In May 2012, I was very greatful to receive this contribution from RFA Pearleaf's second office and navigator Paul Adams.
Second Officer / Navigator Paul Adams
RFA Pearleaf - The Untold Story
Just prior to the start of the war in April, I joined the RFA Pearleaf ostensibly for her last voyage. We were to collect a cargo of high-spec diesel from the OFD at Invergordon and transport it to the OFD at Gibraltar then take her on to the Far East for scrap. Captain was John McCulloch, a dour Scotsman if ever there was one. He would come into his own in my eyes though.
We completed the loading as normal, and then headed round the north of Scotland and down through the Minch. We were aware that Argentina had been making noises off, and that someone had been naughty and landed as scrap dealers in South Georgia (that had us in fits onboard- we were volunteering to sell the ship!!)
As we worked our way south, I began to practise my sextant work. Sextants were still used then, the first GPS had not really started, but we could still use old LORAN-C system to give a reasonable estimation of where you were. We were ordered to Portsmouth and onto the OFJ at Gosport in readiness for fuelling the fleet there. I don't think we still fully understood the implications of what was going on. It wasn't until the Harriers arrived during the middle of the day by flying up the Solent to land on the two carriers opposite. It was obvious then we were sending a message - and who to. The next few days were mayhem, getting stores and readying for sea. I can remember distinctly getting things ready for the medical locker and trying to find out if anyone was on medication and had they got enough! We knew what was going to happen to us the day before departure. Oddly enough we had a small delegation arrive on the vessel. Eight men, all quite happy to be there. They were the SBS contingent and were going to sleep in the hospital until they got off in Ascension. Being polite I apologised for the lack of space - they thought it was hilarious. Not only did they have room, but they were on a Chinese crewed ship, so it was top scran for breakfast dinner and tea. And as much of it as they wanted.
Departure day will live in my mind forever. The walls of the port were simply lined with cheering crowds. The two carriers left first, we would bring up the rear. I can remember looking at the clock, looking at my watch, then turning to the Captain, nodding my head and saying 'Its time'. I had prepared all our charts and pre-calculated all our distances run on the different legs. What became apparent was that the originator had used a Satnav, not by steam as the RFA did!!
Once underway we formed into our steaming formation. We had a Devonian yeoman, always known as 'Janner'. When I looked at the OP Orders, he just looked at me and said 'Well you've practised enough. I told you when we fought a war it would be fought just like this!' - And it was. Everything was down in the orders - except it wasn't a practise run, it was for real.
The hard part during the run south was the permanent anti torpedo manoeuvres that we carried out on a regular basis………until one day. We had been steaming in formation and it was mid-morning I think when suddenly Janner shouted 'Sonar reports active contact bearing ……. Possible torpedo in water'. You should have seen us all go. We went for the reciprocal bearing and swung the old girl round quite violently to see what we could do. JMC and I took opposite bridge wings, so we could watch for tracks. The most amazing sight was one of the LSL's. She was going absolutely berserk. Whoever had the con must have turning the wheel full one way and then the other; I have never seen such manoeuvring in my life - then or since!!
During the nights we began to try to black our vessels out. Somehow it never quite worked, and our galleys always managed to light the morning. One of the more amusing things on the down leg was the Captain explaining that the Harriers had been fitted with 'advanced Sidewindows' - he meant Sidewinders!
The first real briefings began during this leg. The navigators all went off for their briefing together, so we were collected by the Lynx of HMS Antelope and flown off to the briefing on the vessel. The first briefing sticks in my mind, it was onboard HMS Antelope. On completion of the briefings and back we came. The Lynx pilots had a real sense of humour, usually black, usually involving a hapless victim. So it came to pass JMC was going to a briefing, and out they came. The Lynx came in low to pick him up, hovered over the front of the vessel obeying my bat waving as the FDO - the pilots had one of those grins. Picture it - the captain is lifted off the deck, and the helo crew don't actually winch him up. They almost winched down to him. I'm certain it was deliberate. JMC was bending his knees and almost looking as if he would climb the wire in desperation. I could hear the bridge lot laughing behind me!
One of our moments of glory was approaching. The vessels taken up from trade needed to be fuelled, and this included the Canberra. One thing I must say and this is that the whole affair was captured on camera. It's on a DVD somewhere issued by someone; I know I saw it a few years ago. So we fuelled the Canberra. Most amazingly, I was talking via the windy telephone on that day to the petty officer instructor who had just completed my FDO course! He was sent there as one of the FDO's. He came out with 'Look what I got!' - I just pointed and said 'Yes, get this - no bloody flight deck!' and he roared with laughter.
