Observers in Command of UK SAR Response – Operation WEALD.
The Royal Navy’s recent response to the Migrant Crisis in the Mediterranean – Op WEALD, saw the deployment of Commander Amphibious Task Group (COMATG), HMS BULWARK and 814 Naval Air Squadron to provide Humanitarian Search and Rescue assistance to the Migrants making the perilous journey from Libya to mainland Europe. All three of the units were commanded by Fleet Air Arm Observers: Commodore Martin Connell ADC, (815, 702) is COMATG, Captain Nick Cooke-Priest (815, 702) is CO HMS BULWARK and Commander Stu Finn (814, 820, 829, 824) is CO of 814 NAS.
As COMATG, Martin deployed with a selection of his staff straight from Ex Joint Warrior inScotland. In overall Command, he took the lead in establishing the broader intent and higher level relationships, seeking international permissions, gaining understanding, smoothing the early and slightly ruffled path; and vitally, gaining the trust, ear and understanding of RAdm Pierpaulo Ribuffo the Italian 1* in charge of Op MARE SICURO (Italian Maritime Security), and alongside which WEALD neatly nestled.
Nick’s role was to execute the SAR mission primarily utilising BULWARK’s specialist amphibious Landing Craft which had been transformed into independent and fully equipped SAR platforms in their own right. The craft were used to effect the rescues and transfer survivors from their vastly overcrowded vessels into BULWARK where the rest of the Ship’s Company then ‘processed’ them, through searches, and then provision of medical aid, clothing, food, water and shelter whilst the Ship then transferred them to a place of safety on the Italian coast.
Stu embarked 2 of his Merlin Mk2s in BULWARK (leaving 1 ashore in Sicily), where they flew daily acting as BULWARK’s eyes in the sky, accounting for a significant number of detections and vitally, cuing the Landing Craft in during the latter stages when the craft were operating independently from BULWARK. They also provided a Medical Evacuation capability for those who needed urgent hospital treatment and of course, plenty of HDS.
In just under two months of operations, BULWARK’s and 814’s activities resulted in the rescue of 4747 men, women and children on the High Seas who would otherwise have met a dreadful fate in the Mediterranean.