“It’s an important point to make that all war is terrible.”
The opinions given by the Commodore are personal and not necessarily those of the Royal Navy nor of the Ministry of Defence.
I’m talking to Commodore John Keegan, OBE who was born in 1959. Ever since he was a six- or seven-years-old boy, he visited ‘Navy Days’ in Portsmouth, and wanted to join the service from an early age. Soon after he turned 18, ‘In September 1977’ John tells us: ‘I arrived at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth (known as BRNC for short) along with a long list of strange items considered essential (such as stiff collar and studs, non-metallic hangers etc) and the great adventure began. This first period involved turning civilians into something approaching military people, and this meant learning the correct dress, bearing, and the ability to march and shoot. This was followed by practical naval studies, and most importantly aspects of leadership which still serve me well today. After ‘Passing Out’ in 1978, I joined the Fleet for six months before going on to read Naval Engineering and completing my postgraduate courses.
Then I was off to sea again while still training on the aircraft carrier HERMES to study for my Fleet Board. It was essential to pass this to be able to continue my career. There followed many challenging appointments, both at sea and ashore. These involved a few scrapes here and there. During this time I served on one minehunter (BOSSINGTON), four destroyers (LIVERPOOL, MANCHESTER, EXETER and CARDIFF) and another aircraft carrier (INVINCIBLE), and this was later interspersed with shore jobs ranging from procurement of surface-to-air missiles, the Ministry of Defence (four times), the Operational Planner to Commander-in-Chief Fleet, a 6-month secondment to BP Amoco, Command of HMS RALEIGH ( New Entry Training), and finally as the Commander Maritime Reserves, which was head of one of the six fighting arms of the Service. I can honestly say looking back on this period that I had an exciting and interesting 36 years of constant change and jobs satisfaction: I met many people that I became enriched by, and made many good and enduring friendships, learning a great deal about myself on the way.
None of this would have been possible without the support of my wife Susan, who managed to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground during the general rigours of military life while staying strong when I was away for up to seven months at time. Our boys have followed on the Service life, one to the Royal Air Force and the other into the Army, making Susan and I very proud.’
Commodore, John Keegan retired in February 2013, and he has been recognized for his 36 years of dedicated service to the UK in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 2013, he was awarded an OBE for his “Outstanding Commitment to the UK” and for his “diverse and selfless career” in the Royal Navy. John, who was 54 at the time, said that the award was a complete surprise, but he was delighted to be recognised.
When you joined the Royal Navy in 1977, your father appeared not so keen on the choice of your career. Has he changed his mind as time has gone by?
He has passed away now. Yes, he did. I think He actually was quite proud.
What about your mother? How did she feel about you wanting to join the Royal Navy?
She thought it was a good career to have and followed it closely until she died two years ago.
Sorry to hear that. I’m sure your mother supported you because ever since you were a little boy you wanted to join the Navy.
Yes, she did. I thought it was a good idea to have a life in the armed forces and to be paid.
After obtaining your naval engineering degree and completing your officer training, you continued to be rapidly promoted from one position to another. Would you say that you had some special talents in your fields?
No, I think I was lucky. It’s a combination of being in the right place at the right time and attention to detail.
But don’t you have some special talents in the fields of mathematics and physics and science?
Yes, indeed. I liked mathematics. I liked physics and, it enabled me to go and work in the Procurement Executive, where I’ve worked on anti-aircraft missiles.
While serving in the Royal Navy, how many real battles have you experienced?
Two battles. Once during the first Gulf War when we were attacked by an Iraqi fighter armed with an Exocet missile, and my captain had been sunk by such a missile in the Falklands War. He calmed the Ship’s Company down by saying: ’Gentlemen, I’ve been sunk by an Exocet before, I don’t intend to be sunk again, which was a very good piece of leadership.
Did you have any losses, while fighting these battles?
No, thank goodness.
That is amazing. So, you didn’t have to deal with a problem of coping with such losses? You were feeling victorious and successful?
Well, I think you feel successful, but you don’t feel happy for those on the other side who lost their lives. I think it’s an important point to make that all war is terrible.
So, even after a victorious battle, you still feel grief for the losses on the other side?
Of course, yes.
During the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, there was a serious threat that chemical weapons may have been used by the aggressor. Small levels of various chemicals were detected in various areas of land. If these weapons were used, would you still be in danger on the ship?
Oh yes. Very much so.
So how do they reach the ship?
They can be carried with the wind, or they can be fitted into a shell that is firing the ship. So, you need to be very careful. I mean, we thought it was very real hazard. We took it very seriously.
What sort of protection can be used against such weapons? I know you can wear some kind of white anti-radiation boiler suits and masks. What else can help?
Well, there’s two things. One is a ship’s protection, and that’s called collective protection. The ship has a series of sprinklers on the upper deck, keeping the side of the ship wet, so the chemicals won’t stick, and of course the ship could be made airtight—completely airtight. And then there’s personal protection. You can wear clothing and a mask, and rubber gloves and boots. Also, if you need to access the upper deck it’s via an airlock.
What is an airlock?
The ship has a positive pressure inside. So, you open one door and shut the other door. So, you shut the door behind you, then you open the outer door. And this blows all the chemicals away.
And how long does the process of blowing chemicals away take?
Well, we were shut down in that state for many, many days.
So, you didn’t have to be in a battle to be endangered by the chemical weapon? And that’s why you had to protect yourself?
At any stage you could be fired upon. Even off the coast, you could be fired at with a missile with a chemical warhead or bombs with chemical agents. You get no warning of that, so you have to be able to shut down quickly and effectively.
