Click for home

Peter C Grossi
My First 10 years With Ferranti

Before I start, I should admit to having a less than perfect memory. The following is an attempt to reconstruct events and impressions from a range of up to 40 years, and from rather sparse personal records, passport stamps and expenses claims.

So if anybody reading this has better information about shared locations or experiences I would be pleased to hear from them with additions or corrections.


Herne Airport
HMS Cambridge
HMS Eastbourne
HMS Amazon
HMS Torquay
HMS Collingwood
HMS Cleopatra
HMS Antelope
HMS Hermes
HMS Bronington
ARA Veinticinco de Majo
Can you spot the odd one out?

Herne airport I joined the company in the Commissioning Department of the Digital Systems Division of Ferranti Limited. The job of the department was to set up and test new designs in as far as possible a realistic environment for their eventual location. But as our equipment was intended to work with all sorts of ship-borne equipment, and we didn't have radar and suchlike, part of our job was to invent test equipment and special programs to provide realitic substitutes. I took the job because it looked technically interesting. And in that direction I was never disappointed.

After completing basic technical training my first real job was an extension to the equipment at Herne airport. It comprised a quad of magnetic tape decks and a control module. In those days it was becoming increasingly important for all airports to have reliable data recording equipment for training purposes and to help deal with the consequences af any accidents or near misses. The decks, from Ampex, were quite a beast, having numerous delicate adjustments to compensate for the magnetic components. And it had to be extremely reliable.

This project kept me busy for about a year from 1969 to 1970, which is unbelievable now that we have off-the-shelf mass-produced items doing similar work. But then it was very new and took a lot of hard work to get it working reliably. This is where I learned that analogue circuits were still a major part of digital systems.

But this was confined to the works, and I didn't even get to visit the airport. Furthermore, I was keen to get involved in the big naval systems that did interesting things with radar and guns.

HMS Cambridge HMS Eastbourne

This was my first major contract, and it started in April 1971 (Easter), nearly two years after I joined the company. So it was an exciting prospect to be deployed on site for trials of a brand new military system. This was in fact the development version of WSA4, destined for the impending Amazon (Type 21) class frigates that were under construction at Vosper Thorneycroft's dockyard at Southampton.

By then I had a good knowledge of a range of the company's processor designs, and some practice in writing test and demonstration software. In those days we designed and built our own 24-bit computers out of crude logical components; the processor unit (now the size of a fingernail) would then occupy a whole 19" rack with up to 19 circuit boards and a maximum of 12kBytes intermal RAM. There were additional memory modules, but these amounted to only a couple of hundred kilobytes. This was serious stuff. Can you imagine what a 21st century programmer would say to such slim resources?

HMS Eastbourne

The installation and trials took place at HMS Cambridge, a land-based naval gunnery school at Wembury Point near Plymouth The deployment spanned about a year, from Easter 1971 to May 1972. We had our computers set up in rooms behind a balcony overlooking Heybrook Bay and with an excellent view of the Great Mew Stone. For our own purposes the Eddystone lighthouse (at a range of 18.8 km and easily within range of the shore battery) was an excellent landmark, but with our unproven computers controlling the new Vickers 4.5 inch gun, no doubt many lighthouse keepers were glad that it was fully automated and they didn't have to go near it. Our tracking radar (from Selenia in Italy) was capable of distinguishing the actual lighthouse from the stump of the original one, right next to it. While this might not sound very impressive against 21st century systems, it was a serious advance in those days. In fact, like so much of our work in the development departments at Ferranti, the whole project was very much on the leading edge and presented many interesting technical challenges.

My initial experience at HMS Cambridge set the scene for the remainder of my time based out of Bracknell. From here on, my work with Ferranti required me to have one foot in the detailed hardware designs, and the other in the system and test software. For this reason, and with respect to the RN's fondness for acronyms, I described my job as dealing with Software/Hardware Interaction Troubles. In addition to this I very often had one hand in the peripheral equipment (radar, guns, missiles, comms etc), and the other in the design of simulators for system development. As will be seen later, I sometimes found myself having to become an instant expert in some other manufacturer's products.

Meticulous attention to detail during the year enabled us to improve our system to the extent that it was capable of hitting an airborne tow cable at a range of several kilometers with a non-exploding shell. Perhaps not very often, but it was very impressive when it happened. Fighter planes flying overhead provided us with towed radar reflector targets, and the lengths of tow rope were designed to allow the planes to pass overhead before the reflector targets came within range. But on more than one occasion we took out the reflector and several sections of cable before the pilots surrendered and we had to cease firing!

Despite the enormous number of individual components used in our designs, the Ferranti equipment proved to be extremely reliable. Nevertheless, because of the importance of our work and the hazards from large, fast-moving equipment under our control, we were required to run a suite of test programs every day. These tested the main computer and all the equipment attached to it. My problem was that I got bored sitting around waiting for things to happen all the time, so I decided it would be fun to write a sequencer, so that all the test programs could be run at the same time. In principle this was very useful, but nobody else believed it was possible and wouldn't let me do it. That's red rag country! So I did it. The core I designed was what would now be called a multi-tasking real-time sequencer, and it worked a treat. It has to be admitted that, as systems became more complex, and the designs (for economic necessity) became more dependent on pre-prepared common elements, I felt that the challenge of efficient design (especially in software) was scuppered. But at that time everything was possible if only you were willing to have a crack at it.

One day I had this test program running when the senior site managers turned up for the day's trials. Nobody thought of asking me what was going on, so I said nothing and let them run around in a panic wondering why all the lights were flashing and the equipment was dancing about frantically. I had proved my point, and the program was used regularly after that. But they still wouldn't let me play with the gun.

I should explain that in those days we didn't use operating systems. They are notoriously resource-hungry, and with the available memory and processing power the overheads had to be kept to an absolute minimum. Even in the operational systems everything was written in low-level mnemonic code for speed and efficiency. While some work was done in a higher level language by the mid 1970s, it wasn't until the company started using commercial microprocessors in the 1980s that the use of operating systems and high-level languages really took off. Perhaps this was a commercial necessity, but it always seemed to me to be a retrograde step: encouraging programmers to isolate themselves from the inner workings of their product, and wasting a large proportion of the available power. Commercial systems had long since gone the operating systems / high-level language route, but they didn't have to be installed in cramped compartments using only components that could stand 10g forces whenever the ship hit a wave.

There was a little guest house in Heybrook Bay, where we would put up visiting engineers. The old lady who ran it was a dear soul and much liked, but that didn't stop us from playing an awful trick on her one day.

We had been tracking aircraft in the morning when there was a power cut. In those days, uninterruptable power supplies (common now) were very bulky and unaffordable, so everything went off and we had to suspend the trials for some time. Our guests therefore went back rather late for dinner, and appeared with very long faces at the guest house. The landlady wanted to know what was upsetting us, and we showed great reluctance in talking about it. In the end we let her persistence win through, and explained that the power went off while an aircaraft was on task overhead. The pilot didn't stand a chance, and left two small children behind. She was almost in tears to hear this news and went straight away to tell her daughter. The implausibility of a power cut affecting a plane was explained in the kitchen, and we all got a big earful! I think our visitors very nearly ended up wearing their dinner.

Even though the IRA was particulary active at that time, and there were strict security measures in place at the gates, there was a public footpath right along the foreshore. We would nip down there for bathing and to catch the occasional spider crab. But the best place for catching spider crabs was round the coast at Start Point. That was where the navy would fly weather balloons for us to practise tracking on our radar. But one day the tether broke and the balloon went for a tour of dartmoor. With some simple geometry, an OS map and an allowance for the wind and rates of descent, I managed to calculate its eventual landing point to within about a half mile. The pick-up team had an easy job to find it, but more of a problem extracting it from a herd of very curious cows.

Overall, Plymouth was an excellent place to be on site. The naval dockyard was busy and provided employment for a range of local services and industries. And with shops, restaurants and cinemas, the town centre had all the things you could reasonably want. I need hardly say that the night life was excellent, with many clubs to suit various tastes and tastelessness. Couple this with easy access to coastal walks and dartmoor country pubs among other things, and it was pretty much a dream location for a young engineer on expenses. I remember there were four small restaurants in the main shopping centre: English, Italian, French and Greek. I visited each one and discovered that they were all owned by the same Greek person, and had almost exactly the same menus.

