The Rescue of the Cheryl G.
Panther had been on patrol for several uneventful weeks as part of the international anti-piracy force in the Middle East. The patrol was already becoming boring for the crew and their mood was made worse by the dry heat. Captain Jenever realised that days full of drills and exercises were not the answer, and he had even tried to make an event out of the failure of one of the ship's evaporators, and had the repair work screened live on the ship's internal TV system.
The battleship had almost escorted a Swedish tanker, the Knorr, out of the danger area when the calm of the operations room was interrupted by a VHF radio message.
"Mayday mayday mayday, this is MV Cheryl G, location four degrees fifty-three minutes twenty-seven seconds North, fifty-one degrees zero-three minutes nineteen seconds East. We are under attack by three armed light craft with a small unidentified freighter standing off our starboard quarter."
The sub-lieutenant on duty acknowledged the call and asked if the Cheryl G was being fired on.
"We have received an RPG hit on the fo´csle -no real damage." Was the reply.
At the same time the Officer of the Watch on the bridge was advised, and "Captain to the Ops room" was piped.
Up on the bridge Lieutenant-Commander Gale reached for the intercom for the engine room. "Stand by to start the gas turbines." He warned them.
Back in the ops room Captain Jenever strode in to find a situation plot already being set up.
"She is to our North-North-West, about two and a half hours away." The Navigating Officer called out.
"Tell the Knorr we are responding to the distress call and we advise that she´d best steer due South for a while. Helm, steer three-three-eight degrees."
"Three-three-eight it is." Came the acknowledgement, and Panther heeled to port as she responded to the movement of her twin rudders.
"Advise the USS Theodore Roosevelt that they may need to provide cover for the Knorr. We´ll be able to get to this Cheryl G before any of their jets."
"Engine room, full power please."
"Full power it is sir." The whole crew heard the muted whine of the four Rolls-Royce Marine Olympus turbines starting up.
"Charts," the Captain started, but before he could ask for the course his navigating officer responded.
"Three-two-eight degrees, about 66 miles."
"Very good, Wychwood. Helm, make that three-two-eight degrees."
"Now, what do we know about this Cheryl G?"
After a moment Lieutenant-Commander Turner, the ship´s Intelligence officer, replied. "She´s a 400TEU feeder container ship of 8000 tonnes, Bermuda registered but has got onto the MOU whitelist. One of a fleet of seven container ships owned by Elvis Shipping of Bermuda. Maximum speed 20 knots."
"The tannoy if you please." Captain Jenever asked, and a microphone was passed to him. "D´ y´hear there. We are responding to a merchant ship´s distress call, it is under attack by light craft. Our ETA is in an hour and a quarter but we may engage before then. Clear the decks for action."
The crew -forewarned by the sound of the turbines starting- quickly readied the ship for action, their frequent practice paying a dividend. Panther smoothly accelerated toward the Somali coast propelled by her four Marine Olympus turbines, the big five-bladed propellers easily turning their power into the ship´s forward motion. Cheryl G´s radio operator kept up a running commentary of the movements of the four vessels, their own movements and the efforts of their armed security guards. These men were using automatic rifles to try and keep the fast craft away from the ship, backed up by the fire hoses.
"Tell them to try and keep their course to one-four-eight degrees." Jenever ordered, " that´ll minimise the time to reach them." He studied the plot that had been set up, and waited for the ship to get into radar range. Panther pushed forward at her maximum speed of just over 28 knots and soon the Cheryl G was picked up by the type 996 radar, the plot was updated and the forward main director searched for visual contact.
"Several RPGs have been fired at us and one has hit the lower bridge structure, we´ve not suffered any casualties yet." The Cheryl G´s radio operator calmly informed them.
"How close are the craft approaching them?" Jenever asked.
The question was relayed to the Cheryl G and the answer soon came back. "They are not coming closer than two to three hundred metres now, we stopped them boarding with the fire hoses. Our two security guys are keeping the boats away but they are concerned about their ammunition running out."
Captain Jenever thought for a moment. "I want a firing solution for an airburst a hundred and fifty metres each side of the Cheryl G. Pipe action stations."
One of the Ops room crew reached for the tannoy microphone. "D´you hear there, Action Stations, Action Stations!"
The fire-control computers soon produced their prediction; "Airburst at fifty feet, one hundred and fifty metres each side." One of the gunnery team announced.
"B turret, load common light."
The shells and propellant bags quickly came up the hoists from the handling room, the shells paused in the turret as the fuze setters programmed them before they were rammed home, followed by the propellant charges. The gun breeches swung closed, the barrels elevated almost to their maximum and the turret turned slightly.
