Tag Archives: hms bulwark

Titanic in perspective

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but as interesting as the whole Titanic thing is, are we losing some kind of perspective? There are a couple of issues about the Titanic where the romanticism and popular culture has overshadowed some important parts of history. Sure, the Titanic was a marvellous ship, and its cultural impact, and its effect on safety at sea, stands for itself. But how many people know about other ships that were sunk just four years later, with a much higher loss of life and a less than 2% chance of survival?While it is popularly thought that the Titanic set sail from Southampton, it subsequently called at Cherbourg and then Queenstown in Ireland. Admittedly, Southampton was home to many of the crew, and it was the point at which the majority of the wealthy passengers boarded. But what about those who boarded in France and Ireland – in particular the many poorer steerage emigrant passengers from Queenstown? And what about the thousands of men who spent years slaving over the construction of the ship at Harland and Wolff in Belfast? Might they not have a strong claim to cultural ‘ownership’ of the Titanic? I suspect that many of us have been seduced by the glitz and glamour of the wealthy, influential Kate Winslet-esque passengers who joined the ship at Southampton, rather than Northern Ireland’s shipyard workers who spent years grafting over her.

When the Titanic foundered, she was carrying 2,224 passengers and crew. 710 of these survived (32%), whilst 1514 perished (68%). Perhaps, in retrospect, the sinking of the Titanic did prove to be the beginning of the end of the carefree Edwardian period, and in a rather more sober manner, it did lead to more serious legislation regarding safety at sea. But we only need to look at more catastrophic loss of life only a few years later to try and put things into context.

In November 1914 two Portsmouth battleships were sunk. HMS Bulwark work lost at anchor off Sheerness in the Thames due to an accidental explosion. Of her 750 crewmembers, 738 were lost. Only 12 survived – a survival rate of just 1.6%. And this for a ship anchored close to shore, in British waters, in the estuary leading to London. Also in November HMS Good Hope was sunk off South America in the Coronel. All of her 900 crew were lost. Yet who knows about HMS Bulwark and HMS Good Hope?

On 31 May the British Grand Fleet joined battle with the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea of Jutland. Jutland saw perhaps the greatest loss of life in a single action that the Royal Navy had ever witnessed. The Battlecruiser HMS Invincible was sunk, and of her 1032 crewmen, only 6 survived, while the other 1026 men lost. A crewman on HMS Invincible at Jutland had a chance of survival of 0.58%. Another Portsmouth Battlecruiser, HMS Queen Mary, was also sunk. Of her 1284 crew, an incredible 1266 men lost, with only 18 – 1.4% – survived. The other large ship from Portsmouth sunk at Jutland – the armoured cruiser HMS Black Prince lost all of her 857 crew, with no survivors. That’s 3,149 men on three ships – and that’s just the Portsmouth based ships.

Why is it that one liner, sunk in peacetime by misadventure, completely overshadows the even more catastrophic and perilous loss of life just over four years later? Why, and how have forgotten about these thousands of sailors, their ships and the battles in which they were lost? Surely righting a wrong of history has to be a motivation for all of us heading into the 2014-18 Centenary period.

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Filed under Navy, Uncategorized, World War One

Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories from the Falklands Campaign by Christopher Hilton

With the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War coming up in a matter of weeks, we will probably see a considerable amount of new books being dedicated to the war. This book by Christopher Hilton is the first ‘Falklands 30′ book that I have received.

I find it quite an interesting concept that  Hilton – in stark contrast to, say, the Falklands book by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins – chose to write about only men who were on the very lowest ladder of the military hierarchy – privates, sailors and marines. The idea was, as he explains, that they were the men who were most at mercy of events – they could not give orders to anyone, only follow. Included are naval ratings, a man who was on the Atlantic Conveyor, marines, paras and a sapper. As you might expect, I wholeheartedly approve of such a ‘grass roots’ level of history.

The are some fascinating anecdotes here, the kind that you only get from an oral history based, down to earth approach such as this. There’s the chinese laundryman who hid from air raids in one of the ships tumbloe dryers, and was awarded the British Empire Medal. One rating had to send a brief telegram home from HMS Sheffield when she was sent south, telling his fiance to cancel their impending wedding. One man who lost an eye in the war found that he was not allowed to become a postman or a traffic warden, but could become a taxi driver!

What I find interesting, is that in place some of the recollections of these blokes are at odds with the history books. To take one example, one of the men featured refers to one of the Marine Commando’s going to the Falklands onboard HMS Ark Royal or HMS Bulwark. In fact, the Ark had been scrapped and Bulwark was rusting in Portsmouth Dockyard. He must have meant their close sibling HMS Hermes. But what this story does portray, is that the men on the ground were not necessarily completely in the loop all of the time about major events – they seem to have been overwhelmingly concerned with what was happening in front of them, and their mates next to them.

