Cunard Line ships have served as troop ships ever since the Crimean War. These
ships played no small part in these conflicts. Indeed, after World War II, Winston
Churchill credited the QUEEN MARY and the QUEEN ELIZABETH as having
shortened the war by a year because of their ability to transport whole divisions at a
time. As seen below, the QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 (QE2) played just as vital a role in
the Falklands War. Using her great size and speed, QE2 transported the main British
land fighting force to the other end of the globe before the South Atlantic winter closed
in, which would have made retaking the Falklands impossible. It was not a role
anyone envisioned for QE2 beforehand but she enabled Britain to succeed in a war it
was ill-prepared to fight but determined to win.
The Falklands War concerned the sovereignty of the only major island group in the
South Atlantic. Located 300 miles east of the Strait of Magellan, the Falkland Islands
are cool, damp, and windswept. The primary industry is sheep farming and the 1,813
people on the islands are of British extraction and consider themselves British.
The dispute between Britain and Argentina over the islands has a long history. The
British first landed there in 1690 but did not stay. Instead, the first colony was
established by the French on East Falkland Island in 1764, a year before the British
settled on West Falkland Island. The British abandoned their colony in 1774 but,
Britain has always maintained that it never relinquished its claim of sovereignty over the
entire island group.
The French colony was sold to Spain and, following independence in 1816,
Argentina proclaimed itself successor in interest to Spain, asserted sovereignty over the
islands, and appointed a governor in 1829 despite British protests. Three years later,
Argentine officials on the islands arrested some American sailors, accused them of
poaching seals, and sent their captain to Buenos Aires for trial. America responded by
sending USS LEXINGTON to the islands, which proceeded to destroy the
fortifications and declare the Falklands without government. Two Royal Navy ships
arrived two years later and evicted the remaining Spanish/Argentine colonists. A new
British colony was established and there has been a continuous British presence ever
A century later, Argentina revived her claim of sovereignty and talks were held
under United Nations auspices. Politicians in London toyed with the idea of "lease
back" under which sovereignty would pass to Argentina but the islands would continue
to be administer by the British but that idea was rejected by the islands' inhabitants.
Accordingly, Britain refused to cede the Falklands on the ground that the island's
population overwhelmingly wanted to remain part of Britain.
The dispute blossomed into warfare in March 1982 when a group of Argentine
civilians landed on South Georgia Island ostensibly to collect scrap from an abandoned
whaling station. South Georgia, 800 miles east-southeast of the Falklands, is a
mountainous island completely covered in glaciers. No state had ever claimed it prior
to British annexation in 1908. The only inhabitants are about 20 members of the
British Antarctic Survey, which also furnished the island's magistrate. Nonetheless, the
Argentines raised their flag and refused to acknowledge British authority on the ground
that the island is an administrative dependency of the Falklands and the Falklands
rightfully belong to Argentina. The colonial governor of the Falklands sent 22 Royal
Marines to support the magistrate, which, in turn, led Argentina to send 100 marines
supported by a frigate and an icebreaker. A fire-fight ensued in which the British
downed an Argentine helicopter but after the frigate began shelling their positions, the
Meanwhile, Argentina had assembled a task force to invade the Falklands. On 2
April, 800 Argentine marines made an amphibious landing and seized the airfield.
Argentine Army troops then flew in. Overwhelmed, the governor ordered the 70
Royal Marine defenders to surrender. Some 10,000 Argentine troops would
eventually take up defensive positions on the islands. The governor was expelled and
over one hundred islanders placed under arrest.
It must have appeared to the military junta, headed by army General Leopoldo
Galtieri, that was ruling Argentina at the time, that they had gambled and won. Taking
the Falklands was very popular at home and the patriotic fervor took attention away
from the severe economic and political problems that were dogging the country.
Moreover, it appeared that it had been accomplished at very little cost as Britain
undoubtedly lacked both the will and the means to fight for these remote islands.
