Keeping watch off a burning shore

WARSHIPS IFR Editor Iain Ballantyne reflects on a previous life as a newspaper reporter that several times saw him going aboard Invincible Class carriers on operations in some of the world’s hotspots.

Bosnia burned as HMS Ark Royal loitered off the Balkans, taking her turn in providing the ultimate failsafe for British UN soldiers on a difficult mission to keep the peace between warring factions ashore.

Should the troops be attacked and find themselves in need of Combat Air Support (CAS), she was ready with her strike jets and if the call came for a speedy withdrawal from the conflict her helicopters would assist with the rescue.

Yet, when a Sea Harrier from Ark Royal was shot down over Gorazde in spring 1994, at a time of fierce fighting between Serbs and Bosnian Muslim forces, there was a real sense of shock and astonishment. Lieutenant Nick Richardson’s Sea Harrier went down in flames, during a brave low-level bombing run against a Serb tank. No British naval jet had been lost in combat since the Falklands War, more than a decade earlier.

Armourers aboard Ark Royal wait for the signal to bring forward bombs to be loaded aboard Sea Harriers about to launch on missions over the Balkans in late April 1994. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

Prior to that event, media interest in the Royal Navy’s carriers off the Balkans – Ark Royal shared the role with Invincible – was at a low ebb. Suddenly, everybody wanted to be aboard the British naval flagship in the Adriatic. Fortunately I was already on my way there and flew aboard as preparations were being made to pluck Lt Richardson from the battlefield. Having managed to eject and scramble to Bosnian Muslim positions, the intrepid Fleet Air Arm pilot was now in the temporary safe keeping of an SAS team. Soon we saw Lt Richardson returned to the Ark, welcomed home with great joy.

This was just another episode in a long-term commitment of British strike carrier power off the Balkans. Back in the early 1990s the UK’s government still regarded the Royal Navy as the first line of defence, understanding that the ability to deploy a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) to the Adriatic was a powerful gesture of commitment to stopping the slaughter ashore from getting any worse.

The loss of a Sea Harrier was evidence that the Royal Navy’s mission was one in which there might be risks but the effect of the British, and other nations’, naval presence off the Balkans was not always immediately apparent.  Aside from providing a backstop for UK and other UN ground forces, the idea was to deprive the Serbs, and other factions, of the fuel and arms they needed for their respective ethnic cleansing campaigns. How much worse would it all have been without the presence of Ark Royal and other British and allied warships, such as Invincible (which I also visited in the Adriatic) exerting pressure via a trade embargo off the Balkans?

It must be remembered that this was an era, in the immediate aftermath of both the Cold War ending and the coalition campaign to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait, when even the loss of a single British soldier posed considerable political risk for the UK Govt. Britain was not accustomed, as it became by the mid-to-late 2000s, to seeing its young servicemen and women regularly coming home in coffins to RAF Brize Norton.

Bombed-up Sea Harriers waiting for their next mission over the Balkans as HMS Ark Royal cruises in the Adriatic, April 1994. One of the Ark’s Sea Harrier jets had just been shot down over Gorazde, Bosnia. Photo: Iain Ballantyne

In the 1990s nobody wanted to get bogged down in a shooting war in the Balkans that might cost hundreds of British lives to no appreciable impact on the end result, which would ultimately have to be a negotiated settlement. The fact that John Major’s administration was prepared to deploy naval task groups to the Adriatic, on constant rotation from 1992 until 1995, showed a much more thorough grasp of their worth than UK Govts showed thereafter.

Ark’s aircraft and the RN’s warships were put in harm’s way to some effect, subtle though it may have been for the most part. It was therefore strange to hear Prime Minister David Cameron declare Ark and her sisters of limited use – despite ample operational evidence to the contrary – when he set out the logic of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in late 2010. For arguably, setting the 1982 Falklands War to one side, among the greatest hours of the Royal Navy’s Invincible Class carriers were surely their post-Cold War operations.

