Falklands War: 'I felt disbelief combined with knowledge of the inevitable. That was one of our colleagues'
Part Two of Lt. Cdr Malcolm Farrow's fascinating story of his war in the Falklands as a staff officer to Admiral Sandy Woodward begins in the immediacy of the tragic loss of HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982. If you missed part one, it is available here.
By Malcolm Farrow
I was on watch when HMS Sheffield was struck by Exocet. I listened on my headphones to the anguished chatter on the radio net as that terrible event unfolded.
The first call was from one of the helicopters I had placed on the protective screen around Hermes. He said smoke was spouting out of Sheffield, and maybe it was a bomb or a torpedo. Helicopters closed in on the stricken ship to investigate. The cause was initially uncertain but was soon determined as a missile attack, and that meant Exocet. My job was to release the screening helicopters to assist while maintaining the screen. Was there still a lurking submarine out there? As time went on and the word was received from Sheffield of her desperate state, a full-scale rescue operation began to take off her people. I am sure many of them were brought to Hermes, but that was the task of the ship and not the staff. We had to keep our eye on the broader strategic situation without being diverted. In time, Sheffield's Captain, Captain Sam Salt, came to report to the Admiral.
He entered the Ops Room dressed in his anti-flash gear, looking thoroughly shocked.
My position faced the door directly. He knew me, and I think he was glad to see a face he knew. He came over and spoke to me and drew me a quick sketch of what he thought had occurred before reporting to the Admiral on the other side of the room. Sam Salt was a fine officer and eventually became an Admiral himself.
By the end of the first week of the war, in addition to the loss of HMS Sheffield, we lost HM Ships Ardent and Antelope. They were both sunk by bombs. HM Ships Glasgow, Argonaut, and Antrim had also been damaged. By then, we had lost four Harriers and five helicopters and about 60 men.
At the very start of hostilities, as the first air raid was about to be launched from Hermes, I had come across Lieutenant Commander Neil Thomas and the other Harrier pilots of the Fleet Air Arm in a passageway en-route to the briefing room. They were removing the faded rank epaulettes from their flying suits and putting on smart new ones. I asked why, and they said that if they are going to war - and may not return - they would go looking smart. It was a very poignant encounter.
But they did all come back. That was the raid made famous by the reporter Brian Hanrahan, whose quote, "I counted them all out and I counted them all back", later became the title of his book. He counted the aircraft, but I counted the pilots.
One of the major challenges for the Admiral in the initial stages was achieving the correct rules of engagement (ROE) in the fast-moving political situation. A considerable amount of discussion took place between the flagship and Northwood HQ on this subject. At what point could our ships and aircraft open fire? ROE seemed to define our very existence on the staff for quite some time, especially in the lead up to open hostilities. ROE is never an easy subject and always fraught with ambiguities and the possibility of misinterpretation. War is not a simple business.
One day in mid-May, I escaped from the Ops Room for a few minutes and found myself outside the ship's chart room in which the Navigating Officer was poring over his charts. I asked him where we were, and he showed me the track and then said that he had just been asked where we would be in a few hours because some people were 'arriving'.
He meant that a Hercules would arrive overhead after travelling 4,000 miles from Ascension Island. Reinforcements for the Special Forces would be parachuting into the sea, to be picked up by a helicopter and brought on board.
This was no mean feat in the freezing South Atlantic in a war zone and not at all like a training exercise off the British coastline. These folks comprised the SAS team, which, shortly after arriving, landed by helicopter in Tierra del Fuego to destroy the Exocet carrying Super Etendards at Rio Grande air station. This mission sadly did not come off as planned. The SAS team and helicopter crew had to escape on foot into Chile.
A better moment was on May 15. I was on watch when Major Cedric Delves, the SAS detachment commander, returned to the Ops Room to report to the Admiral after his highly successful raid on Pebble Island. The raiding party had been infiltrated by helicopters from the carriers several hours before, and we had waited nervously for their return. I can still see the Ops Room door open - probably at around two in the morning - and a battle-worn major entering. That boosted morale considerably. He was later awarded the DSO in the Falkland Honours List in October. I came across Cedric again during the First Gulf War when he was the Director of Special Forces. He retired several years later as a knighted Lieutenant General.
