The requisitioned luxury liner Queen Elizabeth II, a symbol of Britain's determination to retake the Falkland Islands, returned here today bearing more than 600 survivors from three British ships lost in the South Atlantic conflict.
It was an emotional homecoming for the seamen from the warships Ardent, Antelope and Coventry who are the largest contingent of British military personnel yet to return from the Falklands. Several thousand relatives and friends waving Union Jacks and hand-lettered signs greeted them at dockside, along with naval officials and a white-helmeted Royal Marine band that pounded out martial music.
It was a homecoming as well for the QE2, which sailed from this historic port city one month ago after being requisitioned as a troop carrier to sail the Fifth Infantry Brigade of 3,500 Welsh and Scots Guards and Gurkhas to the South Atlantic. The Cunard-owned liner has traveled 15,000 miles since then, its elegant dining rooms stripped of expensive furnishings and its outdoor swimming pools drained and covered with helicopter landing pads.
For several weeks, there had been speculation about the QE2's destination and fear that Argentine warplanes or submarines might intercept and sink it, an event that might have reversed the course of the South Atlantic war.
But the ship never got closer than 800 miles to the Falklands, unloading its troops and picking up the survivors at South Georgia Island, well out of the range of Argentina's Air Force. The only danger came not from airplanes or submarines but from massive Antarctic icebergs that the ship dodged in the South Atlantic. Cunard, pronouncing itself "both grateful and relieved to see her and her crew home safely," said the QE2 would resume luxury cruises Aug. 14 with a voyage to New York.
Today's return was celebrated with much of the same pomp and circumstance that marked other homecomings from earlier British wars. The ship was greeted while still at sea by a host of Royal Navy ships and by the royal yacht Britannia with the Queen Mother on deck. As she waved, a band played "Rule Britannia" and the men aboard the QE2 gave her three cheers.
But there were 67 seamen who did not return, victims of the waves of Argentine air attacks that sank all three vessels during the first days of the landing of British ground forces on East Falkland Island last month.
The memory of the dead haunted today's celebration, as did the fear that dozens of the men who were ferried to South Georgia by the liner had also been killed aboard the landing ship Sir Galahad in the latest wave of Argentine air attacks earlier this week. Some who came here today to greet their loved ones recalled how they felt when they first learned that the survivors' ships had been hit.
"It was absolutely dreadful," said Kay Phillips, whose boyfriend, Fleet Chief James Watts, was aboard the Ardent sunk by an air attack on May 21 in which 22 were killed. She said it was seven hours before she received a phone call from the British Defense Ministry telling her Watts was not among the dead--and four more days to learn he was not injured.
The first to disembark today were the captains of the three lost ships. They were followed by their crew, dressed in navy blue shirts and pants, each carrying a white or blue duffel bag. Last off were 21 injured seamen, all but one of whom were released to go home. The men met their families in a huge, grey terminal building at dockside.
Chief among the wounded was David Hart-Dyke, captain of the ill-fated Coventry, which survivors said sank just 15 minutes after it was hit by three Argentine bombs in a May 24 air assault that killed 19 and injured 23. The captain was badly burned in the attack, and his face still appeared scorched with wounds on his nose, chin and lips.
Hart-Dyke, who walked from the terminal escorted by his wife and daughter, said his ship had listed more than 50 degrees within minutes of the attack and that he could hardly stand up when he reached its bridge. After abandoning the vessel, his life raft was caught beneath the sinking ship and punctured.
"It sank beneath us," he said.
The captain said he was "still intensely proud of what we've done or what we tried to do." But he spoke of the difficult adjustment the survivors had to make to the fact that they had lost their ship and would soon be split up.
"If you're the captain of a ship, it's a very sad thing to lose your ship and some of your crew," he said.
Alan West, captain of the Ardent, told reporters that he had tears in his eyes when he ordered his ship abandoned after its entire stern had been destroyed by bombs. He called the order "probably the hardest decision of my life."