Hugh Willis was born in England in 1932. He played a key role as the Queen’s Harbour Master at Port Stanley in the immediate aftermath of the Falklands War in 1982. He worked with some of the key British defence personnel during this crucial period. This is his story of that time:
Hugh Willis joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman at HMS Ganges at the age of 16. He was on the lower deck for about seven years and finally became an acting sub-lieutenant in 1956 sailing off to join in the Suez invasion.
Before the Falklands War, Hugh was the Commander of Standing Naval Force Channel which comprised a group of mine counter measures vessels – mine minesweepers and mine hunters – and it embraced a number of NATO nations the squadron sometimes had as many as 14 ships – or rubber ducks as I called them. They included ships from Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, Norway, Denmark, United States and of course, Britain. After that Hugh came ashore he was involved with future design for naval command systems.
Hugh explained that in the years leading up to the Falklands War, the British Government had made savage cuts to the Defence Force.
“The most serious cut had come in 1966 when the Labour government was in power and Wilson’s government announced that there was no further requirement for fixed wing aircraft carriers. They said that Britain would never again get involved in an opposed landing. We would in future only enter a country if nicely invited. This was called the “red carpet policy” which was crap! The people who owned the country would put the red carpet down and we’d all walk ashore and not even get our feet wet. This demonstrated another wonderful example of how politicians don’t seem to read history and have very short memories.
“We were at the time very lucky to have a wise Admiral called Sir Henry Leach who at the time of the Falklands also happened to be the First Sea Lord. But Henry Leach, years before had foreseen the writing on the wall and he had managed to get through the Ministry and the politicians the building of a euphemistically named “through-deck cruiser”. The “through-deck cruiser” was of course the Invincible class. It was initially called a through-deck cruiser because it was designed to operate anti submarine helicopters. But Henry Leach was no fool and he’d seen that the vertical take-off Harrier was well on its way and he’d already worked out that his next step was to get vertical take-off harriers. By 1982 the Invincible class – finally comprising three such ships – were capable of operating sea harriers as was HMS Hermes which was an old fixed wing carrier that had been converted for helicopter operations.
“Hermes was rapidly re-converted to take aboard an outfit of sea harriers and Invincible was made ready in record time. They departed on 5th April 1982. Captain Middleton was the captain of HMS Hermes – I had been his First Lieutenant some seven years beforehand.”
The people heading down to the Falklands were in a very upbeat mood with a sense of outrage at the thought that the Argentineans would think they could beat the British. Hugh was very kee
to contribute and wondered what he could offer. Towards the end of
April he was offered the position of Queen’s Harbour Master at Port
Stanley even though it had not yet been retaken by the British. Hugh was surprised to be offered the position.
“Traditionally, Queen’s Harbour Masters had always been navigators by specialisation and it was their cushy number to go off to the ports of Plymouth, Devonport, Rosyth, Chatham and Portsmouth when they had become captains. They would fly their smart Queens Harbour Master’s flag on their launches and go about their business with lots of pomp and circumstance. Thinking of this I said, “What the hell are you asking me to do this for because I’m not a specialist navigator.” And he said, “Well actually, Hugh, we’re looking for a bloody pirate.” I wasn’t sure whether he was insulting me or paying me a compliment. I said “Well, for God’s sake, capture the place before you send me ashore.” And he laughed.
“And so that’s how it came about and that I became the Queen’s Harbour Master Desig. (designated). So I said “So where do we go from now?” He replied “Well, Hugh you’ll have sort it out yourself. Get yourself down there and join the battle fleet.” And it really was a do-it-yourself job. And I thought, “Bloody hell.” And he said “Yeh, get to Ascension and you’ll be fine.”
