Tag Archives: merchant navy

Falklands 30 – Atlantic Conveyor

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Fa...

English: Atlantic Conveyor. Approaching the Falklands. About 19 May 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Atlantic Conveyor was a twelve year old merchant container and vehicle transporter. Requisitioned on 14 April 1982, she was hurriedly refitted at Devonport Dockyard for service with the South Atlantic task force. She sailed from Plymouth on 25 April after undergoing trials, and was carrying 5 Chinook and 6 Wessex Helicopters.

Merchant vessels taken up by trade during the Falklands War present an interesting scenario.  Although most of their civilian crew stayed onboard and came under the naval discipline act, vessels also had a Naval party of officers and ratings onboard. Obviously, a merchant vessels master will know how to sail the ship better than a naval captain might, but would not necessarily know as much about naval warfare. Hence evidence suggests that the relationship between a ships master and senior naval officer, and indeed her civilian and naval crew, could be critical. The Atlantic Conveyor sailed with 31 merchant Seamen onboard, but 126 military personnel. Of these 36 officers and men formed the ships naval party, the rest were working on the aircraft carried.

She arrived at Ascension on 5 May, where she embarked 8 Sea Harriers as reinforcement for the Squadrons already in the South Atlantic, and 6 RAF Harrier GR3. Along with the amphibious group she left Ascension and arrived in the TEZ on 19 May, carrying a total of 25 aircraft. While entering the TEZ one Harrier was actually kept on deck alert, armed with Sidewinder missiles.

Although the Harriers were disembarked to Aircraft Carriers, the Altantic Conveyor retained her Helicopters onboard and remained with the Carrier Battle Group to the East while the landings at San Carlos began. She was due to sail into San Carlos Water on the night of 25 May to deliver her cargo. At 1940 that evening an air raid warning was received. Captain Ian North ordered an immediate turn to port by 40 degrees, to present th Conveyor’s strong stern doors to the direction of the threat. Emergency stations were piped, and the ships siren was sounded as an extra warning. HMS Invincible launched a Sea Harrier Combat Air Patrol. At 1942 an approaching missile was sighted by several ships, including HMS Brilliant. All of the naval ships in the vicinity fired off chaff decoys, but the Conveyor had not been given chaff. She was hit by two exocet missiles at

The missiles penetrated her main cargo deck, and a fireball spread through the ship. As a merchant ship she was not equipped with the kind of damage control that naval warships are, such as bulkheads or sealable sections. Fires spread through her vast, cavernous hold. Firefighting was therefore impossible, and she was abandoned in an orderly manner thirty minutes after being hit – even though cluster bombs were beginning to be ignited by the fires. After burning for another day, she sank whilst under tow on 28 May. Only one of her Chinook helicopters had left – and that only for a test flight.

One of the sad statistics about the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor is that of the 12 men who lost their lives, 9 of them had actually managed to escape the ship but died whilst awaiting rescue in the water. Among them was the ships civilian Master, Captain Ian North. North had made it into the sea, but slipped between the waves before boarding a lifeboat. The Senior Naval Officer survived but was deeply moved by the loss of his friend. That 139 of her crew of 149 – 92% – were rescued is testament to the great efforts made by ships and helicopters in the area. One of the helicopters assisting in the rescue was reportedly co-piloted by Prince Andrew.

The loss of the Atlantic Conveyors considerable troop-carrying helicopters meant that the land forces would, in the main, have to tab or yomp across East Falkland towards Stanley. This no doubt made executing the war a much harder porposition, than if six Chinooks had been available to lift the Paras, Marines, Guardsmen and Gurkhas right from Stanley to the Mountains. The Argentines might have prefered to have sunk one of the Aircraft Carriers, but sinking the Atlantic Conveyor was a remarkable piece of luck which probably prolonged the war for days if not weeks.

