Politics

What Do MPs Know About The Armed Forces? Meet Royston Smith – Who Disarmed A Gunman

Did this MP's military training help him tackle an armed assailant after leaving the forces?

MP Royston Smith’s air force background puts him in as good a stead as any politician to handle the rough-and-tumble of political life.

But the moment he tackled a murderous rogue sailor, who had started shooting people aboard a nuclear submarine during a civic tour, stands out as one of the tougher situations he’s faced in civvy street, when his military training has proven invaluable.

Smith, who had been in the Royal Air Force before entering politics, later received an award for his outstanding bravery for wrestling the gunman to the ground and disarming him - after the sailor went on a rampage with an SA80 rifle while on sentry duty, in an extreme outburst of barely-sober anger following an earlier reprimand.

Smith, then leader of Southampton City Council, put his military training straight into action when he, along with his council colleague at the time, chief executive Alistair Neill, tackled Able Seaman Ryan Donovan aboard HMS Astute which they had been visiting as part of their civic duties.

Donovan had shot dead weapons engineering officer Lieutenant Commander Ian Molyneaux and badly injured a second officer, Lieutenant Commander Christopher Hodge, during what a judge later called a “murderous onslaught” - jailing the then 23-year-old Royal Navy sailor for life in 2011.

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It is often a charge levelled at politicians – what do they know about life in military service?

They make decisions which have a major impact on the Armed Forces but how many of them have experienced life in service and how much has that influenced their view of military life on which to base their decision-making?

We delved into the military experience of sitting MPs to find out.

Here, Royston Smith MP tells us about how his background in the Armed Forces has helped shape his world view since transitioning to civilian life - and could have even saved his life.

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We will never know if the MP, who now represents Southampton Itchen at Westminster, would have reacted so instinctively on the day of the incident if he had never seen military service but his training during ten years in the Royal Air Force no doubt helped.

The air force engineer-turned-politician told Forces Network how he had enjoyed every moment of his RAF service but added: “I didn’t realise then what that was doing to form me as a person.”

His moment of heroism aboard HMS Astute in 2011 is an extreme example of how his military mindset might have come into play that day but he has no doubt that much of his world view, his behaviour and his decision-making, including on defence issues, plays a part in his everyday life now that he is a Member of Parliament.

In nostalgic terms about his time in uniform, he looks back with fond memories of his time in service.

“I went in at 16, I grew up in the air force, the air force was my family, I had a family nothing wrong with that, but this was my new family and I grew up with them.

“And so what I do and how I behave now is in no small part as result of that time that I spent.

“I joined up with people who came from all sorts of walks of life.

“People who came from broken homes, people who came from virtually no homes at all.

“We were taught everything from ironing our clothes, cleaning our shoes to cleaning our teeth – some things that people had never done before and those things do stay with you, afterwards.

“Some people might think I’m a little OCD about some things but that’s just my military upbringing."

Describing how his military service now influences his role as a politician, he said: "Lots of things I did within the military, I carry today including the camaraderie, including the way I view my country, including the way I think about defence, and including how proud I am when we see anything that has a military connection with it.

“So all those things stay with you forever and the one thing I always say to people is that I can’t drive past a military establishment without just thinking ‘I wish I was back’.

“That lasts for as long as it takes me to say it and then I don’t wish I was back any more and I wish I was doing what I’m doing.”

In a quick break from a Brexit and Commons debate, the MP also described with fondness “chasing Russian submarines around the North Sea” in a Nimrod from Scotland or Cornwall, where maritime reconnaissance took up most of his days during his service.

“It was hard work, it was good fun, I enjoyed every moment. Whether it was preparing aircraft for sorties in the blistering heat of Cyprus, or maintaining planes in -15° C in Scotland, it was never dull.”

The teenage Royston Smith chose the RAF at the eleventh hour. Despite Marine Cadets being a passion of his at the time, he opted for what he believed then was the “more practical” option.

His experiences over the next decade - in Germany, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Cornwall and Scotland - shaped his attitude to life in ways that are not as prevalent in civilian life, giving him a sense of character, strength and community that help him deal with even the toughest of situations he faces. He said:

"You can’t replicate that sense of camaraderie, in civilian life. It’s dark humour. It’s laughing at things that are sometimes a tragedy … but that’s how we dealt with it.”

Royston Smith pauses for thought at the Afghanistan/Iraq memorial in Westminster
Royston Smith pauses for thought at the Afghanistan/Iraq memorial in Westminster

As for how he thinks of today's service, he wonders if some of the modern developments in defence technology and strategy risk moving away from that sense of community that bonds personnel.

For instance, he pondered if the way the RAF now operates with the use of the MQ-9 Reaper drone might limit the opportunities for airmen and women to offload, in the traditional style of banter with comrades, as has been the manner for serving personnel throughout history.

