Falklands: landing on a glacier to pick up survivors

As part of the Royal Navy task force, Stewart Cooper, a young naval officer from Aberdeenshire, helped crew the first helicopter on a South Georgian glacier at the beginning of the Falklands conflict.


He went on to fly countless missions over the coming weeks, while his diary became a form of therapy.


On April 2nd 1982, following a training exercise near the Canary Islands, Stewart Cooper 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 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, with TV pictures showing their flag flying above the capital, Port Stanley.


The British task force was hastily being assembled – and Stewart’s ship, HMS Antrim, would be one of the first to arrive there. Over the next 10 weeks, his diary would record countless helicopter missions, the sinking of a submarine, and the sheer terror – as well as frequent boredom – of the conflict. 

HMS Antrim crew members on flight deck

Working his way up

Growing up in Aberdeenshire, Stewart dreamed of flying a helicopter and traveling the world with the Royal Navy. But achieving that dream would not be smooth sailing.
After leaving school, he passed all the aptitude tests for an officer training course but was rejected due to “lack of ambition”. Instead, he signed up as a junior rate, and worked his way up from the lower decks. 
Three years later, he passed the leadership tests again with flying colours. He threw himself into training, learning to fly fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, as well as driving a ship.
Humphrey the helicopter

Sailing for the Falklands

Stewart’s first front-line posting as a sub-lieutenant was aboard HMS Antrim, where he was second pilot of the Wessex Mk3 helicopter, nicknamed “Humphrey”. Aged 27, he was slightly older than his peers, having already served as a junior rate.
He had been aboard for only a few months when they were sent on Operation Springtrain, a huge NATO exercise that gave him plenty of flying experience. The crew thought it would be a routine trip, but in early April, this abruptly changed. 
HMS Antrim quickly turned around and headed for Ascension Island, meeting other members of the Task Force: HMS Sheffield, Glamorgan, Brilliant and Plymouth. They sailed onwards to South Georgia, where they were among the first British ships to arrive.
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.”
By mid-April, the weather was starting to get colder and the seas rougher. They started wearing “goon suits” – heavy waterproof flying suits designed to save lives in cold water.
Sub Lt Cooper - officer of the day square
Sub Lt Cooper - officer of the day

Landing on a glacier

With diplomatic talks in Buenos Aires not progressing, plans were being finalised to land troops on South Georgia on April 21st.
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. The sea was very rough and very cold, with the wind gusting force 12. 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.”
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. Ian Stanley, the flight commander, was awarded the DSO and Stewart and flight crew members were mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue of the Year award on their return.
Helping Wessex crew members after crash in South Georgia

Sinking the Santa Fe 

On April 25th, 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”. 
The Santa Fe resting on the sea bed at Grytviken

Daily routine

Stewart’s tasks ranged from transporting troops and flying rescue missions to the more mundane routine of carrying mail and the “nutty ration” from NAAFI – slang for sweets and chocolate.
When he was not experiencing an adrenaline rush or sheer terror, life on board could be tedious. 
Down time involved making repairs to the helicopter and watching films in the evenings, as well as writing letters to family and friends back in the UK.  Stewart had bought his first computer earlier in the year, and he spent spare time teaching himself programming.
Despite “knackering” days, he found himself struggling to sleep at night.
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.”

Air attacks

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, while Stewart’s role was to watch and report from the flight deck. 
Stewart remembers May 21st 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.”
Later a bomb disposal team arrived, cutting a hole in the flight deck to winch out the 500lb unexploded bomb and drop it overboard in the sea. HMS Antrim then retired to Sough Georgia to carry out repairs.
Stewart exhausted at the end of May 21st 1982

Final days

On May 31st, 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 12th, 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 14th, 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 finally told they would be returning home.

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.

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