Three Canadian warships, the Athabaskan, the Terra Nova and the Protecteur, entered the Suez Canal last week on their way to enforce the international embargo against Iraq. Maclean’s London Bureau Chief Andrew Phillips boarded the supply ship Protecteur for a firsthand look as the crew prepared for action. His report:
Petty Officer Philip Manktelow says that when he ended his two-year assignment aboard HMCS Protecteur in June, 1989, he thought that he would never serve aboard it again. But in mid-August, Manktelow, a 30-year-old native of Winnipeg, dropped by his old ship, at anchor in Halifax Harbour, to see friends. And a quick visit turned into an extended stay. The Protecteur, readying itself to set course for the Middle East as part of Canada’s contribution to enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq, lacked a radar specialist—Manktelow’s area of expertise. “They asked if I’d go along, and I guess I didn’t want to see the ship stuck short,” he recalled last week as the force glided through the turquoise waters of the Suez Canal. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Women: Last week, as the three warships travelled through the Red Sea and around the Arabian Peninsula, Manktelow still had no clear idea of how long his unexpected assignment would last.
Commodore Kenneth Summers, commander of the Canadian task force, told the 934 sailors, soldiers and airmen, including 27 women on the Protecteur, that they should be ready to spend six months away from home. “I have mentally prepared myself not to be home for Christmas,” said Summers. “If we are back, then great—it’s going to be that much sweeter.” But the crews at least had a clearer idea of where they were going. The day before the ships entered the canal on Aug. 16, Summers told them that they will be stationed inside the Persian Gulf itself, rather than farther from Iraq in the safer waters of the Gulf of Oman.
But even as they entered the comparatively calm Red Sea, tension heightened aboard the ships. During their 23-day voyage from Halifax to the southern end of the Suez Canal, the crews were busy with training exercises but relatively relaxed. They were on what the navy calls its “fourth degree of readiness,” the lowest state of alert. Sailors wore shorts and navy-issue sandals under the broiling Egyptian sun. But when they entered the Red Sea, they went to the second degree of readiness—just one step short of preparing for imminent attack. They wore long pants and boots in case of
fire, and hung gas masks from their belts. That, added to the knowledge that they were entering what could suddenly become a war zone, gave an extra edge to the hours of training that occupied their days. “You sure pay more attention to what you’re doing,” said Manktelow.
Even the Protecteur bore visible signs of the potential danger. The main role of the 21-yearold ship is to resupply its sister vessels with food, fuel and munitions. But before the force left Halifax, it was fitted with new defensive weapons: two rapid-fire Phalanx guns designed to knock incoming missiles out of the sky; two 40-mm Bofors guns; several .50-calibre ma-
chine-guns; and shoulder-fire Blowpipe surface-to-air missiles. “We’re the best-armed tanker around,” said Master Seaman Thomas McNeil, a 32-year-old naval weapons technician from Toronto.
The task force’s heavy weaponry is loaded aboard the destroyers—the 4,700-ton Athabaskan and the 2,900-ton Terra Nova. The Athabaskan, which is 18 years old, carries Seasparrow surface-to-air missiles, while the 31-year-old Terra Nova is newly equipped with Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The force’s five Sea King helicopters, originally built in 1962 and 1963, have been outfitted with new surveillance gear.
Emergency: Although one helicopter experienced a failure in one of its twin engines last week and had to make an emergency landing aboard the Athabaskan, those aboard the ships insisted that the vessels are well equipped for any challenge. “We take care of them like vintage cars,” said McNeil. “I’ve got no qualms about going into the area with what we have.” Added Summers, the 46-year-old task-force commander: “Rust buckets they’re not.”
The Canadian contingent will join ships from more than a dozen other countries in monitoring all shipping in a central area of the Gulf. The vessels will use their radar, other sensor systems and the Sea Kings to determine the nationality, destination and cargo of any ships in their zone. If necessary, they will board any suspicious ones and make sure that they are not breaking the UN embargo on shipping goods to or from Iraq. And Summers said that that decision, when it comes, will not be referred to any other force in the area. “This is an independent Canadian operation under sole Canadian control,” he declared.
Such a decision is still days, perhaps weeks, away. Meanwhile, the ships’ crews are preparing for an extended stay in a harsh environment. All crew members were issued with Tilley cloth hats as protection from the sun, and along with its cargo of fuel, food and weaponry, the Protecteur carried cases of Factor 30 sunblock cream.
During the hottest part of the day, when temperatures hovered near 40°
C, medical staff toured the decks ensuring that sailors smeared copious quantities of sunblock on exposed skin. Said naval Lieut. Kenneth Cooper, one of the Protecteur’s medical officers: “The biggest threat to the sailors is not Iraqi Exocet missiles. It’s the sun, the heat and dehydration.”
Before the ships entered the Red Sea and the crews were required to cover up, Cooper encouraged them to wear long pants to keep the sun off their legs. But he had little success.
“You’re not going to get sailors to do that,” he conceded. “They’d go nude if you let them.” Some of the medical preparations were more ominous: the Protecteur has extra medical staff and a fully equipped operating room capable of dealing with bullet wounds and severe burns in case of injuries in combat.
Video: The crews have taken morale-boosting measures, as well. They receive news from Canada radioed to the ships and then printed in a daily four-page newsletter called The Gulf Gazette. Protecteur carries plentiful supplies of Canadian snack foods, soft drinks and beer. And before the ships left Halifax, they stocked their video libraries. Air force Sgt. Richard Greensides, a veteran of 27 years with the armed forces, spent $4,000 buying 258 videotapes for the Protecteur, including Robocop,
Conan the Barbarian and Avenging Force. “The captain said fill the shelves, it doesn’t matter what it costs,” said Greensides. “Only stipulation was no triple-X. It’s a male-female ship, and I’m sure the girls wouldn’t like it.” The 27 women aboard the Protecteur are housed in separate quarters, with their own washrooms. And some said that not all their male colleagues had adapted to the fact that women are serving alongside men in combat roles. “There is underlying tension,” said 21year-old air force Pte. Serena Richardson, the
youngest woman on the Protecteur. “But they have to get used to the fact that we’re here and we’re staying.” Crash: Richardson confessed that she had mixed emotions when she learned about her ship’s destination while she was visiting her parents in Burlington, Ont. “My first thought was ‘The ship’s going to get blown up,’ ” she said. “But my mom was real supportive. She said the chances of getting killed here or in a car crash are probably about the same.” Richardson, who helps to maintain the three Sea King helicopters aboard the Protecteur, left her husband of two years, navy cook Tod Richardson, at home in Halifax. “We had an all-out discussion,” she recalled, “and he understands this is the reason we joined the military, to support our country.” Ö Facing the possibility of spending
0 Christmas in the Persian Gulf was not
1 a cheerful prospect, Richardson acknowledged. But she said that the I crew had heard rumors that the z Forces might tape messages from
their families and send the videos to
0 the ships. “That would help,” she said.
1 Despite Richardson’s concerns, " other crew members maintained that
they have few worries about the possibility of a shooting war. “It’s going to be very boring,” predicted McNeil. “We’ll be lucky to see any Iraqis at all.” Added Greensides: “With the power we have compared to what the Iraqis have, it would be like a fly taking on an elephant if they tried anything. The only way somebody’s going to get hurt is going ashore, getting into trouble and being rolled by the locals.” While that does not fit the dashing image of battle-ready warriors, their families back home doubtless hoped that they were right. □
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