The Board of Inquiry into the Atlantic Conveyor found no fault with anyone involved in the loss of the ship, only raising minor points that could not possibly have been foreseen, especially given the speed with which merchant vessels had been co-opted into the war effort. It had been nigh-impossible, in the time available, to give much thought to the loading of explosive cargoes, as would have been the case in peacetime. Obviously she didn’t have the same kind of Magazine arrangements that a military ship might have.

It’s an interesting thought, that with a lack of platforms for flying helicopters, and an uncertain world, might it be possible to use ships such as the Atlantic Conveyor in an emergency once again? Her use was very similar to some of the Merchant Navy ships in the Second World War that were fitted to operate a small number of aircraft. Of course, the Harriers were ideal for this as vertical take off aircraft. And do we have enough spare naval personnel nowadays to provide naval party’s in a hurry? Being able to fit merchant vessels with Chaff in an emergency would also seem to be a lesson learn from the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor.

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Portsmouth’s WW1 Merchant Seamen

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the chapters in my recent book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ concerned Merchant Seamen who were killed in the Second World War. Whilst I did argue that the fate of merchant seamen had been overlooked compared to their counterparts in the three ‘main’ armed forces, merchant seamen in the Second World War have had a relatively high profile compared to their predecessors of the First World War.

Whilst we all know about the U-Boat wolf packs of the Second World War, it is less well known that Germany first attempted what it called ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ in the First World War, in an attempt to bring Britain to her knees by choking her maritime links with the rest of the world. Just to give some kind of comparison, in the Second World War the British Merchant Navy lost 11.7 million tons of shipping – around 2,828 ships, with the los of around 30,000 men. In the First World War, the total was 7.7 million tons – 14,661 Merchant Seamen were lost. Less than in the Second World War, but clearly not insignificant either.

26 Merchant Seamen from Portsmouth died between 1914 and 1919. The interesting thing is, that three were killed in 1915, then two in 1916, before 8 were killed in 1917 and then 6 in 1918. It was in 1917 that Germany really ramped up it’s U-Boat offensive, and it really shows in the statistics of casualties.

Henry Kinshott, aged 33, was a waiter onboard the liner RMS Lusitania. A Cunard Liner, on 7 May 1915 the Lusitania was torpedoed by U-20, 13miles off of Kinsale in Ireland. She sank in just 18 minutes, with the loss of 1,198 of her complement of 1,959. 128 of those lost were American, and the disaster arguably played a part in encouraging the US to come into the war on the side of Britain and France. Kinshott is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. Born in Fareham, Kinshott lived at 3 Hampshire Street, Landport. Although thousands of people were killed, the Lusitania is relatively unknown compared to the Titanic.

A number of Hospital Ships were also lost at sea. On board the 12,000 ton HMHS Asturias was Greaser Stanley Cross, aged 2. On 21 March 1917, the Asutrias – formerly a Royal Mail ship – was damaged by U-66, 6 miles off Start Point in Devon. She was running between Avonmouth and Southampton, presumably carrying war casualties. The ship was beached and salvaged, but 35 men were lost, among them Stanley Cross. He is buried in Southampton Cemetery. Although Born in Landport in Portsmouth, he lived in Southampton.

One merchant ship actually had two Portsmouth men onboar. On the  SS Joshua were Master Thomas Jarrett, 48, and from 47 Derby Road in North End; and Mate Arthur Puddick, 40, from 27 Fourth Street in Kingston. The Joshua, a 60 ton coaster carrying china clay between Fowey in Cornwall and Dieppe in France, was stopped on 11 October 1917 by UB-57 west of the Isle of Wight. 3 of her crew were lost. Jarrett is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial, while Puddick’s body was recovered and buried in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth.

A number of Navy Yachts were also lost during the war. The Royal Navy requisitioned a large number of smaller vessels, particuarly for Patrolling coastal waters. In most cases their civilian crews served onboard throughout hostilities. At least seven Portsmouth men were lost crewing Yachts.

