HMS HYDRA - AMBULANCE SHIP
From "HMS Hydra - Falkland Islands Ambulance Ship 1982", (HMS Hydra, 1982 - 20pp) - produced privately for the ship's company.
In early April 1982, HMS HYDRA (Commander R J CAMPBELL, Royal Navy), together with HM Ships HECLA and HERALD and SS UGANDA, was declared as a Hospital Ship as a result of the likelihood of military conflict in the South Atlantic. A need was identified, at such a vast distance from shore support, to provide on the spot care for the wounded and shipwrecked under the terms of the Geneva Convention. The Hospital Ships fulfilled that need.
Having returned from a six month surveying deployment in the West Indies at the beginning of March, the ship gave leave and set about making ready for further surveying operations, expected this time in Scottish waters. The Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands took place on 2 April and the first major units of the Task Force sailed from Portsmouth three days later. Although hints concerning HYDRA's role were passed on 13th, it was not until 15 April that the ship was ordered to sail as a Hospital Ship on Saturday 24 April. Nine days of concentrated activity followed, activity both by the ship's company and by supporting elements in the dockyard organisation.
The ship was stored with medical equipment far in excess of that normally carried, cold weather clothing was embarked and food, sufficient to sustain the ship's company for over six months was carried onboard and stowed in every ''conceivable corner of the ship "
Alterations and additions to the ship's structure were embodied including the ability to replenish at sea and a defective main engine changed. The ship was painted all white, externally, with red crosses superimposed. At Royal Naval Air Station, Portland, the ship's Wasp helicopter was partially resprayed to conform to the requirements of the Geneva Convention, and maintenance work progressed in anticipation of intensive flying in Antarctic conditions.
The last dockyard worker left the ship, and the last store was embarked only minutes before HMS HYDRA sailed from Portsmouth, with HMS HERALD in company, at 1000 on Saturday 24 April. Orders were to steam to Ascension Island via Freetown. At Ascension last minute stores were embarked by helicopter and further instructions were received to continue, at best speed, to rendezvous with SS UGANDA in a position some 200 miles north east of the Falklands. On passage, the ship's company exercised constantly. Damage control and firefighting techniques were rehearsed. Modifications to the ship's structure were made to ease the handling of stretchers, and two emergency operating theatres were set up in the Wardroom and Junior Rates Dining Hall.
Thirty members of the ship's company were trained, under the supervision of the ship's Medical Officer, as nurses, able to care, possibly, for 100 patients at any one time. The ship exercised the skills required for underway replenishment from another surface unit. By the time HYDRA met UGANDA on 19 May in the South Atlantic and as hopes of a diplomatic settlement seemed to be fading, the ship was prepared to cope with any eventuality likely to occur in the known Falklands scenario.
It became clear, as the Hospital Ships were ordered to move to a waiting area - the Red Cross Box - some 30 miles to the north of the Falklands, that a decisive move was soon to be made ashore, and, as we received news of the San Carlos landings on 21 May, so the Hospital Ships prepared for intensive activity- Happily, casualties at the initial landings were light, and injured men were flown direct from the field hospital at Ajax Bay to UGANDA.
Late on 24 May, HMS HYDRA was ordered to proceed to the east for an unspecified reason. On arrival at the position at midday on the following day in very poor visibility, the ship established radio communication with "the Great White Whale" - SS CANBERRA. Nine casualties were transferred from the requisitioned cruise liner by Wasp, and, having returned to the Red Cross Box, they were flown on to UGANDA on 26th. Two days later in very difficult weather conditions, stabilised casualties were flown from UGANDA to HMS HECLA who departed soon afterwards on the first run to Montevideo to repatriate the injured.
The poor weather continued until 1 June when 49 casualties were embarked from UGANDA by helicopter after which the ship was again instructed to proceed east. This time, being low on fuel, the ship was able to effect a replenishment, initially in darkness, with an RFA Tanker, In the morning light, SS UGANDA also joined in to take fuel from the Tanker's disengaged side in what must be a unique evolution. The three H Class ships soon settled into a pattern of relieving UGANDA of her stabilised casualties every three or four days for passage to Montevideo where they were landed and transported by bus and a fleet of Uruguayan ambulances with a police escort to a waiting RAF aircraft for the final leg of the passage home. Initially embarkation was done by helicopter in the Red Cross Box but as the action increased ashore UGANDA went into Falkland Sound by day to be closer to the field hospital. The ambulance ships then went alongside her in Falkland Sound to take off the wounded. HYDRA was actually alongside UGANDA embarking casualties from the landings at Bluff Cove early on 14 June when the first helicopters arrived carrying the injured from the final assault on the hills surrounding Port Stanley. Sailing north in the relatively quiet dawn it was difficult to appreciate the dangers of the position in Falkland Sound with West Falkland occupied by Argentine troops and our own on the land to the east.
In four journeys to the Uruguayan capital, HMS HYDRA moved 251 casualties. To make room for these men, the ship's company vacated their messdecks and slept on camp beds in offices and workshops. Watch keeping rosters were strained as ratings were diverted to nursing duties while the remainder of the company maintained a high degree of readiness to deal with action damage. But the reward for these efforts was to see the joy of a badly burned sailor when dead skin was painstakingly removed from his face by a survey recorder and he could believe for the first time that he would not be scarred for life, or to see a limbless soldier take his first faltering steps towards independence with the aid of a pair of crutches and the physical support and mental encouragement of a ship's stoker. News of the ceasefire was received onboard with a relief rather than joy, tempered with the knowledge that there was still much work for the Hospital Ships to do. There was always a shortage of blood in UGANDA and, in one ten day
period, the ship's company of HYDRA donated 190 pints - most of which was re-embarked having changed ownership, a few days later!! Throughout, the British Hospital Ships maintained a close working relationship with the Argentine counterparts BAHIA PARAISO and ALMIRANTE IRIZAR, transferring not only casualties but medical stores as well which the Argentine vessels brought across from the mainland. All the Red Cross ships were inspected periodically by delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The problems facing the Kelpers after the 14 June have been well covered. Only a rather tenuous military peace existed, but two of the three H Class ships were released to UK leaving HYDRA and UGANDA to hold the fort. A permanent field hospital was established ashore by 18 July, when the facilities of UGANDA's operating theatres were no longer required and, having been de-classified, she returned to UK as a troopship. HYDRA's casualty evacuation facility remained pending improvements to the airport at Stanley to allow a reliable air medevac service to be operated. Still constricted by the terms of the Geneva Convention, HMS HYDRA visited outlying settlements in the Falkland Islands carrying a civilian doctor on his rounds. In normal times, transport would be by Beaver floatplane of the Government Air Service, but these machines were all but destroyed during the conflict leaving some settlements without medical cover since the end of March. Opportunity was also taken during these visits to provide assistance to the settlers, to meet them and learn at first hand how they had been treated during the occupation and what their hopes and plans for the future held. We were able to assist His Excellency the Civil Commissioner Mr Rex Hunt on one of his visits to the more remote settlements and at Goose Green and Darwin held a party onboard for 25 children who had all been shut up during the occupation with the rest of the people in the community centre.
HYDRA was released from the Falklands area at the end of August 1982 and returned to her home port, Portsmouth, on 24 September 1982 after steaming some 28,000 miles.
HMS Hydra (A144) on Wikipedia.