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A recorded conversation about the Falklands War

Just to give a light tap to a small drum, which nobody else will tap if neither of us does, and just to say: fellow Samizdatista Patrick Crozier and I recently did one of our recorded-and-internetted conversations, this time about that strange event called in these parts: The Falklands War, which happened in early 1982. Listen to this by going here. Further thoughts about this historical event and this conversation from me here. (See also an earlier posting I did, about a very strange British public personality who emerged onto British TV during that war.)

Somewhat inconveniently, for many, our conversation does rather go on a bit, for over an hour. But I have recently been finding myself spending what used to be my television time instead listening to things not unlike these conversations that Patrick and I have taken to doing – podcasts, YouTubery and so forth (many of these things involving Dave Rubin (a recent discovery of mine)). So I thought it worth mentioning our effort(s) here.

4 comments to A recorded conversation about the Falklands War

  • Mr Ed

    Some points from what I understand:

    Argie bombs too low: The pilots were flying low partly to avoid the RN ships’ air defence missiles, which actually didn’t really work close to land.

    Shambles on logistics: I wondered why there were no ‘flak ships’ (even improvised) or barrage balloons in San Carlos Water. Damn good effort considering the notice given though.

    The RAF Harriers had rubbish radios and poor navigational equipment. I think they had rubbish radar too, they were meant to be strafing the first Warsaw Pact echelons streaming into Germany.

    HMS Sheffield couldn’t use its radar and satellite phone at the same time. The RN had Exocets but no real defence against them.

    The Total Exclusion Zone was a British ‘invention’ relating to all ships, basically saying ‘We’ll shoot first and ask later, so stay out” but made clear that all Argentine ships that were a threat, anywhere, were targets. The Argentine Navy Chief of Staff said in a letter to a national paper that the Belgrano was a fair target and it demeaned the dead to say that they weren’t killed in the line of duty.

    La señora Pierini encuadró el hundimiento del crucero Gral. Belgrano como un crimen de guerra impune y no reclamado por nuestro país.

    “Tengo la obligación de hacer público mi total desacuerdo. No fue un crimen de guerra, sino una acción de combate; los 323 tripulantes que ofrendaron sus vidas no fueron asesinados: murieron luchando por nuestro país, que es la máxima entrega que puede hacer un militar.”

    (which I translate)

    Mrs Pierini frames the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano as a war crime not subject to a complaint by our country.

    I have the obligation to make public my total disagreement. It was not a war crime, but an act of war; the 323 crew members who gave up their lives were not murdered: they died fighting for our country, which is the highest offering that a military man can make.

    The sinking of the Belgrano was an outrage to the Left, as it was the West defending itself.

    Argentine soldiers defaecated in Falkland Islanders homes.

    At Goose Green, there were a lot of Air Force troops who weren’t combatants.

    Maj.-Gen. Jeremy Moore said that he had full confidence in his troops as they were trained to NATO standards, unlike his opponents’ troops.

    Army and Navy radios might not always have been compatible. There was an Army (Iirc) helicopter shot down by RN friendly fire (a long-range missile) when it was mistaken for an incoming Argentine aircraft.

    It wasn’t Argentina that had a headache with Chile, it was the other way around. Operación Soberania of 1978 was an Argentine plan to invade Chile in the Beagle Channel to sort out the territorial dispute that had been resolved by international arbitration in Chile’s favour (i.e. in favour of the status quo) after an appeal to Queen Elizabeth II to appoint an arbitrator. Galtieri was mouthing off like a Poundshop Mussolini after the invasion about sorting out their other issues once they had finished in the Falklands, which General Matthei of the Chilean Air Force said was a clear sign that they would be next. So Chile was highly motivated to assist the UK (as discreetly as possible) in order to protect themselves. There was an RAF officer Sydney Edwards who was assigned to liaison with General Matthei. The good Chilean General gave interviews (in Spanish) about it long after the war. The Falklands War stopped a possible larger war between Argentina and Chile, and possibly Chile and Peru (whose peace plan was followed by lending 10 Mirages to Argentina during the conflict to cover for aircraft deployed to the south).

    And the Argies still claim South Georgia, claimed by that well-known Argentine sailor Captain James Cook, and the call the island ‘Georgías del Sur’, acknowledging King George in their own name for the islands.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed sums it up.

  • Peter Melia

    My small part in the battle for the repossession of the Falklands Islands, with a little marine boiler!
    The Argentines invaded on Friday April 2, 1982. How was it that, the very next day, Mrs Thatcher could astonish the world by announcing in the Commons that a task force to retake the islands would be ready to sail only two days later?
    Perhaps because she had help she didn’t even know about, from all sorts of odd places.
    Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, which had been a British possession for 300 years. Mrs Thatcher responded by ordering the British Forces to go in and retake the islands. The MoD had already started chartering in merchant ships for use as auxiliaries, classified as the “Ships Taken Up From Trade, or STUFT”, (the acronym can be taken in some ways as unfortunate, but the original classification is entirely honourable and includes the names of many ships which served the country well). One of them was mt Alvega, a motor tanker for which I was technical manager.
    At the time of the charter, the Alvega, a “clean oil” tanker, (which meant it could carry anything liquid such as gasoline, and even drinking water), which was working in the Red Sea at the time of the Falklands war, was straightaway ordered to proceed towards Portsmouth, England. The MoD seemed to be interested in the water making capacity of the ship, and liked the idea that the ship had a small steam boiler, which could be used to drive a water-making plant. The original boiler had failed and the shipbuilder supplied a replacement, under the guarantee, with delivery to be Athens where the ship was then drydocking, but the new boiler arrived late and the ship sailed without it. The Owner had decided to leave the new boiler in the customs pound in Piraeus until a convenient port could be found for installing it in the ship.
    The MoD liked the Alvega’s fully painted cargo oil tanks, which could be cleaned from crude oil to drinking water standard standard very quickly. Normally dealings with owners are confidential, but on this occasion he told me I could answer MoD technical questions about the ship, in order to assist in securing the charter. Several telephone calls followed and the line of some of their questions about water supply set me thinking. Nothing was said to me but I figured that the RN was planning ahead with regard to continuity of water supplies to the fleet (ships of that period produced fresh water when under way but not when stopped).
    I was a great admirer of Mrs Thatcher, and figured that her little force needed all the help it could get. Publicity was being giving to the oil tankers being hired but no mention was made of water carriers. I figured that this was because none existed. If my guess was right, then perhaps I could be, with a little imagination, in a position from which I could help, so I decided to do so on the principle that it was better to do something if one can, rather than just stand around. I could help, therefore, I would.

