COMMANDER Rich Atkinson is a man at the top of his game. The captain of a billion pound warship, the most sophisticated and newest of its type in any navy.
She is called HMS DUNCAN and her 290 crew have just come through months of training and are about to deploy for the first time. Destination for this new warship? The Persian Gulf, where her advanced sensors and potentially deadly weapons are in big demand. That demand comes in the main from the mighty United States Navy. Since the introduction of the Type 45 destroyer of which Duncan is one, the UK’s bigger ally appears to feel a little more comfortable when they are in company with one in the waters of the Persian Gulf.
For now though Duncan is in safer waters. It is dawn on a February morning at a peaceful quayside on the River Tyne in north east England. Duncan sits port side to the jetty, her Wärtsilä diesel generators making a menacing growling noise deep inside her hull. I am met on the gangway by a young officer. He leads me through the ship to meet Cdr Atkinson. On the short journey through immaculately clean passageways and up though several decks, he extols the virtues of Duncan and the other Type 45 destroyers that make up what is known as the Daring Class.
Heavy tartan curtains mark the entrance to Cdr Atkinson’s cabin. My guide tells me the tartan was commissioned specially for the ship by her builders BAE Systems. It is now two years since Duncan left BAE’s Clydeside ship yard. My guide who has introduced himself to me as Will, tells me he joined the ship there, and has been with her on her journey to operational readiness.
Cdr Atkinson greets me with a confident handshake and warm smile. Bacon sandwiches are delivered by an attentive steward as we talk about ourselves, the ship and the trip ahead. We share a common background, having both grown up not far from the jetty the ship is sitting on. We are of similar age, and I guess it is likely we have friends in common though before I have time to bring the subject up, the conversation turns to beards. He has just started growing his, and is in two minds as to whether he should keep it. I tell him mine celebrated its first birthday a few weeks ago.
This is the captain’s world, his living space. Below the bridge with blue carpet, grey walls and more of that Duncan tartan, is a big room which serves as a meeting area, a dining room, an office and living room. It runs almost the full width of the ship, with his sleeping quarters to starboard, and guest accommodation to port. The ship is modern in every way. Aside from the technology she carries, Duncan is fitted out in an almost austere manner but of a very good standard. That sounds like a contradiction, but it is not. The facilities the ship offers her crew are second to none, but with grey walls and strip lights her cabins and living spaces look like a 3D model one might see on a designer’s computer screen. I suppose they look like that because that is how they were designed. Simply functional and modern, even the Duncan tartan comes in varying shades of blue and grey.
Despite the décor, there are touches of the old navy everywhere. Cdr Atkinson has a port hole, or scuttle to use the proper nautical term. It faces forward allowing a little natural light into the cabin. The walls carry artwork, including a cartoon like drawing of the ship and a portrait of Adam Duncan, Viscount Duncan of Campbeltown, a naval hero after which the ship is named.
Introductions over and with an invitation to dine with him in his cabin that evening I am taken below to my quarters, a single cabin normally reserved for Duncan’s helicopter pilot. Inside, the same computer designed décor and more of that tartan. Compared to accommodation I have experienced in other warships, this cabin is luxury, it just looks so clinical, so new, so un-lived in. Will, the young Lieutenant who ushered me to the captain’s cabin later explains to me that unlike other older designed ships, Duncan was assembled in pre-built blocks, and that my cabin was fitted out long before it was placed inside the vessel.
Later on the bridge, the crew who will take Duncan to sea receive a briefing. Everything from the weather to the power of the tugs that will ease us off our jetty is discussed. At the centre of it all, sitting in a blue upholstered chair, not unlike a car seat, sits Cdr Atkinson. His questions are quick, as are the answers from the assembled experts providing him with the information he needs. The briefing has a professional informality about it. This is a tight-knit crew, a collection of men and women who know their jobs and who have trained hard to prove it. I feel I am standing amongst men and women of the highest standard.
Dawn is a distant memory as Duncan prepares to leave. Out on deck the sun shines as the appropriate leaving harbour flags are hoisted. Those working up here in the cold pause and face aft as the flags, known as the colours, are raised. Despite the sun, everyone is dressed for warmth against the Tyneside chill. In a few weeks these same decks will be so hot, the heat will be felt through navy issue boots as Duncan spends her first summer abroad, under an Arabian sun.
At sea Duncan seeks clear water away from the commercial shipping which constantly travels up and down Britain’s east coast. A call is made to the Coastguard to tell them we will be conducting exercises, including a live firing of weapons.
Then Duncan’s siren begins to blare. A series of short blasts. On the bridge and elsewhere people rush to their stations. A voice comes over the main broadcast, we have a man overboard. The officer in charge of operations on the bridge immediately orders a change of course as something is spotted in the water and a young man on the helm expertly and gingerly moves the 152 meter long ship closer to his target. This helm is a matte black plastic covered steering wheel set into a console. It would not look out of place in a teenager’s bedroom attached to a PlayStation or Xbox.
