The Merchant Navy Memorial, Tower Hill, Trinity Square Gardens
Forty years ago, on 2 April 1982, Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands and on the following day, South Georgia, claiming sovereignty over these UK overseas territories located in the South Atlantic. Argentina’s action was condemned by the United Nations.
HM Government’s response was ‘Operation Corporate’ with its objective of retaking the islands, 8,000 miles from Britain. Two days later, on 4 April, the first of a British task force of 127 ships sailed for the South Atlantic. It was the first time all three British Armed Forces had simultaneously deployed since the Second World War.
Alongside the Royal Navy’s warships were 70 vessels with Merchant Navy crews, some 3,000 civilians in all. Of those, 26 ships were from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), the Royal Navy’s support and supply service, crewed by merchant seafarers. These were tankers; landing ships; supply ships; a helicopter support vessel and tugs. The remaining 46 were requisitioned as ‘Ships Taken Up From Trade’ or ‘STUFT’: passenger liners; ferries; container ships; cargo vessels; tankers and support ships. Best-known were the SS Queen Elizabeth 2 or ‘QE2’ and SS Canberra which became troopships while the SS Uganda, known to generations of schoolchildren for its educational cruises, served as a hospital ship.
On Tower Hill, four other ships are remembered too. Beneath their names on the Falklands Campaign section of The Merchant Navy Memorial appear those of 17 seamen, 11 also being RFA members, who died in the conflict. On 25 May, two Argentine Navy Super Etendards struck the MV Atlantic Conveyor with two Exocet missiles. Of the 12 killed, 6 of the Merchant Navy and 3 from the RFA are here named. The greatest loss of British lives, however, was on 8 June 1982. Two RFA Landing Ships were in Fitzroy Sound in preparation for the final assault on Stanley. The Sir Galahad was to disembark Welsh Guardsmen and the Sir Tristram was unloading stores when 5 Argentine Air Force Skyhawks bombed both ships. 48 from the Sir Galahad were killed, 5 being from the RFA. For rescuing at least 10 of those aboard, Chiu Yiu Nam, a Hong Kong Chinese RFA member, was awarded the George Medal by HM The Queen in 1983. The Sir Tristram lost 2 RFA personnel in the attack while the final merchant seaman lost died as his ship, the RFA Fort Grange, returned to the UK and was buried at sea.
On 14 June, Argentine forces in the Falklands surrendered. The campaign – war was not declared - had lasted 74 days during which 649 Argentinian, 255 British and three Falkland Islanders were killed. The 17 join 36,000 from the two World Wars honoured on The Merchant Navy Memorial which bears more names than any other Commonwealth War Graves Memorial in the UK. Civilians all, men and women, the sea is their grave.
The Honourable Company of Master Mariners, a City livery company, organises the service at which all are welcome. Music is provided by the Wake Band.
More information on The Merchant Navy Memorial
Access and travel
All of the Gardens and much of The Merchant Navy Memorial are accessible by wheelchair.
Underground: Tower Hill station (Circle & District) is opposite Trinity Square Gardens and has step-free access.
Bus: 15 Trafalgar Sq/Charing Cross station–Blackwall station.
42 Primrose St/Liverpool St station–East Dulwich Sainsbury’s.
78 Shoreditch High St station–Tower Gateway stn-St Mary’s Rd, Nunhead.
100 King Edward St/St Paul’s station-Tower Gateway stn-St George’s Town Hall/Shadwell stn.
DLR: Tower Gatewaystation is 5 minutes’ walk away, east of Trinity Square Gardens. All DLR stations have step-free access.
National Rail: Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street stations are to the north of Trinity Square Gardens; 3 and 17 minutes walk away respectively.
London River Services: Tower Pier is 4 minutes’ walk away, south of Trinity Square Gardens.
Cycle: Cycleway CS3 from Lancaster Gate – Trinity Square Gardens – Barking.