    I phoned the makers of the ship’s water-making equipment, Caird & Rayner, England and asked them if the Alvega’s evaporator could be adapted to produce more water. They told me that it was no problem, they had a modification which would do just that, but the modified evaporator would consume some extra steam as a result. The modification would cost 2,500 pounds, a small amount for a large benefit. I decided to go ahead and purchase the necessary parts, and so placed an order. I then phoned the MoD and without mentioning that I had identified that they had a problem, or that I felt I had a solution to their non-problem, told them I could modify the evaporator at owner’s cost, which would double the output of the evaporator from 30 tons per day. The design figure of 30 tons per day would still go in the charter party, which we would guarantee, since my projected 60 tons per day was at the time of speaking highly subjective, especially as it was still but an idea in my head and the equipment had not even been bought, let alone installed or tried, although it had certainly been ordered. Depending on actual experience, any excess water would be free to them, but they would have to pay for the steam, which meant an additional fuel oil consumption for the boiler. They were very happy to accept our goodwill offer. I mentioned that we could easily set aside one of the centre cargo tanks with a capacity of about 2,000 tons, for fresh water, or if they wished, they could have the entire ship, all 55,000 tons of it. I think the latter was a little over the top, but possibly this helped to complete the fixing of the ship, after all, that is what the Owner asked me to do. The little boiler was an essential cog in this machine, and it would be easy for me to get it to Portsmouth and have it installed in the ship, before the Charter commenced. Or so I thought.
    So the ship was now chartered as described, but without the small boiler actually being onboard. The MoD knew of this, they didn’t care, as long as it was in place and fully working when the ship left Plymouth. From the point of view of the Owner, who had no idea that I had spent some money which wasn’t in the budget, (a cardinal sin in the ship management world), the important thing was that the charter payments started as soon as the charter was signed, which was when the ship was in the Red Sea. An arrival date in Portsmouth was agreed and as the Owner had no interest in losing any income, I was instructed ensure that the ship was able to proceed from the Red Sea to Portsmouth direct, at full speed.
    Instructions went out to our agents in Piraeus to pay the customs duty, have the boiler released and then trucked to Portsmouth as fast as possible. Theoretically a truck travelling from Piraeus to Cherbourg could easily beat a ship running from the Red Sea through the canal at 14 1/2 knots. The MoD had scheduled just a few days in Portsmouth to allow communications equipment be installed, as well as whatever else they thought fit. The boiler had to be there alongside before arrival, to allow maximum installation time. That is what the RN wanted, as they did with all STUFT ships. They were paying the hire fees and we danced to their tune. So as the Alvega set off through the sunny Red Sea, Suez Canal and Mediterranean waters, the boiler set out on it’s dusty inland voyage through Communist Europe on a container trailer. The trucking company were told to get the cargo as quickly as possible from Piraeus, up through Albania, Jugoslavia (as it was then), Slovakia then round the corner across

    the top of Italy to France, then home. Even during the Cold War it was straightforward. Or so I thought.
    I had taken into account that the ship’s track took it very close to Naples, which, being a major port, of course had heavy lift cranes. I knew that the truck was well ahead of the ship and so decided to try and get the boiler down to Naples and placed onboard the ship there, which would be a minimum possible deviation. The truck hire time would be reduced, thus saving the Owner some money, also I decided (invented) that as one of the deck officers had injured his back, it was a good place to land him, load the boiler with the big shore crane, and resolve two problems at one time.
    The ship’s captain was very helpful. As well as being an expert Mariner, he had a very laid back personality, and I felt this would stand him in good stead when dealing with the military, which historically tends to regard merchant shipping and personnel as being, “..shall we say, not quite the same as us”. I decided that a reason had to be given to Owner for any deviation, and the landing of a sick crewmember was most believable. Which crewmember? A modern merchantman will have a crew complement of about 25-30. In theory every member of the crew was necessary but in practice, some were less than others, at least for a short period. I decided that in this case the fourth mate was most expendable, and would have to go, to give me my reason for diverting the ship, so when talking on the phone with Mike, the captain, I mentioned that I was sorry to hear of the fourth mates medical problem, and so had arranged for the ship to be diverted to Naples, to enable the junior deck officer, who was unwell, be landed for medical reasons. However, this would fortuitously coincide with the arrival of the replacement the boiler, (which I happened to have at Naples), lifted aboard during the same call. Mike agreed to this, although he seemed surprised, but then so was I when I found that the deck officer had his wife onboard and thus both would have to be landed. So be it, arrangements were made for the officer and his wife to be landed, and flown back to the UK.
    The transport company was requested to deviate the boiler truck down to Naples.
    Things don’t always go according to plan. The truck broke down in Serbia. A new vehicle was hurriedly arranged and the boiler transferred, and it eventually set off, but vital hours were lost and it arrived in Naples too late. This was in the days before portable phones, faxes, emails. It proved impossible to contact the Greek drivers on the road down to Naples, to tell them we were now on plan ”C”. The Alvega had arrived, but not the boiler. As the actual reason for the ship’s call was to land the sick seaman, this was duly done, and a baffled fourth officer, wife and all, took a flight back to the UK. However, the ship could not wait for the truck, no one knew where it was, much less when it arrive, so the ship resumed passage, a little faster now than the 14 1/2 knots, and the truck arrived soon after the ship had disappeared over the horizon.

