The Journey South

Maggie Barclay on Sapper Hill Falklands Islands

Captain M E Barclay QARANC ashore on Sapper Hill. TEV Rangatira anchored in Stanley Harbour in far background. King Edward VII Memorial Hospital in background 12th July 1982

Since the cease fire on the 14th June The Falkland Islands remained on a war footing and high alert for months until at least December 1982. A formal agreement of cessation of hostilities was never in sight! Rangatira’s preparation for her role in the South Atlantic included adding extra bunks to accommodate a maximum of twelve hundred troops, a helicopter landing facility on A deck (aft) and four 20mm Oerlikon cannons/guns strategically placed on the upper decks. Communications and navigation systems were upgraded to include a satellite navigator and an inmarset satellite radio. Her present role as troopship carrying over a thousand servicemen and fourteen women in the QARANC now operated as our mobile nautical home for the foreseeable future. This experience promised to be different – and so it was!

Following our departure there was a welcome on board from both the senior Merchant Navy Officer commanding the ship to the Ascension Islands and also the senior Royal Navy Officer who would command the ship from that location under the auspices of the Task Force to our southern destination. It was at this stage the ship’s rules and regulations were explained to us and that we would wear military uniform and “dog tags”1 at all times unless allowed otherwise.

Our living conditions were located in a small corridor, port side in the bow of the ship. The cabin which I shared with Matron, Major Margaret Nesbitt QARANC, was gloomy, basic and cramped; but we were fortunate to have a hand basin and a skuttle (porthole) in our cabin so at least we were blessed with “a room with a view” – albeit a watery one!

As we journeyed south towards the equator the weather improved, the sun shone and the sea stayed calm, although this was to be short lived! On our first day at sea there was an ecumenical Sunday Morning Service, held at 1100 hrs in a dark eerie space below decks, conducted by a Royal Navy Officer. The service was well attended, and for me personally proved spiritually reassuring. With a renewed infusion of the Holy Spirit any lingering fears of this unusual deployment had evaporated. Those of us in attendance were presented with a copy of the New Testament, given by the Gideons International in the British Isles, which I kept safely in my black uniform handbag until I returned to UK the following year.

Our daily routine consisted of breakfast at 0800hrs, physical training (PT) for both men and women every morning and weapon training for designated male personnel on appointed days. The QAs PT was held on the Helicopter Landing Pad away from view at 1100hrs every morning – put through our paces by the army Physical Training Instructor (PTI). Lunch was served from 1230hrs to 1330hrs. At 1400hrs every day there was compulsory training for Life Jacket Drill, Life Boat Drill and familiarisation with Muster Stations. There was afternoon Tea at 1600hrs and Dinner at 1900hrs. The rest of the evening was free and usually occupied with card games, board games, dominoes and videos. There were often impromptu parties and “sing – songs” in the bar.

Extract from my diary: 22.06.82.
Received news of the birth of HRH Prince William of Wales who was born on the 21st of June 1982. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II ordered The Royal Navy to “splice the mainbrace”. The QAs were not allowed to partake in this tradition so Matron opened the three bottles of champagne presented to us by Brigadier V Rooke, our Matron-in Chief, before our departure. We toasted and celebrated Prince William’s birth which was a unique, enjoyable and memorable occasion.

The days seemed to pass by very quickly and after eleven days at sea on the 30th June, Ascension Island was in sight at 0745hrs. As we approached the island several RAF Sea King helicopters in swift succession flew out to the ship with fresh supplies and our long awaited mail from home. More military personnel who had flown out from the UK joined the ship. Rangatira was refuelled. The following morning we were on our way again and by the 7th July the weather had considerably deteriorated. As Rangatira continued her voyage she rocked and rolled through a tunnel of dark grey heavy clouds above, a black inky ocean below and mountainous waves crashing all around her. Force 10 gales became the norm.

Action Stations

Extract from my diary: 08.07.82.
Action Stations called, enemy aircraft sighted on the radar screen forcing Rangatira to change course.

Our journey had now become less comfortable and more hazardous, we were all suffering from heavy colds and feeling cold as well because the ship’s central heating system had broken down. Some of my colleagues suffered from sea sickness but I was fortunate to escape this malady. And to cap it all the reverse osmosis plant which sterilised the water had broken down as well so we had to brush our teeth with salty water and drink salty tasting tea!

