Thirty years on Paul Deacon still recalls the great tremors that shook SS Canberra – a cruise ship pressed into Falklands War service – to her very core at San Carlos Water.
The young Royal Marine, just 18 and still wet behind the ears, wanted off that ship at any cost.
It felt like a sitting duck.
Nicknamed the Great White Whale by Marines and the Parachute Regiment on board, the P&O cruise liner sailed from Southampton on April 9, 1982, after a quick refit as a troop ship.
Within five weeks she was in the thick of the action in the shallow waters of Bombers Alley – San Carlos Water.
Her size and white colour made her unmissable for the fighter pilots of the Argentine Air Force but they tended to target Royal Navy frigates and destroyers instead.
Pilots later claimed they had mistaken Canberra for a hospital ship.
Paul, who left the Marines 10 years ago, and lives in north Blackpool, recalls: “I’d been in a commando unit for about a year and had come from Norway straight onto leave – and then been recalled with the whole unit. It was exciting but very much the unknown. We kept thinking by the time we get there it will all be over. We were itching to have a go. These were our guys out there, it was a Royal Marines garrison and they had put up a good fight. And it was British territory.
“Canberra got into position early morning and we were the last unit to leave early evening.
“I’d heard that 25 per cent got killed in landing craft. We felt the ship nearly lift out of the water after one strike. But we were lucky.
“We just wanted off and at it. We were sick of waiting. We knew if we didn’t get off we could lose our unit so we went ashore, set up, dug in, created a beachhead with the other units.”
A beachhead is the line created when a unit reaches a beach from the sea, and begins to defend it.
“All we could see were jets coming in, helicopters flying around, the Royal Navy ships.
“It was like a war film but for real. It’s only when you look back you gasp and think that was close.”
One such moment came after Paul went for a loo break.
“We had to squat over a hole on a jetty at San Carlos. I chose to do this between air raids.
“Just as I pulled my trousers up I heard the radio ops shout air raid, take cover!
“Within seconds of hitting the beach, I saw splashes of gunfire coming towards me, along the beach.
“I knew I had five seconds at best to take cover. I dived in amongst the equipment store on the beach and got down just as the aircraft flew over.
“I stood up, dusted myself off, looked down and saw that I had taken shelter amidst a pile of jerry cans full of fuel.
“One shot and it would have all gone up – and me with it.
“It was surreal. It doesn’t disturb me. But it was dangerous.”
The march towards Port Stanley began, units grabbing ground with each advance. “It was an ideal war for the Royal Marines, amphibious landing, marching across rough terrain, everything we had trained constantly for.”
Paul was in 42 Commando Royal Marines, which became one of the most decorated units of the Falklands, but admits: “I wasn’t in the heaviest fighting. That was at Mount Harriet. We lost guys there and took casualties.”
His unit pressed on, often by moonlight, in freezing temperatures, moving through enemy minefields, under increasingly heavy fire.
“We established our base between Mount Kent and Mount Challenger.”
They took charge of 30 prisoners. “They were a sorry bedraggled bunch. We made them clean the place up as it, and they, were in a real mess. They had panicked and legged it, bits of kit everywhere. I’d seen death before in Norway – from hypothermia – but we passed trenches with dead bodies in, barbed wire, they had marked out the mined area with barbed wire. This was a war zone.
“As a young lad I had a massive interest in what a dead body looked like. It’s all about kill or be killed. You can’t afford to get emotional, you detach in order to function at a different level. You see the bodies as mannikins.
“But it cost me a mate, Cpl Lofty Watts, who had taken me through training. We saw the guys off the Ardent, all shot up. Others who had lost feet to mines.
“I got off lightly, but the constant air attacks before we took Stanley took their toll. For years I would cower and cringe at the roar of aircraft engines overhead.
“Was it worth it? Yes. Could it happen again? They would be daft if it did. The garrison has been increased. Oil exploration is going on. It’s sabre rattling because Prince William’s going there. And we’d win again even if we had to borrow aircraft carriers. Send for the Marines. Still the best value fighting force there is!”
n The war came home to the Fylde on May 25, 1982, when the Liverpool-registered Cunard container ship Atlantic Conveyor was hit by two Argentine Air-launched AM39 Exocet missiles and abandoned. Twelve sailors died, including mechanic Frank Foulkes, of Plumpton, who is believed to have made it off the stricken ship but been overcome in the icy seas. With its cargo of helicopters (which would have carried soldiers into Stanley) the ship’s loss was seen as a logistical disaster by the Ministry of Defence. Atlantic Conveyor was lost the same day as HMS Coventry. Three weeks later the short-lived war was over.
n What are your memories of the Falklands? Were you there? Did you lose a loved one? Write to Jacqui Morley, The Gazette, Avroe House, Blackpool Business Park, Blackpool FY4 2DP, email her on firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet her at @jacquimorley.