The July edition of the South Georgia Newsletter recalls a major British military and political event in the South Atlantic has been largely overlooked by the region’s history books. A Royal Navy task force, codenamed Operation Journeyman, was deployed to the waters around South Georgia and the Falklands in 1977 following the occupation of Southern Thule in the South Sandwich Islands by 50 Argentine “scientists”.
British leaders, who feared a wider Argentine invasion of other British Islands in the region might follow, wanted Argentina to be aware of the powerful task force, but not the British public, so Operation Journeyman was conducted in intense secrecy. The first public mention of the operation was five years later when Lord Owen, who had been the UK Foreign Secretary in 1977, suggested similar prompt action could have averted the 1982 War.
In the article below Chris Cole, Supply Officer on “HMS Phoebe” at the time describes what it was like as one of those deployed on Operation Journeyman.
Various events in my life recently, coinciding with the 30th Anniversary of the Falklands War, turned my mind back to October 1977 when, as a Lieutenant RN, I was serving as the Supply Officer of “HMS Phoebe”, a Leander Class Frigate captained by the late Captain Hugh Balfour MVO RN. We were on a goodwill visit to Antwerp, having just completed a Joint Maritime Course Exercise off the north of Scotland, and we were looking forward to a much deserved period of rest and recreation in Holland. We arrived on a Friday morning and hosted the usual arrival cocktail party that evening and were planning a long weekend of enjoyment before sailing the following Tuesday. However, mid Saturday afternoon the Captain received a Top Secret signal and he called in the First Lieutenant and Navigating Officer for a very private meeting. Afterwards I was called in and told the ship would be sailing as soon as all crew had been recalled from shore, and I should make all the preparations necessary to store for war on our arrival in Plymouth on Monday morning. My only question for the Captain was, in accordance with the appropriate manual, what climate am I storing for Sir, hot or cold? (there was a huge difference in the stores outfit required). His reply was that he was sorry but he couldn’t tell me as our destination was top secret. You’ll have to store for both.
Top Secret preparatory signals sent to Plymouth resulted in a smooth store-ship on the Monday with one exception. The ship was fitted for, but not with, four Exocet missiles. We had put in a demand for 4 missiles but on the day only three arrived at the ship. The Gunnery Officer called the armament depot to ask why and was told that they only had four in stock and they had to keep one for emergencies. Guns persuaded the storekeeper that storing for war might be considered an emergency! We sailed with 4 missiles. Only the Captain and the Navigator knew where we were going, but not for how long. All we were told and all we could tell our families, was not to expect us to be home for Christmas.
The day after sailing we commenced intensive training, testing every aspect of our responses to possible threats, carrying out major fire and damage drills and generally working the ship’s crew up into a fighting team. Although we had still not been told where we were going or why, the ship’s company deduced we were on a war footing. The main passageways had been filled with extra stores and they were not used to walking over cases of baked beans. In mid-Atlantic we rendezvoused with “HMS Alacrity”, RFAs “Resource” and “Owen” were to join us later, and somewhere beneath us was the nuclear submarine “Dreadnought”. At that stage the ship’s companies were briefed on our mission. We were told that Operation Journeyman had been ordered by the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, as fifty Argentine scientists had landed on Southern Thule in the South Sandwich Islands, prompting fears of an Argentine invasion of the Falklands. Apparently the Argentines had set up a military base on Thule. Only the officers on the ships were briefed on the rules of engagement which were pretty defensive. They stated: Commanding Officers and aircraft captains are to respond to any aggression with tactful firmness and are to exhibit a determination to meet any escalation, though not to exceed that already carried out by the enemy. All use of force must be governed by the principle of using only the minimum force necessary to achieve the aim. Such force must be used only until evident that the immediate aim is being achieved and must in no way be retaliatory. The submarine commander was told that if attacked with anti-submarine weapons by Argentine forces he was to surface or withdraw at high speed submerged, whichever will be of least risk to life.
In effect we were sitting ducks, but the Argentines weren’t to know that! We were to set up a 50 mile security zone and any ships entering the zone were to be asked to identify themselves and state their intentions.
Our main problem was maintaining a discreet presence on station for an indefinite period as nobody had told us when we would be returning to UK. We had enough supplies to survive for 3 months, which, with the help of the RFAs, could be extended by a further six weeks. After that, serious logistical problems could have arisen. Keeping the submarine “Dreadnought” supplied was more problematical as she was only allowed to surface for about 5 minutes a week, during which time our Wasp helicopter had to lower supplies and deliver and collect the laundry (we had a Chinese laundry crew on board) in what was a very short space of time. On one occasion the helicopter was hovering over the conning tower having just dropped off the laundry when a huge swell lifted “Dreadnought” just as the pilot was lowering the aircraft to pick up the next batch of washing. The two collided and the forward starboard wheel of the helicopter became lodged in the conning tower of the sub. As the duty Flight Deck Officer I was privy to the conversation going on between the pilot and the Captain on the bridge. The Captain informed the pilot that the submarine would have to submerge in one minute so he would need to detach himself somehow. “Roger” came the calm reply. The next thing I heard on the radio was the pilot, Bertie Lamb, singing “Three wheels on my wagon” as he turned to approach the ship to land on the heaving deck of our frigate. He had pulled full power on the aircraft and left the wheel firmly lodged in the submarines conning tower. With the help of a hatch cover and some coconut matting and considerable skill he managed to land safely but it was a close run thing.
Christmas loomed and my Petty Officer Caterer came to me with a confession that he had forgotten to order any mixed nuts for the Christmas dinner table. As luck would have it we were due a mail drop by the RAF and a short message to our air force colleagues resulted in them dropping bags of nuts in floating canisters in time for Christmas.
In mid-February we learnt that our presence had been a success. The scientists had apparently gone and the base had been closed. We were to return home having spent just over three and a half months continuously at sea. It had been my first glimpse of South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, albeit not at very close quarters. We were sworn to secrecy and were not allowed to tell anyone, including our families where we had been or what we had done. It remained a secret until the outbreak of the Falklands War in 1982 when David Owen asked the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher why such a Task Force had not been sent when the Foreign Office first got wind of a likely invasion. Classified documents relating to Operation Journeyman were released in 2005. The operation was assessed as successful and was deemed likely to have prevented a more serious incident/attack on the Islands. (South Georgia Newsletter).-