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Royal Fleet Auxiliary officer reflects on his 40-year career

David served in RFA Argus during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone
21 April 2021
A sailor who has fought Saddam Hussein and the Ebola virus and helped peacekeeping efforts in Africa is finally stepping ashore after 40 years’ service.

Chief Officer David Gatenby retires from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – which operates the ships supporting Royal Navy warships around the globe – and says he would gladly do it all again if he could.

David, who was raised in Currie, near Edinburgh, trained in catering and hotel management at the city’s Telford College and worked for various hotels before opting for a life on the ocean waves.

Following a period of intensive training, in 1982 a 22-year-old Dave embarked on his first ship, small tanker RFA Gold Rover.

"Following in the footsteps of dad Terry and brother Chris, I joined a service that I had been involved with as a small child – visiting ships that dad was serving on,” he said.

"I travelled all the way from Edinburgh to Portland, Dorset by numerous trains to find my ship had not yet arrived. My first night was spent on another RFA vessel, RFA Engadine, until my ship arrived the next day.

“I remember my first telling off, asking the captain to make a 'Tannoy' and being strongly rebuked as 'we use pipes on ships'… there was a whole new language to quickly learn.

"The Falklands conflict began, and my ship headed to the Gulf to cover the duties of Royal Navy warships; all other ships went South. A ten-month trip ensued until our return to the UK.”

Dave, who now lives in Broxburn, continued: "Progressing through the ranks, I worked on all classes of RFA vessels as a 'baby assistant purser' until being promoted to purser and suddenly being 'in charge' – a daunting thought! Reaching Senior Purser (Chief Officer Logistics - RFA rank) followed and my final seagoing trip was on RFA Argus, a ship I stood by when she was being converted for the RFA at Harland & Wolff, Belfast.

It is hard to summarise just under 40 years at sea, but I have met and worked with some amazing people, assisted in some very difficult situations and faced a lot of challenges, but would certainly do it all again.

Chief Officer David Gatenby

"I got to travel the world and meet a whole host of interesting people along the way.

"In 1991 I sailed off to Gulf War 1, Operation Granby, onboard RFA Sir Galahad at the same time as my brother and various media outlets took a lot of interest in the 'The Brothers in Arms' perspective as we went off to war. Thankfully we both returned home unharmed.”

In 1995, Dave was serving aboard RFA Sir Galahad's 1995 supporting a United Nations mission to stabilise Angola following many years of civil war.

“This was the first time the Royal Fleet Auxiliary was officially recognised as being part of a UN peacekeeping force,” Dave explains. “Sir Galahad was awarded the Wilkinson's Sword of Peace and I received a Queens Commendation for Valuable Service for pioneering logistical support to the operation.”

Two decades later he was dispatched to West Africa again, this time aboard RFA Argus, sent as part of UK efforts to successfully combat Ebola in Sierra Leone. “I was proud to have played a part in assisting the fight against the virus,” says Dave.

"I have also worked in a number of shore postings - I was appointed RFA media/public relations officer and worked in RFA Headquarters in London before it moved to Portsmouth Naval Base. I was the first RFA training officer in HMS Raleigh and have twice served as the RFA’s liaison officer with the trade union Nautilus, representing many members in their time of need.

"It is hard to summarise just under 40 years at sea, but I have met and worked with some amazing people, assisted in some very difficult situations and faced a lot of challenges, but would certainly do it all again".

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