The Falklands Sinkings: The Untold Story

April 2021

Dr Sam Willis speaks with historian Dr Paul Brown about the extraordinary events surrounding the Falklands War in 1982, a pivotal event in British history. When Argentinian forces invaded the Falklands in April 1982 the British Government responded by sending a task force to the south Atlantic to seize back the islands. In the subsequent conflict cruise missiles, nuclear submarines and vertical/short take-off and landing aircraft were tested in combat for the first time, and to devastating effect. In the aftermath of the war official documents were released but heavily redacted, and others kept under wraps as top secret. Using the Freedom of Information Act of 2000, Paul Brown has now uncovered many new facts about the naval events, in particular about the several ships that were lost. The torpedoing by the British of the Argentinian light cruiser General Belgrano is well known, but what of the SIX British ships that were sunk? nearly 40 years after the conflict, the full story can now be told.

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    Sam Willis
    From the Society for nautical research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. It’s now the beginning of April and we begin as ever with our friends, the sailors on the whale ship, the Swan of Hull. They’re trapped in the ice off the west coast of Greenland in the spring of 1837, and they’ve been there since October. These readings come from a transcription of the logbook held in the archives of the Caird library of the National Maritime Museum. The transcription has been made especially for us You are the first people ever to hear these words read aloud, so this podcast episode is itself a little piece of maritime history. The last we heard they had tried to make a break for it, sending several members of their crew off in a boat in a bid to reach land it nearby Danish settlements

    Whaler Swan
    Wednesday fifth of April. light breezes and clear weather. One pound of flour was weighed out yesterday to each man being an increase of four ounces to the usual weekly allowance. Some of them still lie in a deplorable state of scurvy. Our little stock of anti scorbutics are expended and what the result will be God only knows. Our time is getting very short and a few more weeks will decide all. To him who has preserved us this far we will trust and pray for a continuation of his divine protection. Themometer maximum 28 degrees minimum seven. The 265 gallon shape cut up for fuel, latitude by observation 70 degrees by 31 North. Thursday sixth of April, light breezes with clear weather. At 1pm the ship began to drive south, at four hours 30 minutes pm while walking the quarterdeck observed to men about four miles from the ship standing on a hammock of ice and wafting a handkerchief. On their being seen by the mate from the masthead a few miles astern of them, called all hands and launched a boat towards them for the purpose of getting over a lane of water. When, what was our astonishment, we were told that we beheld the only surviving part of our unfortunate boats crew, Mr. Stoddard and Daniel Knight. A party proceeded further and fell in with Robert Darby prostrating dying on the flow. And before he could be conveyed to the book, the vital spark had fled. Such was the severity of frost that out of the 15 hands that launched the boat to their assistance, only two escaped being frostbitten. The thermometer at 28 degrees below zero at the time of sunset.

    Sam Willis
    Here the following words have been crossed out “dissension and bad conduct within”, the log, then continues.

    Whaler Swan
    The sudden and severe change of weather were the continued causes of this most unfortunate and lamentable expedition. Annex to this day’s work is a journal of their proceedings since they left the ship. From the pen of Mr. Stoddard together with Daniel Knight’s signature. Latitude by observation is 70 degrees by 28 north.

    Sam Willis
    Unfortunately, the account of the expedition no longer survives with the logbook, so we will never know what misfortunes struck the crew of that small boat. Today I’m speaking with Dr. Paul Brown about the fascinating story of the sinkings during the Falklands War. Paul is a maritime historian whose recent publications include Britain’s Historic Ships, Historic Sail, Maritime Portsmouth, and the Portsmouth Dockyard Story, as well as articles in leading maritime magazines. Paul is a member of the Society for Nautical Research, the Britannia Naval Research Association, and the Secretary of the Naval Dockyard Society. He was formerly a consultant to National Historic Ships, the UK’s authority on the preservation of historic ships and boats, and he’s written a wonderful new book called Abandon Ship the real story of the sinkings in the Falklands War. When Argentinian forces invaded the Falklands in April 1982, the British government responded by dispatching a task force to the Atlantic to wrest back control of the islands. The resulting war saw modern weapon systems including, cruise missiles, nuclear subs, and vertical short takeoff and landing aircraft. All tested in combat for the first time and to devastating effect. In the aftermath of the Falklands War, official documents were released, but many were heavily censored through redactions and others were kept under wraps as top secret. So the full understanding of events could not be gained, following the passing of he Freedom of Information Act in 2000. Some documents have been declassified and others have had many of the redactions lifted, but still, there remained many unanswered questions. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Paul Brown uncovered many of the facts surrounding not only the controversial torpedoing of ARA General Belgrano, but also the sinking of six British ships. HMS Sheffield, HMS Ardent, HMS Antelope, HMS Coventry, SS Atlantic Conveyor, and RFA. Sir Galahad. I’m going to talk to Paul today about his wonderful discoveries . Paul, thanks so much for talking to me today

