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Excellence With Vigour


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The Torch

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to speak at length with LCdr Angus Topshee, XO (Executive Officer, for you non-naval types) of HMCS Toronto. For those who don't recall, Toronto was the first Canadian naval vessel to circumnavigate the African continent. It was a "ground-breaking" trip (yes, I did have to go there) in a good number of ways beyond that. Earlier this week, the ship arrived back in Halifax after five months at sea.

My problem, and the reason I've not written about this sooner, is that my writing ability is entirely inadequate for describing the voyage, as related to me by Angus in a conversation that lasted over an hour. As I told the story to my wife that evening, she said to me "All they need is a love-story, and they could make a mini-series out of it!" How do you tie NATO interoperability, anti-piracy, illegal immigration, exercises with non-NATO navies, confrontations with other non-NATO navies, nail-biting boardings, monumental charitable activities, and a life-and-death SAR operation around an erupting volcano into one narrative? The short answer is that you can't, not really. I'm going to try anyhow.

Angus joined Toronto only five days before sailing. It turns out that the previous XO was unable to deploy with the ship. As Topshee tells it, he was given no more than five minutes to make a decision, but that wasn't the hard part: "I decided to go in the first thirty seconds. I spent the next four and a half minutes trying to figure out how to tell my wife." Luckily, Audrey's also a CF officer, which would make the explanation a little easier to make, I suppose.

Taking over as the second in command of a deploying vessel with five days prep is no cake-walk, and while he figures it took him close to a month to really settle in, Angus told me he had it relatively easy for a couple of reasons. The first is that the XO's toughest job is actually preparing the ship for deployment - Topshee credits his predecessor for getting both equipment and crew to a high standard before he even stepped on board. The second is that according to Angus, "HMCS Toronto has the best morale of any ship I've sailed on." That's pretty high praise from a man who has been XO on four separate ships already in his career.

After leaving Halifax on July 20th and crossing the Atlantic, Toronto met up with the other five ships of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1). They hailed from Portugal, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the U.S. Personnel were also drawn from other NATO nations. They began their 12,500 nautical mile (23,150 km) circumnavigation of Africa, counterclockwise.

The CBC did a decent report for The National that covered off a number of the high-points of the voyage, and if you have thirteen minutes, it's worth watching. Although many of us thought that anti-piracy would be a primary function of this sort of mission, it turns out that wasn't the case:

As part of SNMG1, HMCS Toronto will conduct two principle missions: Operation SEXTANT and Operation SIRIUS. The first will involve a first-time event for SNMG1: the circumnavigation of Africa. The task group, composed of ships from six different nations and under the control of a United States Navy task group commander embarked in USS Normandy, will sail around South Africa at the end of August, conducting exercises with the South African Navy and paying a four-day visit to Cape Town at the beginning of September. Toronto will also conduct presence operations off of both West and East Africa.

After OP SEXTANT, Toronto will conduct OP SIRIUS in the Mediterranean. This will be part of Operation ACTIVE ENDEAVOR, NATO’s operation to help deter, defend, disrupt and protect against maritime terrorist activities.

Interestingly enough, circumnavigating Africa will also put a ship in situations that fall outside such a sparse mission statement. Chasing suspected smugglers back into national waters was one such episode.

Another was engaging in spontaneous diplomacy in the Gulf of Guinea: for Angus, defusing tensions with both the Ghanian and Nigerian navies was a personal highlight of the trip. In both instances, as the task force was passing by their territorial waters, ships from those nations came out to make their presence felt by the NATO forces. LCdr Topshee donned a clean and pressed set of 3B's, toodled over to the African ships, and climbed aboard by himself to discuss matters with the African captains. I asked him if he was nervous being sent aboard a potentially hostile ship twice armed only with his wits, and after making a joke about it - "The thing that kept going through my mind was HMS Cornwall..." - he replied that he tried to put himself in their shoes: "The nations that border the Gulf of Guinea have so many security challenges to deal with...I explained we're not trying to challenge their sovereignty, just trying to find out what's going on in the region." By the time he was finished his visits, the Africans were asking "When is NATO going to come back?" and loading crates of fresh milk onto his RHIB to replenish Toronto's dwindling stocks.

Engaging in this sort of diplomacy on the waves is one of the most under-appreciated benefits of having a navy. No other service so regularly interacts with other nations during times of war and peace alike.

I deliberately didn't ask Angus whether this was the first time he'd crossed the equator, and he didn't volunteer the information. Enough said about that, eh?