For me this deployment was a big learning curve, as I was able to see for the first time how this new technology made things happen in a complex and sometimes dangerous environment. Not many people get to experience the whole picture, from the details of component and low-level software design, through prototype production and design proving, to shooting things out of the sky. So, while the daily routine had its tribulations and frustrating restrictions, in retrospect it formed a very sound base for the path that my career would afterwards take. There is always the suspicion that when you are away from base your career is effectively on hold because you are out of sight, but I wouldn't have traded the variety and technical interest for anything else.

It was in Plymouth that I learned my first Italian. We had an Italian engineer deployed with us to look after the Selenia radar equipment, and he enjoyed a good night out. We decided that it would be useful for us to be able to share notes in Italian, partly because we could say things that others wouldn't want to hear, and partly because English girls went mad for a convincing Italian accent. It sort of worked, but I don't remember learning anything that I would care to repeat, even in English.

While I was away, two things happened. I grew a beard, and the company expanded into a new building in Doncastle Road, some distance from the main site on Western Road in Bracknell. The beard was fun: on many occasions I would be walking along a passage and see someone obviously unsure whether they recognised me or not. But the move to Doncastle Road gave the department a great deal more space, and we were able to handle a greater variety of contracts as the company steadily expanded.

After finishing at HMS Cambridge I spent a while at Bracknell doing works development and design proving of other systems intended for HMS Amazon, and became something of an expert on the preparation of trials documents.

HMS Eastbourne HMS Eastbourne

This was one of my early sea trips on "The Grey Funnel Line". It would have been around 1973, a year before I joined Amazon and gained some serious sea time. The ship was at Portsmouth, and I was sent to find out what it was like to work on board a ship at sea, and have a look at the sort of equipment that Ferranti provided before computers went digital.

As always, the ship's company were very hospitable and helped me find my way about. The star attraction was a truly ancient (even then) analogue computer system called "Flyplane 5". It had a couple of rows of cabinets full of circuit boards with rows of little screw-adjustable components. These components needed to be adjusted with great care using special test equipment in order to get an acceptably accurate solution for the gun. The whole installation was a point-defence system that allowed the ship to defend itself against an incoming aircraft. The calculations for a crossing trajectory (area defence) was beyond it's capability.

As anybody who serves in the RN will know, there is a passion for tidiness and secure stowage. If you think this is a waste of time, a few minutes in a heavy sea will quickly teach you the error of your ways. So it's a habit among engineers on ships to make sure everything is regularly checked and screwed down tight. So it happened that a new member of the maintenance crew had seen all these little twiddly screws and turned every one of them fully clockwise! It took a week to get the whole thing set up again. But all that happened before my visit.

While I was on board there was a visiting party of sea cadets. They spent the day at sea being teased by the junior ratings, who had them running about all over the ship. It was more like an infestation than a visit. I was on the bridge when I saw a small boy tugging at the jacket of the captain. Far from being annoyed, the captain asked "What can I do for you, young man?". The answer was "The starboard watch, sir. The starboard watch!". Anybody with sea-going experience will know that the ship's company is divided into two parts, the port and starboard watches, who take turns to provide crews to run the ship. The captain then asked "And what is wrong with the starboard watch?", when the little mite said "It has to be wound, sir, or it will stop". The captain then asked in a kindly tone "And who asked you to tell me this important news?". Someone was on a charge the following morning!

HMS Amazon HMS Amazon HMS Amazon crest

Before starting on this period I should explain a few things about the development of a new ship for the RN. After all the contracts have been sorted out with the shipbuilder (in this case Vosper Thorneycroft of Southampton) and principal subcontractors (in this case Ferranti, Sperry, Shorts, Marconi, Selenia, Rolls Royce and others), detailed design and construction begins. When a new class of ship is introduced (in this case the Type 21 frigate, otherwise known as Amazon class after the first ship in the class) the MoD wants leading edge technology so it can remain serviceable for a useful length of time, perhaps in the region of 20 years with a few upgrades along the way. Therefore, the shipbuilder and the principal subcontractors usually have a lot of work do to to prepare their new designs, thoroughly test them, and get them into manufacture. So while the shipbuilder is working on the hull, the subcontractors are under pressure to get a lot of design and development work done.

One of the games played by shipbuilders was called "last across". The idea was that if the hull is running late, they say nothing in the hope that one of the subcontractors is also found to be late with their bits and pieces. The shipbuilder then rearranges the programme to show that the subcontractor is holding everything up; this buys time for the shipbuilder, and lands the subcontractor with potentially massive liquidated damages (cash penalties for lateness). Subcontractors obviously play similar games, keeping quiet for as long as possible if their programme runs late, in the hope that somebody else will own up first and get them off the hook. This game could also be played using the "force majeure" rules. Force majeure is a situation when something outside the control of the company delays the programme; it might for example be a change in requirement from the MoD, extended foul weather or terrorist activity.

In this case it was a stike by the union. In those days trades unions were very active and very destructive (strikes became known in other European countries as the British Disease). The company had been turning a blind eye to the showing of "blue" films in the empty engine compartments before the Rolls Royce Olympus and Tyne engines were fitted. But when the company needed an excuse to claim force majeure to buy some catch-up time, they fired some of the people organising the films. The union immediately went on strike for weeks, demanding reinstatement, and while that was being sorted out the company was getting on with other work. It came as an eye-opener for me that the trades unions could be manipulated in this way, and after that I treated everything published in the newspapers with great scepticism. Even now, all sides (and a variety of interested spectators) in an industrial conflict will tell you what they want you to believe, embellishing it where they can with emotive hyperbole. The only thing you ever really know is that you are not being told the truth.

So, while I was down at HMS Cambridge, HMS Amazon was being built. When I returned to Bracknell, between 1972 and 1974 I was working on the equipment to be fitted to the ship, and this was delivered and installed by a skeleton site team. At the same time I was preparing technical maintenance information and trials schedules. I then joined the ship in March 1974 and lived locally in Southampton and Portsmouth until April 1975 on the completion of sea trials.

The ship was commissioned on 11th May 1974 and Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, officiated. I wasn't invited to that party, but our site manager (an ex Chief Petty Officer) made sure to explain to HRH that her mother was getting excellent value from Ferranti. The comment, thankfully, was taken in good humour. The ship was then sailed to the naval dockyard at Portsmouth, and the site team rejoined her there.

It should be explained here that when a ship is commissioned she becomes the property of the navy. This doesn't mean that it is finished, only that the hull is watertight, the engines, radars and essential communications equipment work, and that people can live and work on board in reasonable comfort. In particular, for a first-of-class vessel there are bound to be a number of things that turn out to work better on paper than they do at sea. So there is still a lot to be done, including an extensive programme of harbour and sea trials. Harbour trials (HATs) are a variety of tests that can be done while in port, and for reasons of economy and convenience, as much as possible is done in this way. But there are important tests that have to be done at sea (SATs). Throughout this time the ship is under the direction of the RN appointed captain (customarily a Commander on a frigate), and the subcontractors work in collaboration with the ship's crew.

From our viewpoint the change to navy control was a real blessing. No more the jackhammers, welders and building-site hazards. No more the infinite array of obstructions such as access to the ship and electrical power shutdowns. Now the ship is tidied up, everything is properly stowed, onboard power systems are running most of the time and we have access to the ship's own technicians to help us when we needed to be in several places at the same time. We could now really get on with our job uninterrupted. The only little problem was the game of "hunt the ship" played at frequent intervals. For some reason the dockyard was constantly reassigning berths as various ships came and went. Amazon would be moved from one place to another, and would sometimes be berthed outboard of another ship, so you had to climb over one or two other ships to find your own.

My own particular problem was that I suffered from vertigo. Ordinarily at sea level this shouldn't be much of a problem, but I frequently had to navigate across and between dry docks. These things are vast and very, very deep! So crossing the narrow caissons (pronounced locally as "cassoons") and narrow temporary walkways was very often a seriously knee-trembling experience. More about my vertigo later, and what else I did that made no improvement to it.

