‘She’s mine now,’ the Iranian officer gloated over the radio as he steamed back towards
Commander Will King, 41, the captain of HMS Montrose, was just 500 yards from Iranian waters and could see the dimming lights of the British-flagged tanker when he received the message, in English, on channel 16.
‘As soon as she headed north into Iranian territorial waters, I could do nothing. Soul-destroying, really,’ said Cdr King as he recalled the incident five weeks earlier. ‘You could almost hear the elation on their side. It was like a sick competition.’
The British-flagged Stena Impero, which had a mainly Indian crew, was legally travelling through disputed waters – one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – when a team of Iranian special forces soldiers had rappelled on to it from a helicopter and taken command.
HMS Montrose (near) escorting the container ship Brighton (far) through the Gulf. New figures also show that Iranian forces have confronted HMS Montrose a staggering 115 times since the tanker was seized
The move, on July 19, was a tit-for-tat response to the seizure of the Iranian Grace I tanker by marines in Gibraltar earlier that month after documents showed it was headed for Syria in contravention of sanctions. Stena Impero is still being held in the port of Bandar Abbas, off Iran, despite a court in Gibraltar releasing the Grace I. ‘They were nervous because they could see us coming up from the south at full speed and they were frantically trying to get on,’ says the commander, a father of two.
And now Cdr King has revealed that since the Iranians failed to find any Britons on the Stena Impero, the regime’s navy has been asking other ships travelling through the Strait of Hormuz if their crews include UK passport holders.
He said: ‘There were no British nationals on there [Stena Impero], which the Iranians were surprised about. They started asking tankers coming up through the Gulf of Oman, “Are there any British nationals there?” ’
HMS Duncan (middle) safely escorts MV Mid Eagle (front) and MV BW Magellen (last) through the Strait of Hormuz
The brazen attempt to target British citizens began on July 19, the day Stena Impero was seized, when Iran directed cruise missiles towards the area where HMS Montrose was operating in the Gulf. An alarm was triggered by the Type 23 frigate’s electronic surveillance system, and Navy chiefs activated the highest level of readiness – ‘Action Stations’.
Gunners on the upper deck manned their 50cal heavy machine guns and the gun controller in the operations room readied the 4.5in medium-calibre gun – capable of firing 24 rounds a minute.
A Wildcat helicopter was despatched to try to gather information on what was going on. Intelligence intercepted a conversation between Iranians which revealed its military forces had been authorised to use live rounds to storm the Stena Impero – and the Royal Navy has no doubt that they would have.
‘We had reasons to believe they were ready for a fight that night,’ says an officer on HMS Montrose as it carries out its latest mission – to escort three vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.
New figures also show that Iranian forces have confronted HMS Montrose a staggering 115 times since the tanker was seized.
These have included flying drones to spy on the British ship, fast-moving speedboats with heavily armed soldiers wearing balaclavas coming close by and intimidating messages.
The Daily Mail was given the first access to the warship as it protected the two tankers and a container ship from the Iranian threat as they passed through the narrow waterway last week.
Several hours into the mission, a warning is sent out on the main broadcast system: ‘We will be in high threat area in proximity to the Iranians.’ Two Iranian drones were then spotted in the sky ‘harassing’ the merchant vessels, Brighton, Hellespont Pride and Moonbeam, as they travel in convoy in the sweltering 39C heat.
Commander of HMS Montrose Will King, 41, (left) looking through binoculars. Cdr Kings said: ‘You could almost hear the elation on their side. It was like a sick competition’
For the first part of their nerve-racking journey, HMS Duncan protected the vessels, before HMS Montrose took over for the last leg as they navigated around Iranian territorial waters.
Such is the frequency of Iranian confrontations in the Gulf that, on a typical day, Royal Navy officers speak to their counterparts around ten times a day.
Gunner Dominic Blane, 22, carrying an SA-80 as the ship pulls out of a Dubai port to escort tankers through the Strait of Hormuz
Gunner Dominic Blane, 22, has had to prepare his .50cal heavy machine gun more than 20 times since he started his deployment four months ago. ‘When you have got the Iranians coming in close, you have to get ready,’ he says from the upper deck. ‘If they’re coming in, it is threatening and we are up here ready.’
Cdr King said the actions by the Iranians were ‘certainly intimidating’, adding: ‘They are in a position where they are keen to test the responses of the UK.’
There are six Royal Marines on HMS Montrose in a state of alert at all times and ready to board and protect any vessels coming under attack.
Cdr King says his biggest fear now is that an incident in the narrow waterway becomes a ‘knife fight in a phone box’.
He warns that tensions could quickly escalate, adding: ‘You’ve got a load of people with machine guns pointing at each other, that are effectively 300 yards away from each other.
‘That’s the big worry, the miscalculation that comes from that.’