Sunday, July 1, 2012

Visiting the Royal Navy

The training ship State of Maine reposed quietly alongside the dock of the venerable Holland-America Line in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on Monday, June 5, 1978. To all outward appearances, the ship seemed fairly quiet, but this was deceiving. She had been scheduled to sail that morning, but instead showed one of the vicissitudes of her age. A superheater tube in one of the boilers had ruptured, and this event, while repairable, decreed that the old ship would go nowhere until the next day. The repair work—shutting down and draining a boiler, cutting out the damaged section of pipe, welding new pipe in place, refilling and relighting the boiler, and pressure testing the new pipe and weld connections—kept the engine room crew busy for many hours. Good job training for those pursuing an engineering license, and a day off in Rotterdam for those of us pursuing a mate’s license.

Several of us wandered along the docks that afternoon until we happened upon the destroyer Sheffield of the British Royal Navy. Some of the Brits saw us admiring their ship, and they invited us aboard for a tour. Naturally, we accepted.

A dozen or so young British seamen greeted us at the head of the gangway and enthusiastically welcomed us aboard. They were about our ages, and they chatted excitedly, asking us what ship we were on, where we came from, and telling us about themselves. From our accents, of course, they recognized us as Americans. Then they wanted to show us around. Receiving official permission from the officer of the deck, they led us through every nook and cranny of the Sheffield, including the bridge, engine room, living quarters, recreational facilities, and to our great surprise, the combat operations center. Another officer gave his keys to one of our tour guides, and he unlocked a door worthy of a bank vault and led us into an inside room filled with radar screens, computer consoles, tracking charts, and communications gear. Several men were in there working, and they all paused to greet us and welcome us into their special world. Despite the sign on the bank vault door which told us that this room was top secret with absolutely no visitors permitted inside, we were ushered in without hesitation, and everyone there was very hospitable toward us.

The Sheffield was a very impressive ship. Built in the early 1970s by Vickers in Great Britain, she was 410 feet long, 47 feet wide, and powered by gas turbine engines capable of producing 30 knots—half the size and twice the speed of the old State of Maine! Everything on the Sheffield was state-of-the-art, and it showed. Her crew took and obvious pride in her, and their enthusiasm for their ship was unmistakable. We envied them. Sailing as we were aboard a tired old vessel that was constantly plagued with breakdowns, we practically drooled at the sight of everything that was shiny and sophisticated aboard this modern ship of the line. Most appealing to me were the almost deck-to-overhead bridge windows, the aircraft-style control console, the sparkling-new radar sets, and the compact yet fully stocked chartroom where every conceivable navigational need could easily be met. And it was all so spotlessly clean that it glistened. A very impressive ship indeed.

After a thoroughly enjoyable time aboard this lovely ship we thanked our hosts and returned ashore. The excitement of this impromptu visit aboard the Sheffield remained with us, so that returning to the old State of Maine later in the day seemed a letdown. But return we did, and with all the repair work completed, she sailed for Portsmouth, England, at 10:00am the next day.

Portsmouth was a quick stop. The State of Maine arrived at 9:00am and sailed again at 8:00pm. She moored at the Royal Naval Dockyard for the purpose of loading historical artifacts for transport to Maine. It had been announced that no one would be allowed ashore in this interval, but our English hosts quickly changed that. They invited all who were interested to take a guided tour of one of their national icons, Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson’s flagship Victory. No one with any interest in history, let alone any specialized interest in historic ships, could refuse such an invitation. So ashore we went. We had the honor of visiting the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world, the ship that had led the British fleet under Admiral Nelson’s command against the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar in October of 1805. Our hosts showed us the entire ship from stem to stern and explained everything in considerable detail. Most significantly—and even reverently—they showed us the well preserved and still bloodstained wooden planks on which Admiral Nelson lay bleeding after receiving his mortal sniper wound, as well as the equally carefully preserved bed on which he subsequently died. Another very impressive ship, but in a very different way.