The Royal Navy is known for representing the very high standards, not only in terms of the equipment and technology they use, but also with regard to the practical skills and mental aptitudes they require of their service people. A lot of pastoral, ethical, and moral guidance is given as part of the training. The British Royal Navy is known for its very high standards in all the fields that are required to serve in it. When naval authorities from other countries fall short on such standards, and it appears that they do not understand what they are doing wrong, there is a lack of communication; how do you cope with that?
It’s a very difficult question. I’m not answering this on behalf of the Navy. It is my personal view, it must be quite clear, but the Royal Navy have absolute standards. Maybe other nations aspire to those. And some fall short and some don’t, but we have an organization called Flag Officer Sea Training where we train ships and their crews from other nations to the same standards as us. And of course, we train with our NATO allies all the time. We train to a specific standard, and it’s an absolute standard, and our NATO allies meet that standard.
In the present conflict in Ukraine there are accusations that children, women, and vulnerable people are being used as human shields. Why doesn’t the thought of harming children, women, and vulnerable people stop any military action? Why isn’t their presence a more powerful deterrent to going ahead than any nuclear or chemical weapon?
First of all, I should say that I have been retired for some eight years, so I am not familiar with what is happening tactically on the front in Ukraine, but as a principle using human shields of any sort is against the Geneva Convention.
From the current situation in Ukraine we, the general public have learnt that there are a lot of rules when at war. The Russian president describes the Russian action in Ukraine as a ‘ Special Operation’, but in Britain, when talking about these events, we refer to this action as war. Do we just use a colloquial language? From the experts’ point of view, is it a war or a ‘Special Operation’?
There’s no doubt that it’s War. A ‘special operation’ has very limited aims and the invasion of another country’s territory is a war. ‘Special Operations’ is just, a name they’ve used to make it not sound so bad,
Do you think that the international skills in the art of negotiation are currently at a peak standard, or is there room for improvement?
I wouldn’t know.
What about the war and climate change? Are you aware of whether current attitudes about the damages that come with war are up to date with the current climate change situation? Wars seem to come with a lot of CO2s as well as other damage.
All war is a retrograde step. The aggressors obviously they don’t care about climate change. The climate issue is very real, but when one country wants to invade another, they didn’t do it because of climate change issues, they do it to gain territory. I mean, the damage is done. Look at the destruction in Ukraine, at how very quickly it has happened. But I don’t think, Russia cares about climate change and how much damage is done.
It does not appear so. All the explosions cause more CO2 in the air.
During your time in the Royal Navy, Do you have any favourite times?
Yes. There are many more good days than bad days. Which is fantastic. I mean, the great advantage about being in the fighting service is that every two years you change jobs. You never get stale. There is always something different to do. My favourite times, too numerous to mention. Certainly, I enjoyed my time in the West Indies. I enjoyed my visits to the United States, but most of all, I enjoyed the comradeship of others. Warships are very insular place. A Destroyer is a 400-foot-long ship by 40-feet-wide with a crew 290. There’s not a lot of room for personal space, but I enjoy that. You have to enjoy the company of others, and I do.
Have you ever experienced terrible storms?
Oh, yes, regularly. First of all, I was on the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes in 1978 off Iceland and in force 11 storm, and the flight deck was awash with water, and that’s a 35,000-ton ship. And then in 1983, between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, we were in force 12 and the ship went over 45 degrees and righted itself. That was quite scary. It took an awfully long time to come back to the upright position.
You’re scared and under pressure to stay balanced.
At sea you’re always under pressure to stay balanced because small ships aren’t built for comfort, they’re built to carry war to the enemy. I have also been in quite a lot of heavy seas over the years
Have you seen some amazing sites of the world?
Oh, yes. Talking about climate change. In 1983 in South Georgia Fortuna glassier was nearly 10,000 feet high. Now it’s gone, completely gone, I understand. So, climate change is very real. You get to see some marvellous wildlife: porpoises and dolphins follow the ship in warm times. Flying fish land on the deck, and there are penguins and elephant seals in South Atlantic. There is wonderful wildlife. It’s very comforting if you like being at sea, standing on the deck and watching the sun go down and watching the sun come up. Marvellous. It makes it all worthwhile.
How difficult is it for you now that you suffer Parkinson’s like syndromes, and we do not know exactly why, to go through the day? How difficult is it for you to keep this condition at bay?
Well, it’s progressive, so there’s always going to get worse, but you can manage. The important thing is to stay as cheerful as you can. I’ve got a good support network. My wife’s wonderful, and I’ve got some very good friends that all help out, and without them life would be very difficult. I’m lucky to have good friends.
Apart from your amazing military knowledge and skills, you also have passion for motor sports and philately. How long ago did you visit a motor sports event?
Oh, some years now, because I’m not able to because of Parkinson’s, but I used to go down to Le Mans regularly for the 24-hour race and attend the British Grand Prix. It’s been 10 or 15 years since I’ve been there now.
You and Susan like cruising for holiday. Which of the recent cruises was your favourite?
The one to Alaska, yes. Fantastic. We went from the west coast of America up to Alaska and then back to Vancouver, and it was fabulous. We were the first ship of the season up there. Unbelievable. Peaceful scenery. It’s different doing it as a tourist rather than doing it for work.
That’s still being on the ship.
Yes. Being on a ship without responsibility.
Commodore John Keegan. I would like to take this opportunity and thank you and everyone else in the Royal Navy for your amazing service, and for everything that you have done that we know about, and for what we are not aware of. Also for the fact that you have been prepared to put yourself in danger, while we, as civilians, have been living carefree lives, and just enjoying ourselves and peace. Thank you for all that; it is so lovely to see you today and to be able to talk with you. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us.
Thank you very much.