An aircraft maintainer, helping to prepare a Sea Harrier FA2 for an early morning Combat Air Patrol over Southern Iraq, throws a rag to a colleague who is cleaning the cockpit of another jet. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

Their ability to project power was enhanced by repeated refits, to enable them to embark both Sea Harrier fighters and RAF ground-attack Harriers, as well as provide a more effective amphibious assault platform. From Invincible’s launching of Sea Harriers on Combat Air Patrol over southern Iraq – which I also witnessed, in the late 1990s – to the Ark’s final moment of combat glory sending ashore Royal Marines to kick down the door into Iraq for the coalition invasion in 2003, their continuing relevance was obvious.

In 2003 HMS Ark Royal receives an enthusiastic welcome at Portsmouth on her return from service in the Iraq War. Nine years earlier one of her Sea Harriers was down over the Balkans during a bombing mission. Photo: Jonathan Eastland/AJAX.

Yet this was not so for David Cameron and whoever advised him to get rid of the Ark Royal and her Harriers. It was an error of epic proportions, compounded by discarding four valuable frigates and making redundant 5,000 highly-trained men and women from the Naval Service. It showed sea blindness in political circles that was deeply disturbing. It blew apart carefully devised plans to ensure there was no UK strike carrier capability during the period of transformation from the Invincibles to the new Queen Elizabeth Class vessels.

The 2015 SDSR did not repair the damage and has left the Royal Navy struggling to meet the challenges of introducing into service super-carriers with no Invincible Class to maintain active UK carrier strike capability.

The two new carriers – about three times the size of the Invincibles – will be commissioned into the front line fleet in the next few years, so the die has been cast and Britain must now make the best of them. This includes creating the accompanying task groups that can protect them and support the power projection mission.

It has taken almost two decades to get the first of the Royal Navy’s new super-carriers to sea, for the requirement was first stated in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDSR). The historic first sailing finally took place at the end of June 2017 and the 65,000 tonnes HMS Queen Elizabeth – reportedly nicknamed ‘Big Betty’ by her ship’s company – has conducted sea trials. Queen Elizabeth’s maiden arrival at Portsmouth in August was a spectacular and historic event, yet another milestone in British naval history.

Queen Elizabeth makes her maiden entry to Portsmouth in August 2017. Photo: Royal Navy.

The future HMS Prince of Wales is not far behind. With an anticipated lifespan of 50 years these massive and deeply impressive vessels will be flagships of a fleet with an outstanding reputation for fighting and winning stretching back centuries.

It is now time for Britain to capitalise on the huge investment and potential offered by the new carriers to not only project power around the world but also help to shape events at sea, on land and in the air for the good of mankind.

HMS Queen Elizabeth begins her sea trials in the North Sea. Photo: Royal Navy.

There remain problems, however, with the state of the Royal Navy as a whole, which has been badly damaged by the continual process of defence cuts, especially since 2004. It is time to rebuild the British fleet, not least in swiftly boosting frigate and destroyer numbers. The RN must field strike carriers while simultaneously meeting all the many other commitments it is tasked with to defend Britain, its interests and people at home and abroad.

 

  • This is an edited and extended version of an article featured in the WARSHIPS IFR Guide to the RN 2017/18, using some additional text published in the August 2017 edition of WARSHIPS IFR.

 

Buy the Guide to the Royal Navy 2017/18 direct from Tandy Media publishing or visit local branches W.H. Smith and other high street newsagents. Click here for list of stockists.

WARSHIPS International Fleet Review
Guide to the Royal Navy 2017/18
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Cold War game provides some serious insight

Guest blogger Dennis Andrews takes a look at a submarine warfare board game that benefits hugely from an inside perspective on real front line operations.

‘They Come Unseen’ (Osprey Games, £39.99) features a contest between NATO and the Soviet Navy – with the maritime forces of the West and Russia again squaring up for shadow games at sea it has gained added piquancy.

The components of ‘The Come Unseen’. Image: Osprey Games.

