Desmond Wettern – 25 years on

Richard Scott remembers the naval journalist and author whose commitment to deepening public understanding of our dependence on the sea inspired the Maritime Media Awards

The untimely death of Desmond Wettern in December 1991 robbed the Royal Navy, and the maritime community in general, of one of its most ardent champions. The last of the specialist naval correspondents in Fleet Street, his memory is celebrated annually in the Desmond Wettern Media Award, established by the Maritime Foundation in 1995 to celebrate journalistic excellence in coverage of the United Kingdom’s maritime realm.

Yet while the Media Award has kept Desmond’s name alive, there is a generation who have grown up not knowing the man or his work. And so, a little over a quarter of a century after his death, it is apt to reflect on his career in journalism, his deep affection for the naval service, and his passionate advocacy for Britain to reassert itself as a maritime power.

Born in July 1934 and educated at Winchester, Desmond went on to complete his National Service in the Royal Navy. He subsequently started work in the trade press, going on to become a freelance contributor to a number of provincial newspapers.

In 1961 he was appointed as the first naval correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph. He moved to the Daily Telegraph in 1975, and went on to cement his reputation as the United Kingdom’s foremost naval journalist.

Clarity and insight

Desmond Wettern on the bridge of HMS Battleaxe in 1981. Photo: Gillian Wettern

Desmond’s commentary was as insightful as his reporting was incisive. His grasp of current naval affairs, together with a legion of sources inside and outside of the RN, allowed him to quickly see through obfuscation and spin. Re-reading cuttings from the Telegraph, one is struck by a writing style that was always clear and concise – and frequently devastating in its critique.

What’s more, Desmond was as comfortable filing on naval pay and welfare matters as he was in dissecting changes in the East–West naval balance. His affinity with sailors on every deck was clear in his reporting, and he was quick to raise issues which he felt could compromise the safety or security of naval personnel.

In this way, he won the trust of many in the service who were themselves unable to publicly speak out about problems or shortfalls. In this same vein, Desmond relished the opportunity to expose the evasiveness of politicians and bureaucrats. He strived to ensure that individuals in positions of power and influence were held to account for their policies and actions, and those who chose to spin half-truths or deceptions were invariably found out.

Alongside his work for the Telegraph, Desmond contributed to many specialist naval journals, and wrote two books: The Lonely Battle, which told the true story of a British sailor evading capture in occupied Shanghai during the Second World War, and The Decline of British Seapower. The latter, published in 1982, recorded the rundown of the Royal Navy in the post-war period in a narrative skilfully interweaving reports of activities and operations with an analysis of how political choices made by successive governments substantially eroded Britain’s standing as a maritime power.

Desmond was forceful in his belief that the security and prosperity of the United Kingdom are inextricably bound up with the sea. He was equally convinced of the need to maintain a strong trans-Atlantic alliance.

It is interesting to speculate on what Desmond would have made of today’s Royal Navy. While I have no doubt that he would have welcomed the arrival of the new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the significant decline in ship, submarine and aircraft numbers would have left him both shocked and dismayed. Nor could he have ignored the impact of those cuts on the health of the United Kingdom’s maritime industrial and technology base.

Similarly, as much as he would hold the men and women of the modern Royal Navy in the same high regard as he did their predecessors, he would be asking hard questions about the pressures wrought by continued shortages in naval manpower. I think he would also be alarmed at the increasing difficulty faced by the media in their attempts to engage with the Navy’s senior leadership in anything other than ‘stage managed’ events.

An informed and instructive critic

Much as he loved the Royal Navy, Desmond was not afraid to voice disapproval at decisions taken in higher echelons. That he was an informed and instructive critic serves as a reminder that the most valuable friend is the one prepared to tell the truth.

Of course, journalism is itself in the midst of a transformation, with the rise of online news and social media. Desmond would have revelled in the efficiency and immediacy of Twitter, and would have made full use of its ability to communicate with a large and diverse audience. And it goes without saying that he would have found himself increasingly engaged with the various micro-blogging sites that have sprung up to support the Royal Navy, and promote debate on wider maritime and defence matters.

To conclude, it is important to remember that Desmond’s overriding mission was to deepen public awareness of Britain’s dependence on the sea, and the vital role which the Royal Navy plays in maintaining the security of that domain. That message remains as relevant as ever in this global and ever more interconnected age.

Two Awards are named in Desmond Wettern’s memory: the Desmond Wettern Fleet Award, established by the Royal Navy in 1993, and the Desmond Wettern Media Award, created by the Maritime Foundation in 1995 to commemorate his dedication to deepening public understanding that the United Kingdom’s economic wellbeing and security are inextricably bound up with the sea.

Richard Scott is Naval Consultant Editor for IHS Jane’s 360.