“ … Without the ships taken up from trade the operation could not have been undertaken…”
Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, in a letter to P&O quoted in the book
The nation has always called on its merchantmen in war; their memorial on Tower Hill bears twelve thousand names from the First World War and twice as many again from the Second, of British merchant sailors who are still beneath the waves. It is because of their (and others’) sacrifice that I as a little boy never went short of food during that last conflict. Our earliest battles from Sluys to the Armada used merchantmen as a platform for war; my great great great grandfather’s Indiaman was driven ashore and wrecked off Grenada in 1796 after being requisitioned for an expedition to the West Indies (and her wreck was proposed for a dive this year).
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Close aboard the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands, here we have the story of the Merchant Navy’s role and experiences in Operation Corporate, both as the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and in ordinary British merchant ships ‘taken up from trade’, a.k.a STUFT. The author has found, selected and edited for us personal reminiscences, journals and documents, and some narratives specially written for this book, relating to sixteen of the seventy-six merchant-crewed ships involved, covering the gamut of ranks, trades and types of ship so as to present as thorough a picture of this odyssey as could possibly be crammed into 240 pages. As an ex-Second Mate the author is at home in his subject. The only slip I could find, and it is not of Johnson-Allen’s making, was Captain Burne, the RN man in Canberra, being described as Burns.
The contents cover not only events ‘down south’ but the bewildering miracle of the amazingly rapid physical conversion and re-storing of many of the ships for entirely unfamiliar roles, and the seamanlike versatility of the way our merchant sailors rose to the challenge of entirely novel tasks and to sharing their often extremely overcrowded ships with a variety of naval, military and some air personnel, each with their own tribal way of doing things. All concerned proved remarkably flexible although, for instance on board Canberra the Guards were regarded as less adaptable guests compared to Royal and the Paras, and this was not the only instance of friction caused by mutual misunderstanding. The first jarring note came in Hull and related to Trades Union intransigence - at a time of national emergency; nothing new there then. Merchant personnel had to learn how to carry out Replenishment at Sea and helicopter operations, and many gave up their time to help care for the wounded. Most, standfast some who were RNR, had no experience or training or indeed ambition for things warry - but then except for the odd Korea or Suez experience of the very senior, neither had most of the RN participants been seriously to war. It is absolutely right that this contribution should again be brought to notice - some works have already been published on the subject but most either long ago or not focussing so directly on it.
Besides the enemy there was always also the weather. When I read of a 25,000-ton tanker ‘bouncing around like a cork’ - where did that leave smaller fry? In some ships the hands were volunteers, in others not, but all were sweetened by a 50% pay increase while south of 7° S. Some ships, particularly those with non-British sailors, had been completely re-crewed (with extraordinary rapidity) but Uganda and some LSLs retained their Asian crews. Some of the Sealink ferry crewmen had never been ‘deep sea’.
The narratives naturally vary in quality. Eburna’s is one of the best, salted with dry humour relating to all the strange misunderstandings that cropped up ( .. Arrived in secret area, found Russian spy ship waiting ..). ‘RN personnel pretty stunned by general excellence of conditions’ tells another story about MN vs. RN habitability and victualling; some MN were pretty stunned by the fines dished out to RN personnel who transgressed. Some the MN people quoted are pretty scathing about the professionalism of other merchant ships, and indeed on occasion of the RN. The travails of a Sealink Harwich ferry also make a very interesting story. Some of her discipline problems, that had their roots in Sealink itself, make difficult reading, and are one of several salutary reminders of merchant sailors’ civilian status, and the enthusiasm and capacity of unionised labour to bang nails into their company’s coffin. At this point it is worth noting that some merchantmen stayed south for quite a while; not all raced back home via Ascension as soon as hostilities ended; the MN pay bonus ended immediately with the Argentine surrender.
It is absolutely demonstrated in the book, from the tasks carried out, that, no, we couldn’t have run Op Corporate without the MN. Could we do such a thing again (not necessarily in the South Atlantic)? Air trooping is all very well but Corporate demonstrated that tons and tons of equipment and supplies would still have to be moved by sea. We might possibly be able to find the ships BUT whether we could find the crews is quite another matter - MN numbers have shrunk dramatically (some might say catastrophically) since 1982, and British flag merchantmen do not necessarily carry any British crew at all, even officers. It is also to the point that a modern container ship or tanker needs not much more than a dozen crew to get it from A to B.
The book contains all sorts of titbits that certainly added to my knowledge and understanding. There are nineteen photographs (including one in colour of the burnt-out hulk of Atlantic Conveyor) plus sketches at each chapter heading, and a short bibliography for further reading.
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