Driving into the naval base at Devonport yesterday (November 9th) I found myself humming the First Sea Lord’s song from HMS Pinafore, ‘Now I’m the ruler of the Queen’s Navy’. Except the naval exercise that Bishop Nick and I had been invited to share in was no laughing matter. The exercise was part of a six week intensive programme run by Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) which test ships and their crews from different parts of the world to see whether or not they are ready to be deployed in combat such as maintaining a UN Exclusion Zone.
Today we were taken at first light onto a German frigate, FGS Brandenburg somewhere in the English Channel. ‘Thursday War’ was a simulated attack at sea, complete with a speedboat with soldiers posing as terrorists brandishing rocket-propelled weapons. Part of the engine room was deliberately disabled to simulate the ship being hit by a missile. Smoke bombs were set off to mimic a fire below decks. Meanwhile three Dutch fighter jets flew overhead as if they were enemy aircraft. How would the crew behave under stress? What priorities would they pursue?
The significance of a German crew being trained by British officers was not lost on me. I found it profoundly moving to sit at the Captain’s table with an Admiral of the German Fleet and the British Admiral John Clink and listen to them discuss naval capability and capacity. To stand on the bridge alongside these two men as they assessed the crew was a privilege.
The same German Admiral, complete with wreath in his hand, will be standing on the Hoe in Plymouth on Sunday as I lead this year’s Act of Remembrance. It’s a long way from the Battle of Jutland, the greatest sea battle of the First World War whose centenary we commemorated this year. Or indeed the Blitz of Plymouth which we also commemorated earlier this year. Such international cooperation is how memories can be healed and relationships built that make for peace.