The Commanding Officer is Cdr Peter Laughton, MBE RN who assumed command in November 2013, having joined the Royal Navy as Midshipman in 1992. There are five Lt Cdrs, 9 other compliment officers and several officers under training. Currently, the ship’s company is around 165 but can accommodate up to 200 and in fact for the recent Caribbean deployment there were 185 UK personnel and 10 US Coast Guard.
If I was asked ‘what has been the best time you have ever had?’ my recent time spent at sea on HMS Lancaster would be at the top end of the list. I know I also speak for Liverymen Nicholas Lee and Rob Wallbank who accompanied me along with three ‘Cavaliers’, Veterans of HMS Cavalier, de-mobilized in 1972 and now a museum docked at Chatham. They were on their way to Chatham for the 2014 reunion, which Commander Laughton and some officers from Lancaster were also attending.
We were picked up first thing at The George in Portsmouth by Lt Cdr Adrian Gubby RN, the Weapon Engineer Officer, (who had organized our visit), and driven to the Naval Base where Lancaster was docked. It was a great feeling going on board knowing that we would be spending the next 2 days out at sea on her. We were shown to our quarters – the three ‘Cavaliers’ and Midshipmen Lee & Wallbank stacked together aft below; newly appointed Helicopter Pilot Way accommodated in the lap of luxury, forward and up a level or two.
We were given a brief orientation tour of the ship and then went onto the deck by the Bridge to watch casting off, assisted by two tugs gently pulling her away from the dockside. Lancaster is adept at weaving left and right and going round in circles but moving sideways unassisted is difficult. Moving slowly away, we passed by the most revered Victory and the cocooned Mary Rose. Modern warship saluting the old.
As we moved out to sea Lt Cdr Gubby (Adrian) explained that HMS Lancaster is a Type 23 Frigate built as an anti-submarine platform and launched in 1991. These days she operates as a general purpose Frigate. He pointed out the array of radars, sonars, communications, satellite communications and electronic surveillance.
To add to this protection and to ward off attacks from air, land and sea, Lt Daniel Astley DWEO (Rick) told us that Lancaster is armed with a 4.5 Mk8 medium range gun, 30mm automatic small calibre guns, 7.62 miniguns, firing 3000 rounds a per minute, GPMG’s and hand held 5.56 rifles. She carries harpoon and Sea Skua anti-ship missiles, Sea Wolf point defence air missile system (1-10km range) and Sting Ray anti-submarine torpedoes : Currently Lancaster is home to Merlin helicopter armed with, anti-submarine torpedoes, sea skua anti-ship missiles or depth charges: for those wanting a more technical explanation the following website explains all.
Later ‘stand easy’ in the Ward Room and over coffee, Adrian and Rick (the aforementioned) went through our busy schedule. We were to be given an insight into everyday life on board and to witness drills and exercises that are carried out routinely.
Our tour began with Lt Cdr Jared Ward (Logistics Officer). He showed all the departments involved with the ‘housekeeping/ running of the ship.
The galley to a civilian’s eye, is a small space to cater on such large scale – 3 meals a day, 24/7. The budget allowed is just £2.61 per person per day. Nothing is wasted, leftovers from the previous day are cleverly transformed into interesting and delicious dishes for the next day. Working out quantities of food and menus required for a long deployment of 7 months (like in 2013) is a monumental task. The equipment and surfaces in the galley are made of stainless steel, the floor is tiled – nothing flammable there except the oil in the deep fat fryer….to be continued. Everything is very clean.
On our way to Supplies we stopped by the NAAFI shop, a comforting retreat where almost everything can be bought from pot noodles, chocolates to cigarettes and coke or similar sugar fix and essentials such as shaving foam, toothpaste etc.
The Supply Store is large and houses everything required for life onboard. Stationary, hardware, spare engine parts, medical supplies, clothing, cleaning materials etc. Stored away in rows upon rows of labelled stacked drawers. Meticulous stock control carried out in the supply ‘office ‘ an area luxuriously carpeted within the store.
The food store is separate room, huge bags of pasta, rice and large pots of herbs and spices, coffee, tea and custard to name a few….. plus two large walk in deep freezes for perishable food.
