World's navies celebrate Trafalgar, honour Nelson
More than 100 warships from 35 nations will crowd the Solent, Portmouth, next Tuesday in a spectacular display of naval power marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. The Fleet Review, attended by the Queen, will be the first since the Silver Jubilee of 1977.
The Fleet Review, attended by the Queen, will be the first since the Silver Jubilee of 1977. Some 25,000 sailors from countries as diverse as Latvia and South Korea will arrive in Portsmouth over the next five days in preparation for the review, which will include substantial contributions from the "losing" nations of France and Spain. Both countries are sending aircraft carriers - the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle being the largest warship present.
The United States will be represented by the amphibious carrier USS Saipan, operational commitments preventing the inclusion of a nuclear-powered attack carrier, which would have dwarfed anything else in sight.
First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy, displayed a certain reluctance to linger over the result of the battle which inaugurated the century of Pax Britannica. Looking forward to the event, Admiral Sir Alan West billed it as an international celebration of the sea and Nelsonian qualities, rather than a chauvinistic victory party for the British.
"I don't want a great triumphalist thing for the Battle of Trafalgar. That's not the point of it," he said. "Trafalgar is a fact of history, but this is a wonderful opportunity for defence diplomacy."
The heads of 53 navies will attend the event, which will see 67 ships of the Royal Navy joined by 58 foreign warships and 49 civilian vessels. The latter will include a number of tall ships which will re-enact a naval battle of the Napoleonic period following the review.
In deference to Franco-Spanish sensibilities, the opposing fleets will be referred to as Red and Blue, although a certain admiral is expected to be felled by a musket ball at the moment of triumph.
Modern touchy-feeliness did not deter Sir Alan, a fighting sailor who lost his ship, the frigate Ardent, during the Falklands War, from extolling the virtues of Britain's greatest naval commander.
"Nelson is the naval hero that everyone knows about. He is recognised not just in this country but around the world.
"His qualities of leadership, teamwork, humanity, bravery, courage and compassion - these are as pertinent today as they were 200 years ago."
Sir Alan said the review would provide a showcase for the Royal Navy, which he described as the best-trained in the world, second only in combat power to the US Navy. But next week's event will nevertheless emphasise the numerical weakness of a force which once dominated the oceans of the world. Just five destroyers and nine frigates - some of them due to be axed in the next few years - will attend, with much of the British contingent made up of small mine warfare, survey and patrol vessels.
The Queen, in her capacity of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom, will review her ships from the ice-patrol ship Endurance, the Royal Yacht Britannia having gone the way of much of the Senior Service. Accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh in his role of Admiral of the Fleet, she will spend three hours inspecting the assembled fleet, deployed in four lines each five miles long.
Sir Alan, whose opposition to recent cuts in the surface fleet is on record, emphasised the positive side, mentioning the presence of the carriers Invincible and Illustrious, and the recently completed large amphibious ships Ocean, Albion and Bulwark. Numbers were not everything, he said, explaining how, as a young frigate commander in 1969, his ship had won various awards for gunnery and operational efficiency.
"To be honest, we were crap," he said. "The ships now are bloody good. They are bigger, they have better equipment and they work."
Security during the event will be tight. Royal Marines, including members of the Special Boat Service, will patrol the waters around the ships among other precautions. Their task will be compounded by the expected presence of 10,000 yachts and small boats in the Solent.
Sir Alan said emphasis was being laid on liaising with foreign commanders. "What we don't want is a group of Ruislip Young Conservatives whizzing up to some foreign warship in a Sunseeker and getting themselves blown out of the water."
Tuesday's mock battle will conclude with a huge firework display followed by the lighting up of the fleet.
The Trafalgar celebrations form part of a wider International Festival of the Sea taking place in Britain this year. In addition to the Fleet Review, Portsmouth will be the setting for events throughout next week, with 2,000 street entertainers in town. A more British, less international commemoration of Trafalgar must wait until the period around October 21, the date of the battle.
A celebration on HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship, will be accompanied by a service at St Paul's Cathedral in London, his last resting place. (RN).-