    Dr Paul Brown
    It’s a pleasure, Sam

    Sam Willis
    So this is a wonderful book, the real story of the sinkings in the Falklands War, “Abandon Ship”, why did you choose to write a book about this particular period, In this particular location? Is a question I ask everyone I’m always fascinated, and what attracts them to this subject?

    Dr Paul Brown
    Well, my main interest is in 20th century naval history. I remember, of course, seeing all the vivid pictures on the TV at the time of the Falklands War. When about three years ago, the real reasons for the loss of the Sheffield were finally revealed. I thought, well, it might be worth looking into the other ships as well, and just see what there is there that freedom of information requests, at this rather later stage, might reveal. So that set me off on the trail.

    Sam Willis
    For those people who don’t know, how does the freedom of information request system work?

    Dr Paul Brown
    Well, it applies to government documents, and in theory they start with the assumption that everything can be revealed, and you can to apply to the Freedom of Information Officer, in this case at the MOD. They look at whether there are any good reasons why it shouldn’t be revealed. For example, that it’s in the national strategic security interest to not reveal the information. Or maybe the information will be distressing to the relatives of people who died if it was graphic. So there are there are several reasons. But I was pleased to find that most of the information which had previously been redacted or censored, was in fact, subsequently released once I made the inquiries.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, good for you. Why do you think the Falklands War is important? Why do you think we need books like yours?

    Dr Paul Brown
    Well, I think the Falklands War was one of the last kind of Imperial escapades if you like. It was important from the point of view of them Falkland islanders who were desperate to retain British sovereignty, many wouldn’t accept any compromise. From another angle, from if you like a historians angle, and a naval strategists angle it was very important because, it was the first time since World War Two that modern forces had been in combat together, particularly modern navies. It was the first time nuclear powered submarines were used in combat. First time, the vertical short takeoff, Harriers and that type of aircraft was used in combat. The first time cruise missiles were used against warships. So there was a whole lot of stuff that was going to be very interesting to analysts and strategists. After the war, all that information got poured over, the US Navy and the US Defence Forces produce several reports, for example, analysing all the minutiae of the war, to see what they could learn. For the Royal Navy, there was a lot of learning too.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s a fascinating period. One of the interesting things about it, as you said, you remember it quite clearly, you’re a little older than me. I’m not even going to guess it how much older than you are. I can’t, I was alive during the Fauklands, I was five, I can’t remember it. But, you know, here we have a war that is within living memory for a really large portion of the population. How important do you think that is? Was it particularly interesting as a historian getting into something that people could actually remember?

    Dr Paul Brown
    I think it is, because although I spend a lot of time looking at official reports, and they’re very analytical, they can be very dry. You don’t get a very good sense of the emotions that the people there experienced when you talk to them firsthand, or read their testimonies firsthand because many of them were written shortly after the war. You get a much more vivid picture of what it was like for those people who were actually involved. That’s not to say there aren’t downsides, because especially a lot of years afterwards, their recall, may be rather dodgy. If it were even if it was good immediately after the event, which it may not have been due to, you know, stress and that kind of factor. So it gives you a lot of great insights that you can’t otherwise get. I was privileged to talk to a few people who were actively involved on warships at the time. But I also used a lot of the testimonies that had been recorded years ago after the war.

    Sam Willis
    Those are wonderful, where are those kept?

    Dr Paul Brown
    Well, as a whole, the main ones are in the Imperial War Museum. Also, of course, quite a few of the, especially the senior figures, wrote books very soon after the war. So you get a very detailed testimony from them about what it was like,

    Sam Willis
    it was interesting what you’re saying about things being in living memory. One of the big myths I think about being historian writing history is that just because it happened relatively recently doesn’t make our job any easier. In fact, the one one thing you can prove when looking at, you know, the history of any accounts, but particularly naval warfare, is that just because someone was there, in no way means that they actually know what happened. Or they’ve got a good way of describing it, in fact, often being their precludes their understanding because of the chaos of war, or whatever it might be. So I’m gonna be very careful. Yeah. And this will really kind of bring that to light. I was very interested here because it was so close to the present day, so many of the documents that were released in the immediate aftermath, were heavily censored through redactions. Others kept completely top secret. I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about that about how you work with documents that have been redacted. I tend to work with periods that are much older where that’s not actually an issue.

