The art of teaching war – public lecture at the University of Greenwich

Chris Bellamy

How do you force someone to fight for you – to go to war? This and other questions will be addressed at a free public lecture by a military expert and University of Greenwich academic.

Professor Chris Bellamy is Director of the university’s Greenwich Maritime Institute, in the Faculty of Architecture, Construction & Humanities. An award-winning author and former defence correspondent at The Independent, Chris is also an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union. His views have been widely sought by media over the current tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Don’t try this at home…: Teaching War, 400 BC to the present takes place at the university’s Greenwich Campus on Tuesday 22 July 2014 at 6pm.

Chris says: “Warfare – the use of violence for political ends – is as old as recorded history and, some would argue, is the ‘dark side of civilisation’. Warfare requires communities organised on some scale and a measure of authority to force people to participate in an exhausting, terrifying, arduous and often tedious activity which runs against many of our natural instincts.

“From the beginnings of recorded civilisation the communities most successful in armed conflict triumphed through better organisation, equipment, training, tactics, and the conceptual component – an intellectual understanding of the nature and processes of warfare. To win in battle, and in warfare more generally, training and education are key.”

Technology, technique and science all feature strongly in the history of war. Examples developed and explored by Chris during his 13 years as a teacher at the Defence Academy of the UK at Shrivenham reveal that, until relatively recently, one combatant seldom had a decisive technological edge over another. It was discipline, training and technique– how they used it – that determined success.

Chris has taught these ideas to students, including many serving members of the armed forces, for many years. He will present a number of case studies, including analysis of the leap from mechanical energy – bows and arrows and catapults, to chemical energy – guns and rockets. Chris will also discuss the importance of indirect fire – artillery firing at targets which those manning the guns cannot see.

Without this development in technique the First World War, the start of which is being commemorated this year, could not have happened as it did. Yet very few historians understand what indirect fire is, or mention its decisive role in shaping the fighting on land, particularly on the Western front.

Don’t try this at home…: Teaching War, 400 BC to the present. University of Greenwich Maritime Institute, presented with the Centre for the Study of Play and Recreation. Tuesday 22 July 2014, 6pm until 7.30 pm. Room 080, Queen Anne Court, University of Greenwich, Old Royal Naval College, SE10, 9LS. To be followed by a wine reception.

All are welcome to this free lecture but to book a place for the wine reception, please contact the Greenwich Maritime Institute on

This lecture precedes the 36th Annual Conference of the International Standing Committee for the History of Education, Education, War and Peace, to be held at the Institute of Education, University of London, 23–26 July 2014.

Mary Clare Martin, Ewa Sidorenko and Leticia Fernandez-Fontecha Rumeu, of the Department of Education and Community Studies, will be speaking on a panel at the ISCHE conference, entitled Survival, Pain and Memory: recovering experiences of war, peace and education in Spain, Poland, Gibraltar and Britain, 1902-1950.

Fifty shades of … goods by sea!

Yet another advantage of studying at GMI is that we have two great ports within an hour’s drive of Greenwich. The further is the new London Gateway port, the largest container port in the UK, some 33 km downriver from Greenwich. The nearer, about 25 km downriver and forty minutes away across the Thames via the Blackwall or Dartford tunnels, is the historic port of Tilbury. Tilbury is still the third largest container port in the country but handles many other commodities, and is in many ways more interesting. London Gateway has only recently opened and getting a visit there is still difficult. But Tilbury is more varied, fascinating and a real eye-opener. On Friday 16 May, a beautiful clear sunny day, eleven staff and students headed for the port.


GMI Field Visit to Port of Tilbury, 16 May 2014.   GMI students and staff : from left to right: Michael Olanipekun, Nigeria, MSc Maritime Security; Ian Robertson, UK, MA Maritime History; Pengfei Zhang, China, PhD candidate; Prof Chris Bellamy, UK, GMI Director; Gina Balta, Greece, PhD candidate; John Whiteley , UK, Business Faculty and GMI Visiting Lecturer; Eniola Ogundele, Nigeria, MA International Maritime Policy; Leo Balk, USA, MSc Maritime Security; Akash Raj, India, MSc Maritime Security; Ahmed Mohamed, Somalia, MA International Maritime Policy. Behind: standard shipping containers – the Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU)- what else?.

John Whiteley from the Business School, who teaches the Maritime Business Environment and Economics of International Shipping on our International Maritime Policy and Maritime Security programmes, organised the trip, re-establishing a link with Tilbury which had somehow become broken. Thanks to John and to Natalie Coonz, the Port of Tilbury training coordinator, the link has been re-established and GMI hopes to organise another visit, probably in the first term of the new academic year.