Had the gamble been taken a few years earlier, it might well have succeeded. With
the loss of empire and the difficult economic problems resulting from World War II,
Britain had gone through a period of self-doubt. It had been fashionable to question
what was once popularly viewed as a great civilizing force and, to anyone who knew
anything, Britain's decline to a third-rate nation appeared inevitable. However, by the
late 1970s, many Britons had had enough of self-flagellation and had found a voice in
the Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher who asserted that Britain was not
finished yet. Elected Prime Minister in 1979, she was not about to let a group of
South American military dictators bully Britain or oppress British subjects. "We were
defending our honor as a nation, and principles of fundamental importance to the whole
world - - above all, that aggressors should never succeed and that international law
should prevail over the use of force," she wrote later. Thus, while diplomatic attempts
to end the crisis would continue for another month, the lead elements of a British task
force were sent south three days after the Argentine invasion.
The logistical problem presented by this war was akin to the one facing the United
States in the Pacific in World War II. There were no friendly airports or ports near
the war zone which could be used to launch an invasion. Thus, Britain would have to
transport the necessary men and supplies eight thousand miles for landing on
enemy-occupied islands. In addition, all of the air support and, at least initially, artillery
support would have to come from the sea. All told, over 100 British ships and 25,000
men and women would be needed.
Contrary to the position taken by the Ministry of Defense, Sir Henry Leach, Chief
of the Naval Staff told Mrs. Thatcher that Britain had the forces to liberate the
Falklands. However, this was not the type of war that the Royal Navy had planned to
fight. Like their American counterparts, British planners had assumed that the next war
would be fought against the Soviet Union on the plains of Europe. The role of the
Royal Navy in such a conflict would be to help safeguard the supply routes across the
North Atlantic from America. Accordingly, the Royal Navy had transformed itself
from a power projection navy to, essentially, an antisubmarine warfare navy. As a
result, the Royal Navy could only field two aircraft carriers, the venerable HMS
HERMES and the newer but smaller HMS INVINCIBLE, equipped with a total of 20
Sea Harrier jump jets to oppose over 100 Argentine aircraft including American-made
Skyhawks and French-built Mirages, Daggers, and Super Etendards. Eight destroyers
and 15 frigates, none with big guns, were the surface combatants that would have to
provide naval gunfire as well as protect the fleet against Argentine naval and air
attacks. The Maritime Exclusion Zone around the Falklands that Britain declared
would have to be enforced by a handful of nuclear and non-nuclear submarines.
Nor was the Royal Fleet Auxiliary prepared to supply all of the troop transports,
tankers, freighters, and other vessels that would be needed. 22 of the 27 ships in the
RFA participated but even with these, the government had to charter or requisition
from the British merchant navy, tankers, North Sea ferries, container ships, trawlers,
repair ships, tugs, freighters, and even cruise ships.
QE2 Is Drafted
At the end of April 1982, QE2 was returning to her homeport of Southampton,
England after making her maiden call at Philadelphia. The ship's company was aware
that a number of British-flag ships, including the popular P&O cruise ship
CANBERRA, had been "taken up from trade" by the British government but no one
seriously expected QE2 to be requisitioned. The ship was the largest and fastest
passenger ship in service and the only one still making regularly scheduled transatlantic
crossings. She had been constructed during the late 1960s incorporating innovative
designs and cutting-edge technology. She cost nearly 30 million pounds and was by
far the most famous ship in the world. Still, to pass the time, some of the younger
officers studied charts for the South Atlantic and made hypothetical course calculations.
Meanwhile, at a meeting at the Prime Minister's country residence, Mrs. Thatcher
was advised that QE2 was required to transport the next wave of troops. "I asked
whether it was really necessary or advisable to use this great ship and put so many
people in it, but as soon as I was told that it was necessary to get them there in time I
gave my agreement."
