Remarks from Vice Admiral Martin Connell, Second Sea Lord, Royal Navy
Remarks given at the New York City Pickle Night, November 12th, 2022.
Admiral Joe, Sally, distinguished guests, Committee Members, ladies and gentlemen. It is a distinct privilege to be back here in this most wonderful of cities, and to be able to return to New York as your guest speaker this evening. And I am delighted to be among friends, and we are indeed fortunate to have American Friends of the National Museum of the Royal Navy as such strong advocates and generous supporters.
Last month I was fortunate to dine in Nelson’s cabin onboard HMS Victory on the 207th anniversary of his death. Joining me that evening were American admirals who I had the pleasure of working with in my time here as the attaché. And I am determined to do all I can in my tenure as Second Sea Lord, to continue to strengthen the vital relationship that exists between our two navies, protecting our freedoms in the Euro-Atlantic area and beyond.
The Battle of Trafalgar endures in our memory, I suggest, because it was so bittersweet. Nelson ensured in death that his legacy would endure through time immemorial and that people would gather, as generations before us have, to remember him and his exploits.
Although Nelson lived in a different age, were he among us tonight he would recognise a great many of the challenges which we currently face.
State-on-state conflict on the European continent was a feature then and Britain was in the thick of it. Today, although we are not in direct combat, it is once again a stark reality for us. And we are understanding quickly, once again, the ramifications of this in terms of both evolution of modern warfare, and the wider impact on our societies. The economic impact of strangling trade in the Black Sea, or on our dependency on energy supplies and our economies are rippling outward.
And as a Service, and a nation, we will continue our efforts to support the Ukrainian cause and the Ukrainian people until they prevail. Since the start of this illegal and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, the people of the United Kingdom have provided nearly $3bn of support to Ukraine, second only to that provided by the United States. And just in this past week I have signed off on the latest round of support which the Royal Navy is providing.
But in the early 1800s, Britain was no less reliant on Europe for resources. Hemp and iron were sourced from Riga, pitch and tar from Stockholm, oak and deals from Danzig and Pilau. Decks were made of Russian firs.
We were hugely reliant on international supply chains and the Royal Navy of 1805 was deployed around the globe, with fleets from the Baltic to South Africa, from the Caribbean to East India. We would recognise many of their roles – counter-piracy, fishery and trade protection and interception of smugglers. Navies have always been guarantors of security and prosperity at sea and it is why today’s Royal Navy continues to protect the UK home base, and also promotes our wider global interests.
The value of allies in the 19th Century was well understood too. Although allegiances fluctuated during the Napoleonic Wars, it was clear that going solo was not conducive to success.
Today we strive to strengthen and deepen our most important alliances and friendships.
Whether through continued support to NATO, the forward deployment of ships to the Indo-Pacific to connect and reconnect with friends there, or new pacts such as AUKUS, that will see the United Kingdom and United States of America support Australian ambitions for a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, but also share other intelligence, advanced technologies and skills, we work ever closer together to face down future threats.
The golden thread running through all of our alliances, partnerships and friendships is a shared endeavour and desire for peace, security and prosperity, to the benefit of all, founded on trust.
As Second Sea Lord I know that our people are the beating heart of our Royal Navy, and the fact that young men and women step forward to voluntarily serve their nation is something we should be incredibly proud of and never take for granted. Recruitment into the Georgian-era Navy was perhaps less refined! But Nelson’s crews came from far and wide.
The excellent Civil Service bureaucracy of 1805 recorded that his fleet included no less than 46 nationalities being represented. And there were a total of 383 Americans serving in Royal Navy ships at Trafalgar, and seemingly only 74 of that number being pressed men! So it truly was a diverse and multicultural group of crews. Of those 383 Americans, 75 were born here in New York, and five of those were serving on board HMS VICTORY at the time of the Battle.
Even a relatively small vessel like HMS PICKLE had two men born in America on board amongst her crew of 40 men. One was Able Seaman John Oxford, aged 24, from Newport, Rhode Island – which coincidentally is where Penny and I once lived – who had volunteered for the Service and took a King’s Bounty of £5.0.0. Although PICKLE took no direct part in the battle – PICKLE’s station was to windward of the weather column, led by the Victory – he received the same awards as the seamen on board VICTORY. The other was Acting 2nd Master George Almy, aged 30, also from Newport, Rhode Island. It was Almy who was keeping the master’s logs for PICKLE before and after the battle of Trafalgar.
