Commodore Phil Waterhouse: ‘Our global position in the world requires a stronger Royal Navy’
For the citizens of a realm that boasted of ruling the waves, British people have a worryingly poor grasp of nautical matters, thinks Commodore Phil Waterhouse.
The Royal Navy's commander for northern England is speaking expansively in his office at shore establishment HMS Eaglet, the force's regional HQ in Liverpool. It's a tidy room - military fastidiousness runs deep - where a freshly-laundered uniform hangs on the wardrobe door and impressive certificates for radar operation and bridge-watching are framed over the desk. This is where Commodore Waterhouse is tasked with spreading the word about the work of his fellow servicemen and women by getting out and about in communities spanning the distance from Merseyside to Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull.
"There is a sea blindness in this country," he says. "People don't understand that we're a maritime nation. Even in Liverpool, the greatest maritime port - it would argue - in the UK, it's still difficult to get people to understand that 85 per cent of our trade comes in through sea. The Royal Navy belongs to the British people and it's incumbent on us to let them know what it is we do."
And times are changing for the UK's oldest armed service. Two new aircraft carriers - HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales - are on the way, along with a next-generation class of nuclear submarines and another 13 frigates.
The bill for this ambitious shopping list adds up to more than £26 billion, but the increased Government spending comes at a point of heightened global tensions.
Navy ships have been escorting British-flagged commercial craft in the Gulf since the seizure in July of the Stena Impero oil tanker by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz. Initially, eyebrows were raised when just a single frigate - HMS Montrose - was sent to protect vessels navigating the strategically important channel, with former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West saying the Navy was 'disgracefully short of ships'.
But Commodore Waterhouse says the situation was ever thus. Lord Collingwood, he observes, lamented the size and condition of the Navy after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 - in 2019, capability is what matters.
"If you're talking about lethality, we're in the right place," he says assuredly, while dispelling any suggestion that crew are keen to use weapons in anger.
"Warfare is horrible, disgusting and shocking, and we should avoid it at all costs. What we've got to make sure is our Armed Forces are of such a status that people don't start taking liberties with us. The threat to others is your make-up. You should never have to fire a bullet or missile."
While perfectly affable, there's a no-nonsense edge to Commodore Waterhouse that he doesn't deny. "Particularly in warfare, you've got to be robust. When I say 'do it', I expect you to do it, unflinchingly, and certainly not questioningly."
The Navy has 'about the right number' of sailors, he says, and doesn't 'particularly have a problem' with recruitment - at the last count in July it had 38,770 personnel, a figure that includes Royal Marines and volunteer reserves.
"We're really successful in this region, something between 45 and 55 per cent of the Navy come from the North of England. We have some problems in terms of the type - as in, we want engineers and catering services personnel. The use of IT and information systems means you need much more technical and highly-trained individuals."
Commodore Waterhouse aims to 'get out on a grand strategic level' among key opinion-formers in order to fulfil his duty. "While we've got a couple of reserve units in this region, we haven't got any major naval capabilities. We're not overly-represented, so I need to get to MPs, Lord Mayors, chief executives, councils and suchlike."
Allied to these efforts at influence and engagement are the 'ship affiliations' - Leeds is linked to HMS Audacious, Hull has HMS Iron Duke and Liverpool will have HMS Prince of Wales.
The name HMS Sheffield, meanwhile, will be revived for one of eight new Type 26 'city class' frigates, the first of which are expected to arrive in the mid-2020s.
"I had the pleasure of being involved in making sure that happened," says Commodore Waterhouse of the campaign to bring back the cruiser nicknamed the 'Shiny Sheff' for the amount of stainless steel it carried on board. The last ship to bear the name was sold to the Chilean Navy in 2003, while its predecessor was sunk by an Argentinian missile in the Falklands conflict of 1982, killing 20.
"Sheffield had always said they didn't wish to have another ship unless it was called HMS Sheffield. That rationale paid dividends. We learned a lot from the Falklands. There was always going to be a legacy, but to name one 'Sheffield' is particularly important. There's a heck of a lot of people from the city region that were in the navy for that period. Now we're giving them acknowledgement and recognition. Of course, every ship out there at the moment has got Sheffield in it, through the steel-making. Perhaps more so than some of the other areas, it was really poignant that we have now got another HMS Sheffield. And well done to the city council for persevering."
As proud as Commodore Waterhouse is of the Navy's ocean-going strength, many of its duties don't require the deployment of a vessel.
