History was made in the UK in 1979 when the daughter of a shop keeper in Grantham Lincolnshire named Margaret Thatcher who, not content with upsetting many of the ‘old school diehards in their ‘Men Only’ clubs by becoming the leader of the Conservative party in 1975, went even further in 1979 when she beat her rival candidate, Ted Heath, and became the first woman to be elected as the Prime Minister of Britain.
One can only imagine what some of the old boys thought of this as they spluttered over their G and T’s ‘There you are Carruthers, I told you no good would come of that Thatcher woman being put in charge of our party. Mark my words young man, the damn fillies will be taking over the club next. Fill my glass and pass my pills, there’s a good chap.
Margaret Thatcher was a lady of strong character and resolve. This feature was bought to the fore in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. There are two British Dependent Territories in the South Atlantic, the Falkland Islands and it's Territorial Dependency South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
When Argentina invaded these Islands it didn’t take long before Prime Minister Thatcher retaliate in defence of the British people living on these islands. After lengthy discussions with the Ministry of Defence and various Military Chiefs she instructed that a Military Task Force of British Forces should be assembled as soon as possible and sent on the 8,000 miles journey to the South Atlantic to repel this invasion of the Islands by Argentina. The Task Force included the Royal Marines, the Parachute Regiment, Scots and Welsh Guards and those fearsome fighters, the Ghurkha’s amongst many others. Air cover and other help was provided by the RAF when needed.
Whilst Kathy and I were naturally sorry when this invasion happened we also had a personal issue relating. It so happened that at this particular time we had a cruise holiday booked to take Kathy’s mother with us sailing from Southampton on P and O’s Canberra cruise liner going to the Canary Isles and Madeira. Unfortunately, and disappointedly for us, the Government requisitioned the Canberra and included her as one of the 54 vessels to sail to the Falklands in the battle against Argentina. As Canberra was a cruise liner and obviously not fit for fighting battles it underwent a complete conversion into a troop carrier which eventually departed from Southampton carrying 9,000 personnel, 95 aircraft plus fuel and freight.
All of this resulted in Kathy and I contacting our travel agents about this change of plans. Luckily for us, they were able to get us a similar booking and Itinerary on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II (Q.E.2) cruise liner, which was also scheduled to leave from Southampton. Naturally we were delighted to receive this second chance but our euphoria was short-lived because a couple of days later the Government stepped in again and this time they requisitioned Cunard’s Q.E.2 Liner also to join the Canberra in the Taskforce leaving for the Falklands as soon as she was also converted into a troop carrier.
So, once again, Kathy and I turned to our travel agents for help. They were very sympathetic and unbelievable as it may seem they got us yet another identical replacement offer. This time it was a booking on the Black Watch, one of the Norwegian Fred Olsen’s fleet of cruise liners. The only drawback to this ship was that it didn’t sail from Southampton but from Tilbury in Essex. This meant we had to travel by train to London’s Fenchurch Street station then catch another train to Tilbury then find a taxi to take us to the Docks. You can appreciate that this journey with Kathy’s mother in tow plus our luggage was a bit exhausting but we made it safely and eventually boarded the Black Watch. Kathy’s mother, who incidentally had been cruising with us before on the Canberra took all of this upheaval in her stride, in fact, she was quite excited by the whole adventure.
The Black Watch was a much smaller ship than Canberra or Q.E.2 and the facilities on board were not so plentiful or grand. I do remember the dance floor was very small and the necessary music for dancing was provided by only one pianist, but I must say he was the kind of pianist I like. He just sat at his piano night after night and in a very easy, casual style, which I envied very much, played many of the classic popular dance ‘sing-along’ songs written by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart or Hammerstein, Jerome Kern etc. Kathy and I danced (or shuffled) around the floor whilst her Mother watched us from her nearby chair with a smile on her face and a glass of sherry in her hand.
The best part of the ship was the restaurant. Being a Norwegian vessel the food on offer was smorgasbord style i.e. helping yourself from a lush display of every variety of food one could wish for. It was a wonderful mouth-watering display.
When the ship docked at Teneriffe on the Canary Isles we took Kathy’s mum on a coach trip around the island which she enjoyed very much. She was such a lovely lady and it was always a pleasure to see the joy we could provide for her and she never failed to show her genuine gratitude for our efforts.
When we arrived in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, we took mum on another coach trip. This one had a special feature. It involved getting off the coach at the top of a steep hill where we found a toboggan and two Portuguese men waiting. These men were there as our ‘drivers’ responsible for the steering of the toboggan down the winding downhill road facing us. They did this by holding onto some ropes attached to the toboggan which acted as an aid in holding the vehicle back when, or if, it was necessary. As we descended down the winding cobbled road some of the local children ran alongside the toboggan holding their hands out for money in exchange for the flowers they offered us. Mum sat there with a look of apprehension and wonderment on her face. She was glad when she reached the end of this ride unscathed, clutching her flowers and thankfully all in one piece.
We visited other islands on this trip and the overall view was one of great satisfaction. The whole experience of cruising for Kathy’s mum was such a joy to her that not only did she come with us on another cruise later in life, we were also were able to take her sister, Kathy’s auntie Lily, with us as well.
By this time both of them were in wheelchairs which presented Kathy and I with the task of wheeling them around the ship. Whilst this wasn’t always easy, especially in bad weather, we never minded because both of them never failed to show their appreciation. To us, it was a labour of love and we all had some happy enjoyable moments on these holidays I can tell you.
The Falklands war, which had started on the 2nd of April 1982, finally finished on the 14th of June 1982 when Argentina, after having around 650 troops killed, surrendered. The British Military Personnel had 260 casualties plus 3 of the Falkland islanders were also killed.
With the conflict finished it was time for our two cruise liners, both of whom had been of vital importance to Task Force, to return home. The Q.E.II arrived back in Southampton on the 11th of June 1982 and the Canberra, which due to its white colour earned the title of The Great White Whale, arrived back on the 11th of July 1982.
Kathy and I will never forget the memorable day of Canberra’s return home.
We were on a caravan rally near Portsmouth on that day. We had a small (9 inch) television set in our caravan which I put in our car and drove down to Southampton to await the arrival of Canberra. There were hundreds of people waiting along the shoreline waving their Union Jacks, which made a wonderful sight against the blue summer sky. There was a great patriotic feeling of warmth and relief filling the air. I switched on our TV which was on the grass in the shade under my car and was able to see Canberra, who had slowly sailed around the back of the Isle of Wight, hove into sight as she entered Southampton water and progressed to the docks and her berth.
The sound she received from the rapturous crowd made the 'Welcome Home' all the more welcoming by all of us honking our car horns and flashing our car lights. It was a magical and proud emotional historical moment in our country’s rich history. (This historic sight can be seen online (YouTube – Canberra ship arriving back at Southampton after the Falklands War July 1982)
The Canberra carried on cruising for a few years after the Falklands War and Kathy and I were lucky to enjoy two cruises on her. You only have to mention her name to any lover of cruising and will immediately respond with their stories and fond memories of this ship. It has a special place in the hearts of all who sailed on her.
Eventually, the time came when this lovely ship reached the end of her voyaging days. She was sold to a ship breaker in Pakistan on the 10th of October 1997 and finally scrapped on the 31st October 1997.
--End of Part Fifty-One –