It's a fair old trek to the South Atlantic in a boat that could only make 12 knots on the surface, and that on a good day. We were to stop for refuelling at Ascension Island, a tiny volcanic speck of the coast of Africa. Ascension is a British possession, lumped in with St Helena as an administrative block, and is quite stunning with a large volcano the predominating feature. We were the first submarine crew to be allowed onto the island, we were invited up to the RAF camp to use the showers and for a spot of r & r. We were also the first submarine crew to be marched off the island, there being something of a discrepancy between our sense of humour, that of the RAF and the senior naval officer. I can't remember the exact incident that led to our expulsion, but I do remember that it was fairly trivial in the scheme of things. There was a rumour that the skipper and the senior naval officer had previous bad blood between them which may have contributed. We did a bit of ship visiting in the boat's inflatable, there was a fair few merchant vessels anchored off. My other abiding memory of Ascension was the wonderful blue sea and shoals of colourful trigger fish. We entertained ourselves by throwing loaves of bread into the bay, the trigger fish would make the sea boil as they tore through the plastic wrapping to devoured them. Apparently trigger fish are harmless to humans; you wasn't getting me in with them though!
The latter half of the trip south was a dived transit with much snorting. Although the fighting was over, we hadn't kissed and made up with the Argentine at that point. As we approached the Falklands we were aggressively 'buzzed' by an RAF jet; obviously the Ascension incident hadn't been forgiven either. When we arrived on station it was a grey dizzily day, what we could see of the islands could have been any where on the west coast of Scotland.
Port Stanley is certainly no rival to New York as a spectacle when approached from the sea. A low lying set of shack-like buildings clustered around a church, the only distinguishing features being the roofs which I remember as being of different colours. Our accommodation was to be an ex-North Sea ferry who's name I forget, a spartan sort of place after the hotels we were more used to. There was a tin bar and a movie lounge, but most of us were anxious to get ashore to explore Port Stanley. It was interesting to wander around the town and see some of the sights that had featured during the news coverage of the actual conflict, but as a run ashore it left much to be desired. There was a bar of two and a general store, but very little else to excite the bon vivant submariner. The Falklanders were quite friendly in a reserved way, hardly surprising I suppose, they'd gone from almost total obscurity to being the focus of the nation in a very short time; I'll admit that I was unaware of their exact location when the Argentinians had invaded. The troops garrisoning the Falklands had originally referred to the islanders as Bennies because many of them wore wool bobble hats ala Benny of Crossroads fame. The had been stopped by their commanders as it upset the locals so now they called the islanders Stills, still Bennies. I enjoy hill walking and hiking so set off along the coastline with a view to going up into the hills. The many mine field warning signs kept me to the road, but that was interesting as there are many derelict tall ship hulks quite close in to the shore. My mate's wife was into pressing flowers at the time, so I was on the look out for interesting specimens to take back to the UK. The only ones I saw were in the Governor's garden, I did consider crawling into his garden to collect a petunia or two, but a passing MP patrol dissuaded me. On another walk I went up to the memorial to the men who had died during the conflict, it was a bright and breezy day and the immaculately kept memorial was quite moving.
An alternative to Port Stanley was the new camp, still under construction when we arrived. But there was a large construction workers' camp which had its own social club. We were invited up by a bloke we met in the pub (I now remember that it was either the Globe or the Globe and Anchor). Inevitably I got up to do a spot which went down OK and ensured a supply of free beer for the lads, you'll never go thirsty if you can play a guitar and warble the odd song or two.
Opportune's main task on her Falklands deployment was to act as an intelligence gatherer and early warning post to guard against renewed hostility. So we did quite long patrols up and down the coast of Argentina, I saw some blocks of flats through the periscope, but they didn't look very threatening. When not on patrol we visited some of the more remote areas or 'stations'. Going ashore in the boat's inflatable, we were made very welcome by the farm-steaders; I suppose even submariners make a welcome change from flocks of sheep. A group of us also stayed a night in the camp of a Welsh regiment in a place called Kelly's Garden. I took my guitar, but being a Welsh regiment, we were comprehensively out-sung. My abiding memories of this visit were drinking with one of the corporals in his port-a-cabin barracks. When the crate of beer ran out he ordered one of his juniors, who was laid on his bunk writing a letter home, to go to the NAFFI and get another. The poor lad sprang to attention, got dressed and doubled off to the canteen. This struck me because I knew if we'd tried anything similar with an AB back in the UK we'd have got a pretty dusty answer. We left the camp next morning in a fairly disreputable state, in our befuddled condition we apparently passed the regimental CO without acknowledging him. We knew this because the RSM made it his business to storm after us and tell us so. No two of us were dressed the same, scruffy camouflage jackets or foul-weather clothing, wooly hats or berets and, in my case, a Russian cap with a red star on its front, those without beards, unshaven, those with beards, untrimmed. After he'd exposed his tonsils and bellowed at us for a minute or so the muttered "Sorry mate" did little to calm him down. He demanded to know who we were and was last seen disappearing into the distance to the sound of popping veins sobbing "Dear bloody Christ, f***ing matelots". Luckily we heard no more of the incident.
When we returned from patrol we tied up alongside the RFA Diligence, a maintenance and refuelling vessel. If the accommodation on the North Sea ferry was spartan, that allotted us on the Diligence was no better than that on the boat. But the food was quite good and the hospitality spectacular. Some of us got an invite up to the crew's mess where both draught beer and spirits abounded. We had a great time swapping stories and singing songs. One of the stewards, an outrageously camp gay dwarf, shared my love of musicals so we went through South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel and most of Rogers and Hammestein's back catalogue. Alas, the powers that be got wind that we were enjoying ourselves and put a stop to our carousing after a day or two, so we were back to tinned beer.
We were on deployment in the Falklands for over three months, it was hard work but, I think, a worthwhile experience. We returned home via Ascension again; we were allowed ashore for a shower, escorted at all times, and then a 'jolly' in Grand Canaria for a few days. This was considered a bit of a raw deal, most other boats got to go up the west coast of South America, through the Panama Canal and then a West Indies visit on the way back from the Falklands. Our jolly was to the north end of the island which, as it was in the lee of the mountains, was often under the clouds. Yearning a bit of sun, we delegated one of our number to organise a bus trip to the southern beaches. Decked out in swimming shorts and bearing beach-balls and clinking bags full of wine and beer we got on the bus to find ourselves on a trip up the mountains. Stunning views of volcanoes, not a bikini clad beach babe in sight.
We arrived back in Dolphin during a torrential summer downpour; lovely old Blighty.