Is the Royal Navy really necessary?

As the ship sailed into Dover on a breezy autumn morning, the officers and crew of HMS Kent stood at ease on deck to fulfil Procedure Alpha, which governs the ceremonial arrival of one of Her Majesty’s warships into a friendly port. At moments like this, townspeople have turned out with flags and bands for generations to cheer Britain’s gallant sailors as they return from months of hardship to receive the honour they deserve.

That can still happen. Various crew members reminisced for me about the way they were greeted by multitudes in places as far away as Valletta and Tampa. But this was Dover. The navy’s regional representative came by to salute the captain and talk through the programme for the four-day visit. A man in an anorak walked down to the dockside to ask if the ship would be open to the public. (Yes, Saturday, 11 to 3.) No crowds, no flags, no bands.

And yet this was meant to be a flag-flying visit. Kent is a Type 23 frigate of the Duke class, based at Portsmouth. It is thought to be the 12th HMS Kent, a dynasty stretching back to 1652. The ship has obvious affiliations with the county: even the mess rooms have names like Margate and (improbably, naval messes not being genteel) Tunbridge Wells. And indeed over the four days, the captain did receive various local dignitaries, even a delegation from Dover Athletic Football Club. But the local paper, the Dover Express, responded more zestfully to the presence of a Spanish cruise ship.

Britain, navy men say, is suffering from “sea-blindness”, a modern affliction that has caused the British to forget their heritage and the fact that the nation’s trade and security still depends on safe passage through the oceans. Thanks to cheap flights and the Channel Tunnel, few Britons now have any consciousness of ships or the sea. If they even paddle, it will probably be in the Mediterranean.

British forces are engaged in a secretive, bloody and seemingly hopeless war in a faraway country, and honoured as “heroes” to an extent unusual for a nation tired of martial values. The dead (but not the wounded) are glorified.

However, the veneration does not extend to the funding arrangements. And this autumn a not-always-secretive battle has been fought in the corridors of the Ministry of Defence between the three armed services. Since the faraway country in question happens to be landlocked, the future and – at extreme moments – the very existence of the Royal Navy has been called into question. The combatants have been trying to seize the high ground of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the outline results of which will be formally announced in the Commons next week along with the rest of the coalition government’s spending plans.

Or rather non-spending plans. Instead of being the full, leisurely strategic review defence experts relished and craved, the review has been turned into a rushed accounting exercise. It is ironic that this comes with the return of a government led by the theoretically pro-defence Tory party.

Next Thursday, the day after the Chancellor of the Exchequer pronounces, will be Trafalgar Day, the 205th anniversary of Nelson’s most famous, if posthumous, triumph on board HMS Victory over the French. This is the most sacred day in the annals of the Royal Navy. Most Britons will not even notice. The round of cuts may in time be seen as just a single skirmish in one of the most important wars the navy has ever fought: the contest for the hearts and minds of the British public.

In 1945 the Royal Navy had almost 900 “major warships” and not far off a million serving men. By 1980 the numbers were down to 70 and 70,000. That was two years before Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, and naval power became fashionable again. Now the navy is half its 1980 size and heading south metaphorically, not to the South Atlantic. The former First Sea Lord, Sir Jonathon Band, complained that Britain was heading for a navy the size of Belgium’s. As things stand, the navy is the same size it was in 1588, when Drake saw off the Armada. However, that was done because gentlemen armed their own ships. David Cameron may be banking on the Big Society to come to the rescue.

The decline might be seen as a peace dividend. It does not seem that way to the navy and its supporters, which helps explain why the traditionally “silent service” was happy to ditch that nickname and invite the FT aboard HMS Kent as part of the effort to find a cure for sea-blindness.

Another tradition is for giving its ships splendidly self-confident names: Dauntless, Invincible, Illustrious, Vindictive. And above all, HMS Victory, which lives on as a tourist attraction hard by Kent’s berth in Portsmouth. But one sensed, walking along the quayside, that the current fleet more accurately comprises HMS Cautious, HMS Nervy and HMS Funds Permitting.

Frigates are the athletes of the navy: whippy and nippy. They are not imposing ships. Our 3,000 tonnes were dwarfed by the passing Cherbourg ferry. Before we left harbour, the captain, Commander Nick Cooke-Priest, was briefed on the weather. The report included phrases like “strong winds and moderate swell”, “pretty breezy” and “extremely lumpy”. “Super,” said Cooke-Priest. I began to feel a little queasy.

