Tag Archives: ministry of defence

Busy times in Portsmouth Naval Base

HMS Gloucester (D96) photographed leaving Port...

HMS Gloucester (Image via Wikipedia)

It’s a busy time coming up for naval movements in Portsmouth.

All sources suggest that the American Aircraft Carrier USS George HW Bush WILL be visiting Portsmouth next weekend. She will be accompanied by the Arleigh Burke class Destroyer USS Truxtun and the Spanish Alvaro de Bazan class Frigate Almirante Juan de Borbon. the Spanish Frigate has been in the US with the Bush Strike Group for the past few months taking part in work-up exercises. I’m enquiring with tour boat companies to see if any offer trips out into the Solent to look round the Bush, although I might not be able to make it due to a moving girlfriend that weekend!…. If not I’m sure I’ll get some pics from the shore at Stokes Bay. The shops and bars in Portsmouth will be rubbing their hands waiting for 6,000+ thirsty and hungry yanks!

In other news, on Monday HMS Gloucester makes her final entry into Portsmouth before decomissioning later this year. The Type 42 Batch 3 Destroyer has served with the Royal Navy for over 20 years. My Grandad actually worked on her when she was built, when he was a painter at Vosper Thorneycroft‘s yard in Woolston. We looked round her at Navy Days a few years ago, and I can confirm that he didn’t miss any bits ;)

HMS Quorn left Portsmouth last Sunday for a 2+ years stint in the Gulf. Royal Navy minesweepers spend a few years at a time in the Gulf, saving on time travelling there and back. The crews rotate for 6 months at a time. Quorn is a Hunt Class minesweeper, with a GRP – glass reinforced plastic – hull.

In amongst all of the Royal Navy ships decommisioning, the RFA’s going out of service have been all but forgotten. But the Landing Ship Largs Bay left Portsmouth weeks prior to a refit before making her way to the Australian Navy. RFA Bayleaf has been dumped into 3 Basin pending scrapping, and RAF Fort Austin – a Falklands veteran – looks to be on her way to the scrapyard. A smaller Navy means a smaller RFA.

In other scrapping matters, Exeter, Nottingham and Southampton are in the trot of Fareham Creek awaiting the scrapyard, and Manchester and Gloucester are soon to replace them. The four Type 22 Frigates recently decomissioned will probably make their way to Portsmouth soon too.

And we’re expecting PolarBjorn – the new HMS Protector – to arrive in Portsmouth sometime in the early summer too.

All in all a busy period. I’ll try and get out with my camera as much as I can. And one of the bonuses of having a girlfriend from the West Country is that a few trips to Plymouth might be in order ;)

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Busy time in naval news circles

British crewmen lift a Royal Air Force British...

Harriers on Illustrious - maybe not a thing of the past

It’s been a very busy few days in naval news circles.

Firstly, the BBC reported that the bill for the CVF/QE class Aircraft Carrier project has rised by another billion pounds to nearly £7bn. And according to the reports, it still seems uncertain exactly whether one or two – or any – of the aircraft carriers will be fitted to operate jet aircraft. BBC Business Editor Robert Peston offers an explanation here. My take? Costs rises in big projects are always described as ‘just one of those things’, but when its the public purse thats carrying the can, is that good enough?

Secondly, last Thursday the Portsmouth News carried an exclusive report from un-named senior naval sources that HMS Illustrious is being equipped to operate Harriers. Is it possible that the crisis in Libya, and the RAF’s unconfirmed plea for an Aircraft Carrier have forced a very tacit u-turn from the Coalition Government?Originally Illustrious was going in for a ‘regular’ refit as a strike carrier. Then we were told that she was being fitted out as a Helicopter Carrier to fill in for HMS Ocean while she is in refit, and now the possibility of her being a strike carrier again is floated out. As we discussed here recently, it does not take much to turn a helicopter carrier into a harrier carrier – higher grade paint, plus of course spares and armaments. And crucially Illustrious still has her ski ramp. The Harriers themselves have not been scrapped, and are in storage at RAF Cottesmore. Apparently it would take around two months for them to be regenerated a fit state for operations. It seems like a sensible step to me, but of course a sensible step would have been to keep Ark Royal in the first place.

Finally, the recent issue of Warship: International Fleet Review is good value as usual. A healthy dose of deserved spite directed at the Coalition Government and the Strategic Defence Review, and plenty of sound editorial on how events in Libya and the Arab world have undermined the Defence Review only a matter of weeks after it was published. For me, the big question is, if the current Government can get its Defence Policy so wrong, do we trust them to ever get it right at all? How did the Government allow themselves to be hoodwinked so badly by the RAF? If only some of our politicians had a grasp of history – they would have known that the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to suit their arguments, and apparently won the air war in the Falklands singlehandedly.

