Echoes of our empire

Barely visible out to sea, a Russian warship passing down the Channel might attract special forces' attention, but surely not a few blunt instruments

[Editor’s note: Nothing in the news is quite as simple as it seems, and this week Rye News received this thought-provoking comment below about what was possibly a storm in a tea cup]

Two stories, and the political noises off, made a particular impression on me this week. The tales played out some seventy years apart, but both concerned young Nigerian men on boats.

Early in the week the tanker Nave Andromeda was reportedly hijacked by seven stowaways assumed to be seeking asylum in the UK. At the time of writing we don’t know precisely what happened aboard, nor what they may have based their asylum claims upon. What we do know is Nigeria is in turmoil. Its security forces, regular patrons of Britain’s arms trade, have lately been shooting dead unarmed protesters. Elsewhere, extremism has plagued the country for years.

Regardless of any broader context that might have been relevant, the media informed us that the putative asylum-seekers had made threats, and armed themselves with blunt instruments. There was an inference of imminent violence by angry Africans. A Mayday signal was sent at around 9am, but despite the alleged perilousness of the situation, no action was taken until dusk.

Counter-intuitively, it was action by elite special forces more usually deployed in an anti-terror role. Though much was done by the media and politicians to conjure the spectre of terror, this was clearly less of a hijack than a maritime mugging. The defence secretary bathed in the reflected glory of the SBS and conjured with notions of public insecurity. Then the seven desperadoes were handed over by the SBS to… Hampshire Constabulary. Let’s hope they all fitted in the panda car…

Just seeking asylum?

The pantomime was widely commentated on, but it was Hampshire MP, Bob Seely, whose words stuck in my mind. He opined sarcastically on Radio 4 that the Nigerians would undoubtedly soon be “lawyered up”. Due process for asylum seekers, it seemed, was an unsavoury prospect. But that wasn’t what I found especially unsavoury about the debacle.

The moment passed, and it was not until a day later that, in my capacity as a volunteer for the Burma Star Association, I took a call from a recently-widowed lady. Her late husband, she informed me, had served in Burma during the second world war. He’d fought alongside men of the Royal West African Frontier Force – many of whom were Nigerian.

She related to me the enduring impression these young African soldiers had left upon her husband during the ferocious fighting against the Japanese. One of her anecdotes joined some dots in my mind.

She recalled that after the Japanese surrender, the surviving Nigerian soldiers had been shipped home to Lagos. They had fought long and hard for the British Empire and left many of their comrades where they fell, half a world away from their homes, in Burma.

And the families waited …

The lady’s lately-departed husband had sailed back to Lagos with the Nigerian battalions, and when they arrived at the dockside, families thronged the quayside hoping to greet their returning heroes. Many years of separation and of anxiety now heightened the the anticipation of the waiting families.

What many of these jubilant families were about to learn in the cruellest manner was that their father or brother or son was not aboard. They were long dead. The colonial bureaucrats hadn’t informed them.

The British Burma veteran had felt great shame about this incident, reported his widow. I felt the same shame. For the second time that week, in fact. And I wondered if any if those abruptly-bereaved Nigerian families, seventy-five years before, had got “lawyered up”, in Bob Seely’s words. I doubt it.

History casts a long shadow, and sometimes it’s worth peering into the veil of darkness to illuminate perspectives on today’s events.

Image Credits: Canon David Frost .


  1. Clearly 22 burly sailors are incapable of reasoning with 7 exhausted stowaways and so 9 minutes of SBS theatricals where needed; most of which must have been taken up by helping them into life jackets.

  2. You obviously have no idea how the SBS work or what they do to keep you safe, much the same as the armed police teams.
    When faced with an aggressor you get seconds to make a decision, if you want to know what it’s like to be faced with an unknown situation ask the French, ordinary people going about their lives and faced with nutters willing to die for the cause.
    Hindsight is a wonderful thing but criticising brave men who step into danger to keep you safe is…………….

  3. Tony, nobody was criticising the gentlemen from Poole. Quite the opposite. It’s my contention that their training, experience and undoubted courage shouldn’t be squandered on cheap political stunts. The May Day signal was issued c 09.00, the assault upon the anchored vessel was made in the evening. This wasn’t a split second operation and I doubt very much it required a troop of SBS commandos. If the regular Royal Navy aren’t capable of boarding a stationary tanker and arresting seven men assessed by the crew to be stowaways (there was no suggestion these guys were Jihadists) then the Senior Service is in a dire state. Or, perhaps a Royal Navy boarding party wouldn’t have attracted the desired headlines?

  4. I’m wondering why the operation wasn’t lead by Dan O’Mahoney, the man with the utterly ludicrous title of Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, who is Home Secretary (and High Inshore Argonaut?) Priti Patel’s go-to man when it comes to messing about in boats.

  5. Guy, my reply was mainly aimed at Jeremy, his “SBS theatricals” touched a nerve.
    Replying to your comment I’m not sure why the RN would use a naval boarding party when they have their own special forces on hand, the SBS are RN and not RM since 2003, if nothing else it would make a good training ex, not that they or the internet experts would have known that at the time.
    Of course I might be slightly bias……

  6. Hi, Tony. I think these debates are generally better over a pint. Less room for misunderstanding.
    I was chuffed to have my pal attend my wedding in his dress blues. On his forearm was his ‘SC’ qualification. On his chest, campaign medals including NI, Bosnia and Afghanistan. He also wore the QGM and the CGC. Tony, you’ll know what this means. It also means I would never diminish what those fellers do. I know that wasn’t what Jeremy was implying either.
    Re this incident, all evidence at the time suggested this wasn’t a counter-terrorist scenario. There was no media black out. Quite the opposite. Nothing we’ve heard since suggests these guys were terrorists either. So it wasn’t, as far as I can see a CT operation, simply a cynical attempt to harden attitudes against migrants. My point was based on my assumption that members of our armed services join up to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our society, its people and our democratic way of life. Regardless of whether they’re game to go out for a spin round the bay for the Home Sec, they don’t, I suspect, join up to provide political distraction for embattled govts. Nor should their lives and limbs be so employed. Anyone who really respected the armed forces wouldn’t be so cynical about deploying them.
    Good to chat. Hope to do so in person one day!

  7. Thanks for the reply Guy and as you say it’s too easy to misunderstand the written word, it also helps if you know whether you’re talking to like minded people, Pusser and civvy reactions to situations do tend to vary.
    A pint would be good sometime in the future and respect to you’re opo, he’s been to places and done things out of my league by the sounds of it.
    Stay safe……

  8. I don’t really understand what Guy and Tony are debating but I love the bit at the end where they agree to discuss it over a pint. This is what Rye is all about. If only more debates could be settled this way.


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