Frigates are also versatile. This trip, Cooke-Priest explained, is “the tip of a defence diplomacy iceberg”. Earlier this year, Kent was the official cheer ship at the wedding of the Crown Princess of Sweden. Last year it spent six months in the Gulf. “Kent can dispense gin and tonics, or she can dispense Armageddon,” said Richard Farrington. “Our primary business,” in Cooke-Priest’s phrase, “is the delivery of violence to our nation’s enemies.” And he seemed such a mild-mannered man.

Captain Farrington is a bluff old sea-dog, and happened to be on board for this journey. (He is in charge of the Portsmouth-based surface ships and Cooke-Priest’s immediate superior. So the captain – the equivalent of an army colonel – is actually the commander, and the commander is the captain. This is a very naval kind of paradox.)

Under Cooke-Priest were 16 officers and about 140 men, 30 short of the full complement: this being a bit of a jolly, it was not thought necessary to recall everyone off training courses and the like. The word “men”, for these purposes, includes about two dozen women. This still feels novel to an outsider, but has been the case for 20 years now, though they certainly haven’t got round to desexing the language. There is a no-touching rule on board, which applies even to the ship’s one married couple. The women tend to be matter-of-fact about it all: “It’s no different to any other working environment,” insisted Lieutenant Jo Chambers. And the navy has updated its attitudes enough to issue a glowing press release when one of its female officers was recently placed No. 51 on the Pink List of influential gays and lesbians.

Most of the traditions are far older. When we arrived in Dover, a bough of holm oak flew from the yardarm, which harks back to the Men of Kent’s attempts to repel William the Conqueror. As we left Portsmouth all available officers and crew stood on deck and saluted other ships as they passed, according to a precise formula based on the seniority of the respective captains. “The saluting is a great old tradition,” said Lieutenant Commander Mark Ruston, weapons engineer, “and it costs nothing.” Everyone seems to batten the hatches when asked about a tradition, fearful this might be a weapon to be used against them.

The navy is inward-looking in a way that is not true of the other services. It is partly in the nature of shipboard life. Also, families normally live outside the bases, often scattered, so the serving community is stronger than in the army or the RAF, but the family community weaker. Sailors lapse rapidly into jargon – “jackspeak” (as in Jolly Jack Tar) – and have some difficulty translating. They are permanently fearful of being misunderstood by outsiders.

The other services see them as old-fashioned, incurably hierarchical. The RAF’s reputation was formed by individualistic pilots. The newer breed of army officers, battle-hardened by Tony Blair’s wars, has become increasingly confident dealing with seniors who may actually have less experience. And in any case even the lowliest infantryman may in the nature of things make instant life-or-death decisions. In contrast, sailors will nearly always be operating under a chain of command unless their ship has actually sunk.

That’s not how the tars view it. “I think we’re more cohesive,” said Ruston. “We don’t have any sergeant-major figure who is seen as God. If anyone behaved on board the way an infantry RSM traditionally does, someone would lamp him one. It’s more a question of leadership than giving orders.”

And one can see that. A frigate may be more spacious than a submarine, but it is still a confined space. No wonder officers walk – like Prince Philip – with their hands behind their backs. There’s less chance of bashing them on one of the hard edges. Heads and shins are also extremely vulnerable.

When my head returned to good order, the old song kept going through it: “We joined the navy to see the world. And what did we see? We saw the sea!” It isn’t true. Most of the crew spend most days below decks. There are only two portholes on Kent, both in the captain’s quarters. Only those on the bridge and the smokers, forced aloft to indulge, see the sea or the sky.

The mess decks, where the ratings sleep, are staggeringly cramped. The Margate mess contains 42 men stacked three-high, with the bottom two bunks having less than two feet of head-room. HM Inspector of Prisons would have a fit. The Nelsonian hammocks look like luxury in comparison. “The beds are six foot five long, and I’m six three,” said David Watkinson, now a leading hand and thus promoted to a top bunk. “The only privacy you get is when you’re on your bed with the headphones on.” He was being matter-of-fact, not complaining.

And there is certainly no daylight in the kitchens, the most cheerful part of any warship: “Acne Ricardo with sauce anglaise!” proclaimed Leading Chef Jamie Stewart, as he prepared the spotted dick and custard. The food wasn’t bad, actually.

There were months’ worth of supplies in the freezers even for this jaunt, just in case we had to rush off and deliver violence to someone, with the Sea Wolf missile system, the Harpoon launchers and the 4.5-inch gun suddenly becoming far more important than being hospitable to the FT.

