Anniversary of Royal Navy arriving in Sri Lanka after devastating Boxing Day tsunami

On this day in 2005, the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary arrived in Sri Lanka to begin helping people recover from what was the worst natural disaster of the 21st Century.

The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 caused devastation across the Indo-Asia-Pacific region – including the east coast of Sri Lanka, around 1,000 miles from the epicentre of the earthquake which caused the killer wave.

HMS Chatham was dispatched from counter-terrorism work in the Gulf, while floating engineering workshop RFA Diligence sailed from Kochi in India as part of the UK military’s response to the disaster.

Around 30,000 Sri Lankans were killed by the tsunami as the wave cut a swath through the first 300 or so metres of the shoreline.

Type 22 Frigate Chatham was the first to arrive, using her two Lynx first to assess damage, then to ferry personnel and aid to some of the most inaccessible areas, with Diligence arriving a couple of days later.

The levels of devastation seen were amazing,” said Lieutenant Commander Peter Sellers, Chatham’s weapon engineer officer. “Whole villages had been flattened and many fishing boats washed ashore – one even lodged on the first floor balcony of a former hotel.”

The levels of devastation seen were amazing. Whole villages had been flattened and many fishing boats washed ashore.

Lieutenant Commander Peter Sellers, HMS Chatham’s weapon engineer officer

Teams restored essential services such as power and water, got boats back in the water so fishermen could provide for their families, erected makeshift shelters, cleared roads, built bridges, and provided medical support and also comfort to people still traumatised by the disaster.

The two ships spent a little over a fortnight working off the east coast of the island, with the bulk of the relief efforts focused on the city of Batticaloa.

The relief effort subsequently featured heavily in the BBC1 documentary series Shipmates; the production team were aboard Chatham throughout the relief mission.

Chatham and Diligence’s efforts were followed shortly afterwards by scientific input from HMS Scott which was sent to the epicentre of the underwater earthquake and mapped the changed seabed in unparalleled detail.