SMS Scharnhorst (1906)

On 4 December this year, a team lead by British marine archaeologist Mensum Bound announced that they had found the wreck of the German armoured cruiser SMS Scharnhorst in 1,610 m (5,280 ft) of water, 98 nautical miles (181 km; 113 miles) southeast of the Falkland Islands. The announcement followed a search that began in 2014 for the ships of Adm. Maximillian Graf von Spee’s ill-fated East Asia Squadron, sunk in the opening months of World War I at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

Named for the Prussian military reformer Gerhardt von Scharnhorst, Seiner Majestät Schiff (‘His Majesty’s Ship’) Scharnhorst was launched on 23 March 1906. Her one sister ship, SMS Gneisenau, was launched on 14 June 1906. The Scharnhorst class, as they were known (Gneisenau was ordered first, but a shipyard strike delayed her construction), displaced 12,780 long tons with a full load. They were 144.6 meters (474 ft 5 in) in length, 21.6 m (70 ft 10 in) in beam, with a draft of 8.37 m (27 ft 6 in). Their triple-expansion engines produced 26,000 metric horsepower (19,000 kW) for a maximum speed of 22.5 knots. The ships had a main armament of eight 8.3-inch and six 5.9-inch guns and a secondary armament of eighteen casemated 3.5-inch gun. In addition, they had four torpedo tubes – one forward, one aft, and two broadside. Their armour ranged from 8 to 15 cm (3.1 to 5.9 in), with the maximum thickness along the waterline and at the midships ‘citadel’. They were superior to earlier German designs and were a match for any non-capital ship of their day.

Scharnhorst was commissioned on 24 October 1907 and after completing her trials, she was assigned to the High Seas Fleet, where she participated in training exercises and fleet manoeuvres. In March 1909, she was reassigned to the East Asia Squadron, where she ‘flew the flag’ touring Germany’s East Asian and Pacific colonies. In March 1911, she was joined by the Gneisenau and on 4 December she became the flagship of the squadron’s new commander, Konteradmiral  (Rear-Admiral) von Spee. Promoted to Vizeadmiral (Vice-Admiral) the following year, von Spee would retain command of the East Asia Squadron for the remainder of its existence.

In August 1914, when war finally broke out, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been in service for less than seven years, but they were already obsolete. The intervening period had seen a revolution in warship design. At the beginning of the twentieth century, armoured cruisers and battleships were large warships of roughly equal size: however battleships possessed heavily-armoured hulls and were armed with a mixture of high and medium calibre guns; cruisers by contrast were less heavily armoured and had only medium-calibre guns – but they were considerably faster. Their role was to act as the ‘eyes’ of a battle-group and were fast enough to run away from anything they couldn’t fight. They could also operate on detached duties or – as with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – the lead ships of a squadron in distant waters.

All this changed in 1906, when British First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher came up with the idea of an ‘all-big-gun’ warship, which dispensed with secondary and intermediate calibre guns and was powered by the new Parsons turbines rather than reciprocating engines. The first ship built to this design was HMS Dreadnought. At 20,730 long tons, she displaced only slightly more than the preceding Lord Nelson class battleships, but at 21 knots she was significantly faster, and she had more than twice the firepower of any other ship afloat. With ‘pre-dreadnought’ battleships rendered obsolete at a stroke, a naval arms race broke out between Britain and Germany – but Adm. Fisher had another brainwave up his sleeve.

What would happen if you put big guns into a fast but lightly armoured ship? The result was HMS Invincible. Comparable in displacement and armament to HMS Dreadnought, she could make an astounding 25.5 knots – but at the expense of armour. Launched in 1907, the Royal Navy classified her as an armoured cruiser, but the media referred to her variously as a dreadnought cruiser, a battleship-cruiser, and finally as a battlecruiser. In November 1911, the Royal Navy adopted the latter term.

At the outbreak of hostilities, von Spee’s squadron comprised the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the light cruisers Emden, Nurnberg, and Leipzig. On 13 August, the Emden, commanded by Karl von Muller, was detached to act as a commerce raider. Emden captured over twenty Allied freighters and sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet before she was finally overpowered by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney at the Cocos Islands. Von Spee’s squadron was reinforced by the arrival of the light cruiser Dresden.

