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ALL is quiet on New Year’s Day. Except if you’re a Royal Navy minehunter deployed in the Gulf with a shedload of old plastic explosive you want to get rid of in style...


2006


from the previous night’s exertions on January 1, HMS Atherstone marked the turn of the year by getting rid of some old plastic explosives (pictured above). That unwanted ordnance was held aboard RFA Cardigan Bay, the ‘mother ship’ for the Royal Navy’s Bahrain-based minehunting force.


While many of you were recovering


and Australians were mourning the retirement of cricketer Shane Warne – two British minehunters arrived in Bahrain to little fanfare.


Half a dozen years later and that constant presence has, says the man leading the operation Cdr Martin Mackey, “given the Royal Navy an extraordinary opportunity to deepen specialist knowledge and its force is widely acknowledged by most of their international colleagues as being world leaders.


Atherstone’s clearance divers – experts in diving operations and explosive ordnance disposal – headed across to the large Bay- class ship to pick up the explosives. The amphibious support ship opened her stern doors and fl ooded her cavernous loading dock – more used to accommodating large landing craft and Mexefl ote power rafts than Atherstone’s small diving boat which sailed inside and made a ‘beach landing’ on the sloped deck. Once safely ‘beached’ the divers set about preparing the quantity of plastic explosives before heading back out to sea.


Once clear of RFA Cardigan Bay, the team made up a fl oatation device which was rigged to leave the explosives about ten metres (32ft) below the surface of the water. With everything ready, a fi ve-minute safety fuse was lit. The dive boat then retreated to a safe distance and waited for the inevitable outcome.


BOOM! Happy New Year.


“Explosive ordnance disposal is one of the core parts of our job as clearance divers and this was a great opportunity to prove our capability at sea – and with style – on New Year’s Day,” said Atherstone’s lead EOD operator and ship’s coxswain, 34-year-old PO(D) ‘Daz’ Carvell.


2008


“We’re looking forward to celebrating many more milestone achievements in the future.”


The mission began with Her Majesty’s Ships Ramsey and 2008


Blyth; come early it


was decided the force – then known as Operation Aintree, today they come under the broad banner of the UK’s east of Suez mission, Operation Kipion – should be bolstered with a pair of Hunt class ships to join the Sandowns.


Enter the Crazy A (Atherstone) and Cheery Chid (Chiddingfold). Ever since, the minehunting force has been four-strong – supported by a ‘mother ship’, which acts as a command and engineering ship and base for the Fleet Diving Squadron, who are experts in clearing mines in very shallow waters.


To sustain four warships in Bahrain, there’s a permanent engineering staff in port, the ship’s companies are rotated every six to seven months, and the ships themselves are brought home (7,500 miles for the Portsmouth- based Hunts, a couple of hundred more for the Sandowns based on the Clyde) for a refi t every three to three and a half years.


bridge of the Crazy A was CO Lt Cdr Ben Vickery. “This was a great opportunity for the EOD team to get some good hands-on training with live explosives. This procedure is similar to what we would do if required to clear a fl oating sea-mine”. He continued “It is never great being away from home at this time of year but we are working hard and keeping busy with lots of training.


people managed to either phone or email home and wish their families a Happy New Year”. Later


Atherstone’s gunners set about honing their skills with some target practice which went on into the evening and allowed them to test their state-of-the-art night vision goggles.


on the same day, Most Watching proceedings from the


Perhaps little known outside the minehunting community is the presence of a permanent expert advising on everyday environmental conditions affecting mine warfare training; as the current hydrographic and meteorological offi cer Lt Matt Yemm points out: “Saying it’s going to be hot and sandy just doesn’t cut it in the complex world of modern Naval operations. “The


underwater Cdr Mackey.


He’s been out in the Gulf before in charge of a minehunter – but then since 2006 pretty much everyone in the minehunting community has served in Bahrain.


Some 2,000 crew, 200 mine warfare battle staff, over 400 engineers – who provide support both alongside and aboard the mother ship – have passed through the force in six years. Many have been out more than once – one sailor is apparently on his seventh tour-of-duty.


As for the ships, Ramsey and Atherstone are on their second extended stints in the region, while Pembroke, Grimsby and Middleton have also served in the Gulf.


So what’s been achieved? Well, more than 35 international exercises have been completed, most recently the largest ever staged in the region, involving 30 nations and spread across 1,000 miles of ocean. Other achievements since 2006 include:


■ For the fi rst time, the RN successfully deployed


its REMUS unmanned


underwater vehicle, which are now key to the Navy’s Gulf mission, and are routinely used; ■ A concerted sweep of the northern Gulf in 2008 to fi nally declare it clear of the lingering mine danger from the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq so merchant shipping could safely use those waters. As it was, the search found no historic mines – and meant the sea could be re- designated as former mined areas; ■ The Royal Navy has honed its ability to


work in warm, diffi cult waters


– both classes of UK minehunters were designed during the Cold War and originally intended for use in the temperate waters of northern and western Europe. The skills and equipment perfected in the Gulf were used to effect off Libya last year when HMS Brocklesby and Bangor disposed of mines off Misrata and Tobruk.


Today the force comprises Hunt- class HMS Atherstone and Quorn, plus Sandowns HMS Ramsey and Shoreham.


environment


With tracer rounds aplenty and fl ares all ablaze, HMS Atherstone was awarded third prize by RFA Cardigan Bay in the New Year’s fi rework contest, narrowly beaten by London and Sydney…


The big bang for Atherstone came just ten days after a milestone for the ship and all in the Royal Navy’s mine warfare community who’ve served in the Gulf: a permament presence in the region. On December 21 2006 – when nations around the world were gearing


people of Turkmenistan up for Christmas, mourning the death of their president were the


here is very complex. With warm surface water fl owing in through the southern Gulf being modifi ed as it moves north it then sinks causing an outfl ow of deeper cooler water; therefore the seas of the region are subject to large changes in temperature, salinity and current – all of these factors have an impact on mine warfare operations.”


“It is my job to ensure that the ships and the battle staff have an up-to-date and accurate picture of what is happening above, on and under the water to help them tactically exploit the operating environment.”


Bay


The battle staff he refers to are drawn either from 1st Mine Counter- Measures Squadron (MCM1), from Faslane, or their Portsmouth counterparts MCM2; the latter are currently embarked on Cardigan for


om Faslane, six months and led by


The UK is not the only nation to deploy minehunters in the Gulf; the US Navy operates between four and eight of its Avenger-class vessels, which regularly work side-by-side with the Brits, who are widely considered as one of the world leaders in mine warfare.


When at sea in Cardigan Bay, Cdr Mackey and his staff assume the role of ‘surface mine counter-measures commander’, taking charge of both UK and US ships and over 600 people.


“Cardigan Bay is ideal for supporting any mine counter- measures operation in the region – national or multi-national – because she is so versatile,” says Cdr Mackey.


– because


“She can embark my staff – made up of both RN and Royal Naval Reserve personnel – and comfortably act as a command ship, but also fulfi ls the vital role of providing fuel, stores and support services to our ships, divers, unmanned underwater vehicles so that they can spend longer at sea without having to return to port.”


10 FEBRUARY 2013 :


www.navynews.co.uk


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