The liner that cruised into a war zone

Canberra moored off the Falkland islands.
Canberra moored off the Falkland islands.
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SS Canberra: Thirty years ago, a luxury cruise ship and her civilian crew became the unlikeliest heroes of the Falklands War. In the first of two extracts from a new book, Andrew Vine tells their extraordinary story.

IT IS a quintessentially British tale of pluck and bravery, a finest hour marked by ingenuity, eccentricity and terror.

At the heart of the story of how Britain stirred itself in the spring and summer of 1982 to fight for a windswept, isolated remnant of empire 8,000 miles from home lies a great white cruise liner, crewed by waiters, cooks, cleaners and nurses who never dreamed that they could be caught up in a war, yet found themselves in the midst of a vicious conflict as bombs rained down around them.

Their contribution to the winning back of the Falklands from Argentine invaders has been neglected, even forgotten, yet without them the Union Jack would not fly above the islands’ capital, Port Stanley, today.

They took an army to war, landed them under fire to fight, succoured their wounded, took a beaten and demoralised force of conscripts – some of whom should still have been in school – home to Argentina and then returned to Britain with victorious troops to one of the most glorious homecomings in this country’s history.

SS Canberra became affectionately known as The Great White Whale for her part in this intense, bloody conflict; she and her crew hold a special place in the hearts of those who yomped through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth to win back the islands.

The men she took to war included those not out of their teens; 27 aboard would never return, among them 17 and 18-year-olds who had to telephone their parents to ask permission to go to the other side of the world and fight. Canberra sheltered them all, mourned the lost, and when she returned, one of her crew reflected: “She was like a mother bringing her children home.”

It was in the April of 1982 as the 20-year-old Canberra, one of the world’s most iconic cruise liners, vast and resplendent in brilliant white paintwork, made her stately way home through the Mediterranean on the last leg of a world cruise that the ruling Argentine military junta led by the drink-sodden General Leopoldo Galtieri sent an invasion force to the Falklands, 300 miles east of the mainland, at least in part to divert the country’s attention from economic meltdown.

Then as now, the armed forces were bedevilled by budget cuts, and as Margaret Thatcher resolved to fight to reclaim the Falklands, an uncomfortable truth emerged. The Royal Navy did not have enough ships to get an army to the South Atlantic. The answer lay in gathering a fleet of merchant ships, eventually more than 100, to form a task force. And then, the boldest stroke by naval planners – why not send the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment which would spearhead the assault on the Falklands, aboard Canberra?

The crew show, a highlight of the voyage, was in full swing when Canberra was ordered to Gibraltar to pick up an advance military party before the invasion of the Falklands had been announced. In an uncanny twist of fate, the finale of the show had a chorus line singing “We Don’t Want to Join the Army, We Don’t Want to Go to War”, simply because a stock of dusty old gas masks and tin helmets had been found in the bowels of the ship.

Canberra was requisitioned – requiring the Queen to sign the first order of its kind since the Suez Crisis of 1956 – and berthed in Southampton, where three days of hectic work transformed her from floating playground for the wealthy into troopship, helicopter platform and hospital.

Her swimming pool was covered by a landing pad, and such a weight of stores came on board that she lay more than a foot lower in the water than she should. Her voyage to the South Atlantic, already hazardous, would become even more dangerous because of the gross overloading.

A skeleton crew of 413 – half her normal complement – volunteered to go south, among them 15 women. They never thought they would see action, believing the troops would be transferred to naval ships thousands of miles short of the Falklands.

The crew watched in trepidation as more than 2,000 soldiers streamed aboard, clattering through the passageways and public rooms. The send-off on Good Friday, April 9, might have been a scene from a century earlier; bands played, tens of thousands gathered, banners proclaiming “Good Luck” and “Give the Argies Some Bargie” were waved.

