Late October 1983
A Hercules tanker to refuel us between Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands
I arrived in Stanley on 22nd October 1983 via VC10 from Brize Norton to Ascension Island, then twelve hours on a Hercules.
The VC10 flight flew to Dakar in Senegal (10.15am to 4pm) for refuelling. We got out onto hot tarmac and found that we were parked at the far side of the airport, probably because the authorities there didn't want a UK military presence to be too visible. It was a nice 35 degrees C and a bit breezy. Dakar was generally reddy-brown with white grass and shrubs with hardly a leaf on them. Large grasshoppers jumped and glided about and large scaly beetles flew about.
We flew on to Ascension Island (4.45pm to 8.15pm, 7.15pm local time) and I saw a lovely crimson sunset before we plunged down and roared between gigantic, dark lava mountains. We were put into portakabins with mainly double bunk beds and then had a beer or two outside the "Sea Breezes" restaurant before going to bed. It was a bit cool and very breezy. Most of us had no pyjamas, wash stuff or towel which were in our suitcases elsewhere, so we slept in our pants. We were woken at 3.15am and made a dash for the ablution block, queued almost naked in a draught, then washed with our hands without being able to dry ourselves.
Breakfast was at 4.30am, baked beans, tomatoes, sausages, bacon and a fried egg at the "greasy spoon" plus Kelloggs or grapefruit. At 4.55am we loaded onto buses, went to the departure tent, handed in our next-of-kin forms and got our boarding cards.
The Hercules flight was twelve hours, a bit faster than usual, sometimes it was 13 hours. It was throbbingly noisy and we were given ear plugs. It was nearly dark and there was military baggage stacked up to the roof right next to our knees. The only way to relax was to sprawl sideways over and under your next door neighbour. Some climbed the baggage and slept on top. I had been warned that it might be uncomfortable and had been advised to pack my sleeping bag in my rucksack and keep it near me, so I could get the sleeping bag behind my back on the canvas and aluminium seats. The man next to me, who was a pilot, put on his helmet and pulled down the dark visor so that he could deaden some of the noise and get some sleep. I pulled on my cap which had false fur ear muffs. The ear plugs reduced the high pitched noise and my cap reduced it further, but the low rumble was not reduced much.
Occasionally the loadmaster climbed over us with a torch to reach the glass hydraulic fluid bottles to check the fluid levels. During the air-to-air refuelling the engines revved a bit more, we seemed to be going down and faster to keep up with the tanker and the Hercules veered from side to side. People were ordered back to their seats during refuelling although we didn't have to strap in, and dashed back to their perches afterwards. The Hercules then climbed and we all leant sideways in our seats (which were along the sides).
Food boxes contained two sandwiches in silver foil - bacon, and ham and cheese. There were two pieces of deep-fried chicken, a blackberry tart, a hard-boiled egg, an orange, a small can of pure orange juice, a carton of mixed fruit cocktail, a package with salt, etc. and 2 peppermints and a metal can opener as well as plastic knives, etc. We were also given unlimited tetrapaks of orange or lime juice. Later, on the northbound "Airbridge", the food was less, no fresh meat or fruit. The food on the VC10 to Ascension Island was a dietician's nightmare - pork pie, sausage roll, biscuits and cheese, wafer biscuits, fruit cake, chocolate bar and a packet of crisps.
At Stanley airport on 22nd October we climbed into a 3 tonne truck with our bags. It was about 6.30pm, 2.30pm local time. It was cold, about 5 degrees C with a 25 knot wind which nipped my ears. There were some snow flakes but none showed on the ground. After immigration forms had been filled in and we had been given notes about minefields we went to a portakabin camp (Crown Agents Camp, possibly the same as Lookout Camp, I think) standing in the truck. We had to hold on to the framework which was so cold most of us put handkerchiefs under our hands as the truck drove over bumpy and dusty hardcore roads. We got white dust all over us. Rubbish, debris, remains of aircraft and barbed wire all around even over a year after the conflict ended. We went over a bailey bridge and saw lots of ships moored, including a Sir Galahad type vessel. After dinner of steak, mushrooms, gravy and croquette potatoes, tart and condensed milk we walked around Stanley. The war memorial was only partly complete at the time. The portakabin rocked like a ship the next night in the wind.
