Rowan Wise, commentator on United Kingdom and United States of America Defence Policy.
Rowan Wise looks at the unravelling of events off the coast of Southampton over the weekend which saw the elite military unit, the Special Boat Service, intercept a group of stowaways who had held a shipping crew to ransom for twelve hours.
Mayday from the Nave Andromeda
Sunday evening last (25th of October) the Greek commercial tanker Nave Andromeda bound for Southampton from Lagos Nigeria issued an emergency mayday call to the mainland from a position five miles off the Isle of Wight. It became clear to the police that the ship’s crew were being threatened by a band of Nigerian stowaways who had managed to avoid detection by concealing themselves deep inside the hull.
The seven illegal migrants were discovered during a routine pre-docking inspection carried out by the Nave Andromeda’s complement of twenty two crew. When challenged the stowaways became violent, breaking glass to use as makeshift weapons. Subsequently the crew retreated to the ship’s ‘citadel’ in the vicinity of the engine room which is designed to hold off pirates until help arrives.
In London the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, discussed a request made by the police for the use of Special Forces to secure the Nave Andromeda.
They agreed to send in the SBS: Special Boat Service.
The SBS: Britain’s Best
The Royal Navy’s elite special forces unit has its origins in the daring raids on the ports of Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War (1939-45). The unit was officially formed in 1947 and commanded by Major Herbert Hasler who had led the famous wartime “Cockleshell Heroes” raid against German shipping in Bordeaux. The exploits of this elite unit are less well known than those of their more famous airborne equivalent, the Special Air Service: SAS.
The SBS motto of “by strength and guile” goes some way to describe their modus operandi. Specifically the SBS prefer to carry out their missions in absolute secrecy, indeed many of their covert operations in defending the United Kingdom are still not in histories of our Armed Forces. Several of their most significant missions include: during the Korean War (1950-53) SBS operatives conducted raids against communist installations on the Korean coastline, during the Indonesian Confrontation (1963-66) they carried out dangerous reconnaissance missions and amphibious raids across the border into Indonesian Kalimantan, during the Troubles here in Northern Ireland (1969-07) they carried out covert surveillance and anti-gun running operations near Torr Head and Garron in 1975 and during the Falklands War (1982) they carried out reconnaissance weeks ahead of the arrival of the main Task Force, helping to clear beaches for the landings to liberate the islands from Argentine occupation. The list of their successes goes on. In terms of missions to secure ships the SBS famously parachuted onto the liner Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 when there was a suspected bomb onboard. Suffice to say the SBS are the world leaders in covert maritime operations.
Storming the hijacked Nave Andromeda.
With the Nigerian pirates in charge of the 750-foot-long Nave Andromeda and its 42,000 tons of crude oil the mission for the SBS was to secure the vessel, her crew and cargo. Aviation watchers were witness to the first phase of the recovery operation when two Royal Air Force Chinooks landed in Poole, Dorset which is home to SBS Headquarters. The helicopters carried sixteen SBS troops in two teams to the Nave Andromeda and were joined en route by four Royal Navy helicopters, two Merlin Mark 4s and two Wildcats.
The operation was meticulously planned and expertly conducted in darkness. The Merlins and Wildcats flew low and fast over the stricken ship with flashing white lights and rotor wash to disorientate the hijackers, a feat of flying remarkable in and of itself. Then the RAF Chinooks hovered, one at the bow and the other at the stern, whilst the Royal Navy helicopters orbited the Nave Andromeda. At 19:30 hrs SBS had boots on the deck in two hitman teams of eight troops each.
With great swiftness the teams cleared the vacant areas of the ship before homing in on the fugitives, all the while assisted, where possible, by the Royal Navy helicopters. It was close quarters action and the SBS strategy of overwhelming force worked wonders. Flash-bang stun grenades and MP5 sub-machine guns fitted with white light attachments easily overpowered the illegals. Subsequently the crew were liberated from the ‘citadel’ and the operation was wrapped up with zero casualties.
The Nave Andromeda was put to anchor with the police in possession whilst the would-be pirates and the saved crew were ferried by helicopter to the shore. It is understood that the crew are presently well. In the meantime, a remand has been placed on the hijackers and they will be kept safely under lock and key, with the possibility that they will be deported back to Nigeria.
The incident has raised serious questions for the Government about how border security can be improved to prevent the re-occurrence of piracy and maritime criminality in UK waters.
Rowan’s timely contribution offers a welcome and long-overdue examination into the role of elite, special forces military units which protect UK air, land and sea. Garrisoned with the Royal Marines in Poole, on the Southeastern tip of the Dorset coast, the Special Boat Service was acurately positioned to put their extensive training and capabilities into action, 30 miles around the coast to Southampton. The 42,000-tonne, Liberian-registered Andromeda had departed on October 6th from Lagos, Nigeria, where it is assumed that the stoaways boarded the tanker. The 22-strong crew had barricaded themselves in the ship’s citadel for almost 12 hours until SBS personnel effected a rapid on-deck descension, from Royal Navy & RAF helicopters, swiftly detaining their captors. It was done and dusted, over and out within all of nine minutes. The multi-agency operation, aided by the Police and HM Coastguard, has been dubbed as “a textbook case” of military precision. For the emergency response teams it was a high-alert incident, with the real possibility that the individuals onboard could have been terrorist hijackers.
Although the SBS, has traditionally, been viewed as the poor relation of their SAS cousins, its reputation from inception during the Second World War, challenges that sweeping assumption. Incidents such as the weekend, have happened countless times before, however, such events throw the integrity of border and maritime security into sharp relief. As the current UK-EU Trade Talks reportedly reach a standoff over this very issue -access to UK Territorial waters – it should be emphasised that robust border security is of paramount importance and of reciprocal benefit to both parties. For the unfortunate stowaways, who feel the need to escape the dreadful conditions of their home country in search of a better life, there must be an effective multinational effort to address the root causes of their plight, poverty and indifference of their own governments. On Tuesday, 27th October, four migrants, two identified as children, drowned in the English Channel, crossing from France to England. Now more than ever not just words but actions are crucial. Peter Donnelly