The WW1 U-Boat offensive seems to have been a lot more indiscriminate than that of 1939-1945. As an illustration of this, even a Trinity House Pilot vessel was sunk. On 26 September 1915 the Vigilant, a 69 ton wooden ketch built in 1879, was sunk by UC-7 off the South Shipwash Buoy off Harwich. 14 of her crew were lost, uncluding Steward William Barley, 41, who lived at 42 Darlington Road in Southsea. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial.

 

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Ancestry or Find My Past? A dilemma

For a while I have been pondering subscribing to one of the online family history websites. By far the most prominent are Ancestry and Find my Past. I’ve found myself doing more and more social history, which uses things such as the censuses and registers. And of course, both websites also have military records that are quite useful.

My problem is, which one to go for. Each has some records that the other does not have.

Find my Past has all of the censuses from 1841 to 1911, Merchant Navy crewlists and Seamans records, some miscellaneous occupational records, Parish Registers from 1538 to 2005, Birth Marriage and Death indexes from 1837 onwards, divorce indexes, some probates and wills, and some travel and migration records, such as East India Company records, Passenger lists and Registers of Passport applications.

It is in the military area that I am most interested. FMP has armed forces births, marriages and deaths 1796-2005; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; British Army Service Records 1760-1915; De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-1918; DCM Citations 1914-1920; Irish Great War Records; National Roll of the Great War 1914-1918; Naval Casualties 1914-1919; New Zealand WW1 Soldiers; RA Honours 1939-46; RA MM’s 1916-93; RM Medal Roll 1914-1920; RN Division 1914-19; RN Officers 1914-20; Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19; WW2 POW’s; and the Waterloo Medal Roll of 1815.

Ancestry has all of the censuses, plus some foreign; and even some electoral rolls and slave registers; the usual BMD Registers, plus Parish Registers; British wills and probate and some foreign too; an extensive range of Passenger Lists and alien entry books. In terms of the military, Ancestry has British Army WW1 Service Records 1914-1920; British Army Medal Index Cards 1914-1920; British Army Pension Records 1914-1920; ‘Soldiers Died’; Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls 1793-1949; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; WW1 Silver War Badge Records; POW’s 1939-45; Navy Lists 1908 and 1914; De Ruvigny’s R of H; DCM Citations and RN Division Records.

How the hell am I, as a WW1 historian, supposed to choose between the two of them? Whichever website I subscribe to, I am missing out on something vital on the other. If I join FMP I get RN Officers 1914-1920, and the RM Medal Roll; but if I join Ancestry I get Medal Index Cards and Silver Badge Records.

I have a feeling that this dichotomy in record digitisation is caused by the National Archives policy. Lacking the resources to digitise things themselves – they tend to charge by the item, in any case – TNA outsource each particular project to the highest bidder, either FMP or Ancestry. As a result, records are scattered between the two. As a result commercial interests are seriously hampering historical research.

Has anyone else in the field had this problem?

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Reckoning

So, we’ve looked at the various elements that might constitute a re-run of the 1982 Falklands War – the political dimension; the naval war (Aircraft carriers, naval aviation, amphibious warfare, escorts, logistics, submarines); the air war; and the land battle.

I think the key points to emerge are as follows:

  • Lack of carrier-borne air cover MIGHT not preclude a succesful task force, but it would be useful
  • We have JUST enough amphibious capability to effect a landing if need be
  • We have some very high quality Destroyers and Frigates, but nowhere near enough of them
  • We are perilously short of auxiliaries, and would need much assistance from the Merchant Navy
  • Our submarines are very capable, but far too few
  • The four Typhoons at Mount Pleasant would be crucial
  • Any landing force would be battle-hardened, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The Argentines forces, although more professional, are outclassed equipment wise

As we can see, there are a lot of ‘might’, ‘just’. Which is hardly ideal when planning to embark on a military operation. The theme that seems to emerge is that the British Armed Forces – in terms of inventory and personnel – are very high quality, but few in number. This situation is not likely to change any time soon, given the economic situation – in fact, it is likely to get worse before it gets better. And if future defence cuts prune back – salami slice – ship numbers, for example, then we would go beyond the point where an operation ‘might’ be possible, to a point where one would be foolhardy.