“So I got cracking and was doing nicely when out of the blue, I got a telephone ca
ll telling me to go to the Ministry for a briefing. So off I went up to London. I was met by this ministry naval man who introduced to some mysterious colonel. I thought that the naval man was somewhat uneasy. Anyway, there was this colonel sitting behind his bloody great desk on the fifth floor and looking very pleased with himself. “Oh, Willis,” he said ” I want to brief you on what you’re going to do in the Falklands.” How on earth a bloody colonel was to brief me on naval matters was a puzzlement to say the least. I said, “Well I know well what I’m going to do. I’m going to be the Queen’s Harbour Master.” “Oh no, no, no, no,” he said, “When the Falklands is taken, there’ll be 14,000 Argentinean prisoners of war. And you’re going to be looking after them together with a detachment of army chaps. You’ll be our naval man.” He said with a triumphant look on his silly face. “You’ve no idea the number of prisoners who’ll be suffering from the gripes, gippy tummy and what not. They’ll need a lot of looking after.” I said, “What the bloody hell is going on here? I didn’t volunteer for this crap. What you need, Colonel, is a cross between a medical officer who is qualified to cure the shits, an ex commandant of Stalag ten and a qualified Spanish interpreter. No thanks!
“Anyway, the naval Johnny quickly ushered me out of the office and told me that the orders had come from on high and that was that. I was of course furious. But I was told to report to some army colonel of the Royal transport corps in Marchwood, Hampshire.”
“I then I had to join this odd outfit at Marchwood. Full of Pongoes, army jobs! They organised me to be kitted out with all this army clothing. Can’t see me suits, as us naval chaps described their camouflage uniforms. I’ll never forget it, talk about comedy, I was issued with “can’t see me suits” and all sorts of odd bits and pieces which were quite alien to a sailor! I had more pairs of boots and gaiters than you could shake a stick at! And then some bloody fool issued me with a PT outfit for physical training! “Right sir, you’ll need to keep fit” he said. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Have you ever been to the Falklands, mate? Do you know how cold it is? You keep ém,” I said. Anyway, they didn’t know what to do with me so I shoved off back to Portsmouth and carried on with my own preparations.
“By then I had decided that as there was a war on down there that I had better be prepared. So I rang up HMS Excellent, where they did small arms training and gunnery. I said to this Chief Gunnery Instructor, “Look, Chief, can you tell me how I can get hold of a gun? He said”, “A gun, sir. Now what would you be needing a gun for, sir?” and his tone of voice clearly indicated
that he was dealing with a madman. I explained to him that I was going to the Falklands and that I thought that I’d feel a little bit safer going ashore since I’d been told that there would be 14,000 bloody prisoners. And he said “Oh, I see, sir, well you come over here and we’ll put you on the range, give you a course so you can fire to your hearts content.”
“So I fired away on the range with a browning pistol for five days and they even taught me to take the gun apart and so on and so forth. So at the end of the course I ask the Chief where I could draw a gun. The Chief turned white and told me he didn’t have the authority but if I came back the next day the Royal Marine Captain in charge would talk to me. When I returned there was this Captain Royal Marines and two Chief GIs sitting at a table and looking very serious. I sat at the end rather like an interviewee.
“I understand, sir, that you want to take a gun with you to the Falklands?” “Yes, I do.” I said, “I thought we’d got past that bit.” And he said, “Yes, well we rather thought that you might get one down there when you land.” “You must be mad!!” I said, “Do you expect me to arrive ashore and say, “Hello, has anyone got a spare gun by chance?”
“Anyway, they eventually agreed that I needed a gun but I had to fight like hell for the fifty rounds of ammunition to go with it. Would you believe it but they took me to the armoury, placed my gun and ammunition in a small ammunition box and then cellotaped it shut and put a notice on it which said “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL REACHING THE FALKLANDS” “It was a most humorous event and eventually I went, back home and hid it under my bed for the following two weeks.
“The day came when I was due to fly from Stanstead to the Ascension Islands with the Colonel and his army chaps from Marchwood. I told them that I’d meet them at the RAF airport. By then
it was May and it was a hot Spring. So I wore my tropical white trousers, tropical shirt and had all my cold weather gear in my kitbag. When I arrived I was amazed to see all these soldiers dressed, ready for battle in cold weather gear, tin helmets, bloody big packs and all sweating neaters!
“This major came up to me with a quizzical look on his face and said, “I say, Hugh, are you coming with us? It’ll be damned cold down there dressed like that!” “I said, “Do you realise which side of the equator we are at present? We’ve got to get down to Ascension, catch a ship and it’ll be two days later that we eventually begin to feel the cold!”