The order “Away Seaboat” is given, and via one of many CCTV cameras dotted around the ship, the bridge crew watch the black-hulled fast rescue boat being craned from a special hangar on the side of the ship into the water. Once in the sea the coxswain of the boat calls the ship for instructions. He addresses it as “Mother” and the ship replies to “Poseidon” the name they give to this rigid-hulled inflatable vessel that can dash across the ocean at up to 45 miles an hour.
Duncan bristles with sensors, from radar sets to sophisticated electro-optical devices that can see for miles both day and night. For this rescue none of this matters, the eyes of the bridge team and crew on the upper deck are what is needed. Something is spotted in the water, and a crewman simply points. His outstretched hand a guide for the helmsman as the rescue takes place.
As quick as it began the operation is over. Cameras slew down towards the side of the ship as through the white water in “mother’s” wake “Poseidon” is winched safely back on board. The whole operation has been controlled by the bridge team working banks of screens displaying CCTV images, radar pictures, maps and the status of Duncan’s electric propulsion system.
Today’s operation was just an exercise. Next time it may be for real and for any man or woman in Duncan, it could be a matter of their life or death.
“Vessel at green seven zero this is Warship Delta thirty-seven, turn away or I may be forced to take action against you.” An unambiguous warning issued in a Yorkshire accent by a crewman over Duncan’s VHF radio. This may be an exercise, but the weapons we are about to fire are real. As part of this latest element of training, Duncan faces an imaginary threat from small fast speedboats carrying armed men. Warnings are repeated, and the helmsman moves this 8,000 tonne ship to and fro to give weapons on the upper deck the best arcs of fire should the speed boat not heed the Yorkshireman’s warnings. To every turn of the wheel Duncan responds. At slow speeds she heels quite dramatically when sharp inputs are made to her twin rudders. As the bright winter sun enters the bridge blinding the watchkeepers, tinted screen blinds are drawn down. Now equipped with giant sunglasses, Duncan can see her target which continues to approach to within 500 yards. That 500 yard marker is important, as this is the maximum effective range of the machine guns mounted on the upper deck. Duncan has missiles to deal with other warships and attacking aircraft. However first defence to the threat of armed men in speed boats is not a hi-tech multi-million pound munition, but a belt-fed machine gun, as familiar to the young sailor who mans it today at it has been to sailors for generations stretching back to World War Two. The General Purpose Machine gun, known as a GPMG or “Jimpy” is an effective low-tech solution to a low tech problem.
“I am warning you. You get out of my way.” It is the scripted radio response from the “bad guys” which in reality is just a sailor in the corner of the bridge playing the role of the terrorist. There is a short pause while the situation is assessed.
“Vessel at green three zero, this is warship Delta thirty-seven I am firing warning shots, turn away now.” The Yorkshireman gives the terrorists one last chance. On the starboard bridge wing the “Jimpy” gunner in body armour and Kevlar helmet has the target in his sights.
Warning shots are fired, a short burst and then when that doesn’t work the gunner lets loose more rounds. The “Dakka Dakka Dakka” sound of his gun is drowned out by a loud mechanical bark. If this situation were real that bark would be the last thing the men in the speedboat would hear as Duncan’s automatic radar controlled starboard Phalanx gun joins in the shooting match. Designed as a last-ditch defence against an incoming missile, the Phalanx, one of two on board can be programmed to fill the air and water around the ship with 3,000 rounds of 20mm shells a minute. The engagement doesn’t last that long. A four second burst from the Phalanx with that distinctive bark echoing out across the water sees to that.
Fun and games it may be on this calm bright morning but the threat Duncan’s crew trains for is real. In October 2000, 17 American sailors died, and nearly 40 were injured when terrorists in the port of Aden rammed the USS Cole with a speed boat packed with explosives. 15 years ago, Cole was one of the most advanced air defence warships in the world, a title Duncan and her sisters lay claim to today. Despite the sophistication of Cole’s weaponry, the attack caused the ship severe damage. Memories are long in the naval community.
I meet Will in the Wardroom, the recreation area reserved for officers in Royal Navy warships. More blue carpet and tartan, but this space seems more homely than places like Cdr Atkinson’s cabin. There is a bar in the corner of the room on which sits a plastic toy aircraft carrier, complete with toy aeroplanes on deck. A Christmas present from someone I am told as we sit back in red leather chairs and sip good coffee. Here is where the officers spend their off duty time, and everywhere there are personal touches. The obligatory tartan covers some furnishings as it does the wall mounted television. Fragile items like this are covered to stop them getting damaged and to prevent them damaging anyone in the event of a missile strike and explosion.
We are at sea, but the weather is flat calm. The only clues to the fact I am on a warship are the occasional shake and shudder from the hull and a big green and red escape hatch in the middle of the deck nestled perfectly in the blue fitted carpet. To make the wardroom a little more individual, the crew have fitted LED mood lighting under seating in one corner of the room. The LEDs change colour, from blue to pink. A little touch that makes me smile.
From the calm of the Wardroom I am taken to the Ship Control Centre - the place where Duncan’s machinery is controlled from. All computer driven, simple graphic screens allow engineers to check hundreds of systems, switches and valves in the machinery spaces below. In the navy of World War Two, this would have been a place of dials, wheels, valves oil and steam. This is a place of quiet professional control. Like in the Wardroom, a string of LED lights adds a little human touch to this centre of high technology.
