WHEN QE2 finally came into view on June 11, Southampton Water was teeming with hundreds of bobbing vessels.

Watching the incredible procession were thousands of flag-waving Britons, their necks craning and voices straining from every vantage point.

Among them was the Queen Mother waving from the decks of the Royal Yacht while the Royal Marines band struck up stirring, spine-tingling renditions of Britannia Rules the Waves and Land of Hope and Glory.

It was a Southampton welcome to remember for the 700 survivors of HMS Coventry, HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope on board.

Admiral Fieldhouse, Commander in Chief Fleet, arrived on the liner as she carefully nudged into the port city. He told waiting newsmen: “Without the Merchant Navy’s sea bridge, the operation could never have been contemplated.”

He revealed that half a million tons of fuel and mountains of stores were aboard merchant ships at any one time along the 8,000 mile route to the battle zone.

Falklands Homecoming - Champagne welcome for L/Cpl Tom Lawrie
The admiral also praised the Southampton dock workers who converted the merchant fleet so quickly and he saluted the men of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary based at Marchwood.

A month later, on July 11, Canberra returned with the victorious 40, 42 and 45 Commando on board to similarly ecstatic scenes.

Again, a massive flotilla of pleasure cruisers and yachts and swarms of helicopters accompanied the liner and the atmosphere was electric at Berth 105/106 where the families of the men had gathered.

Lt Clive Dytor, the hero of the Two Sisters battle, stepped off and said: “What was the trip like back on the Canberra? I can’t remember much – we partied every night! We were all alive and we’ve returned to a hero’s welcome.”

The Marchwood ships Sir Percival and Sir Geraint came home on July 23 and tears flowed once more as the Royal Corps of Transport struck up Congratulations.

The following month it was the turn of hospital ship Uganda, known affectionately as ‘Mother Hen.’ She had sailed under the Geneva Convention and kept in constant contact with two Argentine hospital ships. When Uganda returned to Southampton on August 9, she carried the medical teams who had conducted 504 operations and worked 18-hour shifts to help 700 casualties from both sides.

By now Britain was awash with patriotic sentiment and after Falklands Governor Rex Hunt returned to Stanley on June 25, an emotional Service of Thanksgiving and Remembrance was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Politically, it was a story of contrasting fortunes.

Falklands Homecoming - Joanna Gardner and Paul Mansell
The Argentine defeat led to President Galtieri’s resignation and the advent of democracy though claims to the Falkland Islands have never been relinquished.

Meanwhile Margaret Thatcher cruised to reelection in 1983 with an increased majority and today the Falklands enjoys the benefits of tourism, investment and improved infrastructure.

A war which cost 253 British servicemen’s lives, six warships, 34 aircraft and more than £1.6 billion had somehow soothed the soul of a nation uncertain about its international role, status and capability since the 1956 Suez failure, the collapse of the Empire and economic decline in the 1970s.

Culturally too, the impact was far-reaching. The conflict provided material for theatre, film, drama and music, influencing artists like Pink Floyd, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello.

But the jubilant summer of 1982 gave way to a sombre autumn, when the heroes bodies came home.

The mortal remains of 64 servicemen returned to Southampton Water on November 16 aboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Sir Bedivere, the sister ship of the doomed Sir Galahad.

They had left Britain with bunting, bands and hope.

Heritage:Dale Stote (18) of 42 commando got a big welcome from his family returning from the Falklands. 1982
The coffins of light oak, secure in a giant container draped with the Union flag, were gently lowered by crane to the Marchwood dockside.

The nation’s reflection deepened as the grim consequences of war settled in.