But in the 12 years since she was launched, Kent has only once fired shots in anger – in the Gulf last year – and that was just a warning. If Cooke-Priest’s bloodcurdling statement of intent were translated into a corporate slogan, it would have to be “Delivering Violence. But not very often.” And this is the essence of the case against the navy: that it is expensive and irrelevant. The main front has been the battle for the two new aircraft carriers, the most expensive single items in the defence budget, given that consideration of the Trident nuclear system has been ruled off-limits. “Unaffordable in the context of even the most optimistic budget assumptions,” argued one briefing paper, “threatening the coherent delivery of defence over the next 20 years.” “The navy must put on ice its obsession with capital ships,” insisted the retired brigadier Allan Mallinson in The Times.

The argument goes that the carriers would be like the banks – “too big to fail” – but if they ever did go into action, one well-aimed enemy missile and the game would be up. Yet supporters of the navy insist that even Afghanistan is more of a naval war than anyone realises, and that ships have been vital for supply and air strikes. “Hmm, that sounds a bit desperate to me,” snorted one army officer.

There remain two crucial arguments in favour of naval power. The first is that “you never know”. Britain spent 40 years expecting to fight the Soviet Union. It did not expect to be in any of the places it fought instead: Belfast, Port Stanley, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan.

The other argument relates to sea-blindness. “We just don’t believe our lives move by sea any more, but they do,” says Lee Willett of the defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute. As Jeremy Blackham and Gwyn Prins explained in a recent RUSI Journal, more than 90 per cent of Britain’s trade travels by sea, most of them going through one of the world’s eight choke points (Hormuz, Malacca Straits, Bab el Mandeb, Suez, Gibraltar, the two Cape routes and Panama). They argue that these offer “easily predictable opportunities to those who may wish to interdict that flow – pirates, terrorists and opportunist governments”.

Back in the captain’s quarters on HMS Kent (same dinner as the crew, Acne Ricardo and all), Captain Farrington made a similar point in defence of his ships. “The navy believes a frigate constitutes a visible, effective deterrent totally different from the notional deterrent offered by nuclear submarines. It has endurance, it can poise, and can be in one place a long time. It can be aggressive or it can be glutinously friendly. And it can switch roles from one to the other in very short order.”

In the wardroom, the officers were planning a belated Trafalgar Night, to be held not on the 21st, but just before Kent goes into refit and the crew scatters: most of the traditions will be observed – parading the beef, chocolate galleons full of Maltesers. Will the rum come out? “Certainly not,” said Cooke-Priest, “it’s disgusting. The port will.”

Rumless, I seemed remarkably well, strong winds and lumpy Channel notwithstanding. I felt very proud of myself. Mainly, my head was reeling from overexposure to naval jargon: men with ranks like “Leading Marine Engineer Artificer”, who observe “Condition One Charlie” and “Pickle Night”, wear “Red Sea Rig” or “Dog Robbers” and (like me) take “stoogies” to combat seasickness.

Down below, there wasn’t much talk of naval strategy. When I went into the Tunbridge Wells mess, they had American wrestling on the satellite TV. But no one in the navy is immune to the fears about the future. “Of course we worry,” one seaman told me. “It’s our living.”

Visit for a slideshow of photographs of life aboard HMS Kent

Jackspeak a glossary

Adam and Eve on a raft two eggs on toast

Crumb-brusher officer’s steward

Pusser purser

Nelson’s blood rum

Sundodger submariner

Foo-foo powder talcum powder

Take a pierhead jump join ship at short notice

Dhoby dust washing powder

Pull up a bollard sit down

Percy member of the army. (From Percy Pongoes: wherever the army goes, the Pongoes)

Spinning a dit telling a story

Leaving the wall going to sea

Source: National Maritime Museum

Seamen’s rations

The navy did not always dine well. Edward Barlow, at Cadiz on Christmas day 1661, complained: “We had nothing to eat but a little bit of Irish beef for four men, which had lain in pickle for two or three years and was as rusty as the devil, with a little stinking oil or butter, which was all the colours of the rainbow, many men in England greasing their cartwheels with better.”

The diarist Samuel Pepys was also the man who put navy rations on a regular footing, including the famous gallon of beer a day. He wrote, “Englishmen and more especially seamen love their bellies above everything else, and therefore it must always be remembered, in the management of the victualling of the navy, that to make any abatement from them in the quantity or agreeableness of the victuals is to discourage and provoke them in the tendrest point and will sooner render them disgusted with the King’s service than any one other hardship that can be put upon them.”

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