“I might add that I nearly didn’t get down to the Falklands because of the bureaucratic correctness of the RAF administrative staff. All these RAF Johnnies were playing at airports, imagining that they were British Airways. We were put into little groups, numbered and tagged while they ran around in circles and we sat waiting for something to happen for hour after hour. It was quite ridiculous. We’d all got there early because we’d been told that we would be leaving at the scheduled time and that if we were one minute late we’d be left behind. Four hours later, however, I eventually got to the checkout desk and there was this officious looking RAF sergeant who asked me my name even though I was wearing a nametag. I pointed to the nametag that his staff had issued so he changed tack; “Have you got any classified documents, sir?” he asked in an aggressive manner. I said that I had and he demanded to see them. “Certainly not, you’re not cleared for Top Secret.” I answered. “Where’s your authorisation chit which entitles you to carry these documents, sir?” I told him that I hadn’t got one because they had been entrusted to me alone to deliver to the battlefleet. They were in fact the estimated position of an Argentinean minefield, which had been laid at the entrance to Berkley Sound, which ships had to pass through to get into Stanley Harbour. “I’m afraid you can’t go sir. You’ll have to stand over there,” he said.
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Are you telling me that I can’t go to war because I haven’t got a bloody chit?” I asked. “Where’s your boss, who is your boss?” He told me that it was Wing Commander Notworthy, or some such name, and that he wasn’t in today because it’s Sunday. I said “Ring your boss right now.” And as he was doing so he kept muttering, “He won’t like it, Sir. He won’t like it.” I watched him dial the number and then snatched the phone out of his hand. A voice at the other end of the line said, “Yes, Wing Commander Notworthy here. What can I do?” And I answered, “You can get your bloody tired arse down here this minute. Do you know that your sergeant has told me that I can’t go to war because I’m carrying classified documents? Yes, that’s right. I see, I should damn well think so. Good” and I slammed the phone down. I looked at the sergeant and said, “Well you heard that, now let me through.” At this the horrified sergeant backed off apologetically and ushered me through. To this very day I have often wondered what went through Wing Commander Notworthy’s mind because he hadn’t uttered a single word after initially asking me “…what can I do?”
“It still wasn’t over though because as I approached the aircraft on the runway I noticed two very officious RAF policemen searching people’s hand baggage at the bottom of the steps into the aircraft. I of course, was carrying this bloody cellotaped ammunition box – with a sign saying “Do not open till Port Stanley.” – containing a gun and fifty rounds of ammunition! And when I got to the bottom of the steps, there was this police sergeant who asked, “Have you got any guns or ammunition in there, sir? They’re not allowed aboard our aircraft.”
“Of course not, sergeant, they’re bloody Mars Bars for the lads. I’m sure you’ve read in the papers that they’re screaming out for them down South.” This was true and had been reported in the newspapers and thankfully the sergeant had read about it. “Oh, that’s all right, sir,” he said with a grin, “I hope you make a bob or two with a load like that.” And I got aboard the aircraft as fast as I could!
“We arrived at Ascension Island after dark. It was utter chaos as this planeload of people plus their kit bags were eventually offloaded from trucks onto a volcanic dust field in the dark. It took about five hours for people to find their kit bags by torchlight. Being a wily sailor I’d tied lengths of blue bunting to my kit bag so I found it pretty quickly. Otherwise they were all identical except for the little hand-written labels. Anyway we slept in tents that night and the next morning we got on board the corvette, HMS Dunbarton Castle which at least boasted a little flight deck aft but which was already loaded high with ammunition destined for the battlefleet.
“The trip South was fine for a couple of days and thereafter the weather was appalling. Meanwhile
, on the passage south the Colonel and his soldiers, in between being sick, were practising their Spanish and writing their prisoner of war orders in preparation for their 14,000 prisoners. The Colonel was still under the illusion that I would be on his staff once we got ashore, and he kept telling me, “Hugh, you’ll be interrogating their naval chaps.” but little did he know that I had other plans. “We arrived in the battle group a day or so prior to the surrender of Stanley. I had already arranged with the captain of Dunbarton Castle to send a signal to the admiral once we had joined the battlegroup. It stated and requested: “QHM Desig arrived in the battle group, request earliest convenient briefing in HMS Hermes.” Within an hour a helicopter arrived. As they watched from below, I waved farewell to the astonished Colonel and his soldiers as I was lifted from the deck by this hovering helicopter and quickly became a distant blip as we headed towards Hermes. Alas! The colonel had lost his naval, Spanish speaking, prisoner of war specialist in matters pertaining to the shits!