It was soon after handover that the captain decided to try out the engines and see whether the ship would get somewhere near it's advertised top speed. I was enjoying a g&t in the wardroom at the time, and heard the warning to make sure everything was secure. So I held on, and just as well I did. After a few seconds of heavy vibration, the curtains in the compartment were hanging at 45 degrees as the ship took off. And as the hull approached the design speed the vibration coming through the structure was incredible. Until then I thought that military specifications on shock tolerance was all to do with exploding shells; I had no idea that the worst conditions for on-board equipment were self-imposed. Anyway it didn't last long before the captain announced that we were going to stop. This ship was fitted with variable-pitch propellers, which meant that you could leave the engines going at full blast, and simply change the direction of thrust. The effect was to stop from 30 knots to nothing in less than the length of the ship. Just as well I had finished my g&t by then!

On one occasion we were berthed outboard of a destroyer (I think it was the new HMS Sheffield), and there was an awful stink on her flight deck. On enquiry I found that the ship's company had been given a week's leave and had just rejoined her. In their absence the "yompers" (bacteria that consume the human effluent in the septic tanks on board) had mostly starved, and the survivors were having difficulty coping with the sudden demand. By the following day the smell had largely gone, partly as a result of feeding the yompers with dried milk, in large quantities. I am still waiting to see the instructions on packets of dried milk in the shops: "suitable for babies and septic tanks, but not necessarily at the same time".

The harbour trials were managed successfully and we all got on very well with the ship's company. But in August 1974 we weren't quite ready for the sea trials when we received news that the ship was ordered to sail to the West Indies for warm water trials. It was important that ships could operate anywhere in the world, and warm water trials were intended to make sure that everything worked in the heat. Including the crew. Our site manager had to decide whether to suspend operations until the ship returned in a couple of weeks, or take advantage of the situation. As a very experienced sailor his decision was easy and immediate, and his civilian team would just have to make the best of it. I couldn't join the ship outbound as I had to reshedule my SATs document preparation to cope with the new opportunities, and needed to be in UK, but I flew out to join the ship in Trinidad when she arrived a few days later.

I had been given a locked satchel to contain my trials documents, which were classified material and not to be shown to anybody (including customs). At Heathrow I explained the situation to security and showed then a letter of authorisation from our security chief, and they immediately thrust me to the front of the checkin queue. I almost felt guilty, but I controlled it. The problem occurred at Trinidad airport. The customs officer insisted on seeing the contents of my secure bag, and refused to accept the letter explaining that it was UK classified information destined for the ship. After a very long "yes-you-will, no-I-won't" interlude I asked for the airport security chief, and he wandered over shortly afterwards. I was then able to negotiate a solution: the satchel would be put in the airport safe until I could return with the ship's caption to reclaim it. I was then able to join the ship.

By then it was early evening and the ship was preparing to receive local dignitaries and expat Brits, as was the custom on arriving at overseas ports. Even though it was then midnight by my body clock I was required to join in the preparations and meet a selection of very attractive young ladies at the on-board party. The things I did for the company! After that we decided to go ashore for a drink or two, and ended up in an excellent nightclub called the Miramar. Other than the quality of the entertainment, the other remarkable thing was that it was next to the vegetable market. The street was littered with vegetable waste and I distinctly saw a creature rather like a frog, but the size of a domestic cat! It was come and gone in a blink, but the thought of such strange creatures bounding around the dark streets made me wish I was wearing cycle clips.

So it was well into the following day by my clock before I hit my bunk. Looking and feeling not quite my fluffiest I had to make an early start to get an officer to accompany me to the airport to reclaim my secure bag. This was an early lesson in time management. Throughout my life visiting ships I found the quickest way for a civilian to be accepted among a ship's company is to show the ability to survive a very late night, and still be fully abluted and hungry for a full breakfast by 0730. On this occasion there were no porridge or runny eggs - they were reserved for when the ship was at sea.

The captain was not an option as my escort, but the Weapons Electrical Officer was a large and athletic man with a posh voice and an impressive array of stripes. He would do nicely. On arrival at the airport I found the security chief, and he was very helpful in locating my bag. The problem was that the previous night's security supervisor had lost the key to the safe! They searched the airport, but nobody could find it; and the person concerned was fast asleep and not answering the telephone. We had to wait for ages, but in the end someone found a way of opening the safe, and the bag was delivered, unopened.

The other thing of note on that little outing was the sight of the Chinese laundryman sitting on the bow of the ship with a short stick and length of string to make a crude fishing tackle. With the sort of pollution found in dockyards I fear to think what sort of poisons his dinner would have in it. I knew he was on board, but he confined himself to his steamy compartment and didn't ever seem to mix with the ship's company. He was no doubt saving every possible penny to send home to his family. His nationality was confirmed on a later date when I found my mess number neatly stiched inside the collars of my shirts. In Chinese.

While we were there the captain decided to conduct NBCD exercises. This involved pretending that the ship was under attack and simulating various forms of damage. That would involve a lot of running about and complete disruption to our own work. This would not be a good place for civilians, so we elected to spend the day ashore suffering in silence in one of the hotels' swimming pool bars. It was in such a position that we received news from the ship that Ferranti was bankrupt. No joke - this was for real!

The company as a whole was in financial difficulties, mainly due to some of the original subsidiaries having become very expensive passengers. In particular I remember that Transformer Division, which was a major part of the original company, had been failing to get major contracts for a while, but the then owner (Sebastian de Ferranti, grandson of the founder) wouldn't let it go. As a result everybody feared for their jobs. So we refilled our glasses and wondered what to do next. Then another message came from the ship's Supply Officer to say that as individuals we were no longer creditworthy, and our mess accounts would have to be settled immediately. And no more foreign currency transactions. This was getting serious, but we were stranded ashore for the time being and unable to do anything. So we had another drink while we thought about it.

That evening, when we returned to the ship, all was quickly resolved with the Supply Officer and we received some helpful messages from our department management. It turned out that the news was largely invented by the press, and that in reality the company had been bailed out by the government in return for appointing a "proper" Managing Director. The owner, Sebastian, was a second-generation rich kid. He illustrated the common "rags-to-rags in three generations" pattern, seen in many other places: grandfather comes to England to set up a business; his son inherits the business and a lot of the entrepreneurial spirit required to continue developing the company; the third generation inherits a lot of money and a desire to do nothing more than spend it. Then the company falls apart because nobody has been appointed to run it properly.

Some months later the new encumbent was agreed and appointed, and broke up the company into separately accountable trading units. Overall governance was maintained at group level, but the individual companies were largely autonomous and unencumbered by each others' failures. This meant that the irrecoverable "passengers" were ditched, and the rest of us carried on under our new names. From that time, Ferranti Ltd., Digital Systems Division became Ferranti Computer Systems Limited. This may not have a lot to do with HMS Amazon, but it's all part of the rich pattern that made up my life at the time.

Before leaving the West Indies the ship organised a banyan. This is a sort of beach party, where we anchored off a quiet stretch of beach belonging to Bequia, a little island in the Grenadines. The ship's boat was used to ferry all sorts of equipment, food and drink, and we occupied the beach for most of the day. The sailors tried to climb the coconut palms, but failed, so we offered some local children bottles of tonic water and they shinned up the trees to get us a quantity of fresh coconuts. That is where I discovered the pleasures of pouring white rum into a coconut, and then topping it up as you drink from it. It ends up as almost neat rum. And the coconut tastes pretty good afterwards.

Thus, we completed our deployment in the West Indies, bought our souvenirs and sailed back to the UK. This time I stayed with the ship for an uneventful return journey across "the pond". On the way back the ship's company played a variety of games on the flight deck. It wasn't a big flight deck - just about enough for a little Lynx helicopter to land safely. I got roped in to a game of Uckers (a game for which to the best of my knowledge nobody actually knows the rules) and deck hockey, and somehow survived being bounced off the guard rails a few times without going overboard.

