Monday, September 29, 2003

STUFT Stuffed: dodginess of ships chartered for Iraq

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It is reported that many of the ships chartered by the MoD to transport the Army to Kuwait for the war against Iraq were very dodgy indeed - up to and including the one that was detained by coastguards before it could leave on grounds of safety. This is very un-fantastic news: the military have always used chartered transports, going back beyond the Spanish Armada, and there is a word for it - stuft, or Ships Taken Up From Trade.

For the Falklands, the navy had to mobilise a huge concourse of merchant shipping ranging from the liners Canberra and QE2, vast container ships like the ill-fated Atlantic Conveyor and oil tankers down to trawlers. The P&O ro-ro ferry MV Elk carried so much ammunition that the effect of a direct hit on her in San Carlos would have been "comparable to a nuclear warhead" in the opinion of the amphibious warfare chief of the time, Commodore Michael Clapp. On the way, the civilian sailors of the merchantmen had to work out how to replenish at sea, unload into landing craft and survive under air attack - Conveyor was refuelled south of Ascension Island by the Fleet tanker Tidepool, a ship almost as huge, with the civilian vessel acting as guide. One has to wonder how well - say - MV Johnny, a Greek owned but Maltese flagged vessel detained by the authorities whilst loading for Iraq for a total of 27 safety breaches would have got on. But as usual, the government found nothing at all wrong with hiring a ship on the coastguards' blacklist and even less wrong with breaching its declared policy of opposing more flagging-out. (Did they tell John Prescott?)

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