Well before the advent of Covid-19, Andrew Tonge, our resident diving lawyer and technical diving instructor, visited the front line Royal Navy. In this article, he talks about his day at sea aboard the warship, HMS Richmond.
Thirty eight years ago this month, Britain was engaged the battle to retake the Falkland Islands. The war at sea was ferocious. Britain had seen nothing like it since World War Two. Those at home could only watch the tragic events unfold on their television screens. For the future of Britain’s naval service, it changed everything.
Approaching a warship is little intimidating. It’s meant to be. It’s a warship after all is said and done. A symbol of British global sea power. A warning to those that trouble our hard-fought shores.
A Type 23, Duke-class frigate, HMS Richmond is no different. Seeing her from the dockside, I couldn’t help feeling proud to say that she’s one of ours. As a former Royal Navy nuclear submariner, I was delighted to be invited aboard.
Affiliated to the towns of Richmond in Yorkshire and the London Borough, Richmond was commissioned into the Royal Navy in June 1995. Since then, she has taken her crews all over the world. She has taken part in disaster relief operations in the Caribbean, maritime security patrols around the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, and anti people-smuggling patrols in the Mediterranean.
In this day and age, a warship such as Richmond is no stranger to the ‘hotting up’ of the world’s political climate.
From the dockside, I could see Richmond’s sleek lines, topped by radars, electronic warfare masts and domes, guns – from the huge 4.5-inch gun, to general-purpose machine guns – and missiles.
The Type 23 frigates were designed for anti-submarine warfare. The later addition of the Sea Wolf missile defence system (the missiles are stored and fired vertically) and Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles, has given the Type 23s an all-round capability, taking on everything under and on the water and on land.
This makes Richmond a formidable military machine, and keeping her operational, 24 hours of every day, is the job of her current crew, under the watchful eye of her Captain, Commander Antony Crabb.
I was accompanied onboard Richmond by AB Andrew Lockey. An electronic warfare specialist, AB Lockey would usually be engaged in scanning the skies for enemy aircraft, the oceans for enemy ships and submarines, and providing war-fighting support to command. But not today. Today he would be my chaperone.
AB Lockey passed his PADI Open Water Diver course some years ago, and had since dived on occasion with Odyssey Dive Centre, Cheadle, where I was his instructor. It was great to see him onboard Richmond.
In a very British, almost-Colonial style, this floating armaments platform is also adorned with polished brasses and ships crests and the famous brass-on-wood name plaque, saying simply – Richmond.
Fore and aft, on the foc’sle (fore castle – the pointed end – the front!) and the flight deck, are the Jack staff and the ensign staff. During the day, while the ship is in harbour, the Union Jack flies for’d and the ensign flies aft.
As we climbed the gangway to the flight deck, the bosun and the officer of the day were standing by to order the hoisting the Jack and the ensign, bringing the ship to life.
By tradition, the bosun ‘piped the still’ – eight seconds of shrill whistle from his bosun’s call – followed by the usual pipe (naval slang for broadcast), ‘Attention on the upper deck. Face aft and salute. Colours’.
The ships company, fixed where they stood, saluted, while the Jack and the ensign were hoisted. A two-tone shrill came from the bosun’s call, followed by the pipe, ‘Carry. On’. The ships company went about their business.
Warships have a personality of their own. Men and women working in such a tight knit, often secretive, often dangerous world, makes it that way. No many other environments, military or otherwise, put people in such close proximity, dependant to such a large extent on each other and on their ship. Throughout the day, I noticed that there was no doubt that Richmond’s crew have a respect for her; a pride in what she and they do.
At 10:00 Alpha (10am British summertime), the crew closed up to harbour stations. The gangway was removed and the springs and lines (ropes, to the landlubbers) were let go. Richmond was underway; we were heading for the Solent, so that we could see, as the Captain had said in his briefing, a little of what she and her crew can do.
I followed AB Lockey through the narrow corridors of the ship, stepping through watertight doors, fastened and secured by what sailors call clips – large steel clamps, 12 per door – on through flats (landings), passageways (main thoroughfares), up and down hatches and ladders. With a quiet urgency, everyone in the crew, seemed to know where to go and what to do.
Coming out through the bridge on to the port wing, we moved from the warmth of the ship, the hum of the engines and the pipes carrying information from command to the ships company, out into the wind and rain.
Directly for’d, I could see the Harpoon and Sea Wolf missile launchers, and further for’d, the 4.5-inch gun and the foc’sle. The view from the bridge wing was magnificent, with Portsmouth passing to our port and Gosport to our starboard side.
Looking aft, I could see the main mast, bristling with radars and aerials. Next to me, AB Lockey was preparing his general-purpose machine gun, cocking it, checking it, readying it.
He did the same with the Minigun – a six-barrel Gatling-style machine gun that can fire upwards of 2,000 rounds per minute. Powered electrically, its barrels rotate at super-high speed, leaving anything it comes into contact with ‘neutralised’.