“And I arrived in Hermes with my kit and there I had lots of chums aboard Hermes including the Captain. When the Captain heard I was aboard, he immediately sent for me up to his cabin and gave me a large “horse’s neck” – that’s a brandy and ginger and gave me a big rundown about what had all been happening. But then the Admiral gave me a personal briefing and he took me down to the operations room and said – “Right Willis, you just set yourself up ashore. We’ll support you with staff from the ships. We’ll take a few men here, a few men there an officer here, an officer there. Just get cracking.” So I said “Aye, aye sir” and off I went. And I was then choppered by helicopter to HMS Fearless which was an assault landing craft of which this man, Commodore Clapp, was the officer in command of the amphibious force and with him was Brigadier Julian Thompson who was in charge of the Royal Marine contingent. And they worked together and subsequently in the San Carlos landings of course. I was with them for a couple of days and Mike Clapp became my boss and then a couple of days later, he sent me ashore. You’ve got to remember at this time there was much confusion ashore because there were 14,000 prisoners who had been herded onto the Stanley airport. They were in a terrible state. Many of them were young lads who’d just been co-opted into the war by Galtierie and barely been trained and they were frightened. Stanley was in a most frightful mess. They had defecated, urinated all over Stanley. They had dumped garbage, rubbish, old food anything, anywhere. And the place desperately needed to be cleaned up. So the Paras and the marines ashore set a contingent of prisoners to start cleaning up the town.
“It was probably two or three days after I joined the battle fleet and Commodore Clapp that he sent me
ashore to set up the QHM organisation. I was landed outside these buildings on the little patch of lawn and as I got out of the helicopter – and you know what noise helicopters make, I looked up at the window and there was a familiar face which was Brigadier Julian Thomson, of the Royal Marines – who’d also set up an office there – clearly screaming his head off, red in the face with rage because of my noisy helicopter! However, the helicopter disappeared and I went up top to find the islands Harbour Master’s office. Julian Thomson came along and said, “What do you think this bloody place is, your own private landing pad? I can’t bear helicopters!” Anyway we got along well after that and he invited me in for a cup of coffee! I found the local Harbour Master who said that he usually dealt with about three or four ships per month and now he had forty in harbour! – I got a naval woolly pulley jersey for him and I said, “I think you can go home for about three months until we’ve sorted this lot out. He grinned and went off happily to put his feet up. On the first day I had only five sailors, jolly jacks. Jolly jacks, are very enterprising, and when they arrived we set up communications with the ships in harbour and set up an operational organisation to establish some sort of order.
“One of the first questions I remember being asked by one of the jolly jacks was: “What time’s dinner, sir? And where do we get it?” I said, “I don’t know what time’s dinner. I don’t know even where dinner is. But I tell you what, I think you’ll all have to and forage for our food.” And off went jolly jack. It was very amusing. About two hours later, they came back, beaming all over their faces. They’d found an enormous Argentinean K-ration container which they’d broken into and they had pulled out a load of K-rations which had been left by the Argentineans. But to demonstrate the enterprise of “jolly jack”, they hadn’t got the ordinary soldiers rations. They’d taken the “Officers Only” packs. And the “Officers Only” had an additional small packet of loo paper, a chocolate bar and a small miniature whiskey! We had hundreds of these packs and set up our own bar and never ran short of loo paper! It was typical of Jolly Jack.