It was later that summer, as we were quietly carrying out trials somewhere off the coast near Plymouth, when the ship received a message that there was a mine in the middle of the channel! Apparently one of those big, spiky things used for minehunting exercises had slipped it's mooring on the seabed and popped up to the surface. A passing yachtsman was seriously unimpressed and complained (from a safe distance) to the coastguard. The gunnery officer on board was an explosives expert, so we were despatched to sort it out. Once at the location, it was the work of minutes to send out a rubber dinghy and destroy the offending aricle (a non-explosive dummy).

By then our trials schedule for the day was in tatters, so we aborted trials, and the captain decided we could all have a swim. We were then almost exactly half way between Plymouth and Cherbourg, and the sea thermometer registered something tolerably warm due to the gulf stream. While at sea, food waste (all rubbish is known as "gash") used to be dumped overboard ("ditched") for the fish. I don't know whether they still do that, but it is inclined to attract sharks in those waters. So there was a pipe (an announcement over the loudspeaker system): "Hands to bathe in thirty minutes. No ditch to be gashed". This was followed a few seconds later by another pipe: "Belay that last pipe - no gash to be ditched". I thought the expression "belay", which means to tie down or secure, was rather poetically applied to an announcement, as if we were all to run around catching bits of it in the air. As it happened, it was a rather pleasant swim if hard work climbing up the ladder onto the deck afterwards.

During peacetime, the RN performs a variety of social duties, generally known as "flag-waving". They were partly to cheer up the expat communities, partly to host parties for the resident dignitaries, and partly to show off our wonderful technology. Whatever the reason, in October 1974 one of the destroyers (I think it was HMS Bristol) was designated to be sent on a tour of Northern Europe. Unfortunately, a couple of days before departure she had a fire in the engine room that did substantial damage, and she couldn't sail. It was decided to send Amazon in her place, and I remember receiving a telephone call from the captain one evening, asking whether the Ferranti team wanted to come with the ship, and if so to be on board and packed for a week by 0730 the following morning. I agreed on the spot, because we needed sea time for our SATs and I knew exactly what our site manager would say. Then I tracked him down and he confirmed it formally.

One of the many differences between a frigate and a destroyer is the size of the ship's complement. For example, in the wardroom on Amazon there were only thirteen officers, a lot less than on a destroyer. If I remember correctly they have something like twenty five. So the civilian team were invited to join in on the various official visits to make up numbers. We visited Amsterdam and Bremen. Amsterdam is well known for its interesting night-life, and it did not disappoint on that occasion. But my favourite memory started as what seemed a very dull duty.

We were asked to make up numbers on a coach trip to The Hague for an official visit to the consulate there. I went along in my best bib and tucker expecting a dull reception, but it turned out to be quite interesting after all. Lots of pretty girls to talk to, and an inexhaustable supply of champagne. I had no idea how much I had been drinking, as there were velvet-jacketed stewards refilling my glass every time I took a sip. I don't remember the name of our host, but he certainly knew how to throw a party.

Our coach was shared by the officers from another frigate visiting Amsterdam at the same time, and on our merry way back to the ship we were challenged to continue festivities in their wardroom. We politely complied, and drank them out of gin so the party had to be continued on Amazon. In the end it got very late, and we were all quite "relaxed" when we finally turned in.

Bremen was an interesting old town, and thanks to the hospitality of our German municipal hosts we had a really interesting couple of days. Being a civilian, I enjoyed the privileges of socialising with the officers one minute, and the ratings (especially the CPOs) the next. So it was that one of the places I visited was Kaffee Hag, where they made a wide range of beverages. We saw the massive coffee roasting ovens, and their impressive electronic control systems. But the most entertaining part of our visit was when we were taken to the end of the production line, where the packs of coffee were loaded manually into boxes.

As we watched the ladies handling the packets with practised ease, one of the ratings decided to help. The result was pandemonium. He quickly got behind, and because his behaviour was causing the other ladies to laugh, they were all losing the plot. There were packs of coffee falling about everywhere. As if this wasn't bad enough, I then caught sight of another sailor riding the rollers in amongst the coffee, trying to retrieve his hat that someone had thrown into the works. I think it would be a long time before another crew would be invited, but nevertheless we were each given a pack of goodies to take away.

The Bremen Ratskeller was a more formal occasion. It was famous, as with Ratskellers everywhere, for the quality and quantity of wine in the cellars. The officers (me included, again) were invited to a wine tasting, and had a really interesting talk to illustrate the various quality wines. I think we were supposed to spit out the wine so we wouldn't get drunk, but most of us forgot. There's no doubt we were greatly impressed with the hospitality we received from the people of the town.

I could mention here that officers and senior ratings in the RN have a very special talent. After a busy "run" ashore, when they are rather "relaxed", and having some difficulty standing up, their demeanour changes completely when they reach the brow (aka gangplank) of a ship. All of a sudden they are ramrod-straight and steady as a rock as they climb up to the deck. And they somehow maintain this composure until they are out of sight below decks. Junior ratings generally have no such skill, and end up on a charge for disorderly conduct.

The next overseas visit was on cold water trials, in February 1975. This followed a similar pattern to warm water trials except it took us into northern European waters, through the Kattegat and into the Baltic Sea. This was during the "cold war", and here we were right on Brezhnev's doorstep. No doubt we were watched with great attention by numerous surveillance installations, but we were only "buzzed" once by a MIG fighter. We had turned off all the radars so as not to give away what they did, but I have no doubt their patterns had already been intensively studied. I think the MIG was sent simply as a sort of courtesy, to show that the Russians were interested and watching us. Maybe they wanted to bait us into turning on some kit that we didn't want them to know about.

The most memorable part of our trip was a couple of days spent at Malmo. Some of us rented a coach to take us past the massive ski jump that had been built for the 1952 olympics. We spent the day skiing and I ended up with very bruised elbows! But the enduring memory was the way everybody was smartly dressed. Perhaps there was a lot more money for people to spend in Sweden, but they certainly made the British look an exceptionally scruffy lot on the streets. Mind you, when I look around me now, I don't think much has changed.

* * * * *

I visited Amazon again in late December 1976 when she was at Gibraltar. I've forgottten why I went, but it was only for a couple of days.

During my visit the wardroom was invited to an informal reception at the resident army barracks. Someone organised a landrover, and about eight of us piled in, with myself and the captain on the open tailgate. It made for an interesting ride over the lumps and bumps of the winding, narrow roads leading up the hill.

When we arrived we were greeted by the sight of a couple of impressive statues at the bottom of the steps in front of the main entrance. We piled out of the vehicle, and as we approached these "statues" they suddenly burst into life and came smartly to attention. Not for an erk like me of course, but for the captain who was leading our group like a mother duck at the head of an untidy chevron of companions. The "statues" must have been most impressed to be told to expect the wardroom of one of Her Majesty's newest warships, and then to be greeted by a group of men piling untidily out of a beaten-up landrover, nursing bruises. But the buffet was half decent, and there was plenty to drink, so we felt no pain on the return journey. I remember there was masses of food left over, but I expect the squaddies polished that lot off in double-quick time as soon as we had gone.

The return flight was interesting. I had bought a quantity of cigarettes and alcohol at duty-free prices, and came through the red channel at Heathrow. I explained what I had got, and the customs officer wanted to check it. So he searched my bags, and couldn't find any of it! So I paid no tax, thinking perhaps I had left it on board after all. Meanwhile, in the green channel someone came past with bags clinking like a brewer's van. I saw them politely stopped, and quantities of spirits were produced and lined up in rows. Did they think that customs wouldn't be paying attention on Christmas Eve? When I got home, I found all my duty free items in my bags. How they hadn't been found by customs remains a mystery to this day.

That was the first and only time I flew Dan Air, which was also a memorable experience: the seats were flimsy, and the child behind me was trying to give me a permanent injury. I am prepared to believe it had outside toilets, but it was a mercifully short flight so I didn't check.