Politically, the Falklands/Malvinas issue is unlikely to disappear any time soon, and certainly not after the discovery of natural resouces in the seabed of the South Atlantic. The current Argentine President is continually spouting ‘route-one’ politics, ie fooling the population away from domestic problems by targetting an external bogeyman. The current period of South American love-in has also emboldened Kirchner, it seems. How long this might last is anyones guess, given the fickle nature of Latin American politics.

1982 taught us that signs of weakness, such as cutting vital and sometimes symbolic assets, can be the first domino in causing unsavoury types to play their hand. Any possible savings that might have been gained from retiring HMS Endurance in 1982 were completely dwarfed by the costs – human, financial and materiel – that were incurred after Argentina took it to be a launchpad for war. As such, cost-cutting can be short-sighted – cutting a ship might save a few million, but will it cost us much more in the long run? Defence does give traction on the world stage. It was this lack of co-ordination between defence and diplomacy that caused such problems in 1982.

Is it narrow-minded to think solely about the Falkland Islands? After all, history is full of examples of forces and leaders who prepared to fight the last war, only to find that they were hopelessly stuck in the past. Aside from extremist terrorism, and perhaps Iran in the straights of Hormuz, Argentine threats to the Falklands are the most serious threat to British interests today. And we would be sensible to plan accordingly. All the time the Falkland Islanders wish to remain British, we have a duty to defend them.

Also, we should be aware that any ignominious outcome in the Falklands would have big domestic and international repurcussions. If the Argentines were to reclaim the Falklands, what is to stop the Spanish applying pressure over Gibraltar? We might find that we also put other nations in sticky positions over their far-flung possessions. And for Britain to be defeated by a second-world state would be embarassing to say the least – losing wars and surrendering territories does nothing for your international standing. In 1982 the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact cannot have failed to note that the British Armed Forces punched very hard. Showing that you will not be pushed about will surely make other enemies think twice about having a pop.

In 2012 the Falklands could be defended, and retaken if necessary. Just.

 

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Filed under Army, Falklands War, Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Merchant Navy

Over 30,000 British Merchant Seamen were killed during the Second World War alone. U-Boats alone sank 11.7 million tons of shipping, 54% of the Merchant Navy’s fleet at the start of the war. More than 2,400 British Merchant ships were sunk.

42 Portsmouth men were killed serving with the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Although men were killed in the Atlantic, the South Seas, the North Sea and the Mediterranean, the biggest losses were suffered in local waters. On 20 September 1941 the Isle of Wight paddle steamer SS Portsdown hit a mine in the Solent with the loss of seven Portsmouth crewmen. And on 8 May 1941 the tug SS Irishman hit a mine in Langstone Harbour. Two Portsmouth sailors were killed.

Years

1 – 1939 (2.38%)
3 – 1940 (7.14%)
16 – 1941 (38.1%)
12 – 1942 (28.57%)
3 – 1943 (7.14%)
4 – 1944 (9.52%)
3 – 1945 (7.14%)

Most seamen were killed during 1941 and 1942 – particularly during the Battle of the Atlantic. However, 9 of the men killed during 1941 were lost on the SS Irishman and the SS Portsdown in local waters. Its noticeable though that there was a marked decline in merchant seamen deaths after 1942. Given that most merchant seamen were killed by U-Boats, this backs up the conclusion that from 1943 onwards the allies had largely defeated the U-Boat menace. The Luftwaffe was also in less of a position to attack allied shipping, either directly or by minelaying.

Areas

15 – Southsea (35.71%)
4 – North End (9.52%)
3 – Buckland (7.14%)
3 – Eastney (7.14%)
2 – Cosham (4.76%)
2 – Fratton (4.76%)
2 – Stamshaw (4.76%)
1 – Landport (2.38%)
1 – Milton (2.38%)

The origins of 3 men are unknown, and 6 men are listed as ‘from Portsmouth’. Its noticeable that most of the Masters and Chief Officers came from Southsea, and most of the junior seamen came from the working class areas such as North End and Buckland.

