Kenya and Uganda
This page is James Slater's article about the British India ships Kenya and Uganda. Please see this site's HOME PAGE for information about the background to content republished here.
Note: I have not checked any of the statements in the article for accuracy and republished it as presented - apart from changes to the presentation style.
In June 1947 BI placed the order for two ships with Barclay Curle & Co Ltd of Whiteinch, Glasgow. They had already built 63 ships for BI and so they were well qualified to build the new vessels, which were given yard numbers 719 and 720. The former was to be named Kenya and the latter eventually became Uganda. Early correspondence between the builders and the owners referred to 720 as Karatina, but, in May 1949 BI settled on the name Uganda, and they instructed the builders accordingly.
The names Kenya and Uganda were not new to BI, and in fact the first Uganda had entered service in 1898. She was a cargo vessel of 5,355grt fitted with triple expansion engines, which gave her a speed of 10 knots. She carried only 17 passengers and, despite her name Uganda, spent most of her service in Indian and Australian waters. On the outbreak of the First World War she was employed as an ambulance transport and, on 17th June 1916 when she was off Marseilles, an enemy submarine attacked her. Although she had been hit several times by shellfire, her crew were still able to bring her own gun into action at extreme range. The sixth shot was believed to have hit the U-boat as it submerged immediately and was seen no more. Her luck ran out two years later, when, in May 1918, she was torpedoed 90 miles north of Algiers. She sank two days later, fortunately with no loss of life.
The first Kenya had been built on the Clyde in 1930. She was a vessel of 9,890grt, carrying 246 first and second class passengers, with an addition of 1,981 deck passengers between India and East Africa. In June 1940 she left Bombay and returned to the UK, where she was taken up by the Royal Navy as an infantry landing ship. She was renamed HMS Keren and, as such, served in the Madagascar and North African campaigns in 1942. In 1946 she was sold to the Ministry of War Transport. Two years later she was sold to the Alva SS Co and laid up on Holy Loch, Scotland. In February 1949 she was driven ashore at Graigendoran and had to be rescued by tugs. The original idea had been to use the ship for emigrants from Europe to Israel, but this came to nothing. Late in 1950 she was taken over by Sitmar Line, and after extensive refits she went into service as Castel Felice. For 18 years between 1952 and 1970 she served on the Southampton to Sydney route, before being broken up in Taiwan in October 1970. Ironically, she survived her younger BI namesake for just over a year.
Work began on yard number 719, Kenya, in 1947, soon after the order was placed and, by November 1950, she was ready for launching. This ceremony was carried out at 2.15pm on 28th November that year, her sponsor being Lady Currie, wife of the chairman of the combined BI-P&O fleets. Kenya was due to be handed over in July 1951, but in January that year there was some labour unrest at the builders and it was feared that there might be some delay. Fortunately these fears proved groundless and, on 11th July 1951, she underwent her trials in the Firth of Clyde where she attained a speed of 19.16 knots. At noon on 12th July she was handed over to Sir William Currie, and three days later, she arrived in Tilbury to prepare for her maiden voyage.
Meanwhile, back on the Clyde, work on the Uganda had started. Her keel had been laid in 1950 and she was due to be launched in January 1952. Lady Hall duly launched the Uganda at 2.00pm on 15th January. On 15th July 1952 she started her sea trials and a speed of 19.108 knots was recorded. On the second day of her trials, on her ninth and tenth runs along the Skelmorlie measured mile a mean speed of 19.245 knots was recorded, marginally faster than her sister ship.
For her inaugural cruise from Gourock to London, northabout, were the ship's sponsor Lady Hall and her husband Sir Halthorn Hall. Included in the guest list were Directors of the Company, representatives of the shore staff, the builders, their wives, the press, and the Grenock-born historian and writer, George Blake. The inaugural cruise took them to Tilbury where the Uganda was prepared for her maiden voyage. On 2nd August she left Tilbury to join her sister on the East Africa Mail service.
Both the new ships had a gross tonnage of just over 14,400. They were just over 539ft long overall with a breadth of 71ft. They had a capacity for 425,000 cu ft of general cargo and 25.000 cu ft of insulated cargo in five holds served by the same number of hatches. Each hatch was fitted with one 30-ton derrick for cargo handling.
They were handsome ships with well-raked stems and cruiser sterns, each with two masts and one funnel amidships. Uganda's funnel was, in fact, 12 ft taller than the Kenya's, mainly to prevent soot falling on the passenger decks, as had been experienced on the latter ship. The main propulsion machinery consisted of twin sets of Parsons single reduction geared turbines, constructed by the Wallsend Slipway Engineering Co and installed by the builders. Each set of turbines embodied one HP, one MP and one LP turbine in series, and each of these was geared to the main gear wheel by a single pinion. Astern turbines were incorporated in the MP and LP casings, and the total astern power was equal to 65% of the ahead power. Both ships developed 12,300 shp, which gave them a service speed of 16.5 knots. The main boilers consisted of three Babcock and Wilcox watertube type, giving a working pressure of 450psi, superheated to 750 degrees F. A Cochrane vertical boiler was provided for domestic steam supplies in port, with a working pressure of 100psi. Five 350kW diesel generators and a 50kW diesel generator in a suitable housing on the boat deck supplied the electricity.