Another marvellous example of Jolly Jack’s enterprise was the way that I managed to acquire our own transport. When Stanley fell on 14th June a complete euphoria set in. Everyone was full of, quite reasonably, self-congratulations and it was of course wonderful. But the people who’d done all the fighting just wanted to get back home and it was damn everything else. They had free time for retrospective thought and it then began to hit them, what had happened. The only thing that they were interested, and quite rightly, was –they’d done their job and they wanted home. They wanted out of it. And what actually happened as a result of that was that very little thought or effort went into sorting out the present and the future with regards to organisation. Everyone was thinking only of their own unit. To hell with the rest. Support from UK was lamentable because back home they were too busy celebrating and congratulating themselves! It was ever thus after a war. A recent example is the Iraqi situation today. They won a quick war but they hadn’t thought through what they would do when they had won it. You’ve got to replace the guys who did the fighting with new teams. You’ve got to get them down there quickly and provide them with the materials needed for the job. That was undoubtedly a failing that occurred in the Falklands and people really did have to make the best of what they’d got when they could have been helped so much more. This point was brought out by Commodore Clapp in his book, The Amphibious Assault of the Falklands. But, however, that was life and I’ve no doubt after Waterloo, the same sort of thing occurred as always.
“But acquiring the necessary resources were one hell of a job, and that’s where I return to Jolly Jack’s initiative: We needed boats for the harbour and vehicles to collect vital naval stores from the airport. No one was interested in us and to complicate matters even more so, the surrounding areas were heavily mined. Thousands of anti-personnel mines had been laid indiscriminately by the Argentineans. One had to be careful where one walked including the beaches. But most of the transportation was carried out by helicopters but we didn’t have one!. So I said to my chaps – “look, the Army have dozens of captured landrovers but they won’t give us any. They were only interested in getting home with their loot. It was the way things were. Everyone was looking after their own and consolidating their own position. Anyway, that night, my sailors went out foraging for transport! In the morning there was a bloody fleet of lorries and landrovers parked outside my office. They’d nicked four land rovers and two 30 cwt. trucks! I said, “God, almighty we don’t need that lot. They said “Well, sir they might come in ‘andy for bartering, sir.” It was marvellous. I got rid of but three of them even though they had painted enormous signs saying “QHM” in white paint on both sides of each vehicle. The army were absolutely furious. They attempted to recover their vehicles but we told them that they were enemy spoils of war and that we wanted our share!
“By then we
were beginning to get into a position of bartering power. In fact I started off with no boats at all. But one of the first things we did was take over an Argentinean oil-rig vessel called the “Yehuin“– I renamed her the “Falkland Sound” and got some staff from the battlefleet, a young lieutenant took command and she had the vital but unenviable task as the refuse boat for all the ships in harbour. The gash had to be taken out to sea and dumped. You couldn’t keep sailing ships every time they had rubbish aboard. And the other big problem was the provision of water from the 20,000-ton water tanker lying at anchor. Anyway, both the army ashore and the ships at anchor had to be topped up with water and also had to get rid of their gash; what a smelly bloody job that was! So we suddenly found ourselves in quite a powerful posit. If other organisations didn’t do things for us they went thirsty and stank! So I came to realise that we would only acquire our need, vehicle transport and boats, by piratical behaviour. The Royal Engineers had a dozen or so water jet boats aboard one of the transport ships and they wanted me to land them. They did about 20 knots, they didn’t have propellers to get snarled up in the kelp. So I did a deal. I’d only get them ashore if they gave me one for our use!
“We also made use of a captured Argentinean patrol boat which we took charge of and used for the out sound where conditions were rough. By now I had a staff of about 25 people who
manned that craft, the boats and the office ashore. I’d also had the presence of mind to bring QHM flags with me from UK, which are very distinctive. And so the QHM organisation quickly became known and recognisable because we were flying the QHM flag and the office had an enormous one on a flagpole outside. Remember, most of the ships in harbour were merchant ships with stores aboard and those from the amphibious landings. Initially these included the Canberra and the QE2 which had gone into San Carlos. The Canberra was also vital in getting rid of the 14,000 Argentinean troops which were would have been one hell of a headache having to house and feed them. They were taken back to Arg.
