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Royal Navy

Spring is in the air

After nearly a week of fine weather, I have finally been convinced that spring has arrived. The daffodils opening their bright little faces was the confirmation I needed. They’ve made me as light headed as William Wordsworth, the man who stole some good lines from his wife and sister to write that famous poem.

Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar Castle

I was wandering as lonely as a cloud through the Craigmillar estate when I saw my host of golden daffodils this morning. Of course the snowdrops and the crocuses have been out for weeks and the gorse on Arthur’s Seat has begun to blossom but daffodils, for me, are the real sign of spring.

The cold gales have gone. The deep snow on the Cairngorms is melting fast and the wettest winter for over a hundred years is over. Suddenly life seems easier and more cheerful.

Even the long road to the referendum seems less daunting. We were treated this week to the usual spring ritual of a row over the GERS figures (government expenditure and revenue, Scotland). They revealed an embarrassing public sector deficit of £12bn (8.3 per cent of GDP), caused largely by a 40 per cent fall in oil revenues. It’s the first time in five years that the deficit was higher than for the UK as a whole, which allowed Alex Salmond to claim, at first minister’s question time, that last year was a blip and that new investment in the North Sea will bring in much higher revenues in the future.

Gordon Brown Out of hybernation

Gordon Brown
Out of hybernation

This week also saw Gordon Brown come out of post-prime-ministerial hibernation to enter the referendum debate. He made a speech in Glasgow calling for more tax powers for the Scottish Parliament, allowing it to raise up to 40 per cent of what it spends. He cast it as part of a plan to write a new constitution for the United Kingdom, guaranteeing home rule for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

This came perilously close to the Liberal Democrats’ idea of a federal Britain. And indeed Sir Menzies Campbell – elder statesman of the Lib Dems – said he could see common ground emerging among all the pro-Union parties for more powers for the Scottish Parliament. He called for a constitutional summit of all parties within 30 days of a “NO” vote in the referendum in September.

O dear, there’s been another leak. Actually, it’s a leak about a leak. It all happened at the Dounray nuclear establishment in Caithness in the spring of 2012. A test reactor for the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines apparently sprang a leak and a small amount of radiation escaped. At first this was described as “level zero” on the safety scale and there had been “no measurable change in the radiation discharge”. But the defence secretary Philip Hammond later changed this to “no measurable change in the alpha-emitting particulate discharge.”

Dounreay

Dounreay

Whatever this covers up, he could not disguise the fact that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency was not informed until nine months after the incident – and was asked to keep it quiet. The Scottish government was not informed at all. We only found out about it last week as part of Mr Hammond’s announcement to the House of Commons that he was spending £120m on refuelling one of the navy’s submarines because of the incident at Dounreay. As in most nuclear matters, it’s all as clear and simple as Higgs-Boson.

It’s not been a good week for the Royal Navy. The 800 strong workforce employed by Babcock to service the submarine base at Faslane and Coulport on the Clyde walked out on strike for the first time in 40 years. They’re protesting against a one-percent pay rise at a time when they say managers are giving themselves a 9 percent rise.

Still at sea, on the surface this time, a Scottish round-the-world yachtsman has been rescued after his boat was hit by a huge wave off Cape Horn at the southern tip of Chile. Andrew Halcrow, aged 54 from Shetland, described how his mast was broken by the wave as he lay in his bunk. “It was so brutal, I was sure a ship had rammed into me,” he wrote on his website. It’s the second time Mr Halcrow has tried to sail single-handed around the world. His first attempt in 2007 ended when he became ill while sailing off the Australian coast. He’s now trying to recover his 32ft boat and we should all cheer his bravery if he ever sails it back to Shetland.

Finally, I see that Rangers are bravely fighting their way back from financial disgrace. They’re now unbeatable at the top of Division One after their 3-0 defeat of Airdrie on Wednesday night. They will go into the Championship league next season against the likes of Dundee, Falkirk, Alloa, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South. And if they triumph again, they will be back in the Premier League this time next year. All they have to do now is hold a board meeting that doesn’t end in tears and a court hearing.

The Shipyards at Govan and Scotstoun survive

The deal the UK government seems to be offering Scotland is: you can have a shipbuilding industry on the Clyde but only if you vote against independence next year. It follows the announcement from the shipbuilding company BAE Systems that it is cutting 835 jobs from its workforce of 3,200 on the Clyde and ceasing shipbuilding altogether in Portsmouth, with the loss of 940 jobs. It’s all because of a shortage of orders, as work on the Royal Navy’s two aircraft carriers come to an end.

