Another life changing experience was to come in November 1970 when everyone on board Intrepid was excitedly looking forward to setting sail to Australia only to find out that, due to a cyclone hitting the Ganges Delta in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), the trip had been cancelled. HMS Intrepid was being sent to assist in relief operation caused by the Bhola cyclone.
The cyclone struck on November 11th, 1970, and it remains the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded and one of the world's deadliest natural disasters. At least 500,000 people lost their lives in the storm, primarily as a result of the storm surge and tidal wave that flooded much of the low-lying islands of the Ganges Delta. Our job was to take supplies by landing craft to the offshore islands.
The landing craft were ideal for this as being flat-bottomed craft they could navigate in shallow water and get right up to the land yet could carry a considerable number of stores. They also had the benefit of being able to lower their ramp at the front of the craft, which meant that people could walk on and carry the stores off easily.
The British aid naval response consisted of HMS Intrepid, HMS Triumph, HMS Hydra and the Landing Ship Logistic (LSL) Sir Galahad. The closest that these ships could get to shore was 35 miles and it was a further 40 miles to the main supply dump and headquarters which meant that all our craft and personnel would have to be detached and work permanently ashore.
The craft we took included the four LCMs, and four LCVPs, two naval store tenders, two Launchers, 15 Assault boats and 10 Geminis. I was on one of the LCVPs. Leaving Intrepid, we had hoped to get to our location by nightfall, but due to the sand bars and mudflats, progress proved difficult so it was decided that we would anchor for the night. It was then that the seriousness of the situation hit us as we inhaled the smell of rotting flesh from the carcasses and bodies. We had our meal but there wasn’t the normal jovial conversation. Ken, our coxswain, drew up a watch list and we found a spot amongst the stores for our beds. I closed my eyes to try to get some sleep as the silence and the smell intensified.
The next morning, after an uncomfortable night, we reached our destination. We weren’t needed there so we were to move on to a new location, where we were to stay for nine days. Each day we would be loaded with relief goods and head off under the supervision of a Pakistani soldier and a guide and return each night.
Despite the long hours we worked and the harsh conditions, I never heard anyone complain. There were television news crews with us, and I remember thinking that I hope this will make people in the UK realise how fortunate we are there and what I witnessed at that time subsequently made me regularly focus on the many privileges we often take for granted.
On top of the lives lost in the disaster were the ongoing ramifications. The people eked out a meagre living as small-scale farmers and fishermen. Their homes had been destroyed; most of their cattle, sheep and goats were killed. The rice crop was ruined, and the fishing boats were destroyed. We knew that whatever we could do was not even a quick fix, but it was only going to keep them alive temporarily.
It was a monumental experience and one that has stayed with me from that time. I wrote about it while in the Delta in my poem, Ode to the Ganges Delta, which epitomised my feelings. This was published in The Globe & Laurel, the Royal Marines Magazine.
ODE TO THE GANGES DELTA
By Marine Ron Gatepain
To sail the Ganges Delta
Today’s no pretty sight
For no matter where you wander
There are bodies left and right.
Floating in the water
Lying on the bank
Face up in a rice field
Stretched out on the track.
The smell of death around you
You have to wonder why
What caused this move of nature
To make these people die.
You have no time to ponder
For there’s a job to do
To take food to survivors
To help to see them through.
To take them warmth and shelter
A glimmering of hope
To help them face the future
And enable them to cope.
A body floats on by you
You glance then turn away
For that was like yourself once
Where now it’s part decay.
You must have time to wonder
A little time to think
Though make it when their water’s through
And they’ve had a chance to drink.
Survivors rush to meet you
With such a hopeful stare
A look that seems to cry to you
I’ve come to beg my share.
The sun descends so quickly
And night then fills the air
The moon it spreads a silver veil
Of glimmer everywhere.
Left alone just with your thoughts
The world now seems so still
Not like the day that nature sent
Her waters in to kill.
Unloading LCVP in Ganges Delta relief operations.