Royal Navy Frigate, HMS Lancaster, is visiting St Helena. WTSDN blog has been granted a special tour to see what life on British navy ships is all about.
I’m told I will have access everywhere, from the Operations Room where the weapons systems are controlled, to seeing what the Royal Navy sleeping quarters are like. Basically all aspects of what life in the royal navy is like for the modern day British sailor.
British warships now carry the new Royal Navy Wildcat helicopter which I’m hoping I might also get to see. As an aviation enthusiast, the thought of seeing one of these new Navy helicopters up close is exciting.
The Face of Modern Warefare | by Darrin Henry
At the top of the gangway I’m met by men clutching machine guns and dressed in camouflage. Like an excited schoolboy I’m unable to suppress my grin as I step aboard this Royal Navy type 23 frigate.
It’s 200 years today, 15 October 2015, since French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, arrived in James Bay, St Helena, to begin his incarceration. It turned out to be a permanent move, as Napoleon died on St Helena six years later.
HMS Lancaster’s visit was planned to help mark the bicentenary of Napoleon’s arrival.
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 British man of war ship and he is trained to hunt and destroy enemy submarines.
With 16 years in the British Royal Navy ranks (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.
Every person on board all types of warships are trained in firefighting with designated roles in the event of a real emergency. It’s a vital part of life on a navy ship that makes a lot of sense.
This being a man o war ship I had 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 the easy solution to not have any fires at all, “just don’t put people on the ship.”
One of the two firefighting 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.
Life On A Royal Navy Ship
HMS Lancaster carries a total company of 185 souls. Most officers enjoy the luxury of single cabins, but for the those further down the Royal Navy ranks 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 surprised at the limited space; the sleeping quarters on a royal navy frigate for senior ratings is certainly not spacious. I used the word ‘cabin’ earlier but bunks in a passageway would be more accurate. The bunks are stacked three high. The narrow walkway space 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 by rank, I’m curious about how much the ship’s company mixes. “Lots,” responds Lee, highlighting this integration of the British navy ranks as a feature that differs from other armed forces.
“We have 200 guys here going away for nine 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 life in the Royal Navy, everyone I talk to on board 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, ladder-like stairs 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 modern day types of battleships like HMS Lancaster, 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 the ‘Battleships’ board-game I played as a child. It’s fascinating to see the real thing, British naval power up close.
Management of the combat zone around HMS Lancaster is divided up inside this Operations Room on consoles with large radar displays. It’s like a gaming arcade but without the noisy music. Chairs, low to the ground, are bolted to the deck and the overhead 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 fan of the Tom Clancy school of literary espionage I play devil’s advocate, suggesting submarines could evade detection from this Royal Navy warship if they want.
“You can be forgiven for what you see in the movies,” smiles 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 on board 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 Operations 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 Royal Navy 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
Royal Navy food comes from the galley which 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.
Royal Navy Chef, Todd, “otherwise known as Sweeny,” chats while he works. He tells me he’s seen a lot of changes during a Royal Navy career that’s spanned 24 years. Having already been ashore after his shift yesterday 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.”
Keeping everyone happy at dinner time is clearly one of the most important jobs in the Royal Navy.
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 on 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 to be fair, for the Navy boys being confined on a warship for the last seven months is not ideal 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. Royal Navy life functions with an unwritten law of ship life, where mess areas are respected as private between the different ranks, with access by invitation only.
Inside the reception from everyone is warm. After some mock protests and checks about what is “look natural” I’m able to take a few pictures.
In the junior ratings’ sleeping quarters there are more berths but the passageways are wider, in fact the passageway feels luxurious in comparison to the Petty Officers’ space we saw earlier.
The Royal Navy Wildcat
I follow Lee up a stairwell and suddenly we are in the aircraft hangar and I’m nose to nose with the new Royal Navy Wildcat helicopter.
From the aircraft’s familiar profile, the nerd in me had earlier identified (mistakenly) the machine as a Lynx helicopter, but I’m told that misconception doesn’t sit well with the pilots! It’s a Wildcat!
It’s strange walking around the Navy’s newest attack 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 airframe 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 being a British sailor living on board a Royal Navy Frigate. Although, I don’t think I’m made of the right stuff to join the British Navy.
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. I also remember from that time, my brother and I would spend our afternoons watching the navy helicopters ferrying cargo to the task force ships anchored in the bay. The ships were on their way to the Falklands. To say I’m dead chuffed to have been on board HMS Lancaster today is an understatement. It’s been a real privilege.