HMS Torquay HMS Torquay

I went to sea on this ship several times over a couple of years in the mid-1970s. As a frigate she was originally fitted with a general-purpose gun on the forward deck, but that had been removed and replaced by a missile launcher. This had made the turret mounting and magazine space below deck redundant so the officers claimed squatters rights and occupied it with a wardroom extension with characteristically (and probably uniquely) rounded bulkheads. She had also been refitted with upgraded Ferranti equipment for radar processing, and needed help with some odd problems. As a rule, only first-of-class ships were handled by the development departments based at Bracknell: other ships would be set to work by teams from Manchester (Oldham). But sometimes there were problems, possibly related to latent design faults not shown up in earlier installations, or arising from variations in specification between ships.

As always, I found the hospitality on board was excellent, and I was made very welcome. I had a rule: never leave a ship until the problem(s) have been sorted. In practice this often meant getting stuck into other supplier's equipment. The computers processed a number of inputs from various places around the ship, so when anything went wrong somewhere else the computer would provide incorrect information. So Ferranti would get the call for help, and I was in the front line as the surface ships specialist. It seemed that other contractors were less committed, and often left the ship making excuses about some other equipment, or needing support from their works. So the word gets around the fleet, and it didn't take long for me to establish a helpful reputation. In the process I learned a lot about different radars, sonars, and various forms of weaponry. The learning curve was always made pleasant and comparatively easy by the helpfulness of ships' crews, and I always found that we worked well together to get a result.

It was on one of my days at sea on Torquay that I was accompanied by a programmer. He didn't have the same iron gut as I did, and was distinctly green about the gills when we went out into a force six. Most of the ships crew (and officers) had retired to their bunks, and there was only a Lieutenant, a couple of ratings and us two civilians in the Operations Room. Eventually my colleague had to give up the fight and made for the door. The officer commented loudly "I see your friend has a weak stomach". My colleague turned sharply round at the door and replied "Weak stomach! Just you watch - I'll throw it further than anybody!". Respect for that. I am given to understand that, when suffering from seasickness, you are afraid one minute that you will die, and the next that you will not. So it takes a special wit to come back with an answer at such a time.

As often as not the problems were in the radar or synchro network, but fortunately I did not have to climb the mast on these occasions to find out what was wrong. That little treat had to wait until I went to Argentina, some years later. More of that when the time comes.

HMS Collingwood This would be sometime around 1975. HMS Collingwood was a shore based training centre for electrical and electronic engineering people. Some Ferranti systems had been set up there for the trainees to practise on, but the base technicians were having difficulty coping with some equipment additions.

On entering the base, the road led to the main parade area, around which there were a number of buildings. As I passed along it I noticed a large sign at the side of the road that said "Beware marching bodies of men". I half expected to see Vincent Price in a black cloak blocking the road.

It was here I heard the story of the training officer that was spending ages writing notes on a blackboard. Eventually one of the trainees said to his neighbour "they also serve who only stand and wait". The instructor was furious at the interruption and demanded to know who said that. Another voice said "Milton, sir". The instructor fiercely demanded "Milton, stand up!".

I was only there for two days, so nothing else of memorable value occurred during my visit.

HMS Cleopatra HMS Cleopatra

This was in the summer of 1976, when this frigate was deployed at AUTEC (Admiralty Underwater Training and Education Centre). Cleo was equipped with ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) capability, and was sent to the Caribbean as part of a joint exercise programme with the USA. The exercises took place mainly over the Tongue of the Ocean, which is a large strip of seabed, sort of tongue-shaped, east of Andros in the Bahamas. Roughly a thousand fathoms deep it provides plenty of space for various surface and underwater craft to play war games in a carefully monitored environment.

The ship had been updated with some Ferranti equipment and because these exercises were costing our MoD a great deal of money on a daily basis, I had sent an engineer to join the ship to see that nothing went wrong. But, unfortunately, it did. The engineer took various measurements under direction from Bracknell, and it was felt that he needed backup. So off I went.

By the time I arrived, the engineer had been working all hours for several days, and desperately needed a break. So I sent him off duty for a couple of days. He was a keen scuba diver and had taken his kit with him, other than gas bottles that he was able to borrow from the ship. Meanwhile I had brought with me some new ideas and had the problem fixed quite quickly. In an environment such as this you quickly learn that it is not the fixing of problems that matters, it is proving that they are fixed. In other words, you spend more time checking, testing and re-checking than you do making repairs.

At the end of the next day my engineer returned from his scuba diving with damaged legs. He had them fixed by the on-board medics, and I asked what happened. He said he'd had an encounter with a barracuda, and I couldn't believe he had survived.

But in fact it was a little less dramatic. He had been quietly minding his own business using his underwater camera to photograph the varied and colourful fish off the shore of Andros. Turning, he suddenly found his viewfinder filled with teeth. Vast quantities, lined up in several rows, and they all belonged to the same barracuda! You might advise that there is no possibility of outrunning a barracuda in its own element (up to 25 mph), but that doesn't stop you trying. As it happens the fish was already well fed and, like an aquatic magpie, was simply expressing an interest in the chromed fittings on the camera. In fact, these fish are not known for attacking people, but he wasn't waiting to confirm this, and dashed for the shore as quickly as his flippers would take him. And there lay the problem. Flippers are not much use when climbing a rocky shoreline, so he damaged his legs on the rocks. There are not many from the UK who can say they have been chased by a barracuda, and ended up with no more than a few cuts and grazes.

The other notable thing was the skill of the CREA responsible for the computers. On that ship the electrical power to the computers was provided by static inverters. They were intended to be a low-maintenance, high-reliability alternative to the usual diesel motor-alternator sets. Small versions are available now from high street shops as compact units to provide low power mains voltage from car or lorry batteries. But on Cleopatra they were the size of wardrobes and had a lot of complicated electronics in them. One of these had failed, and the ship had not been authorised to conduct low-level component repairs on board. But the situation demanded action, and the CREA got out the circut diagrams to fix it. Unfortunately the required component wasn't avaliable on the ship, so he had improvised using other components and a patchwork of temporary bits of wire. The equipment then worked, and I was seriously impressed.

Anyway, after a few days leave, my engineer was as right as rain and wanted to stay on. So after being on board for about four days I left the ship and took a series of flights back from Andros, via Nassau and Trinidad to Heathrow. But before I left, the captain kindly gave me a personally autographed photograph of the ship.

HMS Antelope This ship was the second in class, cloned from HMS Amazon. It was commissioned in 1975 and set to work using teams from Manchester.

In theory, all the ships of a class are supposed to start out the same. In practice, there can be significant differences. For example, if something needs to be moved, the ideal place for relocation may be already occupied by something else. So an alternative, compromise location has to be found. Bear in mind that when something is moved, all the cables and pipes connected to it have to be moved as well. But when the second ship is built, this can be rearranged for a more ideal solution, and the two ships end up being permanently different. Another reason for differences arises when the shipbuilders decide they can cut some corners on materials or labour.

Such was the case on Antelope. I was asked to visit the ship at Portsmouth to investigate why the computers kept crashing. This had already been looked at by several people from Manchester and Bracknell, and nobody could find out what was wrong. I joined the ship on the Saturday and checked and re-checked everything. I could not get the fault to show itself, so I stayed overnight in Porstmouth and tried again on Sunday. Still no result. But as I said earlier I never left a ship without fixing the fault, so I asked to stay on board when the ship sailed on the Monday.

The captain was happy to let me do that, and I placed myself in the doorway between the operations room and the computer room as the ship left the dockside. I had modified the software to flag a warning when the crash would occur, so it would keep running. I could therefore watch what was going on with the ship while keeping an eye out for the fault occurrence.

The result was immediate. Almost as soon as the ship started moving the fault occured. And again, and again every few seconds. It was also apparent that the frequency increased as the ship increased speed. But I also noticed that each occurrence related to a click audible throughout the operations room. The click came from a number of instruments recording the ships log (motion through the sea).

That was all I needed. It turned out that the shipbuilder had tried to save costs on installing cables by putting the ships log signal wire into the same cable as a number of low voltage computer signal wires. This wouldn't have mattered except that the ship's log had a bad relay contact that was squirting high frequency noise everywhere.

After all that trouble, the fault was fixed by asking the CREA to take some sandpaper and rub a relay contact below decks. After leaving the ship I had word sent back to the shipbuilder to get the signal wires separated on that ship and other builds in the same class.