Ages

The age of Portsmouth’s WW2 Merchant Seamen is starkly different to the other services:

6 – Teenagers (inc one 16 and one 17 year old) (14.29%)
10 – 20′s (23.81%)
11 – 30′s (26.19%)
7 – 40′s (16.66%)
6 – 50′s (14.29%)
2 – 60′s (4.76%)

Its interesting to note both the relatively high number of men who were either teenagers – 14.29% – or 40 or older – over 30%. There are several explanations for this. Traditionally boys would go to sea young to learn their trade. The large number of older seamen may have been former naval servicemen who had left the Royal Navy for the Merchant Navy. Although most merchant seamen were in their 20′s or 30′s, the merchant fleet’s manpower took far less men from this age group compared to the Army, Navy or RAF.

Ships

Portsmouth’s Merchant Navy sailors who were killed during the war were lost on a variety of different vessels:

15 – General Cargo (35.71%)
7 – Isle of Wight Paddle Steamer (16.66%)
4 – Tanker (9.52%)
4 – Troopship (9.52%)
2 – Tug (4.76%)
1 – Auxilliary Anti-Aircraft Cruiser (2.38%)
1 – Cable Ship (2.38%)
1 – Fleet Auxilliary (2.38%)
1 – Hospital Ship (2.38%)
1 – Motor Launch (2.38%)
1 – Whale Factory Ship (2.38%)

The wonderful Uboat.net tells us much about Merchant Navy vessels lost in the war. The majority of men were killed onboard General Cargo ships, and mostly in the Atlantic by U-Boats. All of the men killed on General Cargo ships were killed on separate ships. Seven men were killed on SS Portsdown. Four men were killed on Tankers carrying fuel. The number of other different ships sunk during the war show the extent to which the Merchant Navy was mobilised by the war effort. Ships were sunk mainly by U-Boats, but several were sunk by air attack or by mines dropped by aircraft in coastal waters. One ship was sunk by German Motor Torpedo Boats in the English Channel. The Hospital Ship SS Amsterdam was sunk by a mine off the D-Day beaches in 1944.

The largest ship was the SS Queen Elizabeth, an 80,000 ton cross-Atlantic liner pressed into service as a troopship. She was not sunk during the war, but one of her crew members from Portsmouth died whilst serving in the Royal Navy. The smallest ship was the 99 ton Tug SS Irishman, mined in Langstone Harbour. These statistics again suggest the huge diversity of the Merchant Navy.

Cemeteries and Memorials

One Seaman is buried in Morrocco. Apart from that, all Portsmouth merchant seamen are either buried in the UK, or were lost at sea and are commemorated on the various memorials – mainly the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London, where 31 men are remembered. One man is remembered on the Naval Auxiliary Service Memorial in Liverpool.

Four men were buried in Kingston Cemetery, and three in Milton Cemetery. One man was buried in Highland Road Cemetery. Most men who were buried ashore either died of illness or injuries while their ship was either in port or close to shore. One man was buried in Falmouth, after his ship was attacked in harbour there by aircraft.

Roles

One of the most characteristic things about the Merchant Navy is the wide range of different roles men performed. Unlike in the regular armed forces, there was no formal rank structure, and seamen’s titles seem to have been based more on the function that they performed than seniority of command:

2 – Able Seamen
1 – Apprentice
1 – Baker
1 – Barkeeper
1 – Boilermaker
1 – Cadet
1 – Chief Engine Room Artificer
1 – Chief Engineer Officer
4 – Chief Officer
1 – Coxswain
2 – Deckhand
1 – Donkeyman
1 – Engine Officer
4 – Fireman
1 – First Radio Officer
1 – Fourth Engineer Officer
1 – Greaser
3 – Master
1 – Mate
2 – Ordinary Seamen
1 – Plateman
1 – Purser
1 – Second Engineer
2 – Second Radio Officer
1 – Stoker
2 – Third Engineer Officer
1 – Third Officer

Some of the interesting ranks include Baker, Barkeeper, Donkeyman, Greaser and Plateman.

