FALKLANDS: A bittersweet return
WHEN QE2 finally appeared on June 11, Southampton Water was teeming with hundreds of floating vessels.
Thousands of flag-waving Britons watched the incredible procession, necks stretched and voices strained from every vantage point.
Among them was the Queen Mother who waved the decks of the royal yacht as the Royal Marines band sang moving and thrilling renditions of Britannia Rules the Waves and Land of Hope and Glory.
It was a memorable welcome to Southampton for the 700 survivors of HMS Coventry, HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope on board.
Admiral Fieldhouse, Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, arrived on the liner as it made its way cautiously towards the port city. He told reporters waiting: “Without the Merchant Navy Sea Bridge, the operation could never have been contemplated.”
He revealed that half a million tons of fuel and mountains of stores were on board the merchant ships at all times along the 8,000 mile route to the battle area.
The Admiral also praised the Southampton dockers who converted the merchant fleet so quickly and he hailed the men of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary based at Marchwood.
A month later, on 11 July, Canberra returned with the victorious 40, 42 and 45 Commando on board for equally ecstatic scenes.
Again a massive flotilla of pleasure cruisers and yachts and swarms of helicopters accompanied the liner and the atmosphere was electric at Pier 105/106 where the men’s families had gathered.
Lt Clive Dytor, the hero of the Battle of the Two Sisters, came down and said, “What was the trip on the Canberra like?” I don’t remember much – we partied every night! We were all alive and returned to a hero’s welcome.
The Marchwood ships Sir Percival and Sir Geraint returned home on July 23 and tears flowed once again as the Royal Corps of Transport launched Congratulations.
The following month, it was the turn of the hospital ship Uganda, affectionately nicknamed “Mother Hen”. She had sailed within the framework of the Geneva Convention and had remained in constant contact with two Argentine hospital ships. When Uganda returned to Southampton on August 9, she ferried medical teams who had carried out 504 operations and worked 18-hour shifts to assist 700 injured on both sides.
At the time, Britain was awash with patriotic sentiment and after Falklands Governor Rex Hunt returned to Stanley on June 25, a moving service of thanksgiving and remembrance was held at St. Paul from London.
Politically, it was a story of contrasting fortunes.
The Argentine defeat led to the resignation of President Galtieri and the advent of democracy, although claims to the Falkland Islands were never abandoned.
Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher was re-elected in 1983 with an increased majority and today the Falklands enjoy the benefits of tourism, investment and improved infrastructure.
A war that claimed the lives of 253 British servicemen, six warships, 34 aircraft and more than £1.6billion had somehow soothed the soul of a nation uncertain about its international role, status and its capacity since the failure of Suez in 1956, the collapse of the Empire and the economic crisis. decline in the 1970s.
Culturally too, the impact has been considerable. The conflict provided material for theatre, film, theater and music, influencing artists like Pink Floyd, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello.
But the jubilant summer of 1982 gave way to a dark autumn, when the bodies of the heroes returned home.
The remains of 64 servicemen returned to Southampton Water on 16 November aboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Bedivere, the sister ship of the convict Sir Galahad.
They had left Britain with buntings, bands and hope.
The light oak coffins, secured in a giant container draped in the Union flag, were gently lowered by crane to the dock in Marchwood.
The nation’s thinking deepened as the grim aftermath of the war set in.