I was only on board for three days, ond only one of those was at sea. But, perhaps because she was the sister of one that I had got to know particularly well, it came as a shock when I saw the news of her being sunk in the Falklands war in 1982. It's a strange thing, after all a ship is only metal and oil. But if it's one you know, even if you don't know anybody on board at the time, there's something visceral about the effect it has on you. Very sad.

HMS Hermes HMS Hermes

To celebrate HRH Queen Elizabeth's silver jublilee, someone had the bright idea of gathering the entire naval fleet together in the seas off Portsmouth, so she could go and have a look at it. HMS Hermes, being one of the biggest ships, was a prize attraction and had to be there for the period 24th-29th June, 1977. She was an aircraft carrier with a maximum displacement of 28000 tons and carried a variety of helicopters and light fighter aircraft.

At about that time Ferranti had recommended that the ship's computers should be upgraded with some new memory. In those days it was not simply a matter of plugging in another strip; it involved replacing a module weighing several kilos, and then meticulously adjusting several components to compensate for component variability and signal path delays. The actual memory comprised of panels of tiny toroidal magnets each threaded up, down and diagonally with fine wires. There were a number of these modules, and they each had to be set up at great length and with extensive testing for reliability afterwards.

So the enforced idleness imposed on the ship was a great opportunity to catch up, and I was given my sailing orders on the Thursday by our support department at Bracknell. I took with me one of my junior engineers, and we drove down to Portsmouth early on Friday morning. As a rule, when I visited ships in Portsmouth harbour I had no difficulty finding a liberty boat (otherwise known as a Motor Fishing Vessel, or MFV). But on this occasion, everything that would float was bobbing around in the water, with hordes of people going various shades of green while they took pictures of the fleet at anchor. Eventually, by late morning I found something that would get us out to the ship and off we went, weaving our way amongst assorted craft of dubious seaworthiness. On arrival at the ship it was a long way up the staircase with our overnight bags, so on reaching the deck I suggested that if we had waited for high tide there would have been a much smaller climb. But the officer on duty failed to see the joke. I suspect he had been polishing his boots all week, and didn't want to be bothered by stupid landlubbers.

As engineering specialists we were usually accommodated as junior officers on ships. So we were assigned our cabin, shown where to find the heads and showers, and taken to be introduced to the CREA responsible for the computers. And that was the last we saw of our cabin. Other than taking breaks for meals, and the occasional walk round the flight deck to clear our heads, we worked right through until the early hours of Monday morning. While we were on board the vessel was lying at anchor, so there were no interesting activities going on with aircraft, as there were when I had visited the Argentine aircraft carrier, of which more later.

From the elevated height of the flight deck it was a grand sight with so many ships at anchor. All the usual deck-hamper, dangling cables and other untidiness had been stowed or ditched, and everything polished up to impress. At night, with the numerous lights of different colours, it was really spectacular and a sight not to be missed. Meanwhile, after a brave attempt to keep up with our extended shift, the CREA eventually made the mistake of sitting down, and we were able to use him as a sort of lectern for our manuals while he slept peacefully. The Weapons Electrical Officer (WEO) was on shore leave, so we quietly got on with our job and made arrangements with the Boatswain to leave the ship after breakfast on Monday morning.

We left the ship on the 0800 scheduled liberty boat and then had to drive to Portsdown Hill for a debriefing at ASWE (Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment - they represented the RN as our technical customer). The meeting was delayed until about 10.00, and neither of us dared to sit down while we waited in case we fall asleep on the spot. We finally arrived home and dumped the hire car around lunchtime. After a quick call to my boss to say that all was well, I then crashed out for a very long time! Thankfully, this was the only 76-hour shift I ever had to work.

HMS Bronington HMS Bronington

This would have been around 1978, a couple of years after HRH Prince Charles completed his tour on board as the captain. I was only there for a day and an overnight stay in Edinburgh, and unfortunately I don't have a record of the date.

Ferranti were preparing special equipment for a new generation of fibreglass-hulled minesweepers (otherwise known as Mine Counter-Measures Vessels, or MCMVs). The first of class, being cast at the time, was affectionately known as HMS Tupperware. I remember that, although MCMVs are not very big by warship standards, it was unusually large for a fibreglass hull at the time and the shipbuilder was having a lot of problems keeping its shape. But my visit was to find out how the older wooden-hulled variety were operated at sea, so I could bring back some knowledge of the working environment for our equipment. HMS Bronington was in Rosyth at the time, and I took a programmer with me to show them the ropes for visiting RN ships at sea.

Every ship has its history and a unique fund of stories. But the listener must always remember that these stories get better every time they are told. Perhaps that's why there are so many pinches of salt in the sea! The favourite story on Bronington concerned the ferry that crossed the Forth just downstream of the naval dockyard. Whenever RN ships came and went, their paths would cross, and while the ferry was supposed to have priority, mistakes did get made. On one occasion the ship made no apparent attempt to avoid the ferry, so the ferry changed its speed. The ship also anticipated a collision and did the same, with the inevitable result of a minor collision. But when the ship returned to port later in the day, the ferrymaster saw it coming and retreated at full speed to its berth. At the same time, the black ball that should be raised to indicate that the ferry was under way was lowered and raised again but this time decorated with a large white sheet!

Another tradition peculiar to ships at Rosyth (or possibly just this one) concerned a competition between the captain and the navigation officer. In this case the captain (on these vessels they usually hold the rank of Lieutenant) had earlier served as a navigator. On return from each sortie, the bet concerned whether the ship would pass under the Forth railway bridge while there was a train crossing it. If there was a train overhead, the captain would buy a bottle of scotch for the navigator.

While we were at sea and preparing to return to Rosyth, the captain requested a course from the navigator. When he received it he immediately asked for it to be changed, taking different waypoints. The revision took a little while, and was rejected again. The navigator was getting a little frustrated and tried a third time. In the end we came into port, and about five minutes later a train crossed the bridge. I found out about the bet afterwards, when it was explained that both officers kept copies of the train timetables in their cabins for this very reason!

After returning from Plymouth in 1972 and before going on to Portsmouth I shared a house in Wokingham with some programmers. We became good friends, but went our separate ways as our careers demanded. But when I visited Rosyth I discovered that one of my old housemates had relocated to Edinburgh. So, on arrival in the evening we joined up and spent the night on the town. It makes for a much more pleasant site visit when you have local contacts to enliven your outing.

ARA Veinticinco de Majo ARA Veinticinco de Majo

Throughout my time at Ferranti, working on naval systems, I was almost exclusively involved in RN work. Others worked on ships for foreign navies. But as you can tell from the name this Argentine aircraft carrier was the exception.

She was originally built as an aircraft carrier for the RN in 1944, with the name of HMS Venerable, and was sold on to the Royal Dutch Navy as HNLMS Karel Doorman after only a few exciting wartime years in 1948. I can't help smiling if I think of her being advertised for sale by the MoD: "Aircraft carrier. One careful lady owner. Full service history. Buyer provides own aircraft and crew. Best offer over �10M. No time-wasters please".

While she was in the RDN she was refitted with new radars and various other equipment before being sold on to the Argentine navy about 20 years later. This vessel had a displacement of about 20000 tons and was used to carry some helicopters and light fighter aircraft.

I visited the ship at her base in Bahia Blanca on two occasions. Once from July to August in 1976, and again from April to June in 1977. A total of about 18 weeks. On each occasion I went with a small team comprising a radar signal specialist, a site manager and a programmer. The ship had been fitted with Ferranti computers and we were sent to check out our equipment and trial it for acceptance by the Agentine Navy. Although I had spent a short time on HMS Hermes, this was the first time I had worked on an aircraft carrier doing what aircraft carriers were supposed to do. During my visits there were many interesting events, some related to the nature of the ship and its equipment, and some arising from the very different naval culture that they have.

I will not attempt to present a chronological account because I have long since forgotten what happened on which visit. So I shall simply split the account into two parts: mainly ashore, and mainly aboard ship.



