Not The British Navy's Proudest Hour

CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin has been reporting on the British sailors.
This was not the British Navy's proudest hour. Now that the 15 British sailors have been released, you can expect a lot of questions about how they were so easily seized in the first place and why they seemed so ready to cooperate with their Iranian captors.

On March 23, the British warship Cornwall was operating farther north in the Persian Gulf than usual -- an area where the waters are more restricted and the boundaries more in dispute. It was also operating with the knowledge that three years earlier the Iranians had seized another British boarding party. Yet the Cornwall left the boarding party it sent to search a suspicious merchant vessel unprotected. The Cornwall itself was some eight miles away from the merchant as it was being searched. The water in the northern Gulf was too shallow to permit it to get any closer, the British Navy says. A helicopter from the Cornwall was overhead when the search party first went aboard the merchant but returned to the Cornwall before the search was completed, leaving the 15 sailors and Marines to make their way back to their mother ship in two small boats without any air cover.

I talked to a retired Navy admiral who said that when he was in command the operating instructions were to keep small boats within visual range at all times. He told me there had been a proposal to let small boats operate out of visual range because it would make it easier to sneak up on a suspect merchant ship, but he had vetoed the proposal as "stupid" on the grounds that the risk involved was far greater than any potential gain. It's possible, of course, the rules were changed in the intervening years, but that would make air cover all the more important. For the captain of a ship to lose part of his crew without a shot being fired will require a lot of explaining.

And so will the conduct of the sailors while in captivity. It's unfair to pass judgment on them without knowing the pressures they were under, but it's certain they did not adhere to the standard code of conduct under which a captured soldier only gives his name, rank and serial number. The first question that needs to be answered is: what were their instructions on how to behave if captured? The second question is: what training did they receive? The third question is: what pressure were they under? Whatever the answers, it's safe to say that the Iranians did a better job of manipulating their captives than the British did of resisting. Just before he announced that he was releasing the sailors, Iran's president decorated the Iranian officers who had seized them. It seems very unlikely that anybody in the British Navy will be receiving any medals for this.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.