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Cmmdr John Gray: 'My proudest moment was bringing my ship into Belfast'

The Big Interview

Published 22/06/2015

Commander John Gray - the most senior naval officer in Northern Ireland - with Royal Navy boats at Carrickfergus Castle
Commander John Gray - the most senior naval officer in Northern Ireland - with Royal Navy boats at Carrickfergus Castle
Commander John Gray - the most senior naval officer in Northern Ireland - with Royal Navy boats at Carrickfergus Castle

The Co Tyrone-born commander has returned home to Northern Ireland to serve as the Navy's senior naval officer here and he tells Joanne Sweeney of how he welcomed his mother on board his £120m ship.

Q. How long has Northern Ireland had a senior naval officer?

A. Northern Ireland has always had a senior naval officer, but they have not always had that job title. For example, during the second World War when there was about 40,000 sailors up on the Foyle in Derry/Londonderry and the surrounding naval bases, there was an admiral in charge of Northern Ireland.

Then over the years as the Navy reduced in size there was a series of patrol ships that ran from Belfast and they were under the command of the senior naval officer here and he had an operational job. I have had the role since September, 2011.

Q. So what is your role today?

A. Today my role is more responsible for representational duties and linking in the Navy with recruiting in Northern Ireland and our veterans community as well as our two maritime reserve units which are based here, the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Marine Reserve. I also link in with other elements of the Northern Irish community, such as the various harbours.

Q. So are any sailors or ships actually here?

A. Unfortunately not. I'm in the sad situation that I'm a senior naval officer and I work predominantly in an Army HQ and I'm the only naval man present.

Q. Do you get much opportunity to go to sea these days?

A. Belfast and other Northern Irish ports are really easy for our ships to come into to fuel, to get stores, and a bit of rest and relaxation.

We get a regular stream of warships and naval ships coming in. Every ship that comes in I will go and meet them and will have a chance to step on board and maintain my sea legs.

Q. If David Cameron declared a war tomorrow, what would you do then?

A. All of our ships at sea have their own commanding officers. We are on board HMS Dasher (at Carrickfergus Harbour) which is one of our small patrol ships so the CO Ben is very much in command, so we don't wouldn't need to surge additional officers to take command of ships. But depending on what the circumstances were, it may be needed for people to be deployed to do tasks either within the UK or in the general operations theatre.

Q. Such as?

A. When I was deployed in HQ in Portsmouth a couple of years ago there was a requirement to surge people into Iraq to support the training activity there. I spent nine months living in the green zone of Baghdad working with the Iraqi army and supporting the overall national goals in that way. So I would be available potentially to go into that type of surge activity. But maybe if they decide they didn't need the extra manpower, I would remain in Belfast.

Q. Do you think that the Royal Navy is generally not recognised as having a presence here in Northern Ireland?

A. I think there is always the risk, outside of the main naval bases, that the Royal Navy's profile is not high enough. Although I am the main representative of the Navy here, we do have other personnel on the ground and the main one is the Royal Naval Reserve unit currently based in Lisburn, and they have about a 100 naval reservists who are part of the wider UK naval reserves.

They combine with the Royal Marine Reserve unit currently based in Palace Barracks. They have 30 trained and ready to go with the Marines if needed overseas. They are based here, they train here but they are ready to be deployed outside of the UK.

Q. Does the Royal Navy enjoy the same reputation as being the British Isles' defender that it did in the 20th century?

A. No, I don't think it has the same recognition in the psyche of the people of the UK because it is not as large and it can't be as active as it once was. We are still working very hard operationally around the globe. The reason they are working around the globe that even in times of peace, 95% of trade still comes by sea. Any nation that is an island nation will always require the navy as a line of defence.

Q. What's currently happening?

A. At the moment we have two ships in the Arabian Gulf -two frigate destroyer ships with 200-plus sailors on board. We also have mine hunters in the Arabian Gulf permanently, with crews rotating at six months at a time. They are conducting training, building our allies in the area and also spending time clearing up residual mines that are still there from Saddam Hussein's regime. We always have a ship off the Horn of Africa that is supporting the anti-piracy operations to support international free trade. We have a ship currently in the middle of the Indian Ocean doing survey work. HMS Bulwark in the Mediterranean has been very much in the news supporting those poor souls who have been trafficked across the ocean seeking a better life for themselves.

We also have HMS Severn in the Caribbean supporting counter-narcotic operations and standing by to assist British overseas dependencies in the event of a natural disaster.

We also have our Falkland Island patrol ship, HMS Clyde, which is always there.

Q. How did a Co Tyrone man end up as a senior commander in the Royal Navy?

A. My father Rev Henry Gray was a Presbyterian Church minister. I suppose I was used to moving regularly from an early age and that led me to look at careers where you would be mobile. He was minister of Clogherney Presbyterian Church just outside Omagh. He then moved to St Enoch's in north Belfast and then we had a brief sojourn in southern Ontario, Canada, in the late Seventies. We came back in 1980 to east Belfast to McQuiston Memorial Church on the Castlereagh Road and then his final church before he passed was Granshaw Memorial in the Castlereagh Hills. He moved there just about the time I was joining the Navy just after I left Grosvenor Grammar School with A-levels at the age of 18.

I never went to the Navy to wash my hands of Ulster soil and never to come back. I regularly returned during leave time but once you have a family it's a lot harder.