On both occasions the visits were arranged at short notice. The first time, I was provided with a Linguaphone language course in Spanish. But with everything else going on I had no time to use it. So I arrived at Buenos Aires airport with a very limited knowledge of the language. All across the atlantic I had been staring at a sign on the seat in front, saying "Your lifejacket is under your seat"; and on the next seat it said "Su salvavida esta debajo su assiento". But on arrival in Argentina I found that this knowledge of the language was rather limited in dealing with my immediate purchasing needs.

In those days I used to smoke, and I had run out of lighter flints; I had one of the earliest pocket calculators, which needed frequent access to mains power and required a plug adaptor; and I needed a map so I could drive to Bahia Blanca, a distance of about 700 miles by road. From the hotel I walked to the main shopping precinct and looked for a map in a kiosk, which attracted the attention of the stallholder. It turned out he spoke perfect English, so I explained what I needed. To my amazement he shoo'd away his other browsers and shut the stall. He then took me on a conducted tour of the shops and helped my find everything I needed. I'd been to many places around the world, and met many people, but never had I found someone so helpful to a complete stranger.

Over the period that I spend in Argentina, I found that this sort of kindness was far from unusual. Most people spoke very good English, a point reinforced one day when the radar engineer and I were discussing where we could get some sticky tape. A window cleaner working a few feet from us stopped what he was doing, wiped his hand and came over. He introduced himself and explained that he had never met an English person before. He had learned English in school, and never knew for himself what we sounded like. His English was extremely good, with no trace of a USA accent, which I would have expected. We talked for a while, he gave us some directions, and we went on our way very impressed. Not just with man-in-the-street's knowledge of our language, but with the enormous regard with which they held the British people.

Most of Argentina is very flat, at least until you go across to the Andes in the West. But not far from Bahia Blanca was a small range of hills called the "Sierra La Ventana", or "window hills". They are so called because there is an aperture in the natural rock formation, about two metres high, near the highest point. When the sun is in the right direction you can see it in the shadow cast by the hills. We had been advised that it was a pleasant walk to the top, a couple of hours on foot from the nearest road. One of the girls we met locally acted as a guide, and we decided to have a look. The pictures show the view of the road through the window, and the window seen as a tiny spot near the horizon from the road.

La Ventana 1 La Ventana 2

It wasn't a difficult walk, although it was very rocky in places; but then it wasn't just a couple of hours either. It seems that Welsh miles had been exported to Patagonia and spread from there. The view from the top was brilliant, and on the way up I saw for the first time an atmospheric inversion layer. This is where the land is so flat that, without wind, warm air can remain trapped under cooler air. The visible result is a very thin layer of mist, so thin that you can only see it edgewise-on, which means you have to be quite high up. This inversion layer went on for miles, with the occasional break where it overlay a dark ploughed field, which would have been warmer and caused convection overhead.

One evening we decided to go to the cinema. One of the main cinemas was showing "The Romantic Englishwoman", so we thought we would have a chance of understanding it. There were seven in our group, and I was deputed to get the tickets. Cinema seats were reserved and bookable in advance, just like in a theatre. So I went to the the cinema kiosk and in my best Castillian (in Argentina they speak a dialect of Spanish, although "proper" Spanish is always understood) I asked for "tickets for seven this evening". I was presented with a single ticket, which I thought was odd, particularly as it was so cheap, so I tried to query it: "Is this for seven?". By then there was a small queue behind me and the people were expressing concern in their mumblings to each other. Actually, far from being irritated by my ignorance, they were concerned for me. Then there was a barrage of argument all around me. The kiosk attendant was overwhelmed and visibly retreated under the onslaught. It turned out that the performance was timed for seven o'clock, and he had misunderstood my request. The problem was quickly remedied, and everybody was greatly amused by the obvious cause of the misunderstanding.

I didn't like to complain when on closer examination I found that all the seats were even-numbered. It seemed that I had been given alternate seats, so we wouldn't be sitting next to each other. But I needn't have worried because in that cinema all the seats left of the central aisle were odd-numbered, and all the seats to the right were even-numbered. So all was right, after all. During the performance we atttracted some attention because we burst into laughter at unexpected times. The Spanish subtitles failed to convey some of the subtle humour, and we had to spend some time after the performance explaining it.

At that time Argentina had some serious problems. The economy was in free-fall, running at over 200% per month inflation. And there were people wanting to take a pot at the President. We were not affected by the economy, simply taking the precaution of leaving our money in USD traveller's cheques until the last minute. The currency had been devalued by a factor of 100, so one "new" peso was worth a hundred "old" pesos. One day, when I bought a box of matches I was given change with a one "old" peso note. It was worth about 1/40 pence. Interestingly it had been extensively repaired with sellotape. For that brief period I was a peso millionnaire!

The security was more of a problem. Various roads leading to the town were set up with mobile road blocks supported by platoons of armed soldiers. So we were stopped several times at gunpoint. The first time this happened, we came over a rise in the road to find an army truck in front of us with a machine gun aimed straight at us! As we approached soldiers appeared out of the ditches and we were quickly surrounded. The officer approached me and demanded papers. I produced my passport, and the attitude immediately changed. The officer apologised in perfect English for the inconvenience and asked politely if he could search the car for weapons. He also instructed his men to shoulder their guns. The whole incident was conducted with politeness and good humour, although it gave us a bit of a fright to start with.

A few days later I was changing for dinner in the hotel, when there was a knock at the door. When I opened the door I was faced by a small group of people in leather jackets, all pointing pistols at me! The manager, in an obvious state of excruciating embarrassment quickly explained that there was a terrorist fugitive believed to be hiding in the hotel, and the security police were instructed to search the whole building. I invited one of them into the room, and he made a cursory check before thanking me politely and leaving.

On board

At the time of my visits, the Argentine navy was more for show than blow. Since they had fought for their independence from Spain (an event celebrated every year on the 25th May, after which the aircraft carrier was named) they had no real enemies at sea and had adopted a fairly casual formality in naval affairs. I felt that their only enemy was their neighbour, Chile, with which they were in dispute over territorial rights in the antarctic. But the seas around Tierra del Fuego were too hostile for ships to play sabre-rattling games, so the animosity was vented mainly by telephone and at political conferences.

The only other "enemy" was Britain, in dispute over governance of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas. It was well known that the Falklands/Malvinas situation, while being a genuine political irritant, was inflamed in an attempt by the political rulers to divert attention from their economic woes. At the time I was there, even senior military officers did not take the situation seriously, as I shall later explain.

In earlier work on RN ships I had found that faults in shipborne equipment often led to the computer systems reporting errors in data. One such situation occurred with the main surveillance radar. When you are far enough from the ship to see it all without turning your head, you are a long way off, and you don't get the scale of things. The same applies to a photograph. But when you get up close, you realise that the main antenna, at the very top of the ship, is large enough, if laid flat, to park at least half a dozen full sized coaches.

This means that it has a lot of "windage" and unless the mechanism is in perfect condition it's motion can become irregular. Such was the case when the computer showed strange errors in the position of various landmarks. The computer was accused of being at fault, and I had to explain that the fault was because the antenna was sometimes going backwards. I was not believed - the motors are extremely powerful, and this just couldn't happen. So I had to prove it, and the radar chief took me to the antenna to have a close look. Bear in mind I suffered from vertigo! We had to climb a series of ladders, each barely wide enough to fit both shoes side-by-side, right up the outside of the "island". The platform at the top was a narrow ring around the antenna mounting and gearbox, with a thin guardrail. It would be very easy to slip under it or fall over it.

The engineer took off the gearbox covers, and it was immediately apparent that the main gear was badly worn. This would easily account for the erratic behaviour, and he agreed to get it taken out and remade in the ship's workshops. He then disappeared down the ladder, leaving me holding onto the guardrail with white knuckles.

At the same time, the ship was practising landing aircraft, and a series of fighter jets were playing "touch and go" on the flight deck. Somehow I forgot my vertigo and, having brought my camera (if I had done that in the UK I would have been put up against a wall and shot), I took pictures of them. I was so high up it was like being in the gallery of a toyshop. These seemingly toy aircraft were whizzing back and forth, and the safety helicopters were buzzing around the ship. It almost seemed that I could control them like marionnettes on strings. But when I got to number 38 on a 36 exposure film I suspected a problem. It turned out later that the camera had broken the film sprockets and was not winding on at all. So I came away after what must have been a truly unique experience with no pictures at all!