He said that to "all intents and purposes" those manning the autonomous aircraft were carrying out operations that needed to be done but perhaps did not get a chance to immediately share their experiences with a crew around them for support, not unlike life for many in civvy street. He added: 

“Whatever happened, we’d go back to the crew room and get it all out of our systems ... whether we were sad, or we made fun of it.

“But that humour, how close you were, how willing you were to take whatever it was for your nearest and best mates ... you don’t really get that in civilian street the way that you do in the military.”

MQ-9 Reaper drone
The MQ-9 Reaper

Recalling his time as leader of the city council in Southampton, when he could not have foreseen how a moment of civic duty in his civilian role would thrust him into a battle-like situation, he told of the build up to that terrifying incident.

As council leader, he had invited as many military personnel to the city as he could, perhaps to honour the Armed Forces and maintain the strong connection the city has to the military.

Parades of soldiers, not long back from tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, had been marching through the streets.

And in early April, the nuclear submarine HMS Astute arrived on a short visit, during which he was invited on a tour as part of his role in a political position as a local authority dignitary - a role he was attracted to because of its essence as public service, much like the Armed Forces.

He could not have expected what happened next.

He said: “I’d seen the ship dock on the Wednesday of that week, and I’d gone back on the Friday to meet properly with the captain and crew.

“We were in the control room. Everyone knows the story by now, in so far as a chap was unhappy with his lot and decided to express himself with an SA80. I’d have gone AWOL rather than do what he did – but in the event, that’s what happened.

“He came in with a gun, and started shooting at people. I hope that what I did, in some small way, made the situation ‘less bad’ than it was.”

Donovan had volunteered for sentry duty after being given two days' shore leave, following a reprimand for carrying out some duties poorly - but had spent his time ashore getting drunk and visiting, bars, clubs and strip joints and had spent the night in a hotel.

A court heard later that Donovan had made sinister threats about wanting to kill somebody in an angry outburst, just before he returned to the ship and volunteered for guard duty - a role for which he was accepted despite questions over how fit he was for duty, when concerns were raised over how much he had been drinking. However, he passed a check of how his breath smelled and how his eyes looked and was issued with the SA80 rifle, ready for duty.

Moments later, as Donovan walked toward's the submarine control room, his onslaught began - as he opened fire, firing four shots.

Lieutenant Commander Ian Molyneux, a 36-year-old father-of-four from Wigan, was killed when he was shot in the head as he tried to disarm the homicidal sailor.

Lieutenant Commander Chris Hodge was hit by a shot in the stomach but survived - and other shots rang out before Smith and his civilian colleague sprang into action to tackle Donovan and wrestle him to the ground.

Ryan Donovan was later jailed for at least 25 years for murder at Winchester Crown Court in 2011.

Smith said: “People ask me whether my military experience had any bearing on my actions that day, and I don’t know for sure.

"When I heard the first round fired in the confines of the ship, I thought it was a negligent discharge.

“But when the second round went off, I knew that was not anymore an accident. I was already thinking that something bad was happening. He then came into the control room.

"He shot again and hit someone else again.

"My instinct told me: ‘He’s got 30 rounds in that magazine, and he’s going to empty them all into the control room.

“What could anyone do, but try to prevent that from happening?”

Smith gave a nod to his military training for giving him a split-second edge over the assailant, bringing the young man down and disarming him in the process.

"I don't know whether that was my military background that did that but I think that that split-second, that extra second that I had to intervene by not standing and being shocked, which is the natural way of most people, but to know there was something up, probably gave me the edge."

The MP was later awarded the George Medal for bravery, but he described getting the accolade as “a bit embarrassing, really.”

The decoration takes pride of place in his sock drawer and seldom comes out. He is criticised often for not wearing it, but is happier with the inner feeling of knowing he was able to do something to prevent more tragedy.

On meeting the Queen as he received his award, he said: “I am a monarchist, and I was a little bit star-struck.

“Shaking Her Majesty’s hand in Buckingham Palace – that’s my lasting memory from the whole thing.”

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Her Majesty The Queen awarded Royston Smith with his George Medal for bravery after his actions in 2011

What advice did the MP have, for those teetering on the edge of joining the military?

He smiled: “Do it! Give it a go! If you’re young, as I was, it’s a place to grow up.”

“If you’re an older recruit, you’ve the chance to bring whatever skills you’ve already gained with you, and if you find you don’t want to stay, then you don’t have to.

“It’s the most fantastic job, a chance to see some amazing places. A chance to make friends for life. A chance to form opinions you wouldn’t otherwise.”

The MP believes our society of constant connectivity could be having a negative impact on Armed Forces’ retention and recruitment.

He said: “When this interview is over, you and I will most likely look at our phones to see what we’ve missed.

“You can’t do that when you’re ten days in a submarine, on active service somewhere or stationed in the Falklands for a stretch of time.

“But that’s how people’s lives are now – they expect different things. They find it hard to adjust.”

Looking back on his own military life, he said: “We just dealt without being connected. All we had back then was airmail.”