Commanding the carrier – a brief history of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s captains

In January 2020 the 4th seagoing captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth was appointed. As the ship has only been in commission for just over two years and is not yet operational there was some surprise at the high turnover of commanding officers. Here we provide some background and context to the most high profile job in the navy.

Captain Simon Petitt (2012 – May 16)

Simon Petitt was appointed as the Senior Naval Officer of HMS Queen Elizabeth while the ship was still in the early phases of construction. As an experienced weapon engineering officer who has previously served in HMS Ark Royal, his job was to oversee the build up of the ship’s company from just 9 sailors when he joined, to 580 when he left. As a completely new ship, fundamentally different to anything the Royal Navy had ever had before, he took on a daunting task to establish procedures and routines almost from scratch. Although not responsible for delivering the ship itself, he had to ensure that the contractors commissioning and testing staff gradually handed over responsibility to the sailors and passed on the technical understanding of the ship’s systems. Pettit was never slated to take the ship to sea but would lay the foundations for the first seagoing captain, a task he successfully completed before handing over to Jerry Kyd.

Captain Jerry Kydd

Captain Pettit formally hands over to Jerry Kyd on the bridge of HMS Queen Elizabeth, Rosyth 24 May 2016.

Captain Jerry Kyd (May 16 – Oct 18)

Jerry Kyd was appointed the captain designate of HMS Queen Elizabeth in February 2014 but did not assume command until 2016. Although already promoted to Commodore, he followed historical custom and routinely wore the rank of Captain while commanding the carrier. As the last captain of HMS Ark Royal (September 2010 – March 2011) his first difficult job was to inform the Ship’s Company that the ship was to be decommissioned. He then had to maintain standards and morale for six months until bringing the ship into Portsmouth for the final time with considerable dignity. He subsequently commanded the surviving CVS, HMS Illustrious for a year bringing her out of out of refit in May 2011 and operating in the helicopter carrier role. As an exceptional officer with a carrier background, he was an obvious candidate to take on the heavy responsibility of commanding QE, a role that involved great pressures while being subject to considerable public attention.

Kyd led the ship as she completed a number of major ‘firsts’ for the carrier programme including making the tricky exit from Rosyth in June 2017, conducting initial sea trials and entering Portsmouth for the first time. His final task was to take the ship on its first major deployment to the US in 2018. He had the confidence to allow documentary film-maker Chris Terrill on board to record the ups and downs of the ship entry into service. In the public eye, he maintained patience and grace during multiple rounds of media interviews which included questions from journalists that could sometimes be frustratingly ignorant or mildly hostile.

Those who served with Jerry Kyd say he always kept a cool head even when those around him were getting flustered under pressure and was well-liked and respected by all ranks. He completed his time in command in October 2018, handing over to his successor Captain Nick Cooke-Priest while the ship was anchored in the spectacular surroundings of New York Harbour. His overwhelmingly successful time in charge was endorsed by immediate promotion to Rear Admiral and his current appointment as Fleet Commander.

Jerry Kyd speaks with the newly arrived Captain Nick Cooke-Priest, just before he left the ship in New York, 24 October 2018.

Captain Nick Cooke-Priest (Oct 18 – May 19)

A former Lynx helicopter observer, Nick Cooke-Priest was promoted to captain in 2014 and was appointed to Command the fleet flagship HMS Bulwark in 2015. He was subsequently awarded an OBE for the ship’s work during the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. After taking command of HMS Queen Elizabeth in the US and completing the second phase of F-35 developmental flying trials, he sailed her back to the UK but the ship spent the majority of his time in command alongside having maintenance and upgrades. After the ship arrived in Rosyth for dry docking in May 2019 it was announced he was abruptly being removed from command.

The RN stated that he had allowed his wife to make use of the ship’s car, a Ford Galaxy, in contravention of the rules. It was not the first time he had been warned about infringement of similar regulations and it has emerged he was reported on by members of his own crew. The misdemeanours of the CO put the RN leadership in a difficult position. It is important that officers are treated the same as junior sailors who have broken the rules and this issue could not simply be overlooked, especially as it was not the first time. Unfortunately, the sacking attracted withering criticism from many outsiders who perceived it as an excessive sanction for a trivial offence. (Although not any kind of excuse, by comparison, someone in a job with equivalent responsibility in a private company would probably receive remuneration far greater than a Captain’s salary of around £95k, and likely have a generous package of benefits, including a good company car.)

Had he done things differently it is likely he would still be in command, possibly not handing over until mid-2021. Nick Cooke-Priest decided to leave the navy in June 2019, a disappointing end to a promising naval career.

Steve Moorhouse (May 19 – Jan 20)

The unplanned vacancy caused by the removal of the CO meant the RN had to find a suitable replacement quickly. It had been the intention that Moorhouse would be the first seagoing captain of HMS Prince of Wales after his appointment on 6th September 2018. Instead, he was transferred to take over HMS Queen Elizabeth at short notice. Moorhouse is another aviator and had a background serving as an observer in Airborne Early Warning Sea Kings. He also had recent capital ship experience as CO of HMS Ocean during her tenure as NATO’s High Readiness Command platform (2015-17).

Captain Moorhouse’s ‘pierhead jump’ proved to be an opportunity for Commander Darren Huston who was serving as the XO (Executive Officer / second in command) of QE. He was promoted and transferred to take command of HMS Prince of Wales, where his previous experience gained onboard her older sister would be especially valuable.

Captain Moorhouse led QE through Operational Sea Training in (May – June) and dealt with the internal flooding incident that hastened her return to Portsmouth in early July. The main achievement of his time in command was leading the ship through the highly successful Westlant 19 (Aug – Dec) deployment. His relatively short time in charge ended in January 2020 when was promoted and replaced Commodore Mike Utley as Commander UK Carrier Strike Group (COMUKCSG).

Commodore Steve Moorhouse welcomes Captain Angus Essenhigh aboard, Portsmouth, 13 Jan 2020.

Captain Angus Essenhigh (Jan 2020 – ?)

Angus Essenhigh has previously served on exchange with the US Navy as navigator of the destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill. He commanded HMS Daring during her epic Pacific 2013 deployment and was awarded an OBE for the ships aid work in the Philippines following the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. He also captained ice patrol ship HMS Protector during two seasons in Antarctica. The name may be familiar to the older generation, his father, Sir Nigel Essenhigh was First Sea Lord (Jan 2001-Dec 2002) a tenure that included signing up to the Joint Strike Fighter programme which delivered the F-35.

As is more usual for officer appointments, Captain Essenhigh is likely to remain in post for at least two years and he will oversee the transformation from lengthy trials and workup process into becoming a fully operational warship. The ship’s lead role in the Carrier Strike Group deployment beginning in May 2021 will be high profile and attract global interest. He has landed the prime sea-going job in the RN at an especially exciting moment.

The RN is fortunate to have a cadre of talented officers ready to step up to the major challenge of commanding aircraft carriers in the coming years. Of course, it should be appreciated that while the captain carries the final responsibility and sets the tone, it is the ship’s company in its entirety that is ultimately responsible for success.