While this was happening the Cheryl G was advised of the warning shots and told to steer a straight course of one hundred and forty eight degrees.
"Shoot when ready." Jenever commanded.
The port barrel fired, and after a second the starboard, the turret having moved slightly to the right in that time.
The warning message had been relayed to the Cheryl G´s captain, who had promptly warned his crew over the ship´s tannoy. "Incoming covering fire!"
The two shells were spot on, detonating fifty feet above the sea each side of the container ship. The crew were at least partly prepared and recovered quickly but the attacking craft were caught by surprise. Of the three craft, the crew of the two fast motor boats only lost control for a few seconds before pulling away. The small RHIB, however, was flipped over dumping its crew into the sea and it was a while before the other boats went to its aid.
There was confusion on the bridge of the main ship as they were completely unaware of Panther´s approach and the two shells were literally a bolt from the blue. It took a few minutes for their leader to decide what to do, he had already convinced himself that a small container ship sailing towards the oil states must have a high value cargo, and he did not want it to slip out of his grasp. He called for the ship´s twin 23mm gun to be brought into action. This activity did not go unnoticed on either ship, Panther´s main director crew were now tracking the pirate vessel and advised the ops room of the gun being rigged.
Captain Jenever studied the image on the monitors. "We can´t open fire on the ship yet, they could always claim they were trying to drive off those boats."
The officer responsible for Panther´s Seaslug system, Lieutenant-Commander Brickwood, spoke up. "Permission to generate firing solution."
"Permission granted but keep the launcher clear." Jenever replied.
Brickwood instructed his team quickly and quietly; within seconds the forward Type 901 radar came to life, the massive drum depressing almost to the horizon before moving to the same bearing as the main director.
"Two rounds airburst over that pirate ship, keep them at fifty feet." Jenever commanded. "And tell the Cheryl G to steer zero five zero degrees."
"B turret, load common light, shoot when ready."
Again the shells came up from the handling room, were programmed by the fuze setter, rammed home and the breeches closed, this time both barrels fired together.
On the pirate ship the crew were struggling with the Russian made cannon; the poor maintenance was now making itself felt; the gun hadn´t been oiled for months and in the heat the protective grease had long since melted off. The gun eventually fired three rounds and then jammed. While the gunners were trying to extricate the jammed round their leader saw the flash and smoke of Panther´s guns. He realised this was the source of the earlier explosions and was transfixed by the thought of it happening again. He failed to notice the Cheryl G pulling away to port, and didn´t make any course change himself.
The radio operator on Cheryl G passed on the message from the captain that they had been fired on by the ship astern of them although they hadn´t been hit.
Captain Jenever´s response was predictable. "What have you set up, `Bricks´?"
For once Brickwood didn´t mind his nickname. "A two shot Micawber salvo, I´d use the thermite warheads. They are in the ready-use magazine hot-to-trot."
Jenever´s response was what he was hoping for. "Proceed."
"Shoot with `T´ head Seaslugs, salvo Micawber."
Within seconds of the order being passed there was activity at the rear of the battleship as the selected pair of Seaslug missiles, their gyros spinning and electronics warmed-up, were pushed into the traverser and then straight into the loading lift. The lift then quickly raised the missiles up from the magazine level to the launcher, where the loader unit transferred them to the launcher.
As they were loaded onto the launcher Brickwood spoke "Request course change twenty degrees starboard to open the arcs."
"Approved." Jenever replied. "Engage when ready."
Panther responded easily to the helm, after a few seconds the aimer called out "Launcher following director."
"Shoot!" Brickwood exclaimed.
At this moment Panther´s shells exploded above and ahead of the pirate´s ship. It was some seconds before the gun crew recovered their wits and were able to clear the jam. They managed to fire a short burst before the gun jammed again, after about twenty seconds of frantic work they managed to loose off another burst, a few rounds striking Cheryl G´s stern.
The left-hand barrel of the Seaslug launcher was, as usual, fired first followed six seconds later by the right-hand barrel and both launches were followed by the announcement `Bird away!´ The crews of both the Cheryl G and the pirate´s ship saw the launch, the sheer volume of smoke made the crew of the latter think that Panther had blown up and they turned their ship to port to chase the Cheryl G. The first missile´s boost motors burnt out three and a half seconds after firing and separated cleanly. The sustainer motor fired, the missile stopped its stabilising roll and steered itself into the centre of the gathering beam, once there it switched to guidance mode and descended into the much narrower guidance beam. Climbing at the Type 901´s minimum elevation of half a degree the missile maintained its speed of Mach 2.2; by this time twelve seconds had elapsed and it was already five thousand yards away from Panther with the second missile six seconds behind and following the same path. Once both missiles were successfully riding the beam the `Command Arm´ was transmitted, followed by the `Dive´ command. Both missiles responded correctly by turning on their radio altimeters and descended until they were almost skimming the surface of the sea. There was only a gentle swell running that day so the Seaslug team had selected a low setting of eight feet. The lead missile, however, developed a fault and gently porpoised with its altitude varying between twelve and twenty-four feet.