Admiral Collingwood succeeded to command of the British fleet on the death of Lord Nelson, and his report of the battle was written at the height of the storm which followed, in the cabin of the frigate EURYALUS. On the morning of Saturday 26th October, 5 days after the battle, he gave a copy to Lt. John Lapenotière of HMS PICKLE with orders for home.
The PICKLE hove-to off Falmouth at 9.45 a.m. on the 4th November, after an eight day passage home; light and failing winds and a foul tide prevented any further progress up-Channel that morning. Leaving his second-in-command, Sub Lt. Kingdom, to take the schooner on to Plymouth, Lapenotière went ashore by boat (landing about 10.30) and travelled to London by post-chaise. The 266 miles took nearly 37 hours, and 19 changes of horses – just over 7 miles per hour, or 14 miles per horse. He arrived at the Admiralty, having been slowed to walking pace for the last miles by a dense London fog, just before midnight on the 5th. As an aside, I have huge sympathy with Lt Lapenotière as the traffic in London these days rarely gets above 7mph!
He was shown up to the Secretary of the Admiralty and greeted him with the dramatic words: “Sir, we have gained a great victory, but we have lost Lord Nelson.” Thus, a weary nation learned of Nelson’s death.
Nelson was struck down by a musket ball, fired by a French Marksman from the fighting tops of the REDOUBTABLE, which pierced his left shoulder and gold epaulette, traveling down his spine shattering it in the process, and severing the left pulmonary artery. His death was prolonged and no doubt painful, but he died knowing he had won the day, and knowing and trusting his captains to follow through with his intent. And so aged 47, Nelson became immortal and his last words muttered were: “God and my Country.”
That French musket ball, with part of the gold threads of his epaulette fused to it still, is now permanently on display in the Grand Vestibule of Windsor Castle under His Majesty’s care. The uniform that he wore during the battle, with the fatal musket ball hole still visible, can be seen at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. And I am privileged as Second Sea Lord to have Nelson’s inkwell on the desk in Admiralty House in Portsmouth, the official residence of the Second Sea Lord, within sight of HMS Victory. Nelson’s legacy is never too far away in today’s Royal Navy, but his legacy is also remembered in other navies. A lock of Nelson’s hair was given to the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1905 – the centenary year of Trafalgar – and it is still on display at the Etajima Naval Academy near Hiroshima.
As to what happened to HM Schooner PICKLE; their reward was more blockade, escort work and anti-privateer patrols. Lt Lapenotière was promoted to Commander and the patriotic fund gave him a sword worth 100 guineas. In January 1807 she captured a French privateer cutter of 14 guns and a crew twice the strength of PICKLE’s. But PICKLE’s career came to an abrupt end on 27th July 1808. Carrying despatches to Admiral Lord Collingwood , she grounded on the Chipona Shoal off Cape Santa Maria, on her approach to Cadiz. The schooner quickly filled and sank, but the crew took to boats and all were saved.
Nelson had served for 35 years by Trafalgar, the same amount of time I have served in the Royal Navy. Mercifully my arms and eyesight are just about still functional. But had Nelson been serving today, I suspect he would share many of my concerns and would also wish to seize many of the opportunities we face. The United Kingdom, like many other nations, must face the twin challenges of economic and security crises simultaneously.
This requires me as the Second Sea Lord, responsible among other things, for designing the Royal Navy of tomorrow, to take careful judgements as to where to invest and where to disinvest, which technologies will give us a strategic advantage, and which will impose cost on our adversaries.
As an example, within this past year we have secured the purchase of a Multi-role Ocean Surveillance Ship which is enroute to the UK as I speak and will be operational around UK waters protecting our subsea cables and pipelines early next year. The increasing commercialisation of the seabed for energy and communications purposes – both vital in today’s interconnected world – has resulted in increased opportunities for adversaries to hold Western subsea critical national infrastructure at risk, and it is therefore right that we prioritise delivering capabilities which safeguard this.