The objective of the visit was to see how a multi-faceted port handling diverse types of cargo operates and, in particular, to look at the implications of implementing the 2004 International Ship and Port facility Security (ISPS) Code.



Breaking down the large container loads at the port and having customers pick up smaller items from a distribution area at the port reduces distribution costs and saves fuel. Simon proudly said that Greenwich had been named the ‘greenest’ port in the UK. Chris Bellamy told him that was appropriate as Greenwich – the ‘greenest’ University in the UK!

An example of the savings made possible by port-centric logistics came from the Italian beer manufacturer Peroni. Peroni had traditionally brought their beers into Felixstowe. From there it was transported to a distribution centre in the Midlands. But the biggest market for trendy Peroni beer is – where? Answer – north London. So the beer was coming into Felixstowe, being unloaded en masse, transported to the Midlands and then the largest consignment headed for London. Peroni therefore shifted their operation to Tilbury, where the green bottles arrive quite close to their final destination – the bars of Islington, Hampstead and Highgate!

Simon was followed by the Port Facility Security Officer and Port Security Officer, Tony Catling. Tony had served as an officer in the Port of Tilbury London Police, which is an independent police force, one of 42 in England and Wales. It is also the second oldest true police force in the country. The first was the Marine Police, founded in 1798, which is now part of the Metropolitan Police into which it was incorporated in 1839. The Port of Tilbury London Police was founded in 1802, and remains an independent force with 15 officers. They have the same powers as regular constabulary, and a few more besides, and carry similar equipment.


Tony had been appointed to his present post immediately before implementation of aftermath of the introduction of the 2004 code, in order to help the Port adapt. The costs of implementing ISPS were considerable: an extra 30 port security officers (in addition to the Port police) from the outset and £4m-£5m per year, he said. This information chimed with Akash Raj’s research on the implementation of ISPS in India, where cost had been cited as a key problem. The port normally operates at State 1, where the whole site is broadly open to the public and only certain areas are secure. State 2 – heightened security alert – is the problem. Areas which are normally open for the traffic of goods have to be sealed off and extra port security officers brought in. State 3 – imminent attack on that particular location – is less of a problem. In that event, the port simply shuts down.

The standard of security Tilbury is well above the norm. Every container that comes in is scanned. The global norm is one percent. The security officers cannot open sealed containers but, if they are suspicious, the Port Police can. Similar rules affect people who enter restricted areas. A security officer can warn them not to, but if they do, only the police can drag them out. Tony noted that there are wide variations in the implementation of ISPS. In British ports, all restricted areas are sealed off with fencing to the required standard – BS 1722. Some countries just paint yellow lines with warning signs.

The team then headed for the Enterprise Distribution Centre (EDC) which specialises in handling paper from Storenzo, a Finnish company. The EDC is the most advanced and sophisticated computer controlled storage and distribution facility in the UK, and possibly in the world. Storenzo’s paper is used by News International for newspapers and by many book publishers. Appropriately dressed in high-visibility jackets and new dark blue ‘bump-hats’, which resembled those now worn by competitors in equestrian events, we salled into the vast computer-controlled facility, 30 metres high, and containing 29,000 huge rolls of different types of paper, weighing about a tonne each. When the rolls need to be loaded, the request is passed automatically through to the giant robot arms which select the paper from one of the 29,000 locations – which may be up to 30 metres in the air. James Smoker, the Operational Supervisor for the Enterprise Centre, said that the paper was imported and stored for News International and Inland Revenue and Customs, for tax returns, among others.

‘When 50 Shades of Grey won a prize’, James said, ‘we had twelve trucks a day – 52 reels each. We had the same when Harry Potter went big…’


The team then took a tour of the rest of the port. As the team toured the port, our guide pointed out the ship Radio Caroline, one of the pirate radio stations active just off the British coast in the early 1960s. The ship is no longer seaworthy but she is in safe keeping in Tilbury. In those days the BBC, funded through the licence fee, had a state monopoly on radio transmission. However, – before UNCLOS in 1982 – territorial waters still only stretched three miles – the range of an old cannon. A ship outside that distance was on the high seas, and could broadcast with impunity and be picked up across the UK. Radio Caroline had worked just off the Essex Coast. The pirate radio stations provided such stiff competition for the BBC that the Government had to give way. Many of the Disc Jockeys who had braved the elements and stormy seas on board the pirate radio ships were recruited by the BBC and joined the new Radio 1. This was useful information for the Maritime Policy and Security students, underlining the significance of territorial waters and EEZs.

