H.M.S. Broadsword, January 1982 (www.hmsbroadsword.co.uk)
This is a summary of my conversation with Brandon lad, Richard Thompson, via Facebook Messenger, Saturday, 27th August, 2022.
Richard was born in Elizabeth Road, Brandon, Suffolk, in 1957. Richard was schooled at Bury St. Edmunds, and worked part time at the Co-Op on Market Hill, stacking shelves. In November 1976, at the age of eighteen and looking for more in life than what Brandon and the Co-Op could offer, he enlisted with the Royal Navy. His basic training took place at a training ship, H.M.S. Raleigh, at Torpoint, Plymouth, where more boring stuff, such as how to march and fold clothes was drilled into him. The real work started the following year, when he was trained as a marine mechanic at another training establishment, this time H.M.S. Sultan, at Gosport.
Richard’s first proper assignment was on an anti-submarine Leander Class Frigate, named H.M.S. Diomede and he recalls his initial years in the navy with fondness. It was in 1981, that he joined another frigate, H.M.S. Broadsword, which was commissioned just a couple of years previous. This was the year before the Falkland’s War.
In 1982, H.M.S. Broadsword was operating in the Mediterranean Sea, and had just left Gibraltar and was heading for Naples, Italy, before embarking on a voyage into Asian waters. Then communications came through that the ship was to return to Gibraltar and set a course to join the huge Royal Navy Task Force heading toward the South Atlantic. The ship was prepared for the long journey and stocked up with ammunition and food. Servicemen were also prepped, when they received copies of the Geneva Convention (a Treaty on the treatment of prisoners of war) and an opportunity to file their Last Will and Testament. The ship was put on a war footing and no one for a minute thought this was a simple exercise. Then the ship set sail to join the Task Force. Unlike the armada of ships that left British naval ports, there was no pomp and ceremony for Richard’s ship, simply an order to join the group.
Just over halfway from the UK to the Falklands is a small, British-governed, island – Ascension Island, literally 1,000s of miles from anywhere. It was here the lads caught more than they bargained for. Some of the lads decided to go ‘fishing’ off the boat, rigging up some thin wire, a huge hook with a lump of meat on it and a plastic bottle with a fluorescent glowstick inside. The bottle, acting as a float, violently shot down under the water, indicating a fish was hooked, but the crew were not expecting how big the fish was. It was in fact a shark, measuring about five-feet long. It was not immediately apparent how they would land this catch, but the answer came in the form of one of the Royal Marines, who fired the ship’s first shots of the war into the animal. Although this was undoubtedly bad for the shark, it at least provided a distraction and boosted morale of the lads on the ship.
H.M.S. Broadsword, under attack in the Falklands (www.hmsbroadsword.co.uk)
Upon leaving Ascension the real work began, with the ship entering into a daily routine of war. Two watches were created, it was twelve hours on and twelve off. One way the crew kept abreast of what was happening in the war, and for that fact the Task Force, was by listening to the BBC World Service. It was not lost on them, that if they could hear it, then so could the Argentinean forces! H.M.S. Broadsword’s official role in the war was to protect H.M.S. Hermes, the huge Royal Navy aircraft carrier. The frigate carried the new Sea Wolf sea to air missiles. However, Richard also says the ship secretly sailed toward the coast of Argentina, where it dropped off a contingent of Special Boat Squad. Those guys literally left the ship in a dinghy and were not seen again. To this day, Richard does not know their role in the war.
It was in late May, 1982, that H.M.S. Broadsword was based in San Carlos Water, a stretch of water separating the main east and west islands of the Falkland Islands. The Argentine aircraft flew low over land and appeared in the bay at the last minute, leading to this treacherous stretch of water being named, ‘Bomb Alley’. It was in ‘Bomb Alley’ that H.M.S Broadsword was attacked. Two bombs were dropped by enemy aircraft, falling either side of the ship and peppering the side of the ship with shrapnel, but not causing any substantial damage.
During one of the attacks, an enemy shell struck the ship and set off the gas alarm in the machinery room. This alarm was the cue for servicemen in there to put on their gas masks, however one of Richard’s friends, didn’t have his mask with him. If truth be told, the mask was stored away with chocolate bars in it! The friend improvised and ran a hose from an air compressor to give him access to ‘clean’ air, although Richard did point out to his friend that the air entering the compressor was in fact the same air from the machinery room that might have been contaminated. Fortunately, this episode proved to be a false alarm.
