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Written 6th July 1982. Captain. H.M. Balfour. MVO. RN.
EXETER ANTIGUA TO THE FALKLANDS
What an aeon away it seems to talk of leaving ANTIGUA on the 7th May to sail off to a War in the South Atlantic. Tales of battle and bloodshed had seemed unreal until only days before we heard of the sad fate of the SHEFFIELD brought the conflict into painful relief, and catapulted us into an indecently hasty departure from the West Indies Station.
Our Anticipation of ANTIGUA’s delights received the original cold douche as we spent 12 frantic hours off loading all of our surplus kit into a convenient container, which we hope to find in Portsmouth on our return. Like moving house it’s always amazing to see the huge mound of baggage and wonder wherever you kept it all. Golf Clubs, bicycles and huge cuddly toys appeared from the most mysterious of stowages. There was time enough, though for many of is to get ashore for a last look at the Caribbean before slipping out to sea to the encouraging cheers and waving union jacks of our disappointed hosts.
Our high speed dash headed South and East towards Ascension as our mood shifted towards a grim acceptance of the job ahead of us. Even so King Neptune brought the usual light relief as we crossed his domain into the Southern Hemisphere, and we toasted his health in the traditional fashion with a tot of old style Navy Rum from TORTOLA. As we anchored off Ascension Island, the most desolate volcanic outcrop imaginable, we were piled high with huge mounds of stores by a very insistent Chinook helicopter who kindly took away the remainder of our peacetime chattels. Only 8 hours saw us heading South again under the watchful eye of a Russian Spy Ship.
When EXETER works up to high speed the thirsty OLYMPUS turbines clutch into gear and fuel levels drop rapidly. So our rush to join the TASK FORCE became a worried search for the “Motorway Tanker” BRITISH ESK as we ploughed into heavier seas and gloomy cold weather. Our days now settled into the monotonous routine of Defence watches around the clock, punctuated by fire fighting and damage control exercises to tune ourselves into the War State. There was still a touch of “Wake me up this isn’t happening to me.! As we practised abandoning ship on a cold black night. There was no escaping the reality soon afterwards we said goodbye to BRITISH ESK heading homewards with the survivors of SHEFFIELD. Captain “Sam” Salt paid a flying visit to pass on the sad story of his lost ship and the many valuable lessons learned.
We neared the Total Exclusion Zone as the last hours for diplomacy failed and intelligence began to reveal that we would arrive just in time for “D Day” on 21st May. By now we were into the habit of lashing down all the loose furniture, shutting doors and hatches behind us, and sleeping fully clothed with anti-flash hoods, gas masks, life-jackets and survival suits always close at hand. Eyes on the radar sets grew more attentive, and ears on the radio circuits tuned into the battle raging a hundred miles away in San Carlos water on that first awful day of the landing. Listening to the calm, clipped professional voices on the tactical as ships were under attack left the question in all our minds “ Will I be as sharp as that when EXETER’s time comes?”.
As a Guided Missile Destroyer our role in the early days was to patrol some 20 miles ahead of the Carrier Battle Group to be the first to detect and hopefully fight off the expected air attacks. The fates already suffered by our sister ships SHEFFIELD and GLASGOW left us a little nervous but determined to show what a type 42 could do. We had already learned the truth of that adage about war, it’s 99% boredom and 1% sheer panic. As our loved ones at home were learning too, the secret was to tick each new day off as a bonus and believe like mad in “Lucky EXETER”. 5 days dragged by and we began to relax a little. COVENTRY had gone inshore to help fight off the still ferocious air attack on San Carlos., and we were the only remaining Destroyer defending the force. The 25th May being Independence Day in Argentina, we were expecting them to try for a spectacular success. The attempt came at 1730, early evening. Super Etendard radar was detected to the North and seconds later we knew that an EXOCET attack had been launched. As the Ops Room team feverishly pieced together the picture from Radar and Radio reports we turned to dash Northwards in a vain attempt to head off the attack. We had been positioned to the South and unbelievably the Super E’s had out-flanked us. We could do nothing as the missile slammed into the ATLANTIC CONVEYOR. As darkness fell the red glow on the near horizon brought home to us that the ill-fated CONVEYOR was not just a blip on our radar but a brave ship in which men were dying only a few miles away. Only hours before COVENTRY had become the third type 42 to be hit and had sunk in 15 minutes. It was a bad day.
News in fact was surprisingly sparse. We waited for days to know if our friends had survived and crackly BBC World Service bulletins were more often our best source of information. Will we ever forget that signature tune.
Despite the setbacks we surprised ourselves with our own cheerfulness. Just like at home the housework wouldn’t go away. Four meals a day had to be cooked, the ship cleaned, fuel and stores replenished from the supply ships, and machinery and electronics maintained to ensure we were fit to fight when the time came. Time passed in a mixture of tedium and hard work. A joke and an occasional smile were essential, and the rare arrival of a letter from home was a real high point. You could tell immediately from a glum look who hadn’t had any “maileys” this time.