Most of Panther´s ops room crew watched the monitors which was showing the image from the main director above the bridge; Seaslug test firings were rare enough but this was a live firing against a real target. Jenever and Brickwood were watching the screens, both silently praying that at least one of the Seaslugs would hit the target. They had endured much mocking from the officers of the US Navy when in port with them, frequently being taunted that Panther was `an antique ship with antique weapons´, they wanted to show that she was a capable ship.
Fifty seconds after being fired the `Command Detonate´ signal was sent; rather than causing the detonation of the warhead in proximity to an airborne target it ignited the six canisters of thermite that this anti-shipping model carried in place of the normal continuous-rod warhead and fuze. Each tube had a set of broad arrowhead fins at the front and was open at the rear. Three and a half seconds later the first missile, still travelling at Mach 1.6, struck the edge of the ship´s deck roughly amidships and disintegrated. The debris was scattered forwards in a cone with all but one of the thermite tubes cartwheeling into the sea, trailing their characteristic white smoke. The bottom wing remained wedged in the hull of the ship and the sixth thermite tube ended up against a stanchion with its flame playing against the deck, the front end raised on its fins. The thin rusty steel of the deck soon melted under the effect of the hot flame and the tube fell into the hole suspended by those same fins, and sprayed the companionway below with a white hot rain of fine molten iron droplets.
The crews of all three ships were astounded by the spectacle with one of Panther´s radar operators looking up and laconically commenting "I think that counts as a hit".
The second Seaslug struck four and a half seconds later, travelling at Mach 1.8 as it hadn´t wasted energy changing its altitude. It punched into the ship´s hull eight feet above the waterline some twenty feet abaft the first missile´s point of impact. Even as the fuze and warhead bays disintegrated, flinging the burning thermite tubes around the interior of the ship, the heavy steel sustainer motor case turned broadside on and smashed through the interior bulkheads. The missile´s wings scythed through cables and pipes adding to the chaos below decks and the smell of burning soon filled the ship, followed closely by dense smoke. Virtually the entire crew were thrown to the deck by the impact, and most took a minute or so to realise what was happening. Down in the engine room the smoke was being sucked in and the three crew panicked and fled to the ship´s deck and soon the ship had lost all way and started to drift back towards the Somali coast.
The Cheryl G and Panther continued towards each other at full speed, when they met Panther swept around Cheryl B´s stern to match speed and course and came alongside her long enough to get a damage control team and medical staff transferred across. Panther then turned away to investigate the burning freighter. Standing a good few hundred metres away from it all her main and secondary armament was trained on the pirate ship while a boarding party was sent across. They quickly found that it had been abandoned and was burning fiercely below decks; returning with a few scraps of paper found in the bridge they confirmed no-one was aboard. Captain Jenever took the decision to sink the ship and detailed the starboard six-inch turret to deliver the coup-de-grace. The gunners couldn´t miss at this close range, and `walked´ their fire down to the waterline, the high-explosive shells ripping the hull open; the ship soon broke in two and sank.
The damage control team that had been put on board the Cheryl G soon put out the small fires that had been started by the pirate ship´s gunfire and then set about repairing the damage. The captain had ordered his crew to the forward part of the bridge structure as soon as the pirates had started setting up the gun; this, along with the multiple stoppages, had avoided any serious casualties. The worst injuries were to the ship´s radio operator who refused to leave his post and had suffered multiple shrapnel wounds, luckily none of them serious and they were quickly attended to by the medical team along with the other injured crew members.
By the time Panther returned to the Cheryl G this work had been finished so most of the members of both teams were recovered with a few remaining on board in case anything untoward happened, and the two ships then proceeded to Cheryl G´s destination.
On board Panther Lieutenant-Commander Turner and Captain Jenever went through the recovered documents, apart from scraps bearing the names of a couple of Somali ports there was very little to examine. They passed these two names back to their own intelligence team in Malacia as well as the US Navy's command on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
This page copyright SR Jenkins December 2015, reproduction without prior approval is prohibited.
Page last updated: 20th December 2018.
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