The game’s creator is former submarine captain Andy Benford who conceived it after devising a prototype in 1974, while Navigating Officer aboard the Porpoise Class conventional submarine HMS Grampus. Various submariners road tested the first version of the game, ‘Submarine’, while actually at sea on patrol to counter the Soviets. Further developed over time, and now with Osprey’s involvement, it is probably one of the best naval strategy/tactics board game that is neither a simulation nor computer-based ‘shoot them up’.

The prototype of ‘They Come Unseen’ being put through its paces by two officers in the wardroom of the nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine HMS Sovereign during the late 1970s. Photo: Used courtesy of Andy Benford.

Two or more persons can play (up to a maximum of five). A pair of conventional diesel-powered hunter/killer submarines represents the NATO force while the Soviets field two destroyers and three support ships. Each vessel is represented in play by a simple piece occupying a single square on a grid. The same grid is marked out on two separate boards, one smaller than the other. These are the Main Board, which charts surface activity, and the Deep Board, where submarines that have dived below periscope depth manoeuvre. On reaching ‘periscope depth’ again the NATO players return to the Main Board. The Deep Board is only visible to NATO players and to conceal submarine movements from prying eyes a card shield is provided (a bit like the technique used in ‘Battleships’ to hide opponents’ units from each other).

The rules booklet for ‘They Come Unseen’.

Set in the Barents Sea, where the Russians are depicted as possessing six Ice Stations on various land bases, the scenario for gameplay puts the Soviets on the verge of a breakthrough with the development of nuclear-powered submarines.

The NATO mission is to deploy two submarines and seek out the Ice Stations while destroying four of the six by landing Special Forces wins the game. Both sides are keen to avoid nuclear war, so outright aggression is denied – but maybe a submarine goes missing at sea? After colliding with a so-called ‘iceberg’?

That surely never happened!?

Soviet players win the game by sinking the two NATO submarines while movements across the board are taken in turn, with Rules of Engagement (RoE) provided in two accompanying booklets. While easy to understand, novice players may need to keep referring to the RoE until familiar with gameplay.

The literature that is part of the package provides some excellent insights into submarine operations by the Royal Navy during the Cold War (including a chapter on strategy and tactics). This provides ideas for complex moves in play.

Cold War cat and mouse: The masts of a Victor Class attack submarine of the Soviet Navy, which has just dived having been caught on the surface. Photo: US DoD.

‘They Come Unseen’ is a great game of cat and mouse where, even with the best of tactical efforts and sharpest of minds, nothing is certain. The vagaries of weather and temperature layers in the sea are the unpredictable factors that slew the outcomes.

It all gains enormously from real-life experiences of its creator who, during his naval career also commanded the Australian submarine HMAS Oxley and was second-in-command of the British nuclear-powered Polaris ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) HMS Revenge.

The Australian diesel-electric patrol submarine HMAS Oxley, which was in the early 1980s commanded by Andy Benford, creator of the game ‘They Come Unseen’. Photo: RAN.

The ‘History and Strategy’ booklet by Benford is a fascinating read on its own while ‘They Come Unseen’ itself takes us back to the golden era of complex and mind-bending strategy and tactics board games of the 1970s and 1980s. It is definitely not for impatient wimps and requires the participant to think in three dimensions…or die!

Contact Andy Benford direct via e-mail: theycomeunseen@gmail.com

 

 

If We Didn’t Fly There Would Be No Tomorrow

In this specially adapted extract from the book ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’, by Iain Ballantyne, we ride with Canadian-born Fleet Air Arm aviator Terry Goddard, the Observer of a Swordfish torpedo-bomber sent to try and cripple the famous German high seas raider.

26 May 1941

7.00PMHMS Ark Royal’s Bid

It is time for another set of contenders to climb into the ring for a round with the heavyweight. The battlecruiser HMS Hood tried on 24 May and was blown apart. Three days later aviators aboard the carrier HMS Ark Royal are being called forward, asked to inflict some kind of decisive blow to slow down Bismarck.