As QE2 neared England, she began to pick up commercial radio broadcasts that
said that QE2 had been requisitioned. After confirming these reports with Cunard's
shoreside offices, the captain made a public announcement that the ship would be
leaving service following passenger disembarkation the next day. Approximately,
1,000 officers and crew members volunteered to accompany QE2 into the war zone.
Out of these, 650 were selected including 33 women.
After disembarking the passengers, work began to transform QE2. Art work,
silver, furniture, and casino equipment was taken ashore for storage. Wooden panels
were laid down to protect the carpets from the soldiers boots. Hundreds of cots were
brought aboard. Although the troops would not be packed in like they were during
World War II on the QUEEN MARY, which carried as many as 16,000 soldiers, the
plan was to take 3,000 soldiers on QE2 - - roughly 1,000 more people than her
maximum peacetime passenger capacity. In addition, military communications
equipment was brought onboard and a secure communications center was
constructed. Tons of military stores and cargo were brought on including vehicles, jet
fuel and ammunition. Since there was more than would fit in the hold, some supplies,
including ammunition, were stored on the open deck near the funnel.
The most significant alteration came about because the military wanted to use QE2
not just as a troopship but as a helicopter carrier as well. Since the ship is 963 feet
long and has plenty of open deck space, this did not seem to be much of a problem at
first blush. However, one of the innovative techniques used in QE2's construction was
the bonding of an aluminum superstructure onto a steel hull. This hybrid construction
gave QE2 a strong hull that could withstand the rigors of the Atlantic as well as a light
weight superstructure that would save fuel and lessen the ship's draft so as to allow her
to enter more cruise ports. But, while the aluminum superstructure is strong enough to
support the occasional small private helicopters that corporate executives and film stars
land near the funnel on Sun Deck, it would not be strong enough to support the
stresses and loads associated with military helicopters.
The solution was to build two heliports. The smaller one would be built forward of
the superstructure on a platform extending over the capstans. The second platform
would be built aft resting on a series of girders that would be anchored in the structures
that support the weight of the ship's two outdoor swimming pools. However, since
QE2's open decks aft were built in a series of terraces, part of the superstructure had
to be cut away in order to create an expanse large enough to meet the military's
Once the alterations were completed, the ship embarked the troops, consisting
primarily of the Fifth Infantry Brigade, which was comprised of battalions from the
Scots Guards, the Welsh Guards, and the Queen's Own Gurka Rifles. All of these
units were elite units in Britain's all-volunteer army. The plan was that these units
would be the main British invasion force, following up on initial landings made by Royal
Marine commandos and troops from the Parachute Regiment (acting as infantry) who
were already en route south. Considering that Britain's plans were built around these
troops, it is clear that much depended upon QE2. Indeed, if QE2 had been lost, it is
difficult to see how Britain could have prevailed.
Meanwhile, the war at sea had heated-up. The nuclear attack submarine HMS
CONQUER had encountered and sunk the second largest ship in the Argentine Navy,
ARA BELGRANO (formerly USS PHOENIX (CL 47)). This caused the Argentine
Navy to pull most of its ships back to Argentina. However, the Argentines vowed to
sink Britain's most famous ship, which they referred to as the "Black Slug." To this
end, they chartered a Boeing 707 to conduct long range searches for QE2. In
addition, the Soviet Union had agreed to furnish Argentina with information on British
ship movements. A few days after the BELGRANO sinking, the Argentines
demonstrated their ability to strike back, sinking the destroyer HMS SHEFIELD with
an air-launched Exocet missile. Thus, QE2 was going to be actively hunted by a foe
that could make good its threats.
QUEEN ELIZABETH 2
DISPLACEMENT: approx. 37,000 net
LENGTH: 963 feet
BEAM: 106 feet
SPEED: 28 knots (service), 32 (full)
POWER PLANT: Steam turbine
ARMAMENT: .5 inch Browning machine
guns, 7.62 mm general purpose machine
guns, Blowpipe Surface-to-Air missles.
Sea King helicopters.
ENTERED PASSENGER SERVICE:
BUILDER: John Brown & Co. Scotland