There has been some minor comments over the role played by the Royal Navy, and why there was no Fleet Review during the jubilee period. Also, there were some ill-informed comments as to why no RN frigates were on the river.
There are several points that need to be made about this event. Firstly, Buckingham Palace made very clear that they only wanted one official function this year, and this was the Jubilee Muster which occurred at Windsor. Anything else was seen as a non MOD function. The Windsor Castle muster was an excellent opportunity to show off the military in one glorious afternoon. A fleet review, in this author’s opinion would have added relatively little.
While it may sound like heresy, this author is not a huge fan of fleet reviews. On paper they look good, with lines of warships lining up in the Solent, and crowds watch as a reviewing vessel passes. The problem is that nowadays there aren’t that many warships in either the RN, or more broadly global navies, to make this a particularly visible spectacle. If you consider that most nations that would participate have reduced their navies since the 2004 Trafalgar review, and that those ships still left in service are operationally committed, one would be left with the image of a denuded review.
Personally, this author would worry that a fleet review sends the wrong message. It implies that the RN has too many ships and people, as clearly it can spare plenty to sit off Spithead and line up. While impressive, fleet reviews could give the impression that the RN is over resourced. Alternatively, it could mean the RN (and other navies) being required to gap operational tasks in order to line up and parade – frankly, no matter how important the relationship with the Sovereign, it is more important to keep deployments to support national security.
Finally, the problem with fleet reviews is that they aren’t really that interesting to people watching them. If people are keen warship fans then they’ll know what the vessels are, but to most people, all they will see is a long line of grey hulls sitting in the water. This is not a good chance to put across messages about the role of the Naval Service as the sort of people watching probably already know some of it. If the weather is poor, even fewer people are likely to watch – remember the 1993 Battle of the Atlantic review, conducted in atrocious weather, which meant hardly anyone saw what was going on from shore. What is really achieved by a review except making naval buffs feel ever more depressed?
Why no Frigates?
There are several issues to consider when looking at the Thames Pageant, and wondering why no RN frigates or above were present. From the outset, it is essential to remember that this was not a State occasion. This was a private event, to which the organisers were gracious enough to allow the RN to participate. As such, the RN had to meet the requirements of the organisers, and not the other way around.
The key issue on the Thames is that of ship size. The largest vessel in the RN that can go beyond Tower Bridge is a Type 23. For those that haven’t seen a T23 alongside HMS Belfast, it is essential to realise that both ships are similar dimensions in terms of length, height and breadth. Had you rafted a Type 23 alongside HMS Belfast, then you would have had the equivalent of an M25 pileup on a particularly congested piece of water as five lanes of traffic went to one, and over 1000 boats had to steer into a narrow piece of water.
Between Greenwich and before HMS PRESIDENT, there are no moorings where you could put a Type 23 on a river anchorage and still allow the flotilla to safely disperse. HMS HURWORTH was the largest type of vessel that could safely occupy the berth in question. It was simply not possible to put a Frigate anywhere on the river between Greenwich and Tower Bridge without disrupting the pageant and compromising safety.
There is a berth at Greenwich, where vessels up to Carrier size can go to. The problem is that this is a private event, and that berth was taken some years ago. As nice as it would have been to have put HMS DIAMOND onto the berth, this simply wasn’t possible. Remember, this is a private event and not a state event. The RN cannot demand that people who have paid for a particular berth be kicked off for the sake of a pretty picture. There were no berths anywhere on the pageant route that the RN could have put a platform on to without moving people who had paid a lot of money to be there. The closest you could have put a large warship onto is the Excel centre, out of sight and out of mind.
The RN presence was entirely appropriate based on what could operate on the river. The ORC / PB escort came about because they are the only type of boats able to get from the start line to the finish line continuously. The P2000s participating couldn’t get up to beyond Westminster Bridge as they were too tall.
The wider RN involvement was not insignificant either. From the Royal Marine buglers, to the cancelled flypast (for which no doubt the Phoenix Think Tank is already blaming the RAF), and the involvement of an excellent RNR honour guard at HMS PRESIDENT. This was a very substantial commitment to the event from the RN, the RNR, the RM and the wider Youth Movement. A lot of people put in a huge amount of work to support the day, and they should be very proud of what they did.
I see no safety case…
There has been some adverse comments about people on the river, including former Royal Yacht personnel being required to wear lifejackets. While some will see this as H&S gone mad, there was actually a very good reason for this.
The key issue with the pageant was the challenge of moving 1000 boats downstream in a very congested waterspace. As was put to the author, if one person had fallen in without wearing a lifejacket, then it is likely that ‘Man Overboard drills would begin’. The recovery operation would immediately cause disruption as vessels desperately manoeuvred out of the way, and could easily have caused a pile up, similar to that on a motorway crash. There was a very real danger that if someone had gone in, then several lives could have been lost through unavoidable collisions. By putting lifejackets on almost all participants, this would have bought enough time for the RNLI to pick them up without putting the same level of risk in place.
This author is by no means a health and safety fanatic, but on this occasion he feels the correct decision was made to insist on lifejackets – seasoned mariners may not have needed them, but it would, in the worst instance, have probably helped saved lives.
The Commonwealth Link
Its worth remembering that three of the ORCs escorting the ‘Spirit of Chartwell’ came from crews of the RAN, RCN and RNZN. This was a very deliberate decision, taken to recognise the fact that they are also ‘Royal’ navies. Although a small gesture, this author believes it was incredibly powerful as a symbol of the very close relationship between the UK and Commonwealth (most participants came from Exercise Long Look). It also demonstrated that Her Majesty is also the Queen of many other realms beyond the UK. This was an excellent move, and one the author wholeheartedly supports.
The Youth of Today
One of the most powerful images of the day came from the Sea Cadet Corps, who sailed many small boats downriver, each bearing a different flag of a commonwealth nation. At a time when it is fashionable to decry the youth of today, it was wonderful to see a large group of committed and keen teenagers proudly taking part. The crew of the P2000 escort were also drawn from students too who are members of the University Royal Naval Units (URNU). The same went for the Sea Scouts and the myriad of other youth organisations represented on the river.
Myriad of Maritime Agencies
One observation is that there were plenty of grey hulled craft on the river, although few of them were RN. This perhaps demonstrates the hugely complex maritime tapestry that exists in the UK, with many different agencies, organisations and departments all maintaining vessels required to do ‘offshore protection’. While the subject of another article, perhaps the time has come to ask whether the UK could be much more efficient at resourcing its offshore protection roles, as it felt as if there were more agencies than hulls involved in it at present.
Woeful media coverage
While many others have commented on the appalling coverage by the BBC, this author feels he learned a lot. He didn’t know that HMS BELFAST weighed 91,000 tonnes, and he certainly didn’t know Nelson had been at Waterloo. He does know that if this is the standard of research at the BBC, then perhaps it’s time to look again at the licence fee and whether it is justified!
A gleaming day
This was an excellent day for the UK, and one that will be long remembered by all who saw it. Personally, despite grumbles from some, this author believes that the UK should be very proud of the contribution made by the Naval Service to supporting this very successful event.