RMS St Helena and the Falkland War

When Britain and Argentina were in conflict over the Falkland Islands in 1982 the Royal Mail Ship St Helena was requisitioned to join the conflict when she completed a regular voyage to Avonmouth.

RMS St Helena was the mail ship usually tasked with taking supplies to the remote South Atlantic Island of St Helena. This isolated spot had been the place chosen for the final exile of Napoleon Bonaparte following his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, a place where he befriend our ancestor William Balcombe and a place we visited in 2010. It is a small volcanic pimple, just 10½ miles by 6¾ miles in size, dark and brooding, like layers of chocolate ice-cream slurping down precipitous cliffs to the cold water, but no gentle beaches here, it is uncompromising, stark and barren.[1] Betsy Balcombe called it a dark coloured ark [2] and James Prior, a visitor in 1814 described it as a vast mass of rock jagged and irregular, cut and slashed as it were into pieces by the great hatchet of nature. [3] Supplies for St Helena have to arrive by ship…. the airport is due to be completed in 2016 …. but until it opens the RMS St Helena was and is the island’s lifeline.

RMS St Helena was requisitioned by the British Government and volunteers from the ship’s Merchant Navy Officers and crew were asked to sail with her as support ship to the mine sweepers HMS Brecon and HMS Ledbury during the Falklands war.[4] Modifications were made on the deck to incorporate a flight deck and hanger for a Wasp helicopter fitted with AS12 missiles. The jumbo derrick was unshipped from the mast and moved to the port side to act as a RAS (Replenishment at Sea) derrick …. this was a novelty for the Merchant Navy personnel but common practice for the RN sailors. Extra fuel tanks were converted from some of the ship’s water tanks and four 20mm Oerlikon guns were added. The ship was loaded with spare engines, modular workshops, mine-sweeping equipment and £150,000 worth of stores .

As they were preparing, news was bad from the South Atlantic. The Argentinian ship General Belgrano was torpedoed by the British submarine HMS Conqueror. HMS Sheffield was struck by an exocet missile and sunk, HMS Ardent was sunk, HMS Antelope was badly damaged, HMS Coventry and the container ship Atlantic Conveyor were both attacked and sunk and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram were also bombed and severely damaged with the loss of many men.

Only volunteers would sail with the ship in her new role. Most of the Officers volunteered and were accepted. For the crew of RMS who all lived on St Helena Island a decision had to be made to get them back home. They were returned to their Island on board a quickly arranged new mail ship, the Curnow ship Lady Roslin, refitted to carry 12 passengers and renamed the Aragonite.

When RMS St Helena sailed into harm’s way from Portland on 13 June 1982 it was under radio silence and they sailed with no night navigation lights. Although by then the Argentinians had surrendered and the islands had been re-capatured, but the situation was still unclear, so the ships of the Task Force still sailed. They were to help with the task of mine clearance and there were plenty still in Falklands waters.

The Merchant Navy crew of RMS St Helena were not used to Replenishment At Sea (RAS) as they normally carried sufficient fuel for their journey between ports. However sailing to the Falklands was a different matter. To refuel RMS, the fleet tanker RFA Black Rover moved alongside and the RAS derrick and pipes were swung outward and connected, the two ships maintained a parallel course only a few feet apart.

On the fourth day out on their way south the St Helena completed her first RAS when both HMS Brecon and HMS Ledbury were successfully fueled whilst underway. In calm weather this quickly became routine but in rough weather, as the fueling ships closed in, huge waves would crash back and forth between the vessels sending up drenching sheets of water as the ships kept exact separation.

St Helena coped better with rough seas than the mine hunters … they were smaller ships and the bows would leap far above the waves and then plunge down into the ocean again, so the seaman on the foredeck tending the lines looked to be in grave danger of being washed overboard. However the fibre-glass hulls were very buoyant and the waves didn’t appear to sweep over the foredeck.

The helicopter was used to transfer stores and personnel between the three ships which were often accompanied by schools of dolphin surfing near the bows of the smaller ship. Afternoon gunnery practice shattered the Mail Ship’s usual ‘quiet time’ between 1400 and 1600 hours.

When passing through the tropics it was decided to test the stern RAS facility. It was not a success. As soon as the lines were run out astern they were attacked by a number of vicious and hungry sharks which made their presence felt on the freshwater line although had less effect on the heavy fuel line. As the pipe was hauled aboard a string of sharks was lifted from the water. When they reached the poop deck a rating beat them with a stick until they let go and fell back into the water. The small freshwater water pipe was completely ruined with numerous teeth marks along its length.

The three ships had a brief respite at Ascension which was part of the Royal Mail Ship’s normal run so crew were struck by how changed their anchorage was from the dreamy peaceful pre-war days. En route to the Falklands they were joined by a Russian cargo vessel which altered course to join their formation and it was only after their helicopter was sent aloft to check it out that the Russians resumed their original northbound course and left the British ships.

Near the Falklands the weather was bitterly cold. There was a 400 mile exclusion zone round the Falklands and, once inside its perimeter, the ships went to defence stations and full readiness for any attack from Argentina.