There were once shipyards all along the Clyde (Pic: believed to be Creative Commons)

There were once shipyards all along the Clyde
(Pic: believed to be Creative Commons)

Shipbuilding is one of those totemic industries which defines a country’s manhood. The men of the Clyde are seen as the girders of Scotland’s economy and culture. These were the men who once built a quarter of all the world’s ships, producing from their ranks self-made politicians, film stars and football managers. Losing over 800 Red Clydesiders is a body blow to the personage of Scotia. Their loss is not quite like 800 jobs going in retail or electronics or local government…though of course the economic effect is just the same.

This is why shipbuilding has become a big political issue and has entered the debate over independence. The UK government has thrown a lifeline to the two Clyde yards, Govan and Scotstoun, in the form of a contract to build three navy patrol vessels in the immediate future. And it has dangled the carrot of big contracts in the longer term for a series of new type 26 frigates – if there is a No vote on independence.

Johann Lamont Accused the SNP Government of putting jobs on the Clyde at risk

Johann Lamont
Accused the SNP Government of putting jobs on the Clyde at risk

At question time in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, the two women of the Clyde, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Labour’s Johann Lamont, fought like sea lions over the issue. They both have constituency interests in the shipyards. Ms Lamont said the SNP was putting the remaining jobs on the Clyde at risk because no British government would agree to building its frigates outside Britain. Ms Sturgeon said any British government would recognised that the Clyde was the best place to have frigates built and indeed the only place, since Portsmouth was now out of the running. It would make sense for an independent Scotland and the rest of Britain to enter into an international partnership, with other countries too, to have their frigates built on the Clyde.

The whole issue has raised another embarrassing question: why has so little been done to broaden to the base of the Scottish shipbuilding industry? It is almost totally reliant on government contracts, either for the navy or the nationalised ferry service. Why are the North Sea oil companies or the freight shippers or the cruise liner firms not ordering their vessels from Scottish yards? Norway, apparently, has 42 shipbuilding yards producing a hundred boats a year. The Clyde alone used to have 19 shipyards – this was in 1913 when they employed 70,000 men and were launching a ship every day of the year. Now we only have the two BAE yards and Ferguson’s (only employing 150 staff) and a scattering of small yards around the east coast. (And two of those have closed this year: in Buckie and Eyemouth.)

Grangemouth - another totem of Scottish industry

Grangemouth – another totem of Scottish industry

We came close to losing Govan and Scotstoun this week, just as we were close to losing the Grangemouth refinery last week. Both show how Scottish industry is failing to keep pace with change and failing to invest for the future.

By the way, the Grangemouth affair smouldered on this week. The shop steward convenor Stephen Deans not only quit his job at the company but he is also standing down as chairman of the local Labour Party in Falkirk West. And we still haven’t got to the bottom of what went on over the selection of a parliamentary candidate in the constituency. David Miliband has ruled out an inquiry, despite Ms Lamont and Alistair Darling suggesting a further investigation would clear the acrid air.

There was quite a bit of acrid air on Bonfire Night this year. The new all-Scotland fire service reported that it had attended 1,075 incidents and fire crews had come under attack from vandals at 20 of them. Some Celtic fans also disgraced themselves that same Wednesday night by fighting with Ajax supporters in Amsterdam. The team itself went down 1: Nil in what the manager Neil Lennon himself described as an “insipid” performance.

In short it’s been a week when the worms have been eating away at our national pride. They have even attacked the hallowed turf of Murrayfield. Groundsmen have used an unusual tactic against the nematodes, spraying the pitch with garlic. I wonder what the place will smell like when we play against Japan on Saturday.

Hundreds of jobs will go at the two Scottish yards
but more will go at Portsmouth

It had been well trailed – but the news, when it came, was none the less shocking. The decision by BAE Systems to cut 1775 jobs at its three military shipbuilding yards still came as a devastating blow to the various communities involved. The biggest surprise perhaps was that shipbuilding would end altogether at the yard in Portsmouth on the south coast of England, with the loss of 940 jobs. A further 835 would go at the two Scottish yards in Glasgow.

Artist's impression of the new aircraft carriers

Artist’s impression of the new aircraft carriers

The reason given by the company for such drastic cuts was that there had been a “significant” fall in demand, especially after the end of work on the two aircraft carriers which are currently being completed. Part of the problem may well be that these two ships will have cost significantly more than first projected. When they were commissioned back in 2007, the expected cost was £3.5 billion. Today the estimated pricetag is likely to be over £6 billion – though some at least of the cost overruns will be borne by the private sector rather than the government.

Politics aside, it’s thought there are a number of reasons for the Scottish yards to have survived. The yards at both Govan and Scotstoun work closely together. They also have a lower cost base than the yard in the South of England.

Artist's impression of the Type 26 ships

Artist’s impression of the Type 26 ships

It also emerged that BAE Systems and the Ministry of Defence had agreed that they would be “the most effective location for the manufacture of future Type 26 ships. The company proposes to consolidate it shipbuilding operations in Glasgow with investment in facilities to create a world-class capability, positioning it to deliver an affordable Type 26 programme for the Royal Navy.”