The practise runs and sorting carried on as much as normal really. We arrived at Ascension, collected mail and had briefings then we were underway and into the gloom.
The leg South of Ascension was more or less the same in transit. A couple of things enlivened the passage however. We had a swimming pool of sorts onboard. The two third officers, Roy Malkin and Andy Crawford did much of the rebuilding of the interior canvas for this, so there was light relief. The other was almost the English at war. On Sundays, we usually had a buffet, to go with it, it was also non-uniform. Spencer Reed (the purser) wondered what we should do about it. The answer was simple, and agreed to by the captain. We just carry on - OK we had to wear our survival belts if we were away from our accommodation, but that was it. The bar was still there, but there was absolutely no abuse. Nothing would interfere with the RFA Sunday lunch. Nothing!
The usual round of fuelling's continued, then we realised the day was going to dawn very quickly indeed. The shooting had started, the Belgrano had been dispatched, and the Task Group was all in order - until HMS Sheffield was hit. Spence was almost inconsolable. He had served in earlier conflicts and always referred to the Sheffield as the 'Shiny Sheff', her nickname within the Navy. I think that's when we got serious. We all knew the invasion would occur - the day before we were going at fuelling like hammer and tongues. Romeo at the dip, Romeo close up, virtually continuous fuelling, then the next day it was show time.
The task force has stayed on GMT to this point, and on the day of the invasion, all clocks went forward to local time, a jump of about three hours. The day began with a stunningly beautiful morning - to quote the yeoman - 'God is an Englishman and he plays cricket!' Outside Falkland Sound, we weren't aware of too much. The fleet steamed as one, with the carriers watching over us. Fuelling would have to be planned in advance and at night, or just before dawn for readiness. A few days later, there we were, all tankers ready at dawn, all Romeo at the Dip and Ready For Anything. The sight of the vessels from inside San Carlos Water was sad at times. The LSL's were looking the worst for wear, the first one alongside had steel patches welded onto her low aft where bombs had hit her. The frigates looked as though they had all been in action, smoke stains all around them. So it would continue.
The tankers in the meantime would have their own fun. An area known as the TRALA was created - the Tug, Repair, And Loitering Area. This is where we would re-supply one another and wait until called forwards for action. It was at this point we made our own little bit of history. We had been supplying fuel and were running out, it was plain for all to see. The answer was equally as plain. We would have to go alongside a STUFT tanker, who had never refuelled at sea before, take of some 19000 or so tonnes of diesel and then go back to the loitering area. Simple.
OK first pick your tanker - the British Tamar. Next figure out just how the heck you achieve this activity without damaging two ships. The answer again was straight forward.
The British Tamar would maintain a steady course and speed of 10 knots.
The Pearleaf readies for fuelling, swings out the hose and derrick. We then approach the Tamar from astern, go alongside and presto. We fuel. Or something like that.
On our bridge the two third officers would do 6 on, 6 off. Myself and the Chief Officer would work as needed with the tanks open (we had no auto fuelling or auto loading system on board) on deck. The captain was on the bridge and there he would stay, in command of the whole operation.
Not only did we shatter any record for fuelling, so much so it is unlikely it will ever be broken again, but if I remember correctly, we actually altered course as a unit in the middle of all this. We were totally elated at the end of a marathon. What happened next wasn't so funny.
We were steaming back into the TRALA area that night (I was on watch), blacked out and in radio silence (you know what's coming). We were allowed to use our radars for two sweeps every half hour or so, just for a quick look round. As it was, it was foggy, and we were moving steadily between fog banks at about 10 knots. The next thing I heard was the sound of an aircraft, not differentiating ours or theirs, I ran from the bridge wing straight towards the engine control pedestal. Next came a complete row of flares right over the vessel. Having worked for many years in the RFA, one of the tasks I had always enjoyed was target towing. To attack the target at night, the first aircraft flares the target, the second shoots at it. Once those flares went, I had the rudder hard over, and had rung full ahead on the main engine. Mike Livermore was the Third Engineer on watch and like a true engineer; he put the power on before asking why. We spun on our tail and made into the fog bank, determined to make it difficult for any would be opponent. At that instant we had a radio call from one of the goalkeepers - 'Pearleaf - is that you?' in plain language. Panic over. The Atlantic Conveyor had been damaged then sunk by this time, so we were right to be nervous. There were also other things that I remember clearly about this time.
I remember watching a badly damaged Harrier fly back over the top of us, escorted by another, onto the Hermes. Apart from the spectacle of a Harrier streaming smoke (believe me we all wanted him to land safely) we had to make an emergency turn to clear the path for the Harrier. What sticks in my mind was that the Resource didn't quite latch on to what was happening for some reason, and almost landed herself in front on the Hermes (or on the front of the Hermes more correctly). The others are real memories of sadness. At about 6 am each day, the lists of casualties came through. They listed KIA, MIA and those wounded. This is not the nice side, if ever there was a nice side to what we were doing.
