The largest military exercise in Europe this year is drawing to a close off the west coast of Scotland today and tomorrow.
Nearly 4,000 sailors and Royal Marines are taking part in Exercise Joint Warrior which involves more than 30 ships and submarines from half a dozen nations.
Pictures: LA(Phot) Dean Nixon, HMS Illustrious, and HMS Blyth
SWOOPING low over the Firth of Clyde a Hawk jet banks as it approaches Ailsa Craig, preparing to make another pass of HMS Blyth.
It’s just one action-packed episode from the largest military exercise in Europe, now approaching its climax in and off Scotland.
Whilst much of the media attention is focused on parachute drops and amphibious landings involving the big ships – flagship HMS Bulwark and helicopter assault ship HMS Illustrious are the UK’s largest participants – the Royal Navy’s smaller vessels have been pushed to the limit by Joint Warrior.
With survey ship HMS Enterprise leading the way, Bangor joined fellow minehunter Atherstone, Brocklesby, Grimsby and Shoreham as they set out into the Firth of Forth to clear dummy mines.
HMS St Albans manoeuvres at speed to avoid the swarm of fast attack craft
And immediately, the small task group came under attack from a bevy of fast inshore attack craft – jet skis and rigid inflatable boats – which can cause mayhem to slow moving vessels such as the minehunters.
The Sandown and Hunt-class vessels have 30mm main guns, Enterprise a pair of 20mm cannon, and all have Miniguns and machine-guns to fend off the foe.
However, the big guns also waded in as the minehunter’s supporting escorts – frigates HMS St Albans and Monmouth, as well as the United States’ Arleigh Burke destroyer, USS Forrest Sherman – joined in.
The training – appropriately known as a ‘swarmex’ (swarm exercise) – saw the ships operating in close proximity and at high speed to defend themselves.
The lift of HMS Illustrious carries the men of 45 Commando up to the flight deck and the Jungly Sea King waiting to carry them ashore
The smaller ships of the task group were protected and safely escorted through a chokepoint off the west coast of Scotland, with air defence provided by Lynx and Merlins of the Fleet Air Arm.
However, just when the task group and escorts had run the gauntlet of the fast attack craft the fearful sound of ‘Air raid warning red’ over the broadcast systems heralded a fresh wave of trouble: Hawk jets.
Coming under attack from the agile jet trainers off Ailsa Craig, Blyth led from the front, acting as a guide for the other ships. With HMS St Albans and her Seawolf missiles providing covering firepower, the Hawks were unable to penetrate the group’s defences.
“After recently completing Operational Sea Training, Joint Warrior has allowed us to operate as part of a task group in a realistic and challenging scenario,” said HMS Blyth’s Commanding Officer, Lt Cdr Tim Davey.
“This training will ensure that we are ready for our NATO deployment in June any contingent tasking that may come our way.”
Royal Marines of 45 Commando carry out a covert insertion by rigid inflatable boats
Just shy of half the 8,000 personnel involved in Joint Warrior are drawn from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.
Fourteen Royal Navy warships and submarines, plus one RFA amphibious support ship are involved in proceedings, which conclude tomorrow on the ranges around West Freugh in Dumfries and Galloway.
In addition to seaborne power, helicopters from three Fleet Air Arm squadrons, dives, medics, the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade and the steel sword of 45 Commando are committed to the two-week-long war games.
A Landing Craft Utilty carries the 45 Commando marines ashore
More than 400 green berets from Arbroath-based 45 Commando are taking part in the exercise, which will be their ‘final validation’ before taking over as the principal Royal Marines unit ready to deploy anywhere in the world at immediate notice.
The Arbroath commandos and their kit are spread across HMS Illustrious, Bulwark and RFA Mounts Bay.
Having carried out ‘wader’ training – where the Commando practised helicopter and landing craft insertions – 45 stepped things up with company-sized raids on ‘enemy bases’ around western Scotland, culminating in a full-scale landing today and tomorrow involving the entire unit on the beaches of West Freugh (pronounced ‘froo’) south of Stranraer, supported by Apache, Sea King and Merlin helicopters and a variety of amphibious landing craft from Bulwark and Mounts Bay.
The Royals enjoy a wet after their exertions
“This exercise validates us as the UK’s Very High Readiness Group and allows us to train with the ships, helicopters and landing craft that make up the Maritime Response Force,” said Lt Col Mike Tanner RM, Commanding Officer of 45 Commando.
“It has prepared us for operational contingency deployments anywhere.”
Later this year, 45 Commando will deploy to the Mediterranean with HMS Illustrious for Exercise Cougar 12 which will see the Royal Marines operating with a multi-national task force as they carry out joint amphibious training.