Merchant defence

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merchant ship alongside two large Royal Navy ships at sea

The Fort George refuelling two Royal Navy ships at sea. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.

I have many memories of the 1982 Falklands War – the first fully-televised conflict, bringing the stark reality of vivid images of fighting to our homes.

I was a national news agency reporter at the time and covered political and other war-related issues. Ships came to the fore because of the huge distances involved.

Merchant ships and their crews were vital in the Falklands campaign. In recent years, however, the dramatic decline in the number of British ships and seafarers has placed this traditional defence role in doubt.

Britain’s Merchant Navy has traditionally been regarded as the fourth arm of defence along with the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force. In both World Wars the merchant fleet played a crucial role in ensuring the country’s survival and eventual victory.

A photograph on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Life at Sea gallery shows the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ship Fort George refuelling two Royal Navy ships at sea (pictured).

The RFA is a civilian-manned 22-ship fleet owned by the Ministry of Defence. It exists to supply and support Britain’s armed forces around the world. With about 800 officers and 1,400 ratings, it is the largest single employer of UK civilian seafarers.

In both World Wars many ships were converted for use as auxiliary warships, troop and hospital ships. Serving in the front line of Britain’s war effort, they frequently became prime targets for enemy attacks.

There are many items from troop and hospital ships on display in the museum. The RFA was established in 1905 to provide coaling ships for the Royal Navy when the British Fleet was the greatest in the world.

Replenishment at Sea (RAS) techniques were developed, especially by the United States Navy. RAS is the most important and vital role of RFA ships, which fly the Blue Ensign featuring a gold anchor.

Other merchant ships are hired by the Admiralty to assist in campaigns under Royal Navy orders. The roll-on, roll-off container ship Atlantic Causeway of the Atlantic Container Line (ACL) was one of 49 British-flagged ships in the Task Force sent to the Falklands.

On display is a plaque presented to the ship by the Admiralty Board in recognition of her role.

Two unique support ships in today’s fleet are the repair vessel Diligence and the aviation training ship Argus, a former roll-on, roll-off container ship. On active service Argus becomes a Primary Casualty Receiving Ship – the modern term for a hospital ship.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).