Kirkcolm sailor recalls being sent to the Falklands at the age of 18

As an 18-year-old James Garrett was sent to the Falklands with the Merchant Navy and recalls keeping British forces supplied, while enduring regular air raids and assisting survivors in the aftermath of a bombing.

By Brian Yule
Tuesday, 28th June 2022, 10:55 am
James Garrett
James Garrett

As a schoolboy in Stranraer, James remembers listening to his older sister’s boyfriend’s stories of life in the Merchant Navy.

He said: “He would come home on leave and talk about all the different countries he’d visited. I thought it sounded exciting, and it became a dream of mine. I joined up after I left school, and I never regretted it.”

James quickly took to life on the sea and in 1982 was waiting for his next job when he took a phone call from the local office.

James Garrett (back row, second from right) and the MV Baltic Ferry crew

He said: “She told me the ship was in Southampton and was sailing ASAP. When I told my mum I’d just got offered a job in the Falklands she told me not to do it.

“But I was one of three boys, and my dad was in the Army. I think he was a little disappointed that none of us had joined up. So, at the back of my mind, I thought he’d be proud of me.”

James joined the MV Baltic Ferry as an Able Seaman, leaving Southampton in early May. They sailed south to Ascension Island, carrying 5 Brigade, as well as supplies, 105mm field guns and ammunition.

He said: “It was very exciting. There were boys from Hull, Southampton, Glasgow – all over the country. There were loads of wee yachts following us, and everyone was shouting ‘Good luck’ and ‘Godspeed’.

“One day, we were painting the forepart of the bridge, watching the Army personnel fire off a few rounds. They called us down and we all had a shot of firing a gun.

“We stopped at Ascension Island, and there was a flurry of activity with helicopters moving stuff to a couple of RFA ships.

“It was really warm and generally happy and fun aboard. Some of the soldiers were catching small sharks. As we were leaving, we saw the QE2 go past.”

At first, James only expected to travel as far as Ascension. But both the weather and atmosphere on board changed as they were told to go on south.

He said: “The weather started getting a bit rougher and things started getting a bit more serious. We had to ‘darken ship’ and no lights were to be shown – we even painted the portholes black.

“Eventually we met up with a convoy and moved into San Carlos. As it became light that morning you could see all the little campfires in the hills around us. I felt in awe of the amount of Royal Navy ships around us and watched Ark Royal sending off planes.

“At breakfast time Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Webb made a speech on the ship’s tannoy welcoming us to ‘the hottest spot in the world’. At that time, we were all a bit scared.

“We had our first air attack shortly after. We had air raids about two or three times a day, and you didn’t really have time to think about things. We’d get the anti-flash gear on and go to our emergency stations. There was lots of ammo there, and I just thought, if we get hit, we’ll be blown sky-high.”

MV Baltic Ferry carried a huge range of supplies for the “fire brigade” – everything from ammunition to ‘boxes and boxes of socks and camouflage gear’.

On June 8, they got word Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad had been hit by Argentinian Skyhawks at Fitzroy. Both ships suffered major damage and 56 British servicemen lost their lives.

James said: “We offered assistance and ended up taking on survivors – about 40 Welsh guards.

“We fed them and gave them beds. The cook made hundreds of bacon sandwiches and about 10 of them came into the bar with us. They seemed quite jolly, just having a craic and a drink."

On June 14, they received a telegram there was a ceasefire, but were warned to stay on high alert. They sailed into Port Stanley carrying extra ammunition and field guns in case they were needed. Finally, they were allowed to go on shore.

He said: “It was so strange. There was an Argentinian gun ship lying abandoned on the beach and we saw money and stamps thrown about the streets as a shell had gone through the Post Office roof. There were also guns and helmets just lying around.”

James took a ride in an Army helicopter to the island, meeting an old schoolfriend of his mother’s who invited him in for tea.

In August, James was reunited with his family who held a big party.

He said: “A lot of us were just boys, and it was a scary time for us all. Then we got up the next day and did it all again.”

James stayed in the Merchant Navy, fulfilling his boyhood dream to travel all over the world. Now aged 58, he lives in Kirkcolm with his wife, and works with Stena Line Ferries. They have two grown-up daughters and three grandchildren.

He said: “I don’t talk about the Falklands much, although I stay in touch with some of the boys from Liverpool. It’s hard to believe it was 40 years ago – some of my memories seem like it was just a week ago.

“A lot of people gave their lives, and I think it’s important to remember them.”