AS A spectacle, it was never going to rival that fateful evening in December 1939 when the German pocket battleship Graf Spee slipped her mooring in Montevideo and eased out of harbour at sunset, only to scuttle herself in the port approaches rather than resume battle with the British fleet.
As a distraction contemplated by a British Premier to divert attention from persistent awkward questions over both his intended’s undue influence and his own probity, it was never going to challenge the ‘small war in the South Atlantic?’ suggested by his PPS to the fictional PM Jim Hacker of Yes, Prime Minister.
But for Our Man in the Channel (OMC) during the very week of a prospective maritime blockade of a British port by a hostile French fleet for the first time in two centuries, with supportive military intervention threatened by both sides, the opportunity to witness and chronicle it was too good to ignore.
From the Jersey clifftop location marked below with the red diamond, OMC anticipated, early on Thursday May 6, having a grandstand view of a fully-fledged naval engagement.
Or so OMC thought, on the assumption that the two ships shown in light blue among the mass of French chalutiers were the two Royal Navy fishery protection vessels (FPVs), instructed by the Lord High Admiral de Pfeffel Johnson to proceed south with all dispatch to protect the territorial waters of Old Blighty, already exercising every Captain’s prerogative to ‘steer for the sound of the guns’.
Er, no. HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, apparently under instructions to do nothing to ‘escalate the situation’ – as if 70+ French fishing boats blockading a British Crown Dependency’s main port of St Helier wasn’t already some distance along any ‘escalation’ continuum – contented themselves with ‘patrolling’ back and forth on an east-west axis two or three miles off the island’s south coast.
Neither did it escape OMC’s notice that Tamar, sporting her recently painted retro 1939-45 pattern dazzle camouflage, is trumpeted as the Navy’s greenest warship.
However – as anyone who has spent an evening on a Normandy quayside indulging in gastronomic and oenological excess topped off with a large Calvados, only to be rudely awakened at 0400 hours by the unmistakeable full-throated roar of Baudouin diesels signalling the imminent departure of the pêcheurs on the dawn tide, can attest – the French fishing industry is not impressed, much less intimidated, by displays of eco-virtue, and duly treated the Royal Navy’s greenest with a studied indifference.
Someone, evidently with a keen eye for historical re-enactment, fired an ancient musket at Macron’s Marine Marauders from the battlements of the mediaeval castle on the narrow approach to St Helier.
Whether it was that, or derision from their local counterparts at protest flags being flown upside down – an internationally recognised maritime distress signal – which prompted the interlopers’ retreat to open water a short time later is a moot point. In any event, the French fleet was observed returning to port not long afterwards.
Though, on the other hand, it may just have been that the hour of lunch was beckoning.