    I asked the bemused trucking company to immediately turn their vehicle around around and make all legal speed for Cherbourg, the ferry terminal for Portsmouth. So much for bright ideas! The transport company wanted their truck back, but they still had to deliver the boiler and so rerouted it again. The run up Italy was uneventful, but then the transport company phoned to tell us that unfortunately the truck would have to stop at Ventimiglia on the Italian/French border, since large trucks were not allowed to pass French roads over weekends.
    The best laid plans can rebound on the planner with a vengeance! The situation was that the good time made by the truck was lost because of the breakdown in Serbia and the futile dash down and then up the Italian peninsula. Now French laws restricting lorries on the roads on weekends had conspired against me as well! If the truck didn’t make it on time, the charter party could be cancelled, and the finger of responsibility would unhesitatingly point in only one direction, The boiler was going to lose two days. What could I do? French law was French law.
    I put the phone down and looked around the office. There were about two dozen people working there, and since all of them had overheard all of my conversations about the Alvega, and it’s bloody boiler, they were all interested in this latest setback. To say that they were all looking at me was an exaggeration, but certainly most of them where, smiling.
    I had noticed that in general, in our office, which at one count had over 13 different nationalities working there, nobody gave a hoot for the predicament of Britain and Mrs Thatcher. They were unanimous in thinking it was quite absurd for the us to persist in believing that we (the British) had any chance of retaking what the French persisted in referring to as “Les Malouines” and the Italians as the “Malvinas” and so on. None of them would even accept the correct name, which was of course what every right-minded person knows as “The Falklands”. There are few secrets in a shipping office, so all of these assorted nationals had been following my struggles with the little boiler, with what I hoped was sympathetic amusement, and when the word spread of the French lorry weekend ban, it was generally agreed all was over.
    The reason for the “no secrets” was that our office was “Open Plan”, very modern, (we had modern-thinking directors, who planned our huge open-plan office from their large private offices). It consisted of a large open room, with little “islands” of ship management teams.
    I was a Fleet Manager, in charge of my team which operated a mixed fleet of about 12 merchant ships. The team consisted of a three people, Purchasing Manager, Eliane, she could track seemingly anything down, a valuable asset in a purchaser. Then there was also a Technical Assistant, a graduate just out of a British university. David was a BSC, great young man, fresh out of college. In our entirely alien nautical world he worked his head off, trying to keep up with my demands. He performed technical analyses, historical searches and everything else necessary to keep ahead of the large number of ships in our fleet, every one of which was different from the

    others. He had already checked over my calculations of the projected increased water production with the new modification fitted and announced that it might work. There was also the Secretary, Edith, trilingual, as was normal for secretaries in our part of the world. Working with and for me was the only job she’d ever had since leaving school, about 10 years previous.
    Oh, and me, of course so that made four. Our little band of brothers (two) and sisters (two). Theoretically each little fleet had 4 ships, but somehow I had accumulated a few more, and now we had 12 ships.
    Our desks were arranged in a sort of open cross shape, touching at corners, so there were no secrets, everyone heard everyone else. We four could hand pass papers across directly, speak across, join in conversations, opt in, opt out. It worked. If I was on the phone to a Captain or Chief Engineer, (my usual clients) and a reference was mentioned, quite often somebody would be passing the relevent paper over to me a few minutes later.
    Eliane, sat to my left, and it was she who gave me the bad news about the no- truck weekend. It was Friday morning, our office was just 20 miles from Ventimiglia, but on the French side of the border. As I looked around my little team, I could see that they were all feeling a little deflated, for everyone had played a part in getting the truck from Athens to Naples and then to Ventimiglia and we had all felt quite pleased with ourselves. No one asked what were we going to do, it was obvious, we’d have to wait until Monday morning, the law was the law. The truck was going to be sitting there, for 2 days, with the Argentinians creating mayhem down South and some RN type no doubt standing on the end of Portsmouth’s pier, hand shading his eyes, looking for the ship with the boiler, thinking no doubt, that yet again those merchant types had let them down.
    It was more serious than that for me. I had been told to get the ship to Portsmouth, in all respects ready to take up the charter. It wasn’t going to happen. No boiler, no charter, no money for the Owner, all sorts of negatives, not to mention no unlimited fresh water for the RN. Not to mention possibly no job for me, since if I’d not had the crack-brained idea of sending it down and then up the Italian peninsula then the French weekend deadline would not have arisen.
    I got up and wandered off to the little coffee place and took a cup of tea, my usual stimulant when thought was needed and in dire emergencies. People were always in and out of there, it was the office news centre. I soon found that seemingly the whole world knew about the truck ban. As said before, on the whole the colleagues were bemused by the British (and my) attitude to the war, and had argued against it, after all, it was hopeless, doomed to fail, why risk all of those men, ships trying to retake the islands? Had I not looked at the map? Impossible. Even so, they were really sorry to hear about the truck ban. Nice try, they agreed, but then, these things happen. They were very philosophical about my failure.