Another specialised terminal is the grain terminal, shown below. Grain is brought in by sea, stored, and then distributed through pipes into trucks waiting at ground level.


This is another specialised facility, underlining the ‘port-centric’ concept.

The variety of goods flowing into and out of Tilbury is highlighted by the last photographs. The next two show standard TEUs, which can contain anything.


The last picture shows raw steel. Whether for import or export is unclear, as is its ultimate destination. Clearly a recycled product, and one of the products fuelling globalisation, especially the development of the burgeoning economies of China and India.


The team left at about 3 p.m. It was a relatively short but hugely important day, highlighting many aspects we had studied in the classroom: ISPS, Law of the Sea and territorial waters, and port-centric logistics, as well as underlining the enormous volume and variety of goods carried by sea. GMI will return!


Chris Bellamy

Director, Greenwich Maritime Institute

International Conference Announcement – Maritime and Naval Power in Two World Wars – 11/12th April 2014

On the centenary of the First World War this conference seeks to promote an international and interdisciplinary dialogue among naval and maritime historians. Drawing upon the latest scholarship the conference aims to highlight a wide array of topics such as naval and maritime communications, logistics, international relations, regional studies, economic issues, the role of ports
and internal transport, morale and grand strategy.

To visit the conference web page please click here:

Scholars from all over the world will be presenting at the conference on a range of themes and issues. Anyone interested is welcome to attend as a delegate, visit the conference website for details fo how to book your place. The registration fee is just £120 per person for two days and includes a conference pack, refreshments and lunches.

Please click here to view the Draft Programme

Date: 11 – 12 April 2014

Location: University of Greenwich, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London, UK

Organisers: Greenwich Maritime Institute AND Global War Studies

Courtesy of the US Navy
Courtesy of the US Navy

Not Chatham House Rules!

On Friday 10 June HMS Illustrious, the second of the Royal Navy’s three Invincible class light aircraft/helicopter carriers, was moored just upriver from GMI. At 22,000 tons, and at 209 metres long, she is a big ship – but just half the size of the Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth that will replace her – eventually. Initially conceived as a Harrier-carrier, and able to carry 22 of the Short-Take-Off-Vertical-Landing (STOVL) planes, she has been both a light aircraft carrier, in that role, and a helicopter carrier, able to carry 22 helicopters. There could be no more appropriate place to hold a conference to mark the 70th anniversary of the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic, which took place in May 1943.

The Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from 1939-1945 was probably the most crucial part of the Second World War for the UK’s survival and the subsequent liberation of western Europe. It lasted, from 1939-1945, when the last German submarines surrendered at (London) Derry, in Northern Ireland. The ‘Battle of the Atlantic Anniversary Seminar’, organised by the Royal Institute of International affairs, Chatham House, took as its theme, appropriately enough, ‘The Navy’s Role in resilience and Prosperity’. Unusually, the famous ‘Chatham House rule’ – that information gleaned might be used but not attributed to Chatham House, the speaker or the occasion, was waived. This one was on the record. So you can cite this blog!

When Royal Navy ships put it in to port for supplies, the purser and his or her team scour the hinterland for the best provisions, and London had been no exception. The Navy cooks – always superb – had produced the most impressive lunch, including truly spectacular dressed crab. With the new Billingsgate fish market just two kilometres away, at Trafalgar Way, West India Docks, Isle of Dogs, that would have been a no-brainer!

HMS Illustrious at Greenwich, 9-13 May 2013

After a welcome by Commodore Neil Brown of the Naval Staff, and Commander Keri Harris, the Second-in-Command, Professor Andrew Lambert from King’s College London opened proceedings with an account of the momentous conflict, and some interesting comparisons with now. The United Kingdom had not been self-sufficient in food production – never mind luxuries like tea and wine – since the 1780s. By 1939 the United Kingdom needed one million tons of provisions a month imported by sea.  In contrast, the United States was – and still is – self sufficient.  But, Professor Lambert noted, even at the worst moment of the Battle of the Atlantic there were more reserves of food and fuel in the UK than there are now, with our ‘just-in-time’ economy! 

A key point, reinforced in the questioning, was that the Royal Navy had responded well to the experience of World War I and the battle with the U-boats, including, for example,  the development of sonar.  But the plan was to contain German U-boats in the North Sea – which the Navy succeeded in doing until the fall of France in May 1940.  As Professor Lambert  laconically observed ‘you don’t plan for your Allies to collapse’. Good point.  After May 1940 the U-boats could operate out of French ports and far into the Atlantic (including off the coast of the United States). With U-boats loose in the Atlantic convoys bringing Lend-Lease and other  supplies from North America became targets. The stakes were suddenly raised. 

