OWEN MCPHEE ON LIFE AND WAR IN THE FALKLAND ISLANDS
By Sharon Jaffray
The people of the Falkland Islands first heard of the outbreak of World War II on the BBC Overseas Service News at 7am on Sunday, September 3, 1939. Governor and Commander in Chief of the Islands Henniker Heaton KCMG called out members of the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF) to assemble at the FIDF Headquarters at 4pm. All FIDF members in Camp were ordered to attend the shearing shed of their employer by noon the following day, and all employers were to release any employees who may be required for the public service.
The requisitioning of ships and buildings had taken place the previous day and lengthy defence regulations were gazetted on September 4; these were followed in quick succession by orders for the control of wireless telegraphs and shipping, the appointment of postal censors, air raid wardens and arrangements for lighting blackouts.
For twenty-year-old Owen McPhee living on Pebble Island on West Falkland, the news of war meant that he and two other islanders, Tommy Anderson and Jack Ashley, were immediately despatched to Marble Mountain to keep a constant lookout for shipping activity; any sightings were to be reported by radio to Pebble settlement. Getting the radios of that era to the top of the mountain was no mean feat. The six volt batteries used to power the radio were transported on horseback nestled in front of the rider. Owen said that several days later the front of these riders' trousers disintegrated from the acid that had spilled from the batteries during the journey. Owen and his colleagues spent three months keeping a 24 hour watch from the mountain top; four hour watches began with a walk to the top of the mountain from Marble Shanty and were followed by an eight hour break before repeating the process.
Owen left Pebble to work as a teacher at Port Howard and there undertook training for the FIDF with the West Yorkshire Regiment. His next move took him to Stanley where he worked for the Royal Navy at the ammunition store; it was Owen's task to keep temperatures at the right level within the store to prevent any deterioration of the explosives. One incident he recalled was when the isolation hut used for dangerous cargo "went up in smoke". He said the lack of road meant the fire fighting appliances couldn't get to the side and although he and others were trained in fire fighting they never got a chance to try, as it was far too dangerous in the area.
Although the war in Europe was physically far away, civilians in the Falklands endured many of the same restraints as their compatriots in the UK. Blackout times were advertised in the Weekly News, ration books and billeting notices made their appearance, there was postal censorship and travel restrictions were introduced.
The full impact of the war was realised in the Falklands when the ships Exeter, Ajax, Achilles and Cumberland returned to Stanley at the end of 1939 after the Battle of the River Plate. Casualties were 64 dead and 45 wounded. HMS Exeter was so badly damaged that most of her crew had to be temporarily billeted ashore with the people of Stanley. Among her crew were two Islanders, Steward Berntsen and Stoker Gleadell. The hospital was full to capacity.
As was the case with many Falklands men, Owen's next job took him to sea, on board the Fitzroy. He was soon in Montevideo with the Fitzroy in dry dock; although they were unaware at the time, the ship was being prepared for a secret mission - Operation Tabarin. On their return from dry dock at the beginning of 1944 the Fitzroy took cargo on board and was soon under way for a destination unknown. The crew's wives and families had no idea of the Fitzroy's whereabouts. After calling at Goose Green for mutton carcasses their next stop was the Antarctic as part of a mission to establish a British presence in the area.
On arrival at Deception Island, Owen said, their first task was to paint Argentine flags out and hoist a Union Jack before they unloaded the cargo. Hope Bay was the next stop where it was intended to set up a base, however ice prevented the Fitzroy from going in so they made their way down the coast looking for somewhere to land. They ended up at Port Lockroy. Here landing was possible and a hut was built for the Antarctic base. This, Owen said, was the "beginning of BAS". (British Antarctic Survey)
Owen said there were no radio communications because of the war and the two ships, Fitzroy and HMS William Scoresby, communicated between themselves and with other ships involved in the operation, Newfoundland sealing vessels Trespassey and Eagle, with morse lamps. On they went to South Orkney where they again made the British presence known with Union Jacks nailed to the old seal station buildings.
On return to the Falklands, Owen went to Charles Point (near Sparrow Cove) as a signaller for the FIDF. He said this was a relatively quiet time although one incident sticks in his mind. "The Fitzroy was returning from Montevideo and we always asked her to stop as there was a danger of a foreigh crew taking her over on the way down. The skipper didn't take any heed and carried on sailing through so we fired a shot at him - he soon stopped then."