    I wasn’t philosophical at all. I was angry. I got positive. I needed a reason for an exemption for the truck ban, just for my boiler. How to get such an exemption, if one existed? Surely there was some way it could be done? What way? Back at my desk, carrying my untasted tea, I asked Eliane to see if she could obtain an exemption as a special case. She didn’t see the point. She’d never heard of one being asked for, or given. It was a loi. The truck must traverse France, and their parliament had enacted a loi saying that trucks, those evil, weevil, diesel spewing trucks, were not permitted to move in France on the weekend. It would be a waste of time phoning, who to phone? Who was in charge of exemptions from laws? Besides, it was springtime, the roads of the country were choked with tourists, the last thing people needed were giant lorries, especially foreign lorries, spoiling everything. People would just laugh at her, at us, for even suggesting it. Absurd. So “English”, she said (this as an automatic afterthought).
    “After all”, she said, (perfectly reasonably for a foreigner, I thought), “it is Britain’s war, not that of France. There is no reason why the truck should have any priority. Anyway..” she added “.. except for you Anglo-Saxons, and you especially, Peter, everyone, including the French, are neutral in this little war, and it is certainly true that the Argentine case for les Malouines is very convincing. The Argentines have captured the islands, they will never give them up. The islands are very close to Argentine, very far from England, they are obviously Argentine. You British are not strong enough to be able to drive them off….”. The sentence died with a wave of the hand, a logical inference was that we should not waste our time on such things.
    It was partly true what she said. Britain’s “little war for les Malouines” had no priority for the French, just as Britain’s little war for the “Malvinas” had no priority for the Italians. I didn’t agree that the Argentine case was the least bit convincing, but there was no point in getting bogged down in argument.
    It was clear that creativity on my part was called for. Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, she didn’t know anything at all about my endeavours on her behalf, but I had no doubt that she really needed my ship the Alvega. The RN really needed my ship the Alvega. It was just none of them knew it.
    Then inspiration struck. The French had stopped my lorry, but they did not realise that they, the French, were in the same boat as us British. The boat was this, that they had numerous islands scattered around the world. If the word got around that the old European powers were a pushover, starting with Britain, someone would have a go at that French stuff sooner or later.
    Such a little flash of inspiration. A small flash but a blinding light. I put an argument together for Eliane’s sake and returned to discussion with her.
    “Eliane..” I said, carefully, “..the French have, probably, more small island possessions scattered around the globe than Britain has. If Argentine is allowed to get away with their aggressive invasion of the Falkland Islands then this will be regarded as an indication that what the Soviets are constantly claiming: that the West is weak,

    rotten to the core, worn out by World war II, lacking any stomach for a fight, is in fact true. The British case: that the illegal annexation of the Falklands by Argentina, islands which had been British possessions for 300 years, and have been British since before Argentina was ever in existence, islands of which the inhabitants were 100% British and all wished to remain British: was an illegal occupation, against the clearly expressed wishes of the inhabitants.
    Should the Argentine invasion succeed than it is only a matter of time before similarly exposed French possessions will be invaded. Similar illegal invasions and occupations would be mounted against French territory. It is inevitable. One by one they will fall. The aggressors will have a “precedent”.It will become known as “The British Precedent”, in any invader’s favour for the inevitable United Nations debates. The French will find themselves in the “faux” position of being legally unable to defend their own island territories because of the “British Precedent” if the UK lost this battle, if they are defeated in the Falklands. And therefore it is essential that the French assist their British friends, everyone knew about the Cold War concept of the “domino effect” which is how the Soviets had overwhelmed weak countries and turned them puppet communist regimes.
    The cold war was still running on full throttle. To be sure that Argentinians were not then, as far as is publicly known, receiving help from the Soviets, but that position could change once the Argentine’s continued to retain possession of the Islands. It was certain that it was in the best interests of the French State and for the continued safe and peaceful existence of France’s island territories that the French people should assist the British people in the present war, and in this specific occasion that assistance should take the form of a simple pass, a stamped piece of paper, a “laissez passez” exempting the truck with Alvega’s boiler from the weekend truck ban. Take note that this huge assistance would not require the involvement of a single French person, just a simple pass. We’re not asking a lot from our French friends.”
    It went on, but that’s the summary. I piled it on, we British needed help.
    From the French!
    As mentioned, the office was open plan. Around us, colleagues had stopped work and were all listening in to our conversation. The office was international, I was British, my little team was a European sub-set, and there were American, Italian, German, Indian, Greek, Swedish, Dutch, Irish, Indian and others, all mixed up. Our office seldom discussed politics in any form, everything was various aspects of marine technicalities, crew, safety, pollution, mechanical, electrical, structural, fuel, paint, stores, and so on, the list is long. Boring to outsiders. So an international political problem popping up in our midst made an interesting change. Specially a problem which only involved Britain. Oh how everyone loved to hate Britain!

    However, one thing was sure. The truck was sitting at Ventimiglia. There it would stay until Monday. There the matter ended. The Alvega was just one ship anyway. What’s one ship more or less? And now Peter was continuing the debate. Why don’t he just give up? It was getting boring.
    I didn’t care who in the office heard my discussion with Eliane. She listened attentively to my speech, thought about it for some, quite long time, frowned when I mentioned French possessions at risk, and then, as I sat and sipped cold tea, she said “Peter, I think you are quite mad, but you do make an interesting case, and I’ll see what I can do with “Les Douanes.”
    She got to work on the phone. It was a long conversation. A very long conversation. I heard bits of my argument put before the customs man at the other end of the line, in French of course. In fact I heard all of my points made, some with great charm, some with intensity, such as the possible domino (domino is Franglais) risk to French Overseas Territories, (which had caused her to raise an eyebrow when I had mentioned it to her), some with anger (the plight of the poor population Malvines). Madame Thatcher was invoked many times, always with respect.
    Eliane was what some might think of as a typical French/Monegasque woman. That is she could be charming, angry, bitter, you name the mood, she could be it, totally exasperating, all within seconds. Actually she was just a typical woman from any Western country, just, in this case, French.This was nothing new to any European man, they lived with European women. And when on the wrong end of a phone they listened carefully, closely.
    She had taken my little speech to heart, dismantled it, reassembled it into best quality Gallic Logic, effortlessly expunging any trace of my clumsy Anglo-Saxon clumsiness, and proceded to present my case to “les douanes”, just down the road, over in Nice. The conversation lasted about an hour. I sat there sipping my cold tea (I reflected upon why am I always drinking cold tea?), David leaned, hand on chin, watching Eliane, her right hand in the air, constructing and then reinforcing the case she was constructing. He was fascinated, work forgotten, (he was new to Monaco and the ways of foreigners, for him it was work experience). Edith was amused, she carried on typing away, studying documents, moving things around, working away, and from time to time, glancing up at Eliane and smiling, presumably at some well fashioned or exceptionally elegant word or phrase. I have no idea what the douane at the other end thought, to be sure it never occurred to him, when he picked up the phone, Friday morning, anticipating lunch, weekend looming up, that within minutes he would become an arbiter of French National Security. The phone was passed up the line, to higher officials and then higher. Between passes, Eliane would relax, grin at us all, pull a face, wave a hand, become good ole’Eliane and then, when the higher-up came on the line, revert sternly back to battle.
    At some point, sensing the tide was turning our way, I caught Edith’s eye and mouthed “company car” whilst steering an imaginary car for emphasis. It was her