The ship’s company had two watches of six hours on and six hours off and flame proof overalls with life-jackets, ID tags, survival suit and gas mask became compulsory clothing at all times. All beards had to be shaved off so the gas masks would fit correctly. Meal breaks of 20 minutes were allowed, served into tin trays but of the usual RMS high standard.

The ship came under the main Task Force and a RN ship escorted them into the Port Stanley Harbour, where the large white hospital ship Uganda was berthed.

This remote harbour is home to many old sailing ship wrecks such as the Lady Elizabeth (built 1879), the Charles Cooper (arrived 1866), the East Indiaman Jhelum (built 1849 and arrived 1870), Capricorn built 1829 and Egeria (built 1858). It was also home to the bombed out wreck of RFA Sir Tristam a casualty of this conflict.

After arrival at Port Stanley, HMS Brecon and Ledbury began their work hunting for mines. The helicopter set up navigational equipment on the islands to guide and assist them in their work.

During the time the mine hunters were away searching for their prey, the Merchant Navy crew of RMS were part of the watch duties which was an interesting learning curve from the more relaxed merchant habits, especially for a crew used to carrying passengers, to the more formal Royal Navy style of passing messages.

The Wasp helicopter was essential for the mine hunting team and it set up navigational equipment on various part of the island to guide and assist them. There was a strict protocol to follow when the Wasp was both taking off and landing on the ship.

Soon there was a failure of the reverse osmosis plant for converting seawater into freshwater as the intakes became choked with krill. These are the small marine crustaceans which are found in great quantity in these seas and are the food of some of the whale species and are the reason these waters were prime hunting grounds of the old whalers and their resulting shipwrecks.

Anchors dragging both day and night was a recurring problem for St Helena, calling for frantic activity to find firm holding again.

Shore parties were allowed and one sobering visit was to the graveyard with their simple wooden crosses for the men killed in the recent conflict. The crew also visited a rapier missile site guarding the anchorage and proudly flying the Merchant Navy Red Ensign, the soldiers apologising that it was the only British flag they could find. The MN lads from St Helena said they were proud to see it flying.

The many and varied ship wrecks proved a magnet for visitors, with members of the RMS crew going aboard the abandoned Bahia Buen Sucesso, a ship closely resembling RMS and also built in Canada in 1950. (RMS had originally been built in Canada in 1963 and, known as Northland Prince, she had originally taken passengers along the Canadian coast before being refitted and re named the St Helena). The Bahia Buen Sucesso had come under fire before she was abandoned and there were shell holes in the bridge front. She was as silent as a tomb and had been thoroughly looted and was eventually towed out to sea and sunk by gunfire.

By 31 July most of the mine clearance had been completed and three days later some of the St Helena officers went ashore to the local school and the Radio officer showed the children slides of the sailing ships in their heyday… it was an eye-opener for the children to see pictures of the ships in their prime rather than the wrecks that they knew.

On 14 August 1982 the three ships sailed for home with HMS Brecon in the lead, followed by HMS Ledbury and eventually RMS St Helena and they set course for Ascension Island. On the way they called into The Roads, at Jamestown, St Helena where they had a belated reception at Plantation House put on by the Governor. At Ascension they refuelled and subsequently put into Gibralter for a couple of days rest.

Finally the day dawned when they sailed back into Rosyth and staged a final sail past, with St Helena in the lead of the formation, HMS Brecon on one side, HMS Ledbury on the other side. As they drew abeam all trained their fire hoses on each other so everyone on deck was thoroughly soaked. They proceeded slowly up the Firth of Forth and docked in brilliant sunshine, to be met by family and friends.

Job well done St Helena.

Lest we forget those who died in the Falklands War and are buried far from home and those who went down with their ships.

 

[1] Caroline Gaden, personal recollection of a visit to the Island in 2010.

[2] Mrs Abell (Late Miss Elizabeth Balcombe) Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon during the first three years of his captivity on the Island of St Helena, London, John Murray, MDCCCXLIV, p. 2.

[3] James Prior, Visit to St Helena 1814, Friends of St Helena web site

[4] Robert A Wilson, RMS St Helena, South Atlantic Mail Ship, Shelterdeck Publishing, Preston Lancashire, 2014.

 

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Comments
  1. Steve Price says:

    Thanks for a great break down of the events and dates. Even though I was on board as an RN LWEM(O) I did not keep a great diary. I was in charge of the Ratings mess, weapons and communications for the RAS.

    • cagaden says:

      Thanks Steve for volunteering in the Falklands crisis! I’m pleased if my article acts as a memory jogger for you.
      It will be sad to see RMS mothballed, she has been a great servant to the Island for so long. It will be the end of an era and the start of a new one when the airport becomes fully functional for commercial aircraft.

  2. Steve, Good to see the old ship recognised here. Did you know that everyone aboard St Helena, Brecon and Lebury were awarded the South Atlantic medal last year? – rather belated, but better late than never!
    Robert A Wilson, Radio Officer RMS St Helena 1979 – 1990

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