rather gingerly and lobbed them overboard. When the divers finished for the day, the magazine was then deliberately re-flooded. The operation took nearly a week, during which we were strafed & bombed on several occasions.
As the Chippy (shipwright) was cutting a hole in the deck in the PO’s mess an aircraft again strafed us, fully visible through the large hole in the side of the mess. Not surprisingly the Chippy dived for cover but the welding torch set fire to the diesel film that covered everything. The fire took about an hour and a half to extinguish – on top of the diesel flooded magazine with a UXB & damaged missiles under the surface. Nice
The firefighting team I was in had two hoses - a waterwall operator at the front, followed by the firefighter (me) and a team leader behind, driving the team forward. The "waterwall" is literally a flat disk of water emitting at 90 degrees from a fire hose to protect the fire-fighting team. The fire-fighter fires a jet (or more correctly "ragged spay") through the waterwall to extinguish the blaze. As we moved forward in the cramped passageway, the water-wall operator in the lead, was getting pretty hacked-off with me inadvertently bouncing the fire fighting jet of water off his head - I couldn't see him through the spray & smoke & thermal imaging cameras weren't used then. There was fire everywhere, with no discernible source. What we found out later was the explosive had leeched out of the missiles and the film of diesel covered the bulkheads – what we thought were salt crystals were actually explosive, hence the heat of the fire. The light fittings and cable insulation melted onto our heads as we moved forward. The only head protection we had was anti-flash, no comms in those days, the breathing apparatus (ICABA) lasted about 16 minutes, half that when you were breathing like a runaway locomotive with molten plastic dripping on your head. This was accompanied by bloody great blue flashes & resounding bangs as we passed each 440 volt transformer (foreground, bottom right in the picture) topped-up with water from the water-wall.
To round-off the “excitement” of a fire atop a diesel flooded missile magazine, as we passed the PO’s bunk-space advancing forward, a guy burst out of his section base dispersal point, completely disorientated, shouting rather excitedly, coughing and sputtering, but nonetheless rather pleased to see us. He made me jump out of my skin - wasn't expecting a loony. I grabbed him, pushed him behind us and shouted through the noise of the fire hoses “Follow our hoses out of the compartment”. We carried on. A few moments later he was back coughing and spluttering in my starboard lughole. Jeez, a 50-50 chance of following the fire-hoses in the right direction away from the big “orangey, flickery, hot thing” & he got it wrong! What a pain, can’t he see we’re bloody busy? Probably not. Passing my hose to the team leader, I squeezed past and encouraged him in the right direction literally kicking his butt time and again until he got through the smoke boundary door. Oddly, several years later, I met the guy again, whilst serving on HMS Boxer and he always thanked me profusely when the beer started flowing! Strange chap - my response being: “Anytime you want pointing in the right direction Vic, give me a shout, no worries”.
As I got back with the team, the whistles started sounding on the breathing apparatus and we began to withdraw as a team from aft arrived to take over. In those days, we only had about 8 BA sets & half a dozen spare air bottles. As I exited the door one of the officers, snatched my BA set, demanded a hot bottle change then decided to enter the smoke logged compartment by getting the upper-deck crews to lower him on a rope over the ships side, where he then swung through the hole cut into the ships’ side. As you do – doors weren't good enough for this bloke. His mission was to find out what was happening - he only needed to ask. To cap it off, he exited via the foc’sle hatch and went up to the bridge to debrief the Captain. Presumably, it ran along the lines of: “Erm lots of smoke & fire, sir. Very hot”.
The experts state that during an explosion you should open your mouth to equalise the pressure wave and protect your eyes - in reality you instinctively achieve this by screwing your eyes shut whilst screaming an expletive. Job done.
Around about this time we had a short visit from some Royal Marines SBS lads who had been in the thick of it. They were merely cross-decking and, now we had power restored, given the opportunity to have a hot shower and hot food by way of sustenance. They looked tired and one or two of them joined us for a smoke, a chance to relax a little. They didn't initially realise we still had a couple of unexploded bombs on board and were surprised how seemingly unperturbed we were about that state of affairs. "Worse things happen at sea, Royal" someone smiled. The special forces lads stated they felt they preferred being able to see the enemy and being able to shoot at them rather than stuck in a tin box, not knowing what was going on outside, with the chance of something crashing through the side at any moment. Until it was actually expressed, I hadn't thought of it this way, but they certainly had a valid point.