On 1 November, von Spee’s ships encountered the British Fourth Cruiser Squadron off Coronel, Chile. The resulting Battle of Coronel was a one-sided affair. The British force, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, comprised the armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope (flag) and HMS Monmouth, the light cruiser HMS Glasgow, and the armed merchantman HMS Otranto. Cradock, on the lookout for the Germans, had left behind the elderly but sturdy pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus, whose 12-inch guns could at least have kept Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at bay. Silhouetted against the setting sun, Good Hope and Monmouth were sunk with all hands; only Glasgow and Otranto escaped the rout. The German squadron suffered minimal casualties and damage – but they had expended over half of their ammunition in the battle.

Word of the defeat soon reached London, where Fisher wasted no time in dispatching the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible to the South Atlantic to hunt down and destroy von Spee’s ships. Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee was placed in command.  On 26 November, the battlecruisers rendezvoused with the remnants of Cradock’s force, along with the armoured cruisers Kent, Carnarvon, and Cornwall, and the light cruiser Bristol. The force proceeded to the Falkland Islands where HMS Canopus was grounded at Port Stanley to act as a guardship.

Meanwhile, von Spee’s squadron had captured a British collier and now had all the coal they needed, but there was no possibility of replenishing their ammunition. Von Spee decided to return to Germany, but first he proposed to attack the Royal Navy base on Falkland Islands. His captains mostly opposed the plan, but they were overruled.

On the morning of 8 December 1914, the East Asia Squadron was sighted by civilians at Fitzroy, who alerted the navy base at Port Stanley. The entire British squadron was coaling, but as von Spee’s ships approached Stanley the Canopus opened fire and Kent was making her way out of the harbour. With the bulk of the British ships still at anchor, von Spee might yet have been able to press home his attack. But sighting the tripod masts of the battlecruisers, he realised that he was up against a superior force and decided to make a run for it.

It was 10:00 before the battlecruisers left port and von Spee’s ships were 13 nautical miles ahead. But Invincible and Inflexible could outrun and outgun Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. By 13:00, the battlecruisers had closed the range and opened fire. To give his smaller ships a chance of escape, von Spee turned back with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and engaged the British ships. Scharnhorst repeatedly attempted to close the range on the battlecruisers, but without success. By 16:04, her smokestacks had been shot away, she was on fire, and listing. At 16:17, she sank with all hands; the British, still facing the Gneisenau, were unable to rescue any survivors. The Gneisenau lasted until 18:06; 190 men were rescued. Meanwhile, Nurnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden fled the battle, hotly pursued by Kent, Glasgow, and Cornwall. Nurnberg and Leipzig were sunk with the loss of all but a handful of men; Dresden escaped though she was later cornered and sunk off the Juan Fernández Islands on 14 March 1915.

German losses were 1,871 officers and men, including Admiral von Spee and his two sons. A total of 215 survived. British casualties were just ten men killed and 19 wounded.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands proved to be the finest hour for the battlecruiser. The light armour was its Achilles heel: three were lost at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and in 1941, HMS Hood was sunk while engaging the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. In the mid-1930s, the new German navy, the Kriegsmarine, built two battleships named for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Again, though, they were no match for British capital ships and the second Scharnhorst was sunk by HMS Duke of York at the Battle of the North Cape. The Gneisenau, which was undergoing a refit, was scrapped on Hitler’s orders.

To this day, 8 December is a public holiday in the Falklands, and on that day in 2014 – the hundredth anniversary of the battle – the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust instigated a search for von Spee’s ships. The search was unsuccessful, but a second attempt was made in December this year with four deep-sea robot submarines operated from the search vessel Seabed Constructor. After just three days the Scharnhorst was located. She is standing upright in a debris field, her hull largely intact although little remains of her superstructure. The Falkland Maritime Heritage Trust will seek to have the site protected in law. The search for the three other ships sunk in the battle will continue.