This was not the only time I had to show the cause of a problem in another piece of equipment. On a separate occasion the computer was reporting incorrect log data. The log is a device fitted to the bottom of the hull to measure water speed. It is connected through several other devices, eventually to the computer, and I had to trace the signals back through each of these to the source. Fortunately claustrophobia is not one of my vices, so I was able to descend through a number of cavernous and unlit compartments, through hatches barely wide enough for my shoulders, to reach the offending kit, a long way below the waterline. I would never have believed, when I joined the company to work in seemingly quiet and comfortable offices, that I would be scrambling about at such heights and depths a few years later.

Each year the Argentine navy organises a Navigacion. This is when, for a few days, the entire navy puts to sea and does some exercises. Bear in mind that, unlike the RN which is constantly fighting a war somewhere, their navy has very little to do. So they have to find an excuse to go to sea once a year.

Before we went to sea it was planned to land and take-off aircraft, so they had to get the steam catapult working before they left. The steam catapult consists of a big pipe running along under the deck, with a slot along its length. Inside the pipe there is a plug, and this is attached to the nose of the aircraft, through the slot with a loop of leather. When a valve is opened steam under great pressure is drawn from the boilers and forces the plug to drag the aircraft. The leather strap unhooks or breaks to loose the aircraft at the end.

This pipe needs to be lubricated with thick grease. One day I was walking across the flight deck and stepped over the slot of the steam catapult. I caught sight of movement, and immediately suspected rats. But then I saw a glint from white teeth, and a big smile from a small boy. He was wearing nothing but shorts, and was pulling a big tub of grease along the pipe to lubricate it by hand. He gave me a cheerful wave and we both carried on. In the UK we might think that this sort of thing is child exploitation, but that small boy was immensely proud to be in the service of his country, doing a job that no adult could do.

Inevitably, a number of ships were unable to join in because necessary equipment such as engines were not working properly, but the Veinticinco de Majo was leading the fleet. We had been given warning, so we were on board with our overnight things and looking forward to the trip. We also needed the sea time for our trials.

We had been at sea for two days, and we were working in the computer room with the lieutenant computer officer when there was a signal calling for the officer of the watch. This was one and the same person, so he begged his leave and left us. He was gone for a long time, and we asked him on his return what was the problem. He was clearly feeling uncomfortable, so we persisted (as you do). It turned out that two of the crew had been found in the same bunk, and had been arrested for indecent conduct. The officer of the watch was required to authorise the arrest and see that they were put in the brig (the on-board gaol). So we asked whether they were locked in the same cell. The effect was dramatic. The officer's face went completely white, and he ran from the compartment. He reappeared a few minutes later looking much more comfortable.

While we were at sea the aircraft had another game of touch-and-go. At the start they weren't allowed to land because the steam catapult couldn't be relied upon to get them off again. But later on a few of them landed, presumably to be craned off when the ship returned to port. On this occasion I was able to be with the deck controller on the port side. The position was over the edge of the main flight deck, so if it all went wrong the aircraft would (hopefully) slide over his head into the sea without taking him with it.

The experience was unforgettable. Fighter aircraft aren't as stable as other small aeroplanes, and have to take off and land at much higher speeds. Also, they need the assistance of steel "arrestor" wires connected to massive hydraulic dampers below decks to help them stop before they run out of ship. But, in case they miss the wires with their hooks, the pilots are trained to give it the beans as soon as they hit the deck, so they can get safely back into the air. Normally, aircraft "flare" just before touching the ground, which is to say that they reduce the rate of descent to soften the impact. But aircraft adapted for use at sea are required to fly straight into the deck at an angle of about 10 degrees. So, from a position almost directly underneath the wing at the point of impact (the wingtips were no more than a couple of metres away), the closeness, the speed, the impacts on the deck, the vibration and the deafening noise are truly extraordinary!

In all this sound and fury the deck operator is saying "up a bit" or "down a bit" into his radio to practise managing without the automatic deck approach lights. The excercise also helped me to understand the problem of getting any rest if your cabin is under the flight deck: although the deck is solid steel and several feet thick, if you think you have problems with the person in the the upstairs room dropping shoes on the floor at night, imagine how it would feel if they started landing aircraft! Since you don't have the benefit of seeing the aircraft approach, it must be an alarming experience, which I was thankfully spared.

In the wardroom of an aircraft carrier there are a great number of officers, and the most senior (known as the First Lieutenant, or more familiarly, Number One) might carry the rank of Commander on such a ship. He is the most senior officer to be found in the wardroom, because the captain only attends when invited. In this case the First Lieutenant was a very high ranking officer, and a charming man. His was a political appointment, and although he was probably never, ever, sick at sea, his appointment did rather smack of HMS Pinafore.

The popular game in the wardroom was Japanese Billiards. It comprised of a square wooden board, about a metre each way, with a solid wooden "cushion" around it, and a pocket in each corner. A few centimetres inside the cushion was a square marked with a line. On this surface there were a number of pieces, each consisting of a ring of wood with a hole in the middle large enough to contain a fingertip. They were coloured red and green, with the exception of a white one. The game was played more like pool than billiards, with each player flicking the white piece to make it knock their chosen colour pieces into a pocket.

The First Lieutenant was the wardroom champion, and he beat everybody else. For some reason he decided to take me under his wing, and coached me in the technique of the game. By the time we came ashore after the sea trip I was able to beat everybody in the wardroom except him. On one occasion he invited me to make the game "more interesting", which means putting a bet on it. I knew that gambling was strictly forbidden on board, but he was in a position to make his own rules if he wanted to. So I asked what he had in mind.

He suggested the Malvinas. If I won, Britain could keep them as the Falklands, otherwise they became Argentine property as the Malvinas. So we played, and I lost. I also lost the best of three and the best of five. The following day we played again, and with the same inevitable result.

Clearly this officer took the view that the Falklands/Malvinas situation was a political distraction, not to be taken too seriously, and I am sure he would have been horrified to think we would ever be engaged in a military conflict over it. And I certainly wouldn't like to think that the eventual invasion of South Georgia and the islands themselves was simply the collection of a debt of honour. At least, I have not heard anybody say so.

* * * * *

Ferranti SAS

Some time after my visits I received a certificate from the senior sales manager for South America. In recognition of having spent over 3 months in South America, it proclaimed my membership of the Ferranti South America Society, otherwise known as the SAS. I also have the tie, which I wear on appropriate occasions.

During the subsequent Falklands conflict there were inevitably groups of people that took personal attitudes. There were political pressure groups in Argentina, and there were ignorant members of the press in the UK. But at no time did I get the feeling that the ordinary people in Argentina held the slightest animosity towards the British. When it had settled down I spoke to people from our own South America sales team, and they confirmed that, other than suspending military sales for a while, it was business as usual very shortly afterwards. The only problem was their continuing economic failure, and the way this affected all trade with the country.

I was asked by several people whether the Veinticinco de Majo would be a significant asset during the conflict. I took the view that Aircraft carriers are essentially a means of getting an airstrip within a convenient range of the target zone. Other than that they are a massive liability, needing a fleet of other vessels to defend them. In this case, I seriously doubted that the steam catapult was capable of reliable operation, and that the Argentine navy had the resources to defend it at sea. In the event I was correct, and the ship showed itself for only a very short while and only close to port.

* * * * *

I have always maintained a very strict rule. Whenever I am overseas I am in someone else's country, and their problems are none of my business. Whatever I might feel is right or wrong for my own country, it is not my place to express a political or religious opinion or to become involved in any campaign that might be going on in theirs. Of all the countries I visited at work or on holiday, Argentina was the most troubled. Of course I had my own opinions but I had learned that opinions formed in UK are based on information available through the press or politicians. And this very frequently turn out to be ill-informed or deliberately misleading. So I find it best to look, listen and learn, and above all to avoid any liklihood of embarrassment to my kind hosts, which could do nothing but harm.

© Peter Grossi 2023. This site prepared and published by Peter Grossi

This site is listed in
Google UK