‘Exocet locked on. Hit the deck! Hit the deck!’

Chief Petty Officer Eric Mitchell (far right) pictured with colleagues during the Falklands campaign 30 years ago with HMS Exeter in the background.
Chief Petty Officer Eric Mitchell (far right) pictured with colleagues during the Falklands campaign 30 years ago with HMS Exeter in the background.

HONORARY Londonderry man Eric Mitchell served aboard the HMS Exeter when the destroyer was first line of defence for troops and matériel transporters during the Falklands War.

Thirty years later he speaks to the Sentinel about coming under attack in the South Atlantic, his anger over the Bluff Cove Disaster and why sinking the Belgrano - whilst regretful in terms of the Argentinian lives lost - ultimately saved British lives by keeping the Argentine navy in port for the remainder of the conflict.

Retired Chief Petty Officer Mitchell was already an experienced sailor by the time Argentine forces invaded the Falklands in April 1982.

The scion of Suffolk fishermen and sailors it was perhaps inevitable the 66-year-old Lowestoft native would end up signing up for the Royal Navy as an apprentice engineer in 1963.

His father had been a Royal Marine and his grandfather a master mariner and member of naval intelligence. Both served during the Second World War and his grandfather eventually received an MBE for his civilian work as a fisheries researcher.

So there was little surprise when Eric signed up at the age of 17-and-a-half in September 1963.

Eric had sailed around the world several times over by the time of the Falklands. During his 18 years in the navy up to 1982 he’d watched spent machine gun rounds bouncing onto the quarter deck of the HMS Brighton whilst providing support for the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967.

He’d met and married a Londonderry woman whilst stationed on the HMS Keppel’s anti-submarine patrol out of the city.

Eric also served on the HMS Eagle, HMS Ark Royal and the HMS Yarmouth and had eventually graduated to CPO in charge of an engine or machine room on board a ship.

By the time the Falklands rolled around he had acted as midwife to the HMS Exeter on which he eventually served during the war.

He explained: “I joined the HMS Exeter in 1978, when it was being built, as part of the standing by crew. The standing by crew was mainly the technicians, the mechanical side and then the electrical side.

“You worked with Rolls Royce, Napier, the air compressors installing the equipment and doing all the tests.

“You’re also working with the shipbuilders, testing, getting an idea of where all the valves are and how they all run, doing sea trials with the shipbuilders and contractors - all under the red ensign because she’s not yet commissioned. She’s classified as a merchant ship because she hasn’t been taken on by the navy yet.”

After further sea trials the red ensign of the merchant navy was eventually lowered and the white ensign of the Royal Navy flown.

As Eric explains: “From then, we worked her up, did sea trials and naval trials. We did sea training going through all scenarios for six weeks.

“We had to exercise a diving team, the aircraft operates its team, the firefighting team, the damage control team the Medivac teams. Everything is exercised.”

It was around this time that Eric qualified as a naval diver responsible for routine maintenance to the ship’s hull and repairs if she were damaged during an enemy attack.

At the height of the Cold War the navy were on their guard for Soviet saboteur divers armed with limpet mines - a real threat when alongside in certain foreign ports.

The disappearance of Commander Lionel Crabb after a botched attempt at underwater surveillance on a Russian warship containing Nikita Kruschev during a visit to the UK in 1956 still loomed large in the imagination.

“You were used on board the ship to do underwater maintenance,” explains Eric. “Underwater swim throughs to check in case you’d been attacked by divers with limpet mines. Underwater maintenance, underwater checks. Various other things.”

He added: “It was precautionary. If you were in a foreign port there was the risk of saboteurs. Several ports you would go to their may be foreign ships in port.

“There could even be a Russian ship in the same port. There were memories of Captain Crabb.

Eventually, Eric - a fairly grizzled sea dog at this stage by comparison to some of the younger sailors - found himself in Belize as the whole Falkland crisis escalated thanks to the sabre rattling manoeuvres of Leopoldo Galitieri’s military regime.

He remembers the rising tension before the Exeter was tasked to the Falklands after the sinking of the HMS Sheffield.

Bizarrely, Eric and his colleagues aboard the Exeter were sunk twice according to black propaganda circulated by the Argentinians.

“We were a guardship in Belize in the West Indies. When things were getting hot we were on 24 hour call. Showing the flag and in a position to leave Belize as and when,” Eric tells the paper.

“Things were getting hotter and hotter and in fact at one time, I think, we were the nearest ship and with that in mind the Argentinians posted two false accounts - they were good at it too.