    turn. She picked up her phone and started enquiring of the office manager whether or not the company car was available. She stipulated that the driver needed to be carrying his passport and the car was booked there and then, on my behalf, “My Boss needs the car”, for sometime today. I hadn’t mentioned the passport bit, but it was obvious, and she had been following the conversation. At the end of the call she grinned and gave me an English-style thumbs-up, the got back to work. She had worked with me for a long time and could often anticipate what was coming.
    The office of the customs was in fact only about 20 minutes away by car, down the road in Nice. My boiler truck on the other hand was 20 kilometres the other way, in Ventimiglia. Which is why, of course, our driver was told to carry his passport, to enter Italy and find the lorry and my boiler. One of my points was that time was very important, and as it was almost Friday afternoon, and we needed the pass before the end of the day, so that the truck could proceed. The Royal Navy needed that boiler! If too late, the Customs office in Nice would be closed for the weekend. It was today or never. I needed Eliane to convince the Customs man that if he could issue the pass straight away, someone from our office would drive over to Nice and pick it up. Take it over to Ventimiglia.
    Meanwhile, Eliane continued being brilliant. The call ended with a flurry of charm and gay laughter, then she put the phone down and slumped down in her chair, exhausted. “I said you were quite mad, now I think I have gone mad also, your arguments have convinced the douanes, who are also, now, mad, that they must assist you and your mad Madame Thatcher in every way they can. The pass is being prepared now, and someone from this office has to go to Nice and collect it immediately. Otherwise their office will close and it will be too late”.
    From where I was sitting, it wasn’t my arguments that had convinced the douanes, at all, it was Eliane’s arguments.
    I nodded to Edith who called the office manager and as a result the company driver was soon sitting down beside me, waiting find out where he was going to. Eliane wrote out the address, with the name of the customs officer involved, and away he went. Edith also had for him our agent’s address in Ventimiglia, and had typed up a formal letter to the agent, authorising him to have the truck released into France. I told the driver to go directly from Nice to Ventimiglia, directly to the agent’s office, make sure that the pass was given personally to the lorry driver, be there when it was handed over and make sure the driver understood that the pass meant he must carry on driving, he was to carry on driving, without stopping, except for normal rest periods, over the weekend through France.
    The transport company was informed, so that when the driver called them to ask advice, he was told to go ahead, to Cherbourg. The drivers (these were two Italians, the Greeks having been relieved and sent home by train) were not pleased, they had been expecting a pleasant weekend in Ventimiglia, beaches, nice meals, newspapers, that sort of stuff. They hadn’t bargained for a mad Englishman, a mad

    Monegasque, a mad French customs officer, and a mad French secretary. None of which they knew anything about anyway.
    I heard the story of the boiler’s journey later, from various sources, agents, mostly. The truck set off for the border, which was a few miles away from the truck park. Immediately it was pulled over and the Italian customs who started giving the driver a grilling about not knowing or respecting the French ban on lorries over the weekend. The driver produced the pass, which stopped the customs in their tracks. Not giving up easily, they disappeared into an office, and eventually, after a long delay, they appeared and, without giving any reason, told him he was free to proceed. It was a now a French problem, not Italian. The driver and his mate thought this was going to be a long journey.
    Slowly they crossed into France, and sure enough where pulled over and grilled again. Again the pass was produced, the douanes disappeared into their office, where they remained for a while, eventually returning to give the driver the pass, and tell him he was free to go.
    So off they set through France, the only truck on a road full of tourists. After a few miles, they reached La Turbie, which has a large customs office. The pull-over was repeated, the disappearance of the pass into the office, the eventual return of the pass, the the permission to continue on their journey. They left La Turbie and set off for Nice. The French douanes had by now got their act together, and they phoned the Nice office and told them of the lorry with it’s Important Cargo, which was to continue through France without delay. Outside of Nice, just as the autoroute starts to get busy, a couple of motards arrived and stationed themselves front and rear, shepherding the truck and it’s now Valuable Cargo (the truck’s status was being subtly elevated as the journey progressed) to Britain. By now, the drivers were beginning to suspect that perhaps the pass had some magical properties which only customs and policemen could see. Whatever properties the pass had, it was wonderful. Eliane was a veritable magician. Presumably the message about the Very Important Cargo was passed on to all police offices on the way, and smoothly, seamlessly, the breathless efficiency of the French State took over.
    I learned these things because local police phoned our various agents asking about the truck. The agents in turn phoned our office, and we told them of the important delivery for Mme Thatcher in Portsmouth. So very soon a pattern developed, and at any possible congestion area, such as Aix/ Marseilles, or Lyons, the police turned out and escorted the truck on it’s way. By now it seemed as if all of France’s traffic police had been put in the picture about the Very Important and Valuable Cargo for Portsmouth. And so the truck trundled on, entirely unhindered by traffic, all passages magically cleared for them. To my knowledge, no one in French officialdom queried the boiler or it’s importance. Once the pass was issued all doors where opened. The truck made a priority summer weekend passage the length and breadth of France without a single person in the country having any knowledge of the reason for the urgency for the journey save perhaps for a few customs officers sitting