Transiting down the west coast of Africa, the SNMG1 made contact at the end of August with four ships from the South African navy for joint exercises. This was the first time a Canadian ship had trained with the South Africans, and the first time a NATO task force had trained that way as well, as I understand it. The ships exchanged personnel to get to know each other and jointly develop a training scenario that would test both sides. Angus said that the South Africans were undermanned, but quite capable - which must have sounded quite familiar to Canadian ears.

Sailing north along the east coast of the continent was an experience as well: the area is notorious for piracy. While the task force had no specific mandate for anti-piracy operations, they were certainly ready to help any ships in distress and investigate any suspicious activity.

And then they ran into a situation that got their ship on newscasts around the world: a Yemeni volcano erupted, and HMCS Toronto was called into urgent Search and Rescue mode. (Note who provided the dramatic video footage for all this: CF video crews, doing their job and informing the public about men and women of the Canadian Forces.)

Every member of the ship's company took part in the rescue, with over twenty lookouts on deck at all times for over forty-eight hours straight. Some sailors had to be ordered to sleep. Angus himself was in a RHIB trolling back and forth fifteen metres away from an erupting volcano, looking for survivors. The task force recovered four bodies (of which Toronto found two), and two survivors. Following is video of the one survivor found by Toronto, as he is brought aboard:

And here's the Yemeni soldier being returned to his people with an HMCS Toronto ballcap on his head, and a Newfoundland t-shirt on his back:

Back in the eastern Mediterranean after that, the boarding party engaged in what Angus called the most high-risk and difficult boarding the Canadian Navy has done in decades. For two days, boarding party personnel investigated a vessel that was so filthy that their uniforms and boots had to be written off when they returned to Toronto. It was not seaworthy, yet four crew and forty-seven passengers were crammed into it. Unfortunately, our sailors were never able to determine exactly what it was up to, and had to let it proceed on its way:

"One of the things that we’re most proud of is a boarding we did in the Eastern Mediterranean of a very suspicious vessel," said Lt.-Cmdr. Angus Topshee, the frigate’s executive officer.

"It was probably the most challenging boarding the Canadian navy has ever done."

In October, the Toronto’s boarding team spent 48 hours on the small, dilapidated bulk carrier Abdullah 1, looking for its registration, and grilling passengers and crew. It was flagless and did not have an apparent owner.

"There were 47 people who really didn’t know why they were on board," Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee said. "Their stories were conflicting with the master and the other three crew members."

The passengers claimed to be Iraqi. The ship had left Libya and the crew initially claimed to be heading for Europe. But the ship actually went to Syria, he said.

"Clearly there was something odd, and we never really figured out what the origin of the people was," he said.

The Canadians suspected the people operating the ship of having links to terrorism.

But without a legal reason to hold the vessel, they eventually had to let it go.

"It was in extremely poor condition, so we fitted it out with lifesaving equipment sufficient to make it safe to carry on its journey," Lt.-Cmdr. Topshee said.

I spoke with Angus prior to the ship coming back across the Atlantic and home, and asked him what gave him the most pride from this trip, and what gave him the most frustration as well. Apart from the boardings - both his, and the boarding party's - he said he was most proud of the charitable work the ship had done during the deployment. When he laid it out for me, I couldn't help being impressed as well:

$6,000 raised for the Terry Fox run, which the ship's company completed in the Seychelles. Half that amount came from the other ships in the task force sponsoring our sailors.

$11,000 raised for the Children's Wish Foundation to send an ailing child to Toronto to go to a Leafs game and meet Mats Sundin.

$14,000 for the Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign, which is funded largely through voluntary payroll deductions.

A visit by fifteen sailors to an orphanage in Cape Town, South Africa, to provide free labour in a place it was most needed.

That's not even all of it:

The ship raised more than $40,000 for charities during the trip.

"We had everything from head shaving to pie throwing," said Cmdr. Stephen Virgin, the Toronto’s captain. "We took our deck officer and strapped him into a goalie net and fired pucks at him for charity."

LCdr Topshee also bragged on a good half-dozen of his sailors off the top of his head. He would have told me about even more of the fantastic sailors working for him if I hadn't interrupted and moved the conversation along. Such is the face of true leadership.

When it came to frustrations, Angus said he really wishes Toronto could have stayed longer in places where their help was needed - especially in the equatorial waters on both the east and west African coasts.