However, another crucial and countervailing development in 1940 was the German invasion of Norway.  Again, it is not widely known, but as a result most of the Norwegian merchant fleet headed for the UK, and became available as part of its merchant navy.  It took two years for the Germans to sink an equivalent number of ships.

By May 1941, however, the Germans believed the convoy system was cracking under the strain and sent the powerful surface raider the battleship (BB) Bismarck out to finish the convoys off. The sinking of the Bismarck was one crucial point in the battle.  The entry of the United States into the war in December 1941 further changed the dynamic.  The United States and Canada were no longer just supplying the UK. From then on, in operation Bolero, they were turning the UK into the jumping-off point for the invasion of north-west Europe.

Professor Lambert identified the Russian arctic convoys as the Royal Navy’s greatest ever success.  Those supplies got through in the face of a surface, submarine and air threat and the appalling weather. 

During the Battle of the Atlantic 783 U-boats were destroyed.  Laconically, again, Professor Lambert concluded,  ’75 percent fatal casualties was the German U-boat breaking point’. It was a  tough business.

Another Lambert, Dr Nicholas, from the Royal United Services Institute picked up the theme of the UK’s dependence on the sea. In 1914 the world economy was as ‘globalised’ as now, as a result of several revolutions.  In addition to the introduction of steam ships, there had been the introduction of undersea and trans-oceanic cables, permitting instant communication, and a revolution in financial services with credit easy to obtain and manage.  The UK’s national debt in 1914 was £650 million, a huge sum for the time. This global, interconnected system was rudely shocked by the First World War. Between 1914 and 1939, with the financial crises of 1929 and 1931, the world economy actually shrank.  As a result it was easier to keep it working in 1939. By 1940-41, some 55 percent of the UK’s GDP was devoted to war production, a figure never exceeded anywhere else, apart from the Soviet Union later in the war.  There was a draconian system of price controls, labour controls and rationing.  By 1941 the UK had exhausted its overseas credit.  Everything was sacrificed to win the war, without thought for the future.  The Atlantic became a pipeline along which war materiel was pumped from the US and Canada to the UK.  Yet, paradoxically, the UK’s vulnerability to disruption of its imports and supplies is greater now than it was in 1914.

After an excellent presentation by Dr Douglas Guilfoyle of University College, London, on modern challenges and the Law of the Sea, the seminar then addressed they key modern issues of the role of navies in resilience and the role of navies in prosperity. Rob Bailey from Chatham Hose explained the role of the oceans in food security, explaining that although we tend to think of the key chokepoints in terms of energy security – the Bosphorus, Suez Canal, Bab-el-Mandeb and Strait of Hormuz – they are just as vital for shipments of grain, which does not grow well in the Middle East. As a historical not, we might also recall that some 400,000 people died of malnutrition in Germany in 1914-18 as a result of the Allied blockade. In 2008-09 30-40 percent of Somali food requirements were met by UN food aid, so Somali piracy, which forced cessation of these shipments hit Somalia very badly.

Adjoa Anyimadu of the Africa Programme at Chatham House  addressed the naval response to piracy and the lessons to be learned from the Indian Ocean. She began by summarising the international presence, with three forces:  the EUNAVFOR and Operation Atalanta; the US-led Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 and Nato’s Operation Ocean Shield. To this we should add the one-nation contributions of China, Russia and Japan. She cited Oceans Beyond Piracy’s estimate that in 2012 Naval operations in the Indian Ocean cost more than £1 billion. Given that Somalia is a failed state, international naval action is legitimate.  The situation in west Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, where, in contrast to the Indian Ocean, piracy is on the increase, is quite different.  Here, there are Governments with authority over their territories and some rule of law. Therefore, a similar type and scale of Naval operations is unlikely.  However, there are still lessons to be drawn from the Indian Ocean. These are:

  • Capacity building – helping the local authorities to help themselves –  is crucial.  This not only applies to building coastguard and marine policy forces but the helping the shore authorities as well;
  • Intelligence gathering and information sharing is vital, including the use of new technology such as Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), helicopter cameras and so on.  This is not only useful for providing advance warning but also to assist prosecution later on;
  • Conducting multinational operations helps develop relationships between navies and nations;
  • Navies must engage with the coastal communities whence piracy and armed robbery at sea emanate. In Somalia this has taken time but encouraging the coastal communities to see themselves as stakeholders who will benefit from seeing an end to piracy has worked.  In one case, international forces have intervened to provide medical treatment for sick Somalis on board ships.  Although this was regarded as possibly too dangerous, it worked. 