Both vessels had five passenger decks, which were the boat deck, promenade deck, then 'A' to 'C' decks. The first class public rooms consisted of a lounge, smoking room, writing room, card room and library, a cocktail bar and veranda, and a ballroom. All these rooms were situated on the promenade deck. The veranda ballroom was fitted with folding glass screens at the sides which, when opened, formed a dancing space the whole width of the ship. A projector and screen were fitted in the ballroom so that it could be converted into a cinema. The first class swimming pool was also situated on the promenade deck. The tourist class public rooms consisting of a lounge and a smoking room with bar, were situated on 'A' deck, as was the tourist class swimming pool. Dining saloons for both classes were situated on 'C' deck; the first class saloon being placed forward with the galley between the two. All the public rooms, both first and tourist class, were panelled with wood veneers from all over the world and mention must be made of the decoration of Uganda's public rooms as they contained more works of art than any other ship of her size built since the Second World War. To the forward end of the first class smoking room and over the buffet sideboard there was a large painted panel of ingenious workmanship by P. A. Staynes, depicting the beasts of the forest in their natural surroundings, with a background showing the famous Murchison Falls in Uganda. On either side was one of a pair of elephant's tusks. The wooden wall panels of the rooms were of figured aspen, and the door surrounds were straight grained elm. In the first class dining saloon there was a decorative mural painting in the form of scenic panels on all sides of the raised roof. To the forward end was a scene of Mombasa in East Africa, with Fort Jesus, an ancient Portuguese building dating back to the mid 17th century, used as a central focus. This was flanked by more modern and less imposing buildings and the immediate foreground was taken up by native craft. Opposite, and to the after end, the view was of the heart of London between Blackfriars and Southwark Bridges viewed from the south side of the river with St Pauls dominant on the skyline. To link up these two murals, full width free painted vignettes of tugs, barges and feluccas with Arab dhows were carried on the side panels. In the promenade deck entrance foyer a 17ft long framed marquetry panel depicting the bird life of Africa was fitted to a wide fronted alcove over a divan seat. This was the work of Mr Albert Dunn a marquetry specialist.
On 25th August 1951 Kenya left London on her maiden voyage bound for Durban, following the traditional BI route via Suez, Aden, Mombassa, Tanga, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Beira. The high spot of the voyage was her arrival in Mombasa on 16th September, when seven BI vessels, five of them ocean-going liners, were alongside the deep-water quays in the port. As she berthed alongside, Kenya joined Kampala, Karanja, Modasa, Mantola and Mombasa, and lying alongside Mombasa was the Tabora. Port officials could not recall any other occasion when such a large number of ships of one company were present at one time. On her homeward voyage she carried Sir John Hathorn Hall and Lady Hall, who were returning to the UK on Sir John's retirement as the Governor of Uganda, an office he had held since 1944. Their return to England was well timed, for in November 1951 Sir William Currie was looking for a sponsor to perform the launching ceremony for Uganda. He wrote to Lady Hall to ask her if she would undertake the duty, and by the 10th of that month Lady Hall had accepted the invitation.
Uganda was launched at 2.15pm on Tuesday 15th January 1952. There were strong winds on the Clyde that day which caught her as she entered the water, causing her to be jammed for about 20 minutes against the slipway, blocking part of the river. Fortunately, however, she sustained no damage and the tugs were able to get her under control and tow her to the engine works for the next stage of building. Six months later she was ready to undergo her trials, as mentioned previously.
She left London on her maiden voyage on 2nd August commanded by Captain C R Polkinghorn. On the 19th August at 12.25pm the two sisters Kenya and Uganda met for the first time in the Mediterranean. Uganda arrived in Mombasa to a quiet reception on the 24th August and, nine days later, she berthed in Beira. It had been a successful voyage with no machinery problems and no passenger complaints, although she had encountered sandstorms in the Red Sea and heavy seas south of Aden.
On Uganda's second round voyage in November 1952 she was entering the harbour at Dar es Salaam when she damaged her port propeller. The passengers were transferred to the Mulbera, and Uganda had to go into dry-dock at Diego Suarez in Madagascar for repairs. However the damage was not too serious and Uganda was able to resume her voyage at Beira.
As Kenya and Uganda settled down to the London-East Africa service, the company were able to withdraw the four old 'M' class vessels. Matiana was scrapped in 1952, and in 1953 Mantola was withdrawn; Modasa and Mulbera followed in early 1954. They were all over 30 years old, a good age for any ship, and all had given good service. Both Kenya and Uganda soon became very popular ships, providing a reliable, trouble-free service to and from the continent of Africa. In 1955 the black hulls of both ships were painted white, and there is no doubt that the change suited them well.