HMS Belfast

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Launched on St Patrick’s Day 1938, at Harland & Wolff Belfast, HMS Belfast is the largest surviving British warship from World War II.  A group 3 Town-class ‘large light cruiser’, she has a displacement of 11,500 tons and is armed with twelve 6-inch guns in four turrets. The seemingly oxymoronic designation reflects inter-war naval treaties. Any non-capital ship armed with guns of a calibre above 6.1 inches was deemed to be a ‘heavy cruiser’, and there were strict limits to the numbers of such ships a navy was allowed to possess. But there were no such limits on light cruisers. Consequently, navies began building large but relatively under-gunned cruisers. The US Navy’s Brooklyn class was another example of the type. Perhaps the best-known ship of this class was the USS Phoenix, later serving with the Argentine Navy as the ARA General Belgrano.

The Belfast was commissioned in August 1939, less than a month before the outbreak of the war. In November, she struck a mine while leaving the Firth of Forth. One man was killed and 46 officers and men injured. The ship sustained heavy damage and was out of action until November 1942. Belfast spent 1943 on Arctic convoy duty, and on Boxing Day of that year, flying the flag of Rear Adm. Robert Burnett, she took part in the Battle of the North Cape, off the coast of Norway. While escorting a convoy, she encountered the German battleship Scharnhorst and coordinated the defence of the convoy, forcing the Scharnhorst to turn away. Belfast shadowed the Scharnhorst by radar, enabling the battleship HMS Duke of York to intercept the German warship. As the Duke of York made radar contact, Belfast illuminated the Scharnhorst with star shells. Soon after, the two capital ships began slugging it out, but the Scharnhorst was heavily outgunned by the British battleship. The Scharnhorst fought to the bitter end, but eventually sank with the loss of all but 36 of her crew.

Belfast’s next battle honour came on D-Day, when she took part in the naval bombardment that preceded the Normandy landings. During her five weeks off Normandy, she fired 1,996 rounds. This was her final action in European waters.

After undergoing a refit, Belfast was deployed to the Far East to take part in the war against Japan, but the Japanese surrendered before she saw action. With the war over, she remained in the Far East and was the Far East Squadron’s headquarters ship during the 1945 Yangtze Incident, when the British frigate HMS Amethyst was trapped in the Yangtze River by Chinese communist forces.

From 1950 to 1952, Belfast was involved in the Korean War, taking part in coastal patrols and bombarding shore targets in support of ground forces. During the course of the conflict, she steamed over 80,000 miles (130,000 km) in the war zone and fired more than 8,000 rounds. She paid off in Chatham on 4 November 1952 and entered reserve at Devonport on 1 December.

Between 1955 and 1959, Belfast underwent an extensive refit, during which her bridge was rebuilt and her tripod masts replaced with lattice masts. It was a swansong for a ship now essentially obsolete in an era where ships were armed with guided missiles rather than large-calibre guns. She took part in a number of naval exercises in the Far East, but in December 1963 she was finally decommissioned.

While Belfast was laid up at Fareham Creek, Portsmouth, the Imperial War Museum expressed an interest in preserving a 6-inch gun turret but then began to consider the possibility of preserving the entire ship. The Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence established a joint committee, but after several years of can-kicking, the Paymaster General decided against preservation. The Belfast looked to be bound for the scrap yard, but in March 1971 a former captain, Rear-Adm. Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, now Conservative MP for Winchester, formed a trust and argued strongly in Parliament for the preservation of his former command. He was supported by Gordon Bagier, Labour MP for Sunderland South, who had served in the Belfast at the Battle of the North Cape. Although the ship’s movable equipment had already been stripped out, the government postponed scrapping and in July agreed to hand Belfast over to the HMS Belfast Trust. On 15 October, the ship was towed to her present location above Tower Bridge, and six days later, on Trafalgar Day, she opened to the public for the first time. Belfast became the first naval vessel to be preserved since Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory.