Once a day, I would venture up vertical ladders to a small deck area and out onto a windswept platform to get a few minutes' fresh air or watch the Harriers take off or land. It was invariably grey and cold and usually wild. More often than not, the sea was raging, and the ships around us moved up and down horribly. After long hours within the ship's confines, it was wonderful to feel the fresh air and get a sense of the world outside. I never stayed there long - too jolly cold. But goodness, I was glad to be in the stable platform of Hermes. Even Invincible, the other, smaller aircraft carrier, sometimes took it green over the bows. At the same time, the destroyers and frigates often rode a roller coaster of waves.
A terrible moment came on May 23 at about 2300, when watching a bombing raid of our Harriers take off into the night. We were some 90 miles off Port Stanley at the time. The last of the Harriers lifted off and flew away into the murk, but I saw a fireball in the sky ahead of the ship a few seconds later.
It could only be one thing.
I felt disbelief combined with knowledge of the inevitable. That was one of our colleagues - probably someone I knew, and almost certainly now dead. It was a hell of a shock. I returned to the Ops room with a heavy heart and discovered it was Lieutenant Commander Gordon (Gordy) Batt. I had known of him, but not directly. There was no possibility of finding him. The incident had taken place just a short distance directly ahead of our fast-moving ship, in the pitch dark in the middle of an action. The ship would have gone right over any wreckage within minutes. Despite a search, he was never found. He was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross for his outstanding flying earlier in the conflict. I can still see that flash in the sky today, and it still bothers me. Indeed, I was walking over Vauxhall Bridge in London on Remembrance Day at precisely 11 am on November 11, 2010, when all the traffic stopped, and the city went silent. I stood to attention, looking over the river, and saw that flash in the sky above the water again. It was a very sombre moment of reflection.
We had the media embedded with us, spread around the fleet, and much has been written about the fractious relationship we had with some of them. Neither Admiral Sandy nor any of us had any experience working with the media. As things would turn out, our relationship would get much better as the conflict progressed. However, they had plenty of initiative. On May 29, as if by magic, a BBC TV engineer called Mark Singleton appeared unannounced in the Ops Room with five electronic equipment boxes and wanted to use our satellite channel to get real-time news back home. Somehow, he had managed to get himself 8,000 miles from the UK to the Exclusion Zone onboard Hermes by hitching lifts in all manner of aircraft and ships without anyone stopping him or telling us. Sadly for him, we were not having any of it, despite it being technically possible to achieve. Our satellite communications were sparse, rudimentary, and very overloaded, and so he was sent packing. I assume he made his way home somehow, with or without his kit.
On one occasion during my watch in the Ops Room, suddenly, the calm was broken with a possible submarine contact reported by a frigate on the screen. The Group Warfare officer turned the high-value units away. I sent a couple of helicopters to investigate the bearing. Other aircraft were scrambled to take off. A few depth charges were dropped to classify the contact, but, as usual, it faded and, I am afraid we spoiled the night for a poor whale yet again. I felt sorry for the whales. We seemed to be on one of their migration routes, and any submarine around would take advantage of that, of course. In the end, we never did encounter a serious submarine threat to the main force, but we could not take that for granted at the time. One torpedo hitting Hermes would have changed the outcome of the war.
The Argentine pilots were incredibly courageous, and we had great respect for them. Still, they were no match for our Harriers if we could get an intercept.
They and we had a 'time on task' problem with aircraft endurance to contend with, which restricted both our options. In the Argentinean case, they were a long way from base with little time to attack us before returning home, but they only had to find a target and attack it.
Our second flagship right at the beginning - HMS Glamorgan - was often used to bombard enemy shore positions with her guns. At the time of the war, her navigating officer was Lieutenant Commander Ian Inskip - another old friend who joined Dartmouth with me in 1962. He was under threat of court-martial due to Glamorgan hitting an uncharted reef in the Indian Ocean several weeks earlier and denting one of her propellers.
Whilst bombarding the Port Stanley area one day, Glamorgan was targeted by a shore-based Exocet. Only Ian's swift reaction altering course saved the ship from possible destruction. Even so, she was hit a glancing blow, and Ian was then instrumental in damage limitation.
He was appointed MBE after the war, and his court-martial was very sensibly cancelled. Later he published a book about his experience. Very sadly, Ian died in 2016. He was a fine officer.
One day, radar indicated a raid, possibly comprised of a couple of Super Etendards carrying Exocet, was about to occur. This was serious, and the next few minutes were pretty tense. Then a destroyer on the screen got a brief radar contact and electronic intercept of Handbrake radar. Unusually, it was from the northeast - raids usually came from the west. This had all the makings of an Exocet attack, but our Harriers on combat air patrol were too far away to engage. Sure enough, though, a weapon launch was detected. The Etendards turned for home, and the missiles were loose.