In June 1958 Kenya was moored at Beira when high winds tore her from the buoy. Fortunately the crew managed to get her under way just in time to prevent her from crashing into other vessels. Also that year six deluxe cabins in both ships were fitted with air conditioning. The lack of this facility in the rest of the passenger accommodation proved to be a real problem with both ships at this time. This is highlighted by the fact that one captain of Uganda had an air conditioning unit fitted to his accommodation and on his retirement he sold it to the company for £50!
By the time the 1960's came round, the situation was beginning to change on the East-African route and several factors were combining to bring about the demise of the BI service to Africa. The first factor was political. In the early 1960's the British colonies and protectorates in East Africa gained their independence and by the mid 60's Rhodesia had signed the unilateral declaration of independence, as a result of which economic sanctions were introduced. Finally, in June 1967 the six-day Middle East war closed the Suez Canal for 8 years. The other factors which brought about the demise of BI's East Africa route were the increased use of aircraft to convey passengers between the continents, and the increasing use of containers to carry cargo. At the end of 1966 it was announced that Uganda was to be withdrawn from service, and that she was to be converted to a 'schools ship'. She arrived in London at the end of her last voyage to East Africa on 14th January 1967. Her sister ship, Kenya, was to carry on the service alone and, in March 1967, her passenger accommodation was converted to one class. However, the writing was on the wall and just over two years later she too was withdrawn from service. She arrived in London for the last time on 7th June 1969 and, a month later, she was sold to Italian shipbreakers at La Spezia. It was a sad end to a ship that was only 18 years old, but for Uganda there was to be a new lease of life which was to prove even more successful.
Schools and Discovery Cruise Ship
On the 4th March 1967, two months after her final line voyage, Uganda left London for Hamburg where she was to be converted into a schools ship. The contract for this conversion had been won by the German company Howaldtswerke AG of Hamburg and it was to take almost a year. When she emerged she was hardly recognisable as the Uganda of 1952.
Educational cruising was not new to BI for they had been organising 'schoolboy cruises' as far back as the 1930's. They were not a permanent occupation for BI vessels in those days, but were run in the summer months prior to the start of the trooping seasons. The students slept and lived in the mess decks fitted with hammocks as used by the servicemen.
The first 'schoolboy cruises' were in the BI troopship of 1912, Neuralia (9,082grt).
They had been organised by a retired post office official from Edinburgh, George White. George White had the idea of using a suitable passenger ship for schoolboy cruises and he discussed this with some Scottish headmasters. As a result Mr George Robertson, headmaster of George Watson's College, formed the Secondary Schools Cruise Association which later became the Scottish Secondary Schools Travel Trust. Charter arrangements were negotiated through James Little & Co Ltd, a firm of shipbrokers on the Baltic Exchange. The first cruise, between 5th July and 8th August 1932, was such a success that others followed. In 1935 the cost of a 14-day cruise was £5! The old Nevesa (9,070grt) of 1913 joined Neuralia and, in 1936, they were replaced by the newly built Dilwara (12,555grt) and Dunera (12,615grt). In 1938 the deterioration in the political scene necessitated an extended trooping season and this brought an end to the 'schoolboy cruises'. I wonder how many of them travelled on them later as servicemen, perhaps on their last voyage before making the ultimate sacrifice.
It was these pre-war cruises which provided the germ of an idea in 1961, when a decision by the government to discontinue trooping by sea suddenly made all the troopships redundant. BI had to find an alternative employment for the vessels, or sell them.
The school cruises of the 1960's were to be very different from their earlier counterparts. Then there had been no formal education on board, they had simply enabled the students of the 1930's to travel abroad. This time there would be proper facilities for classes and lectures and purpose built accommodation. The first ship to run a post-war cruise was the Dunera in April 1961. After a slow start the idea of educational cruising had really caught on by 1963. By the time Devonia (12,795grt ex-Bibby Line Devonshire) had joined Dunera, and both ships were well booked. One factor that helped to make the ships a success was the first class accommodation had been left intact, and additional revenue was obtained from the 190 full-fare paying passengers who lived entirely separately from the students. Although the profits for the company were marginal, the growth in demand from education authorities and schools, at home and abroad, encouraged BI to take the decision to convert the troopship Nevasa for educational cruises. Nevasa had been built in 1956, and, after only six years of service, she was laid up in the river Fal. This bold move proved that BI were convinced there was a long-term future for educational cruises.
