HMS Hermes David Carrier Strike.

My war in the Falklands with Admiral Woodward

HMS Hermes David Carrier Strike.

Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Farrow served as a staff officer to Admiral Sandy Woodward during the Falklands War.

From the specialist position of supporting the man in charge from the Command Room onboard HMS Hermes, the details of his war are those that seldom get told. Understandably, the limelight of battle is always focused on the men fighting on the ground. But in concentrating on the face-to-face action, so much from behind the scenes has been overlooked. Until now.

Part One of Malcolm Farrow's story deals with the journey south, the planning that commenced in the Operations Room under Admiral Woodward, and the trepidation of the Task Force's imminent war.

Lt Cdr Malcolm Farror
Lt Cdr Malcolm Farrow.

By Malcolm Farrow

This is my personal reflection on the Falkland Islands War of 1982 and its immediate aftermath. It is written almost 40 years later. It is primarily based on my memory of the events at the time, together with the very few and very sketchy, contemporary notes I made.

I was a Lieutenant Commander back then and 38-years-old, and I had been in the Royal Navy for just over 20 years.  

As Flag Officer First Flotilla (known as FOF1), Admiral Woodward was one of three sea-going Admirals in those days. Together with his staff, he embarked in various ships from time to time to exercise his flotilla at sea. When not afloat, our shore offices were in a converted 17th-century house in a row known as 'The Parade' in Portsmouth Naval base, built originally for dockyard officers such as the Master Shipwright and Master Rigger. When under missile attack later, it was sometimes calming to reflect on the beautiful roses in the summer garden behind our HQ back in Portsmouth. The scent of those old roses was wonderful. 

I regret that I did not keep a detailed daily record, but it never entered my head to do so. Each day elided into the next in a seamless murky gloom, interspersed with regular moments of alarm, excitement and high adrenalin. It is also true that a lot of what we, the staff, were involved in was very highly classified.

This story recalls the small part I played as a member of the Maritime Task Group Commander's staff during the Royal Navy's last – and very possibly final – major sea battle. As far as I know, apart from Admiral Sandy's book, no other member of the staff has written about their experiences.

My story is about people, not politics, and it begins in the middle of April 1982.

Each year the Navy conducted a major sea exercise called Springtrain, often based at Gibraltar, to practice evolutions and exercise ships' companies in a realistic war-like scenario. Frequently, ships from other NATO nations joined in. The three sea-going Flag Officers took it in turns to run this annual exercise, embarked in a chosen flagship for the period, along with their staff officers. In 1982, it just happened to be the turn of Sandy Woodward. Thus, we had left England on Wednesday, 17 March in our flagship for the exercise, HMS Antrim, commanded by Captain Brian Young.  

After a couple of weeks running the exercise from HMS Antrim, the increasingly bellicose noises emanating from Buenos Aries caused our Admiral to make preparations for a possible venture further south, whilst at the same time continuing to run the exercise. Before any directive came from the UK to do so, we felt it to be a seamanlike precaution. On Sunday, 4 April, the Admiral decided to shift his flag to HMS Glamorgan, commanded by Captain Mike Barrow as part of this preparatory phase. This was because Glamorgan had been more recently worked up by the sea training staff at Portland and had a better communications fit.

Malcolm Farrow. Credit: MF
Malcolm Farrow today (Picture: MF

After sailing from Gib' on Monday, 29 March, we had been operating west of the Straits with about 20 ships for a few days. On Friday, 2 April, we heard that Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands. We were still trying to run Exercise Springtrain. Still, soon the changes to the exercise programme were arising faster than we could communicate them to the assembled ships. Indeed, as a watch-keeping exercise planner, I was eventually unable to keep up with the changes. I was on-watch Exercise Planner at one o'clock in the morning when the first Flash signal arrived.

It was perhaps an encouraging coincidence that we were located not very far from Cape Trafalgar when it happened, although I did not appreciate this at the time. On 7 April, we were copied into the initial directive from the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, to the Commander in Chief Fleet at Northwood Naval Headquarters, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse.

If I recall correctly, it simply said, 'Land on the Falklands and recover possession'.  

A pretty clear directive. That same day, the Ministry of Defence informed NATO and all British forces worldwide that: 

"The overall aim of HMG in the current situation is to bring about the withdrawal of Argentine forces from the Falkland Islands and dependencies, and the re-establishment of British administration there as quickly as possible. Military deployments and operations are directed to support this aim."

A major naval force was quickly dispatched from the UK to rendezvous with us. We turned south from Gibraltar and headed towards Ascension Island, where we arrived in time for Easter Sunday. 