For me, the clincher which makes this book so important is the prominent space given to coverage of the hidden wounds of war – namely, the high number of Falklands veterans who have suffered with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the years since the war. In fact, it is an oft-quoted belief that more Falklands survivors have committed suicide in the ensuing years, than the number of men who died there in 1982. Whilst the Americans had learnt about PTSD in Vietnam, it was still a relative unknown to the British military. Each of the interviews talked remarkably candidly about their experiences post-war – in some cases alcohol, crime and even prison sentences feature. They talk about the strain on relationships, especially with their families. They also talk about their returns to the battlefields, and how this affected them. Intriguingly, several of them note with approval that men fighting in Afghanistan now receive very good after-care for mental trauma issues.

I was transfixed by this book. I hardly put it down from cover to cover.

Ordinary Heroes is published by The History Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, Falklands War

HMS Albion mothballed for five years

The HMS Bulwark, a Albion class landing platfo...

HMS Bulwark, now the Royal Navy's sole Landing Ship (Image via Wikipedia)

We’ve seen in the news today how HMS Albion, the Royal Navy’s flagship and one of two main landing ships, is to be put in mothballs in Devonport Dockyard for five years. She’s a little over ten years old, which ranks as not even mid-life for a major warship.

Make no mistake about it, after five years in mothballs she will require a LOT of work to get her operational again – that will take time, and cost money. I would also imagine that if HMS Bulwark needs spare parts during the next few years, the temptation to ‘borrow’ them from Albion would be all too tempting. Meanwhile, for five years the Navy will only have one crew practising amphibious warfare. If Albion is needed to be brought back into service in a hurry, where will another crew come from?

As I’ve mentioned before, hull numbers matter – a ship can only be in one place at any given time, and if you want it to get to somewhere else then it is going to take time. If Bulwark is on a flying the flag exercise in the Far East, for example, and something kicks off in the South Atlantic, we can pretty much count out any kind of rapid response. The Government has also descreased the Navy’s second line Amphibious vessels, the Bay Class Landing ships. We now only have three of them, and they are often off around the world filling in for non-existant frigates and destroyers.

The parallels with 1982 are quite a coincidence. Back then, only HMS Fearless was ready for action. Intrepid was destored and effectively mothballed in Portsmouth Dockyard, and took weeks to be made ready, even with round the clock effort from the Dockyard – many of whom were working under redundancy notices, and in any case, such a workforce no longer exists. In 1982, the date for the landings at San Carlos was dictated by when exactly Intrepid could be made ready and reach the South Atlantic. The inference is that without her, it could not have happened. The situation now is identical. These are very useful vessels, absolutely central to commanding and controlling the projection of force worldwide.

The most fundamental function of Government is to defend the realm, and keep British territories and citizens safe from aggressors. Secondly, the armed forces exist to maintain Britain’s interests around the world. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that decimating armed forces does not defend the realm, in a very uncertain world. Compared to money ringfenced for overseas aid, or even more so the bailing out of the banks, the money saved by hatcheting defence is minimal. Is this the ‘good job’ that Liam Fox was doing? If Adam Werritty was his advisor, then he clearly wasn’t a very good one.

With just one landing ship operational, no strike aircraft carrier, minimal escorts and sparse auxiliaries, our ability to mount another Falklands operation is non-existant. Should I revisit my 2009 series of posts ‘The Falklands: Then and Now’, or would it simply be too painful?

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Filed under defence, Navy, News, politics, Uncategorized

Portsmouth’s WW1 sailors – some initial observations

The British Grand Fleet steaming in parallel c...

The Grand Fleet of WW1 (Image via Wikipedia)

Having completed the entry of Portsmouth Soldiers who were killed between 1914 and 1921, for the past few months I have begun entering the names of sailors from Portsmouth who were killed in the Great War. Having processed some 414 sailors and 82 Royal Marines, I have a pretty decent sample to make some interesting observations.

Thanks to the way that WW1 Naval service records are available online, we can see the exact date of birth and place of birth for virtually ever 1914-18 sailor. And the findings are striking. A very large percentage of Portsmouth sailors who were killed in the Great War were actually born here. I would have presumed that many more would have been born elsewhere but moved to Portsmouth in service. I wonder how many of them were second or even third generation sailors? It seems that the Navy did not actually expand significantly, in terms of manpower, between when most of these men were born in the late Victorian period and 1914. Certainly not as much as the Army expanded, in any case.

