Royal Navy sailors aboard the frigate HMS Argyll have saved the 27 crew of a container ship which turned into a raging inferno off the French coast in the Bay of Biscay…

The crew of HMS Argyll spent eight hours saving every soul aboard the Grande America after the ship’s cargo caught fire. The frigate – on her way home to Plymouth after nine months away in the Asia-Pacific region – responded to a mayday from the 28,000-tonne merchant ship about 150 miles southwest of Brest: the crew were fighting a losing battle against the flames and were abandoning ship into 5m to 6m seas at night.

When they did, all 27 crammed aboard the lifeboat which smashed into the heavy seas as it launched, damaging the craft which was unable to make headway. Despite very difficult sea conditions, Argyll succeeded in launching her sea boat which nudged the lifeboat against the frigate’s side so the Grande America’s crew could be brought aboard.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “HMS Argyll’s swift and selfless response to very dangerous situation in difficult conditions undoubtedly saved 27 lives. I commend her crew. This recue demonstrates that even on the final leg of a challenging nine month deployment to the Far East, the Royal Navy’s sailors remain vigilant and professional at all times.”

In the heavy seas, the orange lifeboat – “just like the one in Captain Phillips, was bobbing around like a cork in a bathtub,” said Lt Cdr Dave Tetchner, HMS Argyll’s Weapon Engineer Officer. “The conditions were horrendous – the vessels were rolling at 30 degrees which made it extremely hairy getting the sailors safely on board. Royal Marines were on the ropes hauling people up, the sea boat was pushing the lifeboat against Argyll.”

The 27 sailors rescued are being taken to the French port of Brest. Lt Cdr Tetchner said none suffered life-threatening injuries but some would require hospital treatment and all were stunned by their ordeal: “It was pretty awful for them – they’d had to fight a fire in dreadful seas. Every one of them suffered smoke inhalation. Then they faced the prospect of abandoning ship and then their lifeboat failed.”

Lt Cdr Tetchner said the manner in which the 200 sailors and Royal Marines aboard HMS Argyll responded to the incident had been exemplary: “The way the whole ship responded was magnificent and demonstrated how good our training is and how every person on board reacted. These are the things people join the Navy for – a real life, really worthwhile job, especially when the result is a good one like this.”