As the ship was under attack, Richard’s position was in ‘Damage Control’, awaiting to be directed to any areas needing repair. From this location he could only hear the blasts from enemy aircraft and his ship’s guns and missiles. There were no windows and he had no clue about how the battle was going. Then, bomb hit the water beside the ship, deflected up off the water, with its momentum forcing it into the side of the ship. In a split second, the bomb shot upwards, through the flight deck and ripped the nose off a parked helicopter. It then veered over the side and exploded harmlessly. A few of the ship’s crew suffered minor injuries and the ship was later patched up, but at least no one was seriously wounded, or worse. If the bomb had exploded earlier, while it was travelling through the ship, then it is doubtful that Richard would have survived. You see, a metal bulk head door was the only thing that separated Richard and the bomb as it passed through the ship. The door would have offered little protection, in fact it may well have added shrapnel to the blast.
Image, shows Richard with his arm aloft. Behind him is the bulkhead door.
The hole in the flight deck, caused by an Argentinean bomb exiting the ship. (www.hmsbroadsword.co.uk)
One of the ship’s crew did not fare well in the attack. A Chinese laundryman, from Hong Kong, found sanctuary in a toilet during the attack, the trouble was the toilet, being on the outer side of the ship, sustained shrapnel damage. Following the attack, the man was taken off the ship, too traumatised to carry on his duties.
At some point during the battles, H.M.S. Coventry was sunk by an Argentine aircraft, apparently a result of miscommunication between that ship and H.M.S. Broadsword. It seems, as enemy aircraft flew low over the water, heading for the two ships, Broadsword locked a Sea Wolf missile onto one of the aircraft. For reasons unknown to Richard, Coventry then sailed in front of
The wrecked helicopter.(www.hmsbroadsword.co.uk)
Broadsword, putting itself between Broadsword and the enemy aircraft, thus cutting off the line of sight of the Sea Wolf and deactivating it before it could be fired. With the enemy aircraft coming in low, unchallenged, they dropped bombs onto the first target they came across – H.M. S. Coventry. It could so easily have been Broadsword. Nonetheless, when the Coventry gave the order to “Abandon Ship”, Broadsword set off its helicopter and rescue boats to assist in the evacuation. Richard saw sailors from Coventry board his ship, they were obviously soaking wet and had the look of shock in their eyes. They were given spare clothing, some too small, some too big and then later sent on to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, where they got better fitted clothing. The injured were taken straight to Broadsword medical facility, where Richard did not see them. You may be forgiven for thinking the Broadsword’s crew were on edge following the battle, however Richard says this was not the case. Instead, the crew’s training and the realisation they were effectively inside a metal box, floating on the water with little they could do about it, meant they simply returned to their daily routines. It is worth noting that in the aftermath of this attack, Richard’s mother in Brandon, was notified by the military that his ship had been sunk.
H.M.S. Broadsword continued its mission in San Carlos Water, but the mission was extended beyond protecting H.M.S. Hermes, to protecting the troop landings. Once the landings had been successfully concluded, then Broadsword returned out to sea to protect the aircraft carrier. When the war was over, Broadsword was ordered to return to Gibraltar. Again, it was not involved with the televised pomp and ceremony of the Task Force arriving back into British waters. In the four days they were at Gibraltar, the ship was repaired. Most of the war damage was patched up while in the Falklands – large metal plates were welded over holes in the ship. It wasn’t pretty but it did the job. After Gibraltar, the ship returned to Devonport, followed by trips to North America and the Bahamas. About a year later, Richard left H.M.S. Broadsword.
Richard’s next assignment, after leaving H.M.S. Broadsword was to look after ‘mothballed’ minesweepers, which were moored up at Portsmouth. After that he joined H.M.S. Endurance, which at the time was an Antarctic survey ship going into unchartered seas and mapping the area. In Richard’s words he described what he saw when he first stepped aboard.
“It was a bit of a shock when I joined it. I get there and there was, on the front of the ship, pieces of wood holding it up. When I asked, what’s this, they said, “oh we hit an iceberg”. I done two trips on that. On the first trip, yes, we hit an iceberg! It was only a little one and we bounced off it. Then, the second trip, which was fun, it done a ‘Titanic.’ Instead of going straight into this iceberg, the ship turned and it ripped down the bottom of the ship near the fuel tanks, with water pouring into the engine room. We had the main engine down there, the main switchboard was down there, two generators, the oil pumps, everything was down there. We managed to stop the water at about five inches below the main switchboard. If it had gone into the switchboard, it would have gone bang.”
It was a close thing, with the ship almost being abandoned, but repairs were made good and they got back to port. It seems they were lucky, had the hole been just a bit bigger the ship would have sunk within minutes. With this sombre assessment the ship was scrapped and a new one built. Upon leaving H.M.S. Endurance, Richard went to Portland where he enrolled in Flag Officer Sea Training. His role included going aboard Royal Navy ships, setting off smoke bombs and making a general nuisance of himself. This was all to simulate wartime conditions during naval exercises. Some of the bigger exercises simulated town’s being devastated through a disaster and mechanics being ordered on land to assist in repairs. Richard left the Royal Navy in 1990.