“We were alongside in Quay West and according to the Argentinian military we’d been sunk! And then near the end of our deployment to the Caribbean we were doing high seas firing with the American navy at Puerto Rico just firing at drones going across and we were knocking them out of the sky much to their disgust with our missiles and guns. That’s when we were again attacked and we were on fire, sinking,” he says.

Despite the light entertainment provided by the Argentinian black propaganda it was at this point that the gravity of the situation really sank in.

Significant casualties had already been inflicted on both sides with the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano (323 lost) and the HMS Sheffield (20 lost).

The war would ultimately result in more British casualties than any conflict since WW2. Eric and the rest of the Exeter’s crew realised this was serious.

“Prior to going we were in Jamaica and we off loaded all our personal stuff and wills of course,” explains Eric. “When the first casualties were taken we realised for the first time it was for real.

“All personal effects were off loaded. All personal clothing. Any presents you’d bought. I’d bought the boys baseball bats, balls and gloves. They were all off loaded, packed into boxes and sent on for our arrival.”

There followed a tasking south in the wake of the sinkng of the HMS Sheffield. The crew carried out intense action drills stopping off at Task Force Base in Ascension on the way down.

Incredibly, the Exeter and its crew sailed into war in a state of relative ill-equipment. The naval hierarchy had finally decided to adjust the Exeter’s diesel exhaust after a warning two years earlier that it was interfering with the ship’s radar.

“The diesel exhaust was going straight out aft and we had this radar equipment that when the engine was running at a set speed the pulsating of the exhaust from the diesels interfered with the 909.

“So, we’d asked for this modification to deflect the exhausts away from it, a year or two years before, and suddenly it arrived in Ascension.”

Equally, incredible was the fact that just days before placing themselves as first contact for the Argentinian airforce’s sorties out of Buenos Aires Eric and his colleagues were told to wear corduroys and rugby tops instead of naval standard issue.

“Because a lot of their injuries sustained on the Sheffield were due to the burning caused by our working clothes and our overalls, plastics like nylon or polyester, which when they burn they burn into the skin, people ripping them off, rip the skin off.

“The burns casualties were exacerbating the burns by pulling the clothing off which is a natural thing to do. We were told to wear natural clothes, so you wore civilians and rugby shirts and corduroy trousers.

“For our overalls we got tank driving uniforms from the army. When I joined the navy I was wearing natural fibres. We were also issued with nine minutes life saving breathing apparatus,” says Eric.

After a final rendezvous with the British Esk, which was laden with survivors from the Sheffield, Eric found himself providing protection for troop transporters offloading on the islands.

At this point, with the Exeter effectively acting as a goalkeeper for the British fleet and the Argentine airforce determinedly mounting daily sorties you could time your watch by, the tension amongst the crew was at its height.

“It depended on your age. A lot of the married man experienced nervous apprehension,” Eric says. “I thought: ‘How will it affect me? Will I stand up to the rigours and demands?’

“The younger men were different. They were pretty keen to get down there. A bit laissez faire. Sometimes with the attitude: ‘Ah, we’ll be alright.’ When you’re that age you think everything’s a big game.

“But it all changed when we were actually down there involved and attacked. We always got attacked in the afternoon.”

Every day at between 2.30pm and 4.30pm the Argentine Super Étendard’s and A4-Skyhawks would arrive like clockwork from El Palomar airbase just west of Buenos Aires. The Exeter’s job was as an early warning system and as an interceptor.

Eric was full of praise for his erstwhile enemies. Despite their lethal intent he felt the airmen were very courageous.

“I will say this, their airforce was excellent. They were very brave men,” he admits.

He remembers expecting a particular focused attack on the anniversary of the May 1810 revolution on May 25, 1982, which is celebrated in Argentina as a patriotic holiday.

“Around that time it was their natural celebration day. You knew there was going to be an attack on that day. By then they’d had several casualties themselves. We had knocked two or three aircraft out of the sky.

“They developed this method of coming in low to avoid our radar so we couldn’t pick them up. It was only when they had to climb to about 10,000 or 12,000 feet to launch the missiles that we picked them up,” Eric explains.

Eric vividly remembers the first attacks as if they occurred yesterday.

Whilst he had been attacked before - ‘we were doing exercises in Aden and on patrol when we were fired upon with machine guns. You could actually see the bullets landing on the quarter deck but they were dying’ - this time the danger was much greater.