Also in Warship IFR, there are some interesting opinions – believable, in my view – that the Defence Review was soft on the RAF thanks to underhand lobbying and bad advice from light blue quarters, and also as a sop to the then Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who was asked to step down as soon as the review was completed. Having read a lot of the thinking from the current CDS, General Sir David Richards, I doubt very much whether he would have wanted the RAF to remain as it has, with most of its expensive toys retained. How did anyone think it was a good idea to have a Defence Review steered by a senior officer who then left, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces?

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Kew re-visited

The National Archives

Image by Simon Clayson via Flickr

I’m at the National Archives in Kew for a few days last-minute research for my forthcoming book ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’.

I’ve been going to Kew since 2004, when I was working on my undergraduate dissertation. Since then I’ve been back there working on Magazine articles, family history, journal articles and just random self-interest stuff. I’ve looked at Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Defence, Air Ministry, Board of Trade, Treasury, Foreign Office and other Documents. Theres something pretty enigmatic about anywhere where you can walk in and choose from 11 million records and order one of them to read – many written in the vary hand of luminaries like Winston Churchill, Nelson or Monty.

Kew is an enigma all of its own. Its always had a nasty case of change-itis, and its obviously an insitutional thing. In the time I’ve been going there the registration desk has moved at least four times, the first floor help desk has been revamped three times, the restaurant about three times, the museum once, as well as the cyber cafe. Most Archives and Libraries could only dream about being able to change things so often. Whilst improvement is no doubt a good thing when its genuine, you can’t help but think that a lot of the changes at Kew are classic cases of ‘Emperors new clothes in a governmental setting’. And why oh why do they insist on having such a politically correct menu? The restaurant used to to great roasts, Lasagnes… food like that. Today, however, the most palatable thing I could find was Morrocan spicy meatballs and spaghettti. Which has played havoc with my stomach!

My first visit to Kew was to a rather sedate government archive repository, attended by professional researchers and the more serious family history enthusiasts. But since the Family Records Office at Islington closed and was merged with Kew, the TNA has become a mecca for family historians. Even more so with programmes like Who do you think you are?. Whilst I think its great that so many people are interested in history of any kind, it must be frustrating for the staff at Kew. From what I’ve seen more people seem to turn up at Kew without a clue than those who do. And then of course there are those who think they can just turn up and someone else will do all the donkey work for them… A lot of friends and family have mentioned going to Kew, but its the kind of place where you need to know exactly what you’re looking for before you go. And thanks to their online catalogue and research guides, its pretty easy to do so.

So wh0’s been getting the Kew treatment today? None other than Wing Commander John Buchanan, Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy and the Venables Brothers – all of whose places in history should now be that much more in context thanks to the relevant RAF Operational records. Tomorrow I plan to finish off with Buchanan’s time leading a Squadron during the Siege of Malta, and then looking at Sapper Ernest Bailey and Operation Freshman, War Office casualties on the SS Portsdown, the Royal Navy’s policy on the sending of Boy Seamen to sea after the Royal Oak Disaster, and the Royal Marines Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisations.

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New Royal Navy ice patrol vessel announced

The Ministry of Defence has announced that the Icebreaker MV PolarBjorn (Polar Bear) has been selected to become the Royal Navy’s new ice patrol vessel. PolarBjorn will be re-christened HMS Protector while in Royal Navy service. The last  HMS Protector was also an antarctic patrol vessel.

Heres the spiel from Rieber’s website:

The ‘Polarbjørn’ is purpose-built for undertaking both long duration Antarctic expeditions, and offshore subsea support duties.  With her large public areas and accommodation capacities, helicopter deck and DP2 class, the vessel is well suited for undertaking flotel- and base ship functions on offshore fields and other operations. The vessel’s large deck areas and cargo holds offers ‘unlimited’ storage capacity for ROV and related equipment. The ship’s 50-ton knuckle-boom crane and the A-frame offers efficient solutions for handling equipment over the side and over the stern.

A few facts and figures about Polar Bjorn:

  • 90 metres long
  • 18 metres beam
  • 9.05 metres draught
  • Gross tonnage 4,985 tons, deadweight of 3,700 tons

She is currently owned by Rieber Shipping, and was launched in 2001. Until recently she has been working under a Norwegian flag on the ‘spot’ tendering market in the North Sea and Arctic offshore oil fields. Apparently during 2010 she was only being used 33% of the time due to the economic downturn, so her chartering by the MOD will be welcome to her owners. Official announcements by Defence Minister Lord Astor suggest that she will be leased for three years while HMS Endurance‘s fate is decided, but I would suggest that it is likely that Endurance will be scrapped and PolarBjorn/Protector purchased once the lease runs out. The same happened with HMS Endurance herself.

