Cold steel in cold weather as Bulwark lands commandos in the Arctic
AT 4am today the cold steel of the Royal Marines were landed on northern shores as craft from Britain’s flagship appeared out of the Arctic darkness.
The Devonport-based assault ship went to assault stations as NATO’s winter exercises, Cold Response, stepped up a gear.
As well as putting commandos on to the snow and shingle near the Norwegian port of Harstad, Bulwark landed their counterparts from the Netherlands and USA, 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.
Beyond serving as the UK’s flagship, Bulwark is the lead ship for Cold Response, a Norwegian-run exercise for NATO and Allied nations. From Bulwark’s viewpoint, the training will ensure she remains ready to conduct a wide variety of tasks around the world in any climatic conditions.
The Fleet flagship has two key roles: to act as the command and control hub for all task group activity and to put men and machines ashore (currently 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 explains.
“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 said.
“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.
Ahead of the landings, Bulwark was positively brimming with Royal Marines, having embarked an extra 90 green berets from HMS Illustrious who were transferred to the flagship by helicopter.
Lusty suffered minor damage last week when she was in collision with one of four tugs helping her to berth in Harstad which left her with two small holes above the waterline.
Although the carrier's engineers carried out initial repairs and she could have continued to participate in the exercise, the decision has been taken to bring her back to Portsmouth (she arrives on Sunday) to carry out more formal repairs so she can resume her planned 2012 programme.
Although her participation in Cold Response was brief, it was sufficient for her air and flight deck crews to gain experience of operating in severe winter conditions.
The latter initially halted moving some men of 42 Commando aboard, but abated by the time it came to transfer them to Bulwark.
The marines had to wear bright-red watertight suits when flying over the ocean to protect them should the Sea Kings have to ditch.
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’re only aboard temporarily; for short periods, Bulwark can accommodate more than 650 troops.
“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,” Capt Burton added.
“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.”
Following Cold Response, Bulwark will undertake a similar role in another international amphibious exercise in the waters around Scotland.
The ship will be off Weymouth and Portland for the bulk of the summer, acting as a floating command centre for the security mission surrounding Olympic and Paralympic sailing events being staged in the bay.
Pictures: LA(Phot) Martin Carney, HMS Bulwark. Crown copyright.