Bob Dewar, also of the Chatham House Africa programme, then addressed the key issue of IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated)(the Us in that order, OK?) fishing .  He began by citing Kofi Annan, that ‘human security’ was ‘not purely military’, in terms of political violence, but also embraced health, food, the environment, human rights and the rule of law.

IUU fishing is the worst maritime threat that west Africa faces, costing that part of the world an estimated $1 billion  (as against between $9 bn and $22 bn worldwide). In West Africa, however, fish resources are really important.  The UK MoD has set up a centre in Nigeria to support the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Maritime Strategy, and countering IUU fishing plays an important part of this.  It is not just the value of the fish, but also the lost revenue from licence fees and landing fees. 

Alex Vines OBE, the Head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House added to the unwelcoming picture of the Gulf of Guinea, pointing out that in addition to IUU fishing, other maritime crime accounted for another $1 billion.  Nigeria, Benin and the surrounding area are in the same insurance category as Somalia.

Douglas McWilliams, Chief Executive and Professor of Commerce at Gresham College, gave the final keynote speech. His World Economic League Table forecasts were fascinating. In 2012, the US was still the world’s largest economy, with China second,  Japan third, Germany fourth, France fifth and UK sixth.  In 2022 the top three will remain the same, with India fourth and Brazil fifth, Germany sixth, Russia seventh, UK eighth and France ninth.  But China will overtake the US in about 2025, as many have predicted. The prospect for the UK was surprisingly optimistic.  Consumer spending currently accounts for 70 percent of the UK economy and exports 30 percent.  By 2022, his group’s forecast indicates, consumer spending will have dropped to 50 percent and exports risen correspondingly. Eric Grove, from Salford University, a well-known maritime historian, was sceptical.’And what’, he said, ‘are we going to export?’ But Professor McWilliams stuck by his figures, guessing that ingenuity and high-tech I inventiveness would create the products.  Seaborne trade was down from its 2007 peak but was now growing again.  There will be plenty of imports and exports for the Royal Navy to protect.

The seminar concluded at 17.00.  The following days – Saturday and Sunday – Illustrious was open to the public.  If you want to see what the public saw, click on the links, below.


Chris Bellamy.


Out of Africa, and a Ferry very far from home – from our own correspondent in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Why is it that the most beautiful parts of the earth are often identified with recent war, atrocities, brutality and horror? Sierra Leone is one. And besides its stunning beauty and wealth of resources, it also has one of the most evocatively descriptive names of any country in the world. ‘Lion Mountains’, from the Portuguese Serra Lyoa, after the Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra sailed by in 1462 and saw, in the mountains on what is now the Freetown Peninsula to his east and north, the shape of a crouching king of beasts. Not everyone can see it that way, but then, we do not know what substance what he was on at the time…

It is more than eleven years since hostilities formally ceased here on 14 May 2001. The signature of the Cessation document at the Mammy Yoko hotel, headquarters of the UN Advisory Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) brought to an end a civil war that had lasted for a decade, since 1991. Like all peace processes, it had stuttered and veered off track: the Lomé (Togo) Peace Accord of July 1999 had established a ceasefire and an amnesty for war crimes and ghastly atrocities. But the fighting and atrocities were far from over. The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who had been allies, fell out and in May 2000 the RUF started taking UN Peacekeepers hostage. Up to then UK involvement had been minimal and the UK had been implicated in the involvement of two private security companies: Executive Outcomes, which had supported the Sierra Leone government in 1995-96 and Sandline, which had supplied logistics and intelligence for the previous peace-keeping force, ECOMOG, in 1997-98. Both these private security companies appeared to have an ulterior motive – they had also been linked to diamond-mining in the country.

In 2000, nearly a decade into the war, the British Government sent a 1,000-strong task force into its former colony to support the UN, guard Freetown’s Lungi airport and evacuate its own nationals. After an efficient operation led by Brigadier David Richards, who later became Chief of the Defence Staff, they withdrew, leaving a small training force. In August the West Side Boys, a splinter group now allied with the RUF, captured eleven British soldiers who had been training local forces. Among 500 UNAMSIL personnel who had been captured earlier was an unarmed observer, Major Andy Harrison of the Paras, who later became one of my students at the Defence Academy of the UK. The RUF held him for eleven days, during which he was threatened with death and beaten occasionally. Then they released him and some fellow hostages into the hands of Indian troops who remained surrounded and dug in. In September a British operation freed the hostages, and relieved the Indian troops along with Andy. In the meantime, the British had also fought off two RUF attacks on Lungi airport. This all raised their profile and restored their honour. Two meetings in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, in 2000 and 2001, began to set a more lasting peace and the final ceremony was held in February 2002. The process of ‘Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration’ (DDR) began and was complete by 2004. In the same year a UN war crimes court, the Special Court of Sierra Leone (known locally as ‘The Special Court’), began trying senior leaders from the RUF, AFRC and other factions on the losing side. The last armed international peacekeepers left in 2005 but a small British-led International Military Advisory and Training team (IMATT) still remains.

