1. Forty years on
2. Merchant Navy cadet scheme
3. Over a barrel?
4. Refund guarantees
5. Poseidon Principles
6. Renewable energy demand
7. Maritime Labour Convention
8. Looking at laytime
9. Women in shipping
10. Chinese lockdowns
11. Ship to ship transfer
12. Port in a storm
13. Energy efficiency report
Notices & Miscellany
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1. Forty years on
By Michael Grey
What were you doing, forty years ago? For the crews of 52 British merchant ships, it was a tale of the unexpected, with their vessels “taken up from trade” or chartered by the government as part of the extraordinary operation to retake the Falkland Islands from the Argentine invader. With the ships of the Royal Navy and 22 vessels of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, this fleet formed Operation Corporate, in the ultimately successful mission that defied distance, filthy weather and a determined enemy, albeit at the cost of many lives.
The crews of the merchant ships were volunteers who constituted the normal complements of the vessels in their normal trading lives.
Few would have had any experience of hostilities and only those who were reservists would have ever worked with the Royal Navy previously. In this strange new role, they worked under military orders, undertaking all sorts of unfamiliar tasks, frequently in hazard and working with every branch of the armed forces. They found themselves operating with warships, helicopters, transferring personnel, fuel and every form of logistics support, often in high seas and in terrible weather. While hostilities prevailed, they were always potential targets for a determined and brave enemy air force. They were, from all accounts, very professional, working with patience and good humour and established a fine rapport with their armed service counterparts.
Looking back at the operation from this distance, the whole operation appears increasingly remarkable; a sort of “can do” spirit that seems to resonate from another age. It was an extraordinary period, with the first merchant ships being requisitioned just two days after the invasion on 2nd April, to the surrender of the Argentine forces on the 14th June and the subsequent gradual return of the ships and their personnel to their normal lives. Left behind on the sea bed was the Atlantic Container Line’s Atlantic Conveyor, sunk on the 25th May, with the loss of her master Captain Ian North and 11 of those who had sailed in her.
“Without the ships taken up from trade” said Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, Commander in Chief of the Fleet, the operation could not have been undertaken and I hope this message is clearly understood by the British nation”.
Well, it may have been understood in the immediate aftermath of the Falklands war, but it is probably fair to suggest that a sort of amnesia took hold, as the remainder of the 20th century ticked away. The merchant ships came home to a warm welcome, but for the British crews who had served in them, as with their counterparts aboard other ships flying the Red Ensign, there were to be increasingly poor employment prospects.
The whole world was suffering from an overcapacity of shipping, rewards were poor and the future bleak. The UK fleet was to face an unprecedented contraction, with mass redundancies. The future, it seemed, lay with those who could operate ships cheapest, and that went for the crews, as the winnowing of the workforce, in all nations deemed “high cost”, took its toll. The future also belonged to the open registers, the flags of convenience, casual labour and the “international contracts” that were part and parcel of the deal.
But surely, one might enquire; hasn’t the strategic value of a merchant navy resonated at all with our governing classes? It had, after all, been proved in practically every war throughout history, with the Falklands just the latest example. From time to time there were efforts made in Parliament, while maritime bodies and lobbies would raise their voices. They were politely listened to, but some far more compelling topic of the day would soon distract successive governments. And after the fall of Communism and the apparent disappearance of more formidable potential enemies, there was a “peace dividend” to enjoy, defence spending to be reduced and talk of a strategic value of merchant shipping a subject which became largely surplus to requirements. There was always the USA, with its Sealift Command and a Jones Act to protect seafaring employment.
But forty years on, with a war in Europe, we suddenly don’t talk about peace dividends any more. What happens if there is a sudden need for merchant shipping for “strategic” purposes? You can probably find the tonnage, although there is precious left to requisition and “Ships Taken Up From Trade” will cost plenty when the government shipbroker finds himself being given short shrift by owners of brass plates in the Bahamas and entities in the Marshall Islands. They would probably tell him to get stuffed, at his proposed rates.
But let us not forget that those 52 merchant ships that sailed south forty years ago, came with their crews, and there are far, far fewer of those professionals available. We might recall that there are 800 fewer than were around a couple of months ago! We have a depleting maritime labour force, with cadets struggling to find ships available to give them sea time. One doesn’t want to be too negative, but the only serious employer of seafarers on British ships is the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. And the all-important dearth of personnel, forty years on, would be the real stumbling block, when some seer talks wisely on the media about “strategic” shipping.