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'Humphrey' - Royal Navy's Icy Falklands Rescue of SAS troops

With the 40th Anniversary of the Falklands War upon us, I decided to paint an aviation painting that would commemorate the actions of the Fleet Air Arm in the conflict. Although there are many suitable subjects to pick from, the dramatic rescue of the SAS troops from the disastrous Fortuna Glacier mission by Royal Navy Westland Wessex helicopters makes for a particularly emotive scene to capture on the canvas…

Early on the 21st April 1982 in the South Atlantic ten miles off of South Georgia, HMS Antrim's flight commander, Lieutenant Commander Ian Stanley, and his crew Lt Chris Parry, Sub Lt Stewart Cooper and PO ACMN David Fitzgerald lifted off in the destroyer's anti-submarine warfare Wessex HAS-3, nicknamed ‘Humphrey’.

‘Humphrey' was joined by the tanker RFA Tidespring's two Wessex HU-5s. The three helicopters were all loaded with men of 19 (Mountain) Troop from D Squadron Special Air Service (SAS), led by Captain Gavin Hamilton. The heavily-equipped troopers, dressed in winter white nylon camouflage suits over their combat kit were flying out to the Falkland Island’s Fortuna Glacier on a reconnaissance mission of Argentinian positions.

The SAS chose Fortuna glacier as a point of entry as it was sufficiently far from expected enemy positions to be detected and the Argentines were unlikely to expect an attack from that direction. However this choice was opposed by officers who had knowledge of local conditions and felt that the difficulties of traversing the glacier were being underestimated.

As Stanley guided the flight to drop the SAS troops on to the Falkland Island’s Fortuna Glacier, the helicopters hit a snow squall near Possession Bay, forcing them to abort the mission.

Later Stanley flew Humphrey on a second recon, this time in deceptively clement weather and SAS Major Cedric Delves ordered a second try. After lunch the three helicopters again lifted off but met worsening weather including freezing squalls, turbulent winds and whiteout. However unlike the two Wessex HU-5s helicopters, Humphrey was equipped for ASW and had good radar, sonar and navigational gear. It carried doppler radar that allowed the pilot to fly safely even if he lost visual contact with the ground. Stanley was able to navigate for all three helicopters in the whiteouts as they flew onward. By early afternoon the sixteen men from Mountain Troop and their three pulks (sleds) were landed on Fortuna Glacier. Humphrey then led the other Wessex helicopters back to the ships.

The night of 21/22 April 1982 saw the worst of South Georgia’s weather. Off shore HMS Antrim faced winds of 70 knots. A Force 11 sea broke waves over the ship, the motions made it impossible to move Humphrey into the hangar and it remained on the flight deck straining at the securing cables. On the glacier, as had been predicted, Mountain Troop found the going on Fortuna Glacier extremely hard and they were unable to to cross the glacier. It had taken nearly five hours to cover about 800 metres. As conditions deteriorated, the SAS’ weapons froze. The wind-chill factor rose dramatically and with whiteouts making navigation impossible, the SAS troops sheltered in their tents but the poles soon shattered in the wind, with one tent blown away entirely. Hamilton’s men and their kit were eventually safe but buried in the snow. The horrendous weather continued and the men’s physical condition began to deteriorate, much longer and some would be suffering from hypothermia, frostbite and other cold weather injuries. In the morning at 1100 on 22 April 1982 Hamilton radioed Antrim: "Unable to move. Environmental casualties imminent.”

Antrim's sick bay was prepared to receive casualties and flight deck crews were briefed on the rescue mission. Snow squalls delayed the rescue rescue attempt for forty-five minutes. Due to the storms, Stanley ordered the two Wessex HU-5s to wait on Cape Constance eight kilometres from the glacier while he found the SAS men and a landing site from which it was safe to rescue them. However as Humphrey's navigational gear and air frame began to take on ice, Stanley scrubbed the mission and all three helicopters returned to Tidespring and Antrim.

By about 1330hrs the weather had improved and Humphrey and the Wessex HU-5s returned to Fortuna Glacier. Guided by flares from the ground, the Wessex flown by Lieutenant Mike Tidd landed and loaded six soldiers, including Hamilton. However, immediately after it took-off Tidd lost all visual when the helicopter was suddenly enveloped in a snow squall. Already susceptible to severe icing, he could not climb clear of the weather and decided to turn back to get bearings but he then noticed his altimeter spirally down fast. He brought up the nose but the tail hit the ground and the helicopter skidded for about fifty yards before toppling over on its side. The crew and the remainder of the SAS on the glacier were picked up by 'Humphrey' and the remaining Wessex HU-5, which had dumped fuel to reduce weight. They both set off down the glacier but were engulfed in a whiteout as they crossed a small ridge above a small fjord, the Wessex HU-5 pilot, Lieutenant Ian Georgeson, then also lost sight of his only point of reference as Humphrey disappeared below him and returned to Antrim. Assuming there was the danger of high ground ahead, he landed the Wessex safely but it was pushed sideways by the wind and toppled over.

The unfortunate Wessex HU-5 that toppled onto its side upon the Fortuna Glacier. © IWM FKD 53

Back aboard Antrim, Stanley loaded Humphrey with extra blankets and rations for the stranded men. Stanley took off for Fortuna Glacier for a third time, but was twice defeated by the weather and waited for a calmer window in the weather. Meanwhile those on the glacier had rigged a survival shelter from the crashed Wessex helicopters and two life rafts. The weather improved slightly and, although anxious about their luck holding out, Humphrey's crew set out across the sea on their sixth sortie in twenty-four hours. In the fading light, and treacherous weather conditions Stanley landed near the two rafts. Although Humphrey was filled with anti-submarine warfare equipment, its crew managed to cram all the men on board and the helicopter staggered into the sky fifteen hundred pounds above the helicopter’s maximum design weight.

“Just as we were lifting, a ton overweight, we jolted down again. As Ian pulled power and we careered upwards, the snow fell away beneath to reveal we had originally landed on another ice-bridge across a crevasse which had now given way to reveal a bottomless chasm.” Recalled Lt Chris Parry in his diary.

They reached Antrim, which they discovered pitching wildly in a stormy sea. Shortly before night fell, instead of hovering to one side and then sliding on to the flight deck, Stanley opted to pancake Humphrey on to the ship in a controlled crash landing.

The Westland Wessex HAS-3 Humphrey went on to see more action in the Falklands conflict, on the 23rd April locating and retrieving more Special Boat Service troops from their disabled boat.

On the 25th April Humphrey’s crew attacked the Argentinean submarine, Santa Fe with depth charges damaging the submarine. By May Antrim had joined other ships to assist with the landings on the main Falkland Islands. She was strafed by Argentinian Delta Dagger jets.  Humphrey took damage from the shells, making many holes that are still visible on the airframe that is preserved today at The Fleet Air Arm Museum.

Happily, on the 40th anniversary of its dramatic rescue of the SAS from the Fortuna Glacier, my painting of the Westland Wessex 'Humphrey' was displayed alongside the actual aircraft from the Falklands War at the Fleet Air Arm Museum today. Humphrey’s flight crew from the Falklands Conflict: Commander Ian Stanley DSO, Rear Admiral Dr Chris Parry CBE PhD and Lt Stewart Cooper were in attendance and kindly signed some very limited prints of the painting to help raise funds for the museum. The painting itself will be hanging alongside Humphrey in the near future.

Rear Admiral Dr Chris Parry CBE PhD recounts the rescue, beneath the Concorde prototype 002. Prints of the painting signed by the crew available on the night to help raise funds for the museum.


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