The contractor's manager also came down on the plane. In the evening he fell against the rough pebbledash side of a portakabin. Of course rumours said he was drunk and when he visited the Governor the next day he didn't look too good. Rumours also said that he was involved in a scuffle, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one. When I saw him the next day he had a badly grazed chin and just said he had fallen over. He seemed an difficult character as the treatment of his secretary later showed.
mv England in East Cove viewed from the lifeboat on 26th October 1983
The track to the airport site 30 miles away was not easy by landrover and one farmer had refused permission except for one landrover a week, to stop damage to the grass. I gave Frank S a letter to post back to my brother, using a 16p stamp (forces can use UK postage compared with 17p Falklands postage). We boarded the Brodick ferry and then boarded the MV England on 24th October and spent a while at Stanley harbour.
While still at Stanley there was quite a lot to watch, sitting on deck in hot sun. Harriers and phantoms scorching off west on patrol, Lynx and Sea King helicopters fetching and carrying from three or four merchant ships and landing on a strip near the HMS Bristol, small boats and navy launches speeding to and fro, a Hercules landed, a small light plane (Islander probably) took off and a phantom practised landings.
The mv England had come down to Stanley with about eighty workers. It seems LMA (Laing/Mowlem/ARC the contractors) got off to a bad start in another way too. A party had been organised on the England and an invitation was addressed to the Head Postmaster but the Governor Sir Rex Hunt and the general for whom the airport was being built were not invited. The party was quietly abandoned.
The workers had been on board for three weeks and were so bored they hadn't even got the energy to play cards. Most only got up for meals and the daily hard-porn video, one of only a few constantly repeated. They were pissed off because they were expecting their first mail for three weeks but it was a weekend so they didn't get any. They weren't allowed ashore either. The only person who was taken ashore was a head-banger taken to hospital or according to rumour, possibly to the Keren, a ship that travelled between Ascension and the Falklands, to take him back to the UK. The Brodick ferry returned later, so perhaps he came back.
We sailed round to Mare Harbour, just outside East Cove where the port was to be built, early on 25th October and anchored off-shore. It was lovely sunny weather and a perfect trip. While passing along the south coast everyone was out with binoculars looking at Mount Kent, Fitzroy, etc. Later I saw four black turkey vultures and a large white horse.
26th October 1983. The jetty built by the surveyors - the only way ashore early on was by lifeboat.
The flag says "Pioneers"
The only signs of human activity were a small jetty made out of packing crates and a bogged-in tractor. The surveyors had come overland a year earlier to live at a shepherd's cottage called Mount Pleasant House, then they left for the winter and returned a few weeks before we arrived. The tractor must have been driven overland too.
The only way ashore was by lifeboat until the Merchant Providence arrived with a small Beaver workboat. On the first occasion when the lifeboat was let down on its wires, the water started bubbling up through the bottom. There was a bung to drain rainwater and it had to be screwed back in while water was coming through.
I had asked to go ashore on the first trip on 26th October (there had been one recce trip the previous day just after we arrived) and forty were on the list and we were already in the lifeboat, but the captain said only twenty plus crew should go. He was worried about insurance and regulations as lifeboats aren't meant to be used except in emergencies. The lifeboat returned about 11.15am with some of the workers, but had to go back later to fetch the others.
I went on the second trip at 2.30pm to fetch the remainder of the first people back (as ballast, I was told) but I got some time ashore. As we came back HMS Bristol came right into East Cove and turned round. Ratings were jogging around the helicopter deck and some wit said they were looking for their helicopter.
26th October 1983. The tractor was bogged twice. Once it was removed by a chinook
but the second time the army threatened to charge £8,000 per hour so it was abandoned
26th October - Lots of rubbish had been thrown overboard. The crew were even going to the trouble of banging holes in the bottoms of tin cans to make them sink, because they often just bobbed about otherwise.
On 27th October I saw hundreds of black plastic rubbish bags bobbing about towards the shore on mill-pond calm water in Mare Harbour. Even the construction workers said it was f.....g disgraceful. After everyone, senior and junior, had complained, later in the day the crew burnt rubbish in oil drums on the rear deck where there were two huge notices banning smoking, petrol filling and open fires. The workers had been prevented from having a barbecue there at the equator so they were not amused. Bottles and the like were still thrown over.