    in Nice. And they were now at home for their weekends, as well. The internal cooperation was breathtaking in it’s efficiency. If Chamberlain and Daladier had a French customs document in their hands, instead of a piece of paper, there would never have been WWII. The Germans would have read the document and then packed up and gone home.
    The “pièce de résistance” of the trip occurred as the lorry approached Cherbourg. The arrival time was just after a ferry for Portsmouth was due to sail but the harbour master, on being informed by the Powers That Be of the impending arrival of a truck with a Very Important and Valuable Cargo, held up the sailing and the ship waited for the Really Important Cargo destined for the Royal Navy in Her Majesties Dockyard, Portsmouth. So now the RN was dragged in, yet at this time even they didn’t know the how or why of it. To help things along, the French harbour authorities phoned Portsmouth and informed them that in the fraternal spirit of the Entente Cordiale, a Very Important Cargo, a boiler made by Babcock & Wilcox (no less), etc was arriving that very day on the ferry from Cherbourg, which had been Expressly Held Up to wait for the arrival of the Very etc etc. Not having a clue what this Very Important cargo was, the Navy took no chances and made sure that they had their own escort waiting at the ferry terminal. The bemused, but by now very proud Italian drivers, were then escorted by an RN police party from the ferry into right into Portsmouth dockyard, where they delivered my little boiler directly to where the Alvega would have been, but of course it was still at sea, roaring up the Portuguese coast.
    I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d done it. Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands were safe.
    We learned that all of this had happened during the weekend, the news filtering in on Monday morning when we returned to work. My thanks go to those unsung heroes, Eliane, David, Edith, the Team (one Monegasque, two Englishmen and one Frenchwoman)!
    The new boiler was duly installed in the ship, and I hoped that once the Caird & Rayner evaporator was suitably modified, the Chief would be able to produce 60 tons of water per day, double the non-converted evaporator output with only a very small increase in fuel oil consumption. This is why the small boiler was so important, it was very economical, whereas without it, to keep a huge steam cargo pump boiler effectively “ticking over” to provide steam for the evaporator was exceedingly inefficient, burning fuel inefficiently, and would also, over time result in carbonising of the combustion chamber and massive repair bills. From Portsmouth the Chief Engineer had phoned me to say that he had successfully commissioned the modified evaporator and was producing indeed 60 tons per day. He thought he could do more if pushed. So the epic trip through France was proved to be worth while. Just about every ship of those days was equipped with some variant of a 30-ton water maker. For efficiency reasons most operated from the waste main engine cooling water heat, so-called “waste heat recovery”. Some had steam connections, most not. The RN was

    no different. From my reading of the technical journals I knew that it was commonplace to install waste heat evaporators, they were reliable, economical and saved space. But of course there was a huge downside, which was that when the ships stopped, so also did their water production. Normally this didn’t matter, they carried surplus water to tide them over an in-port stay, and they could almost always order fresh water from the shore. But when a ship was stopped for a long period, possibly away from shore water supplies, then a problem arose. For ships off a hostile shore, with no prospect of getting shore water, it was a serious matter. I had considered this and the result was my modification to the Alvega, and explained my obsession with getting the boiler to the ship, come what may.
    In due course Alvega set sail down South. My RN colleague kindly informed me of it’s sailing, although he didn’t really have to. Pushing my luck, I asked him where it was going to. He clearly couldn’t tell me that, it was an official secret. That was alright with me, but I still persevered, I explained that we operated a very sophisticated planned maintenance system which required a frequent interchange of information between ship and shore. Could he at least allow the Master to send me an “arrival” message, say for instance, “vessel anchored” or something like that? He didn’t know, could look into it. Obviously it didn’t infringe any rules, and to my surprise, after about a 10 days, a message arrived saying just that, “vessel anchored”. No date, no time, no place. So I got out my trusty Lloyd’s Atlas, did some measuring and calculating and was able to inform my little team, that the Alvega was safely anchored in Ascension Island bay, or thereabouts. This of course was the only place it could go, on it’s way down South, so no secrets were compromised.
    Once the ship was away from Portsmouth (commercial harbour water is not nice for the production of drinking water), the Chief ran up the modified distiller which, as promised, produced lots of water. The Master previously had one of the cargo thanks especially cleaned, to take good fresh drinking water and this tank slowly started filling up. So, there she sat, anchored in Ascension Harbour, apparently doing not very much, but all of the time furiously making water (Ascension Bay water is OK). Of course the ship was an oil tanker, and many of the other tanks were used for carrying lubricating oils and various high grade fuels. The paint job in the Alvega’s tanks was specifically designed to allow the carriage of just about any clean liquid from water through edible oils through fuel oils and back again. So she was perfect for the RN in Ascension, for any duty. There were many UK flag ships based in Ascension at that time, but the Alvega was unique.
    Very soon the ship became an essential call for all ships either headed South or North. Once battle commenced down South, seriously damaged smoke-blacked, ships as well as submarines came alongside, for essential liquids especially my favourite weapon of war, fresh water.
    The booking arrangements were informal, just a phone call, to say that a ship would be calling within a day or two, would need water, of course, as well as various oils. However, on one occasion the RN person ashore changed the routine, he asked