One of the first things to happen was the removal of all non-UK citizens from our ships. This meant that invaluable Australian and American warfare officers on loan service were sent kicking and screaming back home. This caused great upset; they were intrinsic parts of various ships' companies and earnestly wished to remain with their shipmates, but the politicians insisted. One RN officer was an instructor on loan to the Naval College in the Netherlands when the war began. On one of his courses there was an Argentinean student. Our man immediately asked the Ministry of Defence what he should do. He was told to stay put and see if he could garner any intelligence. I would have no idea if he managed to or not.

The problem of loan service officers ran throughout the Fleet. When a unit of Royal Marines embarked onboard one of the ships coming out to join us, it included a US Marine Corps officer on exchange. He knew very well he should not be there. Still, by keeping his mouth shut and removing his badges, and with his Royal Marine colleagues covering up for him, he hung on but was discovered after a few days.

Out in the Atlantic, the Captain's day cabin in HMS Glamorgan was quickly turned into the Admiral's staff planning room. Admiral Sandy had by now been transformed into Commander Task Group 317.8. The entire South Atlantic battle group (sea, land, and air) was designated Task Force 317. At the same time, the enterprise was named Operation Corporate. Plywood boards were fixed over the cabin's large forward-facing windows. We pinned planning charts, maps, task group command diagrams and endless lists.

We sat around the polished wooden dining table in Glamorgan dressed in our tropical white shorts and sandals, discussing what we would have to do to recapture the Islands. We read Jane's Fighting Ships to get a feel for the Argentine threat. We thought about the ships and aircraft we would need to support us and the military units who would have to land and fight hand to hand. We worried a great deal about the approaching autumn in the Islands and our timeline to complete our mission before winter set in. We thought about our logistic backup and the immense distances involved. None of us on the staff had ever been that far south. Most of us had spent the past several years facing the Soviet Navy during the Cold War in northern waters close to home. 

This is not the place for politics, but Captain Nick Barker of HMS Endurance warned the authorities in Whitehall for a long time about Argentina's assumed intentions. It was based on his experience sailing around Antarctica and South America in his bright red ice patrol ship and his conversations with the many people in the area, including in Argentina and Chile.

He was disgracefully ignored and side-lined by Whitehall and Westminster. The sad result was the invasion we now had to counter. This lack of understanding in Whitehall remains a mystery to me. 

In 1983 Margaret Thatcher wrote her own memoir of the war. It describes her dealings with retired General Al Haig, the US Secretary of State, as he attempted shuttle diplomacy. She mentions how she asked him if the US government had had any indications of an invasion, inferring that her government was taken entirely by surprise. Well, if someone had only listened to Nick Barker, it would not have been a surprise.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher talks to BBC Panorama interviewers Richard Lindley and Robert Kee a the programme regarding the Falklands War 260482 CREDIT PA Alamy Stock Photo_0.jpg
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher talks to BBC Panorama interviewers Richard Lindley and Robert Kee a the programme regarding the Falklands War 260482 CREDIT PA Alamy

At this early stage, in early April, the Fleet Headquarters at Northwood had not yet fully geared up, so we were running by the seat of our pants. We sent signal after signal to the staff of the Commander in Chief, who by then was also the overall Commander Task Force 317, asking for more and more assets. I can distinctly recall sitting at the Admiral's dining table in Glamorgan, making out a list of what I considered essential. I included the Royal Marines, the Parachute Regiment, and the Ghurkhas – pretty obvious, really. Along with lots of others, they all came through in the end. These demands were sent back to Northwood in an increasing flow of ever more detailed signals. We also began thinking about deception plans to fool Argentina of our immediate tactical intentions – that was something else I took on.

A broadcast was made to the ship's company of Glamorgan asking if anyone onboard had ever been to the Falkland Islands and did anyone have a map. A young Royal Marines officer appeared at the cabin door, saying he had been there. I remember us poring over his map with the Admiral looking for likely places to land an amphibious force and discussing them with him based on his knowledge of the islands.

I have a feeling that in the end, we did select the place, San Carlos, which was the eventual landing site. 

But this was right at the very beginning, and it was not long before significant strategic planning. In particular, land operations planning was assumed by Northwood, and we concentrated on maritime operations after that.

A large number of military people with less than demanding jobs back home felt they could contribute and wanted to take part. They wangled themselves leave and hitched a lift on an aircraft to Ascension Island, intent on offering their services to any passing ship or unit that could use them.

Full marks for initiative and enthusiasm. Many did get to play a valuable role in that way. Still, it became overheated, and Ascension Island ran out of transit accommodation. It got to the point that the naval officer who had been put in charge of the island, Captain Bob McQueen, took to standing at the bottom of the ladder as passenger aircraft from the UK landed at Wideawake Airfield and asking new arrivals where they were going. If they waffled something about being a volunteer, he put them right back on the plane to return to the UK. 

