Richard Hutchings was one of a long succession of Royal Marines officers who have specialised in flying. In 1982 he was a pilot with Simon Thornewill’s 846 Commando Helicopter Squadron (‘Junglies’) flying a Sea King 4. In April 1982 846 embarked in HMS Hermes and, as the world now knows, off they went to war instead of Easter leave.
Hermes’ state at the outset was quite alarming as she had been stripped down for a refit - astonishingly in a mere five days all was made good.
One oddity is 846 not being welcomed aboard by Captain Middleton, a Buccaneer man. The idea of an officer joining a ship and not being introduced to his Captain I find quite extraordinary, if only by way of the squadron’s officers being gathered together and introduced en bloc, which after all cannot take very long. It seems to be both rude and unhelpful to leadership, and unofficer-like on both counts.
Hutchings was 846’ Combat Survival Instructor and as such he prepared and lectured the Squadron’s officers on the subject on the way south, little anticipating that he would be the one who was most going to need those skills. He also ran a whole-squadron (ratings and officers) fitness class every evening. Royal Marines, on your heads bounce as we used to say.
The main task was to train up with the most modern versions of Night Vision goggles, brought onboard with two NVG-familiar Fleet Air Arm aircrew from Boscombe Down, working up until that part of the squadron left behind in Hermes under their Senior Pilot was fully capable of long over-sea flights and could still find their way home to Mother. Here, by the way, is everything you could wish to know about 1980s NVG ops. Ultimately the squadron carried out many entirely successful SAS and SBS insertions and recoveries on the islands, flying in by night at twenty feet so as (apparently equally successfully) to remain undetected. We are assured that later developments in thermal imaging and use of infra-red have removed many of the problems experienced with 1982 NVG, including their inability to be any use in fog. Provision of radar in the Jungly helicopters would have helped enormously - the ASW Sea Kings could navigate far better, but SF personnel, equipped for days without resupply, had huge bergens and other kit and the Commando helicopter was a far better vehicle for carrying. At all times the reader is conscious of how the timing of the SF missions, already very weather dependent, had to be dovetailed in to all sorts of other ongoing operations; and is reminded of the physical difficulties, as Hermes pitched sixty feet or more in the southern swell and gales drove spray over the flight deck and in many other respects the weather governed everything (as it always does at sea).
In between all this the Junglies were the natural resource for ship-to-ship replenishment and taxi services, particularly at and near Ascension. More hairy adventures included nearly running out of fuel when recovering the personnel of the Argentine spy-ship Narwhal.
Although not involved in the general life of the ship, Richardson gives us a good overview of his domestic life on board otherwise than on operations. In the danger area all hands on board Hermes were told to sleep above the waterline. Richardson et al had to leave their comfy cabins and sleep on camp beds in the wardroom anteroom, the same still in business as a bar. He solved this by moving, with friends, undetected into the Captain’s harbour quarters, not realising until after the war that this part of the ship was always turned towards the threat if an Exocet attack was expected.
Richardson gives a first-hand account of the Pebble Island mission to destroy Pucara aircraft It was highly successful even though the actual operation was rather different from what had been planned. This section is in effect a taster for the climax of the book, the operation to land a Special Forces observation team near Rio Grande airfield on Tierra del Fuego. Forget anything you read elsewhere. This is the real story, by the man who flew the mission. The aircraft staged via Invincible whose Captain, Jeremy Black, was personally helpful and interested and couldn’t do enough for them.
The aircrew’s return journey from Chile is a traveller’s tale in itself, culminating in them and their families unsurprisingly being peculiarly badly handled by the RN and the MoD, including a somewhat ungentlemanly interview with an Air Vice Marshal, jealous of the Royal Navy‘s achievements.
How did the SF team itself get home again? You’ll have to ask them and even then you won’t know if the answer is a true bill.
There is the odd sign of speech-to-text dictation leading to erroneous homophones, but that is a nitpick. As is to be expected there is slight garbling of some second-hand accounts such as the sinking of the Santa Fe, but perhaps this just reflects the Queen Anne’s whispers effect as stories were passed around the Task Force. More seriously the charts of the Falklands used to illustrate Special Forces insertion routes such that it is impossible to read any of their text and so use them to follow the narrative. Otherwise the general presentation of the book is excellent, with a good selection of private photographs.
Four Mr Mushroomheads.