    Mike how much water could he supply, at a stretch? He replied “..at present we have just over 1,000 tons…”. “Can you repeat that Captain.?”. “We have just over 1,000 tons…”. “Thank you Captain, that is a pleasant surprise, we will wanting a lot of it in a few days.” They did indeed. The converted ferry Norland had left UK with over 600 troops onboard, and soon after leaving its onboard water making equipment had failed. The troops were needed down South so the decision was made the carry on to Ascension, with restricted fresh water usage. Effectively no washing, no laundry. Drinking water only, and that restricted. The Norland arrived alongside Alvega, the thirsty troops lining the rails cheering. The word was out that here, on this little island, was water! Eventually Alvega transferred hundreds of tons to the Norland, filled it up. The Mate told me that it was quite hazardous mooring the two ships, taking and securing the ropes. In their enthusiasm for the water the troops were offering Alvega all that they had, which was mostly throwing over cans of beer and soft drinks. I think it was the Norland episode that finally convinced the RN brass that they had indeed a serious asset in their Bay. Some time afterwards they sent out an osmosis water separator, and my contact asked me where could a largish machine which needed lots of water and electrical power best be fitted. I told him that perhaps an easy access place would be the steering machinery room, which was quite spacious. They might have to knock down an internal bulkhead, just to remember that if the ship sailed it would be a good idea to replace it. I had no idea what they wanted to fit, but my attitude was always to please the client. In fact once the plant was in place and the removed steel refitted the osmosis plant (osmosis plants were, at that time, largely experimental) doubled again the ship’s water making capacity, so now the Navy was happy in the knowledge that they had a truly secure source of good quality drinking water. They always had that of course, from the moment Alvega arrived, but they couldn’t be sure. I suppose hundreds of years of history can have a cautionary effect on acceptance of claims from enthusiastic merchantmen.
    Mike had previously asked me what restrictions did we have on entertaining. Both of us foresaw that wherever the ship went it would probably be anchored for long periods and that military personnel might want to visit. How should he handle that? We agreed that as the Alvega had rather good accommodation, including recreation rooms and bars, as was normal for British merchant ships in those days, certainly far better than the Naval ships, and lots of space, then military personnel should be welcomed. The same was allowed for the crew, who had their own deck, but which was policed by the boatswain and the engineroom storekeeper (his engineroom equivalent). In principal the Captain should do whatever he thought reasonable to help the military. All within reason, of course.
    The system worked, and slowly the ship gained in popularity as the word spread. In both officer’s and crew’s messes shore personnel had dinner and lunch invitations, and the ship became integrated into Ascension life, rather than just sitting there in the middle of the bay. However as a result the food and drinks bill increased, which had to be accommodated somehow in the operating budget. In principal I hated a rusty ship, as in my eyes it was a sure sign of a Bad Owner or Manager, but circumstances alter cases, and Mike’s entertaining budget had to be covered

    somehow (there was absolutely no chance of getting any increase), so the deck painting had to go by the board.
    Ashore there was a civilian population, which by now was dwarfed by the military. However, sometimes they had problems which they couldn’t handle themselves. There was a petrol pump on the island, for residents’s cars, which broke down. They had no one to fix it so they sent word went out to Alvega and the upshot was the Chief himself went ashore, with a junior engineer and a bag of tools and he overhauled the pump and restored their petrol supply. So the islanders got to like Alvega.
    The military had curious problems of their own making. One day the Alvega’s watchkeeper (Mike kept a watchkeeper on the bridge) noticed some unusual activity ashore, a gathering of troops. After a while they seemed to be preparing to board a barge, so the watchkeeper, (the Second Officer), called the Captain who concurred. The barge as seen through the binoculars, had neither seats nor handrails, nothing, just a flat rather wobbly platform. The Captain called up the RN person and told him to hold it, he’d send help. He then lowered both lifeboats and took them into the berth, where they embarked the troops in small groups and ferried them out to their transport ship. Other merchant ships in the bay heard the radio traffic and followed suit and soon sent in their own lifeboats to help out, and the troop to ship transfer was carried out without anyone getting wet. So the Army got to like Alvega.
    Thus by virtue of a simple conversation which occurred some time before, the Alvega and her crew and officers were able to make life in Ascension better for some of the troops coming up from the South, as well as down from the North, and even managed to help the islanders themselves.
    Sometime later, whilst the war was still on, I talked my way into a trip down to Ascension, to “conduct an examination of the ship, as I was commercially required to do under the management agreement with the shipowner”. To my surprise the RN agreed my request, and eventually I was asked to present myself to Brize Norton with, of course, my passport. On arrival at the gate I was asked a few questions and presented some requested identity documents, plus a letter from the RN, which advised the best way to get there. My name was on a list, and after a very short while I was welcomed inside and transported to my overnight accommodation, the flight being early next morning. The rooms were good, and there was also an excellent menu in the restaurant. I didn’t see any other civilians there, I was the only one in a sea of uniforms.
    The next morning, after an early breakfast, we all were shepherded out to the waiting Hercules. I was again, one blue suited civilian amongst the military. It was interesting to observe the apparent lack of formality amongst the troops and ranks. They seemed to be wandering out across the tarmac in small groups, chatting quietly. Not at all like those Hollywood films we see showing American troops boarding

