Her Finest Hour

On Friday 2nd April 1982, Canberra was happily steaming homeward through the Mediterranean Sea on the final leg of her world cruise, when she received a strange message from Head Office asking for the ship's ETA at Gibraltar. A later message instructed Canberra to rendezvous with a small launch as she passed through the Strait - to embark a small group of men who would brief them about an "interesting assignment". The day before - seven thousand miles away - as Canberra's passengers enjoyed the sunshine of Naples, an Argentine invasion force seized control of the Falkland Islands.

The British government assembled a task force consisting of warships, fleet auxiliaries and 'ships taken up from trade' (STUFT). Canberra was to be a STUFT. Those men who had boarded the ship at Gibraltar were commandos and Admiralty officials who would begin making preparations for her transformation to a troop ship capable of operating with at least two helicopters. Before she was even back in Southampton, Vosper Thornycroft had been given detailed plans of the Observation Deck and Crow's Nest, and of the Bonito pool and surrounding area. These two locations would have to be rapidly transformed into helicopter decks.

She arrived back in Southampton at 0730 on 7th April and offloaded her passengers as quickly as possible. Then the hard work really began. Military officials from Naval Party (NP) 1710 boarded and took up headquarters in Steiners. Workers from Vosper Thornycroft swarmed over the ship. Parts of the railings along sections of the Games Deck were cut away to facilitate the landing of helicopters, whilst hundreds of tons of stores and military materiel were loaded. As Canberra's immediate future role was an open book and it was not known when or where she would be able to bunker and re-supply - she had to have the ability to replenish at sea, or 'RAS'.

Embarked on Canberra were members of 40 and 42 Commando Royal Marines and 3 Para. Captain Dennis Scott-Masson was in charge of Canberra and the ship's overall safety. Captain Chris Burne was the Senior Naval Officer (SNO) and had overall military control.

After just 3 days alongside in Southampton, Canberra had been transformed from a luxury cruise ship to a battle-ready troopship - well almost. When she sailed at 2000hrs on Friday 9th April, a group of Vosper Thornycroft workers went with her to finish the forward flight deck.

Crowds gathered to wish her well and her 'passengers' good luck. History was made shortly before lunch the following day, when an RAF Sea King helicopter made the first of many landings on the midships flight deck.

The Bonito Pool covered by a helicopter pad

As the ship sailed south, evasive manoeuvres and other things military were practised. On 17th April, she arrived at Freetown in Sierra Leone for bunkering and fresh water supplies. Other things the British Consul and the P&O representative had to arrange was the delivery of 50 irons and ironing boards and 10,000 paper bags for packed lunches. Shortly before midnight, the ship sailed again - headed this time for Ascension Island. At noon on 20th April, Canberra anchored half a mile from Pyramid Point at Ascension Island. From there, those on board were unable to see the airfield and the frantic activity underway there. It was still unknown whether Canberra would actually deliver her troops to the Falklands, but things were not shaping up well and a political settlement seemed a long way off.

For the next few days, Canberra lay at anchor taking on stores, performing RAS drills and anti-submarine manoeuvres. Fresh water was in very short supply amongst the fleet so Canberra's purifiers were employed to produce fresh water that was then delivered to other ships by tug. It was decided that the ships at Ascension were under possible threat from underwater attack, and so from 25th April Canberra would weigh anchor each evening and steam around overnight to minimise the threat.

At 1654hrs on 6th May, Canberra weighed anchor again headed south from Ascension Island in convoy. Three days later she was seven hundred miles away and steaming straight for the Falklands, which were now under air and sea attack from British forces. Each evening, the order was given to "darken ship" whereby all the lights - navigation, deck and cabin - were extinguished throughout the convoy.

Captain Burne, the senior naval officer aboard Canberra

Operation Sutton was the codename for the amphibious assault to reclaim the Falklands. At 2200hrs on the 20th May everyone on board went to General Emergency stations for the final approach to the Islands.

Canberra anchored at Fanning Head at 0017hrs on Friday 21st May.

Whilst HMS Antrim and HMS Plymouth laid down heavy bombardment of the shoreline, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid along with RFA Stromness and MV Norland disembark troops of 40 Commando, 3 Para, 45 Commando and 2 Para.

At 0520 that morning, Canberra weighed anchor and entered San Carlos Water to begin disembarking her troops amongst repeated air attacks from Argentine aircraft.

The men of 42 Commando were the reserve force for HMS Intrepid's 3 Para, and they began to leave Canberra just after 1000hrs that morning.

The air attacks on the ships in San Carlos Water continued until 1600hrs, after which time HMS Ardent had been sunk and HMS Argonaut damaged. At 1900hrs, the order was given to disembark the remaining troops from Canberra, and at 2242hrs she weighed anchor and headed out of San Carlos Water and North Falkland Sound. The troops were ashore and fighting to regain control of the British Islands. Canberra had done her job and landed around 2000 troops without a casualty and without getting hit herself.

She was not finished yet, but she was lucky to be alive. How the Argentine pilots could have missed the ship was one of the day's mysteries. The QE2 had also been requisitioned as a troop ship and was heading south, as Canberra continued to steam in her 'box' 170 nautical miles north north east of Port Stanley. The order was given by the SNO to head for Grytviken in South Georgia to rendezvous with the Cunard flagship and cross-deck her troops. Canberra would be going back to San Carlos Water, whilst the QE2 would be going back to Ascension or England.

During the afternoon of 27th May Canberra let go her port anchor at Grytviken.

