SAILORS behind one of the most dramatic rescues in recent years and a record-breaking drugs haul are among Servicemen and women recognised by the Queen.
Four RN personnel have been singled out in the latest Operational Honours awarded to those in the Services whose bravery, dedication and effort goes above and beyond what would normally be expected.
Leading Seaman David Groves and Able Seaman Alex Harvey spent at least four hours in towering seas as they struggled to rescue every man aboard stricken car/container ship Grande America when HMS Argyll dashed to its aid in March.
The frigate – on her way home to Plymouth after nine months away in the Asia-Pacific region – responded to a mayday from the 28,000-tonne merchant ship about 150 miles southwest of Brest.
Despite a swell of six to seven metres – at the absolute limit of safe boat operations – the two sailors volunteered to enter the water in their eight-metre-long craft and attempt to save Grande America’s crew.
“One minute you could see a ship on fire, the next it was hidden by a wall of water. And the closer we got, the more engulfed we were in the smoke,” said 29-year-old David, from Taunton in Somerset.
Alex added: “It was rough – very rough and as we got near to the ship, it turned out to be a lot worse than we’d imagined it.”
When the pair reached the merchant ship they faced a lengthy wait as the crew struggled to launch the lifeboat – the Grande America’s high side and rough weather ruled out climbing down the ladder and into Argyll’s boat.
When the lifeboat eventually launched, it hit the water with such force that it left the vessel impossible to manoeuvre.
Nevertheless, David managed to bring his boat nose-to-nose with the lifeboat. With Alex on the bow judging the right moment as the two craft moved up and down, four of the merchant crew jumped from a small hatch into Argyll’s boat.
“When the first guy jumped I had to grab his him to prevent him going overboard. I thought to myself: This is a bit hairy,” said the 25-year-old from Hull.
Next the pair tried towing the lifeboat, but the line parted in the heavy sea. Finally they decided on nudging the boat towards the frigate “like a bumper car, or pinball” said David.
It took an interminable amount of time to ‘bump’ the lifeboat the half mile to HMS Argyll – and then they had to pin it against the frigate’s side so the Grande America’s crew could climb the scrambling net if they had the strength – or be hauled up in a hoist.
“They were cold, tired, suffering from the effects of fire, smoke, shock and they’d been bobbing around in the sea for a couple of hours – they were exhausted,” added David, now serving at HMS Raleigh in Torpoint.
He receives the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his actions on the night of March 10-11; Alex, who has joined new patrol ship HMS Trent in Glasgow as her boat’s coxswain, will be presented with the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery.
“We could have called the rescue off given the conditions – but why would we when there are lives at stake,” said Alex, who’s been in the Royal Navy for five years.
“It was absolutely a worthwhile experience, something to be proud of and a good way to finish our deployment, but I never thought an award would come out of it. It’s a bit surreal.”
David, who’s due to tie the knot with his fiancée Leanne Barratt in September, has previous experience of rescues – a sunken fishing boat in the Channel and saving migrants in the Mediterranean while serving aboard HMS Enterprise.
“It is always good to be recognised for the work you do, but at the end of the day this is what we’re trained for. That all kicked in on the night,” he added.
“We saw the crew the next day and they were really grateful for what we’d done for them. That was as much recognition as we’d expected.”
Commander Michael Carter Quinn, aged 42, from South Devon, is awarded an OBE for his time as the Commanding Officer of HMS Dragon. The ship sailed into the record books earlier this year when her crew of sailors and Royal Marines made eight successful raids on drug smugglers in the Middle East.
During her time working with global counter-terrorism organisation Combined Task Force 150, Dragon made her astounding eight seizures, amounting to more drugs captured in seven months than by the entire police force of the UK in one year.
Cdr Carter Quinn said: “It was a complete surprise to be told about this honour and not something I was expecting at all. I told my family last night, and my mum burst into tears, they were all absolutely over the moon for me.
“This honour is real recognition, for my wife especially, of all the support my family gave me during that deployment and all the months it took to prepare for it.
“HMS Dragon deployed from the UK as ready as we could be for the mission ahead, and we were on the front foot throughout. That is the reason we had such a successful time at sea on operations.
“I was so proud of all of the ‘Dragons’ on board, who pulled together and worked exceptionally hard.
“I am most humbled to have received this honour, and dare I say slightly embarrassed, because it was about the collective effort. This truly is recognition of their efforts.”
The final sailor recognised in this latest series of honours is Leading Medical Assistant Gemma Brown, who receives the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service for delivering first-aid instruction to Iraqi forces.
She led a Tri-Service team improving training of local forces in trauma provision and care, making “a telling contribution to the nascent Iraqi Security Forces”.