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.


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The Glamour of the 1960s Big Carrier Royal Navy

It takes a while coming, but when, finally, the warship is spotted cruising across the Mediterranean – through the cabin window of a Wessex helicopter of the Fleet Air Arm, no less – KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) enquires what on earth it is.

With the crisp and dry sarcasm only the head of British naval intelligence could deliver, Commander Waverly (Hugh Grant) explains: ‘It is an aircraft carrier Kuryakin – for a special agent you are not having a very special day.’

HMS Hermes 1960

British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes on sea trials, a type of ship featured in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’
She would be the last of the RN’s big deck aircraft carriers of the 1960s. Photo: Strathdee Collection.

It is indeed a flat top, and a British one rather than a Yank variant (as is usually the case in movies). From its appearance, as the Wessex approaches for a landing, the ship in question is Victorious or Hermes.

She has a flight-deck bursting with other helicopters and, most wonderful of all, nifty little Seahawk fighter jets. That for once the Royal Navy gets the glory in a Hollywood movie, is only sensible (and accurate). For a taster (including naval elements) watch this extended trailer:

At the time ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ is set – around 1964 – the British fleet still ruled the Mediterranean and, in fact, routinely deployed several big deck aircraft carriers all the way from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

Of course back in the mid-1960s the Soviet Navy did not have an aircraft carrier at all, so perhaps it is understandable that the sight of such a vessel might flummox a KGB agent.

Having spent a fair bit of time writing about the wielding of UK and US Navy carrier power and the rise of Soviet maritime power (including carriers by the late 1960s) I was thrilled to see proper, authentic hardware depicted in this movie. It really did capture the essence of certain other aspects of the Cold War era (not just the fashion either but also espionage  and the whole East-West rivalry thing) as touched upon in my own Hunter Killers’.

Movie director Guy Ritchie has a real eye for naval detail and, as someone in his late forties, no doubt recalls the fantastic 1970s BBC TV documentary ‘Sailor’ about the big deck carrier HMS Ark Royal. For many of us born in the 1960s that show was incredibly exciting, as was the original ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ television series. Both were very, very cool.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s the big deck carriers of the Royal Navy – and the dizzying succession of strange and fantastic fighter jets that flew from them – were the epitome of a Britain that, despite all its woes, still burned with the white heat of technology. It aspired to be up there with the naval big boys because it could and should.

Anyway, Ritchie’s movie only reflects the reality that there were two main players out there doing business in the fight against the Soviets during the Cold War (especially in the realms of intelligence and naval forces), namely the UK and USA.

In ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’, a stylish, sexy romp that takes us from East Berlin to Italy and out into the Med, the Russians and Americans – and eventually the British – unite against fiendish neo-Nazis seeking a nuclear weapon.

The man form UNCLE

Art work from the new movie, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ (Warner Bros).

The climax of  ‘The Man from U.N.C.L. E.’ movie features a Royal Marine (or SBS) raid under cover of darkness with Kuryakin and CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, a Brit using an American accent) along for the ride. The Royal Navy later delivers the coup de grace of the whole drama.

Both Hammer and Cavill live up to the roles originated by Robert Vaughn (Solo) and David McCallum (Kuryakin) while in today’s ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ Alicia Vikander (Gaby) is a welcome addition to the team. Grant’s Waverly is among his better performances of late.

I had afternoon tea with the original Kuryakin once and he was a very charming chap. I must confess I was especially eager to talk about his other famous role, in ‘The Great Escape’ movie, in which he played a Fleet Air Arm aviator on the run from the Nazis, but thereby hangs another tale.

The only jarring note of the new movie is a so-called Nazi submarine that is clearly an Oberon Class (British design) boat. Bearing in mind that it is CGI creation it is a puzzle they could not create a U-boat, as there were plenty of former Nazi submarines still in commission during the 1960s. That’s a trivial moan more than made up for by the unusually prominent and accurate portrayal of the 1960s Royal Navy, which looks dynamic and decisive.

Commander Ian Fleming, who, in addition to creating naval superspy James Bond had a part in originating ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ for TV, would be most gratified.

This is a variant of an article is to be published in the October 2015 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine, available from September 18.

‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ (Warner Bros, Cert 12A) can still be seen at the cinemas and will be released on DVD and Blu Ray in the near future. 

Iain Ballantyne’s next book, ‘The Deadly Trade: A History of Submarine Warfare’ is currently being worked on most diligently, and is due for publishing by Orion Books in 2017. 



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