Port Stanley

Our arrival in Port Stanley on the 11th July was greeted with enthusiasm. There had been a fresh fall of snow and the temperature at sea was 18 degrees C. below zero. Matron was allowed off the ship that day to visit the hospital in order to assess the situation at the hospital. The rest of us disembarked the following day with a precarious descent via a rope ladder down the side of the ship and a short boat journey to the public jetty. We walked along Ross Road to the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. The military medical wing was to be set up in the old part of the hospital, which on inspection required cleaning, re-organising, and re-equipping with some urgency.

The Argentinians had left Stanley in an indescribably filthy state, the hospital included. Evidence of the results of fighting all around with bomb and fire damage to the houses and other buildings; garden fences destroyed and used as firewood, livestock killed for food; Argentinian firearms, ammunition, human excrement and rubbish lying around indiscriminately. There was a phalanx of khaki clad troops everywhere, some employed in Operation “Clean Up”, the remainder waiting for their instructions for their departure home. Road, air and sea traffic were equally busy. All this activity, combined with the smell of the bitterly cold sea air blowing in from the harbour, smoke from peat fires and the vapour trails from the Royal Navy Sea Harriers and helicopters, contributed to a distinctly atmospheric post-war scene of destruction and chaos.

The King Edward VII Memorial Hospital

The King Edward VII Memorial Hospital was small, single storey, with a corrugated iron roof painted with red upright crosses between the invasion and commencement of the fighting. The windows had been covered with masking tape in the shape of a diagonal crosses to prevent the glass from shattering in the event of being hit. The single ill equipped operating theatre was old and had been unused for many years. Patients requiring surgery for anything other than an appendicectomy or a caesarean section were flown to Buenos Aries for treatment. During the occupation the Argentinians had set up their hospital in one of the local schools, so the RAMC surgeon and myself visited this building to see what we could salvage. To our surprise and delight it was a Pandora’s Box of surgical instruments and equipment. Many of the items were British made and easily recognisable. We sorted out what we needed and made up sets of instruments for our own use, especially laparotomy and orthopaedic instruments of which we had none. This was a huge relief, not knowing how we would have managed without this lucky unexpected “heist”!

All the tents and equipment comprising 2 Field Hospital had been lost with sinking of the Atlantic Conveyer. In post conflict conditions, stores equipment and rations were in short supply. Water restrictions were also imposed for several weeks as the water filtration plant had received a direct hit. It took some time before normal production was restored.

Our day to day life was very busy. Soon after arrival in Stanley we were put under considerable pressure due to an horrific accident at the airfield involving eleven soldiers being seriously injured with multiple traumatic amputations. Fortunately, the hospital ship Uganda hadn’t left and was able to take some of the casualties for immediate emergency treatment and later transferred to the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital before being returned to UK by the RAF aeromedical team.

Throughout those early months soldiers were suffering severe blast injuries from mines and booby traps left behind by the Argentinians. There was rarely an empty bed in the unit and we maintained such medical and surgical care as was required.

The weeks passed by, life remained very basic with few luxuries. The Army Catering Corps did their imaginative best with their supply of compo provisions, dried, processed and tinned food. Fresh fruit became a dream, never a reality! The NAAFI was soon established in the West Store on Ross Road and able to provide very limited basic stationery and toiletries etc.

As the weeks and months passed by the RAMC surgeon and myself completely re-equipped and restocked the operating theatre which included a new operating table, instruments, autoclave and anaesthetic machine. Towards the end of October we were able to commence routine operating and endoscopy lists for both civilian and military patients, and we were now in a position to perform any emergency operation as required. This was a first for the islanders and a service for which they were extremely grateful and appreciative.

In early December the BBC came to record a Songs Of Praise programme in which I was featured. Christmas was celebrated in the Falklands summer which felt and seemed unatural and very different from a traditional Christmas at home, but never-the-less enjoyable.

Home again

My departure home, planned for very early January 1983, was slightly delayed by a welcome visit by our Prime Minister Mrs Margaret Thatcher. I left Port Stanley on the 18th of January 1983. The journey this time was swift – by RAF Hercules to Ascension Island and a VC 10 from there to Brize Norton, arriving in the UK on the 19th January 1983 – 37 years to the day after my father returned to the UK from his service in the Second World War. The adventure was over.
Regrets? None. The memories of the experience of a lifetime remain.

  1. Identity Discs worn by all service personnel on active service