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, commented that “one well-placed source told me that the government was “acutely conscious of the politics of the Clyde” and did not want to give Alex Salmond a gift a little less than a year ahead of the independence referendum.”

As well as these ships, the MoD has also confirmed that it would commission three new Offshore Patrol Vessels, all of which would be built in Scotland. Work on these vessels should begin next year with the first of them due for delivery by 2017. According to the Ministry, they would play a key role in “counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and anti-smuggling operations.”

But it does mean that shipbuilding – which has been going on in Portsmouth for at least 500 years – will come to an end. From an English perspective, that is at best a bad result. It’s not just jobs that will be lost. Experience and history were also go. It’s worth remembering that the “Mary Rose”, one of more than 85 vessels which ultimately drove off the Spanish Armada.

This is not the first time that Portsmouth has been deprived of warship production. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it lost its Royal Dockyard title and didn’t produce any warships until the late 1960s when the dockyard was taken over by Vosper Thorneycroft. That company was later absorbed by BAE Systems.

Portsmouth - still the largest naval base in the UK (Pic: MoD)

Portsmouth – still the largest naval base in the UK
(Pic: MoD)

Portsmouth however will still remain the home port for the vast majority of the Royal Navy’s surface ships. Despite the job losses, the city will still have 11,000 jobs linked to the dockyard and naval activities. The Secretary Of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, added that the basing of the carriers and destroyers there will take the tonnage to “the highest in more than 40 years”.

The response to the announcement from the trade unions has been to describe it as “a devastating day for the UK shipbuilding industry”. David Hulse, who chairs the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions Shipbuilding National Committee, said that the company had agreed to a two-day meeting in Farnborough which would be attended by officers and shop stewards from all of the yards. “This meeting will examine in detail the business case and all aspects for scheduling work in the yards to complete building the carriers, starting work on the Type 26 ships and any other work.”

In a statement just released by the Scottish Trades Union Congress, its general secretary, Grahame Smith, described the announcement as “very disappointing”, one which would “inevitably exacerbate the worry and stress workers and their families were already experiencing as they considered their job security post completion of the carriers. The loss of skilled, well-paid manufacturing jobs is also a major blow to the Glasgow economy at a time when its employment rate is fully 20% below Scotland’s best performing regions.”

Gibraltar – a Disputed Rock
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Britain should give up its overseas territories, starting with Gibraltar. Just what are we doing, sending a fleet of 10 Royal Navy ships to sabre-rattle their way past a rock which is attached to one of our partner nations in the European Union? And why go to court to defend some colonial outpost which somehow, embarrassingly, has been left in our possession from a treaty signed 300 years ago?

"Sabre Rattling" over Gibraltar?

“Sabre Rattling” over Gibraltar?

OK, the 30,000 people of Gibraltar have repeatedly voted to remain British – the latest referendum was in 2002 – but does that mean whenever a few thousand people in any part of the world vote to “be British” that we have an obligation to defend them and make them part of our nation?

Only 27 per cent of Gibraltarians have any connection with Britain. The rest are Spanish, Portuguese or Italian. Moreover, Gibraltar is entirely self-governing, with its own constitution. It has its own currency and tax regime. It is in the European Union, but conveniently exempt from many of its provisions, such as customs duties, agriculture policy and fishing policy.

In fact, it is fishing which has caused the latest dispute with mainland Spain. Gibraltar has been adding concrete blocks to an artificial reef it is creating in the waters around the rock to try to encourage wildlife but Spain says it is interfering with its traditional fishing grounds. The Spanish authorities have imposed border controls which they say are necessary to tackle the increasing incidence of smuggling.

Spain believes the territory should belong to it

Spain believes the territory should belong to it

Spain is also threatening to renew its sovereignty claim over Gibraltar at the United Nations, with the support of Argentina which is currently a member of the Security Council and interested in renewing its own claim to the Falkland Islands. It seems to me that should negotiate a deal over both the Falklands and Gibraltar which would guarantee home-rule for the islanders but would pass sovereignty over to Argentina and Spain. These are cases where simple geography trumps the selfish wishes of a few nostalgic islanders living far from home.

If we had been sensible before 1982, we could have avoided war with Argentina over the Falklands and not given General Galtieri and his military regime an excuse for repressing their own people.

The same rule of geography could be applied to the rest of the 14 British overseas territories – Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctica, the Indian Ocean territories, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands, Akritiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus, St Helena, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The nearest country, in each case, should be invited to take them over.

