HMS Lancaster: Life Onboard A Royal Navy Frigate
THE FACE OF MODERN WARFARE | Darrin Henry
I’ve climbed ship gangways hundreds of times but this is a first, being met at the top by men clutching machine gun rifles and dressed in camouflage! Like an excited schoolboy I’m unable to suppress my grin as I step aboard the Royal Navy warship, HMS Lancaster, a type 23 frigate that’s visiting St Helena Island to help mark the bicentenary of Napoleon’s arrival. In fact, it’s 200 years today, 15 October 2015, that the French Emperor arrived in James Bay, St Helena, to begin his incarceration.
Welcome Aboard The Queen’s Frigate
I’m greeted by Petty Officer Lee Cunningham, who’s softly spoken nature hides the fact he works in the war room of this Royal Navy warship and he is trained to hunt and destroy enemy submarines. With 16 years in the navy, half his life, Lee has volunteered to show me around and immediately lets me know I can ask him anything I want. I’m guessing if my questions penetrate classified territory I’m unlikely to get an answer, but we’re off to a great start.
No sooner we go below decks then loudspeakers declare a fire drill, announcing a fire (fake) somewhere in the rear of the ship. Trying not to get in the way (and failing) we watch the fire team suit up and strap on breathing apparatus. Everyone onboard is trained in fire fighting with designated roles in the event of a real emergency.
Being a warship I assumed the main threat of fire stemmed from an incoming attack but no such drama; people and negligence are the main cause explains Lee, adding, “it’s easy not to have any fires at all, just don’t put people on the ship.” One of the two fire fighting nozzles is capable of dispensing 30 tonnes water an hour; salt water as it turns out, which is in red pipes running throughout the ship.
Living On A Warship
HMS Lancaster carries a company of 185. Most officers enjoy the luxury of single cabins, but for the minions further down the chain it’s a different story.
Senior ratings such as Lee (Petty Officer) occupy six berth cabins; junior ranks share spaces that accommodate up to 12. I’m shocked at the confined quarters of his accommodation. I used the word ‘cabin’ earlier but bunks in a passageway would be more accurate. The bunks are stacked three high. The narrow walkway is perhaps four feet in width. Lockers opposite the bunks provide storage space for uniforms but not much else.
It’s an incredibly small living area for six men on a nine month deployment. A curtain across the bunk offers the only real privacy. When these guys get home their houses must feel like palaces.
With the separation of living quarters I’m curious about how much the ship’s company mixes. “Lots,” responds Lee, highlighting this integration of the ranks as a feature of the navy that’s differs from other armed forces. “We have 200 guys here going away for 9 months. The rank structure keeps the navy running the way it does, but the camaraderie is as vital. When work finishes guys from this mess will go ashore and socialise with guys from a different mess, because we are all one ship’s company.”
Lee tells me sporting tournaments on the flight deck, such as volleyball, hockey and football, help pass time during the long deployment. Barbeques on “the back end of the ship” with various entertainment are also organised.
Highlighting the good and the bad about navy life, everyone I talk to onboard tells me the same thing; the time away from family is the hardest. Lee regularly mentions his girlfriend, Clare, also serving elsewhere in the navy, and their 7 month old son, Robin.
The Hunt For Red October
Down the steep, narrow stairs (more like a fancy ladder) we go, into HMS Lancaster’s Operations Room aka the War Room. Two hundred years ago in Napoleon’s era, a man o’ war ship’s punch was delivered by those operating cannons poking from hatches. Completely different to this modern warship where the fight is controlled from deep inside the steel covered belly of the vessel; not a single porthole to see out. Certainly not for the claustrophobic!
This is the big boys’ version of ‘Battleships.’ The combat zone is divided up around the room on consoles with large radar displays like a gaming arcade but without the noisy music. Chairs, low to the ground, are bolted to the deck and the whole lighting is quite dim. I feel like I’m on a movie set; it’s easy to forget how much lethal firepower can be dispensed from here.
Lee specialises in fighting submarines, or ‘underwater warfare.’ There are three workstations, or “positions,” dedicated to locating, tracking and attacking targets under the ocean.
Lee outlines how a battle would be fought from this room. Although he omits any bravado, I can tell he is very proud and confident about HMS Lancaster’s capability. As a student of the Tom Clancy school of literary espionage I play devil’s advocate, suggesting submarines will evade detection if they want.