“Meanwhile the temporary peace lasted but at this stage the Argentineans were still considered to be a daily threat from their aircraft who could have attacked us at any time. By this stage more and more people were being flown from UK via the Ascension Islands to give us support as the soldiers and marines left for home. One of the things that we became very concerned about was accommodation in the awful climate down there. They had to be
accommodated in winter which was already upon us. In the morning you might look at sunny bright Port Stanley with all the red roofs in a flat calm. In the afternoon it would suddenly disappear and be covered in snow as the blizzards tore through the settlement. So accommodation became a very important factor. To solve the problem they sent us an accommodation ship which was a small liner capable of accommodating about 2,000 people and which we moored in the inner harbour. We had to lay heavy moorings and they had sent the dockyard personnel to do the job with the tugs and craft we possessed. Very soon she was nicknamed the Alcatraz by those personnel who had to live aboard her. This was because the chap in charge, Commander David Lines, would suffer no nonsense and ran a very taut ship! He had to with 2,000 people aboard including soldiers and RAF people who were living in it. And those 2,000 men had to be taken ashore in the morning to carry out the mountain of work involving unloading of supplies, airport reconstruction and cleaning up the town. One of the key tasks was to get the airport up and running and capable of taking in the heavy transports, C130s, the Hercules aircraft which would be heavily loaded. The runway had to be extended and the runway had to be reinforced and this was absolutely top priority. And come the evening, the 2,000 men had to be got back on board again by our boats manned by my staff. It was worse than Hong Kong rush-hour with the Kowloon ferry!
“We also got mail and important spare parts on the daily Hercules flown from the Ascensions. These chaps in the RAF did a wonderful job of getting important items to us. They would fly for14 hours to reach us, over-fly and drop the stores and then spend another 14 hours back to Ascension. They would drop the stores at low level onto the runways. So they were 28 hours in the air and they did a fabulous job. Things started to get better but we were still desperately short. You can imagine the problems that my staff had in getting 2,000 men ashore and 2,000 men back each day. And I used to go absolutely bananas when I saw that the Army had all sorts of spare boats which they would not part with. On one occasion I can remember threatening this army major that if they didn’t support me with their boats, they wouldn’t be getting the things they wanted unloaded from the ships. And so blackmail had to be used whenever necessary but somehow or other we did begin to sort the place out and it was only the few key people who caused the problems.
“It wasn’t all that long before HMS Hermes the flagship came into harbour for a visit. An
ex-captain of mine, now a retired Admiral, commanded her and carried the Flag. Admiral Woodward, and his staff were aboard. I went out to meet him in ex Argentinean patrol boat, now Tiger Bay, and he called out from high above on the bridge, telling me to come aboard, “Come and have a drink, Hugh.” I met Sandy Woodward again and watched the fly-past that had been arranged to celebrate their big moment coming into the Falklands. Hitherto they had remained out in the battle group ready for any nonsense from the Argies! Anyway he said, “You can send your boat off, Hugh. I’ve gotta go inshore and you can come with me.” By then Rex Hunt and his wife had just returned ashore and they’d just set up their home again at Government House where it all began – where the Royal Marines had fought their little battle. Captain Middleton was going ashore to meet them for drinks and lunch and also taking a huge cake baked aboard for the kids ashore.
“But his first priority was to overfly the runway to see for himself what, if any, damage had been done by the RAF bomber which had been air-refuelled at vast expense. Linley Middleton was a fleet air arm pilot for many years and obviously knew a lot about air power and its proper uses. He had been furious with the RAF for the ridiculous way that they insisted on getting in-on-the act by sending down a Vulcan bomber from Ascension Islands to bomb the airfield. The number of air-to-air refuelling tankers needed to get one aircraft to the Falklands and back was bloody ridiculous! They dropped a load of bombs which all but one of which we subsequently saw had missed! The RAF had claimed to have put the runway out of action but this was because the Argentineans had craftily quickly filled in the one hole and then ”painted’ with dirt and muck imitation bomb holes! Linley flew over the runway and said, “Bloody crabs, I told you so, they bloody missed.” And then we went to this party and he really enjoyed himself telling them all about it! At one stage he came over to me and said, “Did I tell you, Hugh, in the latest Honours list, I’ve been made an ADC to the Queen,” “Oh,” I said, ” well done you. My congratulations.” He snarled back, “Thanks bloody much for nothing! Don’t you know that means I’m passed over and won’t make admiral!” I answered by saying that no way would they dare not to promote the successful captain of the flagship and that he could relax. He didn’t believe me at the time because he and Sandy Woodward and had disagreements regarding the proper use of airpower at sea during the war. These disagreements are all related in Sharky Wards book, Sea Harrier (he was a squadron commander of Harriers during the fighting). But of course he did become an Admiral and funnily enough only about a year and a half ago he came out here and stayed with us for a while when he was doing a retirement tour to South Africa and Australia.
