Daily Archives: 30 July, 2010

40 years since the end of the Rum Ration

Its 40 years ago today that the Royal Navy ended the tradition of serving sailors a daily Rum ration. The age-old practice was a firm part of Naval heritage and tradition, and its abolition was viewed with dismay by many sailors. Yet it was argued at the time that serving sailors with free alcohol on a daily basis had no place in a modern, computerised and missile based navy.

The tradition of giving spirits to sailors originated in the 18th Century. Originally neat rum was served, until Admiral Vernon ordered that the strong spirit be cut with water to make it slightly weaker – hence the term ‘Grog’, from Vernon’s Grogram boat cloak. British Army soldiers were also served alcohol – Gin or Rum – at around the same time.

Various reasons have been advanced for the Rum ration. It helped keep sailors anaesthetised, against both the hard life at sea, and also the stresses of battle. Alcohol Spirits were also much easier to store, as water would putrify in the hold of a ship, whereas the alcohol in rum would preserve it. Originally beer was used, but as the size of the British Empire expanded, and ships spent longer and longer at sea, the sheer volume of Beer caused problems, and so spirits were used instead. Rum – brewed from molasses – came to the Navy’s attention during Seventeenth Century Wars in the Carribean.

There are also many cases of Rum being used in a medicinal way – survivors of sinkings were given rum or brandy after being fished out of icey waters, for example. In other cases, I have read of men who had swallowed oily water being given spirits to make them vomit. Rum was the only anaesthetic given to sailors before having limbs amputated. Soldiers and Sailors were even given rum before and after a flogging.

Yet we also need to remember, that the Rum ration was born – and existed – in a time when people drank far more than we do nowadays, despite what is said about binge drinking in the media. Looking back, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that people could handle their drink much better in years gone by, and that perhaps modern lager and alcopops are more to blame than alcohol in general.

There was also a strong social aspect to the Rum ration. The practise of every crew member over 20 stopping work once a day to drink together was no doubt good for espirit-du-corps. Terms such as ‘splice the mainbrace’ became a part of naval folklore. After Admiral Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, his body was preserved in a cask of various alcoholic spirits, leading to the term ‘Nelsons blood’. The rum ration and its elaborate ceremony must have been greeted with amazement by foreign visitors to Royal Navy ships, particularly those from ‘dry’ navies.

The legacy of the Rum ration lives on, however. A read of David Yates’ Bomb Alley onboard HMS Antrim leaves the reader in no doubt that a culture of drinking existed in the Royal Navy well beyond 1970. And not always when the sailors were off-duty, either. I guess its not surprising that groups of young men pitched in together will enjoy a drink or ten, and in many ways it cannot be bad for teambuilding.

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Trident to be funded from MOD budget

The new coalition Government has plumbed new depths of irresponsibility with the announcement that in future the operation of the Trident Missile system will be funded from the Ministry of Defence budget rather than the Treasury. Trident is Britain’s nuclear deterrent, carried by the four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile submarines of the Royal Navy. One submarine is always at sea, maintaining a 24/7, 365 days a year capability of retaliating to a nuclear strike on Britain.

Trident is – as was its predecessor, Polaris – a political asset, rather than a strictly Defence one. It maintains Britain’s seat at the ‘top table’ of international relations, and acts as something of a ‘big stick’ in foreign policy. Yet it has virtually no value in purely military terms – there was virtually no possibility of Trident playing a part in the Iraq War, for example – the armed forces do not need ballistic nuclear missiles to carry out their core roles, rather they are something that the Royal Navy has operated on behalf of the Government. Hence why it has always been funded out of a special Treasury fund.

The announcement that Trident will be funded out of existing MOD budgets means that in all likelihood the UK can kiss goodbye to a whole raft of future ‘conventional’ projects – the cost implications may mean the cancellation of the new Aircraft Carriers, no Joint Strike Fighters, and a reduced number of surface warships.

Whitehall rumours suggest that the announcement has deeper political connotations. Reportedly there is no love lost between Chancellor George ‘Gideon’ Osborne (young silver-spooned bedwetting ex-public schoolboy) and Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox (who, like him or not, had been shadowing Defence for a while, so could be expected to know his stuff). By shifting the cost of Trident from the Treasury to the MOD, no money is being saved in the short-term, rather the armed forces are being saddled with an un-necessary burden that will butcher their capabilities. Perhaps it is an attempt to bamboozle Fox’s plans for the armed forces. Also, it is possible that it is a thinly-veiled attempt to push the cost of the replacement for Trident onto the MOD.

The Royal United Services Institute published a far-sighted paper earlier this week outlining the options facing the Government regarding Trident. Their conclusion – which came before Gideon Osborne’s announcement – is that a like-for-like replacement of Trident is increasingly unfeasible. Planning for conventional forces assumes that the UK will not be attacked strategically without extended warning. Yet Trident is maintained at a continuous ‘you never know’ level of readiness, which has not changed since the 1960’s.

The RUSI proposes four alternatives:

1. a ‘Normally-CASD’ Submarine Force,
2. a ‘CASD-Capable’ Submarine Force,
3. a ‘Dual-Capable’ Submarine Force and
4. a Non-Deployed Force.

Tellingly, the RUSI does not even contemplate retaining the status quo of a continual at sea deterrent.

Option 1 would be similar to present, but would accept short gaps in the continuous deployment of Submarines at sea, in the event of mishaps or accidents for example. This might see the fleet of SSBN’s reduced from 4 to 3, but would not realise major savings in the long-term.

Option 2 would see a fleet of Submarines maintained that would be able to deploy a nuclear deterrent, but would – in essence – be mothballed, pending re-activation. This could see the Vanguard Class being retained for longer than scheduled, thanks to reduced wear and tear on the existing ships giving them a slightly longer lifespan. This would also delay the need to replace Trident.

Option 3 would utilise ‘dual purpose’ submarines that are not specifically designed solely for the SSBN role, but could perform it if necessary. This would encompass a single class of submarines to replace Vanguard and Astute, with a hull design capable of being used for SSN or SSBN. This would give a more flexible and more manageable submarine fleet by rationalising the classes of boats, and would bring the strategic deterrent to within the conventional forces.

Option 4 would see the UK abandon a submarine-launched deterrent altogether, and merely maintain a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Although by far the cheapest option, this would leave the country at a severe disadvantage in defence terms. I should add that I am not party to the minute financial details of any of these options – even these are disputed by the various parties and pressure groups, and of course are subject to inflation.

Personally, I see that options 2 or 3 are the most realistic in terms of balancing savings and defence. Essentially, the decision boils down to how what the UK needs in terms of strategic defence, and to what extent the Government is willing to compromise this in the interests of savings. But it is increasingly clear that the status quo is unmaintainable, as we cannot afford to gut every other defence capability to keep an increasingly irrelevant relic of the Cold War.

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