pictures: po(phot) ray jones, hms illustrious, la(phot) martin carney, hms bulwark
Flying operations were brought to an immediate halt aboard the Portsmouth- based helicopter carrier, leading Britain’s participation in NATO’s winter exercises in northern Norway, as fl urries swept through Vågsfjorden, near the port of Harstad. Commando Helicopter Force Lynx and Sea Kings were all set to embark the Royal Marines of Kilo Company, 42 Commando, when the weather took a turn for the worse – and all fl ying operations were temporarily postponed.
With aircraft arrayed on deck, however, there was the small matter of making sure they were safe for the duration of the snowstorm.
Flight deck crews and aircraft maintainers had to battle high winds and blizzard conditions
the aircraft to the deck or move them to the relative warmth of the hangar before retreating inside for a well-earned cuppa.
And once the snow had abated somewhat, the aircraft handlers returned to 600-ft-long deck to shovel the snow – now several centimetres deep – over the side so the helicopters could resume operations. For much of the opening stages of Cold Response it was quite mild around the port of Harstad – one of the hubs of the exercise – with temperatures hovering around 0˚C by day and dropping to about –6˚C or so by night, but away from the coast, where some training was played out, it did plunge to -30˚C.
Illustrious was acting as the command
ship for Maj Gen Ed Davis, Commandant General Royal Marines, who with his Commander Amphibious Forces staff will be directing the movements of Allied warships during the NATO exercise. The ten-day war game – reaching its climax as Navy News went to press – saw an international task force gathering in the waters of the Arctic as the situation in the fi ctional ‘Nerthus’ region (actually northern Norway) deteriorates with the forces of ‘Gardarland’ refusing to withdraw its troops from neighbouring ‘Borgland’. The multinational naval force was being held at high alert offshore, readying itself for potential intervention in the disputed area. For Lusty, that meant her ship’s company worked around the clock in preparation for amphibious operations that may be required of them, the embarked Royal Marines and the helicopters of the Commando Helicopter Force.
It was particularly challenging for those working on the fl ight deck. Day and night, they faced blizzards and strong winds that could drop the temperature to -40˚C as they
PARTIALLY obscured by a fl urry of snow, the fl ight deck of HMS Illustrious is caught in a blizzard in the Arctic.
marshalled and refuelled the helicopters. At temperatures that low, exposed skin can freeze almost instantly.
Illustrious had eight helicopters embarked,
all from RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset: four Sea King Mk 4 from 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons, three Lynx Mk 7 from 847 Naval Air Squadron and one Lynx Mk 8 from 815 Naval Air Squadron. With all of the aircrew needing to prepare for operating from the ship in arduous conditions the result was a very busy fl ight deck.
“Illustrious and her embarked helicopter squadrons certainly faced some tough Arctic conditions,” explained the carrier’s Commanding Offi cer, Capt Martin Connell.
“We prepared for this, both in terms of training and with all our equipment, and I am very pleased with the way the crew have approached the exercise throughout the ship.
“In particular the positive attitude and cheery enthusiasm of those operating on the fl ight deck was vital
and allowed Illustrious to conduct helicopter operations round the clock in support of the multinational task force.” Unfortunately, Lusty’s participation in Norway was cut short – not by the weather but by a tug.
A collision with one of four vessels helping her alongside in Harstad left the carrier with small holes above the waterline.
patched up the holes and the carrier could have continued to participate in the exercise, the decision was taken to bring her back to Portsmouth for more substantial repairs so she can resume her planned 2012 programme. Illustrious’ bump meant 90 men of 42 Commando had to be transferred from her deck to that of flagship HMS Bulwark. Never an easy manoeuvre given the amount of equipment the commandos carry in the bergen packs on their backs, the Arctic weather added to the challenges air and flight deck crews faced, while the marines had to wear the bright-red watertight suits when flying over the ocean to protect them should the Sea Kings have to ditch.
Although Illustrious’ engineers patched up the holes and the carrier
They didn’t, thankfully, but the whole transfer took the three aircraft from the Commando Helicopter Force several hours. Once aboard Bulwark the new arrivals found accommodation rather austere, calling corridors, passageways and camp beds their home – although unlike the 320-strong ship’s company, they were only aboard temporarily; for short periods, Bulwark can accommodate more than 650 troops.
The Fleet flagship had two roles to perform during the Arctic exercises: to act as the command and control hub for all task group activity and to put men and machines ashore (marines from the UK, US
and Netherlands) by sea via landing craft or by air using Fleet Air Arm helicopters. Amphibious operations remain the most complex operation any nation’s military can undertake, as Bulwark’s Commanding Officer Capt Alex Burton explained. “It is not simply park the ship and offload it. In war – and therefore in training – we have to take account of the environment, enemy forces in the air, sea and on land, coordinate people into boats and naval helicopters all to arrive on target, in the right order, at the right time, to achieve the battle winning effect,” he added.
“Few navies deliver this successfully and most aspirants look to the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Fleet Air Arm, with our war proven capability, for guidance: on the sea, in the air and on the land.”
And so despite the constant snow flurries, the landings on the sand and shingle of the exercise area near Harstad – designated Red Beach – went ahead.
As well as putting commandos ashore, Bulwark landed equipment and vehicles, not least BV tracked vehicles (which are perfectly suited to operations in the Arctic), and the BEAST recovery vehicle – the Royal Marines’ ultimate ‘tractor’ capable of shifting anything if it gets stuck on the shoreline. At least some of the landings were planned with the help of yellow and black masking tape.
In true improvised fashion, the gaffer tape was rolled out and stuck to the deck in a planning room aboard Bulwark to create a rough map of the shores around Harstad, with small pieces of card to designate ships and ground troops in the area.
The two-hour-long planning session was overseen by Cdre Paddy McAlpine, Commander UK Task Group, and his staff, directing amphibious operations by Bulwark and her subordinate ships and units.
“Taking the fight ashore from the sea using helicopters and boats is not for the amateur but I have a ship’s company of complete professionals. For us it’s what we do,” Capt Burton explained.
“My ship is phenomenally versatile and in this exercise we act as the hub to bring together all the units that make up the modern-day complex battlefield.” In all, some 16,000 sailors, soldiers and airmen from 15 nations, led by the hosts Norway, converged on the fjords around Harstad and Tromsø for the ten-day exercise with HMS Liverpool completing the triumvirate of RN warship participants – her very last active duty before decommissioning. ■ We’ll have more from Cold Response next month; in the meantime turn the page for more action from Norway
22 APRIL 2012 :
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