“By the end of August it looked as though the Argies had finally accepted a peaceful solution
and had had enough; remember they hadn’t officially ended the war! Meanwhile Stanley had been a hive of disparate activities in order to regain normality. The Uganda, the hospital ship had had done wonders for the wounded and were absolutely marvellous. I visited Uganda a couple of times and I was very impressed with the care and attention they gave. We also had the local hospital ashore in the Falklands which the military were now running and they too did a wonderful job. A second dreadful tragedy happened to the Welsh Guards, who’d already suffered the Sir Galahad tragedy in Bluff cove when the Argie planes had bombed her; the troops didn’t get off in time and many of them were injured and badly burned. But then two months later, the Welsh Guards were clearing the runway of snow at Stanley when a Sea Harrier during take-off accidentally discharged one of its missiles. Tragically it mowed down a number of the soldiers who were sweeping the runway. It was all very sad.
“Anyway, by now hundreds of people were arriving from UK to set-up a joint headquarters and to re-establish proper control rather than the ad hoc organisation which existed. Bureaucracy had returned and increasingly memos were being scattered like confetti by the recently arrived staff officers. And of course, piratical methods were no longer required since the “pirate” days were over. I found I was spending an awful lot of time binning all these memos that came from the wall-to-wall Wing Commanders, Lieutenant-Colonels, and Commanders who had arrived from the UK and were keen as mustard to start a “proper” organisation. Thus peacetime order gradually came to be established there.
“I can remember that by now I was longing to get home because my usefulness was over and the time really had come for me to go. They had designated a relief for me to carry on the job of QHM and get the place back to absolute normal.
“One very funny incident which illustrated the administrative differences which occurred between those of us in the Falklands and those in Ascension Island. There had been a lot of bitterness because of the pilfering which had occurred by some of those who were in Ascension. Lots of “goodies” (including beer, chocolates, magazines and clothing) meant for those of us in the Falklands and the Fleet at sea (sent from the UK) were being pinched by some RAF personnel and other support people who were 7,000 miles north living in comparative comfort in Ascension. A daily flight from the Ascension was now bringing mail and other important stores. Now the runway was still being repaired to take the heavy Hercules aircraft and during the interim, the stores would be dropped at low level, then the aircraft would do a low pass down the runway to collect our outgoing mail by hooking a raised line across the runway and then hauling the mailbag into the aircraft. This was done rather like the railway trains used to catch mailbags in the old days. Well it so happened that some of our people with a sense of humour on this particular day, had put a white cow’s skull in the mailbag with the outgoing mail. Having hooked the bag they flew back to Ascension.
“That evening the General in charge of the Falklands received a signal from an infuriated RAF officer in charge of Ascension: “From CBFSU Ascension to Cliffie, Personal for Commander. I was horrified to learn that a cow’s skull had been found in the mail. It was found in the mailbag lifted from Seal Point on the 27th August. You will understand that the aircrews flying these long arduous and dangerous sorties do not appreciate these attempts at humour.” “The answer from our new General (who had relieved Jeremy Moore, the Royal Marine general who had been in charge during the war) known affectionately as Jumping Bean was as follows: “From Cliffie to CBFSU Ascension for Commander – I too was horrified to learn that a cow’s skull was found in the mail dispatch. When it left here, it was a complete carcass. This is yet another blatant example of the pilfering that is going on in Ascension.” “There was no reply to that signal! Just silence.
“Yes, I mentioned Jeremy Moore. Jeremy Moore was a lovely man, he was the general in charge of the whole caboodle from the military point of view and General Moore was a Royal Marine, a man with great history and he was really a soldier’s soldier too. He was a delightful gentleman and a little example of what sort of man he was was illustrated by an incident when he was ready to leave and go home. By the way I was living in Bedevere which was alongside a jetty in Stanley harbour (a Royal Fleet auxiliary) – and in the next cabin to me lived Jeremy Moore.