On long deployments supplies can be restocked either by helicopter drop off or in the supply stores when in port.
Onto the surgery cum sick bay. Fortunately not used too often but equipped for minor surgery and one bunk bed. For more complicated procedures, there is always a surgeon at the end of the telephone who will talk a procedure through and for dire emergencies the patient can be taken to hospital by helicopter.
Tucked away aft and somewhere down we arrived at the laundry room, a hive of activity, washing and drying machines continually turning, clothes everywhere and a pressing machine. Run by a Gurka who also sleeps there – somewhere amongst the laundry – although I couldn’t see his bunk. He is responsible for everybody’s laundry – a mammoth task in such a confined space.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were taken in the Wardroom. Round a large table, informal and entertaining listening to the officers’ ‘banter’. Dinner was a more relaxed meal and gave us an opportunity to meet and talk to the other officers. I was delighted to find myself sitting next to a Lt who revealed he was a Yorkshireman. Aha – a kindred spirit! ‘We are in the wrong camp’, I said! Aghast, he saw me eyeing his cummerbund which was decorated with a magnificent red Lancastrian rose, by rights it should have been white!
I had an interesting conversation with the ship’s Chaplain Mike Meachin who had joined Lancaster just 2 weeks before and was busy acquainting himself with everyone on board. He divides his time between 4 RN ships and told me he took 2 short services on board morning and evening and provided pastoral care. One of his concerns was the staff cutbacks that the Royal Navy have undergone explaining that the full quota of allotted annual leave could not always be taken due to lack of trained staff to provide cover which was causing problems.
Our conversation turned to Afghanistan which I had had the good fortune to visit in 1977 before the Russians swept in. He had been there under very different circumstances just 2-3 years ago so comparing notes about this beautiful country proved very interesting.
We breakfasted the following morning with Cdr Peter Laughton – in the Holy of Holies. A spacious room, beneath the Bridge – quite reminiscent of Nelson’s quarters on Victory! We felt honoured that he managed to find the time for a private chat with us. He re-iterated that The Feltmakers’ have a special connection to Lancaster and he was very much looking forward to coming to our Installation Dinner in October. As we were signing his visitors’ book he told us that they were busy preparing for Her Majesty’s visit to Lancaster on May 20th. The hangar will be transformed into a dining hall where lunch will be served. As we know Her Majesty, (being the Duke of Lancaster), is the ship’s sponsor and takes a great deal of interest in her.
Drills & Exercises
Flood and fire drills are practised most days at sea and when alongside.
Both are a great risk. All RN staff are well drilled before they are allowed on board.
One can understand the fire risks seeing the staggering amount of electric cables bundled and coiled together, snaking their way aft and forward and up and down from one level to the next.
Lessons have been learnt from the Falklands War and in particular HMS Sheffield which was hit by Exocet with the loss of 20 lives and many casualties. Warships are now sectioned off to prevent fire spreading throughout the ship.
The galley is another major fire risk and is where we witnessed a fire Level 3 drill (called an F3).
The deep fat fryer is alight!
A smoke machine puffed out very realistic dark grey smoke, a chef gave a convincing performance of being set alight with burning fat from the deep fryer. The fire alarm rings. The first team of 2 men arrive almost instantaneously and another 2 within two minutes of the alarm wearing protective headgear, gloves and breathing apparatus. They could not diminish the flames which had taken hold. A quick retreat and all hatches to the galley are closed down to isolate the fire. A magnetic red flashing light is placed on all sealed doors leading into the burning area. This means ‘do not enter’ in any event. In the meantime, the hoses are pulled out and filled and a team of 5 is dressing in full protective fire gear. They have 8 minutes to prepare and arrive at the closed galley hatch. The man in the middle has a special nozzle (waterwall) which creates a protective circular shield of water, to his right you have the fire fighter who will attack the flames, behind these will be the team leader who directs the firefighting effort and then 2 men to manoeuvre the hoses. Gradually the 2 front men douse the flames by hosing through the protective shield and the threesome slowly inch their way forward, ably supported by their hose handlers.