Amusingly, apparently members of the HMS Protector Association had known about the acquisition since January, but had been sworn to secrecy by the ship’s new CO, Captain Peter Sparkes. The Association’s newsletter also announces that she will be formally commisioned on 23 June 2011 in Portsmouth.

According to some sources she will be arriving in Portsmouth for the first time in April or May. At that point she will undergo a refit to install naval equipment, such as communications and limited weaponry. Apparently her up-front helicopter deck is going to be removed, and a new landing pad installed nearer her stern. This will probably necessitate the removal of some of her crane capability, which she will probably not use fully in RN service in any case. She will also need a hangar, given the manner in which she will operate independently in the ice.

The former ice patrol ship HMS Endurance is being withdrawn from service after suffering serious damage when she flooded in the South Atlantic in 2008. Since then the Offshore patrol vessel HMS Scott has been standing-in in the South Atlantic, but this is far from ideal as she is not an ice-breaker, and takes her away from her other role.

It will be good to see a new ship entering Portsmouth for a change.

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A new HMS Protector to replace HMS Endurance

HMS PROTECTOR at anchor

The previous HMS Protector (Image via Wikipedia)

The Ministry of Defence have announced that a commercial ice-breaker will be chartered to replace the current HMS Endurance. It is expected that if the charter proves to be succesful she will be purchased and fully commissioned into the Royal Navy. This is no doubt welcome news, particularly given the antics coming out of Buenos Aires recently.

There has been no comfirmation over which ship has been selected. Rumours suggest that a Norwegian vessel working in North America is a favourite, although the MOD has refused to confirm this, stating that the tendering process has not yet been completed. A similar process was followed for the two previous HMS Endurances, which were previously MV Anita Dan and MV Polar Circle respectively.

The MOD have also announced that the new ship will be called HMS Protector. The last HMS Protector was another South Atlantic Patrol Ship, launched in 1936 and decomissioned in 1968. The last two ice patrol ships have been called HMS Endurance, so the naming is a break with recent tradition. And a very eventful tradition at that, with previous HMS Endurance being in the thick of the 1982 Falklands War, and the last Endurance being adopted by the City of Portsmouth and a very visible sign of the UK’s presence in the South Atlantic.

Warship names have always been an emotive issue. There will no doubt be protests that the world will end if the new ship is not called Endurance. Similar calls have been made that one of the new aircraft carriers should be called Ark Royal. Cities have been very precious about having warships named after them – particularly with the decomissioning of the Type 42 ‘City’ Class. One city- Sheffield – even refused to adopt a Type 45 Destroyer as it was called HMS Diamond and not Sheffield. One of the Type 22 Broadsword Frigates was called HMS London after the Lord Mayor of London requested it. How lovely – what if I fancy there being an HMS Daly? Will the Lordships oblige me? Shall we have Warship Factor, a phone-in competition to decide the names of the next class of Type 26 Frigates?

By choosing a new name, but one that has historical connections, the Navy is being very smart. The Royal Navy has a long and rich history, with literally hundreds of proud names to choose from – why use the same names over and over again? It is important to remember that the service is not just about ships but also about men. It really is a case of the King is dead, long live the King.

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Leading from the front by General Sir Richard Dannatt

Richard Dannatt has probably been Britain’s most controversial General since the end of the Second World War. Not afraid to stand up for what he thought was right, he received the support of his men and officers, but at the same time became the scourge of the Brown Government. Not only for his public criticism of Government defence policy, but also for agreeing to advise the Conservative Party whilst he was still technically on the Army payroll.

Dannatt joined the Army in the early 70’s, becoming a subaltern in the Green Howards, a famous Yorkshire Regiment. The early 1970’s were a busy time for the army, with heavy commitments in Northern Ireland. Dannatt served several stints in the province, winning the Military Cross – something which he almost breezes over. Remarkably, Dannatt also suffered a major stroke in his mid 20’s. And even more remarkably, he managed to make a full recovery and serve on to have a full army career afterwards. A picture emerges of somebody who was no doubt a very brave man, with plenty of resolve. Dannatt also served as a senior commander in both Bosnia and Kosovo. All three operations, which involved fighting in and around people and dealing with security and reconstruction, gave a strong understanding of the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Dannatt also gained a Bachelors Degree in Economic History – an interesting subject for an army officer to study. This obviously gave him a better understanding of budgets than most Generals ever manage to obtain! He also served in the Ministry of Defence several times, which ensured that he had a good understanding of how the Whitehall machine worked when he reached the top of the tree – again, not something many Generals master. This probably explains his clever use of media interviews to get his point across, rather than constantly banging ones head against the Whitehall ‘wall’.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was his work to restore the Military Covenant – the unwritten agreement of support between the armed forces, the Government and society. Within several years, homecoming parades for returning troops are packed. Charities such as Help for Heroes are raising millions for troops welfare. You cannot help but feel that the armed forces matter more to people in Britain more than they have done for a very long time, and this is a real and lasting achievement.