Canberra sailed under the command of a colourful figure who also seemed to belong to an earlier age. Dennis Scott-Masson, at 53, had a rumbling voice, terrifyingly aloof manner, Dickensian tufts of whiskers on his cheeks and an unswerving devotion to a large pink gin at noon.

He was joined on the bridge by a no less unforgettable character, a Royal Navy captain, Christopher Burne, a gangling eccentric known in the fleet as “The Beagle”, thanks to his devotion to running with hounds. The reputation for eccentricity came from his jumping over the side of a new warship of which he had command to demonstrate to an astonished rating the best way of sounding a “man overboard” alert, as well as his habit of haring round the deck in singlet and shorts best looked away from until he was exhausted.

These two men took the ship south as its crew and most unusual passengers forged a deepening bond of mutual affection and respect. Canberra proved an ideal training ground; its Promenade Deck, around which elderly passengers had strolled, became a running track. Four times round equalled a mile, and the dawn-to-dusk pounding of Marines and Paras in full kit set the superstructure of the 45,000-ton liner trembling.

The six weeks that elapsed before the amphibious assault on the Falklands saw friendships formed, romances between soldiers and crew – and a most unexpected problem, in the shape of a small group of outrageously camp stewards determined to become as friendly as possible with the lean, fit fighting men running the decks.

In quiet moments, the men talked of what lay ahead – and their thoughts of home. One of the cabins belonged to Sgt Ian McKay, from Rotherham, of 3 Para, fated to be one of the two posthumous VCs of the Falklands War. His fellow Yorkshiremen, Sergeants Ray Butters and Brian Faulkner, shared it with him. Faulkner, from Sheffield, said of McKay: “He adored his wife and his young daughter, Melanie. He’d talk about Melanie every hour of every day, what he was going to do with her when he got back.”

Canberra ploughed southwards, heaving and groaning as she pitched through mountainous seas and terrifying storms as the mood on board darkened. It became clear that the shortage of shipping meant her civilian crew would have to go all the way into the war zone, and risk their lives.

As dawn broke on Friday May 21, the huge white liner slipped out of the darkness into a brilliant dawn in San Carlos Water, a day so bright and clear that the civilian crew wandered up on to deck to bask in the winter sunlight of the southern hemisphere. Nothing broke the silence except the cries of seabirds.

That was, until a glint of sunlight caught the wings of an incoming aircraft, and the orange flare of rockets seemingly headed straight for Canberra. The liner had been equipped with machine guns, and they opened up on the attacker. It was just the beginning.

In the hours that followed, air raids came again and again, dozens of them, the sky filled with the howl of jet engines as warplanes screamed across the anchorage, their bombs straddling Canberra, the explosions sending up spouts of water that swept across her, the shockwaves rocking the ship, the biggest, most unmissable target on a grey sea as those aboard prayed they would survive.

Everybody dived for whatever cover they could, even as wounded British – and Argentine – soldiers poured on board, nurse Angela Devine so desperate she purloined a soup tureen from the galley and wore it on her head.

And in the midst of it, The Beagle’s finest hour; coming over the loudspeakers with a phlegmatic , stiff-upper-lip, ball-by-ball account that raised smiles amid the terror and eased nerves. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting rather bored with these Argies. Ah well, here they come again. Take cover, take cover.”

The roar and explosions continued almost until nightfall, and then, mercifully, quiet came. Below decks, once the ship was no longer being pummelled by air raids, the medics got to work on men with horrific blast and gunshot injuries from both sides; there was no war here, only compassion.

Canberra had survived. How, nobody knew; nobody knew either how men and women unused to being under fire had coped without going to pieces. Yet they had, and the navy ordered Canberra to sea and safety before another dawn exposed her. Her war had just begun.

Extracted from A Very Strange Way to Go to War, by Andrew Vine, published by Aurum Press. To order a copy of the book for £16.00 (RRP £20), call the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 01748 821122, Monday to Saturday 9am to 5.30pm.