HMS Glasgow, the first of class of the new Type 26 frigates, will soon float off from Govan in Scotland, and in the coming days there will be an announcement about the next batch of these world beating anti-submarine frigates. And coming in at over 8000 tonnes, over 3 times the displacement of Victory, the ship is capable of doing far more than just hunt submarines. It will have the Mk41 vertical launch system (the same as built into US Navy ships) allowing us the flexibility to strike at range and will be the first frigate designed with a large mission bay for autonomous vehicles.
Together, in partnership with the United States Navy we are building our nations’ strategic deterrent submarines, with HMS DREADNOUGHT’s first operational patrol at the end of this decade. This partnership is built on the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement and the 1963 Polaris Sales Agreement, both of which are actively still used to this day. And I am certain Nelson would have taken comfort and pride in the Royal Navy being responsible for operating our nation’s sole strategic nuclear deterrent today. A deterrent which we actively employ every single day of the year. A little over a week ago, with little fanfare or fuss, HMS VIGILANT sailed up the Clyde and returned to Faslane Naval Base on the west coast of Scotland after one of the longest strategic deterrent patrols in over 50 years; a patrol so long that 3 prime ministers had been in office in number 10 Downing Street!
As to the nature of naval battles today, rather than the devastation of a broadside causing carnage at close quarters to a first-rate ship of the line in battle, stand off threats in the maritime now include ballistic missiles capable of being fired thousands of miles, and increasingly hypersonic missiles capable of moving at speeds of up to mach 7. This will require navies to sense and understand the maritime battlespace in a much smarter and sophisticated way, leveraging off automation, AI, space and cyber technologies in order to be effective. This demands a new way of navies fighting and operating in the maritime.
The equivalent of Nelson’s sailmaster will probably be that person in future, who standing alongside the ship’s commanding officer, can best exploit the electro-magnetic warfare spectrum in the most effective manner. We are introducing autonomous and remotely operated vehicles in every domain. Only in this way will we be able to keep pace with the rapid expansion which we’re witnessing with the Chinese navy.
But the opportunity also presents itself for us to introduce attritable and expendable systems, and the way we design, acquire and generate capabilities must keep pace with these technological opportunities and I am determined to break the lifecycle dissonance and separate capabilities from platforms.
We remember Nelson for many positive reasons, be it his leadership and way with his people, his great victories or his ultimate sacrifice. And although the world and technology has changed beyond recognition, there remain clear parallels between Nelson’s age and today. Through history we can celebrate those who went before us, their achievements and their legacy, but we can also take salient points and sage lessons and apply them to the here and now.
Nelson was not infallible, none of us are. Some of his views and attitudes changed throughout his life, and for many of the positive qualities described here tonight, you could find a less complimentary perspective.
The poet Samuel Coleridge spent a year in the navy in 1804. He said Nelson “was an admiral, every inch of him. He looked at everything, not merely in its possible relation to the Naval Service in general, but in its immediate bearings on his own squadron; to his officers, his men, to the
ships themselves. Hence, though his temper was constitutionally irritable and uneven, yet never was a commander so enthusiastically loved by men of all ranks, from the Captain of the Fleet to the youngest ships boy.”
So, rightly, we hold him up as a symbol of what we aspire to be; strong leaders, unafraid to do what is right, representing an organisation committed to safety and security on the high seas, with a global presence alongside our friends, partners and allies, to be trusted to be there if we need to ultimately fight. And to be confident enough to break from convention if the opportunity requires it.
Admiral, Ladies and Gentlemen – it is customary to drink a toast in his memory on such an occasion as this.
And so, I propose we will do so tonight, here in New York in this most evocative of maritime settings, in the company of friends linked by a common bond of enduring friendship across the Atlantic, and we will do so, as tradition dictates IN SILENCE. So if I can invite you to stand….
To the immortal memory of Horatio, Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte and Vice Admiral of the White, and to those who fell with him.
Photos from Pickle Night 2022
*Please be thoughtful in downloading or sharing these images. The venue has graciously allowed us to present these photos here privately with attendees.
Photos copyright Allison Lucas, 2022