“The captain sent everyone to their action stations. There were two young lads about 17, just getting dressed, and the captain was giving a running brief of what was happening around and he said: ‘Exocet locked on. Hit the deck! Hit the deck!’

“So we all hit the deck and these two lads from nowhere were instantly, just like that, fully dressed and on the deck.

“It was 15 seconds to impact and I’m lying there and it seems as through you can hear what people are thinking. Will I stand the test here? Will I not buckle or what? And you could hear people in their minds going 15, 14, 13, 12...counting down,” he says.

Eric first heard the chaff go off - a radar countermeasure involving firing a cloud of small pieces of aluminium to attract metal-seeking enemy missiles - before the Exeter’s own defensive missile was also fired.

“There’s another four or five seconds,” he recalls. “And then I’d gone done to about minus three at this stage and the captain says: ‘All clear, all clear.’ The Exocet had actually been hit.”

After that the false air of invincibility adopted by some of the younger sailors was gone.

“That’s when everybody realised. This was for real. It’s definitely for real. We’ve been under attack.

“That’s when these 16, 17, 18-year-old boys really became men. Their whole facial expression, their whole demeanour changed. Even their skin pallor seemed to change.

“It wasn’t a game whereby we have to win. It was a scenario where they realised: ‘We can get hurt here.’”

Many people eventually where hurt during the conflict. More British servicemen died in the Falklands than in any war the UK has fought since WW2 excepting the UK’s prolonged involvement in Afghanistan and the Northern Ireland Troubles. More died in the Falklands than in both of the Gulf Wars.

Eric was acutely aware of the ship’s vulnerability as a charge hand of one of four below deck machine rooms which provided vital electricity, air conditioning and water. It was this midship section that was generally being hit by the Argentine air onslaughts.

“Normally, they were hitting the ships about a third of the way from the bow, which is just below the machine space. I was at the aft, which was a bit of a blessing.

“Of course, that’s where the Sheffield was hit. One of my colleagues, an engineer who was about two years behind me in training, was actually closed up in there.

“He got out through the deck hatch, through a door which people had tried before but they couldn’t get it opened because it had buckled. He got to the section base and collapsed.

“He was tremendously burned and they had written him off. They got him on the hospital ship and treated him and he pulled through it.”

The losses on the Sheffield had occurred, of course, before the Exeter sailed into the fray. But Eric also spoke about the deflation and anger on board the Exeter after the horrific Bluff Cove disaster on June 8, 1982.

Over 50 people including 32 Welsh Guards perished after Argentine Skyhawks ambushed the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Sir Galahad at its landing point near Port Pleasant.

“The injuries were horrendous. When that happened you could feel the whole ship deflate,” Eric recalls. “We were asking: ‘Why had they been there for so long? Why hadn’t they been taken off? Why had no protection been offered them?’

“You just felt: ‘What a waste of life.’ There was despondency. This big question ‘why’ and anger at our own hierarchy.

“She was carrying weapons and guards and she got hit and it went up in flames. People had to jump out and there was oil on the water. The sea was on fire.

“The whole ship felt let down, angry, outraged. Why were they there? Why were they not let ashore? They were just sitting ducks.

“It was hard to accept. It happens and there’s nothing you can do about it so you accept it but it’s hard. You just have to get on with your job.”

Eric also says he regretted the loss of the 323 Argentine sailors who perished with the ARA Belgrano. This occurred before the sinking of the Sheffield and the subsequent tasking of the Exeter to the South Atlantic.

But he points out that after the navy’s nuclear submarine the HMS Conqueror torpedoed the Belgrano the Argentine navy was effectively confined to port for the remainder of the war. This ultimately saved British lives, he says.

“After we sunk the Belgrano their navy didn’t come to sea again,” says Eric. “Actually, the Belgrano was an American ship. It was the only American ship to survive Pearl Harbour without any weapons , without any damage.”

He adds: “It survived the Java Sea and the Japanese attacks only to be sunk by the British. Once we’d sunk her, their navy went straight into port and didn’t come to sea again.

“No matter what country you go to war with it’s always sad that people lose their lives but it was an occasion of reducing the risk, risk reduction.

“I’d rather fight with two hands than with one hand. I’d rather fight with one enemy than two enemies. If we hadn’t done that we’d have ended up fighting their navy and their airforce. We were left then with just their airforce who I have to say were very brave.”

After the hostilities ended in June Eric was amongst the first British naval personnel into a chaotic Port Stanley aboard the thanks to the Exeter’s unique connection to the islands.