Although the Belfast was an immediate hit with the public, the Trust struggled financially, and in 1977 the Imperial War Museum sought government permission to take over the running of the ship. Approval was given, and on 1 March 1978, Belfast was transferred to the Imperial War Museum. She remains at Tower Bridge to this day, where she is frequently ‘visited’ by warships of the Royal Navy and other navies. Unlike Victory, the name Belfast was not ‘retired’, and the third of the new Type 26 frigates will be named HMS Belfast. The original Belfast will be renamed HMS Belfast (1938). This is perhaps a little unfortunate, given her distinguished service in both WW II and the Korean War.

The educational cruises of the BI Line

The words ‘educational cruise’ give an insight into life in Britain fifty years ago, and a world very different from that of today. There was, of course, no internet, no Facebook, no Instagram. Devices like smartphones were still science fiction, as was the idea of computers as mundane household appliances. Air travel had only just become affordable, and holidays abroad were still a novelty. The 1960s saw considerable social changes, but they were still the era of the post-war consensus. By today’s standards, both Labour and the Conservatives would be viewed as hard left. The idea of ‘the common good’ still had some currency among big companies and running affordable cruises for school children was an obvious idea for shipping company directors not obsessed by the bottom line.

Educational cruising began in the 1930s using troopships, that were otherwise idle during the summer months. They allowed the pupils to see for themselves places they had otherwise for the most part come across only in history and geography lessons. The war put an end to these first educational cruises, and they were not resumed after the war as National Service kept the troopships busy. However, the British Government ended National Service and the use of ships for troop movements in 1960, and the British India Steam Navigation Company (BI) decided to convert the 1937-built 11,600-ton troopship MS Dunera to a full-time ‘schoolroom at sea’, with dormitories, classrooms, swimming pool, games rooms, a library, and assembly rooms. The Dunera began her new life as an educational cruise ship in 1961, and she was joined by her half-sister MS Devonia a year later. The educational cruise program was a success, and in 1965 a third ship was added.

The 20,500-ton 480 ft (146 m) SS Nevasa had been built for BI to government order and was launched on the Clyde in November 1955; she and with her sister ship the Bibby Line’s SS Oxfordshire were the largest purpose-built troopships ever constructed in the United Kingdom. She could accommodate 500 officers and their families and 1,000 NCOs and men on the troop deck. She was thus almost new when the end of trooping at sea made her redundant. She was laid up in the River Fal, Cornwall, in 1962 but in 1965 BI decided to return her to service as their third educational cruise ship. The conversion, carried out at Falmouth, cost £500,000. (The Oxfordshire was renamed Fairstar and repurposed first as an immigrant ship on the Australia run, and later as a cruise ship.)

By now, BI were running 60 educational cruises a year. But the Dunera and Devonia were thirty years old, so in 1967 they were retired and replaced by the SS Uganda, a 14,400-ton 517 ft (158 m) cargo-liner built 1952. The Uganda operated between London and East Africa, but increasingly she was losing passengers to air travel. Unlike the Nevasa, whose dormitories were equally suited to school children as to soldiers, the Uganda required major work to convert her to an educational cruise ship. Decks were inserted in her cargo holds, which now became the dormitory accommodation with a total of 920 berths. The conversion raised her passenger capacity from 300 to 1,226, her tonnage to 16,900 tons, and cost the substantial sum of £2.8 million.

The differing origins of the two ships is apparent in these photographs: the purposeful, no-nonsense appearance of the Nevasa (left) contrasts with that of the Uganda (right). The latter’s graceful lines had suffered to an extent during the conversion to an educational cruise ship, but she still retained the look of an ocean liner. Both were handsome ships – and they were real ships, not like the motorised barges used for cruising now.

It is now fifty years since I sailed in the Nevasa on Cruise No. 132 with my school during the 1969 Easter Holiday. We were accompanied by schoolmasters Mr Terry (English) and Mr Stone (French). We flew out from Gatwick (Laker Air BAC 1-11) to join the ship at Venice. From the plane, I took this shot over the Alps.

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From the airport, we transferred to a watercraft, which took us along the Grand Canal to the ship.

The intended subject of the first picture was, I am sure, the gondolas, but the church in the background is the Chiesa di San Marcuola. As this picture shows, it is more or less unchanged half a century later.

