updated 4/13/2007 5:28:24 AM ET 2007-04-13T09:28:24

The spectacle of Royal Navy sailors and marines “confessing” on Iranian television and returning home to sell their stories to the tabloids has Britain wondering what’s happened to a military once famous for bravery, valor and toughness.

It all seemed a far cry from the Battle of Trafalgar when Lord Nelson’s vastly outnumbered fleet sank combined French and Spanish forces, or even 25 years ago when a naval task force crushed Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands.

“What happened to resolve against adversity?” fumed Brian Davies of Penarth, Wales, in a letter published by the Independent newspaper. “This is the nation of Raleigh, Wellington, Scott, Shackleton, Bader, Churchill.”

Some of the detainees explained upon their return that they had confessed to sailing into Iranian waters under the pressure of solitary confinement and threats of lengthy imprisonment.

It was hardly what the nation expected from the British soldier, and the embarrassment was heightened by even less decorous details that emerged.

Royal Navy Operator Maintainer Arthur Batchelor, who sold his account to the Daily Mirror newspaper, complained that his captors called him “Mr. Bean” after a character on a British TV comedy series.

'A civilization in decline'
Recalling the moments after the crew was captured, Batchelor said: “A guard kept flicking my neck with his index finger and thumb. I thought the worst.”

Britain has prided itself on the performance of its force in Iraq, and commentators often boast of the troops’ professionalism and sensitivity in contrast to the supposed brute force of trigger-happy Americans.

Criticism from across the Atlantic has therefore been particularly galling.

“Everything about the British reaction revealed a civilization in decline,” said U.S. talk show host Dennis Prager in a commentary on the conservative Human Events Web site.

John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the British had let down the Western alliance in its confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program.

Tehran, he told the British Broadcasting Corp., had been testing British and European reaction — and “there was not much of a reaction at all.”

Indeed, Britain’s saber never rattled throughout the crisis — it relied instead on diplomatic channels and eventually suffered the humiliation of being told by the Iranian president that the sailors were being returned “as a gift.”

Not like the days of Empire.

Triumphant days
In 1868, the Emperor Theodore of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, feeling insulted that Queen Victoria didn’t respond to his diplomatic overtures, took Britons and other Europeans hostage. Sir Robert Napier led a force of 12,000 men and 44 elephants on a 380-mile march to the fortress of Magdala, where they easily overwhelmed the defenders.

While nowhere near as many as in the days of its empire, Britain still has thousands of forces overseas including 7,100 in Iraq and 6,000 in Afghanistan.

In the Iran boat incident, HMS Cornwall, armed with 114 millimeter guns and Harpoon missiles, was unable to protect 15-member British boarding party from Iranian Revolutionary Guards who approached in small boats.

“I’m not going to second-guess the people on the ground, but it is possible to say with hindsight that it was not the best call to put 15 lightly armed troops in that situation,” said Lewis Page, a former Navy man and author of “Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs,” a critique of military force structures and procurement policies.

HMS Cornwall, a Type-22 frigate launched in 1985, was built to fight against the Soviet submarine fleet in the North Atlantic, Page said. It had just one helicopter available to provide cover for the boarding party.

'New Brits'?
Some Britons were forgiving.

“I don’t see a problem in telling people what happened,” said Jay Dervish, 34, a demolition worker in London. “If they didn’t sell the story someone else would’ve.”

Historian Andrew Roberts sees Britain’s reaction to Iran’s provocation as an example of the end of the stiff upper lip of the “Old Brits” and the emergence of a more sentimental and emotional attitude of “New Brits” — shown notably in the reaction to Princess Diana’s death a decade ago.

Then there is the rampant capitalism of life in one of the world’s financial and media hubs. “For New Brits, the photos of smiling, waving sailors with their shiny gray suits and their lucrative newspaper serial rights makes the heart grow warm,” Roberts wrote in The Sunday Times.

“Meanwhile,” he added, “Old Brits can feel nothing but sorrow at the humiliation that has been dealt to the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom.”

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