By 1967 the Dunera and Devonia were 30 years old and the time had come to replace them. The Uganda was to take this role, and at the end of that year, the two old ships were sent to the breaker's yard. In early February 1968 Uganda's £2.8 million conversion was completed, and on the 3rd and 4th of that month she successfully completed her post-conversion trials. Eleven days later she left Hamburg, arriving at Tilbury the following day, 16th February. Gone was the old, rather graceful looking Uganda, and in its place was a rather top heavy looking ship. Her gross tonnage had been increased to 16,907, although her draft had been reduced to 25ft 3in. Outwardly, only her funnel appeared to be the same. Her mainmast had been removed, and replaced by a radar mast above the navigation bridge. Her forward mast had been drastically shortened, and immediately aft of it, where there had once been cargo hatches, there was now a swimming pool surrounded by a screened verandah and flanked by two lifeboats.
Her first class accommodation and, fortunately, all the beautiful decoration and woodwork were left intact. This, and the forward swimming pool, was for the use of the fare paying passengers. Further aft all the cargo holds and handling gear were gone, and in their place were 43 dormitories fitted with two tier-bunks. There were 14 well-equipped lecture rooms, seating over 330 students at a time, and also a library and information room. The tourist class dining saloon was now a mess hall, fitted for cafeteria service with seating for over 300 students at one sitting. Right aft, on the promenade deck, was the student's common room with large panoramic windows. Above this, at the after end of the boat deck, was the students' swimming pool and sports deck. The students' dormitory accommodation was totally separate from that of the cabin passengers, although the assembly hall/cinema, situated on the boat deck, was shared by all the passengers. It could seat 400 people at one time. This meant that the cabin passengers did not need to improvise and use their ballroom for film shows. Additionally, the whole ship was fitted with air conditioning which added to the comfort of both passengers and crew. Uganda could now carry 920 students and 304 cabin class passengers on her 'voyages of discovery'.
Uganda sailed from Southampton on her first voyage in her new role on 27th February 1968 with over 860 students from the counties of Norfolk and Northumberland and 50 from Czechoslovakia. Her cabin accommodation was almost full as well. This cruise took her into the Mediterranean with calls at Athens, Istanbul and Heraklion and it would not be long before the ship became a very familiar sight at ports all round the Mediterranean Sea. During these early years in her new career Uganda operated in conjunction with Nevasa. In the summer months she would sail from UK ports on cruises to the Atlantic Isle and the Iberian Peninsula, and in mid-summer, to the Baltic ports and the North Cape. Sometimes she would run charter cruises for various organisations, one of the most popular being for the National Trust for Scotland, when she would call at lesser known ports round the Scottish coast. On these chartered voyages cabin and dormitory accommodation were usually both occupied by adult passengers, all of them sharing the cabin class public rooms. In the autumn of each year Uganda would undertake a positioning cruise into the Mediterranean and operate fly cruises during the winter months, usually undergoing an annual overhaul at Marseilles.
For Uganda's cabin passengers there was the plush comfort of the ship's original first class accommodation, which, fortunately, was unspoilt. The wooden veneers, and the atmosphere of 'colonial splendour', so different from the 'plastic' cruise ships that were being built, soon became very popular and it was not long before the Uganda had built up a regular cruising clientele. For them there was also the added interest of the ports of call, all of them directed towards the educational aspect for the students. One example of this was when, in November 1973 she visited the locations of many epic sea battles. The battles which took place in the Dardanelles, off Malta, Greece and Crete and during the North African campaign in the Second World War, were all fully described by the distinguished naval historian and author, Captain Eric Bush DSO, DSC, RN (ret'd).
It was during 1973 that the title 'BI Discovery Cruises' appeared in the publicity brochures for the first time - although, probably unknown to most passengers, the BI had ceased to exist as a separate entity in 1972.
The years of the early 1970's were not happy ones for the passenger liners, and many fine ships went prematurely to the breakers' yards. As for Uganda and Nevasa, it seemed that the problem of huge increases in the cost of fuel oil, and the competition of the airlines had not affected them quite so badly, and in 1974 they added nine more ports of call to their itineraries. Sadly, however, for the Nevasa this was to be her last year. Although a full program of 1975 cruises was announced for her in September 1974 she had only a few months left before she would go to the breaker's yard. In March 1975 she was withdrawn from service and sold to shipbreakers in Taiwan. This left Uganda as the last of the educational and discovery cruise liners. Her programme was still very similar to what it had been in 1968/1969, but now she spent rather more of her year based in the Mediterranean. Her annual refit was carried out by the Malta Drydocks Co, usually during the end of January and the first half of February. In May 1976 another event took place which was one more sad loss to BI. After 28 years service the 10,294grt Karanja was handed over to the Shipping Corporation of India, thus marking the end of BI's 100 years of service between India and Africa. The distinctive BI funnel colours were now becoming a rare sight on the high seas.