I do not wish to be unkind to the 200,000 inhabitants involved but many of these territories are paradise islands specialising in expensive holidays and tax avoidance. It was with some embarrassment that David Cameron had to admit that these British tax havens were some of the worst offenders when he launched his campaign at the G8 summit in June for a clamp down on international tax avoidance.

St Helena

St Helena

The overseas territories are also costing the British taxpayer quite a lot of money. Over £100m has been spent over the last three years supporting just three of the territories – Monserrat, St Helena and the Pitcairn Islands, all of which have tiny populations. The 50 or so Pitcairn Islanders cost us £172,000 each in the last three years. The British government says they have “first call” on our overseas aid budget. I don’t doubt that these islanders have real problems of isolation but when you set that against the millions that face starvation and disease in Africa, you have got to ask if it is money well spent.

Gibraltar was ceded to us “in perpetuity” in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht which ended 13 years of war across Europe. Minorca was included in the deal, incidentally, but we have since had the good sense to hand that back to Spain. The same should happen to Gibraltar. This unfortunate rock, because of its strategic position at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, has had multiple owners over the years – Neanderthals, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Moors and the British. The time has come to give it to its rightful owner, Spain.

Gibraltar – a Disputed Rock
Britain should give up its overseas territories, starting with Gibraltar. Just what are we doing, sending a fleet of 10 Royal Navy ships to sabre-rattle their way past a rock which is attached to one of our partner nations in the European Union? And why go to court to defend some colonial outpost which somehow, embarrassingly, has been left in our possession from a treaty signed 300 years ago?

"Sabre Rattling" over Gibraltar?

“Sabre Rattling” over Gibraltar?

OK, the 30,000 people of Gibraltar have repeatedly voted to remain British – the latest referendum was in 2002 – but does that mean whenever a few thousand people in any part of the world vote to “be British” that we have an obligation to defend them and make them part of our nation?

Only 27 per cent of Gibraltarians have any connection with Britain. The rest are Spanish, Portuguese or Italian. Moreover, Gibraltar is entirely self-governing, with its own constitution. It has its own currency and tax regime. It is in the European Union, but conveniently exempt from many of its provisions, such as customs duties, agriculture policy and fishing policy.

In fact, it is fishing which has caused the latest dispute with mainland Spain. Gibraltar has been adding concrete blocks to an artificial reef it is creating in the waters around the rock to try to encourage wildlife but Spain says it is interfering with its traditional fishing grounds. The Spanish authorities have imposed border controls which they say are necessary to tackle the increasing incidence of smuggling.

Spain believes the territory should belong to it

Spain believes the territory should belong to it

Spain is also threatening to renew its sovereignty claim over Gibraltar at the United Nations, with the support of Argentina which is currently a member of the Security Council and interested in renewing its own claim to the Falkland Islands. It seems to me that should negotiate a deal over both the Falklands and Gibraltar which would guarantee home-rule for the islanders but would pass sovereignty over to Argentina and Spain. These are cases where simple geography trumps the selfish wishes of a few nostalgic islanders living far from home.

If we had been sensible before 1982, we could have avoided war with Argentina over the Falklands and not given General Galtieri and his military regime an excuse for repressing their own people.

The same rule of geography could be applied to the rest of the 14 British overseas territories – Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctica, the Indian Ocean territories, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands, Akritiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus, St Helena, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The nearest country, in each case, should be invited to take them over.

I do not wish to be unkind to the 200,000 inhabitants involved but many of these territories are paradise islands specialising in expensive holidays and tax avoidance. It was with some embarrassment that David Cameron had to admit that these British tax havens were some of the worst offenders when he launched his campaign at the G8 summit in June for a clamp down on international tax avoidance.

St Helena

St Helena

The overseas territories are also costing the British taxpayer quite a lot of money. Over £100m has been spent over the last three years supporting just three of the territories – Monserrat, St Helena and the Pitcairn Islands, all of which have tiny populations. The 50 or so Pitcairn Islanders cost us £172,000 each in the last three years. The British government says they have “first call” on our overseas aid budget. I don’t doubt that these islanders have real problems of isolation but when you set that against the millions that face starvation and disease in Africa, you have got to ask if it is money well spent.

Gibraltar was ceded to us “in perpetuity” in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht which ended 13 years of war across Europe. Minorca was included in the deal, incidentally, but we have since had the good sense to hand that back to Spain. The same should happen to Gibraltar. This unfortunate rock, because of its strategic position at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, has had multiple owners over the years – Neanderthals, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Moors and the British. The time has come to give it to its rightful owner, Spain.

The UK’s Nuclear Deterrent – Ongoing Controversy

It’s been splendid golfing weather. For weeks now there’s been no rain. There’s been a mild, light, westerly wind and temperatures in the high 20s. The British Open Championship course at Muirfield on the West Lothian coast has been looking its best. And then we go and spoil it all by realising, too late, that you cannot really stage a major sporting event at a men-only club.

