The Hovercraft was a relatively new invention in 1967, when Commander Vernon Phillips was sent to the Falkland Islands to put the craft through sea trials.
Vernon will share his stories of his year on the South Atlantic’s waves, exploring the windswept wilderness and seeing wonderful wildlife, at Shaftesbury’s Royal British Legion Hall on Thursday.
“I was actually serving at the air station up in Arbroath, training leading hands for their next promotion. Suddenly I got an appointment to be the commanding officer of this naval party to operate in the Falkland Islands,” explained Vernon.
At the time, hovercraft were relatively new. Sir Christopher Cockerell, as he later became, developed the technology at the end of the 1950s. And in 1959, the first hovercraft was seen in public – the SRN1. That lead the Navy into taking an interest,” said Vernon.
The hovercraft used in the Falklands didn’t travel from England on its own. “It was quite a small craft, rather like the ones that travel from Southampton to Cowes with 36 passengers,” said Vermon. “It went on board a ship as deck cargo. We, the naval party, flew out to Montevideo, where we met up with the ship to do the last thousand miles together.”
The hovercraft created a novelty factor when it arrived in the Falkands. “They had never even seen a double decker bus,” laughed Vernon. Hovercraft are best known for traveling across the Solent, which is relatively calm. The craft are difficult to steer in wind and that became an issue in the Falklands.
“It wasn’t uncommon to have winds of 80 knots there. Part of our planning was always to have a diversion available within a few minutes, where you could go into a bit of shelter and wait for the wind to pass,” Vernon recalled.
Luckily, the crew didn’t get into any weather-related scrapes. “We never did. And one of the lovely features of the Falkland Islands is that it is surrounded by kelp, which makes a sort of highway that deadens the waves and the swell and we tended to travel along on that.” Vernon got to see a lot of the overseas territory. “I did a tour of the whole colony, visiting every settlement, which was a two week event,” said Vernon.
Many people will remember TV footage of the islands during the conflict. It appeared bleak and it has been compared to parts of Scotland. Vernon says its lack of woodland is striking. “There are hardly any trees at all. The only trees I saw were the old ones in Settlement, but generally it’s totally windswept and pretty unforgiving,” he said.
Stanley is considered to have a very British feeling. Vernon recognised that during his 1967 visit. “They are tremendously loyal. They did provide a Spitfire during the Second World War. I was very impressed by the way that everybody stood to attention when the national anthem was played. They didn’t try to dodge out of cinemas before it,” he laughed.
Vernon was away from England for twelve months and in those days, making contact with home presented a challenge. “I made one phone call over Christmas, arranged by Cable and Wireless, and that was pretty stilted because I had to train my parents to say ‘over’ before they could change frequencies for the reply.”
Today, cruise ship passengers visit Falkland for its wildlife – primarily penguins. Vernon recalls the experience fondly. “That was the highlight for me. I’m very interested in nature and we were able to go to places where no human had been before, walking among colonies of sealions, which was very exciting,” said Vernon. “The colony was based at the foot of a cliff, which was totally inaccessible and because of the rocks that were just level with a surface and the kelp, no boat could possibly have got there.”
Vernon also had an insight into how islanders live in these remote communities. “They work hard and they play hard. A lot of them were very educated, nice people who come out from Scotland and Ireland and set up there and have been there ever since. They looked after huge numbers of sheep, obviously.”
Vernon hadn’t expected to remain on the islands for a year. “The craft wasn’t expected to last that long but three more teams went down annually, until the craft got damaged.” The hovercraft sea trials in The Falklands were viewed as a success. “They were very useful, particularly the land crossings and beach surveys, which would have become very relevant when the war came fifteen years later,” said Vernon.
He returned to the Falklands after his year long posting ended. “Soon after I came back from doing that twelve month trip, I joined a sales tour going around South America and I was picked up in the Magellan Strait in a helicopter and went to stay with the people that I knew best while I was out there.”
Vernon will show plenty of photographs during his talk. “That’s how this all started, when I discovered two boxes of 35mm slides, which I’d never really looked at since then. And they are the basis of my talk,” said Vernon.
There’s one photograph that sums up the essence of Vernon’s experience on the islands. “It’s one of a hovercraft sitting on Volunteer Beach in East Falkland. There’s a colony of King Penguins in the foreground.”
You can enjoy Commander Vernon Phillips’ talk, ‘Royal Naval Hovercraft in the Falkland Islands 1967’ at 11.30am on Thursday 17th January at the Royal British Legion Hall on Coppice Street. The event is free for RBL members. Non-members are asked to make a donation. Vernon’s presentation will be followed by lasagne and coleslaw, for people who have booked.