Suddenly a helicopter on the screen reported smoke coming from Atlantic Conveyor, commanded by Captain Ian North, a vast container ship two or three miles up threat from Hermes. That ship was eventually sunk, and Captain North tragically drowned.
The three Chinook and six Wessex helicopters lost were a severe logistic setback. Thank goodness we had transferred the fourteen Harriers to Hermes before she was hit. The loss of that ship was a massive setback for us and could have had even more severe consequences if the war lasted longer, and her stores were even more urgently needed than they were. The loss of the helicopters meant the land forces would have to yomp all the way across East Falkland to Port Stanley instead of being lifted by helicopter. It caused the logistic planners to reconsider how to make do ashore and afloat without all the critical stores she carried.
I was on watch the night the helicopter carrying a SAS troop crashed into the sea inexplicably, killing all onboard. It was either a bird strike, or the pilot simply lost his appreciation of height in the murk. I saw the radar echo fade and again heard the distraught exchanges on the net. That was a dreadful moment. The helicopter's radar return suddenly disappeared from our screens with no explanation, and it could only mean one thing. It was pitch dark and rough. There was no realistic possibility of carrying out a detailed search for possible survivors. The other helicopters on the screen were frantically exchanging information and questions, but of course, nothing came of it. These were very sombre moments.
By early June, it seemed we were making real progress ashore. A bilingual Pase de Salvo Conducto (Safe Conduct Pass), signed by Admiral Woodward, was distributed by airdrop over the islands. It was written in both Spanish and English:
"The soldier who bears this pass has signalled his desire to cease fighting. He is to be treated strictly in accordance with the Geneva Convention and is to be evacuated from the area of operations as soon as possible. He is to be given food and medical treatment if he requires it and is then to be held in a place of shelter to await repatriation."
A supportive message from the exiled Governor Rex Hunt to the islanders was similarly distributed, wishing them well and giving encouragement.
Then on June 11, General Moore, as Commander Land Forces, signalled his troops in advance of the battle for Port Stanley.
He ended his message with: the Navy has got us here and will, as you know, continue to give all the support it can. May God go with you.
The Admiral responded to General Moore's message: On this eve of your main battle we afloat share your hopes and determination for a swift and successful outcome. May your aim be true. See you in Port Stanley.
We did indeed intend to support them to our utmost capability.
Their aim was most certainly true, and on June 14, at one minute to 9pm local time, the enemy surrendered. You might imagine this momentous event would be very well fixed in my memory, but it is not. I suggest the reason is that we had been at it for over two months in an unforgiving endless grind within our enclosed Ops Room and were completely punch drunk. Also, white flags flying in Stanley did not necessarily guarantee the Argentine Air Force was not strapping another Exocet onto a Super Etendard and heading our way.
On the evening of June 14, it was pleasing to receive a signal from Admiral Fieldhouse, the Commander of the Task Force back home, which said:
The Prime Minister has asked me to pass to you her personal congratulations on your outstanding victory.
The land forces took 11,400 prisoners after the surrender, and all were eventually repatriated by our merchant ships. In the main, they had been treated appallingly by their own officers. Many were reluctant to leave our care.
Many of the Argentinean soldiers were simple people of low education. They had been told all manner of gory tales about how we - and especially how the Ghurkhas and Paras - would treat them. Many were astonished not to be welcomed by the Falkland Islanders with open arms as their saviours from the so-called British imperial aggressors! There was a real danger that hundreds of Argentine soldiers could have died of malnutrition, hypothermia, or disease had they not ceased hostilities when they did. You did not hear much about that side of things from Buenos Aires when Mrs Kirchner, the Argentine president (2007- 2015), was banging on about her spurious claim to the islands.
Landing back in Blighty should have been a moment for wild enthusiasm. But if we were wrung out before we started our journey home, imagine how we felt after the best part of two days of uncomfortable travelling. Arriving at RAF Brize Norton, we were herded like zombies into the customs area, where an officious RAF NCO told us to wait for customs clearance! Meanwhile, our families could be seen through the glass doors just a few feet away. Huge hugs, massive smiles, wonderful relief, but a culture shock again. And then, we separated from the group we had been in ever since April and individually embarked on the final stage of our journey home. I eventually arrived home at about 8 pm, after travelling for around 28 hours, and with my brain still on watch in the exclusion zone 8,000 miles away.
