The finest hour... a war is won and an unlikely heroine sails home in triumph
EIGHT hundred miles of one of the most fearsome oceans on earth lay ahead as Canberra groaned and creaked southwards through mountainous waves toward the Antarctic.
Her miraculous survival of multiple air attacks on May 21 1982 when she landed the men who would liberate the Falkland Islands from Argentine invaders in the teeth of a ferocious onslaught was followed by a mission to bring more troops to reinforce the precarious bridgehead ashore.
Nobody aboard had ever seen a signal like it before; proceed to the icy wastes of South Georgia, a rocky, glacial outcrop marooned in the South Atlantic, “with all dispatch”. This was the language of Nelson’s time, not of the 1980s, but it underlined the urgency of the task.
She was to rendezvous with another iconic liner, the Queen Elizabeth II, which had brought the Welsh and Scots Guards from Britain. They would transfer to Canberra, and be landed on the Falklands. Margaret Thatcher’s government had decreed that the QEII could not be put at risk and carry out the landings herself; the propaganda coup for Argentina if a ship bearing the Sovereign’s name was damaged or sunk would be immense.
The decision caused resentment and anger aboard Canberra. The crew felt they had done their bit, and survived by the skin of their teeth. Now they were going to have to do it all again.
The mood was not improved when Canberra, running desperately short of food, was refused supplies by QEII, her officers insisting that they could spare nothing. Relations between the two ships soon became as icy as the weather as the guardsmen were ferried between the two ships in the shadow of the snow-capped mountains overlooking the anchorage at Grytviken.
Canberra’s company was full of foreboding as they headed north, back to Falklands, with 2,000 troops aboard. “We were very hyper because we knew what we’d done, and we also knew how lucky we’d been to get out once,” said the ship’s Chief Officer, Martin Reed. “Now we were going to have to be lucky twice, and it was going to be a bit scary.”
They were lucky twice; this time, the skies remained quiet. The Argentine air force had taken a battering from British warplanes, and there was a temporary lull in attacks for the 24 hours it took to offload the guards. Nevertheless, nerves were strained taut and the ship’s company was gaunt with exhaustion when Canberra sailed for the relative safety of the open sea.
If the crew now thought they had seen it all, they were in for a surprise. On June 14, steaming aimlessly north of the Falklands, out of range of air attacks, the news came over the radio; white flags were being hoisted over Port Stanley. The fighting was over, and later that day the surrender document signed by the Argentine commander was flown aboard for transmission to London.
It fell to the First Radio Officer, Graham Harding, to send it. Harding had become irrationally irritated with the radio operator he regularly spoke to in London, who evinced a bored, couldn’t-care-less manner. Now, he was animated as the message came across. “What do I do with this?”, he asked. “Try 10 Downing Street,” retorted Harding.
Once more, Canberra was ordered to proceed with all dispatch, back to the Falklands. As bitter winter weather closed in, 9,000 Argentine prisoners were in urgent need of shelter.
With her superstructure caked in ice, and the crew fighting an endless battle to scrape it away before the weight of it made her dangerously unstable, Canberra returned to the islands.
She could take 4,000 prisoners, crammed in like sardines. The conscripted soldiers who came aboard were in a pitiful state. Lice-ridden, stinking, half-starved, suffering from a virulent stomach bug, exposure, and in many cases, severely damaged feet as result of weeks in the cold and wet without proper kit, the condition of the Argentines shocked the crew.
One thing about them, though, moved Canberra’s men and women to tears. Among the soldiers sent to fight were boys, who should still have been in school.
“In some of their packs, we discovered children’s crayoning books,” said Captain John Ware, of the Royal Marines. “We discovered some of them had been taken straight out of their classrooms at school and deposited on the Falklands. It was really quite heart-rending.”
Under the protection of the International Red Cross, Canberra was to sail to Puerto Madryn, in Argentina, and repatriate the prisoners. Cold, filthy and demoralised as they were, they had enough fight left in them to break into one of her bars and drink Champagne left aboard from the ship’s cruising days.
When all of them had been landed, and the crew started to clean the ship, which stank of the prisoners, they found scores of notes had been left behind in the cabins. All of them said the same thing: “Thank you.”
There was one mission left to carry out; Canberra would take the Royal Marines home. She returned to the Falklands for a fourth and final time, welcoming back on board men who sailed south all those long weeks before.
Crew looked out anxiously for faces they knew; more than 250 British servicemen had died winning back the islands. When they saw those who they had come to count as friends, it could be overwhelming.
Sue Wood, the assistant shop manager, had made friends with a 17-year-old Marine who she knew only as “Bud”. Suddenly, she saw him coming back aboard. “When I saw him and he looked at me, I just said, ‘It’s good to see you’. I couldn’t say anything else.”
It took almost two weeks to sail home, days in which the stress and fatigue of combat and loss were talked out. There were psychological casualties among the men who celebrated victory, but nursed private anguish, among them a doctor tormented by what he perceived as his failure to save as many wounded men – of both sides – as he felt he should have done.
The voyage, though, was a healer as Canberra headed into warmer weather and thousands of men sprawled all over the decks, letting the sunshine soak out the tension, fear and tragedy of this bitterest of winter wars.
None of them expected the welcome that awaited. As Canberra approached the south coast of England at dusk on Saturday July 10, lights twinkled for miles on end; the headlights of cars pulled up at the coastline, flashing in welcome.
The next day saw one of the greatest homecomings in British history as Canberra approached Southampton. The police stopped counting after 35,000 people packed into the docks. Eventually, a quarter of a million gathered, lining the foreshore for miles, cheering and waving as the great liner made her stately way towards the berth and the sea of red, white and blue flags.
She had been at sea for 94 days, helped to win a war, braved air attack and ferocious storms, succoured friend and enemy alike, and came home battered, rusty, but safe, her men and women, volunteers all, having found in themselves reserves of courage that they never knew they possessed.
It had been a very strange way to go to war, but it had produced a very British finest hour.
Extracted from A Very Strange Way to Go to War, published by Aurum Press. To order a copy for £16 (RRP £20), contact the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 01748 821122. Opening hours are 9am to 5.30pm, Monday to Saturday.
LINER THAT WENT TO WAR
When the luxury liner SS Canberra was requisitioned for use in the Falklands War it required the Queen to sign the first order of its kind since the Suez Crisis of 1956.
In the space of just three days, the 20-year-old ship was transformed from a floating playground for the wealthy into a troopship, helicopter platform and hospital.
A skeleton crew of 413 – half her normal complement – volunteered to go south and watched as 2,000 streamed aboard.
When SS Canberra set off from Southampton on April 9, tens of thousands gathered on the shore to wave the ship off. Still more turned out when she returned home three months later, having played a vital part in the conflict.