The shock of that EXCOET attack made the carriers wary. It had obviously been meant for them. We now shared our advanced screen with a bravely Limping GLASGOW and waited for the next Argie effort. It came a few days later as the land forces began to gain ground at GOOSE GREEN and on towards STANLEY. Again at the favourite time, just before supper the enemy aircraft struck. The tell-tale radar was detected and we dashed to our stations pulling on Anti-Flash and slamming down doors and hatches. A group of contacts appeared on radar at just over 30 miles, this time to the South , our sector. The speed of the action was remarkable but our missile system proved its capability on the open sea. We locked on and fired at 3 targets frightening off the first and hitting the remaining with Seadart., all in the space of 1 ½ minutes. But as we were the hunter so were we prey. In the busy Ops Room it was almost like just another exercise, but for the rest of the ship, closed up at their stations below, these were the most terrible minutes. The Captains voice announced “EXOCET Locked on to us – hit the deck”, and we waited. Thank God the evasive tactics, practised so often, worked and the missiles flew harmlessly into the sea astern of us narrowly missing AVENGER close by. The whole action lasted only 7 minutes but we were still afloat and for the first time the force had come off best in an EXOCET attack. Never again thanks!.
After that episode our detachment to San Carlos, by now christened “bomb Alley”, came as a welcome relief. A little apprehensive for its reputation we anchored in the Loch with the landing ships, frigates and merchant supply ships who by this time were old hands at being bombed. Our Luck Held. The well established Rapier batteries and the determined defence by the ships themselves had dampened the Argis enthusiasm. We had been given the task of controlling the Harriers over the islands and intercepting high level bombers with our missiles, remaining safe in the anchorage by day and sneaking out to patrol by night. The plan succeeded on the second day as we engaged 2 enemy aircraft at long range much to the delight of the other ships who greatly enjoyed the spectacular roar of a Seadart launch. For us it was a memorable experience to witness the amazing activity of the hundreds of helicopters and boat movements in support of the land forces. The Operation came into a new perspective which could not be appreciated form the isolation of the Battle Group so far out to sea.
Meanwhile our own lynx flew tirelessly on a wide variety of missions: perhaps most notably on the night of the assault on STANLEY in company with MINERVA’s Lynx they succeeded in confusing the enemy into thinking they were a massed helicopter assault. This was reputedly a complete success in diverting Argentinean attention from the real attack over land. The mission was flown under constant threat of fire from the enemy’s missile batteries massed around STANLEY.
Shortly before the final surrender we returned reluctantly to the Battle Group, over 100 miles to the East of the Islands, to wait for the uneasy ceasefire. The elation at the Victory opened up a whole new box of emotions as we felt relief at growing impatience to see a confirmed end to the conflict. EXETER is again one of the lucky ships sailing home, whilst we leave many of our friends behind to the work of bringing order to the unbelievable chaos which inevitably had followed the fighting. For them it will be a bitter winter while we thankfully look forward to joining our loved ones for the best of the English Summer.
Before we left the islands we had a last duty to perform in meeting the friends of the “Old EXETER” who still live in STANLEY. Our famous predecessor anchored there in 1939 to lick her fearful wounds after the Battle of the River Plate. A few of the crew are buried there and many of STANLEY’s older generation remember her men with affection. We sailed proudly into the inner harbour of STANLEY (The first Warship to have been allowed to do so) and landed some 40 of our men dressed in their best uniforms for a thanksgiving service in the Cathedral. The warm welcome and smiling hospitality of those who remembered our old comrades of another war left us in no doubt that our struggle for the Falklands Freedom had been a worthwhile task.
A personal note from me. We have been overwhelmed by the many cards, paintings, gifts and good wishes sent to us. We know that it was our families and friends who had the worst problems in waiting, wondering and not knowing. From all we hear, you have need wonderful and that was a great comfort to us. As for your men, well they have been patient, confident, calm, proficient and cheerful throughout. It would embarrass them if I said it all, so suffice to say they are the best bunch I’ve ever served with and I am very proud of them.
I would like to thank you all for being a smashing lot and I look forward to seeing you all on the 29th July in Portsmouth. Start slimming and getting fit, cut the grass, finish the painting, get plenty of sleep, you’ll need all your strength!.
With every Good Wish
Captain. H.M. Balfour. MVO. Royal Navy
By Helen Austin:
'I am the widow of POWEM(R) Dave Austin who sadly died on 25 November 2007 of cancer aged 53. The Exeter was a ship he had very happy memories of saying that it was the 'happiest' ship he had been on in his 22 years. He joined the ship on her way back from the Falklands conflict and was on it until spring 1985 when he was drafted to HMS Rooke. I know if he was still alive he would be an active member of the Association. As a wife I was well aware that during his time on Exeter there was a lot of separation as the ship seemed to spend a long time at sea, having two long Falklands tours during that time plus various others. In January 1982 I travelled with a couple of other wives to Exeter where the ships company had Freedom of the City, straight afterwards the ship departed for a six month Falklands tour. The wives supported each other, meeting up and generally helping each other, all ranks, Junior, Senior and Officers, it did not really matter at that point we were wives and mothers all missing our husbands. When the ship returned in July we were all waiting at Portsmouth dockyard where we boarded and were treated to a 'Families Day' , although on reflection I think maybe everyone would rather have just gone home. Before the next Falklands tour we had moved from Gosport to Emsworth so am not sure if the same support was there for the wives, however we did find ourselves living next to POMA Mick Wood (also on Exeter) so I did have another wife in the same situation and we supported each other during that time.
Photo of my late husband Dave Austin with his sons on the ships return from a tour of the Falklands .... summer 83 I believe. The ship sailed from Plymouth in the January after being given the Freedom of the City of Exeter ... a lot of wives went to Exeter for this, the only thing I remember is that it was freezing cold !