A ROYAL Navy captain from Southsea has spoken of the daring mission to free sailors from an Italian cargo ship captured by Somali pirates.
Captain Gerry Northwood led the raid on MV Montecristo after a gang of pirates stormed the ship on Monday.
And it was an age-old message in a bottle which convinced him to send in commandos to rescue 23 sailors trapped in the ship.
The seafarers had locked themselves inside a panic room, known as a citadel, when the pirates attacked.
After 30 hours in the room, the sailors posted a message to the navy in a bottle – equipped with a flashing beacon – which they dropped from a porthole.
Capt Northwood, 50, told The News: ‘The message in the bottle was very important for deciding if we were going to go on board or not.
‘It said there were 11 pirates armed with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
‘It also let us know the crew were safe in the citadel so we knew the only targets on the ship were Somali pirates.
‘The last line of the message was “please help” so that’s what we went in to do.’
Capt Northwood, who is in charge of Nato’s counter-piracy patrols, had steamed 500 miles aboard RFA Fort Victoria to respond to Montecristo’s SOS call.
He said: ‘I sent in an American warship USS De Wert to get a close look and confirm pirates were on board.
‘I was hoping their presence would lead the pirates to capitulate but they didn’t.
‘So then I sent in our helicopter to fly over to take a closer look.
‘Again, I was hoping that would make the pirates surrender but they still didn’t.’
Confident no civilians would be in danger, Capt Northwood ordered Royal Marine and Royal Navy boarding teams to approach the ship in fast boats in what he called a ‘collective, overwhelming show of force’.
He said: ‘At that point they got the message and came out on deck and surrendered.
‘Our boarding teams were then able to go on board, detain the pirates and search the ship to make sure there were no pirates hiding.
‘Then we got a message to the crew to tell them everything was safe. We’ve been training hard for this and that’s what allowed us to conduct a textbook operation without a shot being fired.’
Seven Italian, six Ukrainian and 10 Indian sailors were rescued from the ship.
‘The sense of relief amongst the crew we rescued was as strong as you will ever see,’ said Capt Northwood.
The 11 pirates were later handed over to the Italian authorities.