A day or so later the Chief Stoker decided he was going to have a play with a Ramset Gun to patch the waterline hole in the boiler room. The plan was to lower him over the ships side, on the end of a ‘man overboard’ strop, dressed in a diving suit, clutching an aluminium deck plate, which he was going to rivet over the entry hole with the Ramset explosive rivet Gun. In hindsight it is advised to use the smallest explosive cartridge first, rather than the biggest. As it was, a few rivets were blasted into the ship, clean through the deckplate & ships side and ricocheted, with a satisfying Cowboy Western movie “ping-ah” around the boiler room several times before the right sized charge was finally found. Enjoying himself, the loon with the ‘gun’ I could picture him tunelessly whistling the opening bars of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly after each ‘ker-bang-ping…ring-a-ding’:
“If an air attack comes in, Lads…” shouted the Chief Stoker, cheerily swinging on his bit of rope, looking upwards to the four of us holding onto him, the rope with a single turn on a cleat: “Just lower me gently into the water”. Next minute, the main broadcast crackled: “Air Raid Warning Red, Air Raid Warning Red” followed by a big splash about six feet beneath the place where the Chief Stoker had previously dangled. “ *******s” we heard him splutter and scream as we closed the screen door, hammering on the clips to get a bit of steel between ourselves, a brace of incoming aircraft and an angry Chief Stoker.
The focus then shifted to removing the magazine bomb – still “live” with its nose wedged inside a Seacat missile. It was decided to get as many people off the ship as possible during this operation due to the very real risk of explosion
HMS Fearless Landing craft lifted off 75% of Argonaut's crew, ferrying them onto HMS Fearless overnight, whilst the magazine bomb is removed from the forward magazine by the Fleet Clearance Diving Team. The remaining quarter of the ship's company (2nd of Port Watch) hoisted-the bomb in a series of pulleys from the flight-deck, whilst the bomb disposal team guided it through a series of holes cut through the ship by the Shipwrights from HMS Fearless. Two people had to stay below in the Boiler Room keeping the starboard boiler alive - the Petty Officer (Phil Phillips) &, as luck didn't have it, myself as a boiler-front stoker. A series of fuel chain tanks linked the boiler-room to the magazine, so if the bomb exploded, we probably wouldn't know much about it. Phil placed a couple of damage control wooden wedges on the deck. "What are they for?" I remember asking, puzzled. "Well, if that thing goes pop, they're my starting blocks- I want a head-start getting out of that hatch before you" smiled Phil reassuringly.
As the bomb was hoisted, the main broadcast (tannoy) was used to control the hoisting team. As it was lowered onto the waterline and the announcement made "Bomb on the water" a 'scare charge' (an explosive 14oz charge similar to a hand-grenade, but twice the size) exploded suddenly, very close by - they were used to deter attack divers planting limpet mines etc. Of a night, all ships protecting the beach head anchored in San Carlos (because the air threat of a night was diminished & limited to inaccurate high level bombing by Argentine Canberra aircraft) & we were potentially vulnerable to attack from divers. I beat Phil to the top of the hatch - no problem, just before the third 'o' in the "ker-boooooom" resounded..
Meanwhile, whilst we looked inward, licking our wounds, all around us, reports were coming in of other ships being hit. News coming-in wasn’t good. We were losing, it felt.
An aircraft dropping a bomb on Antelope clipped the main mast of Antelope and crashed (I think).
We went up on deck to watch Antelope steam silently into the anchorage, mast askew, black smudge on the ships’ side where the bomb had entered, killing a member of the ships company, but not exploding. Yet. We clapped and cheered her as she anchored-up awaiting the arrival of the Army bomb disposal team.
The 500lb bomb detonated whilst being defused by Staff Sergeant Jim Prescott CGM (RIP) Royal Engineers, who had defused Argonaut's boiler room bomb a few days days earlier. Agonaut’s boiler room bomb, after being rendered safe, was man-handled to the flight-deck. Eventually being rolled over the side after coming close to being hit by cannon fire once too often.
The fire on Antelope, following the initial explosion raged all night. We were anchored quite close, still crippled. The Royal Marines again came to our aid in their landing-craft and towed us to about 400 yards away from the blazing ship. They then went on to help lift off the crew from Antelope when the order was given to abandon. Argonauts whaler seaboat lifted-off about 21 of Antelopes crew. Eventuality the Seacat magazine exploded and the ship broke in two, sinking the next day.
Argonaut ablaze. The fire lasted about an hour and a half. The forward bomb evacuation hole, a rectangle cut into the Petty Officer’s Mess, can be seen just underneath the Exocet mounting, with fire-hoses draped down the ships’ side. The First Lieutenant climbed down a rope on the outside of the ship and swung himself into the PO’s mess to assess the blaze. Just forward of the Exocet, the SeaCat missile launcher can be seen with two live missiles nearside. Just aft of the Exocets, I think that's me, opening the foc'sle hatch so we could see what we were doing below decks. We then lifted the blisteringly hot oxygen & acetylene welding bottles stored on the focs'le and rolled them over the side.