Muirfield - Men-only Club

Muirfield – Men-only Club

The men at golf’s governing body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, have been made to look….well, ancient…by failing to spot in advance that someone would object to Muirfield as the venue for the Open because of its male-only membership. That “someone” turned out to be Alex Salmond, an indifferent golfer but a championship politician.

His refusal to attend Muirfield has thrown the golfers into an embarrassing silence while they look for their ball. To the rest of the world his gesture signalled that while Scotland is proud to have invented the game of golf in the 15th century, it aspires to play it by 21st century rules.

Peter Dawson R&A Chief under fire over Muirfield choice

Peter Dawson
R&A Chief under fire over
Muirfield choice

The men at the Royal and Ancient have been trying to argue that a private club like Muirfield is not discriminating against women in the same way as clubs used to discriminate against the working class or Catholics or blacks or gays. “It’s just how things are,” said Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive. “ But we will have a good look at what people are saying…and find the most sensible way forward.”

After this week in the baking media sun, I guess the R&A will not be holding the Open again at Muirfield or Troon until they allow women to join their clubs. The issue is too much of a distraction from the game itself.

And speaking of distractions, we’ve been seeing a lot of film footage this week of a Trident submarine ploughing its way up the Clyde.

The Royal Navy base at Faslane on the Clyde

The Royal Navy base at
Faslane on the Clyde

The issue of nuclear weapons has now entwined itself around the independence debate, with the SNP arguing that the only sure way of getting rid of “weapons of mass destruction” on Scottish soil is to vote for independence. It’s a powerful argument in Scotland where public opinion is fairly evenly divided over nuclear weapons.

The Westminster government’s review of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, published this week, has brought the Conservatives out in favour of a full replacement of Trident but the Liberal Democrats want a scaled down version. Labour have yet to make up their mind. The issue – like men-only golf clubs – poses the question the SNP are asking more and more: what kind of country do you want Scotland to be?

Mr Salmond was in the Isle of Man earlier this week to make the point that an independent Scotland could flourish within an informal Sterling currency zone. Like the Isle of Man it would have a better credit rating than the UK, he claimed, and escape some of the austerity measures being imposed from Westminster.

Shetland and other islands Asking awkward questions

Shetland and other islands
Asking awkward questions

Meanwhile, Scotland’s island communities have been thinking about independence too. Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles have written to Alex Salmond and David Cameron asking 10 awkward questions. Whatever the result of next year’s referendum, could they have more say over their own budgets ? Could they have a share of the Crown Estate revenues ? Could they be exempt from the “bedroom tax” ? Could they have their own constitutions ? Could their island cultures be protected ? We await the answers.

The summer sunshine has not been reflected in the latest unemployment figures. There has been a sudden increase to 7.5 per cent, the first time the figure has risen for the last seven months. The economy is still scraping along the bottom, with many new jobs being only part time and more people giving up looking for work altogether. Scotland is still doing better than the UK where unemployment is at 7.8 per cent and youth unemployment is nearly 20 per cent, 3 per cent more than in Scotland. But the graphs are so indecisive that this could all change next month.

There’s word that the SNP is looking for a senior literary figure to help put some passion and poetry into their white paper on independence, due to be published in November. William McIlvanney has been mentioned. I’d like to suggest Robert Galbraith, author of the sensational new detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling….. though this week Robert turned out to be a woman, an Edinburgh lady calling herself J K Rowling.

I have a feeling his/her next book will be about a female golfer who disguises herself as a man to get into the Muirfield Golf Club. But she is discovered when she runs onto the final green, dressed only in the Saltire flag which she then waves behind the winner of the Open. She escapes in a nuclear submarine and ends up leading an independence movement in Shetland. Oh dear, the sun has gone to my head.

A body from HMS Dasher is carried to a military truck <em>Picture: John Steele</em>

A body from HMS Dasher is carried to a military truck Picture: John Steele

It has taken 68 years, but at last relatives of those who died in one of the worst British naval disasters might soon be able to discover where the bodies are buried.

Lawyers acting for North Ayrshire Council have just agreed to start the legal moves which campaigners believe will solve one of the longest lasting and painful mysteries of the second world war.

A formal request will be made to the courts asking for the excavation a patch of ground at Ardrossan cemetery in Ayrshire.

This should allow archaeologists to peel away the topsoil from an area which is thought to contain the bodies of more than 60 British seamen – sailors who were dumped in the unmarked pit apparently because the Royal Navy was desperate to keep the true story of their deaths a secret.

The sailors had been part of the complement of 555 serving on HMS Dasher. The Royal Navy vessel had started life as a freighter, but was hastily converted into an aircraft carrier during the early part of the war.