    planes, all marching smartly out to the plane, singing “sound-off” songs. It seems as if the British method of going to war was a much more relaxed affair.
    We all filed aboard up the ramp, and I found a seat about half way along the left hand side, a simple seat, attached to the side of the plane, facing inwards. The seating filled up quite rapidly, and soon we were all sitting there facing a mountain of cargo extending down the middle of the aircraft, covered and secured with cargo netting. The middle of a Hercules is a large space, and my impression was on sitting in a smallish warehouse. The huge aft door closed and an RAF flight sergeant appeared and climbed up on top of the cargo. He told us about the flight, no smoking, the cargo being mostly munitions, regular meals would be issued, toilets were in the closed rear door, which was of course sloping. I looked at the toilet, on it’s slope, and wondered about the mechanics of that. Never mind, I thought, I’d find out soon enough (it worked OK). We were also told that we’d be stopping for fuel at Dakar. He informed us that “..Dakar is neutral in the conflict, and the call is strictly low-key. When we arrived, we would be allowed out onto the tarmac to stretch our legs, from a door which would be opening out towards the edges of the airfield, away from the terminal. The aircraft would be parked strategically in a position to make this so. On no account was anyone allowed to make themselves visible to the airfield proper, by going around the front or back of the plane. We must all stay in the plane’s lee”. The flight went on and on and on, the steady droning of the engines, which at first appeared to me to be quite loud, soon becoming background noise.
    There was very little movement amongst the passengers, for the good reason that they were soldiers, and anyway, there was very little space to move in, the cargo really did take up all available space and passengers were an add-on. So I managed only limited conversations with my fellow passengers, mostly about family, as was to be expected. I hardly expected them to tell me, a civilian, in a blue suit no less, with a briefcase, anything about their real life jobs. Telling them I was the manager of a fleet of merchant ships generally generated boredom and in fact I only mentioned my job if directly asked.
    The meals were handed around, MREs. A box containing an assortment of familiar British tinned foodstuffs of every kind. With the food, my fellow passengers relaxed and were very kind, explaining, as I picked up a tin, what each one contained, how the ingenious little opener worked, which ones were preferred over others and with reasons. Also the generally accepted order of eating, starters, mains, savouries, desserts, which was not at all apparent to my inexperienced eye. I was reminded of my first trip to Japan, alone in my first restaurant in a Japanese city. Nothing written in English and every dish appearing what it was, quite alien. In that restaurant I had resorted to physically taking a reluctant waiter by the arm around the restaurant and getting him to mime what each dish, being eaten by locals, could possibly be. Well, MRE were not in that extreme category, but there is a first time to everything. For the record, the meals were very good.

    The Hercules rumbled on, I had a short spell in the cockpit, finding there the original flight sergeant who had climbed up onto the cargo for our initiation speech, and learned that the entire flight crew was NCO’s. Reassured at being in such safe hands, I slept soundly in the little seat, for several hours. Eventually we landed at Dakar, but not before the same sergeant that repeated his message about the importance of discretion. We filed out, down the little steps at the side door, just aft of the cockpit, and joined everyone else on concrete. There was a ditch near there, which the sergeant had recommended for the satisfaction of private functions, and which we all availed ourselves of this unexpected facility, all standing in line, chatting away about this and that, as men do. I couldn’t resist checking out this neutral airfield, I wanted to see what such a thing looked like. So I sidled over to the front of the Hercules and ever so discretely peered around the end. The sight amazed me. I was looking at a neutral airfield. Our visit there was top secret, we even had to pee into a ditch. Yet just around the front corner of the plane was Heathrow! There was no thing to be seen but dozens of British civilian airliners, the principal carriers of course, British Airways, British Caledonian and also lots of private charterers and cargo planes. There was not a non-British tailplane amongst them, from the lettering. So now I knew what neutrality meant.
    When we arrived in Ascension and the aircraft was parked, the same sergeant appeared and made an announcement which to my untutored eyes and ears was quite unusual. he hoped we all had a comfortable flight, and he thanked them all for their orderly conduct at Dakar, glancing at me as he spoke, I guess my little spy job there had been noted. Then he said, in effect “…you will all recall that when you joined my aircraft at Brize, it was in an impeccable condition. Now gentlemen, look around you. The place is a flying rubbish tip. I have at your disposal a large quantity of dustpans, brushes and plastic bags, which will be distributed to you all. Please clean up the mess and place everything you find in the plastic bags. When the aircraft is clean again to my satisfaction, the doors will open and you can leave and go about your business.” Without any ill feeling, the soldiers, sailors and airmen all turned too with dustpans and brushes, until eventually the aircraft was returned to it’s original Brize state, after which the sergeant kindly let us out. I had picked up a brush and dustpan and started to do my bit, but they were gently but firmly removed from my grasp, and the troops flatly refused to let “sir” do anything. I found myself a vantage point near to the flight deck door, and watched in admiration at the speed with which the Hercules interior was transformed. It crossed my mind that commercial carriers were missing out on an amazing business economy opportunity by not having the same drill on civilian airliners.
    Eventually the war was, as we know, won, by the Good Guys, and all of those STUFT ships returned to ordinary commercial life. The Alvega was moved down South and became a supply ship, still of course delivering it’s water on request. Eventually the Alvega returned to civilian life, the little Caird & Rayner evaporator working, when required, to the end.
    So most of the STUFT ships were forgotten.

    The statistics about the war are well known, lives lost, people wounded, ships and aircraft lost, but Alvega never went anywhere near the war zone, and obviously never was in any danger. No crewmembers were killed or hurt. The ship was not damaged in any way by enemy action. Yet it’s contribution was immeasurable, simply by being an inexhaustible source of clean, fresh water, it resolved a very serious logistical problem for the Task Force. Now, is it forgotten? The answer is no. The Alvega can never be forgotten, for how can one forget something which was never known about in the first place?
    One last thought, does the MoD have a specialist water carrier lined up for Falklands II?

  • Mr Ed

    Peter M’s tale, one of the many unsung heroes of that time, wonderful. I would also note that one historical footnote to the war is that it obviously was the finest tour of the Hawker Siddeley Harriers (both RN and RAF variants and pilots). The (by-then merged) Hawker aircraft company was the second ‘child’ of Sir Tom Sopwith, who lived to 1989 aged 101 (here’s a documentary on him) and thus saw aircraft from his firms’ lineage play significant roles in seeing off the Kaiser, Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito and the drunkard Galtieri.