The Minigun gets its name, ‘mini’, from the 7.62mm calibre round (a rifle-sized round) that it fires, in comparison to the larger calibre of rounds used in other close-range defence weapons. Its rather unassuming name is by no means representative of its effect.
Once out beyond Round Tower (the last part of old Portsmouth harbour) and the former Napoleonic forts, the Captain put his foot down! Richmond’s twin Rolls Royce jet turbine engines powered the ship up to 27 knots. Then… he turned her. On a sixpence.
As Richmond rolled over to starboard on a sharp turn to port, I had to lean to avoid falling. Then she flipped back and over to port, on a sharp turn to starboard. I hopped to one side to remain upright.
Surreptitiously, I grabbed a handrail, only for a second, to steady myself, but I don’t think anyone saw! Only seagulls and the buffer (the man in charge of handrails and other safety aspects) get to lean on them!
In the Royal Navy, everyone is a firefighter; trained to use the same equipment and techniques as civilian firefighters. At sea, there is no opportunity to call the fire brigade so, like in most other states of emergency, the crew has to deal with fires.
On the upper deck, I watched as the crew of Richmond carried out a firefighting exercise. The attack team, the initial on-scene crew, held back the ‘fire’ with extinguishers until they were relieved by the main team.
Across the flight deck, hoses were run, foam was prepared and crew members in full firefighting clothing, including breathing apparatus (comprising a single atmosphere face mask, compressed air cylinder and gauge with low pressure whistle) put their training and experience to the test. In usual Royal Navy style, orders were barked and the team leapt into action.
It was impressive to see how quickly and effectively the crew responded. Through a wall of water, jetted gallons of foam. It seemed like no sooner had they started, the exercised was ended. The ‘fire’ was out.
It is quite something to think of a fire at sea. Possibly the worst thing that could beset Richmond and her crew. Watching the fire team, I couldn’t help but reflect on what must have been unimaginable, horrific, conditions on board British warships in the Falkland campaign of 1982.
Being trapped onboard a ship such as the Type 42 Destroyer, HMS Sheffield, in the heat of battle, under air attack and following the impact of that Exocet missile, launched from a Super Etendard, of the Argentinian Air Force, does not bear thinking about.
Much of the Royal Navy’s current damage control practises come from lessons learned in the Falklands campaign. Indeed, the crew of Richmond still use the Super Etendard as the enemy aircraft in air warfare exercises.
Inside the ship, everything has its place and self-discipline rules the day. It is apparent that the daily exercises of fighting fire, flood and famine, as catastrophe is often referred to in the Royal Navy, keeps everyone on their toes.
In the operations room, the heart of the ship’s fighting command, an exercise was taking place, with radar and electronic warfare operators and officers, of the warfare team, co-ordinating the ship’s defences in the face of a dummy missile attack.
The tension was palpable. The dim lighting was broken only by the glow of the screens and other instruments. The sharp commands and reports snapping between members of the warfare team with precision and accuracy, left me in no doubt that Richmond was well used to dealing with such threats.
The commands of the warfare team feed into every other part of the ship, from the bridge watch keepers to the marine engineers driving the jet engines, causing Richmond to move in the water as required, placing her in the proper position in relation to the incoming missile which was now flashing towards Richmond at twice the speed of sound.
A pipe broke the through the command chatter – ‘Don anti-flash!’ At this, the crew of the operations room pulled on the tell-tale white hood and gloves that guard the exposed skin of the wearer from explosions in a confined space. The attacking missile was upon us!
More movements and commands. I could detect no uncertainty. No flapping. More orders – a Sea Wolf missile left Richmond. Blasting through the skies with pinpoint accuracy, at its top speed of Mach 3, just over 2,200 miles per hour, the Sea Wolf located and took out the attacking missile in a matter of seconds. The ship was safe. Commands and reports came in; calm; matter of fact. The warfare team remained closed up at action stations. These guys and girls are cool!
Again, I thought of the action in the Falklands. A number of Royal Navy ships were hit by missiles in circumstances similar those I’d just witnessed. I was glad this was an exercise.
Of the 170 crew onboard, most share accommodation and social space. AB Lockey shared a mess with 38 other men. Beds are piled three high. Each gets a tiny locker and not much more. Socialising is done in the mess square – an area with seating for around half of those in the mess, with a TV, a Jackson boiler for hot drinks – known as ‘wets’ in the Royal Navy – and the all-important beer fridge. Each man is entitled to two cans of beer, per day, perhaps!
Being able to get on with people in such cramped conditions is vital. Maybe it’s only when the pressure is on that we see our true selves. Maybe only then can we say we’ve been part of something.
When deployed on a Royal Navy warship, in the furthest reaches of the globe, there is no going home; there is nowhere to hide. What is required is an unswerving commitment to being in the Royal Navy.
From seeing them in action, I think the crew of Richmond, embraces the challenge. They look to be a group of people that are happy and capable.
Being in the Royal Navy today might be no different to serving in the time of Nelson. It’s as though there is some ubiquitous influence that being at sea in a warship has on those who have experienced it.