QE2 Comes Through In the Falklands War

The British Royal Navy barely had enough warships to prosecute the Falklands War. Two ocean liners were requisitioned by the government to serve as troopships, the Queen Elizabeth 2 (“QE2“) from the Cunard Line and the SS Canberra from the P & O Line.

This obituary of the QE2’s Master during the Falklands appeared in the Daily Telegraph of Thursday 19 January 2009. It gives the details of the QE2’s service in the Falklands War as well as how the ship was transformed in seven days from a luxury liner to a troop ship. It is worth noting that during this time the officers and crew of the QE2 were all volunteers from the British merchant navy.

The Daily Telegraph
Captain Peter Jackson, who has died aged 86, was master of the Cunard steamship Queen Elizabeth 2 during the Falklands War.

Jackson was on leave when he heard that his ship had been requisitioned to carry troops to the South Atlantic. He returned on board to find his cabin full of generals and admirals, but he soon took charge with the same tact and skill which he deployed on his wealthy, and sometimes difficult, peacetime passengers.

Over the next eight days Jackson oversaw QE2‘s conversion in Southampton from transatlantic liner to troop carrier. The soft furnishings and her five grand pianos were landed; the panelled bulkheads and miles of carpets were covered with plywood; and 90 days’ worth of food embarked. The cabins (for 604 first-class passengers and 1,223 tourist) were turned into barracks for 3,500 Gurkhas and Welsh and Scots Guards. Flight decks were fitted over the swimming pool and on the forecastle to take helicopters, and the skeet shooting stand was used by the soldiers for training.

Jackson chose 640 Merchant Navy volunteers to man QE2 and she steamed unescorted, via Freetown and Ascension Island, to Cumberland Sound in South Georgia, 800 hundred miles east of the Falklands.

QE2‘s speed enabled her to reach the South Atlantic in only 12 days, but once there Jackson reverted to age-old measures to protect his ship. Slowing to nine knots, he hid from aircraft under the overcast skies, and, switching off his radar and radio, he navigated by eye among the icebergs, zigzagging to avoid detection by submarines….

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N Minesweepers HMS Cordella and HMS Junella alongside the QE2, South Georgia Islands, the Falklands, May 1982.

[Source: The Daily Telegraph Image courtesy of Minewarfare & Clearance Diving Officers’ Association.]

Air Attack! HMS Sheffield Hit and Later Sinks – Part 2

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HMS Sheffield (D80)

A recently declassified report from the British Ministry of Defence claims the crew was poorly trained and badly led. Not what one would expect from the Royal Navy. To make this even more important, HMS Sheffield was the first Royal Navy warship to be sunk by enemy action since World War Two.

Shortly after the missile struck, dense black smoke began to fill the ship. Officers quickly lost control of the situation. According to the report, “the control of firefighting and other activity after impact lacked cohesion.” Even worse, “it was not clear where Command of the Ship was located, the control of personnel un-coordinated…”

HMS Sheffield (D80) on fire after being hit by an Exocet cruise missile during the Falkland Islands War, 4 May 1982.

The fires continued to spread as did the impenetrable black smoke and after the fire came close to the magazine storing the Sea Dart anti-aircraft missiles, the Captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. Two Royal Navy ships were standing off from HMS Sheffield and rescued the crew. The ship continued to float in perfect trim for two more days while the fires continued to burn, completely destroying everything within the hull.

Twenty brave men died, most because of incompetence by XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (redacted in the report). Quoting now from the official report:

There were some shortcomings in the performance of XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX which contributed to the ship’s failure adequately to counter the attack.

Nineteen lines of text which follow in the official report, which tell us where the shortcomings in performance were, have been redacted. With the reduction in numbers of Royal Navy ships in the decades after World War Two, its good to know HMS Cover Your Ass is still afloat. The entire report can be found online.

For those who vaguely remember something about the ship burning because of speculation that the superstructure or portions of it were made of aluminum, that is not the case. Only steel was used in the superstructure.

[Images courtesy of Naval Warfare.]

Air Attack! HMS Sheffield Hit and Later Sinks – Part 1

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On 4 May 1982 during the Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina, two Super Étendards, French manufactured fighter bombers in use by the Argentinian Navy, were vectored toward a British warship. At twenty-five kilometers, their radars locked onto a ship they identified as a British Type 42 guided-missile destroyer. In this case, HMS Sheffield.

A French Aéronavale Dassault Super Étendard from Flottille 17F in flight during exercise “French Quarter ’88” on 1 April 1988.