HMS Dasher sank suddenly in the Firth of Clyde in March 1943, ripped apart by an explosion which may well have been caused by a fuel leak and a dropped cigarette.

The loss of 379 of the 555 crew still represents the second-worst naval disaster in home waters. It is only surpassed in scale by the loss of the 833 men in the sinking of the Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in 1939.

Thirteen of the bodies which were brought ashore were buried with military honours at Ardrossan cemetery and another seven were buried at Greenock. However, dozens more which were washed up along the Ayrshire coast were apparently taken away by the Navy and never seen again.

Campaigners believe up to 60 corpses were dumped hastily in an unmarked grave at Ardrossan cemetery as the Royal Navy did its best to keep the extent of the disaster secret.

The campaigners have tried for two decades to find out exactly where the bodies were buried so they can erect a memorial and a plaque commemorating the site. But they have had their appeals for help rejected by a succession of official and military organisations.

Even wartime papers relating to HMS Dasher were kept from them, retained in secret by the UK government which reclassified them for a further 75 years when they came due for release in 2008.

But an all-important breakthrough was secured last Friday when North Ayrshire Council agreed to co-operate in plans to excavate the part of Ardrossan cemetery where campaigners believe the bodies were buried.

John Steele, an author who has been investigating HMS Dasher tragedy for four decades, said last weekend that he was delighted with the outcome.

“Should the professional archaeological sensitive search prove positive it will bring closure to many of the bereaved families and myself,” Mr Steele said.

“With the ongoing support of those who have helped and encouraged me in my lengthy search, a suitably worded memorial will be erected in memory of the 355 men who are listed as missing.”

Research by archaeologists from Glasgow University last year appeared to suggest that there could indeed be bodies buried in an unmarked plot. The team, led by Dr Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology and a former presenter of the BBC2 archaeology series Two Men in a Trench, scanned an area of Ardrossan cemetery identified by Mr Steele and found evidence of a possible mass grave.

But the archaeologists said they could not be definitive until they had excavated at least a layer of topsoil to find out whether there were bones underneath.

Now that they have almost received the certificate they need from the sheriff court, they will be able to start planning their definitive dig.

Mr Steele, in his book The American Connection to the Sinking of HMS Dasher, details how bodies were washing up on the shore at Ardrossan for three weeks after the disaster.

They were stored at the harbour, then controlled by the Royal Navy, before being driven away in the back of a lorry covered with a tarpaulin.

“They held a small funeral for those who were buried in Ardrossan Cemetery,” Mr Steele said, “but they couldn’t have 60 coffins going through the town without everyone knowing what had happened.

“I’ve talked to people who said they saw trucks going in the direction of the cemetery at night loaded with bodies and covered with tarpaulins and coming back empty next day.”

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K6 in harbour <em>Picture: The Royal Navy Submarine Museum</em>

K6 in harbour Picture: The Royal Navy Submarine Museum

It was a “battle” that involved no enemy contact whatsoever, that left two submarines sunk, 270 British submariners dead and which the Royal Navy kept secret for as long as it could. But now new evidence has emerged that sheds fresh light on the “Battle of the Isle of May”.

Marine surveyors mapping the sea bed off the Fife coast have uncovered the exact resting places of the two Royal Navy submarines lost in one of the most unfortunate, but also little known, self-inflicted calamities in British naval history.

Sonar images produced by marine archaeologists EMU Ltd have now pinpointed and created images the wrecks of the two K Class submarines for the first time.

The survey work of the sea floor is being done to prepare an offshore windfarm – the Neart na Gaoithe project – which Mainstream Renewable Power hopes to build off the Fife coast.

3D sonar images of K4 and K17 on the seabed <em>Picture: EMU Ltd</em>

3D sonar images of K4 and K17 on the seabed Picture: EMU Ltd

The sonar images show the two submarines, K4 and K17, lying just 100 metres apart. K4 is missing a section of her bow, which was located a short distance away.

The calamity happened on the night of 31 January 1918 when a battle group from the British Grand Fleet, including 19 major warships and their destroyer escorts, headed out from Rosyth for a rendezvous in the North Sea.

It was a foggy night and two of the submarines collided on the surface after one moved suddenly to avoid hitting a minesweeper.

Unable to move, one of the damaged boats was then hit by another submarine, forcing all of these submarines to leave the convoy and head for home. It was then that one of the returning submarines, K22, was rammed by mistake by a battlecruiser – HMS Inflexible.

By that time, news of the collisions had reached leaders of the flotilla and several ships were sent to help. Unfortunately, this turned an accident into a disaster.