    Dr Paul Brown
    Well, of course, you find that probably the most interesting bits, have got great thick black lines through them. Although, interestingly, if you search the internet, you’ll occasionally find a copy of the report that’s got something in it, that has not been redacted, even though the copy you’ve got it is redacted. I did find that on one or two occasions, but otherwise, it was just the slog of contacting the MOD and going through their processes and waiting for them to respond. They were very cooperative. I had to say

    Sam Willis
    Do they have , I’m guessing here, but I’m assuming that if there is a redacted document, that somewhere on Earth, there is the same document that’s not redacted?

    Dr Paul Brown
    Oh, yeah, definitely. So they go right back to the unredacted document, compare it with the redacted one, and then go through a process with a ton of checklists that they have, of any factors, which might preclude them removing the reduction. They work that way around, which is good. There’s a team of people at the MOD, and you do get the feeling that they’re working for you, almost, they’re not trying to withhold the information, they’re trying to find reasons for releasing it, even though they can’t always.

    Sam Willis
    And I suppose that whoever the great redactor wa,s sitting there with his black highlighter, they’re kind of working for the historian as well because it means that you know that line is important. It’s really important because I mean, sometimes as a historian, you know, you can quite happily sail past something that doesn’t look important but actually is crucial. And here you’ve got stuff you know, if you can find out what this is it’s really really important. I love that idea. And well let’s let’s look let’s look at the events look at some of the thinking so we start with the Belgrano What happened there?

    Dr Paul Brown
    Well, this was May the second. Things is we’re just beginning to hot up in the Falklands because the previous day, some of the task force planes had attacked Argentine, the airfield at Stanley for example. On the second of May, the Argentine’s were planning an attack on the task force using a pincer movement from the north their aircraft carrier and some destroyers, and from the south thier cruiser the Belgrano also with a couple of destroyers. The idea was, the aircraft carrier would move in, launch its Skyhawk aircraft which would bomb our carriers. They would also try and get some pop shops in with Exocet Assuming they did some damage, the Belgrano group would move in from the south and finish them off with Belgrano’s heavy guns. Now Admiral Woodward, Rear Admiral Woodward who was in charge of the carrier battle group, got wind of this through intelligence and so on. He sent the nuclear submarine Conqueror to find and shadow Belgrano. She was initially just off Staten Island on the tip of South America where the Conqueror detected her. Conqueror was able to shadow the Belgrano for 30 hours or so, before she eventually struck. Meanwhile the aircraft carrier decided that the weather conditions were not good enough for the launch of the Skyhawks and the operation was called off. The Belgrano reverse course in the middle of the night, on the first of the second of May. Conqueror still following her. She was outside the exclusion zone. So Conqueror’s rules of engagement meant she couldn’t attack her. However, the Argentine’s knew that when push came to shove, I couldn’t be completely safe outside the exclusion zone. After all, there was a kind of war on. Well eventually, Admiral Woodward was pushing for permission for the Conqueror to attack. The wall cabinet chaired by Margaret Thatcher met at Chequers. It was a Sunday at one o’clock, they decided that they would allow Conqueror to attack, even though Belgrano was A: outside the exclusion zone B: now steaming away from the task force. That proved to be a very controversial decision. Nevertheless, Conqueror moved in, fired three torpedoes two of them struck with devastating consequences. The ship started flooding very rapidly. They had very little organised damage control procedures. So the ship started to sink and they had to abandon ship. Meanwhile, Conqueror turned away because she didn’t want to be attacked by two destroyers. The the Belgrano had not been attempting any of the recognised anti submarine tactics. So her anti submarine tact strategy was woeful. She wasn’t altering her speed, he wasn’t zigzagging determinately their escorting destroyers were both on the same side of her leaving the other side open for the Conqueror to come in, and they didn’t have their sonar turned on. Belgrano could have edged up to what was the Burdwood Bank Shallows, that Conqueror would have danger going into. But despite the fact that Conqueror had been following them for 30 hours, they were totally oblivious to it. It was a tragic loss of life, 323 men died in the Belgrano. It was the biggest single loss of life in the whole of the Falklands conflict.

    Sam Willis
    And a very controversial one as well, as you are highlighting there. Do you do you think that that sense of controversy kind of got through to the British public?

