Monday, April 09, 2012

Falklands+30: 3 Commando Brigade sails from Southampton

Thirty years ago today, the first British ground forces sailed from the United Kingdom bound for a rendezvous with the rest of the fleet at Ascension Island, and from there, south to reclaim the Falkland Islands.

The main British ground force was the Royal Marines' 3 Commando Brigade. 3 Commando Brigade comprised three infantry battalions - 40 Commando RM, 42 Commando RM, and 45 Commando RM - and supporting units. They were reinforced at the outset by 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (3 Para), D & G Squadrons of the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, and two armored reconnaissance of the Blues & Royals from the British Army. The brigade would later be further reinforced by 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (2 Para).

The prospects of an amphibious landing in the Falklands were problematic for the Royal Navy and their Marines to say the least. In 1982, the Royal Navy was largely an anti-submarine force focused entirely on war in the North Atlantic with the Soviet Union. Shrinking budgets had deemphasized amphibious warfare capabilities. How would the UK manage to send a large land force to land on a hostile shore 8,000 miles from home?

In 1982, the Royal Navy only had two dedicated assault ships: HMS Fearless (L10) and HMS Intrepid (L11). At the time Argentina invaded the Falklands, Intrepid was undergoing decommissioning and, ironically, was slated for sale to the Argentinians. She was hurriedly put back into service to carry part of the assault force. Fearless and Intrepid were amphibious transport docks. They could carry a large portion of 3 Commando Brigade's troops and equipment, but only for a short time, and certainly not for as long as it would take to reach the Falklands. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary also had six Landing Ship Logistic vessels, but they too wouldn't provide enough capacity to transport and sustain the entire force.

The Royal Navy planners found a solution. Harking back to the bygone days of World War II and civilian ships pressed into military service to transport troops, the Ministry of Defence requisitioned the P&O Cruise Line's SS Canberra. On the day of the invasion, Canberra was returning to the UK from a Mediterranean cruise. With her paying passengers still on board, she made an unscheduled stop in Gibraltar to take aboard several Royal Marines and Royal Navy officers in civilian clothes. This team figured out what would have to be done to make Canberra ready to carry 3 Commando Brigade to war.

Two days later, Canberra arrived at Southampton. Within just five days, the ship had been fitted with two helicopter pads, unit accommodations, combat medical facilities, underway replenishment capability, and naval communications gear.

SS Canberra prepares to sail from Southampton
THE FALKLANDS CONFLICT, APRIL - JUNE 1982© Crown copyright. IWM (FKD 371)
3 Commando Brigade boarded, and amid many of the same cheering Britons who days before hailed the sailings of HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, departed for the South Atlantic and war on April 9, 1982.

The UK war effort would have been impossible without the contribution of requisitioned or leased civilian ships and the civilian mariners who crewed them. Two other civilian transports of note would leave later: MV Norland (carrying 2 Para) and RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (carrying 5 Infantry Brigade).

3 Commando Brigade's commanding officer was Brigadier Julian Thompson. Thompson was known as an intellectual soldier, a student of military history and tactics. He had joined the Royal Marines in 1952. Thompson and his brigade, now afloat, still had a daunting task in front of them: figuring out how, where, and when to land.

When they sailed, it was still uncertain that 3 Commando Brigade would ever fight. Diplomatic solutions were still being pursued. However, the dispatch of the landing force on April 9 indicated clearly to the world that Britain was standing strong against tyranny, and her resolve could not be questioned.

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