Warship commander sent home to face 'bullying' inquiry

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The Independent Online

Not so very long ago, officers and ratings on a Royal Navy ship who complained about verbal bullying and intimidation by their commander would probably have been accused of starting a mutiny.

Not so very long ago, officers and ratings on a Royal Navy ship who complained about verbal bullying and intimidation by their commander would probably have been accused of starting a mutiny.

But these days, it is what the Ministry of Defence terms "an equal opportunities" matter and the captain of the ship is sent home to face an inquiry.

Precisely where the line can be drawn between a tough officer who has a warship to run and someone who engages in verbal harassment of those under his command will be a matter for the Ministry of Defence inquiry investigating the events which took place as HMS Somerset returned from its six-month tour of duty in the Gulf.

The MoD confirmed yesterday that Commander David Axon was last week ordered to hand over control of HMS Somerset to his second-in-command, leave the ship at Gibral- tar and fly home immediately.

According to the ministry, the decision to remove Commander Axon, who is in his 40s, was taken after a complaint at the end of November from a male junior officer - which came via a confidential hotline - and which is being treated an "equal opportunities matter". Although the MoD will not discuss the details, it is understood the complaint relates to the "manage- ment style" of Commander Axon and involved verbal harassment, rather than anything sexual, racial or physical. Following the initial complaint, a female member of the ship's crew made similar allegations.

Commander Axon is now back in the United Kingdom. The MoD said he not been formally relieved of his command, but had been transferred to "other duties" and was now on leave. The ship, with its crew of 185, is due back in Plymouth tomorrow.

The inquiry, by what is termed "a naval committee", is a relatively low-level investigation, but could still lead to Commander Axon facing a court martial, being reduced in rank, or being exonerated.

If the case against him is proved, it will be a severe blow to a career in which he appeared to be heading for the highest ranks. Raised and educated in Zimbabwe and South Africa, he returned to his native country to join the Royal Navy in 1986. His career includes 14 months as "Royal Barge Officer" on the Royal Yacht Britannia, spells on anti-drug smuggling and fisheries protection duties and specialist training in anti-air warfare. His first command was with HMS Ramsey in 2000.

Last year he completed the Royal Navy's advanced command and staff course, obtained a masters degree in defence studies from King's College and was promoted to commander when he took over HMS Somerset a year ago. He lives in Southsea with his partner, a naval barrister.

Commodore Stephen Saunders, editor of Jane's Fighting Ships, who spent 32 years in the Royal Navy, said the case appeared "highly unusual". "While it is perfectly normal for a commander to hand over to his deputy, to do so under these circumstances is highly unusual and something I have never before come across.''

He had been surprised to see the incident being described as "an equal opportunities" matter: "It does sound a little politically correct, but that is just a sign of the times and the Royal Navy has to reflect society. And it has always had a system where complaints can be made."

But he added: "Nevertheless, it is extremely rare for such a complaint to be made by a junior rank about their commanding officer and one assumes something very serious is at stake. I cannot imagine such a complaint being made lightly."

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