Another frequently practised drill which Past Master Eda Rose-Lawson has witnessed and describes very well in her article written in 2012 following her adventures on board.
We were taken to the gunbay under the 4.5 gun to watch a shell loading drill.
The shells weighing 57 kilos are stored below this small space and lifted into the bay where they are manhandled and loaded onto the feed ring. An exhausting job bearing in mind the weight and speed in which this has to be carried out. Having observed this we scrambled up onto the Bridge to witness the firing of the gun. This is fired from Ops room. Impressive booms and dark smoke, it has a maximum firing range of 15 miles. We watched 5 practice shells fired at a distance of 9 miles.
From the bridge we witnessed the aforementioned small arms firing drill. The targets floating 2 miles away port and starboard were 2 large scarlet inflated balls (known as ‘killer tomatoes’) 4 man operated machine guns (GPMGs) and 2 operated by joy sticks from the Bridge (ASCGs). Loud cracking noise as live huge bullets flew towards their target.
Our turn next! – we made our way to the flight deck and after a short demonstration on how to handle a 5.56 rifle, donned earplugs and defenders and away we went, 3 Cavaliers and 3 Feltmakers firing live bullets out to sea beyond the wake.
Operations (Ops) Room/Simulated Attack
No photography allowed here.
This room is positioned in the middle of the ship. This is the hub, where it all happens when at war or under attack, this is where all the decisions are made and most of the weapons fired from. Working as a team in front of many computers, it was fascinating to see ‘electronic warfare’ is carried out: radar screens pick up possible threats from miles away. We were witness to simulated attacks from a fighter plane, a torpedo attack from a submarine and shells launched from land. A tense atmosphere and lot of noise as information and instructions were shouted out by the team members. The Principle Warfare Officer (PWO) making the decisions, conveying them to the Commanding Officer who always gives the ultimate orders. We were lucky, Lancaster had the upper hand and we were not hit – each threat was detected in good time and disposed of before damage was done.
There are four, housing 4 diesel engines and 2 gas turbine engines. 1 engine room is above sea level originally designed to keep the noise level to a minimum when hunting for submarines. The other 3 are adjacent each other deep down in the hull. Down and down we went negotiating steep vertical ladders. Stepping off first onto a platform in the upper engine room. A maze of pipes, gauges, dials, cogs and machines. Nice smell (if you like diesel and oil smells!), very clean, noisy and the temperature was moderate although we were told in the tropics it can get up to 65⁰C. The engines are encased in metal boxes to eliminate noise. Down again to the lower level (right at the bottom now), a similar space but housing the 2 Rolls Royce gas turbine engines. Again encased but as they were not running we were able to step inside for a closer look.
Again the word budget cropped up. To conserve fuel the ship normally runs on 2 diesel engines at an approximate speed of 12 knots. At full throttle with both turbines running she can go at a speed of 28 knots.
Exhilarating speed which we experienced as we sped through the Dover Straits to lay anchor for the night beyond Dover just off Deal. Rather fine to watch the Union Jack being raised.
Then to dinner and after to the WO and CPO Mess for the Quiz Night. A lively and fun evening and a round of bingo too.
We had an early start the next morning to catch the tide before the waters became too shallow. As we approached Dover, a Pilot was brought out and climbed aboard to guide Lancaster in through a very narrow entrance to the harbour. He gave advice to the Commanding Officer who passed it onto the Navigation Officer who in turn gave orders to the Quarter Master who steers. Engine orders are passed electronically down to the Ship’s Control Centre (SCC) and from there again electronically instructions are sent down to the engine rooms. Again assisted by 2 tugs and with great precision, Lancaster came alongside, ropes were thrown onto the quay and she was tied up – just like a rowing boat!
It was time for farewells and to take our leave. Up the gangplank and onto dry land. Our enormous thanks to Cdr Laughton, Lt Cdr Gubby and everyone who had made us feel so welcome and ensured our stay on board was a memorable one. I am sure Liverymen Nick Lee and Rob Wallbank join me when I say the Royal Navy definitely went the extra (nautical) mile for us.