    Dr Paul Brown
    Very much so because it wasn’t long before the newspapers started detecting inconsistencies in the story that John Nott the Minister of Defence was putting out, when compared with some statements that the naval commanders were putting out. One particular MP Tam Dayell got on the trail and a senior civil servant, who’d been assembling a dossier of all the Belgrano documents, released them to him, that was Clive Ponting. So there was an enormous amount of publicity, and then a public trial of Ponting for breaking the Official Secrets Act. This went on for months, during which of course, the whole story came out that the Belgrano was steaming away, and was anyway outside the exclusion zone, and was 260 miles from the nearest British warship. Apart from Conqueror.

    Sam Willis
    One of the fascinating things about it is we’ve got this controversial sinking of the Belgrano but of course, there were six British ships that were sunk, during during this war, We haven’t got time to go go through all of them, so should we should we think about HMS Sheffield? There’s a fascinating one to begin with.

    Dr Paul Brown
    Well, the sinking of Sheffield was revenge for the sinking of the Belgrano. It came just two days afterwards, and they, the Argentenians deployed their most potent weapon, which was the Exocet missile. Two Super Entendard jets armed with Exocets, one each,took off from Rio Grande airbase in Tierra del Fuego and approached the task group, the carrier battle group. Sheffield was one of three destroyers acting as an air defence screen on the west side of the task group. So they were the outer ring of defence, and they were designed to intercept and destroy incoming aircraft and missiles. So it’s rather ironic that Sheffield itself succumbed to the Exocet missiles. The the raid was detected by one of her sisterships, one of the other destroyers there, the Glasgow who sent a warning immediately. That was three minutes before the missile actually struck Sheffield. So in theory, Sheffield had three minutes to react and do all the right things. In fact, she did virtually none of them. The principal anti aircraft officer was missing from the operations room, two of his staff were not at their posts. The one officer who was there, didn’t do the right things. The ship could have fired Chaff decoy to deflect the missile, its anti aircraft missile operations, and short range guns should have been manned, even before the attack, and weren’t until the very last seconds, by which time it was too late. One of the two missiles that were fired. struck the Sheffield, left a gaping hole in her side, and created huge fires. They fought the fires for four hours, actually, with the help of two other ships which came alongside. They couldn’t beat the fires. The ship was a wreck, it was no longer a combatent unit, and so Sheffield was abandoned. She was the first, it was a huge shock to people back in the UK. To know that we’d lost a modern warship, like Sheffield, and of course they didn’t know at the time the circumstances.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, I mean, it’s a hell of a story. So what was the what was the human cost of that sinking?

    Dr Paul Brown
    The cost of life was 22 died? All in all in the ship probably more or less immediately when the when the missile struck and exploded. There was some doubt initially about whether that missile actually exploded the warhead detonated. From the information I’ve seen, I think it almost certainly did, and that caused devastation in a number of areas. The computer room, the operations room, the galley and a lot of those were where people die.

    Sam Willis
    it’s very sad story, and it’s the the other ships primarily isn’t it? Ardent Antelope, Coventry, the SS Atlantic Conveyor. the RFA Sir Galahad. These are ones which you’ve discovered new information about so you can bring to light about about how they sank.

    Dr Paul Brown
    Well, I think Artdent is an interesting one because she was defending the the landing sites off St. Carla’s water. She was just around the corner, about 10 or 15 miles away, and she was supposed to be stopping enemy aircraft coming in from the southwest. She was pretty poorly equipped to do that, given the armament she had. But she was exposed to two successive attacks, by Skyhawk jets. On the 21st of May, first attack, four jets. They bombed her, two or three bombs hit her, a couple of them exploded. As a result of that, she lost her main armament, the gun lost all power, and the Seacat guided missiles launcher was blown off the top of the ship. And then they were still in the process of recovering from that when about 20 minutes later, there was another attack. This time by five Skyhawks, more and more bombs hit, a couple of bombs hit aft. All the damage was done aft on the ship. Now, they were faced with a difficult situation. A lot of damage had been done, there were fires raging in various compartments aft of the ship, and the ship was beginning to develop a list. Some firefighting efforts were underway. They were hampered by loss of fire main pressure, and that kind of problem. The commanding officer Alan West asked for reports from his first lieutenant and his marine engineer officer, on the damage and the prospects for the ship. They reported to him that, well the first lieutenant said, we’ve lost the stern aft. That wasn’t true. The Marine engineer said we I think the ship is going to plunge soon, it’s gonna sink. Well, that was a poor assessment, as it turned out. We know we have the benefit of hindsight here. Alan West, according to the Board of inquiry board report, didn’t adequately question those assessments. He decided to abandon ship because he thought he’d have to save lives, and the ship was probably gonna plunge any minute. So he was a bit surprised three or four hours later, to see his ship was still afloat. The other sad thing about it was that, an attempt was made to search the ship before the abandonment, but it was far from a complete search. In particular, nobody tried to enter with breathing apparatus, the damaged areas. Now some people had come out alive from those damaged areas. So who else was in there, who maybe was pinned down injured, or whatever. In the panic to abandon the ship, again, the commander got the wrong information. He assumed that full search had been done. In fact, it hadn’t. When they found out later that those areas hadn’t been searched, it was very much on their conscience. Those two aspects of the loss of the Arden only came out when I managed to get the report, released through Freedom of Information requests.