During the Second World War the former Exeter flagship and immediate predecessor of the Falklands destroyer was involved in the Battle of the River Plate.

The former Exeter was severely damaged by the Kriegsmarine’s Graf Spee and 61 sailors died. After the battle the ship retired to the Falklands with the wounded and the dead.

“After the war was over we were the first ship allowed into Port Stanley because of the name, the Exeter.

“When we commissioned we had some of the guys who had served on the Exeter at that time. They asked us to visit and to see if the war graves had been maintained and they were immaculate.

“We went to the graveyard. The public jetties are up on the left but we found the war graves and they were immaculate.

“We met two or three people who were young children, 13 or 14 when this happened and they remembered it vividly and when we came ashore it was quite emotional,” says Eric.

Poignancy was mingled with the surreal, however, as the post-war islands were literally littered with munitions in the aftermath of the Argentine surrender.

“The munitions running around the streets were incredible. In wastepaper baskets there was ammunition, there were guns. Outside the graveyard there was a veritable park of outboard engines and vehicles,” says Eric.

“But walking up the main street towards Government house, you were nearly falling over clips of magazines. It was incredible.

“Even walking to the airport we were debriefed by a weapon’s officer form the army. He said: ‘Don’t touch anything.’ There were blowpipes lying around. Rocket launchers. RPGs.

“Were the Argentinians said they’d mined the British fenced it off and put up a sign saying ‘minefield’ because if the Argentinians were going to attack and there were mines they’d be attacking there.

“I played rugby down there and that was quite an experience. If you kicked the ball too far off the pitch, you had to get a new ball! You had to be very careful.”

After the war Eric returned to the North Atlantic with the Exeter. After some exercises and patrols there was a new draft and many of the old faces who had served during the war were replaced.

But Eric had the unique pleasure of a return trip to the Falklands in early 1983. He remained aboard the Exeter as an engineer and a diver and was actually involved in salvaging an RAF Harrier which ditched just outside Port Stanley during the war.

“We had to dive on a Harrier which had come in to land at the airport,” he says. “We had an RAF diver and we were after the black box which is in the stick.

“When the aircraft goes into the water it loses its wings and all the small stuff comes off. The heavy stuff like the engine and the cockpit carries on moving.”

Eric has since been decorated for his naval service generally and for his service in the Falklands in particular and whilst he lives in Londonderry he regularly returns to England for naval commemorations.

Over the weekend of May 27 he’ll be amongst hundreds of naval and military personnel to attend the 30th anniversary commemorations of the Falklands War in Gosport.

During previous commemorations he’s been struck by the warmth and gratitude of the Falkland islanders.

He recalls one incident in particular: “The people were very friendly. They were so pleased to see you. I was attending the 25th anniversary. It was a monstrous parade with the army, the navy, the airforce and you had a lot of people from the Falklands there as well.

“I was actually in a bar with my wife, a colleague and his wife, and this lady, this young girl. she’d have been about 31 - said: ‘Thank you very much.’

“When they saw the uniform with the medal on they were grateful. I don’t think we realised the impact we had on the people for doing what we did.

“It meant freedom to them. They could go on with their way of life. They weren’t oppressed.”

He believes Britain’s stance in the South Atlantic saved the islanders from ill treatment by the hostile Argentinian invasion force.

He remembers tales of makeshift POW camps on the island and the punishment of those who dared challenge the Argentine invaders.

“A lady I met was actually one of the prisoners of Goose Green. She was always berating the officers and stopping them and making them think about what they were doing. Her and her husband were taken to a prisoner of war camp.

“They were badly treated. About 150 islanders were put in a sheep shearing shed with one or two urinals and not much water and one meal a day. And it wasn’t the warmest of places.

“It’s because she was challenging them saying: ‘You shouldn’t be here. What are you doing? You are invading us!’ She was in their faces all the time and she just got removed.”

Despite the seafaring tradition in the Mitchell family - Eric’s brother was also in the navy - it looks like it may be the end of the line for the ‘Mitchells of the main.’

“We’ve moved away from the sea and there isn’t any involvement with the military. One boy lives in Brighton, the other boy lives in London and they’re not involved in the military,” he explains.

But Eric still has his memories of a career on the high seas from Aden to the Atlantic. His biding recollection include those nerve wracking attacks in 1982

“I’ll always remember the captain’s order to ‘hit the deck’ when we came under attack. The sound of our chaff going up and the Sea Dart being fired, going ashore to the service in Port Stanley and all those munitions.”