Each plane fired one sea skimming Excoet missile at the ship with the Excoet, like the planes, also designed and built by the French. Although in a combat zone, and aware of the threat posed by Argentinian Super Étendards armed with Excoet missiles, HMS Sheffield did not seem to be as sensitive to danger as she might have been. The ship was not at “Action Stations, State One,” that is “battle stations,” known as “General Quarters” in the US Navy. Instead, the ship was in Defense Watch Station 2. Radar on the ship did not pick up the two Super Étendards because the planes were flying just fifty feet over the ocean.

After successful missile launch, the planes turned away and streaked for home. The Excoet missiles truly are sea skimmers since they fly about three feet above the surface and are very hard to spot. Radar gave the British no warning of the missiles. They were spotted the old fashioned way, through binoculars by a sailor on lookout duty who gave the alert. Five seconds later one of the missiles struck the Sheffield. The other missile splashed into the sea.

Fortunately, the warhead of the missile did not explode. Unfortunately, the impact both knocked out the primary fire-fighting main and ignited fires which could not be controlled. The ship was abandoned although it did not sink until under tow in rough seas a few days later.

HMS Sheffield aflame on 4 May 1982 after being hit with a French made Exocet sea skimming missile fired from a French made Super Étendard fighter bomber used by the Argentinian Air Force. After several days of fire-fighting the ship was abandoned and sank.

In one of the curiosities of the war, only one other navy operated the Type 42 guided-missile destroyer and that was the Argentinian Navy, which had purchased two of them from the British. The Royal Navy painted a long black stripe down the side of their Type 42’s to ensure correct identification by their own forces.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Navy Photos.]

A World War Two Warship Sunk By A Nuclear Attack Submarine

During the Falklands War of 1982, the Argentinians invaded and took possession of the Falkland Islands. Although a territory of the British Crown since the 1830s, their sovereignty has been a matter of dispute for several centuries. In 1982, Argentina was in the midst of an economic crisis. At that time the country was ruled by a rather stupid military junta. Since they had no bread, the junta gave the Argentinian people a circus, which was the seizure of the Falklands.

These islands have less than 3,000 people, the weather is foul on good days, and the only activity going on is raising sheep – lots of sheep – and presumably drinking since the Falklands are truly so far away from anywhere that even the people who live there don’t know where they are. This absurd dispute over who should rule the Falklands should never have become a war but it did.

After the islands were invaded, the British were very annoyed and sent practically their entire navy to Falklands whereupon they slugged it out with the Argentinians who managed to sink several British warships but soon were beaten black and blue by the Brits and forced to surrender.

It is a measure of the desperation and the stupidity and criminal lack of concern for their sailors that upon learning of the approach of the British fleet, the Argentine Navy ordered its small number of ships to sea including the light cruiser, General Belgrano. This was done in spite of a warning from the British Government delivered to the Argentinians by the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires, on on 23 April 1982, that any Argentine naval forces attempting to interfere with the British fleet would be sunk and that Royal Navy submarines were present in the theater of operations.

Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano in the foreground in the 1970’s at the navy base at Port Belgrano. The other ship is the Neuve de Julio.

On 2 May 1982, HMS Conqueror, a nuclear powered attack submarine, fired three conventional torpedoes at the General Belgrano. Two struck the cruiser and she sank within the hour. This was the first time a nuclear submarine had ever fired weapons in anger and only the second time since World War Two that a ship was sunk by a submarine.

Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano sinks, amid orange life rafts holding survivors, in the South Atlantic Ocean, May 2, 1982, after being torpedoed by the HMS Conqueror, unseen.
HMS Conqueror (S48) on 4 July 1982 returning to the Clyde Submarine base (Faslane) from the Falklands War after sinking the General Belgrano.

So how is World War Two a part of this? In 1938, the US Navy commissioned the light cruiser, USS Phoenix, which was sent to the Pacific Fleet. The Phoenix was anchored in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and was one of the first ships to open fire on the Japanese aircraft attacking the anchorage. The USS Phoenix was not damaged in the attack and spent the rest of the war on combat duty in the Pacific. In 1951, the Phoenix was sold to the Argentine Navy which re-named her General Belgrano. So on the fateful day in May of 1982, a World War Two vintage cruiser, almost 50 years old, was sent against the very modern Royal Navy and sent to the bottom by a nuclear submarine. Three hundred twenty-three Argentinian navy men were killed in action, most in the initial explosion of one of the torpedoes.

USS Phoenix (CL-46) steams down the channel off Ford Island’s “Battleship Row”, past the sunken and burning USS West Virginia (BB-48), at left, and USS Arizona (BB-39), at right, on 7 December 1941.

[Images courtesy of the Department of the Navy – Naval Historical Center and Wikimedia.]