I took a tour around Portsmouth Dockyard on Armed Forces Day at the weekend. And if you are wondering what that is, Armed Forces Day is a recent invention, a nationwide event that has been running since 2009. The organisers describe it as,
an opportunity to do two things. Firstly, to raise public awareness of the contribution made to our country by those who serve and have served in Her Majesty's Armed Forces, Secondly, it gives the nation an opportunity to Show Your Support for the men and women who make up the Armed Forces community: from currently serving troops to Service families and from veterans to cadets.
I don't know if that means that simply by going along to the dockyard I was showing my support, but one way or another I was interested to see what Armed Forces Day looked like and how it functioned as a tour.
Upon entering the dockyard sailor/guides attempt to get you to buy tickets for the pay-to-see attractions like HMS Victory or The Mary Rose Museum but, leaving these historic ships aside, I headed to the contemporary warships which, conveniently enough, were free to view. There were two and it was HMS Defender that I settled upon. You first start the ship's tour on the quayside with the queue that snakes its way between the metal barriers
Approaching the front of the queue you get your first human contact. A sailor welcomes you and offers a brief introduction to the tour, "welcome to HMS Defender, always face the ladders when going up and down them (people didn't), don't go off the designated route, careful of the the yellow and black high voltage areas, keep children under control, no photographs in the command room, your bags may be searched and enjoy your tour!"
The line then juddered forwards, went up the gangplank and we were onboard ship. The majority of the time we, the visitors, filed through the corridors of the ship on our own, going through metal hatches and wondering what the different tubes were for.
Every now and then we came across the sailor/guides who were dotted around at regular intervals standing by their equipment and offering explanations of how it worked. Here is a man showing the fire extinguishers.
And here is another showing off the guns. The semi-automatic rifles were very popular with the children, there was always a queue to get to fire them. Fortunately they were not loaded! Behind you can also see a girl trying on body armour and a helmet while raising a gun. Final thing to mention is the boy's cap. The Armed Forces day seemed to be a bit of a 'flag fest'. I noticed on the day's official website they were even selling flags and encouraging people to set up their own events to celebrate the armed forces in their area.
I am in fact somewhat familiar with this type of tour from back when I was growing up. Similar events were held in the 70s and 80s called 'Navy Days'. These offered ship tours, activities like bomb defusing and entertainment like military bands. In the past recruiting was also quite a prominent feature; these days they are not quite so hungry for new sailors. The function of the day has changed somewhat, and seemed to me to be more about creating positive PR for the military so that the country as a whole accepts the armed forces' disproportionately large size (and with that expense) and its continued deployment in Afghanistan and worldwide.
We got to see many corners of this modern 2009 destroyer and could contrast it with older warships such as HMS Victory that can be seen in the distance. I read that the HMS Victory tour operates on a similar basis to this one, namely you follow the tour path yourself and dotted around the vessel are sailor/guides who will explain to you different aspects of the ship. This really seems to be the military's way of offering tours: rather than the guide following you and explaining everything you get to hear from a number of sailor/guides about each of their specific roles such as communications officer, helicopter pilot etc, and their associated area's of the ship.
Getting off HMS Defender I had a cup of instant coffee in the visitor tent erected near the ship. WW2 music and dances took place just outside and within we had plenty of red, white and blue and pictures of smiling soldiers being decent chaps. It was really a very nationalistic event and I noticed it was approvingly reported on the national news later in the evening.
On leaving the dockyard I noticed a sea vessel far more my style: this sadly neglected fiber-glass boat sitting on the quayside that the owner had tried in vain to sell and was now offering for free. It looked OK to me, it just needed a motor to stick in the back and then you could be off for a tour of Portsmouth Harbour!