Max Hastings contrasts the Royal Navy of Churchill’s day with the modern one:
On February 16, 1940, the destroyer Cossack, acting on Churchill’s personal orders, steamed headlong into neutral Norwegian territorial waters in defiance of international law, boarded the German freighter Altmark and freed 299 captive British merchant seamen.
Legend held that the first the prisoners knew of their deliverance was a shout down a hatchway from a sailor on deck: ‘The Navy’s here!’ The episode passed into folklore, exemplifying the Royal Navy’s centuries-old tradition of triumphant boldness.
On October 28, 2009, the armed Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Wave Knight met Somali pirates transferring the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler from their yacht Lynn Rival to a hijacked Singaporean container vessel.
When warning shots from Wave Knight failed to deter the pirates, its 100-strong crew stood by and did . . . absolutely nothing.
We know of this sorry incident only because a British sailor leaked the truth. The Ministry of Defence’s original statement declared, evasively and deceitfully, that Wave Knight had encountered the yacht unmanned. Nothing was said about the British ship witnessing the hostages’ removal.
I guess it’s a sign of progress that the Somali pirates were content with just capturing two civilians and didn’t also take the Wave Knight and her crew as well. That might count as a win — no formal inquiry, so the lawyers won’t be sent in to bayonet the survivors.
Today, instead, lawyers reign supreme, not least in the Ministry of Defence and even on Afghan and Iraqi battlefields. No warship’s captain feels able to take action that might breach the rights of others, even when those others are murderous Somalis.
The Royal Navy’s officers in the Indian Ocean know that every shot they fire is liable to be the subject of a later inquiry, possible litigation, even a criminal trial.
Then there is the galling question of human rights. You can almost hear the MoD’s solicitors putting forward the following argument: you have to be careful because any captured pirates might claim political asylum in the UK and that it would be a breach of their rights to send them back to the anarchy in Somalia.
Alternatively, suppose a pirate swims ashore from a craft sunk by the Navy, and uses some saved-up hijack plunder to fly to Europe. He finds a smart human rights lawyer and pleads that he was an innocent fisherman pulling in his nets when British cannon fire killed half his family.
The European Court in Strasbourg might award him almost as much booty as he would gain from ransoming a family of European yachtsmen.
It’s so bad that it may be a serious breach of human rights to refer to the pirates as pirates . . .