"We're involved in the watching game," he explains. "When you look at Russia and China's posturing - we're as busy as we've ever been, we just don't always need to send a ship to do it."
And the job 'isn't all about the kit'. "We have core values in the navy - courage, commitment, discipline, respect, integrity and loyalty. You've got to have those."
But the Navy does possess the ultimate capability, as its submarines have carried the UK's nuclear deterrent since 1969.
"To my mind it allows Britain to keep its place in the world order at a time when we're struggling to impose ourselves a little bit because of what's going on politically," says Commodore Waterhouse, who admits he has little interest in embarking on a claustrophobic underwater patrol. "It wouldn't be something I'd particularly want to do. I joined the Navy to serve on ships."
Commodore Waterhouse grew up in Yorkshire in Sherburn-in-Elmet and Pontefract, and from the age of 12 attended the Trinity House marine school in Hull.
"I was in the sea cadets in Barnsley and Hemsworth," he says. "I loved messing around in boats. I was just fascinated by it."
He joined the Navy in 1982 and was soon identified for commission as an officer. His varied CV has included several senior logistics roles - overseeing supplies from food to bullets - as well as a spell as flag lieutenant for Rear Admiral Mike Boyce, who went on to lead the Armed Forces as Chief of the Defence Staff. He captained Devonport in Plymouth, Europe's largest naval base, before becoming regional commander in 2017.
The Navy, Commodore Waterhouse says, is a family - literally in his case. His twin sister signed up too and his wife Rosie, who died following a short illness last year, was serving in the naval reserves when they met.
"She died four days before our 30th anniversary, which was a great shame," he says. Their daughters Annabelle, 21, and Alexandra, 24, are graduates in criminology and law. "She was a great support, and a wonderful naval wife and mum."
Spending long periods apart was inevitable. "I think we worked out that in our 30 years of marriage we spent seven years together. It is a challenge."
A staunch advocate of the Armed Forces Covenant - which organisations can sign as a promise to treat veterans fairly - Commodore Waterhouse sits on the board of the Battle of the Atlantic Memorial, a charity that aims to build a monument remembering the struggle to control crucial sea routes during World War Two.
He says he 'wouldn't change a day' of his career. "There's a bit of me that wishes I could have spent more time, given what's happened, with Rosie and the girls. But they wouldn't be the people they are without the background they had."
At 53, he is two years away from the normal retirement age for a captain or commodore, but thinks 55 is rather too early.
"I would suggest we can be in role until we're 60,” he says, understandably keen to play a part in the Navy’s future. “Those who have been here for quite a while have been waiting 20 years for where we are today. With all the issues facing us at the moment - and I say this in an apolitical way - whatever way we go now, one could argue our global position in the world requires a stronger Royal Navy. That's certainly what we're working towards.”
‘I remember thinking it wasn't supposed to end like this’
White-knuckle drama and the threat of tragedy are part and parcel of life in the Navy, where sailors are pitted against the sea's elemental power.
Commodore Phil Waterhouse recalls an assignment off the Scottish coast when he and fellow crew members had to perform an enormously risky manoeuvre when a storm was 'howling and blowing a force 11 or 12'."We were headed eastbound across the top of the Pentland Firth to go down to Rosyth. We got a message that we needed to go to Faslane to land our helicopter, so it could go off and support a ship in the Caribbean. The turn we had to execute... If you don't maintain momentum, you're over. It was like a scene from The Cruel Sea."
On another occasion he saw four German servicemen perish when a 'boat transfer' in the Baltic hit difficulties.
"The sea boat flipped over and the German sailors that were being transferred back to their ship were just in overcoats, effectively. They died of hypothermia, even though we put helicopters in the air straight away."
Commodore Waterhouse feared death himself when the Argentine Air Force made an incursion while he was serving on HMS Broadsword in the Falklands in the late 1980s.
"We went to being at action stations within five minutes," he says. "They weren't supposed to come within the total exclusion zone and they'd penetrated it by about 60 miles. We headed towards them. I remember sitting there thinking 'I've only been married six months, it wasn't supposed to end like this'. We switched on our fire-control radar, targeted them, got them in the beam, and they quite rightly decided better."
Very few people, he says, will talk about the psychological consequences of warfare. "In the armed forces we're learning so much more about mental health, as we are in society. We're fighting through the stigmas associated with it."