The Swordfish is deceptively antiquated looking. Though a biplane that chugs through the air sounding like an aerial tractor, it is not actually that old, having entered Fleet Air Arm service in 1937. It won its spurs in late 1940 by knocking out Italian battleships in Taranto harbour. The first U-boat sunk in the Second World War by the British was courtesy of a Swordfish using bombs but it is as a torpedo-bomber that it will achieve new fame.

HMS Ark Royal in WW2, operating Swordfish. Photo: USH&HC.

Slow, with only a top speed of 138 mph, its two wings give incredible lift. A monoplane needs around 30 knots of wind across the flight deck to take off from a carrier. The Swordfish can take off from a vessel at anchor (and even into the teeth of a gale). Constructed from wood, canvas and metal struts, it can survive hits that will destroy metal-skinned aircraft, for the simple reason that cannon shells and bullets pass right through it.

After the mission briefing for the attack on Bismarck comes the sitting and waiting for take-off. It is inevitable people ponder their mortality and chances of survival. Terry Goddard recognises that dreadful weather conditions will not be a barrier to the mission. ‘We knew perfectly well we were gonna fly, because if we didn’t fly there would be no tomorrow for us. We had to fly and weather be darned.’

 The aircrews feel the weight of expectation, of history itself – the fate of the Navy and the nation, also the Fleet Air Arm’s honour all pressing down on their shoulders. ‘It is the sitting around that gnaws at you. You’re thinking rather than doing, which is worrisome. Once you start doing things the worry disappears. It must be tough on God. In war there aren’t any atheists – both sides are asking God for help. Most of us say prayers for him to help us. I know I did. Often. Fortunately he was on my side…’

Fifteen Swordfish are ranged on the flight deck, herring bone fashion, all fuelled up and each armed with a single 18-inch torpedo, ready to go.

7.10PM – Stormy Take-off

With waves crashing over Ark Royal’s bows, the Swordfish are launched, clawing their way into the sky. ‘One by one, the batsman, the deck control officer, leads you forward – and you just sit and wait, look at the island waiting for the green flag and away you go. The ship is steering into wind, actually on this occasion slowed down, so there wasn’t too much wind going over the deck. There’s green water coming over the bow. In my aircraft – Swordfish 5K – Stan Keane was the pilot, I was the Navigator and Milliner was the Air Gunner. He was responsible for working the radio. I’m responsible for getting us there and Stan is responsible for flying the aircraft and carrying out the attack. The ship was taking green water. The bow was going up and down 60ft. It was raining, windy and the ship was rolling and pitching but there was no problem in take off, we were airborne before we passed the island.’

Once in the air, the crew of Swordfish 5K formulates a plan of attack, though communication within the cockpit is difficult, what with a 110-knot wind and roar of the aircraft’s engine. They shout at each other down an interconnecting rubber voice pipe.

Swordfish torpedo-bombers attack battleship Bismarck. Image: Dennis Andrews. www.dennisandrewsart.co.uk

8.47PMFire-spitting Monster

Battling the gale, blown sideways, almost negating their forward momentum, the Swordfish drop from the clouds to make their attack runs. As they sight oncoming aircraft, lookouts aboard Bismarck scream: ‘Alarm!’

Klaxons blare throughout the German battleship. Bismarck takes violent evasive action, her anti-aircraft guns hurling a storm of steel at the British biplanes. Bismarck even fires her main 15-inch guns, the shells sending up tall plumes of spray, hoping to literally knock Swordfish out of the sky. Soon Swordfish 5K will be taking her turn at jousting with the enemy, provided she can find the target.

Terry Goddard looks anxiously over the side of the cockpit for some sign of Bismarck. ‘The whole aircraft shook as if there were a number of express trains roaring by us. We figured Bismarck had opened fire on us. In actual fact she had opened fire on [the nearby cruiser] Sheffield, but…we had found her. So, down we went. Ice was peeling off the wings, couldn’t see a bloody thing. The altimeter is spinning, spinning, spinning and then we break into the clear about 600ft and there’s Bismarck on our starboard bow. She was a fire-spitting monster. Everything was coming at us and she was illuminated…awesome. This ship was just magnificent. It looked exactly like a battleship should, I mean scary and everything but just a beautiful ship.