Of those who did come from elsewhere, most of them came from nearby maritime counties, such as Sussex or Dorset. A sizeable amount came from London, which also had a seafaring tradition. Others came from virtually every county in Britain, including some from Ireland, Scotland, and even two from Malta. One great surprise is the sizeable amount who came from the Channel Island – a place with a very small population, but obviously a great many young men familiar with the sea.

As with my similar research into WW2, it seems that most Pompey sailors were pre-war regulars, and often Leading Rates, Petty Officers or Warrant Officers. Long-serving sailors were clearly more likely to settle here, and most of them seem to have lived in areas close to the naval base, such as Landport, Buckland and Portsea. About 90% of CWGC entries for WW1 sailors include house numbers and street names, which gives great potential for some geo-mapping exercises. Oddly enough very few naval officers seem to have settled in Portsmouth – perhaps it was not quite fashionable.

Relatively few sailors in WW1 seem to have won medals compared to their counterparts in WW2. One exception seems to have been the submarine service, in which a number of Pompey sailors were involved. Several were awarded Distinguished Service Medals, at a time when submarines were very much in their infancy, and a very hazardous way of going to war.

The Navy did not actually expand that much during WW1. Obviously the only way you would really need to expand naval manpower massively is if you had new ships to crew, but in 1914 the Royal Navy was already easiest the largest in the world. The only ‘expansion’ involved the re-activation of some Reserve Fleet ships. One of these was HMS Good Hope, which was crewed almost exclusively by re-called reservists. In fact, when war was declared the Royal Navy received too many volunteers, and formed a Royal Naval Division for service on land. Several Portsmouth men were killed with the RN Division, at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

Most sailors were killed in the large set piece battles, such as at Jutland or the Coronel. At Jutland HMS Invincible, Princess Royal and Black Prince were lost, and HMS Good Hope at the Coronel. A number of other ships were sunk by accidental explosions, such as HMS Bulwark and HMS Natal.

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Filed under Navy, Royal Marines, Uncategorized, World War One

HMS Bulwark

I managed to catch a rare sight today when HMS Bulwark came into Portsmouth Dockyard. Conveniently when I was able to dash out of work in my lunch hour! Known as Landing Platform Docks, Bulwark and her sister ship HMS Albion are replacements for the HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid.

HMS Bulwark

HMS Bulwark

Their primary role is to embark, transport and deploy troops, their vehicles and equipment. To do this she carries 8 Landing Craft – with a resident Squadron of Royal Marines to operate them – which can be loaded through the dock at the stern of the ship or off of a side door and ramp. They can operate Helicopters up to the size of the Chinook, although there are no Hangar facilities onboard.

Albion and Bulwark, as well as carrying troops, can act as the Flagship for an Amphibious Task Group, containing the Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean and several ships from the Bay Class of Auxilliary Landing Ships. They can carry 305 troops for long periods, and 710 in an emergency. The whole ship has been specifically designed around the needs of the embarked military force.

Weighing 18,500 tons, they are a significant improvement on Fearless and Intrepid. Although their top speed, 18 knots, is pretty low.

Albion was commissioned in 2003, and Bulwark in 2004. Both are based in Plymouth, along with HMS Ocean. This probably makes sense as the Commando Brigade is based in the West Country. Therefore it is not very often that one of these ships comes into Portsmouth.

Earlier this year HMS Bulwark headed a UK task group taking part in Amphibious exercises and ‘flying the flag’ operations in the Far East. She’s looking pretty rusty – her predecessor used to be nicknamed ‘Rusty B’ so obviously she is living up to the nickname!

a view showing the stern door and internal dock

a view showing the stern door and internal dock

The introduction of Albion, Bulwark and Ocean represents a commitment to the UK’s amphibious capability. For years up until the Falklands war the Navy was not quite sure what to do with the Royal Marines, and preferred to spend time and money on aircraft carriers and submarines. The Falklands War changed all that, and along with 16 Air Assault Brigade the amphibious ships and the Commando Brigade comprise the UK’s readily deployable forces, ready and able to deploy into any enviroment from the Arctic to the Tropics.

It is difficult to envisage what kind of environment such a force would be used in – although securing a destabilised country, such as Sierra Leonne, could be one. The Falklands showed that amphibious operations are extremely vulnerable to air attack, and as the Royal Navy is getting shorter and shorter of Destroyers and Frigates armed with anti-aircraft missiles to act as escorts it might be difficult to deploy our amphibious forces against anything more than medium opposition.

But in an unpredictable world a capable Amphibious Task Force is a sound insurance policy.

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Filed under Falklands War, Navy, out and about, Royal Marines