‘The night sky over Portsmouth was lit up with the flashes from the welding’

WORKER Mick Huitson on a crane as ships were prepared for the Falklands conflict
WORKER Mick Huitson on a crane as ships were prepared for the Falklands conflict
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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With redundancy notices in their pockets, Portsmouth dockyard workers rallied in the nation’s hour of need.

Morale among the workers had slumped to an all-time low amid sweeping defence cuts being imposed by the Tory government in 1982.

REFIT A Nordic Ferry under conversion in Portsmouth Dockyard.  Picture: Royal Naval Museum

REFIT A Nordic Ferry under conversion in Portsmouth Dockyard. Picture: Royal Naval Museum

When they turned up to work on Thursday April 2, the dockies knew 3,000 of them would be out of a job by the end of the year.

Just days before, the first 180 workers had been given notice that they were surplus to requirements.

But everything changed the moment Argentinian forces hoisted their flag on the little-known Falkland Islands 8,000 miles away.

Within 24 hours, ministers who had been telling loyal staff they were no longer needed were demanding they pull out all the stops to get the Royal Navy ready for war.

As the redundancy notices were withdrawn, the dockies responded with the kind of spirit that has served the nation well for centuries.

A Herculean effort saw stripped down warships go from being prepared for sale to sailing in a task force to fight the invaders on April 5.

In the days and weeks that followed, ships requisitioned from the merchant fleet were turned into fighting units with mini-guns, armour plating and even helicopter landing pads welded in place.

‘I remember being at work the whole weekend preparing for the task force to sail on the Monday morning,’ recalls Mick Huitson, who worked as an MoD electrical fitter.

He says: ‘The whole place was swarming with people.

‘Portsmouth was absolutely grid-locked with delivery lorries stretching from Unicorn Gate to out of the city. They were delivering everything from food and drinks to missiles.

‘I had never seen anything like it.’

Mick, 58, who still works at the dockyard for BAE Systems, adds: ‘People were very focused on the job of getting the task force out to sea – but there was also a feeling that if we did it we could save the dockyard.’

Mick was in the yard services supporting the dockside cranes and dock pumps.

He says: ‘It was a very short timescale to get the fleet out. It was absolute chaos with so many modifications being done at once.

‘The night sky over Portsmouth was lit up with the flashes from the welding. It was staggering.’

Work raced ahead. Jobs which would normally take weeks were completed in just a few days. But it all didn’t feel quite real at first, says Mick, of Cosham.

‘We didn’t really know whether we were going to go to war or not. But then I remember driving home up the M275 northbound and I saw six Sea Harrier jets coming towards me flying south. I was on the elevated bit of the motorway fly-over and they came right over my car very close. It was at that point I thought “this is the real thing”. It was a very poignant moment.’

Bob Powell, 65, of Fratton, was an infrastructure maintenance fitter on cranes and pumps at the dockyard.

He says: ‘I had my notice given to me on the Sunday and then suddenly we were being asked to work every hour God sends. It was a hectic time. Money went out the window – everybody who could work was asked to work as many hours as possible.

‘I still had my redundancy notice in my pocket, but I just kept working.’

The dockies would continue grafting around the clock, says Bob, who retired last year.

He adds: ‘I would work night shifts from 7.30pm to 8am and then sometimes a day shift as well for 12 and a half hours.

‘You could even work a bit extra on top of that if you could still stand up.’

He recalls the dockyard coming to a rare standstill when the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible led the task force out of Portsmouth on April 5.

He says: ‘It was a really good feeling. There was a purpose to it. I had started in the naval base in 1962 and it was the first time we had done the job we were paid to do, which is get a fleet to sea in an emergency.’

One thing is for sure – the navy could not have mounted such a rapid response to the Falklands crisis without the efforts of the dockies who put aside their industrial grievances for the greater good.

Overnight, the naval base had literally become a military operation with everyone working flat out to achieve a common goal.

No fewer than 25 ships, including car ferries and cargo vessels, were modified in Portsmouth for the Falklands mission.

As soon as one ship left her berth, another would move.

One job saw the heavy plate shop work an 84-hour shift to fit helicopter landing pads to the Norland Nordic ferry.

The navy knew it was forever in debt to the dockies.

As she left Portsmouth, the Hermes sent a signal to the yard thanking workers for their ‘magnificent support’.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ship, RFA Stromness, which had been stripped back for sale in early 1982, was put back to sea within days.

The ship’s crew sent back a message that defined exactly what the dockies in Portsmouth had achieved.

It read simply: ‘The dockyard is a worker of miracles.’

THIRTY YEARS ON

History has a habit of repeating itself.

In November 1981, defence secretary John Nott ordered deep cuts to the Royal Navy and Portsmouth dockyard was to be run-down with the loss of 3,000 workers.

In a white paper entitled The Way Forward, he moved to reduce the amount of dockyard labour and told the House of Commons there was a strain on the defence budget.

The yard became a tempestuous place as unions raged at the cuts being inflicted by the Conservative government.

In spring 1982, the navy was on the verge of losing its available aircraft carriers.

HMS Hermes was due to be decommissioned in the summer, but she was hastily put back to sea as the Falklands flagship when war broke out with Argentina.

On February 25, 1982, the navy had decided to sell HMS Invincible to the Australian government for £175m.

The sale was cancelled after Invincible’s crucial role in re-taking the Falkland Islands.

As Britain marks 30 years since the conflict in the South Atlantic, the navy is experiencing a 10-year gap without any aircraft carriers, due to the 2010 defence cuts brought about by the Conservative-led Coalition government.

Meanwhile, 1,300 workers at BAE Systems in Portsmouth are fearing for their jobs as the company conducts an internal review of its UK shipbuilding operations.

The defence giant says it is ‘engaging’ with the unions on its review – but has refused to rule out speculation that it is looking to move all of its shipbuilding up to Scotland.

It comes as the Argentinian government continues to stake its claim to the Falklands. The UK government says it is up to the islanders if they want to remain British.