Donald’s dark days off the Falklands

Lieutenant Commander Donald Stokes who was serving aboard HMS Hermes during the Falklands war
Lieutenant Commander Donald Stokes who was serving aboard HMS Hermes during the Falklands war
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THE large framed photograph hanging just inside the door of the Royal British Legion clubrooms in Duns shows cheering crowds lining the dockside in Portsmouth to welcome the aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, back from the Falklands conflict.

Donald Stokes can’t quite pick himself out from among the rows of sailors lining the decks and superstructure of the massive vessel which served as the Royal Navy taskforce flagship, but, 30 years on, he still remembers the day as if it were yesterday.

Lieutenant Commander Donald Stokes with a picture of HMS Hermes returning to Portsmouth from the Faulklands

Lieutenant Commander Donald Stokes with a picture of HMS Hermes returning to Portsmouth from the Faulklands

A former lieutenant commander with the senior service, Donald served as catering officer aboard Hermes during the conflict, where he was responsible for ensuring that the packed complement of 2,500 sailors, soldiers, marines and airmen were properly fed.

As the country marks the 30th anniversary of the two-month long war with Argentina, veterans such as Donald are remembering the part they played and the 255 comrades who lost their lives.

Current chairman of the Duns branch of the Legion, Cardiff-born Donald joined the navy straight from school in 1953. The following 34 years saw him serving on various ships around the world in a career he thoroughly enjoyed.

He finds it difficult to believe it is three decades since he was part of the 100-ship naval taskforce that sailed 8,000 miles to the South Atlantic to fight a conflict in some of the world’s most inhospitable seas.

“It was very unreal. I don’t think in the beginning any of us expected there would actually be any shooting or fighting. All the way down we were expecting to be turned back and a diplomatic solution found.

“It wasn’t really until after we reached Ascension Island that we thought this was getting a bit serious,” he told TheSouthern this week. It was on April 2, 1982, that Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands. Just three days later, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched the British task force.

“I can remember it as if it was yesterday,” Donald told us. “Hermes left on Monday, April 5, and it wasn’t until late April that we got down there.

“It was the worst possible place for a conflict – 8,500 miles away from home, between two hostile continents, with winter coming on.”

When HMS Sheffield, a Type 42 guided missile destroyer, became the first British warship lost to enemy action since the Second World War after she was hit by an Exocet missile fired from an Argentine warplane on May 4, Donald says there was a sense of disbelief.

“From the quarterdeck you could see this plume of smoke rising in the far distance. They started bringing survivors back on board and that was the day it all became very, very real.”

Donald and his shipmates were well aware that the taskforce’s two aircraft carriers – the other was HMS Invincible – were prize targets for the Argentine fighter-bomber pilots.

“The Argentinians definitely wanted to get one of the carriers. They very nearly got Hermes. They didn’t, but they got the next best thing from their point of view, the Atlantic Conveyor, which was carrying all our spares.

“I remember standing on Hermes’ quarterdeck looking at the hull of the Atlantic Conveyor, which was glowing red, on the horizon.”

“I’d often wondered what I’d be like in a war situation, which you do if you’re in the forces. Would I be all steely-jawed, glint-eyed and ‘up and at them chaps’, or would I be sat in a corner wetting myself?

“The truth is neither. It was just a feeling that I couldn’t believe it was happening and then you just get on with the job you’re trained for.”

But, despite a total of nine Royal Navy ships being sunk or badly damaged, Donald says he and his colleagues never had any doubts that the taskforce would prevail and still believes the operation was necessary.

“We were told to do it and we did it. They had no right to invade.”

Hermes finally arrived back in Portsmouth on July 27. There would be five more years of navy life for Donald before he had to leave the service in 1987 on reaching the mandatory retiring age of 50.

He and his wife, Deborah, then decamped to southern Italy where they spent the next decade running a bed and breakfast in Umbria. On returning to the UK, a brief period in Halifax was followed by a move to Scotland and Duns.

Donald, who has a grown-up son living with his family in Toronto, says if he could relive one day of his naval career again it would be when Hermes arrived back in Portsmouth.

“We’d anchored off the south coast of the Isle of Wight the night before. Normally when a ship comes back from a deployment, it anchors offshore overnight and they paint the ship’s sides so it enters port looking as best as it can.

“But our captain said ‘no, we’ve been at war and we’re going back in as we left’. So we left all the rust and muck on the ship’s sides.

“The next morning as we came around the Isle of Wight and came in front of Southsea, we noticed a lot of people on shore.

“As we got towards the harbour entrance at Portsmouth, every level surface was crammed with people.

“The dockyard was jam-packed with people and hundreds of small boats were following behind us.

“It was an incredible day. I was doing quite well until the band played ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and then cracked right down the middle.”