Ascension Island map
The mid-Atlantic geography of Ascension Island proved invaluable to Britain during the Falklands War. Credit: Google Maps

Wideawake was leased to the United States at the time and run by Pan Am. Still, they back-loaned it to us. It was soon one of the busiest airports in the world, with hundreds of flights a day, including continual helicopter short hops from ships circling the island. There is no harbour at Ascension, nor even a proper anchorage. Running Ascension Island efficiently was absolutely crucial to our operations 4,000 miles further south. Bob McQueen was appointed CBE in the Falklands honours list in October 1982 for the faultless operations of our invaluable logistic base.

By 15 April, the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes, commanded by Captain Linley (Lin) Middleton, together with HMS Invincible, commanded by Captain Jeremy Black – invariably known by his initials JJ Black – arrived at Ascension Island along with several other ships. Invincible was much newer – just completed, in fact – but the aged and much larger Hermes was the best-suited ship to be flagship for the significant fleet action we expected.

Hermes was the last of the Centaur class light fleet carriers, laid down in 1944 when I was just one and launched in 1953. She had served the nation very well for 34 years by the time she was sold to India in 1986, becoming INS Viraat.

She was only finally decommissioned by the Indian Navy on 6 March 2017.

On Thursday, 15 April 1982, Rear Admiral Woodward embarked in HMS Hermes off Ascension Island along with the dozen or so members of his full-time operational staff, which of course included me.

Immediately we started serious planning for war. We left HMS Glamorgan, shifted all our stuff by helicopter onboard our third flagship, and changed into a more war-like rig of action working dress – basically a sailor's working rig. In fact, I wore an old policeman's shirt throughout much of the war. It was about the right shade of blue but was easier to wash and dry than the heavier naval version.

HMS Hermes

I was allocated a pokey little cabin well below the waterline in the aft end of Hermes. Still, after a short while, sleeping below the waterline was banned because of the potential threat of a submarine torpedo attack. By then, Hermes already contained far more people than bunks, and so there was a mad scramble by dozens of the newer arrivals to find somewhere to nest. Some made themselves hammocks to sling between overhead pipes in passageways. Others took the camp bed route in a nook or cranny. Admiral Sandy told his staff that we could use his main cabin down aft, just above the waterline, as our messdeck.

Before we left Ascension Island, the Commander in Chief, Admiral Fieldhouse, flew from the UK to see Admiral Woodward. He also talked to the Commanding Officers of the assembled ships and briefed us all. He had a sombre message, and we started to realise that some of us would not be coming back. We had no time to reflect on this or worry about it because serious strategic and operational planning had to get underway.

On our way south, we were regularly observed by Soviet Air Force Bear reconnaissance planes that snooped around us most days and by a Boeing 707 and a Hercules from Argentina. 

We were always conscious of Russian satellite surveillance and nervous that Soviet Intelligence might find its way to General Galtieri. We deployed lots of radar reflecting aluminium – known as chaff – whenever the aircraft appeared, and during the daily Soviet reconnaissance satellite passes, to fool them into thinking we had more ships than we did. During the war, the Task Force used an immense amount of chaff both as a deception tool and to distract incoming missiles. It undoubtedly saved many lives. Excellent work for Chemring Ltd of Romsey in Hampshire who made it; they must have been going non-stop. I wish I had bought some shares...

Falklands Map
The Falklands. Credit: Google Maps

We also set an initial course direct for Argentina to give the enemy something else to worry about – were we going to attack their mainland? At several thousand miles range, the angular difference between Buenos Aeries and Port Stanley was not great enough to upset our plans at that very early stage. 

By the time we got to the Falkland Islands and began patrolling our 200-mile total exclusion zone, Admiral Sandy's staff had increased to about forty specialists in all manner of subjects. If we needed a specialist, we either sent for one from home, and miraculously they arrived sooner or later, or we nabbed one from within the ships present. No paperwork was needed.

The Admiral's job was to direct the war at sea and in the air, whilst Brigadier Julian Thompson RM and then General Jeremy Moore RM directed the war on land. Getting the vast number of embarked troops safely ashore in the amphibious phase was the responsibility of the Commodore Amphibious Warfare, Commodore Mike Clapp.

Mike was my 'boss' many years previously when he was the Commander (2nd in Command) of HMS Norfolk, doing Exocet trials in the Mediterranean. I was the Communications Officer, and we spent six months based at Toulon. There was some degree of irony to having witnessed the first successful firing of Exocet by a British ship off Toulon and now being the target for Argentinean Exocets off Port Stanley.

After a detailed reconnaissance phase by Special Forces, SAS and SBS, supported by patrolling ships and aircraft, the time to re-invade eventually arrived. On Friday, 21 May at 06:30, the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment landed at San Carlos. The recapture of the Islands began in earnest.


Part Two of Malcolm's behind the scenes perspective on the Falklands War includes his reaction to the loss of ships and aircraft, the respect held for the Argentine Air Force, the Task Force's experience of returning to England as heroes, and a catch-up with the retired Royal Navy man today.

Watch out for part two on soon.

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