Falklands 40: Commando chaplain from Portsmouth reflects on comforting Royal Marines during Falklands War
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But in 1982, the Rev Godfrey Hilliard was chaplain to 40 Commando, the Royal Marines who were among the first troops ashore on the Falkland Islands.
He had an important pastoral role as they secured the beachhead at San Carlos – and ended up performing two baptisms on the islands.
Now 40 years later, he’ll be in Portsmouth Cathedral as the city pauses to remember the sacrifices made by those troops who fought in the conflict.
‘I can remember when I heard that we’d be on the taskforce sailing to take back the Falkland Islands,’ he said. ‘I was overcome at the time with a deep sense of inner calm, which I haven’t experienced since. I believe it was the presence of God.’
Godfrey had been a parish priest for three years and chaplain to the Royal Naval Reserve from 1975 before joining the Navy in 1980.
In 1982, he joined 40 Commando at their base in Seaton Barracks, Plymouth. He knew there was likely to be a tour of duty in Northern Ireland, but few people even knew where the Falkland Islands were at the time.
Once Argentina invaded the Falklands in April 1982, the decision to send a naval taskforce came very quickly. Godfrey found himself deploying on cruise ship SS Canberra, and leading services in the ship’s ballroom with a team of chaplains.
‘I was only 30, so quite naïve, and no one gives you any instructions about how to be a chaplain – you just have to get on with it,’ he said.
Godfrey joined 40 Commando after they stormed the beaches of San Carlos and said leading services in a warzone was a perilous task.
‘I visited troops in Ajax Bay, which was our field hospital, and after the major battles I went to Port Howard in West Falkland,’ he said. ‘Sometimes we had to do church services in the middle of the night, because of the possibility of being attacked in daytime.
‘Just like being on a ship in a storm, there are very few atheists in the middle of a battle. If I had a pound for everyone who say “Say one for me, padre”, I’d be a wealthy man.
‘We did bury some of those who died in temporary graves in a place that is now a war cemetery. I remember when one Hindu sapper died, and I had to dissuade his colleagues from making a cross out of wood – because of course the cross wasn’t part of his faith.’
During the war, Godfrey was supported by a navy psychiatrist who helped him and other troops cope with the traumas they saw.
‘The Falklands reignited the idea that warfare could result in psychological damage, and there was a new emphasis on our mental health,’ he added.
After the war, Godfrey ended up as chaplain in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard.
Now 70 and retired, he has joined the congregation at Portsmouth Cathedral. He will be among the hundreds attending a ceremony on Sunday to unveil Portsmouth’s new Falklands Memorial next to the Square Tower at 11am.
At 11.45am there will be a service at Portsmouth Cathedral to mark the 40th anniversary of the Falklands.