Falklands struck fear into hearts of naval families

Off to war...HMS Hermes, the flagship of the Falklands Task Force noses her way through the narrows of Portsmouth Harbour while thousands of spectators cram every vantage point in Old Portsmouth and across the water at HMS Dolphin, Gosport
Off to war...HMS Hermes, the flagship of the Falklands Task Force noses her way through the narrows of Portsmouth Harbour while thousands of spectators cram every vantage point in Old Portsmouth and across the water at HMS Dolphin, Gosport
It would take  someone of the age of 55-plus to remember this scene along Commercial Road at the junction of Church Street.

NOSTALGIA: A Portsmouth scene unrecognisable today: Commercial Road in its pomp

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I’d been fortunate enough never to see Britain go to war, but as a young reporter with The News that all changed on April 5, 1982.

That was the misty Monday 30 years ago today when I, along with tens of thousands of spectators, watched the Task Force sail from Portsmouth for the South Atlantic.

News reporter Chris Owen pictured in 1982

News reporter Chris Owen pictured in 1982

I’ve raided the archives for my impressions of that unforgettable day when the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible slipped away.

It was an occasion of raw emotion. Of tears and gnawing fears – and of a momentous renaissance of national pride.

History was in the making. For this was the day when Britain had to revert to gunboat diplomacy in defence of what was left of her empire.

From the Round Tower at Old Portsmouth to the pier at South Parade, people from far and wide massed ten deep in their tens of thousands along Portsmouth’s seascape to pay tribute and to wave farewell to the men who lined the decks of the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible and the support tanker Pearleaf.

The fleet, which had not fired a shot in anger since Suez, left Portsmouth Harbour on a riptide of patriotic fervour.

Naval families, war veterans, children and thousands of factory and office workers who had gone absent without leave, jam-packed the esplanade at Southsea, the landscaped ramparts of Southsea Castle and the ancient fortifications of Old Portsmouth to cheer, to wave, to raise flags and to signal to the Royal Navy the bannered message ‘Britannia Rules’.

This tremendous display of support for the Royal Navy’s hazardous mission to free a remote British outpost from the yoke of Argentinian oppression brought a grateful response from Admiral Sir James Eberle, Commander-in-Chief, Naval Home Command.

In a message relayed by Portsmouth’s Lord Mayor Frank Sorrell, he said: ‘This has put the Royal Navy in very good heart for the task ahead.’

But beneath the euphoria of Britain’s fightback from humiliation lay distress and anxiety for the families of men in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines who were now on their 8,000-mile rescue mission to the Falklands.

Impossible to imagine as Invincible moved majestically through the narrows of Portsmouth Harbour, soon to be lost in the Solent mist, that this great warship could be engaged in deadly conflict in a matter of weeks.

Inconceivable that she might never return, yet no warship, whatever her armament, can be impregnable against a well-directed missile or torpedo.

But the wives and sweethearts lining the beaches of Portsmouth were only too well aware that the carriers were sailing to uncharted dangers and possibly to total war.

For this was no bluff. Britain had said categorically that if the fleet had to fight to recapture lost territories then fight it would, whatever that may cost.

At the time Kathie Davies, of Ferry Road, Eastney, whose husband was a helicopter pilot in Invincible, said: ‘For most naval families this is a terrifying new experience.

‘Never before have we had to watch our men sail on what could well be active service.’

Portsmouth, no stranger to the great occasion or to wartime farewells, was playing host to a vast audience which was grimly aware that the last act in this drama could be a maritime battle from which some ships and some men might not return.