3 men were serving as Masters. Elias Barnett, 58 and from Southsea, was the Master of RFA Moorfield. Benjamin Bannister, 48 and from Southsea, was the Master of the Tanker MV Arinia sunk by a mine of Southend in December 1940. And John McCreadie, 42 and from Southsea, was the Master of the SS Denmark, a troopship.

Decorations

Officer of the British Empire (OBE)
Chief Engine Room Artificer William Skinner (SS Southern Empress)

William Skinner’s OBE was announced in the London Gazette on 9 July 1941.

Royal Naval Reserve Decoration (RD)
Chief Officer Sidney Allen (SS Beaver Dale)

Sidney Allen was a former member of the Royal Naval Reserve. The Reserve Decoration was awarded to officers who had served over 15 years with the Royal Naval Reserve.

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SS Portsdown

SS Portsdown

SS Portsdown

During the Second World War Southern Railways operated a steamship ferry service between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Although on first impressions we might think that this was a relatively safe occupation, part of the Luftwaffe’s operations against Britan included dropping mines in coastal waters. An during wartime members of the Merchant Navy were liable to come under naval discipline, and the Merchant Navy was regarded as an arm of service in itself.

One of the Southern Railway steamers was the SS Portsdown. In service from 1928, she plied the route across the Solent. On 20 September 1941 the Portsdown blew up and sank off Southsea Beach. Eight of the crew and an unknown number of passengers were missing. It was believed she hit a mine.

Many of the crew were lost, and a lone civilian Passenger.

Eight crew members died when the Portsdown was sunk. Master Herbert Chandler, 57 and from Bognor Regis. Mate Seth Burgess, 33 and from Southsea. Purser Edward Cottrell, 34 and from Southsea. Ordinary Seaman Edwin Burnett, 19 and from Eastney. Fireman William Harrison, 47 and from North End. Fireman Bertram Rawlins, 25 and from Buckland. Deck Hand John Monk, 27 and from Southsea. And Deck Hand Alfred Farey, 61 and from Fratton. All are remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London, apart from Seth Burgess who is buried in Milton Cemetery. That they have no known grave suggests that the ship exploded and that only Burgess’ body was recovered.

Mecifully there seems to have been only one civilian casualty – Kenneth Spanner, 36 and from Sandown on the Isle of Wight. He seems to have no known grave.

How many passengers were onboard when she hit the mine? Did they manage to escape, or did the Portsdown only have one passenger onboard? It does seem strange for a ferry to have been travelling with just one passenger. She sank in around six feet of water, which taking a look at Admiralty chart, would place her around half a mile off Southsea Beach when she sank. Having fished the waters off Southea, I’m not awar of the wreck of a paddlesteamer off Southea. It would seem that the wreck was salvaged, or so destroyed by the explosion that nothing substantial remained.

There is a file on the SS Portsdown in the National Archives in London, so hopefully on my next visit I will be able to find out more. The local Newspaper might also tell me more. And knowing that the Portsdown was a Railway ship, and how enthusiastic Railway enthusiasts are, maybe I can find out more from that angle…

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Falklands then and now: Merchant Navy

As an island nation Britain has since time immaterial depended on its fleet of merchant vessels for trade. Perhaps the most stark example of this was the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War, when German U-boats threatened to cut Britain’s lifeline.

It was but a small step to push trading networks out around the world, and the Royal Navy expanded to protect maritime trade and empire. Hence the British Empire was built on seapower, and the Royal and Merchant Navies have had a closely interwoven history. The Falklands War proved no different.