The abiding image of the fighting is probably that of child soldiers, of whom an estimated 10,000 were abducted and forced to fight, and the same number who were taken as sex slaves and forced labour. And of child mutilation. Cutting of hands, lower arms, feet and lower legs. Eleven years on those children are young men and women. Now, on Lumley beach, a stunning three-mile stretch of white tropical sand and one of Sierra Leone’s many superb beaches, you see amputees playing football. The competitions have attracted international attention and must place Sierra Leone in a strong position for developing paralympians. Outside one of the four or so St Mary supermarkets in the city, there were more amputees, raising money to train, wearing blue ‘Team GB’ tee-shirts. In spite of the horror, there is hope. It is humbling.

I flew into Freetown International Lungi airport on the direct 7-hour thrice-weekly BA flight from Heathrow at 05.15 on 26 February. My hosts were Save the Children International. As you can see, given what has been going on here, they have quite a job on their hands! You can get a visa on arrival at the airport but I had already obtained one from the High Commission in London. Bai-Bai, who met me, said he would have to ‘make a phone call to the ‘CD’ – Country Director – to let her know I had arrived.

The next stage was terrific. Lungi airport is on flat ground north of the Sierra Leone River estuary, while Freetown is on the hilly south side. Out of the airport terminal, I checked in for the Hovercraft flight across the five miles or so of Estuary to Freetown. One day there will no doubt be a fast motorway linking the capital with its airport, but that would be rather a pity. It was still dark and we were driven down a bumpy, winding dirt track to the beach, and a shelter. Across the estuary the lights of Freetown were just visible, fading and reappearing as the pre-dawn mist shifted. Behind us, there was full moon, glowing a strange orangey pink, more like the planet Mars. This must be the result of the harmattan wind, I thought. At this time of year – November to February – the harmattan brings dry, reddish Saharan sand, blotting out and colouring the sky and carpeting the land with dust.

We waited, not far from our luggage, carefully tagged, by the landing point. Make sure you hang on to all baggage receipts, or you won’t get it back! The landing point, a rocky slope, was easy to determine. There was a red neon light on one side, and a green one on the other. Port and starboard – from an incoming hovercraft’s point of view. I explained this to some visiting aid workers, who were duly impressed (enough – Ed.!) Sierra Leone remains very aid-dependent. About half of the country’s economic growth in the late 2000s was driven by donor money, and the numerous aid agencies continue to prop up the economy. Then, very quickly, like Kipling’s tropical sun, coming up ‘like thunder, out of China, ‘cross the bay’, the sun rose behind us, too.

At about 07.00 the hovercraft appeared. Bright yellow and black, and, as one the Water Aid workers explained, a former Isle of Wight Ferry, now a long way from home! There are also boats which do the crossing, and only boats operate at night. This was the first hovercraft transit of the day. The hovercraft made its first run, powering forward propelled by two huge propellers at the stern. But the hovercraft had not built up quite enough momentum. She got most of the way up the rocky slope, then slid back. Oh dear! So she reversed, turned round in the water, spraying sea everywhere, and headed out to sea again. For a moment I was worried that she was deserting us. Then she came in a second time. Everbody got well back in the shelter as the exiled Isle of Wight sea monster came powering in, like an athlete going for an Olympic Gold in the long jump.

This time she made it. Passengers and baggage for Lungi airport came off, and we got on, sitting in the tasteful zebra-pattern seats. The crossing takes 20 minutes, and on the way we watched a ‘welcome to Sierra Leone’ video, which was very informative. Sierra Leone was the hub of much of the West African slave trade and the descendants of slaves in some of the southern US states, including Alabama, largely trace their origins to one of the Sierra Leone ethnic groups. On the southern, Freetown side, the hovercraft’s berth was more conducive, and the craft came to a halt first time. Waiting in the baggage hall there was a blonde lady, radiating a Helen Mirren-like air of quiet authority. Now – this could only be the Save the Children ‘CD’.

