by Richard H. Wagner
(originally published by the Navy League of the United States, New York Council, in The Log, Fall 2005)
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
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 since.
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 administered 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 eastsoutheast 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 were 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 British surrendered.
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 selfflagellation and had found a voice in the Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher who asserted that Britain was
not finished yet. Elected Prime Ministerin 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 enemyoccupied 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 protectthe 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.
Ocean Liner - Queen Elizabeth 2 In The Falklands War - page one