Trouble is, the smoke which later billowed out obliterated visibility on the the bridge, and the rest of the ship... as discovered by the Sea King delivering extra breathing apparatus from HMS Fearless discovered. Wasn't me guv. Honest
I've never had much time for those of whom is said they saw combat but they "never talk about it". Odds are they maybe were never asked or possibly nowt happened worth mentioning, so less is more with regards kudos, if that's what they seek. Conversely, a bit like the Carlsberg ad: "Have you got any war stories Granddad?" "No, not really" The worry is perhaps if you ask, you cannot shut the boring sod up. For me, immediately after, my "decompression therapy" was talking about it, hence the fact all my family have permanently glazed expressions, poor buggers
Anyway, back to then: We eventually got steam up in the unaffected starboard boiler and were able to steam out toward the repair ship, Stena Seaspread, outside the TEZ, to the East of the islands. Frankly, they were brilliant. They could not do enough to help. The ship's company (crew) were largely RN and they were staggered by the damage and frustrated they were not fighting also. Had they asked at the time, I'd happily have offered a swap draft.
Eventually we started steaming North toward Ascension Island and home. The war still had a week or so to run, but the daily air threat to shipping was gone, or so we thought. We had steamed East a long way, out of the reach of the aircraft, almost as far away as the aircraft carriers and their escorts, just off the African continent One evening we were unexpectedly called to action stations at the rush - that sound of the main broadcast alarm still bloody haunts me as it jars on my nerves, casting my mind back. That, and the pervasive smell of diesel fuel. We had spent days wading around in the stuff and I swear it actually gets absorbed into your skin. I could still smell it after I got home for several days, no matter how much I washed.
The main broadcast crackled to life: "Air Red Red, Air Raid Red". We trudged rather than ran, utterly dejected after thinking we had finally, finally escaped with our lives. We hadn't. This was it. People could be heard retching with fear again. "Agave radar detected, sixty miles, closing from the West". No-one spoke, we didn't need to. We knew - Exocet. The ship went into a juddering turn to place the port beam toward the threat, we leant over with the ship, much as if riding pillion on a motorcycle sidecar, leaning the other way - getting the weight over the imaginary wheel. Odd that, never really thought about it, but you do just that on a ship at speed.
Then, completely unexpectedly, "Target splashed". The relief was phenomenal. Disbelief, dumbstruck, instant joy. Beer was needed. Burp.
What actually happened, I cannot fully recall, but believe the Etendard aircraft popped up for a radar sweep to acquire a target and a Type 21 frigate (Arrow?) was almost underneath, had the presence and speed of reaction to fire off a 4.5" shell, hit the target (!!!), the next round jamming in the breach. Jammy or what?
After that, we continued to arc North. One thing I do recall was the report - HMS Plymouth hit by several bombs. To a man, we wanted to go back to assist. Plymouth were our saviours, we owed them one. As it happened help was closer to hand so we continued North reluctantly.
Next thing to happen to me was better than winning a million pound lottery and luckier than being only a few yards from a bomb that should have killed many of of us...about a quarter of us had our names drawn out of a hat as we approached Ascension. We were being flown home! Advance leave party, with only a day's notice. It hadn't even occurred to me but the ticket was priceless.
We disembarked on a Mexifloat, blinking in the tropical sun, just a grip permitted for baggage. It was unreal. The VC10 also had some of the casualties from HMS Sheffield and Coventry, who were already on the aircraft.
On the flight, a group of us from the North had decided we would hire a minibus between us so we could get home. Obviously there was no communication with home, so we would arrive unannounced at 02:00 at RAF Brize Norton, have a kip until the car hire shop opened and be on our way in the morning.
A cheer went up as we landed and the pilot announced they hadn't missed the runway this time. We taxied toward the terminal, dead of night. The casualties were taken off first. In the building there were people, lots of people. Hundreds of people waving and cheering, cameras flashing. What?! It's 2am, no-one knows we are coming home. Were Michael Jackson & Elton John on the flight too? Nope.
As we entered the building, the base commander welcomed us all back in the terminal and said those fateful words "As far as I'm concerned, you've now cleared customs, lads". There was a resounding "bastard" muttered in unison. The Naval Regulators had warned us all not to buy any booze at Ascension as it would be confiscated upon arrival. The RAF, bless 'em, couldn't have cared less. Bugger. Seen off.
The group of Northerners got our bags and huddled together ready to make our exit through the waiting crowds and find somewhere to wait for the Hire place to open. The crowds would've been for the casualties, and rightly so.
Wrong, as we entered the arrivals hall, one by one the lads saw people they knew and peeled-off. And there, stood in front of me, unbelievably, was my Mum, tears streaming down her face. All she had seen up to that point were casualties, bless her, and I wasn't one of them.
Argonauts; Not Forgotten.