THE last time Luke Netto’s frigate came home there were just a few families on the dockside to welcome them, but this time there were 1,000 people and countless banners.
This time, Able Seaman Second Class Luke Netto and his shipmates were getting a heroes’ welcome because it was their ship, HMS Cumberland, that had sailed into Benghazi three times to rescue 454 refugees, including 129 Britons, from the Libyan conflict. Having had their tour extended once to do that, it was extended again for her to join the Nato maritime force off the coast.
The Type 22 frigate finally returned to Plymouth on Saturday and Luke is now on leave with his family and friends in Ixworth before returning to the ship to see her decommissioned.
The former Thurston Community College pupil joined the Royal Navy in 2009, not just to see the world but to become a chef. After studying art and design at West Suffolk College he decided to turn his cooking hobby into a career.
“I looked at doing it at West Suffolk College but when you’re past 19 you have to pay for yourself and I’d have ended up in debt,” he said.
But in the Navy he did what would have been a three-year college course in six months and learned about ordering food and maintaining stocks. In addition, he was trained as a first aider and a fire fighter.
Cumberland had been on patrol in the Arabian Gulf and was entering the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal in February when the crew heard that instead of home, they would be going to Libya.
He said: “It was a bit of a shock but also, we didn’t know what we were going there for. Nobody did at the time because the situation was changing.”
The ship replenished supplies in the Greek islands. Luke said: “The only figure that sticks in my mind was that we took on one and a half tonnes of potatoes.”
They would need it, too. On their first run from Benghazi to Malta, they fed more than 200 refugees, 30 extra marines and British embassy staff, in addition to the normal crew. Luke’s catering task was to keep track of supplies to ensure they did not run out of essentials.
When they first entered Benghazi he was struck by how ordinary it seemed.
“It was all quite organised,” he said. “There were some naval officers in charge of the dockyard and people were driving past giving the peace sign.”
There were no injured refugees but a frigate is not a comfy passenger vessel, the seas were heavy and she had to make reasonable speed to return to Libya as soon as possible.
“The sea state made a lot of people really ill,” he said. “Some of them were on drips.”
On their second visit, he felt Benghazi was more tense. “You could hear gunfire every now and then,” he said.
From then he is hazy on events because life was a constant round of duty watches, blurring the days. Also, he cannot talk about later operations.
But he said: “It was good seeing it in a real environment instead of in training,” he said. “I prefer to be put in a place where we’re doing a job for real, rather than floating around seeing nice places.”
His mum Mary Bird might not agree. “I’m really glad he’s back,” she said. “We’re really proud of him.”