Despite having been withdrawn from Camp Bastion, the Junglies of CHF haven’t been resting; they have participated in a number of exercises this year, alongside the Lynx of 847 Sqn.
In the dead of night, on a pitching and rolling deck, the clatter of two Chinooks and four CHF Sea King helicopters can be heard from within HMS Illustrious. Outside, a 30 knot wind, sea spray, whirling rotor blades and a cramped flight deck make it a dangerous environment in which to work. Two AAC Apaches watch the scene using their on-board sensors, calmly awaiting the launch to lead the insert of troops from 45 Cdo RM to their objective, a few miles inland. Further towards the shore, HMS Bulwark is releasing her landing craft to make an amphibious landing at the same time as the aviation insert.
This is the setting for just one of the missions carried out during the Ex Joint Warrior. Involving 18 ships from eight nations, it is designed to validate 45 Cdo RM as the UK’s Lead Cdo Group unit, and its ability to deploy aboard the UK’s amphibious shipping anywhere in the world. CHF is manned by Naval personnel, including Marines, specialising in the conduct of amphibious operations. Its operations in recent years have been centred in Afghanistan, so Joint Warrior has served to help re-instil an amphibious mindset in the aircrew and engineers of the CHF, as well as integrating the Apache Force into that uniquely challenging environment. Detachments from both types were embarked aboard HMS Illustrious for the exercise. Together with RAF Chinooks operating from land, the Sea Kings and Apaches made a formidable and potent air group. For the previous nine months, HMS Illustrious’ ship’s company has also had to work tirelessly and flexibly to switch from the Harrier Strike mindset to that of the LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter) role, and a new set of challenges.
After a complicated deck launch cycle, necessitated by the number of aircraft and troops, the package of eight aircraft disappears into the night. The lead Apache clears the formation through the airspace and on to the objective. Once the troops are dropped off the AH remains on station overhead, providing protection and firepower to the ‘boots’ on the ground.
The importance of Ex Joint Warrior cannot be overstated. It is a fully integrated exercise incorporating amphibious assaults by aviation and surface landing craft, anti-submarine and fast-attack craft serials, air defence drills, and a whole range of other training associated with maritime theatre entry and power projection. The amphibious role is key to CHF, and now the AAC Apaches are becoming more used to operating from sea, the UK’s capability in this arena is impressive.
Further north the crew of HMS Illustrious faced the full power of the arctic weather during their participation in Ex Cold Response.
The situation in the fictional “Nerthus” region (actually Northern Norway) is deteriorating and the multinational task force is on high alert, readying itself for potential intervention in the disputed area.
The crew of HMS Illustrious worked around the clock in preparation for amphibious operations that may be required of them, along with the embarked Royal Marines and the helicopters from CHF. It is particularly challenging for those working on the flight deck. Day and night, they are facing blizzards and strong winds that can drop the temperature to -40°C as they marshal and refuel the helicopters. Fortunately, CHF personnel had recently completed their annual Cold weather training at Bardufoss, Norway, located 160 miles inside the Arctic Circle, so they were able to utilise their newly honed skills when they arrived onboard.
HMS Illustrious had eight helicopters on board, all from RNAS Yeovilton. There are four Sea King Mk4’s from 845 and 846 NASs, three Lynx Mk7’s from 847 NAS and one grey Lynx from 815 NAS. Capt Martin Connell, CO, said ‘HMS Illustrious and her embarked helicopter squadrons are certainly facing some tough arctic conditions. But we have 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 flight deck has been vital and has allowed Illustrious to conduct helicopter operations around the clock in support of the multinational task force’.
Meanwhile the CHF Lynx spent a week unleashing their firepower when they joined HMS York and the RAF on the remote ranges of Cape Wrath, Scotland.
Three helicopters of 847 NAS took part in the exercise, providing spotters to direct the gunfire of the destroyer as well as letting loose with their own machine-guns. With tracer streaking across the clear night sky, the aerial gunners of 847 tested their marksmanship abilities.
After the lengthy journey from Yeovilton to Cape Wrath, all personnel were keen to hone their gunnery and spotting skills, which will be needed when they deploy to Afghanistan in 2013.
The detachment established itself around Loch Eriboll, a dozen or so miles east of Cape Wrath and once an anchorage of great battleships. To add to the realism, the detachment set up a HLS where the Lynx were refuelled and maintained by the team of engineers.
By day the squadron helped direct the fire of HMS York’s main 4.5in gun on to the range at Cape Wrath and practiced their own marksmanship with the green and grey Lynx’s machine-gun. When night fell, the helicopters were aloft again for more door gunning. The aircrew were aided by the specialists of 148 (Meiktila) Commando Forward Observation Battery RA – battle-hardened spotters, observers and liaison officers, who proved the value of naval gunfire support in Libya just a few months earlier. For added firepower, RAF Tornados from Lossiemouth also joined in for a ‘show of force’, bolstering the close air support offered by the 847 Lynx.
As for those in the air, a number of 847 personnel qualified as Naval Gunfire Support Air Observers – and an even larger number were able to hone their door gunnery skills.
“All in all this was a very successful exercise,” Sub Lt Lovell-Smith added. “At all levels, everyone had a smile on their face by the end of the week.”