While he was also careful to state that, given the scarcity of maritime helo resources currently, it was the right decision, he mentioned that the lack of an air det on the mission made a number of tasks more challenging than they would have been with a Sea King on board.

My jaw dropped: "You mean you didn't have an air det at all? For a trip through some of the most dangerous waters in the world?" Nope. Turns out other ships required a helo more than Toronto did. There are only three Sea King detachments on the east coast, and there's a personnel shortage as crews train up for the introduction of the Cyclone.

But the lack of eyes and ears in the air meant the task force got beaten soundly in an ASW scenario by a South African sub. It meant they had to rely on the Portugese helo more than they'd want to in a perfect world.

Angus didn't say it, but it meant they went out without an essential capability. Jean Chretien, I lay this at your door. *gritting teeth*

I also asked Angus if he could let me know what lessons-learned the Navy will take away from this deployment. Without getting into matters of operational security, he cited a few broad areas:

Boarding Party: Other navies deploy their boarding parties with much less trouble than we do, and we need to refine the way that we launch our RHIB's. We've also tended in the past to train for searching large vessels like container ships with twenty sailors on the boarding team, whereas this voyage showed a need for smaller teams and a heightened focus on security.

Logistics: Every logistic problem a naval deployment normally encounters is exacerbated on a mission like this with no sophisticated port services. Running out of milk in the Gulf of Guinea is one minor example. Making sure every sailor deploys with five sets of uniforms instead of the standard three is another. These may seem like small issues, but they're important nevertheless. And you know if supply of small things is a concern, supply of larger mission-critical elements might also be an issue.

Systems & Procedures: The use of shipboard systems always needs to be tweaked on a mission that makes such a dramatic departure from historical Canadian naval cruises. And the procedures followed - the military has a procedure for just about every possible eventuality - also need to be tweaked a bit. Apparently proposals will be made to both the Canadian naval brass and to NATO regarding the processing of asymmetric threats. I didn't get any more information from Angus on this front, and I wouldn't tell you if I had anyhow.

CEFCOM: I was surprised to learn Angus had never used the TO&E concept before, but because the deployment fell under the aegis of the army-centric CEFCOM organization, he was forced to use it for the first time in his career. He's a convert. Changing a ship's complement is normally an administrative challenge, and it can't be done for just one ship - it affects the whole navy. Using TO&E meant that the ship could customize its crew to meet the operational needs, period. Not having an air det, they had twenty-four more bunks they could fill with other trades under this system, where those bunks would have gone empty otherwise. Replacements for medical or compassionate repatriations were relatively easy. LCdr Topshee told me: "I love working for these guys because they're so operationally-minded...they were turning around approvals in the middle of the night." So a big BZ to the folks at CEFCOM.

LCdr Topshee also paused for a moment after telling me all this, and then added one more lesson-learned to the list. He told me there were no instances of piracy off Nigeria or Somalia while the task force was there, although there were incidents immediately prior and subsequent to their visits to those areas. While he can't prove causality, there's a pretty plain and commonsense correlation between the two. And so he told me one of the things that made this trip so very worthwhile to him was this: "I learned that we can make a difference."

Those barren souls who accuse our military of being made up of disadvantaged peons who only serve because they had no prospects beyond signing up with the CF should have heard his voice when he said that. Because it was as clear to me as ever that our Forces are made up of some of the most idealistic, dedicated, and professional men and women this country has to offer.

After scrapping an overly ambitious plan to cross the North Atlantic at speed in winter - a plan that was to have seen them home by December 2nd instead of the 18th, assuming they made it back in one piece trying to sprint through such rough waters - they finally arrived home before Christmas. They were greeted by exuberant family members, and by the CDS, bearing a special distinction:

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier boarded Toronto yesterday while it was docked at Shearwater, before its homecoming at HMC Dockyard.

He presented the captain and crew with a Canadian Forces Unit Commendation for boarding operations and a search-and-rescue mission in the Red Sea (see next page).

Along with the commendation, the ship will fly a purple-and-blue flag with a Canadian Forces crest for the next year.

The commendation is rarely awarded to a vessel by the Canadian Forces, said executive officer Lt.-Cmdr. Angus Topshee.

"We're quite proud of that," he said. "This ship achieved a lot in the last five months."

You should be proud, Angus. We're sure as hell proud of you and all the fine men and women of HMCS Toronto. Bravo Zulu, Merry Christmas, and welcome home.
Thanks for posting that here, schart28.  There's a pile of links and embedded video over at The Torch post itself, if anyone's interested in digging any deeper into the story.