A second sad note was on the 24th May, when the frigate HMS Antelope exploded after attempts to make safe UXB's failed, the explosions killed one bomb disposal expert, and finally tore the ship apart. Having been to the briefings on her, you felt for those involved.
We had been moved to a position of safety when the BBC news announced one morning two RFA's had been damaged. We knew who they were long before we were told officially. Worst still we knew the probable cause. The trip before this one I had been on an LSL (Sir Galahad) when we were required to off load the troops (I think it was a guards unit) in Oostende. The officers said they would wait, since we were early and that was that. At the time we said what happens for real is we get you in, you get off, we leave. Sadly that didn't play out in East Falkland. Of our friends in the crew, we all wondered who had been killed or injured.
The end of the war was now coming, and we departed for pastures new in South Georgia. As station tanker, we would wait, fuel vessels as needed and then return to our anchor spot. The spot we picked was excellent, it was good glacial moraine holding ground - the bodies of long dead shell fish in a grey mud. Boy, did you know when you were hauling the anchor up. You could smell the effects from the bridge.
The day of the surrender, I called the engine room to give them the message 'There is a white flag flying over Stanley.' Mike and the boys were overjoyed. Funnily enough there would be one or two last twists on our way home.
We were tasked to leave the area by the Eastern route. This meant leaving South Georgia and heading almost due north, and on for Ascension. The reason for this route I suspect was that the tanker British Wye has actually been bombed by an Argentinian Hercules whose crew rolled a bomb out of the backdoors and down onto the tanker. The bomb landed on the tankers bow, and bounced off into the water. Someone was definitely playing cricket that day.
The last mail was dropped for us by a Wessex 5, and we steamed north. At approximately four the next morning I was taking over the watch from Roy on the bridge when odd dots appeared on radar. There seemed to be one or two more appearing slowly, when suddenly alarm bells begin to ring. I asked Roy to call the captain on his way down. There was a reason we were the last to use this route - the icebergs were still here!! A few hours of slow and painstaking navigation and we were finally out of the ice field. We then ran on for Ascension and for home…not quite.
After our call at Ascension, John began a very serious nose bleed, so serious he would need a doctor. Whether it was stress is impossible to say, but we needed a doctor pdq. We couldn't raise any vessels by voice, so the radio officer decided to give it his best shot and go for a morse transmission. He set up on 500, better known as 5 ton for obvious reasons and transmitted. We wondered if we would get an answer - it was instantaneous. Just about every warship in the area called back. Once we had sorted who was who and nearest, we arranged for their helicopter to bring their doctor to us to treat John and his nose bleed.
We were now on our way home, although we would call at Gibraltar on the way, and JMC would be replaced by Richard Guy. RMG had been attaché to the government during the conflict so he knew exactly what we had been doing. We now ran on and back into Plymouth to our welcoming committee. We even had the port admiral out to meet us and tell us we had done well. Once we arrived, there was the arrival buffet onboard for all of the welcome party. Spence was emotionally overcome, announcing that not one person had complained about the changing of the sheets and towels going out to once every two weeks. We really didn't have the heart to tell him none of us had actually noticed since we all had other things on our minds. The only sad event on the day was that it wasn't Captain John McCulloch RFA bringing us home.
The old girl was going to refit; she would fly the blue ensign a little longer. Her tanks would also be thoroughly cleaned. We had, during the latter part of the ops developed what was called MBC contamination of our diesel tanks. This can be passed from vessel to vessel, so it was time she was given a good and thorough cleaning. She deserves her place in history; she was a damn fine ship. God did bless her, and all those who sailed in her.
Footnote: Ironically I would be back in the Falklands for at least another two trips, the first of them being as eventful as the first. It was in 1983, straight after the war and onboard the RFA Sir Lancelot where the effects of heavy weather made themselves known on the hull.
The next would be my last trip to the Falklands and my last as an RFA officer. It was onboard the RFA Regent, and a much happier trip as my last voyage in the RFA.
Abbreviations and terms:
- OFD - Oil fuel depot
- OFJ - Oil fuel jetty
- FDO - Flight deck officer
- LORAN - American system - Long Range Aid to Navigation
- LSL - Landing Ship Logistic (RFA's Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram)
- Romeo at the dip - tanker is not ready, standby (Flag R at half-mast)
- Romeo close up - tanker is ready, approach when ready (Flag R close hauled)
- STUFT - Ships Taken Up From Trade (i.e. requisitioned merchant ships)
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