A VETERAN of the Falklands war, unexpectedly pulled into the conflict, has given his backing to this year’s Poppy Appeal.
Martin Reed was chief officer of the cruise ship Canberra, which played a role in liberating the Falklands during the 1980s conflict.
He has been a member of the Royal British Legion for 37 years, and this year will be the Merchant Navy’s representative at the RBL Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday.
He said: “It is really quite an honour to be part of this.
“I have been wearing my poppy with pride, and we have been around the houses distributing poppy boxes and collecting as much as we can.”
Mr Reed, now a retired captain aged 69 and living in Chinnor, near Thame, has first-hand experience of the kind of conflict the appeal marks.
Thirty years after the start of the Falklands war, he said: “We were on the last leg of a three-month world voyage, sailing from Naples to Southampton when we received a strange message: ‘Be prepared for a change of plan’.
“The Falkland Islands had been invaded by the Argentines that morning, Friday April 2, 1982, and the MoD was already looking into ships capable of troop carrying.”
An advance party of military planners boarded Canberra on an unscheduled stop in Gibraltar on April 4, and by Monday had worked out where to put 2,500 troops.
Mr Reed said: “By Friday evening the swimming pool was a flight deck, we were rigged for refuelling at sea, all troops equipment and stores were on board, and volunteer British crew from all over the UK had replaced our Indian and Pakistani crew.
“I had gone from looking forward to seeing my family on leave, to sailing my ship towards a war.”
On May 6, Canberra sailed south, escorted by the frigate HMS Ardent.
On May 19 the crew transferred troops to the landing ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid.
The next day a Sea King helicopter crashed with numerous casualties, and Canberra’s new hospital came into its own as the dead and wounded arrived.
Mr Reed said: “Our stadium area, which once hosted passenger entertainment, now had a triage, a resuscitation area and a four-table operating theatre area. And our night club was now a 50-bed recovery ward.”
May 21 brought the Battle of Falkland Sound and thrust Canberra right into the firing line.
Mr Reed said: “With no warning an aircraft hurtled toward us, up on its wing tip and pointed straight at us.
“We shot, missed and the plane shot over us. As the boys changed ammo, I shot around the back of the bridge, watched the plane disappear and saw my hands shaking.”
The vessel was ordered to move away from the islands, which left Mr Reed with mixed feelings.
He said: “We sailed with much-needed stores still on board, feeling as if we were running away.
“We saw Ardent aground and burning in the distance but made for safety with some terribly wounded men aboard.”
The medical team on Canberra would eventually care for 172 patients, with 84 serious operations over 25 days.
On June 14, Argentine forces surrendered. By then Canberra had 4,144 prisoners on board and hundreds more men in the ship’s company but with a lifesaving capacity of only 3,551.
In the 94 days since it had left Southampton they had travelled 27,187 miles, serving 646,847 meals.
Mr Reed said: “I had not seen my wife or two young sons for six months and holding them again was wonderful. It wasn’t until about two years later, when I returned to the Falklands, that I realised the war had changed me.
“Twenty years on I went back, helping to run a veteran’s pilgrimage and laid all my ghosts to rest.
“I always will feel immensely proud to have helped the Falkland Islanders.”