HMS Fearless having hit K17 <em>Picture: The Royal Navy Submarine Museum</em>

HMS Fearless having hit K17 Picture: The Royal Navy Submarine Museum

One of the ships heading back to help, the cruiser HMS Fearless, rammed K17, sending it to the bottom within eight minutes – although most of the crew managed to escape before it went down.

With Fearless stationary, the submarines behind it took evasive action to avoid hitting the cruiser. It was then that two of the submarines, K6 and K7, hit K4, sinking it almost immediately.

Unaware of what was happened in the sea around them, the ships of the 5th Battle Squadron ploughed on into the North Sea, right through the submariners who had managed to escape before their boats went to the bottom, killing most of them.

In an incident which had taken just over 90 minutes from start to finish, 270 men had lost their lives. Indeed, only eight men from K17 survived, while there were no survivors from K4.

As a result of this series of mishaps, the Royal Navy had lost two submarines while another four and one cruiser had been so badly damaged they had to return to base.

The accident was kept secret for the rest of the war, but a memorial cairn was eventually erected in the Fife coastal village of Anstruther 84 years later, on 31 January 2002, on the harbour opposite the Isle of May.

It emerged many years after the accident that one of the Royal Navy’s commanders on the night had been court-martialed, but that too was kept out of the public eye.

Ewan Walker, environment developer for Mainstream Renewable Power, stressed that the wrecks would not be moved or disturbed by the turbines.

“Although these wrecks are within our offshore windfarm boundary,” he said, “they will not be affected if the windfarm is consented.

“The wrecks have legal protection which prevents activities which could disturb them. This protection includes a buffer zone around the wrecks.”

Stuart Leather, a principal consultant in the survey, said of the sonar work: “This hadn’t actually been done before.

“You have the historical accounts but what you haven’t had until now is the evidence of what happened on the sea bed. We’ve compared the wreckage on the sea bed with the account of the disaster and it has slightly modified the understanding of the previous accounts.”

K4 aground at Walney Island, Barrow, 1917 <em>Picture: The Royal Navy Submarine Museum</em>

K4 aground at Walney Island, Barrow, 1917 Picture: The Royal Navy Submarine Museum

The K Class submarines earned the unfortunate nickname “Kalamity-class” within the Royal Navy during the first world war.

This was largely because, of the 18 built, none were lost in action but six were sunk in accidents.

These were steam-powered submarines with a huge boiler-room which made them almost unbearably hot. Because of the complicated system of ballasts and chambers needed for diving and surfacing, they often failed on their own – without any help from the enemy.

Archive photographs courtesy of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.

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Derelict tank on Salisbury Plain <em>Picture: Brian Robert Marshall</em>

Derelict tank on Salisbury Plain Picture: Brian Robert Marshall

By Stuart Crawford

Two aspects of Britain’s defence infrastructure have been worth a mention over the past couple of days. The first is the planned shake-up of the Ministry of Defence following Lord Levene’s review. His recommendations seem likely to see reform of a structure which has been both top-heavy and hidebound since at least the end of the second world war, and arguably even before then.

The British armed services have always been over-officered compared to their US and continental-European equivalents. This is sometimes attributed to our colonial heritage, when young officers were expected on occasion to set out into the unknown with a few soldiers and annex vast swathes of territory for the Empire. Independent command and decision-making was the order of the day. More recently, the need to maintain an appropriate career path for officer progression has been the excuse of choice.

Britain’s colossal officer casualties in the first world war can be at least partially attributed to the fact that in every infantry company of approximately 100 men or so there might be up to six or seven officers. The equivalent German figure was two or three.

Whatever the real truth of the matter, any attempt to increase the “other rank” to officer ratio is to be welcomed, as the financial burden of maintaining a large officer corps in all three services – more brigadiers than brigades, more air marshals than RAF squadrons, more admirals than Royal Navy ships – is clearly unsustainable in these straitened times. It might also allow us to pay the lower ranks more – and they above all else deserve it.

The other major aspect of Lord Levene’s report is the long-awaited reform of the MoD’s equipment procurement process. This has seen a litany of expensive and over-budget procurement fiascos over many years. Just think of TSR-2, Nimrod, the Bowman radio project, the aircraft carriers and so on. Amazingly, no one seems ever to be held accountable for these disasters, and I dare say there are officers now of senior rank who would have been sacked years ago had they worked in a civilian commercial organisation. So we can only hope that, at long last, this is going to be sorted out.

Not directly related to the above, but still staying with defence, it is interesting to note that the MoD is apparently looking at the possibility of establishing a major military training area in the Scottish Borders – a sort of Caledonian Salisbury Plain, if you like. Whilst the military is decidedly tight-lipped over the rumours at present, there would appear to be more than a grain of truth in the reports carried in the mainstream press.

