The Ship That Would Not Die
The Remarkable Story of LSL Sir Tristram
by Nick Brazil
King Arthur's Court
Of all the stories that have emerged from the Falklands War the survival of the landing and supply ship Sir Tristram is one of the most remarkable yet least known. She briefly came to the public’s attention when she was bombed, along with her sister ship LSL Sir Galahad at Bluff Cove on 8th June 1982 towards the end of the conflict. After that, she disappeared off the radar of history. However, her story both before and after the Falklands War deserves to be better known.
Sir Tristram was one of six Landing Supply Logistics ships that launched in the mid-1960s. They were part of The Round Table Class and appropriately named after the knights of King Arthur’s court. Sir Tristram entered service on 14th September 1967. Like her sister ships, Sir Tristram’s role was to provide the vital back up to fighting forces. As such, she could accommodate 350 troops along with helicopters, tanks and other assorted vehicles. Her shallow draught allowed her to ride up onto a beach so that vehicles and men could land rapidly on shore.
All six vessels were initially commissioned for the Royal Army Service Corps but were transferred to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 1970. Although the ships had Royal Navy officers, their crews were Hong Kong Chinese.
A brush with Gaddafi
Sir Tristram did not have to wait long before seeing active service. In 1969 King Idris, the pro-Western ruler of Libya, was overthrown by army officers in a bloodless coup. They were led by a young army officer called Muammar Gaddafi who proceeded to drastically remodel the desert country.In his Jamahiriya (state of the masses) all western military bases were closed. As a result, British Forces were pulled out of Libya. In the first three months of 1970 Sir Tristram made four journeys to Tobruk to evacuate troops and equipment back to bases in the UK, Cyprus and Malta. Then in 1972, a simmering border dispute between Guatamala and the British colony of British Honduras threatened to boil over into open conflict. Situated on the East Coast of Central America, British Honduras had been a British Crown Colony since 1783. The major part of its land border was with Guatamala who had long laid claim to the British Territory. In January 1972 the Guatamalans seemed on the brink of invading its small neighbour to make good on its land claims.
The British Government sent a task force consisting of 8000 troops, an aircraft carrier and support vessels to deter the Guatamalans. Sir Tristram was one of the support vessels in company with her sister ships Sir Bedevere and Sir Geraint. Fortunately, this action worked and what threatened to become a shooting war never materialised. British Honduras became the independent country of Belize in 1981.
In 1982 Sir Tristram joined the British task force sent down to the South Atlantic to retake the Falklands after the Argentinian invasion. On 8th June 1982 she was in Bluff Cove near the small settlement of Fitzroy offloading equipment and troop reinforcements. Also there was her sister ship Sir Galahad preparing to land Welsh Guardsmen. At about two o’clock in the afternoon, the two ships were attacked by a flight of A4 Skyhawks of the Argentinian Fifth Air Brigade. Sir Galahad fared the worst being hit by three 250lb bombs that all exploded. Forty-eight troops and crew members were killed. One of the Skyhawks strafed Sir Tristram killing two of her Chinese crew men and scored a hit with one of its bombs. Tearing down through the ship’s super structure it miraculously failed to explode. Nevertheless, Sir Tristram suffered extensive damage from the attack.
In the aftermath of the attack, Sir Galahad was considered to be unsalvable. She was towed out to sea and sunk as a war grave. Looking at Sir Tristram, many must have thought she had also been mortally wounded. However, they would have been wrong. This fair and gentle knight refused to die.
At the end of hostilities, she was towed to Stanley and used as accommodation. A year later in May 1983, she was transported back to the UK in the heavy duty salvage ship Dan Lifter. Once there, she was rebuilt on Teeside. On 9thOctober 1985, she was returned to service with a longer steel superstructure replacing the original aluminium version.
Further Battle Honours
In 1990-91, Sir Tristram saw action once again, this time as part of The Gulf War. Already decorated with a Battle Honour for her actions in the Falklands Conflict she received a second such award – Kuwait 1991 for her service in this war.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch tore through Central America wreaking havoc. It would prove to be the most lethal hurricane ever recorded in the region claiming 11,000 lives. Honduras and Nicaragua were particularly hard hit suffering 7000 and 3,800 deaths respectively. In response to this catastrophe, the British Government assembled Operation Tellar, a humanitarian task force which was despatched to the region. Sir Tristram was part of this task force and was awarded The Wilkinson Sword for Peace. Established in 1966 by The Wilkinson Sword Company, this award is given to units in the British Armed Forces who have gone beyond their call of duty to civilian communities either in the UK or abroad. Sir Tristram was awarded the sword along with RFA sister ship Black Rover for their actions in Operation Tellar.
Sierra Leone and Afghanistan
Sir Tristram was kept very busy throughout the 2000s. In 1991, a particularly bloody civil war broke out in the West African state of Sierra Leone. It would last eleven years and kill or injure 50,000 to 70,000 people. In truth, nobody knows the true figure. In 2000, the British Government launched Operation Palliser involving 1200 paratroops. It is generally acknowledged this operation went a long way to stabilising the chaotic situation and bring about an ultimate peace in that ravaged country. Sir Tristram played a vital logistics support role in that operation.
Then in December 2000 she was involved in Operation Veritas supporting the American Invasion of Afghanistan to unseat the Taliban Government. In 2003 she was called upon to support British Forces taking part in the Iraq War. In fact, any conflagration or natural disaster in which the British Military were involved also saw Sir Tristram and her fellow RFA ships fulfilling their vital support roles.
By 2005, Sir Tristram was forty and considered to have reached the end of her active life. For most ships this meant an undignified end in a scrapyard. However, this was not Sir Tristram’s fate. After undergoing a refit, she was anchored at Portland Naval base as a training ship for special forces such as the Special Boat Squadron. This is a role she still fulfils today as T.V. Sir Tristram
The story of this remarkable survivor is a microcosm of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary as a whole. Its vessels seldom reach the attention of the public because transporting troops or equipment to a battle zone is simply not as sexy as launching fighters from flight decks. However, without their support no military operation would be possible. Sir Tristram and all those Landing Ships Logistics and their crews are truly the unsung heroes of our armed forces.
For more information about the RFA and Sir Tristram there is an an excellent article with photographs by Adam Smith on the Historical RFA website at History of RFA Sir Tristram (historicalrfa.org)
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