“You can be forgiven for what you see in the movies,” says Lee, before putting me straight. “If the submarine truly wants to be 100% undetectable it needs to turn everything off and that would mean everyone onboard suffocating, because they wouldn’t be able to pump air. Everything on a submarine makes a noise, whether it’s detectable to the human ear doesn’t mean it’s not detectable to sonar.”
Finger On The Trigger/Foot On The Pedal
The other consoles in the room deal with surface targets (other ships) and attacks from the air, including incoming missiles which can be shot down.
Although the ship is air-conditioned, it’s warm here in the Operations Room and there are just two of us. With 25 people on station it must get quite intense, even noisy, with everyone chattering away. Lee explains that because of intense training the room soon operates extremely quietly as the team prioritises the flow of information to the operations chief and captain during a battle.
Pies By Sweeny Todd
The galley is staffed by just four cooks. Basic maths tells me these guys really have their work cut out: 185 mouths to feed, three times a day plus there’s always a choice at meal times. That’s a lot of spuds to peel. The galley is sandwiched (I know) between two small mess rooms, senior ratings on one side, juniors on the other. A lift delivers food to the officer’s mess above.
The seating looks basic in the canteens, more like what I’d expect to find in a community centre on St Helena. An unofficial seating etiquette has developed with chief petty officers generally seated at one table, petty officers at the other. The junior mess doubles as a briefing room.
Chef Todd, “otherwise known as Sweeny,” chats while he works, telling me he’s seen a lot of changes over 24 years in the navy. Having been ashore after his shift and found all the shops closed I get the feeling St Helena might not be his favourite place!
I enquire about the workload, four people having to feed 200. “Two people do breakfast, two people do lunch, two people do the evening meal. The evening meal; sometimes the other two chefs come back to give them a hand.”
For Your Eyes Only
The engineering control room has an ongoing dispute with the Operations Room about the true heart of HMS Lancaster; all good humoured, of course. But this is where the engine speed is controlled, not from on the bridge as you might think. I was not allowed to photograph the instrument panels one side of the room which just made me all the more curious, but even up close I had no idea what I was looking at.
HMS Lancaster, Fighting Fit
We are now somewhere at the back of the ship, still below decks. There are no windows anywhere; it’s all artificial lighting which Lee confirms can be a challenge for the crew, sometimes going days at a time without seeing daylight. We’ve been passing a number of the crew, reddened by a football game against the local team yesterday. It’s strange to hear them describe it as sunburn when my own natural ‘tan’ is at its most faded due to our current winter weather. For the record the Saint team won, 3-0, but it was a good game and I suspect being cooped up on warship for the last seven months did not help the HMS Lancaster team’s preparation.
As fascinating as the ship itself is, I’m struck by the calm and relaxed nature of the crew. The alleyways and stairwells are busy, even here at anchor. Although there is quiet good natured banter everyone seems focused on maintenance work; there’s no loudness, no showing off for the visitor (me). There’s a definite feel good, team vibe prevalent throughout the ship that’s very impressive.
Lee knocks on the junior ratings mess and we’re allowed in for a look around. Unwritten laws of ship life mean mess areas are respected as private between the different ranks with access by invitation only. Once inside the reception is warm and after some mock protests and checks about what is “look natural” I’m able to take a few pictures. In the sleeping quarters there are more berths but the passageways are wider, in fact the passageway feels luxurious in comparison to the Petty Officer’s space we saw earlier.
The Royal Navy Wildcat
I follow Lee up a stairwell and suddenly we are in the hangar and I’m nose to nose with the ‘Wildcat,’ the navy’s latest attack helicopter. From the distinctive profile I had (the nerd in me) identified (mistakenly) the machine previously as a Lynx, but I’m told that misconception doesn’t sit well with the pilots! It’s a Wildcat! It’s strange walking around the helicopter with no one telling me not to get too close. Again, the child in me is beaming! I resist an urge to reach out and touch the aircraft in case I get told off; wouldn’t want to spoil things now.
My visit is nearly over, three hours have zipped by. Chatting to Lee is easy; I could stay here all day hearing all the stories about the realities of living on a Royal Navy Frigate.
But it’s my turn to play host as I’ve offered to take Lee on a tour of St Helena. Once he’s changed we make our way to the gangway where the men with guns are still on duty.
The last time I visited a warship was as a boy scout, during the Falklands war in 1982, from Ascension Island. To say I’m dead chuffed to have been onboard HMS Lancaster is an understatement. It’s been a real privilege.