For the citizens of a realm that boasted of ruling the waves, British people have a worryingly poor grasp of nautical matters, thinks Commodore Phil Waterhouse.
The Royal Navy’s Commander for Northern England is speaking expansively in his office at shore establishment HMS Eaglet, the force’s regional HQ in Liverpool. It’s a tidy room – military fastidiousness runs deep – where a freshly-laundered uniform hangs on the wardrobe door and impressive certificates for radar operation and bridge-watching are framed over the desk. This is where Commodore Waterhouse is tasked with spreading the word about the work of his fellow servicemen and women by getting out and about in communities spanning the distance from Merseyside to Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull.
“There is a sea blindness in this country,” he says. “People don’t understand that we’re a maritime nation. Even in Liverpool, the greatest maritime port – it would argue – in the UK, it’s still difficult to get people to understand that 85 per cent of our trade comes in through sea. The Royal Navy belongs to the British people and it’s incumbent on us to let them know what it is we do.”
And times are changing for the UK’s oldest armed service. Two new aircraft carriers – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales – are on the way, along with a next-generation class of nuclear submarines and another 13 frigates.
The bill for this ambitious shopping list adds up to more than £26bn, but the increased government spending comes at a point of heightened global tensions. Navy ships have been escorting British-flagged commercial craft in the Gulf since the seizure in July of the Stena Impero oil tanker by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz. Initially, eyebrows were raised when just a single frigate – HMS Montrose – was sent to protect vessels navigating the strategically important channel, with former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West saying the Navy was “disgracefully short of ships”.
But Commodore Waterhouse says the situation was ever thus. Lord Collingwood, he observes, lamented the size and condition of the Navy after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 – in 2019, capability is what matters. “If you’re talking about lethality, we’re in the right place,” he says assuredly. “Warfare is horrible, disgusting and shocking, and we should avoid it at all costs. What we’ve got to make sure is our Armed Forces are of such a status that people don’t start taking liberties with us. The threat to others is your make-up. You should never have to fire a bullet or missile.”
The Navy has “about the right number” of sailors, he says, and doesn’t “particularly have a problem” with recruitment – at the last count in July it had 38,770 personnel. “We’re really successful in this region, something between 45 and 55 per cent of the Navy come from the North of England. We have some problems in terms of the type – as in, we want engineers and catering services personnel. The use of IT and information systems means you need much more technical and highly-trained individuals.”
Allied to these efforts at influence and engagement are the ‘ship affiliations’ – Leeds is linked to HMS Audacious, Hull has HMS Iron Duke and Liverpool will have HMS Prince of Wales. The name HMS Sheffield, meanwhile, will be revived for one of eight new Type 26 ‘city class’ frigates, the first of which are expected to arrive in the mid-2020s. “I had the pleasure of being involved in making sure that happened,” says Commodore Waterhouse of the campaign to bring back the cruiser nicknamed the ‘Shiny Sheff’ for the amount of stainless steel it carried on board. The last ship to bear the name was sold to the Chilean Navy in 2003, while its predecessor was sunk by an Argentinian missile in the Falklands conflict of 1982, killing 20.
“Sheffield had always said they didn’t wish to have another ship unless it was called HMS Sheffield. That rationale paid dividends. We learned a lot from the Falklands. There was always going to be a legacy, but to name one
‘Sheffield’ is particularly important. There’s a heck of a lot of people from the city region that were in the Navy for that period. Now we’re giving them acknowledgement and recognition. Of course, every ship out there at the moment has got Sheffield in it, through the steel-making. Perhaps more so than some of the other areas, it was really poignant that we have now got another HMS Sheffield.”
As proud as Commodore Waterhouse is of the Navy’s ocean-going strength, many of its duties don’t require the deployment of a vessel. “We’re involved in the watching game,” he explains. “When you look at Russia and China’s posturing – we’re as busy as we’ve ever been, we just don’t always need to send a ship to do it.”
And the job “isn’t all about the kit”. “We have core values in the Navy – courage, commitment, discipline, respect, integrity and loyalty. You’ve got to have those.”
Commodore Waterhouse grew up in Yorkshire in Sherburn-in-Elmet and Pontefract, and from the age of 12 attended the Trinity House marine school in Hull. “I was in the sea cadets in Barnsley and Hemsworth,” he says. “I loved messing around in boats. I was just fascinated by it.”
He joined the Navy in 1982 and was soon identified for commission as an officer. His varied CV has included several senior logistics roles as well as a spell as flag lieutenant for Rear Admiral Mike Boyce, who went on to lead the Armed Forces as Chief of the Defence Staff. He captained Devonport in Plymouth, Europe’s largest naval base, before becoming regional commander in 2017. The Navy, Commodore Waterhouse says, is a family – literally in his case. His twin sister signed up too and his wife Rosie, who died following a short illness last year, was serving in the naval reserves when they met.
“She died four days before our 30th anniversary, which was a great shame,” he says. Their daughters Annabelle, 21, and Alexandra, 24, are graduates in criminology and law. “She was a great support, and a wonderful naval wife and mum.”
Spending long periods apart was inevitable. “I think we worked out that in our 30 years of marriage we spent seven years together. It is a challenge.”
Commodore Waterhouse says he “wouldn’t change a day” of his career. “There’s a bit of me that wishes I could have spent more time, given what’s happened, with Rosie and the girls. But they wouldn’t be the people they are without the background they had.”
At 53, he is two years away from the normal retirement age for a captain or commodore, but hopes to continue until 60.
“With all the issues facing us at the moment – and I say this in an apolitical way – whatever way we go now, one could argue our global position in the world requires a stronger Royal Navy. That’s certainly what we’re working towards.”
Commodore feared death in the Falklands
White-knuckle drama and the threat of tragedy are part and parcel of life in the Navy.
Commodore Waterhouse feared death himself when the Argentinian Air Force made an incursion while he was serving on HMS Broadsword in the Falklands in the late 1980s.
“We went to being at action stations within five minutes,” he says.
“They weren’t supposed to come within the total exclusion zone and they’d penetrated it by about 60 miles.
“We headed towards them. I remember sitting there thinking ‘I’ve only been married six months, it wasn’t supposed to end like this’.
“We switched on our fire-control radar, targeted them, got them in the beam, and they quite rightly decided better.”