Like President Kennedy before him, President Carter has reclaimed the "Resolute Desk" for his use in the Oval Office. He may not know it, but the massive piece of furniture is an incongruous memento of a particularly controversial - and humiliating - episode in British naval history.

The desk, six feet long and four feet wide, was built from the oak timbers of the 400-ton sailing barque Resolute , icebound and abandoned 123 years ago in a futile search for the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin.

The story - heroic, tragic and in the end anticlimactic - began in May 1845 when Franklin, by then almost 60 and venerated for earlier exploits in the North, took two naval ships into the Arctic in another of his attempts to discover the long-sought Northwest Passage. Sailing on a course that no one in the Admiralty had expected him to choose, he was lured by unusually good weather deep into a hitherto unknown channel where his ships became hopelessly imprisoned in the ice. He died, of causes unknown, in 1847 and that same year the officers and men, almost certainly near death from scurvy, abandoned the ships and sought to march and sledge southward toward the northern verge of Canada. They all perished en route.

By 1848, with no news of the expedition since it had touched on Greenland three years before, the Admiralty mounted one of the most extensive, expensive, perverse, ill-starred and abundantly written-about manhunts in history. Before it ended, more than 20 ships, including some Americans ones, were dispatched on the quest. News of the fate of Franklin and his men was not obtained until late in 1854; it was not until five years later that some of the bodies were found.

In the last and largest of the rescue attempts, four ships were sent into Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait in 1852. One was the Resolute , her figurehead a polar bear. Her achievements fell short of success, to be sure, but they were more outstanding than any of the others'. One of her sledge parties mushed across 200 miles of ice and back to rescue another search ship's crew, starving and scurvy-ridden, in the most dramatic such enterprise in the annals of the Arctic. Another accomplished one of the longest man-hauled sledge journeys in history, 1,336 statue miles at an average of 18 1&2 miles a day.

The four-ship flotilla was under the command of Captain Sir Edward Belcher, chosen for the purpose, it would seem, by the Admiralty's hydrographer, Sir Francis Beaufort, who was acting, in effect, as chief of staff for the rescue campaigns. The choice was an incredible one, Beaufort's most mistaken in his 25 years in office. Belcher was one of the Hydrographic Office's most brilliant marine surveyors, a magnificent seaman and, in between surveying expeditions, a gifted diplomat and a brave and skillful fighting officer. But he was cursed with a horrible disposition. He made life a living hell for the officers of almost every ship he commanded, usually bringing one or two of them home under arrest or charged with court-martial offenses. The files of the Hydrographic Office are stiff with letters and memoranda about his dreadful behavior. Furthermore, he had had noe experience in polar waters.

To place him in command of ships that would necessarily be icebound for eight or nine months of every year they were in the Arctic, where the maintenance of hifh morale and good spirits was absolutely essential, was an act of idiocy. But because of his superb record as seaman and surveyor, he became one of Beaufort's favorites.

By 1854, two years out, all four rescue ships were icebound. Belcher ordered them abandoned and the crews brought home, after sledge journeys to the east, by relief vessels. For that decision he was bitterly reviled, but it was at least arguable. The ships had spent two winters in the Arctic already, and it was clear that Franklin and his men had long since perished; the search for them had become something of a farce. On the other hand, the ships were subjected to no more hazards than were normal for the Arctic, a supply line had been opened to Britain, and the vessels could probably work their way out of the ice by next summer.

On his return Belcher faced a court martial, automatic when ships are lost. He was given what was deemed a "bare acquittal," on grounds of the board permissiveness of his orders, but his sword was returned to him in icy silence, and he was never given another command. Two officers, one arrested and the other facing charges, were promptly cleared and promoted.

But Belcher's worst humiliation was yet to come. The next summer, in 1855, the Resolute , which had been meticulously secured, caulked and in effect "sealed" before she was abandoned, somehow freed herself from the ice and, unmanned, was miraculously drifted by wind and current for something like 500 miles through Barrow Strait and Lancaster Sound into Baffin Bay. There, on Sept. 10, she was picked up by Captain James Huddington of the American whaler George Henry and carried back to New London, Conn.The Congress of the United States thereupon purchased her for $40,000 and sent her back to the Admiralty - whether as an act of generosity done in good faith or as a sly bit of Yankee upstaging it is impossible to determine at this late date.

Queen Victoria must have assumed the first motive: When the Resolute was broken up in 1879 she caused a desk to be made of the timbers and presented it to President Rutherford B. Hayes. It was used in the President's office until 1952, when a White House restoration relegated it to the broadcast room on the ground floor. Jacqueline Kennedy is said to have spotted it in 1961 and restored it to the Oval Office. Subsequently, it was banished again, in being handed over to the Smithsonian Institution, which made it part of last year's Bicentennial exhibits. Now it is once again back in its place of honor.