Whether or not Scotland should welcome such a suggestion is a moot point. On the one hand, it would undoubtedly bring jobs and economic opportunity to Scotland’s forgotten region. Considerable investment would be required, and then of course it would provide a suitable and appropriate training area, one would hope, for Scotland’s promised mobile brigade which is to be constituted from troops returning from Germany.

On the other hand, if you have seen Salisbury Plain close up, you will know that it’s not all good news. Troops on training areas inevitably mean noise and dust, pollution of both the human and technological kind, and it is likely to require a considerable area – Salisbury Plain encompasses 150 square miles in all. There will be nothing subtle or particularly eco-friendly in columns of armoured vehicles stravaiging across the Southern Uplands, for example.

With involvement in Afghanistan now entering, we hope, its end phase, and with the prospect of British troops returning home from both there and from Germany, it may just be that the Scottish population is going to see more of its military than it has for the last 100 years.

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Armed Forces Day parade <em>Picture: John Knox</em>

Armed Forces Day parade Picture: John Knox

By John Knox

The skirl of the pipes is at once magnificent and frightening. It captured my mood exactly as I joined the crowd in the Royal Mile on Saturday for this year’s Armed Forces Day. Prince Charles, David Cameron and Alex Salmond, each representing their different interests in the day, stood outside Holyrood Palace to take the salute as 2,500 troops marched past.

Edinburgh was the centrepiece of this year’s celebrations – taking place across the UK. At noon, the RAF Red Arrows streaked across the sky trailing clouds of glory in the form of red, white and blue tail-smoke. Down in the docks at Leith, HMS Portland, a Type 23 frigate, was open to the public. Various displays, piping competitions, flypasts and church services have been held over the weekend.

As a group of soldiers waited their turn to march forward, a proud mother next to me photographed her son in the ranks. “Smile,” she called out, which her son duly did, trying not to look too embarrassed. “That’s my boy,” she told her neighbour in the crowd, a visitor from Australia. “Tomorrow he’s due to get his sergeant’s stripes. He’s served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and just now he’s based in Ireland.” She then showed the visitor a picture of her son’s family. “Oh that’s so sweet,” said the Australian.

The war in Afghanistan has brought home to us the danger these men face and the sacrifice their families make to carry out Britain’s international commitments. Over 370 service personnel have been killed in the ten years we have had troops in Afghanistan. That awful phrase, “The men’s families have been informed,” tolls like a bell as each news story from the front comes in.

As the number of deaths escalated, three years ago the idea was born of an Armed Forces Day. It’s a day for the nation to thank the soldiers for their service and sacrifice. And it’s a day for the Army, Navy and Air Force to connect with the people who are asking them to serve and who are paying the bills. Whatever we think of the particular wars and missions these men are sent on, everyone wants to “back our boys and girls”.

The cobbles of the Royal Mile have been tramped on by military parades for centuries. They have echoed from the sound of war at home and abroad, wars of imperialism and wars of defence. Military action is a nasty and unpredictable activity, to be avoided if at all possible. But sometimes it is necessary and someone, very often our very best people, has to do the bloody business.

Otherwise we would have to give up our role of peacekeepers and fighters against tyranny, oppression, cruelty and injustice. People such as Saddam, Gaddafi and the Taliban would continue to abuse their people. And to allow that to happen would be to give away part of our humanity. Thus a military parade is both a magnificent thing and a dreadful thing.

This year’s parades are particularly sensitive, not just because of Afghanistan but because of the defence budget cuts. The cuts are happening for two reasons, both of them controversial. One is the UK’s overall budget deficit and the coalition government’s determination to reduce it. The other is the long-term downsizing of Britain’s place in the world.

The British armed forces, at 233,000 strong, are the second-largest in the European Union – after France. We have the fourth-largest military budget in the world – after the USA, China and France. For decades, we have been debating how long our relatively small country can continue to play such a large role in the world. And these issues are now coming to a drum head. The government wants to cut the defence budget of £34 billion by 8 per cent over the next four years. That will mean a reduction in personnel of 17,000.

In Scotland, we have already had the amalgamation of the six army regiments. The RAF base at Kinloss is due to close down at the end of next month. It looks like either RAF Leuchars or RAF Lossiemouth will become a base for Britain’s returning Army of the Rhine. The two aircraft carriers to be assembled at Rosyth will not be equipped with jump-jets until at least 2020, following the decision to scrap the Harrier squadrons. A decision on replacing Trident nuclear submarines has been postponed. And so the cuts go on. Some may be welcome but all of them will be unsettling.

Armed Forces Day thus has a third purpose: to prevent morale in the ranks taking a nose-dive. The budget cuts and the losses and uncertainties in the sands of Afghanistan are a double burden which must be difficult to bear. It makes the parade of smart, cheerful soldiers down the Royal Mile all the more impressive and the skirling of their pipes all the more magnificent.

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