“Anyway, the point was, Jeremy Moore was due to go home. The new general, nicknamed Jumping Bean, was arriving that day and so Jeremy Moore, quite naturally said to him – you will have my cabin when you arrive. The next thing I knew was that some arrogant major who was temporarily acting as Jeremy’s ADC or whatever, and was in charge of the allocation of accommodation, rang me up and said:
“I’m afraid, sir, you’re going to have to find somewhere else to sleep tonight because I’ve allocated your cabin to Jeremy Moore. You’ll just have to find somewhere else.” I thought the major somewhat rude but I liked Jeremy Moore and I knew that he would never have put it that way. I thought no more about it because I knew that I could bunk down in my office.
“At about 1800 that evening I got a phone call from a very humble major who said: “General Moore will be privileged to share your cabin with you this evening.” And I said “Oh, thank you. Would you tell the general that I would feel very honoured.”
“Anyway, later that evening I went back to the Bedevere and I stood at the door of my cabin and I thought – God here I am about to share it with the great general! So I knocked on the cabin door and heard this voice say, “Come.” And in I went and there was Jeremy Moore. He was sat on the lower bunk with only a towel wrapped round him and he was reading a letter. Rather pompously I said, “General I think it is very kind of you.” He cut me short with, “Oh cut that bullshit, Hugh, come and sit down with me. I’m going to read you this letter.” The letter came from some factory in the north of England and had been sent with a box of red, white and blue “willie warmers”, hundreds of them!! He said “I’ve got this from the girls in England and they’ve said ‘you’ve got to beat the bloody hell out of these Argies, so we’ve made a particularly big one for you, General!’ and as he said it, he held it up and it was about two foot long, in glorious red, white and blue! “What am I going to say to them Hugh?”
“That was the sort of man that Jeremy Moore was, a man with no side. And it was ably demonstrated because the authorities wanted – (he was due to fly back that 14 hour dreadful trip in a Hercules from Stanley to Ascension the following day) – intended to allot the whole aircraft for him and a few of his staff so that beds and great comfort were provided. When he heard of it he said NO! He said, “I want that plane full of the boys who are going home and I will sit in the jump seat next to the pilot.” And he did. That was a typical example of the sort of man he was.
it came my turn to go home and I couldn’t have been more delighted. In
fact I went home with the major in charge of the Mail, the Postie, – a
man who had done his job too. And we all went off back, flew to the
Ascension Islands and I will never ever forget, arriving in the
Ascension Islands and being met by a naval officer chum because you
could imagine, we were pretty sweaty and dirty and horrible who took me
to a place where I had a most wonderful shower and then the took me to
the American Club (the Americans were based there in small numbers
because they had leased the islands runway for surveillance flights)
and I had the best breakfast I’ve ever had in my life – a full English
breakfast, a full bloomin’ English breakfast and it was just simply
flew on by VC10 to Dakar. Oh, one thing I must just mention, I did find
it amusing. The Hercules had to be fitted with special long-range
tanks and talk about do-it-yourself job. With great initiative,
they’d built tanks inside the aircraft. I sat alongside one of these,
in one of these dreadful little canvas jump seat things and there was a
gauge alongside it and you could see this gauge going down and I said,
“What’s that then?” to one of the RAF chaps. He said “That’s our
fuel, mate. You’re sittin’ on top of the fuel tank.” That was the
only way they managed to fly for 28 hours when they were doing their
really long-range stuff. But anyway, we got home, and one of the
nicest ways to have ended that extraordinary experience was that I got
home just in time to go down to Portsmouth on a lovely September day and
watch a considerable part of the battle fleet entering Portsmouth,
returning themselves. It was Invincible, from down south, and to see thousands and thousands of Portsmouth people, welcoming them home – half way through September.”
Clapp, Michael and Ewen Southby-Taylor. 1997 Amphibious Assault Falklands – Battle of San Carlos Water. Orion Books, Orion House London.
Ward, Commander ‘Sharkey’. Sea Harrier over the Falklands.
Middlebrook, Martin. 1987. Task Force, The Falklands War 1982. Penguin. Harmondsworth Middlesex England.
Winfield, Major Ian. 1990. The Posties Went to War. Square One Publications, Saga House, Worcester England.
Hugh Willis was interviewed in November 2003.
Hugh Willis died early 2017.