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Life on board a warship in our much-reduced Royal Navy

The helmsman’s a woman, the wardrooms are unisex... but the stokers are disappearing in droves

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

The Royal Navy is known as the Senior Service because of its illustrious history; Francis Drake and all that. But the days when it ruled the waves have long gone. In 1945 it had almost 900 warships and a million men. By the time of the Falklands War it was down to 70 warships and 70,000 men. Now it is less than half that, with more admirals than there are fighting ships.

The arrival this year of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the much-heralded new aircraft carrier that has cost £6 billion (for 50-odd years of life), will draw unwelcome attention to the Navy’s significant manpower shortages. As one senior officer put it, the carrier will bring ‘new challenges, relearning old tricks perhaps, and some new — not least how to man it’. They put a brave face on things, as you would expect. But what is morale really like in the Royal Navy?

To find out, I joined HMS Bulwark on manoeuvres in the Mediterranean for a few days. I was given unprecedented access — I went up in a £100 million submarine-hunting Merlin helicopter, and out at night with Royal Marine commandos in one of the ship’s four giant assault landing craft. Most edifying of all, I got the chance to talk candidly with everyone from the stokers in the engine room to a visiting commodore over dinner in the captain’s cabin. I also found myself taking part in a ‘man overboard’ drill.

They still refer to a ‘man overboard’ even though 10 per cent of the crew are now women — including, incidentally, the ‘helmsman’ in the rescue boat. There was some resistance to the introduction of women to frontline duties back in 1990. But now no one notices. The wardrooms are unisex, and women do the jobs men do.

Doing the rounds of the ship is a DVD of Sailor, the 1970s BBC TV documentary set on HMS Ark Royal. Officers are amazed at scenes showing porn mags lying around the wardrooms. That wouldn’t happen today. They are intrigued that all the officers speak in public-school accents, which is no longer the case. But what surprises them most is how not much else has changed, especially in terms of the ‘Jack speak’ (as in Jolly Jack Tar). The paymaster is still ‘the pusser’, your bunk is still your ‘grot’ and even some now very un-PC terms survive, such as ‘-gollies’ (naval intelligence officers). They still toast the Queen sitting down, and the toast to Nelson on Trafalgar Day is still ‘The Immortal Memory’, followed by silence.


But the captain told me other traditions are being lost to political correctness. The daily toast ‘To our wives and sweethearts; may they never meet’ has recently been replaced by ‘To our families’, which he thinks ‘lacks humour, somewhat’. He also rues the recent changing of traditional senior titles, such as ‘flag officers’ to ‘assistant chiefs of naval staff’, which he thinks has less gravitas and ‘tone’; something about which the Royal Navy has traditionally cared deeply.

In other areas, the language has changed with the times. When I sat in on briefings, I understood about 20 per cent of what was being said because the Navy speaks in acronyms. When the captain wanted to pass on congratulations to the company on the way they conducted themselves on shore, for example, he said: ‘BZs all round.’ It stands for Bravo Zulu and means ‘Well done’.

Another surprisingly modern departure from traditional Navy decorum and reserve (think Noël Coward in In Which We Serve) is the way the service is slightly obsessed with Twitter. It has two million followers, which is pretty impressive, but still.

Down in the engine room, I encountered some disaffection. None of the stokers on Bulwark are planning to leave, but elsewhere in the Navy they are disappearing in droves, partly because of the 2010 Strategic Defence Review. The RN agreed to far too many cuts, some 6,000 sailors, only to find they are now 3,000 to 4,000 men (and women) short. Turmoil in the Middle East and Russia’s aggression everywhere — Putin is no slouch at getting propaganda images of his warships firing cruise missiles at Syria on to the news — have since forced the government to take the threats to Britain’s national security more seriously.

Even so, after the defence review last November, the Royal Navy was underwhelmed by the allocation of a mere 450 extra sailors to make up the shortfall. They have been told they will have to find the rest by transferring sailors from other ships, which means longer deployments.

The RN will even have to recruit sailors from foreign navies to fill gaps in specialist engineering. And lately the Admiralty has been busy writing to former stokers now in Civvy Street, asking if they will consider returning. There haven’t been many takers, not least because they get paid so much more in civilian jobs, and life at sea is so hard. They sleep in cramped conditions, three bunks high, and rarely see daylight because there are no windows on the ship, apart from on the bridge. ‘If it’s steak for dinner it must be Saturday,’ one said to me. Another complained: ‘We’re in a lower pay-band than the stewards, and all they do is fluff up officers’ pillows.’ He added: ‘In the past the main incentive to do this job for 22 years was the pension, but now that has been cut to a quarter of what it was.’

Last summer, Bulwark was a familiar sight on TV as it rescued thousands of migrants from overcrowded boats off the coast of Libya. Though all the crew members I talked to found this humanitarian mission rewarding, the reality was less heartwarming than the news footage suggested. One officer told me that when they came on board, the first question some migrants asked was: ‘Where can I charge my iPhone?’ And the stench was terrible, with the dozen or so Portaloos in the hold unable to cope.

Parliament has soon to decide whether or not to build four replacement Trident submarines. The move has majority public support, but Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon oppose it, so the subject will be hotly debated. In the cabinet room at No. 10, meanwhile, there is now a model of the Queen Elizabeth, a daily reminder to the PM of what a useful asset he will soon have at his disposal, both as ‘hard power’ and ‘soft’. (Russian envoys can expect a few invitations to cocktails on board.)

So, with all this duality of purpose, is the Royal Navy’s identity crisis set to deepen? When I asked Captain Nick Cooke-Priest, shortly before we sailed into harbour at Malta, he dismissed the idea, ‘because one of our primary functions is to protect the seaways that underpin the nation’s economy, and that hasn’t changed.’ He did concede that ‘We do need to get some equilibrium back, after years of managed decline.’


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