On the 29th August 1976 Uganda was delayed for most of the day when she ran aground in the early morning on a sandbank at the mouth of the Tay off Dundee. She had arrived at Tilbury at 11am on 27th August after completing a Fjords cruise; the following day she sailed for Dundee to begin a ten-day cruise on charter to the National Trust for Scotland. Fortunately, she was refloated with the aid of tugs that same evening and she was able to embark her passengers and leave on the cruise which took her to northern Scotland and Iceland. During 1977 the usual two-day turnaround of passengers joining and leaving Uganda on fly cruises was reduced to one. This was no mean feat considering that it usually involved 2,400 passengers and students joining and leaving the ship. It called for precise timing for charter flights, and the last of the homecoming passengers was usually clear of the ship by 7pm, with the last of the embarking passengers on board by 8.45pm the same day. This obviously added to her efficiency, because in 1978 Uganda recorded her best ever season for the number of passengers carried and revenue earned. Even increases in fares to cover rises in the price of fuel oil did not adversely affect the ship's popularity.
By mid-January 1982 Uganda had completed her annual overhaul in Malta, and was embarking passengers for a 13-day cruise to Egypt, Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, in Argentina, a general named Leopoldi Galtieri had been president and C-in-C of the country's armed forces for a month - although at the time the two events could not be linked by any stretch of the imagination. By March Uganda was half way through her series of Mediterranean cruises, while in the South Atlantic the diplomatic situation over Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands had deteriorated. On 22nd March Uganda sailed from Malta once again, this time for a 13-night cruise that would take her to Turkey, Greece, Israel and Italy. Far away in the South Atlantic the base commander of the British Antarctic Survey Team at Grytviken, South Georgia, reported that the Argentine naval transport Bahia Buen Suceso had landed men and supplies on the island, and that they were flying the Argentine flag. It was to be Uganda's last full cruise before she sailed to war in the South Atlantic.
Falklands Hospital Ship and Troop Transport
As Uganda set sail on cruise 276 on 4th April 1982 she had on board 315 cabin passengers and 940 children on a trip organised by the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools. They were all looking forward to a 13-night cruise to Venice, Gyathion, Alexandria, Antalya, Rhodes and two ports in Italy. However, two days previously, in a massive air and sea operation Argentina had invaded and captured the Falkland Islands. In a House of Commons debate on Saturday 3rd April, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, gave a pledge that the islands would be liberated and the first units of a huge task force would sail on the following Monday.
The P&O liner Canberra and the ro-ro ship Elk were requisitioned early in the following week, but it seemed that Uganda would be unaffected. Then, on 10th April, when the ship was at Alexandria, notice was received that she too was to be requisitioned for government service. The Department of Trade ordered that she should 'proceed immediately to Naples, there disembark its passengers, and then proceed to Gibraltar.' So Uganda arrived in Naples on 13th April, to finish the cruise four days earlier than had been planned. If the children aboard were disappointed, they certainly showed no signs of it as they entered Naples harbour. All the television newsreels and the newspapers were full of pictures of hundreds of schoolchildren and the cabin passengers packing the decks and singing a rousing chorus of 'Rule Britannia'.
It soon became clear that Uganda was to be converted at Gibraltar naval dockyard for service as a hospital ship. This came as quite a surprise, because it had always been understood that the Royal Yacht Britannia would take on this role in an emergency. There were a few protests, including one from an MP who suggested that the Royal Yacht should take on Uganda's educational cruise role, but these were soon forgotten as work went ahead to assemble the task force. In fact, the MOD had considered the use of the Britannia as a hospital ship, but this was a campaign which was to be fought 8,000 miles away from home, and about half that distance from a base. Therefore they had to find a ship which could be self-sufficient for a considerable period of time. In addition to meeting this requirement, Uganda's accommodation lent itself to much easier conversion and made the ship an ideal choice.
In order to assist a speedy job in Gibraltar, two senior dockyard officials were flown from the colony to Naples in order to familiarise themselves with the ship. Uganda arrived in Gibraltar on Friday 16th April, into a naval dockyard, which was facing the axe as a result of the MOD's expenditure cuts. However, this did not deter the hundreds of dockyard workers who were prepared to work round the clock to ensure that Uganda sailed for the South Atlantic as quickly as possible. Work started immediately to build a helicopter platform on the students' games deck aft, to construct a gantry to enable the ship to replenish at sea, to fit a satellite communications antenna, and, of course, to build her wards and operating theatres. The smoking room, shorn of its luxuries and decorations, became the intensive care ward and the students' verandah became the operating theatre. The spacious students' common room on the promenade deck aft became the Seaview Ward, which was the largest ward in the ship and for the care of patients out of intensive care. Two supplementary water distillers were fitted on the after sports deck and these became known as Niagara and Kariba.
In accordance with the Geneva Convention the ship was painted white overall, obliterating the blue band round her hull. Eight large red crosses were painted on her, two on each side of the hull, one facing forward on the bridge superstructure, and one on the upper deck which was visible from the air. Her distinctive BI funnel was also painted white, with a large red cross on either side. There was to be no mistaking what Uganda's role was in the campaign. Meanwhile a team of 135 medical staff, including 12 doctors and operating theatre staff together with 40 members of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Nursing Service, left Portsmouth to join the ship. Large quantities of medical supplies as well as extra beds were also sent.