The Falkland Islands service in St Paul's Cathedral on July 26, attended by the Queen and Prince Philip, was a time to reflect in the company of so many who had been involved. There were also some badly wounded people there, and seeing them reminded me how lucky I had been. I took a week's holiday with my family at Bala in Wales – one of many holidays very kindly donated by the public to members of the Task Force. It was a lovely and peaceful place. It was there that I think I began to calm down a bit.
To our great delight, Rear Admiral Woodward was knighted on October 11, 1982, together with Major General Jeremy Moore. Then on October 12, the Lord Mayor of London honoured the Task Force with a march through the City where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took the salute. This was followed by lunch in the Guildhall, where the PM spoke. It was a great experience to march through London with huge crowds cheering. 25 years later, I mustered with my fellow South Atlantic medal holders on Horse Guards Parade as we all marched up the Mall behind Admiral Lord West. Will I be following Alan West for a third time through London on the 50th anniversary in 2032 at the grand age of 88? I very much doubt it, but you never know
Having left the Navy in 1996 in the rank of Commander, I re-joined in 1999 in the rank of Captain to be the director of the International Festival of the Sea in 2001. A year later, Prince Charles graciously pinned an OBE to my chest, which was a great honour.
I hope none of our Overseas Territories are ever invaded by anyone else; they will be on their own if they are. In the 21st Century, India and China understand the importance of maritime power projection, and both nations have taken up the mantle we let slip. It was an honour to serve at sea with the last British Admiral who will surely ever fight a significant Royal Navy fleet action. Such household names now include Drake, Hawke, Hood, Nelson, Jellicoe, Cunningham, and Woodward.
BFBS Catches Up With Malcolm Farrow Today
Malcolm's story of victory in the Falklands War from the viewpoint of the Operations Room is a unique perspective of a conflict which, as he described, could well be the last time a British Admiral commands a naval Fleet into battle.
Nowadays, Malcolm keeps himself busy with ASDIC - the Association Of Ex-Service Drop-in Centres - and other interests immediately linked to his career in the military. One of those other roles is President of the Flag Institute, an influential position in the go-to organisation for vexillology.
We caught up with Malcolm to discuss his story and find out more about his life since leaving the Royal Navy.
Where did your interest in flags originate?
While travelling the world, I used to pick up keepsakes to hand out gifts upon my return. On one such occasion, I picked up a small flag of the place I was visiting, and my interest stemmed from there. That's when I began collecting various types of flags, and today I sit as President of the Flag Institute. We have just celebrated our 50th anniversary as an organisation.
What do you remember about Admiral Woodward and how he dealt with bad news, such as the loss of Sheffield?
He dealt with bad news the way the rest of us did … we all gulped and carried on. I was listening to Sheffield being hit over my headphones. I thought, "oh my God," and then I got on with it. Later, when you get off watch, you have a chance to collect your thoughts and think about them. Another very bad moment was the Harrier, which I saw go down shortly after takeoff on May 23, which was shocking. There were several others too
You mentioned in the article that the Task Force may have represented the last occasion a British Admiral commands a Fleet into battle. What do you base that on?
Times and technology have changed hugely since the Falklands which was the last gasp of a World War Two type of campaign and we no longer have the military capability or political will to engage in anything like that alone again.
Yes, we have HM Ships Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, but I'd be surprised if we were able to run both ships for 20 years. I hope I'm wrong. If it were down to me, I would position one of those two great ships in the Eastern hemisphere and the other in the West. By basing one in, say, Australia, it could be used as a Commonwealth vessel, constantly seen operating in the region with a multi-national ship's company of Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and British sailors. It could do the soft diplomacy work of all those governments. I am all for CANZUK.
Would that be fair on the British taxpayer, though, who footed the bill for both carriers?
Sunk costs are sunk costs. These people are our closest friends and relatives, running costs could be proportional to national usage and it would be a sensible use of the hardware.
It's a good idea. Have you been able to make your thoughts known to the Ministry of Defence or Foreign Office?
I'm pretty sure this has not been mooted seriously by anybody but me, but I have written a couple of articles about it and mention it quite a lot.
Where do you see the Royal Navy at the moment? Where is the onus of its relevance?
The Royal Navy needs its moment. Like in 1982, it needs its moment in the spotlight again. The Army had Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is time for the Royal Navy to demonstrate its relevance. Because it is relevant. Often, people forget that members of the Royal Navy were heavily involved in those conflicts of the last decade, too, especially the Royal Marines. A Royal Navy medic achieved a Military Cross in Afghanistan, for example. But, I can't quite see how the Service will have that spotlight moment without another Falklands-type emergency. And I am not sure that will ever happen.