Our hosts took the subject of the Battle of Trafalgar very seriously. Its favorable outcome saved Britain from the threat of foreign invasion, a legitimate concern in a part of the world where countries have routinely invaded and conquered each other for many centuries. It cost approximately 5,000 human lives—English, Spanish, and French combined. Plenty of food for thought there. I did not realize it at the time, but in three days I had visited two British warships, one famous from a past war, and the other to become famous in a future war.

Four short years later, the British became entangled in the Falkland Islands War with Argentina. The Sheffield, among other vessels, participated. On Tuesday, May 4, 1982, an Exocet missile fired from an Argentine aircraft struck the Sheffield amidships on her starboard side, breached the hull above the waterline, and started an enormous fire. Twenty British seamen perished. The ship burned ferociously and was abandoned by the survivors. A ruined but still floating hulk, the Sheffield was taken in tow toward South Georgia by the destroyer Yarmouth. While underway, however, the hull flooded, and the ship sank on Monday, May 10.1 The Sheffield was the first of six British ships to be sunk in the Falkland Islands War, and the first British ship to be lost in combat since 1945.2

By this time, I was no longer sailing on the State of Maine, but was safely at home. I had left the Victoria in December of 1981 and gone on a working vacation. During the winter months I painted rooms in our recently purchased house in Nashua and studied for the second mate’s exams. I received my new license as second mate on Monday, March 29, and was ready to return to sea. The job market being poor, however, my vacation became extended. On the day the Sheffield was attacked, I was at home waiting for a ship. On the day she sank, I was undergoing a medical checkup at company headquarters. Finally, I joined the Waccamaw as third mate on Thursday, June 24. While I was sweating blood about getting a job and going back to sea, others were shedding blood in a war at sea. More food for thought.

And I did think about it. The destruction of the Sheffield came as a shock. Of course, I knew that the British and the Argentines had gone to war, that ships and airplanes would be lost, and that soldiers and seamen would be killed. But these facts were war in the abstract. When a ship that I had known became a casualty of even such a faraway war, it was no longer abstract but suddenly very personal. I had seen and visited and walked on the Sheffield. I had met several members of her crew, had accepted their kind hospitality and spoken with them and enjoyed their company. I felt grateful to them for their friendliness toward me and my colleagues from the State of Maine. I felt horrified at the thought of any of them coming to grief in a war. I wondered if any of the ones whom I had met were still on the ship when she was attacked, but there was no way of knowing. Despite my own preoccupations about getting a job and going back to sea, I could not shake off these thoughts. The shock of the Sheffield’s violent demise remained with me.

This is what we call the brotherhood of the sea. Despite differences in nationality, culture, language, politics, and religion, the sea serves as a tie that binds to those who follow it professionally. This is widely recognized, even among enemies in wartime. I had a love of the sea and the ships that sailed it in common with the fellows on the Sheffield. After the conclusion of the Falkland Islands War, an Argentine naval officer described the common bond that he felt with his British enemies. Previously he had expressed jubilation at the destruction of the Sheffield. Given time to reconsider, however, he came to regret this glee. As the Englishman to whom he expressed his remorse related the conversation,

For it had betrayed his principles as a navy man. Even though the British at the time were his enemies, he said, no sailor should ever take the kind of delight that he had taken in the foundering of another ship. No one should so ardently wish a vessel of any navy, or indeed any ship, ever to be sunk in the ocean. “I am a good sailor,” he kept saying. “There is no pleasure to be taken over a thing like this. There is a brotherhood of the sea.”3

A similar sentiment displayed itself in one of Great Britain’s earlier and larger wars with a different enemy. Two seamen, one British and one German, were buried at sea in a funeral service held aboard the British corvette Compass Rose in 1941. As the British Captain Ericson conducted the service,

the gentle words affected him: as he read, he thought of the dead, and of the young seaman who was Compass Rose’s first casualty. He found that sad: and the German captain, standing free of escort a yard from him, found his own role sad also. . . .  Close by him, he heard and felt the German captain tremble.4

After the bodies of the deceased had slipped overboard, Captain Ericson

put on his cap, and saluted. The German captain, watching him, did the same. When they faced each other, Ericson saw tears glittering in the pale eyes.

