April 2024

Chris Prentis, minesweeper commander during Confrontation, who gave the Royal Navy’s last order to ram – Obituary

© Daily Telegraph On Line

Commander Chris Prentis, who has died aged 91, fought a short, bloody action during Confrontation and served 10 years in the Sultan of Oman’s navy, largely under sail.

Prentis commanded the minesweeper Fiskerton during Confrontation, the Communist-inspired armed campaign that raged between 1963 and 1966, instigated by the Indonesian President Sukarno, who opposed the creation of the modern state of Malaysia. 

Fiskerton was one of the more than 100 Ton-class minesweepers built in the 1950s – 440 tons displacement, with diesel engines, a crew of 33, and a hull of double-layered mahogany planking (to reduce the vessel’s magnetic signature).

Named after towns and villages ending in “-ton”, they were unglamorous, utilitarian workhorses of the fleet, and the last of Britain’s wooden walls. In the Cold War, these little ships, under the flags of a dozen navies, successfully policed the world as survey vessels, fishery protection boats, minehunters and patrol vessels.

Confrontation was a small but bloody war of insurrection – jungle warfare and cross-border raids – and in August and September 1964 there were large-scale landings on the Malayan peninsula.

At dawn on  16th November 1964, Prentis was in Fiskerton on patrol in the Straits of Johore, between Singapore and the mainland, when he spotted a suspicious sampan in the half-darkness. When the boat was challenged, hand grenades were thrown and three exploded onboard Fiskerton, but no one was injured.

While Sub-Lieutenant Peter Blomeley and Petty Officer George Richardson manned Bren guns on the bridge wings, maintaining a steady and accurate fire, Prentis gave the order to ram – the last time such an order was given in the Royal Navy.

Fiskerton collided with the sampan, and before it sank more hand grenades, a Sten gun, explosives, and one bullet-ridden body, were recovered. Other bodies were swept away.

Later that day at a national solidarity rally, news of the incident, so close to the Malayan mainland, caused Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Malaysian prime minister, to declare: “We are at war. Indonesian commandos, soldiers and volunteers raid our territory, invade our land by sea and air, attack our fishermen, and assault our sovereignty. Sukarno is a madman, a dictator and a neo-imperialist, Malaysia is fortunate to have such good friends and allies as Britain, Australia and New Zealand and the support of other friendly countries both in and outside the Commonwealth.”

Prentis was awarded the DSC, Blomeley the MBE and Richardson the BEM.

In 1969, after his command of Fiskerton, Prentis was first lieutenant of the frigate Charybdis building in Belfast. Referred to her people as “Cherry B”, she deployed to the Far East. There, under Prentis and her CO, Captain Dennis Foster, she was known as a particularly happy and effective ship.

But further promotion eluded Prentis, and after three years on Nato staff in Oslo (1972-74), he was appointed Flag Lieutenant to the Admiralty Board; there, between 1975 and 1979 he served as a master of protocol and ceremony, meeting many senior officers and politicians.

Having gained sailing experience in the Sea Cadets’ ship Royalist, in 1978 Prentis was recruited into the Sultan of Oman’s navy as master of the three-masted schooner Shabab Oman. It had been built in Scotland in 1960 as the Captain Scott, but since then had been very neglected and had little recent sea time under her keel.

Prentis’s brief was to bring her into service as a training ship for young Omanis. He showed endless energy and enthusiasm, and within a few weeks she had embarked her first crew and sailed from Muscat for a cruise along the coast, displaying her new suit of sails emblazoned with crossed khanjars in red.

With his patience, warm humour, and enthusiasm for the ship, he soon succeeded, and there followed a steady of stream of requests from different Omani government agencies asking to send recruits onboard for training. Other cruises followed, including a transatlantic voyage to a naval review in New York in 1986 to mark the centenary of the installation of Statue of Liberty.

Next, Prentis transferred to the Sultan’s Royal Yacht Squadron to supervise the building of a new luxury dhow, Zinat al Bihaar. When launched in 1988, at 61m it was the world’s longest dhow.

Prentis retired from the sea in 1992 to live in Oxfordshire. He was known for his joie de vivre, natty dress sense and naughty sense of humour. His interests included sculpture, carpentry, architecture, photography and bookbinding, and he sold his paintings at exhibitions in the Wallingford area; he also illustrated his letters to his children.

In 1959 he married Jacynth Courtier, the daughter and sister of naval officers, whom he met in Canada. She predeceased him, and he is survived by a daughter, the art historian Lydia Goodson, and a son. Another son died in infancy.

Christopher Prentis DSC, born July 7 1932, died February 19 2024