On the morning of Monday 19th April Uganda left Gibraltar bound for the South Atlantic. Escorted out of the harbour by an RAF launch, she looked very smart in her new 'nurses uniform' and there is no doubt that everyone involved had put in an enormous amount of hard work to get her ready for sea in just 65 hours. She was a week behind the main task force, but that did not matter as they had a long wait ahead of them at Ascension Island, and Uganda was to go directly to the battle zone.
Soon after Uganda left Gibraltar, her commander, Captain Brian Biddick, fell ill. An emergency operation was performed on board, and he was repatriated from Freetown by an RAF medical flight to the hospital at Wroughton but, sadly, he died on 12th May. Captain Biddick had joined BI in 1951 and had been involved with educational cruising since 1967. Uganda's deputy captain, J G Clarke, now took command and his ship was in position to take her first casualties from HMS Sheffield. Uganda had been designated a 60-mile square area of South Atlantic and when she was needed she sped down to a similar area known as the 'Red Cross Box' just off the Falklands where she could pick up casualties.
Working closely with Uganda were the converted survey ships HMS Hecla, HMS Hydra and HMS Herald. It was not long before Uganda became known affectionately as a 'Naval Ocean-going Surgical Hospital' or 'Nosh', a skit on the well known, long running TV series 'MASH'. To the 3,500grt former survey ships she became known as 'mother hen' and they were her 'chickens'.
On Friday, 21st May the landings to re-occupy the Falklands began at San Carlos, and British forces soon established a bridgehead. However, the Argentinian air force started its series of bombing raids on the Task Force ships anchored in San Carlos Water. On 24th May Uganda left the box and arrived in Middle Bay, near the northern entrance to the Falklands Sound, to receive more casualties. While she was in this position two Argentinian aircraft flew over her, but they left her alone. On 28th May the Parachute Regiment set out to take Goose Green and the Uganda sailed to and fro between 'the box' and Middle Bay, taking on casualties, both British and Argentinian, and transferring those who were well enough to her 'chicks' for passage to Montevideo. Again Argentinian aircraft flew over her, apparently just 'looking'. This time, however, the Argentinians claimed that the Uganda had been present during operations in Falkland Sound, implying that the hospital ship had taken part in them. This serious charge was soon denied in London; it was totally without foundation and it can only have been part of Argentina's strange propaganda war. The next two days saw Uganda anchored in Granthan Sound, 11 miles north west of Goose Green, where casualties from both sides arrived by helicopter. It must have been a welcome sight for her ships' company to see the land so close. By Monday 31st May she had 132 casualties on board and the medical staff were exteamly busy, but morale on board remained high.
At one stage not only was Uganda co-ordinating the movements of the four British hospital ambulance ships, but also three Argentinian hospital ships Bahia Paraiso, Almirante Irizar and Puerto Deseado. At the peak of the campaign, Uganda took on 159 casualties in four hours, and the crew assisted the naval medical and nursing staff. During the campaign she treated 730 casualties, 150 of them being Argentinian prisoners, and she made four rendezvous with the Argentine hospital ships.
Fortunately, however, on 14th June, the Argentine garrison in Port Stanley surrendered, and the intake of new casualties was drastically reduced. There were still casualties from accidents, booby traps and mine clearance, but the main effort was now to continue treatment for those already on board. By 10th July her role as a hospital ship was over, and the crew on board threw a party for 92 Falkland children. It was much appreciated by the children, and much more in keeping with her peacetime role. On Tuesday 14th July, Uganda was deregistered as a hospital ship. The following day the red crosses were painted out, and her funnel was painted buff. Two days later she went to Grantham Sound, where she embarked the Gurkha regiments and their equipment, before sailing for the UK on 18th July.
Uganda arrived at Southampton on Monday 9th August 1982, 113 days after she had sailed from Gibraltar to join the Task Force. By this time the country had got used to one ship after another being given a rapturous welcome home. But this did not detract from Uganda's welcome and, once again, the flotillas of yachts, launches, tugs and fire tenders turned out to pay their respects. Hundreds of people packed onto Southampton's 105 berth, and, once again, the banners draped over the dockside warehouses proclaimed a welcome. Uganda had travelled 26,150 miles and consumed 4,700 ton of fuel. There had been 1,063 helicopter landings on her flight deck and 3,111 personnel had been transferred to or from the ship. 212,343 meals had been served on board, which included the use of 17.5 tons of potatoes and 40,000lb of meat. Most important of all, she had completed her mission of mercy.