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Aboard, we were taken to our dormitory, Baffin, located near the bow on D Deck (the dorms were all named for either explorers or admirals). After an interminable wait for our turn to visit the ship’s canteen, we went ashore, and Mr Terry took us to a church he claimed had been the inspiration for the school’s late nineteenth century chapel. The chapel is said to have been inspired by a Venetian church, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli, but having since visited it I am not convinced it’s the same church we were shown that day.

My memory is that the interior was what I now know to be fairly typical of a Venetian church, whereas the marbled interior of the Santa Maria dei Miracoli is somewhat atypical.

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The school chapel, by contrast, is a fairly typical Gothic Revival religious building with an interior that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike its supposed Venetian counterpart.

We were then divided into groups of four and left to explore on our own. We went up the Campanile in Piazza San Marco, and visited a glass factory where I bought four glass animals. Sadly, all have long since broken, but I have never seen anything of comparable quality for the price on my many visits to Venice in adult life.

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An obligatory shot of the Bridge of Sighs.

We sailed overnight, and after a day at sea reached Dubrovnik in what was then Yugoslavia. During the day at sea, Messrs Stone and Terry gave us a talk about Dubrovnik. I’ve heard that pupils on term-time cruises had several hours of regular lessons when at sea, but this was not the case for cruises taking place over the school holidays. Instead of maths and Latin, we had informative lectures about the ship’s next port of call. There were also activity groups – I joined the Chess club (I was a moderately good player who once finished runner-up in the junior school championship).

At sea.

Every evening at sea a movie was shown – “Clambake” (a musical starring Elvis Presley), “Who’s minding the mint?” (a comedy), “Yours, Mine, and Ours” (comedy starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda), and “Custer of the West” (starring Robert Shaw). There seemed to be a distinct lack of movies in the ship – I think these were the only four, and they were shown repeatedly. Most nights there was a disco (or ‘dance’ as it was known) on the after deck. It was very popular, but this was about six months before I first began to take an interest in girls and I often preferred the ship’s library. This featured a large illustrated book about the history of the Earth from its formation to then end of the last Ice Age (I wish I could remember its title). The fo’c’sle was open to dormitory passengers, and it was possible to stand there DiCaprio/Winslet style and get a fine view whenever the ship was close to land (which was often the case). It was a constant source of amusement to those standing in the fo’c’sle that somebody had carved the word ‘VAGINA’ into the paintwork there. The fo’c’sle was off-limits after sunset; this was always announced by playing “Sunset” over the tannoy.

I took a lot of pictures in Dubrovnik, more than I would take elsewhere. Note the Nevasa at anchor out to sea. The harbour was too small for the ship to dock, and we went ashore in the lifeboats. I’d borrowed my mum’s Kodak Instamatic camera for the trip; I got through two film cartridges over the whole seventeen days of the cruise. These were expensive, so I was a little more sparing on subsequent ports of call. Our stay in Dubrovnik was fairly brief: after a few hours exploration, we returned to the harbour where the lifeboats were waiting to take us back to the ship. As we got underway, “A life on the Ocean Wave”, “Hearts of Oak”, and “Rule Britannia” were played over the tannoy. This happened at every subsequent departure, and apparently was standard practice whenever Nevasa left port – a great tradition worthy of this fine ship.

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The next port of call was Heraklion, Crete, where we were taken to see the ancient Minoan site of Knossos on the outskirts of the city. At the time, I recall being astonished that dark red paintwork on the columns of the Palace and the vivid paintwork elsewhere could have survived for 3,500 years – I didn’t realise that I what I was seeing was the result of Sir Arthur Evans’ rather fanciful reconstruction less than half a century earlier. The above picture, originally missing, has now come to light, but I think I originally took at least one other.

From Crete we sailed to Rhodes, where again the ship had to anchor out to sea. But the conditions were too rough to use the lifeboats (!) and we were landed in some dubious-looking local vessels. I don’t remember too much else about Rhodes, but I took three photos of a place that I have since identified as Lindos.

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Now a major resort, it was apparently much quieter in 1969.

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We then sailed back to Italy, and our next port of call Naples. En route, we sailed through the Messina Strait and then made a close approach to Stromboli. No pictures of the latter, frustratingly.