The Merchant Providence with the vehicles, materials and equipment had broken down and been repaired in the Canary Islands I think. It was late and arrived on 28th October. We moved in to East Cove on 29th October and anchored near the Merchant Providence.
The first job was to build anchorages so that the Merchant Providence could be moored and used as a jetty itself. Other ships were to moor alongside and lorries were to drive up a bridge and over the deck to get cargo from the visiting ship. But all that was some way in the future.
The Merchant Providence unloaded sections of a pontoon with its derrick and this was assembled and used to transfer the first excavator and bulldozer to shore at a fairly flat beach. The next job was to build anchorages for the struts to fix the ship to the shore. These were cast with beach gravel, salt water and cement in the weeks that followed.
The small beaver work boat was now the main boat used to get to shore and it could only take six people, but the trips to shore were very quick now that we were moored in East Cove only a few hundred yards from shore. The lifeboat was only used a few times more.
31st October - Some PSA surveyors had been living at Mount Pleasant House which was just west of the proposed runway five miles north of East Cove. They were living in primitive conditions for weeks before we arrived. The old army generator often didn't work so they had being going over rough grass tracks to Fitzroy about twelve miles away for showers. One or two people went up there to join them.
They all now wanted to have showers, meals and visit the bar on the England because it was closer but the LMA manager wouldn't let them. I suppose it may have been because the workboat was extremely busy and weather conditions were unpredictable. It was still hard on them, though. Brian M, a section leader, kept making excuses saying that he didn't know what the plans were. The PSA surveyors were allowed on board on 1st November, but not the LMA's workmen who hadn't been at Mount Pleasant House so long.
Sometimes when a small group of workers was ashore the wind got up and it was too risky to use the workboat. I was caught for a few hours once but on some occasions the workers had to be abandoned overnight. There was one portakabin for shelter by that time, but no other building, water, food, etc.
While I was living on board the England it was very civilised. The ship was an old Cunard north sea ferry. Unfortunately it was very light and dragged its anchors in high wind. There were two at the bow but even so the ship drifted across the cove. Several times the captain managed to get the anchor chains untwisted and put out into Mare Harbour to ride out a storm, leaving some people ashore.
On some occasions it was too rough just to float about so the captain ran up and down Choiseul Sound endlessly, passing Centre Island at regular intervals. Once the wind was force ten gusting force eleven. The wind is very steady though when it's really strong. We went right round to Fort William harbour beyond Stanley once to ride out a storm.
I was getting my sea legs gradually, though sometimes I could only manage the first course at meals. Even though the plates were in a stack which popped up on a spring from the counter, sometimes they still crashed everywhere. At other times it was blissfully calm and sunny.
On 8th November Maurice C had arranged a site visit and had arranged for the air commander to be present for the formal handover of the site. The commander duly arrived by helicopter and was left on the shore while the helicopter flew away. There was no one on shore and no possibility of sending a boat as the sea had got up. There was no one from Mount Pleasant House with a landrover and he had no radio and no shelter. The forces had ignored our message not to bring him. We radioed Mount Pleasant House and someone drove down to pick him up about two and a half hours later and the helicopter fetched him from there.
During November I spent most of my time on the England as it often had to moor in Mare Harbour or go out to sea during storms, but I got occasional trips to shore to see how the anchorages for the Merchant Providence were being built and to watch general earth moving on the headland for the bridge abutment to connect with the ship.
Our post was delivered once by a small sea plane.
On 20th November the tug Oil Mariner came with fresh water for the Merchant Providence.
The England needed to leave to pick up the next lot of workers from Cape Town, but LMA were warned that the Merchant Providence was still a ship until moored so should not contain more than the specified number of occupants. This delayed the departure of the England until 22nd November.
When the Merchant Providence was attached to the shore with struts, arrangements were made to get us all off the England into various places. Bunks for seventy two were built in a hold of the Merchant Providence, an initial portakabin pioneer camp for thirty was set up on the shore at the west end near the temporary jetty where the flexifloat beached and a few of us were sent up to Mount Pleasant House.
MV England and Other Ships
The Merchant Providence
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