Once the attack has started it’s all about the pilot. The Observer and the Air Gunner, we just stand by and get really excited watching what is going on. You are not thinking you are going to be killed, you’re thinking you’re going to hit the bastard and that’s it. The more you turn [the aircraft] around, and the more you frig around, the more chance they get to hit you, so we just went straight in. We got as low on the deck as we could and went straight. Bismarck was on the port side and she just got bigger and bigger. The flak is bursting over our head. Well above us. The small arms fire is pretty well all around us – and hitting us every once in a while – but we get in to drop the torpedo…do a quick turn away.

Looking back shortly after the turn I see a large black and white explosion on the Bismarck. It is high and wide. Obviously it is a torpedo hit. There is no other aircraft anywhere near us and there is no doubt it was the torpedo we had just dropped. I tell Stan, he grunts – he’s busy doing various manoeuvres on the deck – I give a message to the Air Gunner that we have scored a hit. Milliner thought he’d seen something too. Right after the attack the shooting stopped. We were in the clear. She wasn’t firing at us. Ark Royal requests us to repeat the message. Then we climb back up into the clag and this time it is about 6,000ft that we broke clear. About five minutes later we saw another Swordfish well ahead. We increase speed, join up with him. It’s David Godfrey-Faussett [the other aircraft’s pilot] smoking a big cigar and with a smile on his face. I didn’t like his course so we broke away and we headed off on our own.’

11.30PMMission Failure?

With Swordfish landing back aboard Ark Royal, and their crews filing reports, it is decided the balance of probability is that Bismarck has not been damaged. This is despite claims in the briefing room by some aviators that they managed torpedo hits on the German giant. ‘Command was very reluctant to accept that there were any. I told them three or four times that we had scored a hit and they ignored me. Finally, when Sheffield sent a report that Bismarck was steering north-east, they suddenly realised that something had happened.’

In other words, the enemy vessel is not heading towards the sanctuary of Brest on the French Atlantic coast, but rather back to where the Home Fleet battleships are closing. Bismarck’s change in direction cannot be happening by choice.

‘They ultimately accepted that there were two hits…we had attacked after the torpedo had hit the rudder. We were the last aircraft to attack the Bismarck, then or any other day.’

Now it was down to the rest of British fleet to destroy the German behemoth…

For the rest of the exciting, action-packed story buy ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ (£2.99 ebook/£5.99 paperback) which is published by Ipso Books

 

Swordfish aviator Terry Goddard aboard a Royal Navy aircraft carrier during WW2. Photo: © Goddard Collection.

Commander Terry Goddard, Royal Canadian Navy (Retd) had an extraordinary war and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in 1943 ‘for outstanding bravery & skill’. After the Bismarck Action, Terry remained with 818 NAS for some time before joining 803 NAS. He saw further action, flying in Fulmars from the carrier Formidable during operations in the Indian Ocean. His aircraft engaged in a dogfight with a Japanese fighter, narrowly evading destruction. Switched to the Mediterranean, Terry at one time had command of 821 NAS, equipped with Albacore torpedo-bombers. Flying from North Africa and Malta, 821 NAS carried out anti-shipping and mine laying tasks, path-finding for RAF Wellington bombers and anti-submarine protection of the Sicily invasion force. Post-war Lieutenant Goddard served in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) destroyer HMCS Haida, before promotion to Lt Cdr and taking command of the RCN Fleet Air Arm’s 826 Squadron and the 18th Carrier Air Group flying from the carrier HMCS Magnificent. Cdr Goddard ended his naval career as Staff Officer Operations at NATO’s Commander-in-Chief Eastern Atlantic (CINCEASTLANT). Terry lived for many years in peaceful retirement with his wife Cora, in Ontario, Canada. They were together for more than 30 years. Terry was 96 when he passed away in March 2016. ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ also contains details of Terry’s war service both before and after the May 1941 battle.

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