The picture in 1982

The Atlantic Conveyor after being hit by Exocet

The Atlantic Conveyor after being hit by Exocet

Merchant Navy involvement in the Falklands fell into three categories: chartered, requisitioned or taken up from trade. The Government is empowered to requisition British flagged ships for Defence use, and maintains a list of vessels suitable for use in various roles. Most of these ships had to undergo some modifications, such as naval communications and navigation equipment, equipment to allow them to be replenished at sea, and in some cases helipads and anti-aircraft weapons. This substantial work was undertaken at commercial shipyards and the naval dockyards. Most also sailed with a party of Naval officers and ratings onboard.

The task force that retook the Falklands in 1982 made use of a sizeable portion of the British Merchant Navy, consisting of no less than 40 merchantmen. These came from a wide range of roles, from Ocean Liners, ferries, container vessels, Oil tankers, Ocean tugs, mooring vessels, repair ships, water tankers, hospital ships, even trawler-minesweepers. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary simply lacked the ships to maintain such a vast task force 8,000 miles from home.

Troop transports such as Canberra, QE2 and Norland were required to transport the military forces to the Falklands, as there was not nearly enough space in the Amphibious ships to take them all south. Stores ships were also required to transport the wide range of equipment and supplies needed. A large fleet of Oil Tankers was used to transport fuel to the South Atlantic, where it was transferred to the RFA tankers who could then replenish the warships at sea. Given the lack of Sea Harriers and Helicopters in the South Atlantic, the container ship Atlantic Conveyor sailed carrying extra Harriers and Chinooks. All but one of the Chinooks were lost when she was sunk by an exocet missile strike.

The picture in 2009

Cross-Channel Ferries - unsuitable for the South Atlantic

Cross-Channel Ferries - unsuitable for the South Atlantic

Given the already highlighted shortcomings in the RFA flotilla, any task force to the South Atlantic would be even more reliant on support from Merchant vessels than it was in 1982. This is unfortunate, as the British Merchant Navy has dwindled considerable since 1982. Many commercial vessels now carry the flags of countries such as Panama or Liberia.

In 2008, the British Merchant Navy consisted of the following vessels:

  • 55 General Cargo ships
  • 134 Container ships
  • 12 Passenger ships
  • 40 Oil tankers
  • 19 Refrigerated Cargo ships
  • 25 roll-on/roll-off ferries

In addition UK interests own 446 ships registered in other countries. This gives a much smaller range of choice than in 1982. Of these, only a fraction would really by suitable for use in a military campaign in the South Atlantic. For example, of the 25 ro-ro ferries, the majority of them are designed for crossing the English Channel or the Irish Sea and would be wholly unsuited to service in the South Atlantic. And how many of them would be suitable for modification for helipads, for instance?

It would be a tough job indeed putting together a fleet of support vessels from the Merchant Navy. What is not immediately clear, either, is how many of them would be immediately available in any case. Of the ships listed above not all of them will be in UK waters, apart from any in refit. The time taken in modifying and storing them also needs to be accounted for.

The process of requisitioning, making ready and manning the number of commercial vessels necessary would be a mammoth task. Not only would there be problems in terms of numbers. Requisitioning or chartering a sizeable proportion of the Merchant Navy would have significant economic and political consequences, not to mention the widespread disruption. And with the rundown of the Naval Dockyards, it would be much more difficult and take much longer to carry out the modification work as in 1982. Almost as difficult would be finding enough naval manpower to make up naval parties: if the navy has trouble crewing its own ships, how could it put together parties to serve on requisitioned Merchant vessels?

In Conclusion

Clearly, the Navy and the RFA could not expect support from the Merchant Navy on the level that it received in 1982. Using Merchant vessels is far from an ideal solution in any case: they are largely built to different safety standards than Naval ships, with less substantial firefighting and damage control systems. As shown by the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor, Merchant vessels cannot afford to sustain damage, and if they do critical cargoes might be lost. The loss of a couple of Chinooks on a container ship, or a Battalion on a cruise liner does not bear thinking about.

Along with the perilous state of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the state of the Merchant Navy makes talk of aircraft carriers, missiles and escort vessels largely redundant: without the logistical support to get them there and keep them there, any kind of task force operation would be impossible.

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