    Sam Willis
    That must have been an exciting time for you as a historian realising you’re coming across something that’s that’s entirely new.

    Dr Paul Brown
    That’s right, It was. 22 men died. So that was very, very tragic, but there was a whole new story, I’d opened up about why the Ardent was lost.

    Sam Willis
    And the other ship is the Atlantic Conveyor, what type of vessel was she?

    Dr Paul Brown
    She was a Cunard merchant ship, designed to carry containers and cars. She was laid up in Liverpool and was requisitioned by the MOD at very short notice, to take down to the Falklands aircraft, which had to be carried on deck, both Harriers and helicopters, and a whole host of military equipment. This was stowed below deck on the on the vehicle decks, as they had been, and they included all the materials for building an airstrip ashore for the Harriers, for example. A whole lot of other stuff. Now, she got down to the region of the exclusion zone and was held off for some days, but she had to be brought forward to take her stuff into San Carlos Water where it was needed. The helicopters in particular were going to be vital for transporting troops from the beachhead where they’d landed, across the island of West Falkland, to Stanley, and Goose Green where the Argentine troop positions were. They included Chinook, massive troop carrying helicopters and Wessex helicopters. Now, after Woodward decided to use Atlantic Conveyor as a screen for the carriers, along with a couple of other RF auxiliaries. So that if there was an attack from the west, they were going to be hit first rather than the aircraft carriers. That was a very questionable decision given her strategic cargo, and bearing in mind she was completely unarmed and also had none of the damage control features that you would find in a warship. She was very exposed, and, again, it was an Exocet attack, she was the only other ship that was sunk by Exocet. When the Exocet attack came, the Argentine’s had a cunning plan to come from the northwest, whereas all the other attacks had come from the southwest.This caught the the task group rather unawares. A decision to change course, when it was realised the attack was coming, was made, but the wrong decision was made about the course the ship should turn on. Based on the direction they originally thought it might come from, rather than actually it was actually coming from. Atlantic Conveyor should have put her very strong stern with its huge ramp in the direction of the missile to present the smallest profile and the strongest point of the ship. In fact, because of the error in signalling, when the missile hit was almost broadside on. Both missiles that were fired, entered the ship, again havoc insued, and very quickly, it was realised that the fire couldn’t be combated. The ship had to be abandoned, sadly, with the loss of 12 lives, but also with her very valuable cargo.

    Sam Willis
    It’s the kind of thing that can really, you know, turn the events on their head when you’ve got something so strategically important.

    Dr Paul Brown
    And again, that didn’t come out. And even in the board of inquiry report, that wrong signal wasn’t highlighted. You had to go through it in great detail to realise what had happened, and why this happened because it wasn’t for whatever reason. Either the board of inquiry didn’t realise it, or they chose to suppress it.

    Sam Willis
    Well, it’s such a such a fascinating story and fascinating events. And I’d encourage everyone who’s listening to go and go and buy Paul’s book where you can find out so much more about these extraordinary things. Paul, thank you so much for talking to me today.

    Dr Paul Brown
    Thanks, Sam very much, been great.

    Sam Willis
    Thanks so much for listening. Everyone do please find us on social media to keep in touch with what we’re doing. The Society for nautical research has a Twitter account at nautical history and a Facebook page and the Mariners mirror podcast has its own YouTube channel and Instagram, both of them loaded with fabulous material. Please help us by leaving a review on iTunes. It makes all the difference. And best of all, please join the Society for Nautical Research at snr.org.uk. And your annual subscription will go towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.

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