Aberdeenshire man's memories of the Falklands conflict

As the country prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of the Falklands conflict on June 14, an Aberdeenshire man has recalled his memories of the war.

By Morag Kuc
Friday, 3rd June 2022, 1:39 pm
Stewart Cooper, Captain Brian Young, Cdr Ian Stanley and Lt Chris Parry.
Stewart Cooper, Captain Brian Young, Cdr Ian Stanley and Lt Chris Parry.

As part of the Royal Naval task force, Stewart Cooper was a young naval officer from St. Cyrus who help crew the first helicopter on a South Georgian glacier at the beginning of the conflict. He went on to fly countless missions over the coming weeks, while his diary became a form of therapy.

On April 2, 1982, following a training exercise near the Canary Islands, Stewart scribbled in his diary: “Woke up this morning to find that we were on our way to the Falkland Isles to fight (?) the Argentinian Navy."

On board HMS Antrim, the crew had received little news from home. The day before, he and other sailors had become convinced that “something was afoot”, but their Captain had reassured them they would return to Portsmouth the following week. Now, at 4:30am, they were being told to

Sub Lt Cooper - officer of the day

change course for the South Atlantic. Shortly afterwards, millions of people across the UK would be hearing the news that Argentina had invaded the British territory.

Stewart’s ship, HMS Antrim, would be one of the first to arrive there. On board, Stewart and the flight crew began war preparations, painting the helicopter and removing its sonar gear.

Stewart remembers: “This for me was a period of excitement. I was getting to do lots of flying and carrying out tasks that I would not normally have been given.”

With diplomatic talks in Buenos Aires not progressing, plans were being finalised to land troops on South Georgia on April 21.

Stewart Cooper used his diary as therapy during the conflict.

Stewart’s ship was given the mission of landing the first helicopter on Fortuna Glacier, carrying 16 members of the Special Air Services (SAS).

He said: “The flight is something I shall never forget. We flew to the top of Fortuna Glacier and landed on the glacier.

“I recall opening my window and looking down a vertical shaft into blueish icy nothingness. I have no idea how deep it was, and we were trying to place the helicopter on top of these serac dolmens, as they are called.

“It was a most unpleasant and disorienting experience. There was snow on a ‘bridge’ crumbling under us as the SAS leapt out. I was scared s***less, but proud in a way as well.”

Humphrey the helicopter

Days later, Stewart would be the co-pilot in the crew to carry out a daring rescue, landing on the glacier again to pick up survivors following a helicopter crash.

On April 25, a “horrible” rainy day, the flight observer picked up a “blip” on the radar.

Stewart said: “We homed in and got it visual – a Guppy Class Argentinian submarine on the surface. We selected one of our Mk11 depth charges and the boss visually aimed the first. It landed about 20ft on the port side and detonated – I could hear it in the cab underwater.

“We ran in for re-attack – I aimed this one. I think it must have landed on the top of the sub and detonated instantly because of the noise it made.”

The submarine was badly damaged and sank shortly afterwards. However, Stewart was glad to learn that none of the Argentinian crew members were seriously injured.

The following day, Argentinian forces on South Georgia surrendered. Stewart returned to his ship, holding up a handwritten sign at the cockpit window: “Union Jack now flying”.

He remembers drinking tea with other officers in the wardroom and hearing on BBC World Service that HMS Sheffield had been hit.

He said: “We stared at each other as the news was announced, and at that moment I think we all knew this was no longer an exercise or a joke.”

In May, their ship arrived in the Falklands as HMS Canberra and others prepared to land troops. They came under heavy attack from Argentinian aircraft.

Stewart remembers May 21 as a day that changed his life. The flight deck of their ship was badly damaged by a 500lb bomb, while HMS Ardent was sunk.

He said: “I had to run for my life from A4 cannon fire on the flight deck and dive behind bollards for cover. The ship took a bomb about 25ft from where I stood. At the end of the day, I was in a state of total exhaustion. This was without a doubt the worst day of my life.”

On May 31, Stewart noted that troops on the island were “moving in for the kill” 20 miles west of Port Stanley. Posted at sea in South Georgia, he anxiously waited for news in between flights.

He was devastated to hear HMS Glamorgan had been hit on June 12 th , with 14 killed and five seriously injured.

“I knew many of that flight and shared a house with the 2nd pilot – fortunately he was spared,” he said.

On June 14 the crew had little idea what was going on elsewhere, but Stewart noticed the Captain on the “growler” (satellite telephone).

When word of the ceasefire finally arrived, everyone was “very pleased”, although in some ways it felt like an anti-climax. Nine days later, they celebrated over a few drinks as they were told they would be returning home.

The return journey passed in a mixture of elation and boredom, with long days at sea, often in rough conditions. As they headed north, the weather got warmer, and they enjoyed barbecues with a few “tinnies” (drinks) on deck, while a large backlog of mail finally arrived.

Stewart shed a tear as he arrived in Portsmouth to see his parents waiting for him. But despite being home, life would never be the same again.

He said: “I was a different person when I came back. I was angry, I had no patience, and didn’t realise it.

“Over the years, I lost weight and felt more and more ill. I was finally diagnosed with diabetes, when I weighed just seven stone. They told me it was traumatically induced – I think something just cracked inside my body. After that, I was grounded and unable to fly again.”

Finally, Stewart received treatment, but he was devastated to have to give up flying. He spent a year working for the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, putting his computer programming skills to use, before being medically discharged in 1986.

He settled in Aberdeen, working as a Systems Engineer in the oil and gas industry. He is married and they have two grown-up children.

He stays in touch with many former crew members and recently attended a commemorative event at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton (where his former helicopter, Humphrey, is now based).

But looking back, he has mixed feelings about his role in the Falklands.

He said: “It doesn’t go away, and there are things I don’t want to remember. I didn’t enjoy my time there, but I think I’ve come to terms with it now.”