Merlins over Tirana – commando task group pays four-day visit to Albania
Four busy days for a Royal Navy task group in Albania helped pave the way for future training and co-operation between the two countries.
The UK’s Littoral Response Group (South) – and especially its Merlin helicopters – conducted training with Albanian forces by day and night, hosted VIPs led by the country’s president Bajram Begaj and conducted extensive reconnaissance flights of suitable locations for larger-scale joint training.
The group, which comprises aviation support ship RFA Argus and amphibious support ship RFA Lyme Bay, has been deployed since last autumn.
It’s spent most of its time away concentrated almost exclusively in the Eastern Mediterranean, on standby to respond to the Israeli-Hamas conflict (Lyme Bay was activated over the festive period and delivered aid for the people of Gaza).
The force comprises circa 160 Royal Marines from Alpha Strike Company 40 Commando, supported by three Merlin Mk4 helicopters from 845 Naval Air Squadron, plus 47 Commando (Raiding Group) who use Argus and Lyme Bay as their floating base and remain at very high readiness in the region. They are now resuming amphibious/raiding training and exercises with allied and partner nations – such as Albania.
The Balkan nation’s shoreline, bases and some of its Cold War installations have become training grounds for Royal Marines/UK amphibious forces when operating in the Adriatic, and previous Albanian Lion combined exercises have helped the military of both countries hone skills and gain a greater understanding of each other as NATO allies.
It’s not been run in recent years, but with 2024 marking the 15th anniversary of Albania’s membership of the alliance (and NATO’s 75th birthday), the time proved ripe for renewing acquaintances.
Two Merlins made a low pass of Tirana’s sprawling Skanderbeg Square – a vast open area in the heart of the capital which hosts major public events – during a joint press conference by the task force commander, Commander Sam Stephens, and the Head of Albanian Land Forces Brigadier General Ilir Xhebexhia as a show of solidarity.
Commander Stephens praised his hosts as a “strong NATO partner” occupying an important strategic position in an important part of the world and said the UK was looking to reinvigorate ties after a few years’ hiatus of the regular Albanian Lion exercise.
He said Britain’s military benefited hugely from Albania’s “exceptional terrain and areas for training – a very different environment from the UK” and the alliance was even more important given the “growing threats to the world order… to strengthen regional security and counter threats – not only in Albania, but worldwide.”
Having trained with Albanian troops and air forces, the Merlins became ‘VIP taxis’ as they flew Albanian dignitaries (President, First Lady, Cabinet, military leaders) and British diplomats led by ambassador to Albania, Alastair King-Smith, to RFA Argus, at sea off the port of Durrës just west of Tirana.
The visitors were given a comprehensive tour of Argus, including its impressive hospital facilities, as well as a briefing on the force’s mission and capabilities.
While guests were working up an appetite, Argus’ chefs were demonstrating they can not merely keep several hundred sailors and Royal Marines happy on a daily basis… but can serve up a three-course meal to impress world leaders: crispy seabass fillet to start; Aberdeen Angus beef with red wine and garlic reductions, sautéed king oyster mushrooms, grilled asparagus spears and pommes anna; and if there was room… hazelnut chocolate tart to finish.