It was undoubtedly a mistake to agree to advise the Conservative Party, particularly as when asked Dannatt was still a paid member of the British Army, even though he had stood down as Chief of the General Staff. Dannatt explains that he had hoped to keep the announcement secret until he had left the Army, but that it seems to have been leaked for mischievous political reasons. Dannatt then changed his mind, deciding not to join the Conservative ranks as a Defence minister. As he quite rightly states, it would have undermined the serving Defence Chiefs to have one of their retired counterparts undermining them from a tangent. It was a rare naive moment for somebody who strikes me as a very astute man. The political management of Defence is in something of a strange situation – we have a scenario where politicians are appointed to head a department, usually with no experience of defence at all – and who are nominally in charge or ordering around older, senior commanders who have 30 years of experience behind them, and have fought and led in wars. It is a strange set-up indeed, and I cannot help but think that the new National Security Council fudges the issue even more.

The Memoirs of Dannatt’s predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson, gave the impression of an officer who – although no fool – was definitely one of the lads. Dannatt strikes me as someone who, although keen to stand up for his men, is more of a thinker. This is shown by the last chapter, which is really Dannatt thinking about loud about what he calls ‘the future’, and where we need our armed forces to be to face threats that might – or might not – transpire. He quotes from General Sir Rupert Smith‘s utility of force, going further to suggest that modern wars will not be just amongst the people, but also about the people. And if we think about it, this is exactly what has been happening since the end of the Second World War. Yet still people hanker after a Cold War style armoured clash, the kind of war they would like rather than the kind of war we are faced with in the real world. The Army spent years doing this sat in Germany, until Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leonne and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan forced a change in thinking. We still have, however, the RAF longing for dogfights over the white cliffs of dover, in much the same fashion.

As somebody who was in charge of Defence ‘Programmes’ political parlance for buying equipment – Dannat has some strongs words to say about Defence Procurement. In particular, he repeatedly questions the RAF’s need to buy and maintain lavish numbers of fast fighter jets, when it is hard to see when exactly we will need them. Meanwhile, the Army struggled by for years with sub-standard vehicles and equipment, for wars that were happening in the here and now. Published before the Defence Review, it was sadly prophetic, as the RAF triumphed once again. Helicopters are one of Dannatt’s keen interests – as Colonel of the Army Air Corps, he earnt his Army flying wings at a relatively advanced age for a soldier! He sees the formation of the Joint Helicopter Command as a fudge, as it placed Helicopter support in an area where it was owned by no-one, and ripe for cuts. At a time when the Army needed as many helicopters as it could get.

This is not perhaps as readable or exciting in its own right as Mike Jackson’s memoirs, but in terms of explaining the past three years – some might argue much further – of political-military development, this book is crucial and will have a firm place in the historiography of the British Army. It’s certainly got me thinking.

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Ark Royal

British Aircraft Carrier Class Invincible: HMS...

Invincible Class - two down (Image via Wikipedia)

Sadly I missed Ark Royal coming into Portsmouth this morning, having been snowed in at my girlfriend’s place in Felpham, just outside Bognor Regis (of King George V ‘Bugger Bognor!’ fame, or less famously Albert Steptoe‘s “but Harold we always go to Bognor!”).

By all accounts it was a bit of a non-affair, not many boats to welcome her in, and I’m sure the crowds were much smaller than they would have been in more clement weather. I’m told that the Harrier flypast didn’t happen either.

All this was probably quite convenient for the Government, who would probably far rather that the Royal Navy’s decommissioned flagship went quietly and without a fuss. It’s a sad day for the Royal Navy, for Portsmouth and for Britain. It’s squeaky bum time for the next ten years, hoping that nothing happens that calls for naval-projected air cover – because we won’t have any.

In other Carrier-based news, HMS Invincible has been put up for auction on the MOD‘s disposal website… in true ebay style the auction ends early in January 2011, and viewers of the website can even ‘add to cart’ the 20,000 ton warship!

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