I was intrigued by the provenance of the hovercraft, and I initially assumed – quite wrongly, as it turned out, that she was a creation of the 1960s, remembering that Sir Christopher Cockerell had invented the hovercraft in 1952 and that, with a speed impossible today, commercial hovercraft services to and from the Isle of Wight had started in 1962. I initially thought she was an SRN-6, But the round propeller guards belied that. The SRN-6 has angular propeller guards. In fact she is the SRN-6’s successor, an earlier version of the Hovertravel Freedom 90 which is still in service on the Isle of Wight route. The Freetown hovercraft is an AP1-88, first tested in 1982, built by Hoverwork, the British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC), and the National Research Development Council (NRDC). But I am no train-spotter…

‘Diamond Airlines’ is appropriately named. Sierra Leone is a rich source of diamonds, as well as gold, rutile, iron ore, zircon, uranium – and offshore oil. Diamonds were first discovered here in the 1920s, and in 2006, after the peace, $140 million worth were exported. Exports fell because of the global economic downturn but rose again to $109 million in 2010. But the country is also shaped like a diamond – pretty much like the diamond on the hovercraft ticket. The point at the bottom lies at about 7o north, 11o 30’ west. Freetown lies near the top of the flat west face at 8o 30’ north, 13o 10’ west. One of the advantages of that, of course, is that the country is on the same time zone as UK, not far from our very own Greenwich Meridian. So no jet-lag here!

From a GMI point of view, Freetown is exceptionally important because it is the deepest natural harbour in West Africa. It is free of sand banks and has long been an important trading entrepôt and refuelling stop. Freetown lies south of the Sierra Leone River estuary, but the broad expanse of water is referred to by the locals as ‘the river’. To the south lie the Peninsula Mountains, the Serra Lyoa. John Hawkins was the first known Briton to come here, in the 1560s, to buy slaves. The British built a fort on Bunce island, from which an estimated 50,000 slaves were exported up to 1808. The French destroyed it in 1702 but it was rebuilt and occupied by the Dutch and Portuguese.

But Freetown’s position as the capital of Sierra Leone and its name owe as much to the end of the slave trade. By the end of the 18th century pressure against slavery was growing in UK and a number of slaves had already been freed. There were also American slaves who had escaped their American owners and fought for Britain in the American war of Independence. The proportion of black people in London was therefore as high as today, with the latter, and also because as it was fashionable to have black servants, and some of these had fallen on hard times, though ‘free’. In 1786 a contingent of freed slaves from UK and British North America (Canada) – the US did not abolish this appalling abuse of human rights until 1863, as we all know – arrived in what became, in 1787, the ‘Province of Freedom’ – later Freetown. The first freed slaves, many from cold Canada, had a miserable time and many died in the malarial conditions of the swampy coast. But the new colony – limited to the coast – survived and prospered. Britain finally abolished the slave trade in 1807, which triggered the growth of Freetown, as it now became. The following year, 1808, ‘Freetown’ became Britain’s first Crown Colony in tropical Africa.

The Royal Navy now found itself in a quandary. Its mission was now to intercept slave ships under other flags and free the slaves. But where were they to take them? Freetown. With war against Napoleon still underway, 6,000 freed slaves were brought to Freetown to enlist in the British forces – too many for the small settlement to handle. So the British farmed them out to neighbouring villages. This also began a reluctant process of colonising the littoral. By 1864, when the final slave ship was intercepted, 50,000 freed slaves had been brought to the settlement. With the deepest natural harbour in West Africa, Freetown was also an important Naval stopping and resupply base, and remained so even after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It remained so in the First and Second World Wars as well, and in the latter the Freetown Squadron played an important role securing transatlantic supply convoys for North Africa against U-Boats. At the Schwerpunkt between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea, Freetown could be a major factor in maritime security in the next century.

Today Freetown remains a bustling port. There is nowhere with the natural advantages it enjoys anywhere in West Africa. From the CD’s terrace she can see a constant stream of ships plying the ‘river’: container ships, tankers, dry bulk carriers… Swooping above are African Harrier Hawks (Polyboroides typus), which are common across all west Africa, from Senegal across southern Mali to the Central African Republic and down to Congo Brazzaville. These raptors have a 1.6 metre wingspan and their bodies are 60 cm – two feet – long. Charlie, the CD’s three month old kitten, is currently happy to play in the house and on the covered terrace. Probably a good thing. To one of these raptors, Charlie, at the moment, would be a tasty lunchtime snack.

