P&O 180: Curator's Choice - A Cross for Canberra12/04/2017 21:20:16
Sometimes it’s the simplest things which move us the most. And so it is with my chosen object.
It’s a plain wooden cross, made by hand and composed of two pieces mounted on a rectangular base. At 45 cm high it was obviously designed for use on a small table or altar. But who made it, when did they make it and why?
It’s only when we turn the cross upside down that the significance of its simplicity is revealed. An inscription in pencil on the base reads:
“This cross was made by Cpl Cooper 40 CDO RM for use at divine service on board SS Canberra during OP Corporate Apr-July 1982”.
“Operation Corporate” was the name given to the military mission to regain control of the Falklands Islands. As almost half of the Falklands Task force fleet were merchant vessels or STUFT - Ships Taken up from Trade (as they quickly became known), it was an appropriate name.
P&O alone provided 5 ships including the largest ship in the task force, Canberra, deployed to carry over 2,000 troops of 3rd Commando Brigade (including 3 Para and 42 and 40 Commando Royal Marines).
Canberra set sail from Southampton at 20.00 hrs on Easter Friday (9th April 1982). Accompanying their troops were four Chaplains; Reverends Hempenstall (42 Commando RM) and Heaver (3 Para), Father Noel Mullin (HQ Commando Forces) and Reverend Godfrey Hilliard of 40 Commando, Royal Marines.
A Cross for Canberra
As Canberra had no designated room for religious worship, Rev. Hilliard hastily commissioned Corporal M. A. Cooper to make a cross for the Easter Sunday service two days later. Cooper, a resourceful assault engineer with 40 Commando, set about re-appropriating one of Canberra’s wooden notice boards! By Sunday there was a cross and over 400 soldiers and members of P&O’s crew packed into Canberra’s Cinema for an interdenominational Easter service. In spirited example of ecumenical parity, services continued to be combined, the different denominations dividing only ‘at the peace’ for Anglican Communion and Catholic Mass on either side of the cinema.
Between services Rev. Hilliard kept the cross in his cabin. But when the time came for 40 Commando, and Rev Hilliard, to leave Canberra, he stowed it safely on board.
After weeks of briefings, intensive training and drills on the journey South, 40 Commando were detailed to spearhead the Royal Marines landings on the Falkland Islands.
“Good luck, and may your God go with you”
Commanding Officer Malcolm Hunt addressing 40 Commando in the Meridian Room
On 19th May, weighed down with bergens, combat gear and rifles, 40 Commando filed from Prom deck down D and E deck stairs to the gun port doors and the waiting landing craft, rising and falling in the heavy swell. It took just under 2 hours to cross-deck all the men to HMS Fearless with only one misplaced slip.
21st May – D Day
From , Fearless 40 Commando landed on Blue 2 Beach at San Carlos at 03.30 ‘Canberra time’. At 05.30 Canberra entered San Carlos Water for what was the longest and tensest day of the conflict.
At 13.45 HMS Ardent is hit repeatedly and has to be abandoned. Survivors are transferred to Canberra. At 22.42, having disembarked all remaining troops and as many stores as possible, Canberra weighs anchor and retreats to safer waters N.N.E of Port Stanley. To the amazement of all, and Argentinian propaganda to the contrary, the “Great White Whale”, as she was now affectionately known, had survived D-Day and her first foray into bomb alley:
The Run Ashore
During the ensuing days 40 Commando successfully defended the beach head between Port San Carlos, San Carlos and Ajax Bay and Sussex Mountains. For Canberra there was a run to South Georgia to pick up the Scots and Welsh Guards before returning to San Carlos to land the troops on 2nd June.
Surrender and a ceasefire came finally on the 14th June. Canberra returned to San Carlos for a third time to pick up Argentine POWS and take them to Puerto Madryn in Argentina.
Ten days later Canberra made her final and most welcome entry into San Carlos Water to pick up 40 Commando, joining 42 and 45 Commando already on board. On 25th June at 17.22 Canberra departed Port Stanley setting course for Southampton, this time in cruise mode.
Canberra, manned by her 413 courageous volunteer crew and filled with the best of British military personnel, had been to war and survived. But it was an experience that had changed the lives of those who went for ever...
‘Cooper’s Cross’ remained with Reverend Hilliard until 8th April 1997 when, as a guest of 15th Anniversary Falklands Dinner, he kindly presented it to Canberra in her final season.
Operation Corporate was a truly extraordinary episode in our corporate history. Today 'Cooper's Cross', perhaps more than any other object in our Falklands Collection, serves as a simple symbol and salutory reminder of the enormous contribution and sacrifice made by all those who went south to war in 1982, 35 years ago.
I am indebted to Reverend Hilliard for sharing his personal recollections with us.
Commemorating the 35th Anniversary of the Falkland Islands Conflict, a number of reunions and services of remembrance are being held throughout the country. To find out more please contact the principal veterans organisations and charities: www.sama82.org.uk and www.falklandsveterans.org.uk
P&O in the Falklands
To find out more about P&O’s involvement in the Falklands go to: http://www.poheritage.com/our-history/timeline/south-to-the-falklands?Decade=1980s
A number of excellent books document both the role of P&O’s ships and merchant vessels in the Falklands:-
“The Great White Whale goes to War”: Lt Cdr JL Muxworthy RN, published by P&O, 1982
“A Very Strange Way to go to War” – The Canberra in the Falklands: Andrew Vine – published by P&O 2014
“P&O in the Falklands – A pictorial record” published by P&O, 1982
“They couldn't have done it without us - The Merchant Navy in the Falklands War”: John Johnson-Allen, published by Seafarer Books 2011
“All in the same boat - The untold story of the British Ferry Crew who helped win the Falklands War”: Warren Fitzgerald, published by John Blake Books 2016
“Merchant Ships At War - The Falklands Experience”: Roger Villar, published by Conway Maritime Press 1984