Liner Notes: Cruise Ships in Military Service

Commercial ocean liners played an important role in both World Wars and in the early years of the Cold War as troop transports. The development of jet airliners like the Boeing 707 and military cargo aircraft like the C-141 made such ships more or less irrelevant for the movement of troops in either war or peace. Those same developments also put the nail in the coffin of regular oceanic passenger service. Though shipping lines kept a few large liners like the SS United States operating as symbols of national prestige, most either went out of service or had to shift from point-to-point service to pleasure cruises that were vacations in and of themselves.

Some lines had seen the writing on the wall and designed their ships to switch between regular passenger service and pleasure cruising, but in the 1970s the industry began to move to purpose-built ships with slower speeds (which were more economical), shallower draft (to visit smaller Caribbean ports), and single-class accommodations. These ships had even less military utility than their predecessors and the strategic significance of the passenger industry appeared to have declined even further (despite some ongoing concerns with Soviet cruise fleet).

The notable exception was during the Falklands War of 1982, when the vast distance between the Falklands and the closest British territory (Ascension Island) made movement by sea necessary. The British reconquest of the islands was supported by a substantial flotilla of commercial Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) that included three ocean liners: the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Canberra, as troop transports, and the older and smaller Uganda, converted into a hospital ship for the duration of the conflict.

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The Cunard liner RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, requisitioned as a British troopship during the Falklands War, May 1982.

None of these ships, though, were built from the keel-up as ships for leisure cruising. The Canberra, launched in 1960, was one of the last large liners built in had been constructed to serve on P&O’s UK-Australia route. The Uganda, launched in 1952, had been ordered by the British-India Steam Navigation Company for its UK-East Africa service. Even the Queen Elizabeth 2, the last of the three to be built, was expected to split its time between service on the Southampton-New York run in the summer and pleasure cruises in the winter.

The only purpose-built cruise ship to make the journey to the South Atlantic only arrived after the war was over. Built in Denmark for an American line that went bankrupt before the ship was completed, the Cunard Countess was bought unfinished by the Cunard Line. About a quarter the size of the Queen Elizabeth 2, the Countess was one of a generation of ships designed to fit the requirements of leisure cruising within the same general profile as previous ocean liners. The ship entered service in 1976, sailing in the Caribbean market. Six years later, the UK Ministry of Defence chartered the ship to serve as an interim troop transport to rotate personnel between Ascension Island – which had a runway usable by large jets – and the Falklands – which did not. For six months following the Falklands War, the Countess carried troops and equipment to maintain the Falklands Islands garrison, as well as bringing relatives of British servicemen who were killed on a special memorial visit to the islands.

The former Cunard Countess at Helsinki in 2010. Photo by by Kalle Id. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The former Cunard Countess, now Ocean Countess, at Helsinki in 2010. Photo by by Kalle Id. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Remarkably enough, the Cunard Countess’s sister ship Cunard Princess was also taken into military service, albeit by a different country and in a different war. During the first Gulf War, the US military chartered the Princess as a floating rest and recreation base. Without even leaving port – the Princess was docked in Bahrain – it offered a chance to drink alcohol (forbidden in the rest of the theatre of operations) and flirt with the opposite sex (similarly discouraged on land). The Los Angeles Time dubbed it the “Love Boat of the Gulf.” The Princess’s captain was John Burton-Hall, who had also happened to be the master of the Cunard Countess during its Falklands service. Profiled in the Daily Mail a few years later, he told the newspaper that its American guests were “very well behaved … but they were also very big and very young, and they broke things. Just like puppy dogs – very large puppy dogs. We fed them and entertained them and gave them showers, and they did very well with the beer … Still, there were occasional breakdowns. One day, I went below to inspect and found one of our laundrymen ironing a tent.”

The former Cunard Princess, now MS Golden Iris. Photography by Jebulon. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

The former Cunard Princess, now MS Golden Iris. Photography by Jebulon. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Though Cunard sold both ships in the mid-1990s, both had long lives. Under the name Ocean Countess the Countess was scrapped in 2014; the Cunard Princess continues to operate, under the name Golden Iris.

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