We spent a few days in Naples, including a visit to Pompeii.

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Then it was on to Lisbon, our last port of call, passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on the way. Lisbon was for me the highlight of the trip, possibly because we stayed for three days and there was a lot to do. On arrival, we went on a coach trip to see a number of local sights. These included the Ponte 25 de Abri suspension bridge over the Tagus (then named for the dictator Antonio Salazar; he had recently been replaced by Marcelo Caetano, but the bloodless revolution that ended the dictatorship was still five years off). We saw the modernist Padrão dos Descobrimentos on the banks of the Tagus (frustratingly covered with scaffolding when I returned to Lisbon for the first time in 2016); the Jerónimos Monastery (which for many years afterwards I confused with Lisbon Cathedral); and a football stadium. I remember that practically everybody thought that this was Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, but somebody in the group said that it wasn’t. I wasn’t particularly into football at the time (in fact nobody in the group was), but everybody knew that Benfica was the Portuguese side Man Utd had beaten the previous year to become the first English (though not the first British) team to win the European Cup (now known as the Champions League). Based on the location of the other sights on the tour, I now believe that what we saw was the Estádio Nacional, where Celtic’s Lions of Lisbon did become the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967, a year before Man Utd.

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I took just one photograph in Lisbon, the final exposure on the film, of the Parque Eduardo VII.

From Lisbon, we sailed for Southampton. Ahead of schedule, we dropped anchor in Vigo Bay and held a regatta in the lifeboats (nobody was permitted to go ashore). Our boat was disqualified because some idiot took their lifejacket off. For the last night at sea, the school kids put on a cabaret, though I don’t recall anybody from our school taking part. Next morning found the ship entering the Solent. The then brand-new QE 2 was in port when we reached Southampton, and we passed her shortly before we docked. A coach was waiting to take us back to school, and from there I returned home for the remainder of my Easter Holiday.

I still regard the trip as one of the highlights of my schooldays, as do many others, and there is now a Facebook group “S.S. Uganda & S.S. Nevasa” for the now-ageing people who went on the educational cruises. For the record, 1) the food was nowhere near as bad as some people posting in that forum make out and 2) our cruise must have been the only one ever to avoid near-shipwreck in the Bay of Biscay.

Sadly, the Nevasa’s days were numbered. The oil crisis of 1973/74 meant that BI could not afford to keep both ships in service. The Nevasa was newer and faster than the Uganda, but her more powerful military-grade machinery meant that she was more expensive to run. Her final cruise was in December 1974, and she was scrapped in Taiwan in June 1975 just short of her twentieth birthday. With the benefit of hindsight, BI scrapped the wrong ship. In April 1982, Argentine forces invaded the Falklands and the UK government wasted no time in dispatching a naval task force to the South Atlantic to recapture the islands. The Uganda, midway through a cruise, was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence to serve as a hospital ship, a role for which a purpose-built troopship like the Nevasa would have been far better suited.

Uganda’s 315 cabin passengers and 940 school children were landed in Naples and flown back to Blighty. When the ship docked in Naples, the undoubtedly disappointed school children reportedly sang “Rule Britannia“. After undergoing a hasty refit at Gibraltar, Uganda served with distinction in the Falklands War. During the conflict, 750 casualties including 150 Argentinians were treated aboard, and 504 surgical operations were conducted. Her wartime service over, she returned to Britain in August and after undergoing a refit at North Shields, she returned to educational cruising late in September.

It was to be a very brief comeback. In November, the Uganda was chartered for two years as a store ship between Ascension Island and the Falklands. Critics claimed that BI had realised that the Uganda was more profitable in military service than she was as an educational cruise ship, but the reality was that school bookings had fallen off due to uncertainty over when the ship would return to civilian service. After a further refit, she sailed back to the Falklands in January 1983. Her charter ended in April 1985, but after three years of military service, the Uganda – no spring chicken from the outset – was worn out, and BI never restored her as a cruise ship. She was laid up in the River Fal, and eventually scrapped in Taiwan, bringing to an end the era of educational cruising.