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South to the Falklands

From the outset it was clear that a Falklands task force would have to include merchant as well as naval vessels.

Immediately war was declared, the Government held urgent consultations with P&O and within two days of the invasion, it was announced in parliament that P&O’s Canberra and Elk had been requisitioned, and ordered to proceed to Southampton immediately.

For the 1,650 passengers on board Canberra, then in the Mediterranean, it was an early end to a three month world cruise. In just 48 hours the liner was radically transformed into a fully-functioning troopship, equipped with two flight decks and the military might of some 3,000 men including 40 and 42 Commando Royal Marines and 3 Para – the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.

More requisitions followed and the passenger ferry Norland and Uganda were added to the P&O task force. Uganda had cut short an educational cruise disembarking 944 school children at Naples before being converted to a hospital ship at Gibraltar. With capacity for 1,243 passengers, Norland was an obvious choice as a troop carrier but there was much to be done to increase her capacity to carry fuel, fresh water and food for 60 days at sea. On the 26th April Norland set sail from Portsmouth with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment on board.

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After a rendezvous and additional training at Ascension Island, Canberra and Norland formed part of the naval assault group. Norland had the distinction of being the first ship to enter San Carlos Water, disembarking her troops under the cover of darkness. The remainder of the assault group followed with Canberra landing 42 Commando in reserve.

The day was the 21st of May and Argentinian pilots attacked British forces throughout the operations and destroying HMS Ardent. To the amazement of all, and Argentinian propaganda to the contrary, the 'Great White Whale', as she was now affectionately known, had survived her first ordeal unscathed:

“How the enemy failed to hit Canberra will long remain one of the main mysteries and miracles of that day.”

Lt.Cdr. Muxworthy R.N.

In the coming days HMS Antelope was sunk and Norland was narrowly missed by two 500lb bombs.

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For both ships there were more troops to transport from South Georgia (the 7th Ghurka Rifles and 5th Infantry brigade including Scots and Welsh Guards) before a second assault in the first three days of June. Norland and Canberra entered ‘bomb alley’ once more and landed their troops. After fierce fighting on the ground and the loss of Sir Galahad, the Argentinians finally surrendered on 14th June. For Norland and Canberra the next duty was to carry the Argentinian P.O.W.s to Montevideo and Puerto Madryn.

Norland remained in the South Atlantic operating a ferry service between Ascension and the Falkland Islands. As the largest ship in the Task Force, Canberra had one last duty to perform: to take home as many troops as she could muster. Full to the gunwales with Royal Marines she left the Falklands for the last time on the 25th June and headed north.

After 94 days and 25,245 nautical miles at sea, the Great White Whale sailed up the Solent on 11th July to a rapturous and emotional homecoming.

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In all, 860 P&O crew had volunteered to serve with their ships in a war that no one had expected. All returned safely having proudly played their part, just like Company crews before them.

The Falklands conflict had lasted 74 days and claimed the lives of 255 British and 649 Argentine servicemen, and 3 civilian Falkland Islanders. By far the greatest number of fatal casualties, on both sides, occurred at sea.

A total of 110 British ships and 28,000 men were involved in the theatre of operations. Just under half of those ships were commercial vessels or STUFT - ships taken up from trade.