The war drew to a close and on June 14, 1945 during the King's Birthday Parade the Governor took the salute from a march past and addressed the parade, informing the FIDF that they were to revert to peace establishment at midnight on July 2, 1945. However, Owen's wartime experiences were not over yet. He, with many others, put his name forward to attend the official victory parade in London in 1946. "On a Sunday afternoon the public selected the 14 to go."
The detachment sailed from Montevideo on the troop ship Empire Cromer and were billeted in the great camp in London set up in Kensington Gardens. It was Owen's first time in the UK. "We didn't know what to expect, and as you can imagine the conditions weren't too great." His first meal in a London restaurant left a lasting memory - rhubarb pie which, because of rationing, had no sugar!
The representatives of the FIDF duly returned home and Owen took up the post of storekeeper and teacher at Teal Inlet. Here he met Marj McCallum who was living at the settlement with her sister Doreen. They married in 1952 and had two sons, Terence and Ian, who were brought up at Teal Inlet, and a daughter Natalie. Ian and Terence both became accomplished steer riders in their youth although these skills were obtained without their parent's knowledge. "I think I would have put my foot down if I'd know." said Owen.
The family returned to live in Stanley in 1971 and Owen's musical abilities were put to good use as accordionist in Rowlands Ragtime Band. Surrounded by the musically talented Betts family, Owen's young days on Pebble Island had been a musical education and left him more than capable of keeping a dance in full swing. Owen recalled how on Pebble they would go to great lengths to learn to play the latest music. A recording system was used which involved 'cutting' a 78rpm gramophone disc with a sapphire tipped needle and playing it back with a fibre tipped one.
The group of musicians would tune into a South American radio channel on a Wednesday night to hear popular tunes, record them and be playing them on a Saturday night, long before the original recordings could have reached the Islands by post. "It wasn't always successful though, sometimes the gramophone would wind down." I asked Owen what his favourite all time tune was and with a twinkle in his eye he quickly quipped, "Margie, of course."
Rowlands Ragtime Band, Jim Lellman, Harry Ford, Jimmy Ford, Jim Peck Betts and Owen (managed by Robert Rowlands) played regularly at social functions and even recorded an LP. Owen had also played with a Royal Artillery Band during the war years. He modestly attributed this invitation to play with the band to the fact that the band turned up with modern tunes when people in the Falklands were accustomed to the older dances. "The band would play the wrong tunes for particular dances and they needed some help to get the party going with a swing."
Work in Stanley for Owen in the early 1970s was in the Communications Office. This provided a radio base for coastal vessels Alert and Forrest and the Air Service which consisted of two Auster aircraft. The communication system was housed on Ross Road in the very office Penguin News now works from. Owen and Marj both worked in the Post Office for many years with one month of that time spent working under the same roof as the invading Argentine forces of 1982.
During the war, Owen and Marj left the Islands on the last commercial Argentine flight on an F28 aircraft on April 27. Owen had a scheduled medical visit to the UK, the arrangements for which had been made before the invasion. Accompanied by their teenage daughter Natalie, their flight took them to Comodoro Rivadavia where they were advised to go to Montevideo. A delay in Comodoro prevented this and they ended up in the care of the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires who ensured they arrived in London safely via Switzerland. Sons Terence and Ian were already in the UK at the time which meant the family were united as they waited for the Argentine invaders to be ousted.
Owen, Marj and Natalie returned on the Norland in September. Owen recalled how their home on John Street was occupied by four Royal Engineer Officers. "We had to get two to move out so that we could get in." The family home had suffered no damage and had been well cared for by the Royal Engineers.
Having just celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary, I asked Owen and Marj what their secret to a happy future together is. Owen thinks he has recently discovered the answer to a long and happy marriage: "Listen to your wife," he says with a chuckle.
Looking back over the years and at the many changes they have witnessed Marj and Owen say that they are particularly glad to have lived on the farms at a time when the community spirit was alive and well. "One of the nice things in our young day was when the dogs barked and someone appeared over the hill on a horse."
Owen thinks that the present air services provided by the Islands by the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) and the air link with the UK are two of the greatest improvements he has seen take place. However, Camp roads are probably the best thing that has happened to the Islands in recent years, agree the couple. But, in retrospect, "it would have been nice if the roads had come along while we still had the large Camp communities."
Sharon Jaffray is Deputy Editor of Penguin News but for almost 20 years was a farmer on West Falkland
First published in the Penguin News on 20 May 2005 and reproduced with the kind permission of the Editor
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