Back to Cruising
Now she was berthed once again in Southampton's Western Docks, and just forward of her was Canberra, undergoing her post-Falklands refit. Uganda too would now have to be refitted and made ready to resume her former role, so shortly after she arrived home, she sailed north to Smiths Ship-repairers in North Shields to be converted back into a cruise ship. She was due to sail on the first of her regular educational and discovery cruises on 25th September, and there was an enormous amount of work to be done. During this period all traces of her military service were eradicated. Damage to shell and superstructure plating was repaired, her hull gritblasted and painted, and the starboard hatch was reduced back to its original size. A total of 15,000ft of wooden decking was renewed, as well as extensive areas of composition deck. In the students' common room the linings, ceilings and floor were renewed, and in the smoking room the pictures and tusks were rehung, and the wood panelling was polished. All the other public rooms and dormitories were completely refurbished, as were the passenger cabins. Down below in the boiler and engine rooms Lloyds surveys were carried out to brickwork and turbines. The entire refit was completed to schedule and by Saturday, 18th September 1982 Uganda was once again in tip-top condition and ready to commence her winter season.
Uganda's return to cruising had had plenty of publicity but the company was worried about the effect her withdrawal from cruising may have had. The first cruise to the Mediterranean was fully booked with 300 cabin passengers and 870 schoolchildren. A full brochure of 1983 cruises had been published so it appeared everything was back to normal. But it then became clear that Uganda's future was, once more, far from certain. The ship had been requisitioned during the peak selling season, and the schools needed more time to plan their cruises than cabin passengers. It was obvious that the early half of 1983 was going to be very difficult, with schools' bookings down. It was hoped that government compensation might cover these losses. On 20th November 1982 the government rescue came, but not in the form of compensation.
Although the Falklands campaign was over, a large garrison would have to be maintained on the islands, particularly in view of the fact that Argentina refused to acknowledge the end of hostilities. The airport at Stanley was not big enough to cope with wide-bodied aircraft needed to convey troops, so the answer was troopships. In October 1982 the MoD had chartered the Cunard Countess for six months, but there was an urgent need to acquire a ship for a longer term. So P&O decided to charter the Uganda to the government for two years, starting on 16th January 1983. By that time it was expected that the new airport on the Falklands would be complete, and so it became almost certain that Uganda was embarking on the final years of her long career. Her last cruise ended at Malta on 2nd January 1983, and she then sailed for Southampton for conversion to a troop transport.
The work this time was carried out by Vosper Thornycroft and it included fitting a helicopter landing deck once more in the same place that it had been fitted only five months before. The Asian members of the crew were paid off and replaced by a full British crew. On 14th January 1983 she sailed for Ascension and then the Falkland Islands, her role being to transport troops between Ascension and Port Stanley. The round voyage took approximately three weeks depending on weather conditions.
By this time the Uganda was the last ship to wear the colours and fly the houseflag of the greatest of all Merchant Navy companies, the British India Steam Navigation Company, for another famous BI ship, the Dwarka (4,851grt), had been withdrawn from service in 1982.
As the months passed, Uganda's once immaculate white livery became dirty and rust-streaked, for not only was she operating in the stormy waters of the South Atlantic, but she was unable to go alongside or to receive any dockyard maintenance.
Although Uganda had accommodation for approximately 1,200 passengers, her average complement was 650, with 850 passengers being considered a heavy load. Cabins were allocated according to rank, with those on the boat deck being the most sought after. The cost of a one way trip to the Falklands was about £400 and included the airfare between Brize Norton and Ascension Island. There was a permanent military staff on board whose duties included organising troop movements and discipline. The troops were accommodated in the old school dormitories and the forward music room and smoking room were used by officers and civilian passengers. Initially the MoD charter was for two years to December 1984, but this was extended to April 1985 and, with the new Falklands airport to open in May 1985, it was clear that Uganda's days were numbered.
Uganda underwent a refit in Falmouth's Queen Elizabeth dry-dock in late November 1983. She made eleven round voyages between Ascension and Port Stanley and the long periods at sea with only a minimum amount of maintenance had taken their toll. She was showing a lot of overside rust to her once immaculate white hull. The refit cost some £600,000 and work continued on the ship day and night for the twelve days she was in dock. It included the renewal of her pipework, the overhaul of her machinery and refurbishment of her accommodation. A portion of her tailshaft was replaced, and the large windows forward of the promenade deck swimming pool were plated in (they were being continually broken by the heavy seas of the South Atlantic). On 7th December 1983 with the work completed, Uganda sailed once more for Ascension Island and the South Atlantic.
Uganda's career as a troopship came to an end just 16 months later. She left Port Stanley for the last time on Tuesday 4th April 1985, bound for Ascension and then Falmouth where her contract to the MoD was due to end later that month. Shortly before she arrived in the UK the first RAF passenger aircraft landed at Mount Pleasant, drastically reducing the flight time between Ascension and the Falklands. Once again air transport had made troopships redundant.