Q. Did you come from a big family?

A. Yes, I was one of seven children. I'm a middle child with three sisters and three brothers. Most of us when we left school moved away. But it's interesting that six out of seven of us are living back here again. I returned to Belfast as senior naval officer in September 2011. I'm a single parent with two teenage children, Molly and Bertie, and they have settled in very well here and have had a chance to spend time with their cousins and other family.

Q. What do you think made you all leave?

A. I think it was opportunity. When you moved out of Northern Ireland for any space of time you realise what a big world it is and how parochial we can be. I think it would be so positive if you could force everyone to leave and work elsewhere for some stage of their lives as it would be such a positive outcome to the province. My brother is Professor Peter Gray who is Head of History at Queen's University. The only one who is not living here has joined the Army and has spent most of his professional life in Germany.

Q. What was it about the Royal Navy that attracted you to join it?

A. There was an interest in travel, so having dipped my toes from living a year in Canada, I had a definite appetite to go and see the world and move away from our wee shores. The Navy offered that and still does. I was only aged about 15 or 16 in the mid-1980s when I joined up and the Royal Naval careers office was at the back of Howard Street, Belfast. I went in, saw the literature and had my interviews when I was 16-and-a-half to join up at 18 in 1987. My brother actually left about three months before me to join the Army as a soldier before getting his commission with the Queen's Royal Hussars.

Q. What did your parents think of your career choice?

A. They always seemed supportive of it and saw it as a good career opportunity. The fact that I joined as what was known as a university cadet entrant at naval college for six months and then studied Ship Science at Southampton University helped with that.

Q. What happened to you after that?

A. After I finished at naval college I was lucky enough to get a place to do my sea training on one of the patrol ships in Hong Kong, HMS Peacock. What an experience that was as a trainee navigator in my early 20s! By the stage I had already been in the Arabian Gulf during the Tanker War (1984-8) - part of the Iran-Iraq War, I had technically already been at war while still at university. I travelled down the Suez at the age of 19 on HMS London. We did work hard in Hong Kong on anti-drug smuggling ops but we had time to enjoy it and neighbouring Macaw.

Q. Is it true than that all the nice girls love a sailor?

A. Let's just say that sailors have a reputation and some of them deserve that reputation!

Q. What was next in your career?

A. I was a navigating officer in HMS Blackwater in British waters at around the age of 24, working four hours on and four hours off, plotting the route for the commanding water. Being in a small boat in winter here really tests your sea legs.

Q. When did you get the command of your first ship?

A. When you join the Navy as a warfare and navigational officer, you aspire to be in command. I was lucky enough at the age of 35 to be in command of the mine hunter HMS Penzance. For the 18 months I was in command that was my ship and the responsibilities of everything that happened on board were mine - even if I wasn't present at the time, the buck would stop with me. And that's what being in command entails.

Q. What was the mine hunter worth?

A. To build it at that time would have been £120m. Any scratch at all, it was on me. When you're working in rough seas, there will also be some scratches but as long as you can justify how and when they got there, then that's OK. Taking over a command really focuses the brain.

Q. How were you able to sleep at night with the responsibility?

A. The nature of the job when you are at sea is that any activity out of the ordinary, or a possibility of any other vessel, fishing or other boat, coming within a set distance from your ship, then the officer in charge of the watch has to inform you. So you get used to being woken in the middle of the night, say, every 30 minutes for what is known as a shipping report.

The report takes a set pattern so even though it's in the middle of the night, you get to instantly know what sounds right and what doesn't. When it doesn't, you are awake straight away and you react. I was in command for that ship for about 21 months.

Q. Did your ship find and destroy many mines?

A. When we went to the eastern Mediterranean it was part of an annual Nato group to train collectively in an operational environment. There still is a legacy of Second World War mines and from the Cold War there are still tens of thousands of mines in the Gulf of Finland. So each year we will go looking for 1940s and 1950s mines and during the deployment, the group found 15 mines and we found 10 of those. When you find them, you blow them. It's gratifying to see this mushroom of water spurt on.

Q. HMS Penzance was your first and last full command? Do you miss it?

A. I stopped going to sea about six years ago as I'm a single parent with two children. Being in command and the boss of your own ship is something pretty special. I would be lying if I said that I didn't miss that, likewise you miss not going to sea regularly. If you not at sea, something is missing.

Q. You are also involved with the Tall Ships event in Belfast next month?

A. The Tall Ships is going to be fantastic for Belfast. I try to get a ship in for any maritime event happening in the province, to show off the Navy, and you can guarantee the ship and sailors will be welcomed and well looked after.

It's a chance to showcase Northern Ireland to my naval brethren. One of our frigates HMS Northumberland will be coming in and will be berthed amidst the Tall Ships.

Q. What's your next big project after working on yesterday's Armed Forces weekend?

A. It has to be HMS Caroline. It's a gem of a ship. It is 1914 built and bought as part of a light cruiser squadron and was at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. It came to Northern Ireland in 1923 and was used as a cruise ship in 2009.

She is in the middle of a refit funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and she will be opening up as a first-class tourist attraction with international value on May 3, 2016, which is the centenary of the Battle of Jutland.

Q. What was your proudest career moment

A. I think that was on HMS Penzance when the boat was stationed in Faslane, Scotland, and I was able to bring it into Dublin, Belfast and Larne in 2004.

My mother Mary was able to get on board and visited me in Dublin and Belfast.

Q. What would you say to any young person thinking of joining the Royal Navy?

A. The vast majority of people who join the Royal Navy will never see any warfare but there will be in circumstances when they will be challenged personally and will be to trained to deal with those challenges.

Belfast Telegraph

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