No atheists in foxholes: Malcolm Farrow recalls his time on the Falklands frontline
When we sailed from England on 17 March 1982 to conduct Exercise Springtrain in the Gibraltar sea areas, none of us on the Admiral’s staff could have guessed we would not be home for Easter leave on 7 April as planned – for that was not to be. As the exercise progressed, increasingly bellicose noises were coming from Argentina about the Falkland Islands whilst diplomacy ramped up, and it slowly began to dawn on us we might get involved in all this, so when the crunch actually came I suppose it was not a massive surprise. With our worked-up group of ships off Gibraltar we were already well on the way.
My main memory of those early days is one of frantic work as we were running the exercise and at the same time making sensible preparations for a much more serious deployment. The following two months in the frontline merge into a bit of a blur of non-stop serious effort; working, eating and when possible sleeping with no break in the watchkeeping routine.
40 years on I reflect that our many years of training paid off. We did our job and did it well. It needed to be done. We restored the freedom of the islands and their people; we restored our nation’s reputation and place in the world; and we facilitated the restoration of democracy to Argentina. Not bad really!
In the flagship, Hermes, we (the staff) were warm and dry and more comfortable than those ashore or in the smaller ships but nonetheless we were the enemy’s main target too. This was not a pleasant thought, and I certainly drew strength from the occasional short Holy Communion service held in a cabin by the chaplain from time to time. A brief prayer before going on watch again calmed the spirit a bit. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I cannot speak for my colleagues, but our foxhole was a mighty warship built in the 1950s and now 8000 miles from home in the frontline of a naval battle 30 years later.
After we came home and recovered, there were many events including a massive parade through the City of London, a Guildhall lunch, and also a service of commemoration in St Paul’s Cathedral. The Archbishop of Canterbury was criticised in some quarters for offering prayers for all involved including our foes. The thing is we had nothing against the Argentinian people, indeed we greatly admired the courage of their pilots and pitied the poor treatment of their foot soldiers. Our real enemy was the Junta and those around it. That’s who we were really fighting, and they deserved everything they got. After the Argentine army surrendered on 14 June, we continued watchkeeping exactly as before for several days in case their air force or navy had not themselves surrendered, and then we relaxed our routine a bit until we were relieved by another admiral and his staff at the end of the month.
Many Falkland war veterans have since returned to the islands and received a huge welcome. I never have, although sometimes pondered doing so. Oddly enough I never even saw the islands until 3 July when we, the staff, were lifted off Hermes and landed at Stanley airport. There we stood around in the murk amongst the detritus of battle for an hour or so, until a Hercules arrived to take us to Ascension Island on the way home, arriving back in England 28 hours later with our brains still on watch in a war zone. But that’s another story.
Captain MJD Farrow OBE FCMI RN served in the Falklands War and is President of the Flag Institute.