SS Canberra entered service in May 1961, and made her maiden voyage starting in June. She appeared in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forevera and later in the 1982 Falklands War she served as a troop ship. In 1997 the singer and songwriter Gerard Kenny released the single “Farewell Canberra” which was specially composed for the last voyage.
The Falklands War of 1982 involved the most intense naval action since the Second World War. Key to the war was transporting an army, its supplies and equipment some 8,000 miles by sea and landing it on enemy-held islands that were far beyond the effective range of any friendly land-based aircraft.
To accomplish this task, Great Britain assembled an armada made up of not only Royal Navy ships but also merchant marine ships operated primarily by their civilian crews.
Canberra was cruising in the Mediterranean. The next day, her captain Dennis Scott-Masson received a message asking his time of arrival at Gibraltar, which was not on his itinerary. When he called at Gibraltar, he learnt that the Ministry of Defence had requisitioned Canberra for use as a troopship.
Nicknamed the Great White Whale, Canberra proved vital in transporting the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines to the islands from the United Kingdom. Canberra was sent right into the heart of the conflict.
Whilst the Queen Elizabeth 2 was considered to be too vulnerable to enter the war zone. Canberra anchored in San Carlos Water on 21 May as part of the landings by British forces to retake the islands. Although her size and white colour made her an unmissable target for the Argentine Air Force, the Canberra, if sunk, would not have been completely submerged in the shallow waters at San Carlos. However, the liner was not badly hit during the landings as the Argentine pilots tended to attack the Royal Navy frigates and destroyers instead of the supply and troop ships.
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.
It took Canberra until Wednesday 2nd June to get back to San Carlos Water, over 1500 miles through heavy seas. 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 (Tug Repair and Logistics Area), which isa 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.
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.
When the war ended, Canberra was used to repatriate the Argentine Army, before returning to Southampton to a rapturous welcome. After a lengthy refit, Canberra returned to civilian service as a cruise ship. Her role in the Falklands War made her very popular with the British public, and ticket sales after her return were elevated for many years as a result.
Sadly though, like most ships, they end up like the image below.
Gone but not forgotten.