The QE2 arrived at 2000hrs after being delayed by fog and ice, and shortly after the tug Typhoon began transferring.

Cross decking continued for most of the following day, then, shortly before 2100hrs, Canberra again weighed anchor and headed back to the Falklands with the cavalry on board.

It took Canberra until Wednesday 2nd June to get back to San Carlos Water, over 1500 miles through heavy seas.

Crossdecking troops from QE2 at South Georgia

As the day dawned foggy, the troops began to disembark in small landing craft assisted by four of the ship's own tenders. The first signal received upon the ship's return to San Carlos was for a supply of sanitary towels for the released female inhabitants of Goose Green.

By the time darkness fell, destoring supplies had still not finished so the SNO made the unpopular decision of remaining at anchor overnight to finish off the next morning. By the end of Thursday, there had been over 100 loads taken by helicopter and the ship was empty of stores as well as people. She weighed anchor and sailed at 1800hrs with just 620 souls on board. She was heading for the "Trala" - the "Tug Repair and Logistics Area" - a large area of open ocean around 400 miles from the Falklands. She arrived in her Trala 'box' on 5th June, and continued to sail up and down her allocated zone until with little deviation and little excitement until the 14th, when she received orders to return to San Carlos Water to pick up prisoners of war (POW's). The Argentines had surrendered! We had won!

Canberra entered San Carlos Water for the third time on Tuesday 15th June and let go both anchors. Just after 1400hrs, the first landing craft containing 100 Welsh Guards came alongside, followed throughout the remainder of the day by three more containing 1121 POW's. By 0200hrs the next morning, all had been searched and processed and just before 0800hrs she weighed anchor and sailed for Port William (Canberra's draft was too deep to sail directly into Port Stanley) to embark the remaining prisoners. More troops were brought on board to act as guards, followed by the rest of the 3046 POW's.

The ship couldn't sail until Friday 18th, until the Argentine authorities guaranteed her and her human cargo safe passage. Eventually they did, and at just after half past nine in the morning both anchors were secured for sea and Canberra set course for Puerto Madryn, Argentina, where she arrived the next day - escorted to her berth by a Type 42 Frigate named Santissima Trinidad. The returning men got a very cool reception and were speedily bundled off into trucks. Offloading the POW's took just under three hours, and as the last men left, Canberra's hands went to stations - next destination Port Stanley.

It was originally planned that Canberra would repatriate another cargo of Argentine soldiers, but as she lay at anchor in Port William it was announced she would instead be taking as many troops back home as she could carry. Unfortunately, she would be unable to take 3 Para back. There would be no room, as she would carry 40, 42 and also 45 Commando Royal Marines. Both the Paras and the crew were disappointed with the arrangement but nothing could be done.

The men of 42 and 45 Commando boarded as the ship lay in Port William - ferried across by a local craft and three of her own tenders. As 40 Commando were mainly located around San Carlos, Canberra would have to go and pick them up. The ship entered San Carlos Water for the fourth and last time on the morning of 24th June. By lunchtime, numbers 7, 14, 16 and 24 boats had embarked everyone from 40 Commando. Mid afternoon came and Canberra left - headed back to Port William for the embarkation of the last of her designated troops before finally heading for home at 1722hrs on Friday 25th June.

Five days later, the ship was out of Argentine Air Force range and so all the blackouts on board were enthusiastically thrown overboard. The major concern of most onboard now was the dwindling supply of beer - the ice cream had already run out. Canberra slowed down as she passed Ascension Island, the SNO and Captain Scott-Masson refusing to stop for anybody. Helicopters brought out supplies (including beer), some MOD officials and some entertainers for the troops. Accompanying the men from the Ministry were a handful of P&O representatives sent out to inspect the state of the ship, and along with the MOD, decide how much they were going to pay for her refurbishment.

Returning to a heroes welcome in Southampton

Canberra reached the Nab Tower - Southampton's pilot station - at around 0800hrs on Sunday 11th July. Those on board were awoken by the sound of Reveille played over ship's circuits. The morning dawned a little misty, but would turn out fine and sunny.

At the Nab, small boats of every shape and size appeared to escort Canberra to her 106 berth home. Aircraft flew overhead, and the ship was briefly joined by the Prince of Wales and other dignitaries who arrived by helicopter to the midships flight deck.

The Royal Marines band played on the forward flight deck as more and more boats, firetugs, passenger craft and even canoes came out to greet the ship.

Those on board the tired, rust-streaked Canberra clambered to occupy every possible vantage point - from sitting on lifeboats to hanging out of gun-port doors. Every few minutes Canberra's steam whistle would boom and a chorus of hooters and whistle could be heard amongst the now huge flotilla. Homemade banners were tied to railings and held up for the TV cameras, whilst those on the riverbanks and quayside waved and cheered. As the ship neared her berth, a mass of people (the police said later they lost count after 35,000 passed through the dock gates) could be seen along the quay - many relatives of returning soldiers - waving flags and crying. The band of the Royal Marines began to play Land of Hope & Glory as the ship got closer to 106 berth, to the accompaniment of 2500 marines and those on shore.

After 94 days at sea, Canberra had steamed 25,245 without a mechanical fault of any note, carried thousands of troops into battle, repatriated over 4000 prisoners of war, treated 172 wounded soldiers and sailors….and won the hearts of a nation. She docked at 1100hrs, and within three hours all her passengers had disembarked. Two days later, P&O bid a fond farewell to the 129 British volunteer seaman who had replaced the Asian members of crew for the duration.