In spite of the appalling history of brutal horror, this country is amazingly alive. Compared with the grungy, crouching creatures hiding in their hoodies who adorn London, these people, who are desperately poor, stride proudly upright, the men in ornate, tailor-made shirts, the women with the same carriage as when they carry baskets on their heads, in elegant dresses glittering with ornament.
A huge amount of work is underway to revolutionise the country’s infrastructure. Some impressive new roads – dual carriageways – are being built, with Chinese help in and around Freetown and South Korean help up-country. There are two ‘seasons’ here: wet (May to October) and (now) dry – or baking (November to April). In the wet season the rain is torrential and pretty constant, and the deep culverts and metre-deep drainage channels, crossing under and on either side of, the new carriageways were really impressive.

But, at the moment (March 2013), power is the big issue, certainly in Freetown. Not the political sort, although they are related, but the supply of electricity. In November 2009, with great fanfare, President Koroma announced the opening of the Bumbuna hydroelectric power station on the dam of the same name, a graceful creation of Italian engineers. Bumbuna is 100 miles inland from Freetown, up the Seli or Rokel River, which flows roughly west into the Sierra Leone River estuary, and is virtually in the centre of the country. It had been nearly forty years in the making. The plans were unveiled in 1975 but construction ceased from 1997 to 2005 because of the civil war. The 400 metre long Bumbuna dam was designed to solve, first, Freetown’s power problem and, with Phase II, Sierra Leone’s. Phase I, completed in 2009, has two 25 MW Francis turbines, capable of delivering 50 MW in total. Phase II, due for completion in 2017, will increase this to 400 MW.

According to the official statements, Bumbuna could supply all Freetown’s power needs. But the power distribution network was so damaged during the war that Freetown can only handle half of the power that Bumbuna can produce. That corresponds roughly with the observed fact that mains power was available for about half the time. But in recent weeks the mains electricity supply to Freetown has hardly worked at all. Generators, designed to provide power the rest of the time, and as emergency standbys, have been operating almost permanently. So they are starting to break down…
A Presidential statement apparently said that the power outages were because one of the two turbines was broken, and would take a year to fix. Given that the distribution network could only handle half the power produced anyway, one turbine should be quite sufficient, so this does not add up. I suspect that the problem lies with the decrepit distribution network. President Koroma was recently re-elected on the promise of restoring electric power. If he does not get his act together on this one soon, he could be committing political suicide.

The Bumbuna dam
Until such basic issues are sorted out, Sierra Leone will struggle to attract business and tourists. It has stunning resources and has a spectacular, hilly landscape, quite different from the low-lying swampy coast of much of West Africa. And it has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The original Bounty bar advert was filmed here in the 1960s (when it was still a British colony). On my fourth night I headed, with the CD, along Lumley Beach. The sun was coming down fast over the sea, first ultramarine, then turning to black, with the white surf spray pounding onto white sand. The currents are strong – this is the Atlantic Ocean – and swimming would be risky. But when we reached the Atlantic Restaurant at the far end of Lumley Beach, we sat looking out at the dark mystery of the Atlantic, under coconut palms blowing in a refreshing, cooling breeze. Next stop – South America. The beauty of the place cannot fail to impress.

We looked at the menu. One great thing about Sierra Leone is that one is not oppressed by freedom of choice. The choice is limited, but everything is very good.
‘The Barracuda’s OK here’, said the CD…
It’s an ill-wind …

Chris Bellamy, Director, Greenwich Maritime Institute


Public Seminar – The Legacy of the Thames Tideway Tunnel

The next GMI Research Seminar of the 2012/13 series will take place at 6pm on Wednesday 23rd January 2013.

‘Maximising the Legacy of the Thames Tideway Tunnel’ will be presented by Phil Stride, Head of Thames Tideway Tunnel at Thames Water.

The River Thames has become an environmental and public health hazard with untreated sewage regularly overflowing into it from London’s Victorian sewerage system. Built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette over 150 years ago, for a population of four million, this network of sewers still works today but is at capacity, unable to cope with the demands of a population that has now exceeded eight million. The Thames Tideway Tunnel will, if given approval, greatly reduce the amount of untreated sewage currently discharging into the tidal River Thames.

In addition to a cleaner, healthier river, the Thames Tideway Tunnel will secure long term benefits to the capital; providing a river fit for modern day London, whilst attracting business and tourism alike. The creation of 9,350 jobs will support local businesses and communities and create a training and skills legacy that will help inspire a new generation of engineers. In building the tunnel, new permanent public spaces along the river will add to the vitality of London.

For a map and a copy of the full seminar programme please see our website:

Location: Room 075, Queen Anne Court, University of Greenwich, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London, SE10 9LS

Time: Tea and coffee will be available from 5.30pm, the seminar will begin at 6pm and a glass of wine will follow.

The GMI Research Seminars are open to everyone, they are free and no booking is required.