An engineer takes me below into the machinery spaces. Powerful Rolls Royce gas turbines, sit in shining white containers while those Wärtsilä diesels I heard growling on the quayside now emit a low droning noise. The whole set up is just a compact power station. Turbines and diesels run to make electricity for two drive motors which turn the propeller shafts and then the propellers. The navy won’t quote Duncan’s precise top speed saying instead that she will do “in excess of 29 knots” that works out at a shade over 33 miles an hour.
In this brightly lit engine room there is something missing. There is no smell. Other engine rooms I have visited have reeked of hot oil and diesel and usually the sewage treatment plant. Not in Duncan. The main machinery is sealed away in enclosures and containers. It is all very clinical. Then a maintainer opens the door to a container housing a recently shut down diesel and those familiar odours waft around the engine room. Everything smells as it should.
Down in the ship with the engineers, still called Stokers by the navy even though the last ship with furnaces requiring a stoker retired nearly 20 years ago, I get a sense of pride. In other older warships I have met stokers who regard “their” engines as troublesome children. In an ancient Canadian Frigate I met a stoker who talked to his turbines. I have also shared drinks with a Royal Navy stoker who told me how, with the warship burning and sinking he was forced to leave “his” engines to their fate - along with 20 of his comrades. The bond between engineer and his or her ship can be strong. A love-hate relationship. In Duncan’s immaculate machinery spaces I sense pride, wonder and admiration. Perhaps nine months away in the Persian Gulf will instil feelings of love and anger towards the machinery in their charge.
Duncan and the Type 45s are a whole new tradition. Everything from the way the radar acquires targets to the way the toilets flush is different. Traditional clips or “dogs” that hold watertight doors shut have vanished, replaced by easy-open mechanisms. The showers provide high pressure hot water, rather than luke warm dribbles.
At 7pm I make my way up to Cdr Atkinson’s cabin. Amongst the other guests are a senior Royal Navy captain, Cdr Atkinson’s boss, and a handful of senior crew members, Petty Officers and Warrant Officers. As a civilian I remain quiet waiting to see what path the conversation takes. We are offered beer or wine. Cdr Atkinson and his boss opt for wine. I take a can of beer as do most of the other men.
Over the three course meal I hear tales of long-scrapped warships and trips to far off places. The guests share their views on their forthcoming nine month deployment. I get a sense that those who have seen it all before are eager to take their brand new warship out to the Gulf and show the world what she and they can do. I try and do some mental calculations. The combined experience of the men sitting round this table must run to a couple of centuries.
Thoughts of home come to the surface too. Duncan may be state-of-the-art, but she has 190 humans at her heart.
A flat calm grey dawn meets me the next morning as I step onto the bridge. Overnight we have moved further south and are now transiting the Dover Straits at 24 knots, just under 28 miles an hour. The sea is a deep green right out to the Horizon ahead. To starboard, the Kent coast, to port, France.
I am met by an enthusiastic young woman. She is one of the officers in charge of Duncan’s weapons systems, communications gear, sonar and radar. Below the bridge in the spacious operations room the functions of the various consoles are explained to me. Gone are the glowing orange cathode ray tube radar displays of yesterday’s navy. This ship runs on Windows - a militarised version of the software that can be found in phones, laptops, tablets and PCs worldwide. A radar screen is explained to me, the graphics clear and easy to understand. It looks much like a computer simulator game. The whole operations room which stretches the width of the ship is suspended on special shock proof mountings. Like a big dance floor, you can feel the “give” when you walk across the deck.
I am taken deep below to Duncan’s raison d'être, the Sea Viper missile silo. Sea Viper is a weapon developed by Britain and other European nations. It comprises two types of missile, one for close in defence, the other for targets further away. Linked to two radars, hundreds of targets can be tracked and just about anything flying towards the ship can be engaged, right up to the last ditch defence of the Phalanx, and that gunner on the bridge wing with his “Jimpy”.
As with others I meet in Duncan, this young woman guiding me round her part of the ship exudes pride and confidence. The missile silo extends from above the upper deck to deep inside the hull. I am shown one of 48 grey painted launch tubes. It has black marker pen signatures on it, the names of the team responsible for the firing of Duncan’s first missile a few weeks prior to my visit. Another milestone in this young ship’s life.
By afternoon, Duncan is alongside a jetty in her home port of Portsmouth. Engines stopped and tugs dismissed I walk the upper deck surveying the scene. Old warships, Duncan’s predecessors, sit rusting and decommissioned. With luck, in three decades or so, Duncan will occupy one of those berths after a long and peaceful life.
Will tells me how Duncan has evolved from a building site to a fully trained fighting ship. His knowledge, pride and dare I say affection is apparent when he tells me, that this warship has got into his blood.
He is a fortunate man. I envy him. To take a brand new ship from her birthplace, through tests and trials to arguably the most dangerous waters on earth is a rare experience.