In April 1982 Philip Jones had just completed his Fleet Training as part of HMS Fearless’ operational sea training and spring deployment to the Caribbean and Norway; and was about to embark on the next stage of his naval officer’s career via the Fleet Board and Officer of the Watch course at HMS Dryad.
Instead, HMS Fearless was tasked to lead the Royal Navy’s amphibious fleet, and sailed from Portsmouth for the Falkland Islands on 6 April, the day after aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible sailed from the naval base.
A fleet of over 100 ships was sent thousands of miles south, in treacherous conditions complete with a landing force to liberate the Falkland Islands. The flotilla included two aircraft carriers, several passenger vessels requisitioned as troopships, and two amphibious sister ships, Fearless and Intrepid, equipped with eight of their own landing craft.
As an Acting Sub Lieutenant on board HMS Fearless, Sir Phil recalls a sense of willingness to put into practice the sea training the ship’s company had just completed:
“In early April, when the Royal Navy fleet left Portsmouth, the Haig shuttle diplomacy was still ongoing. Our departure felt like a gesture of our strength and ability to defend the islands, rather than deployment to war.
“However, throughout the duration of the voyage, the perspective changed, and it became clear that the action that the crew had trained for was to happen for real.”
HMS Fearless led the amphibious landing of Royal Marine and Parachute Regiment forces
HMS Fearless paused at the Ascension Islands while the task force assembled, and with efforts for a diplomatic solution at an end, she led the amphibious landing of Royal Marine and Parachute Regiment forces in San Carlos Bay on 21 May 1982.
When the Royal Navy fleet reached the Falklands, the Argentine navy had already withdrawn following the sinking of their cruiser General Belgrano by a British submarine with heavy loss of life. British ships were vulnerable to Argentine air attacks - destroyers Sheffield and Coventry, frigates Ardent and Antelope, and cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor were sunk and a host of vessels damaged by bombing raids.
Maritime warfare is a rare but graphic spectacle and the nation witnessed the war via the national news like never before - images of the Royal Navy’s ships in action, on fire and sinking bought home the horror of conflict.
On 8 June an air attack in Bluff Cove devastated the two Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram leading to dozens of deaths and 150 wounded.
Landing craft Foxtrot 4 was one of four landing craft units from HMS Fearless and was in Choiseul Sound on 8 June when she was hit by bombs from Argentine aircraft. Of the eight crew and nine Army personnel on board, six of the crew were killed. With the vessel crippled and sinking a radio call was sent out for help. A team of ten from HMS Fearless, now manning the Falkland Island Company vessel Monsunnen, with Acting Sub Lieutenant Jones as second in command, were sent to recover the vessel and equipment after a Sea King helicopter had airlifted the 11 survivors from the listing vessel.
After attempts to tow the craft proved futile she was left to drift and eventually sink, the wreckage has never been recovered.
Plaques to the six who died that day were put up on board HMS Fearless and on the Falkland Islands. Colour Sergeant Brian Johnston QGM; Marine Engineering Artificer 1st Class A.S. James; Sergeant R.J. Rotherham; Leading Marine Engineering Mechanic D. Miller; Marine R.D. Griffin and Marine A.J. Rundle are remembered every year by their families and current Royal Marines LCU crews of HMS Albion and Bulwark (the ships which replaced Fearless and Intrepid).
“It’s a visceral memory and a significant personal moment for me in the conflict - when all the training was tested. The armed forces ethos of ‘train hard - fight easy’ comes to mind and you find the ability to adapt to whatever circumstances befall you because you’ve trained, and trained, and trained to be able to respond and make decisions.
“It’s easy to reflect back on the Falklands conflict and think about what could have been done differently. It was a hugely risky operation to undertake, far away from home, in an extremely challenging environment, with significant supply issues, on the verge of a bitter South Atlantic winter. But there were many acts of heroism and bravery and stories to tell which demonstrate the courage and quality of the service people involved.”
“The Argentinian forces were comprised of conscripts, poorly trained, under resourced and with less invested in their cause than the British forces who had a clear cause and mission to liberate the British people living on the Falkland Islands.
“The moral component is a driving force in war not to be underestimated. We were fighting for a piece of home - albeit on the other side of the globe.”
While the circumstances differ greatly, there are parallels from the efforts at the dockyard in Portsmouth in 1982 to prepare the fleet to sail to Falkland Islands with the effort and show of strength of the Carrier Strike Group deployment last year; the rapid preparation of HMS Prince of Wales in her role as NATO flagship; and a number of other warships to deploy at short notice to join NATO maritime forces in the Baltic, Norwegian and Mediterranean Seas which coincided with the invasion of Ukraine in February.
There’s huge pride within BAE Systems in our role in preparing the Royal Navy for deployment and in our ability to provide forward support to the fleet. This role is critical today and was certainly true in 1982. A plaque at Portsmouth Naval Base commemorates the part dockyard workers played in supporting the nation’s Falklands endeavours.
HMS Fearless’ homecoming to Portsmouth
Another vivid memory for Sir Phil was HMS Fearless’ homecoming to Portsmouth on 21 July 1982. The victorious flotilla received a hero’s welcome with thousands welcoming the ships back from war.
“HMS Fearless sailed through the dockyard to moor up at Fountain Lake Jetty - all the ships along the way were lined with people cheering our safe return.
“My mum, dad, sister and girlfriend were there when I got off the ship and I will never forget that day. The scene was one of jubilation and celebration. While most of the 500-plus staff on board Fearless returned, the six men who were lost when Foxtrot 4 was hit didn’t.
It’s with those who made the ultimate sacrifice and their families that my thoughts will rest
“It’s with those who made the ultimate sacrifice and their families that my thoughts will rest in June, when we commemorate the end of the conflict.
“The bond that Fearless’ ship’s company who fought in the Falklands share endures. At the end of May we gathered for a reunion in Portsmouth and, the next day with other veterans, for a parade and service in Gosport, to commemorate those extraordinary three months forty years ago, and to remember those who paid the ultimate price for victory, but who will never be forgotten.”