“Thank you, Captain,” said the German. “I appreciate all you have done.” He held out his hand awkwardly. “I would like—” 

Ericson shook his hand without saying anything. He was shy of his emotion, and of the thirty-odd members of Compass Rose’s crew watching them. 

The German captain said suddenly: “Comrades of the sea. . . .”5

How sad that that such comrades should be called upon by their governments to shoot at each other on the normally pristine and peaceful sea. More often than not, the casualties of these wars have been young men and often teenagers. With most of their natural lifespans still ahead of them, it seems almost a crime against Nature itself to cut them down with metal globs flung across or through vast stretches of water. But a realist voice reminds us:

Brotherhood or not, the Atlantic seabed is littered with the wrecks of many thousands of ships and the long-decayed skeletons of many millions of men. War has been a constant feature of the ocean’s experience, and wars have been fought on its surface ever since there has been iron with which to fight them.6

I was fortunate; I sailed in peacetime. Over the years there were peaceful visits to several ships of various nationalities. The Danish sailing vessel Danmark, the Russian sailing ship Kruzenshtern, the British oil tanker Lucellum, the Greek passenger ship Ellinis, the American aircraft carrier America, and the American container ship San Pedro come quickly to mind. I was welcomed as a guest aboard these ships as well as aboard the other ships of my own employer’s fleet because we were “comrades of the sea.” Whatever differences there were between us, there was the overarching commonality of men, ships, and the sea. This can be difficult to explain to a layman’s satisfaction, but it was undeniably there.

When the Sheffield was attacked and twenty of her crew killed, I felt their loss. While I had known the ship but not necessarily the men, it made no difference. The Sheffield, like every other vessel, carried her own persona, and that was enough. I did not need to know the seamen individually in order to grieve for them. The brotherhood of the sea transmuted the unvarnished news of their deaths into a genuine and personal sorrow. Their loss, coupled with the destruction of their ship which I had visited and gotten to know four years earlier, made a geographically distant war feel very close to home.

Yet war was the very purpose for which the Sheffield had been built. Likewise, Lord Nelson’s Victory had served this same master, as had innumerable others through the centuries and millennia. War has indeed been a “constant feature” not only of the sea, but of human life. I wonder, though. If Cain had not killed Abel (Gen. 4:8), if that first mortal combat had not taken place, would humans never have gone to war with each other but lived in peace instead? Had that been so, there never would have been any need for navies, only merchant fleets and fishermen—peaceful pursuits.

In his masterpiece novel of the Second World War, the great seaman and author Herman Wouk described a naval officer looking toward Heaven in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor:

Victor Henry turned his face from the hideous sight to the indigo arch of the sky, where Venus and the brightest stars still burned: Sirius, Capella, Procyon, the old navigation aids. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief. In a world so rich and lovely, could his children find nothing better to do than dig iron from the ground and work it into vast grotesque engines for blowing each other up? Yet this madness was the way of the world.7

No doubt “this madness” is part of the “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). The dichotomy of war and peace thus seems inherent to the human condition, but not necessarily immutable. For it is an opposition that I’m certain almost all of us would be very happy to live without, and there are far better things that God’s children can find to do. The “comrades of the sea” can certainly attest to that.

1 Summary of events from
2 Statistics from
3 Simon Winchester, Atlantic, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2010, p. 211.
4 Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988, p. 274. While officially a novel, this book is in reality the author’s wartime memoir thinly veiled as fiction.
5 Ibid.
6 Winchester, loc. cit.
7 Herman Wouk, The Winds of War, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971, p. 887.

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