Naval Reservist provides planning expertise

June 24, 2020
Portrait of Commander Thomas Knowles

We heard from Commander Thomas Knowles, the CO of HMS SCOTIA, who was mobilised for the national coronavirus response.

Thomas is based at Navy Command Headquarters (NCHQ) in Whale Island, Portsmouth. He was mobilised to provide planning expertise into the Royal Navy response to COVID-19 and to ensure the link between Regular and Reserve component in any solution was properly stress tested. He is also undertaking planning around the Recovery Phase for both the Regular and Reserve parts of the Royal Navy; ensuring that the Navy returns to full productivity whilst being mindful of the constraints imposed to ensure our people are kept safe and well.

On why he joined the Maritime Reserves, Thomas said: “To make a difference; by training to be used in times of stress and crisis I felt that I would be able to offer something to society if it was ever needed.” His Royal Naval Reserve career highlights prior to being mobilised include qualifying as a Submarine Controller and subsequently deploying to sea during multiple Exercises to ensure the sub-surface war was safely conducted. He has also been deployed with a number of NATO allies (US/French/Dutch/Danish) as well as the Royal Navy.

Thomas (left) with other mobilised Reservists.

Thomas was mobilised on March 31, arriving at NCHQ late afternoon after driving from Dunbar. The first 24 hours went quickly as he was instantly involved in a brief on activity to date from the Operational Planning Team he was joining. The rest of the evening was spent on reading into his new role. Finally, he found a cabin, unpacked and ironed his uniform. His mobilisation was due to commence on April 1 so he was straight into the Operational Level Planning Process at 0730 in the morning. Thomas said: “Before I knew it, I had missed lunch and was phoned by the mobilisation cell who needed me to sign my mobilisation paperwork to enable me to be registered for pay etc.! I spent the next two hours dealing with the mobilisation process before getting back into the planning work. There was a palpable sense of urgency about the work we were doing.”

On deciding to mobilise, he said: “I felt that COVID-19 was an existential threat to the UK. Anything I could do to help the nation in delivering a response was ok with me. I had a conversation with my wife about how I felt once we went into lockdown, and when I was asked to mobilise knew that I had to do it. I am lucky that my wife was able to take on the sole parent duties with our daughter during my period of mobilisation.”

Aside from sacrificing time with their families, Reservists have had to adapt to the challenging circumstances. The military response to coronavirus has constantly changed, beginning with an initial mass mobilisation of approximately 20,000 Regulars and Reserves to provide Military Assistance to Civil Authorities (MACA). It quickly became apparent that the UK Government lockdown process was having the desired effect of ensuring the NHS and key civil functions were not swamped. Thus, Thomas switched from providing capability at mass to providing highly experienced individuals to niche requirements. 

On his day-to-day work, Thomas said: “It is very similar in structure to most office workers. I get to the HQ before 0800 so that I am inside the building before Colours, and check my emails to see if anything urgent has come in overnight. At 0900 there is a morning update brief which highlights the activity achieved to date and sets tasks for the coming period. We also receive an intelligence brief about the spread of COVID-19 within the UK and internationally and the impacts it is having on key UK infrastructure. I then spend the rest of the morning developing plans to deliver the tasks which have been identified and given to the Royal Navy to deliver; for example Oxygen Tanker drivers. After lunch there is another round of briefings, planning checks and ‘red-teaming’ whereby plans are scrutinised for flaws and second/third order consequences. Once approved, I draft up the planning guidance for subordinate commands to deliver against. I am usually out of the office by 1800, enough time to go for a run around Whale Island (staying inside the wire so as not to broach lockdown) before supper.” 

Thomas (left) at the start of his mobilisation with other mobilised Reservists.

Thomas said he would recommend the Reserves to friends and colleagues as it is an honour to have the opportunity to serve your country when needed. He said: “As a Maritime Reservist, I have been exposed to amazing Leadership and Management training, as well as in my specialised capability area; which has provided the basis for my ability to slot into the UK resilience regime when required. The Navy have a motto – Train Hard, Fight Easy; our training is second to none and enables you to develop yourself in ways you cannot believe.”

His message for his friends and family back home: “Please listen to Government advice, wherever you are in the UK, and follow it.”