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Cod War Spuds

Mick Pinchen, Royal Marine


Following the return of HMS Sirius from the West Indies, a period of maintenance in Devonport and a ‘Work Up’ at Portland, ‘she’ was ordered to join the Fishery Protection Squadron. At this time the so-called ‘Cod War’ was in progress. This was an on-going dispute between Iceland and the UK, as a result of the former making a unilateral declaration of the extension of her territorial waters. This resulted in British trawlers being harassed by Icelandic gunboats in these fish-rich waters, and, if banned altogether, the impact would have a profound effect upon the fishing ports of Britain and the price of cod over the counter!

 There had been a few changes to the Detachment, the most prominent being the OCRM, now Lt Bob Fletcher, (the rugby leprechaun), and the DSM, Sgt Bill Eades. On the way north, we ‘Royals’ started to imagine all sorts of schemes in which we may get involved. Would we be used as a boarding party against the Icelandic gunboats, or perhaps we would sneak in and land in one of the harbours and neutralise their capability? Surely we would be used for something? We were to be disappointed, as in the event none of these things happened. Instead we, as part of the ship’s company, would be employed in ship’s duties.

We relieved a Rothesay class frigate at sea and proceeded to patrol our designated area. The weather was variable; one minute flat calm with clear skies, the next high winds and huge waves. We worked a routine known as ‘Defence Watches’, 6 hours on 5 hours off; 5 hours on, 6 hours off. It became monotonous and mundane. The ‘Jimmy’ utilised the under-employed by forming cleaning parties, until eventually the whole ship had a pungent smell of brasso and cleaning paste.

My ‘Action Station’ was on the starboard oerlikon, a 20mm machine gun of WW2 vintage, aimed over iron sights and fed by a 60 round drum magazine. This was a rather exposed position, being abaft the bridge wing, and so, when not required to be ‘closed up’, shelter was sought in the GDP, (gunnery direction platform). This consisted of four lookout positions. Each of these were a set of binoculars mounted in revolving barrel like structures, which enabled radar contacts to be confirmed by the look-out with a visual sighting of surface or airborne targets. This position was commanded by a Snotty. Life on the GDP was cold but much more fun that being below and being part of the ‘Jimmy’s’ cleaning parties. In fact when the sun was out one could even get in some bronzy, (sunbathing), time, in the lee of the foremast.

Most of the time was spent patrolling our zone; back and forth, back and forth. It must have been like this on the Atlantic convoys during WW2, endless hours of boredom, except we didn’t have the submarines to worry about! During the middle watch I clambered over the bridge wing and grabbed some ‘warmers’ in the bridge itself. There was a radio receiver in there and we would listen to the conversations between the trawler skippers, trying to identify the hometown of the various accents. Taking a glance at the radar screen one could see dozens, possibly hundreds of specks, most, if not all were British trawlers, going about their ‘lawful’ business. Looking out on the bridge wing the black sea was dotted with lights as the fishermen worked their catch aboard, toiling under arc lights in all weathers throughout the long cold nights. These men were hardy fellows, the salt of the earth, tough uncompromising men, men who formed the backbone of a proud fishing industry and tradition; but for how long? That’s what we were there for, to protect them, wasn’t it?

Occasionally the boredom would be broken by the report of a gunboat coming out, and we would dash at full speed to intercept. A Leander class frigate, on paper, could do 30 knots, but I doubt if we achieved more than 28. At those revs the whole ship shook and rattled, and anyone who was asleep very soon was not so. Sometimes gunfire was heard in the distance, followed by a report of a trawler being hit. Again we raced to the scene, the ship’s stem ploughed into the swell cutting a passage through the uncompromising foam. But we were too late; the assailant had done his dastardly deed and retired to the safety of a fjord.

I would be closed up, strapped in at my oerlikon, the wind chill cutting through my many layers of clothing, the frozen salt spray stinging my face like dozens of needles. But I was up for it! I had been advised by the POGI, (Petty Officer Gunnery Instructor), to lay my fire onto the target, like a wand, using the tracer as a guide. So if and when I was ordered to, the bridge of the gunboat was going to get an extra long burst!

The Icelandic gunboats we encountered regularly were the Odin and the Thor. These were short in length, rapid in acceleration, with a tight turning circle. The Leander frigate by contrast was slower to accelerate and was long and sleek by comparison. Designed for anti-submarine warfare the Leander’s had thin skins, which made them particularly, vulnerable to the Icelander’s reinforced icebreaker bows! During cat and mouse antics with the Thor, as she tried to impede some trawlers, we were almost down to the gunwales as the skipper put 30 degrees of starboard wheel on at full speed, and we came very close to collision on several occasions. Not being allowed to fire unilaterally, the Sgt Major lined us up on the boat deck and organised ‘volley fire’ at the opposing vessel as she passed down our starboard side, all but 30 feet away! However the only rounds ‘fired’ were mouldy potatoes from the veg locker!

After a couple of months we too were relieved, and I must say we were glad to be going home.

In hindsight Iceland was only looking after its own interests. Maybe they could see the writing on the wall? It’s a shame the UK didn’t do the same. Instead ‘we’ have given our fishing rights away to the EU under the guise of the Common Fisheries Policy. Our once proud fishing industry is now but a shadow of its former self. Iceland still retains hers!

However a lasting memory for me will be of our fishermen as they toiled in those northern waters to bring their catch safely home to port. I now have a great respect for the people of that industry and when tucking into cod and chips, I always give a thought to ‘those in peril on the sea’.



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