Uganda arrived in Falmouth on the evening of Thursday 25th April 1985. She had been at sea without going alongside for nearly 500 days, and once again her hull and superstructure were red with rust. Crowds had gathered at Pendennis Point to greet her and the four Falmouth tugs St Piran, St Gluvias, St Budoc and St Eval went out into Falmouth Bay to greet her. At just 7pm, with the four tugs in attendance, she entered Carrick Roads before being manoeuvred alongside the County Wharf shortly after 8pm. The next few days were spent de-storing and P&O removed many of her works of art and artefacts for safekeeping. On Saturday 27th April, two days after her arrival, the MoD finally handed her back to P&O, three years after she had first been requisitioned as a hospital ship.
On Tuesday 30th April, with de-storing completed, Uganda was moved from County Wharf to the Cross Roads Buoy in Carrick Roads. Four days later she was towed to a lay-up mooring in the river Fal.
For a year the Uganda lay rusting at her mooring in the river Fal, for most of the time flanked and hidden by one or more merchant vessels in a similar state of idleness. There was a faint hope that she might be saved from the breaker's yard; in October 1983 a devoted band of followers had formed the 'SS Uganda Society', their principle aim being the long term preservation of the vessel 'as a classic example of British passenger shipping'. It was a commendable idea, even though, since her rebuilding in 1967, the Uganda was hardly a classic example of a British passenger ship. The society worked tirelessly in an effort to realise their aims. At one time they had hoped to preserve the ship as a sea going vessel, but, whilst her hull and machinery were in reasonable condition, the cost of refitting and conversion would have been prohibitive. Right from the start the society was fully aware of the considerable financial hurdles which would have to be overcome.
Whilst the Uganda's Society's members tried hard to find ways to save the ship, P&O themselves were active in trying to find a viable alternative to scrapping her. It seems that interest was shown in the liner by the Peoples' Republic of China which wanted to turn her into a floating leisure centre. However the negotiations came to nothing, and perhaps it is just as well because this sort of fate is probably what Lady Hall, the Uganda's sponsor, had in mind when she said, 'I think I would rather she went to the breaker's yard than be sold for a possible sordid life.'
Faced with no prospect of a sale and with the continuing need to pay lay-up costs, in March 1986 P&O placed the Uganda on the demolition market. Soon after this, at the end of April, she was sold for breaking up in Taiwan with delivery expected to be within six weeks. She had been bought by the An Sung Iron & Steel Company of Kaohsiung, and was to be delivered there by the London-based Triton Ship Delivery company, being renamed Triton for the voyage.
Originally the ship was scheduled to leave on Wednesday, 14th May, but the long lay-up had taken its toll, and in the event the departure was delayed because of boiler troubles. But the reprieve was short lived and the Uganda sailed on her final voyage to oblivion on Tuesday 20th May 1986. Coincidentally, over the intervening weekend, the World Ship Society held its AGM at Falmouth. The delay in the Uganda's departure therefore enabled many ship enthusiasts to see her for the last time. In the words of one onlooker, Mr Tony Atkinson, as she sailed 'She laid down such a good smoke screen that at times it was difficult to see her.'
At first it was thought she would sail via Cape Town, but this was changed to the route via the Suez Canal - a passage with which the old liner was familiar. At Port Said the ship was plundered by thieves and a lot of food and equipment was stolen. It had been hoped to bunker at Jeddah, but when only a few hours from arrival there, the crew were informed that despite her new identity, she was still on the Arab boycott list, having visited Israeli ports during her years as an educational cruise ship. Fortunately she was able to continue to Aden where she could take on fuel. Eventually she arrived at Kaohsiung at 11.52pm on 15th July 1986. The final indignity came just over a month later when, in the last week of August, the tropical storm 'Wayne' created havoc to shipping in the South China Sea. With winds blowing up to 40 knots the typhoon, which was moving west-south-west, passed over Taiwan. The Uganda, which had been grounded prior to scrapping, succumbed to the storm and ended up on her side off Kaohsiung.
It was the end of a proud ship, and the final chapter in the history of the British India Steam Navigation Company. With the passing of the Uganda, BI's once familiar colours of two white bands on a black funnel disappeared from the sea-lanes.
But is it the final chapter? My thoughts are that so long as there are surviving members of the BI it will continue to live; after that there will be all those 'Valiant Voyagers' of old, to sail with together on voyages as yet uncharted.
Note: An account of Uganda's final voyage by Captain J.D. Coxe is available on this website and can be accessed HERE.
Note: The original article published on MerchantNavyOfficers.com included acknowledgements to Neil McCart and Ships Monthly of November 1986, "Uganda - A very special ship" (S.S. Uganda Trust), Laxon and Perry, and the P. & O Collection. I presume that at least some of the photos came from these sources but as this was not stated specifically, I have to say that the source of most of the photos is unknown.
- Source unknown (see note above)
- By courtesy of Iain Lovie