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Total-war training for Illustrious

Published: 11 Jun 2013

Commando carrier HMS Illustrious is about to complete four weeks of total-war training off the Devon coast as she gears up the Royal Navy’s key deployment of 2013. Lusty will be at the heart of the Cougar amphibious deployment to the Med in a couple of months, and to prepare her she’s been given a rigorous workout by the Flag Officer Sea Training organisation. FIRE, flood, war – and not much peace.

That sums up life aboard HMS Illustrious whose sailors and aircrew are being tested to the limit off the coast of Devon right now. The commando carrier is coming to the end of four weeks of ‘total war’ to prepare her ship’s company for the Royal Navy’s key deployment of the year, coming up in a couple of months. The veteran carrier will be at the heart of the latest Cougar deployment, the annual workout for the UK’s Response Force Task Group, the naval flotilla ready at a moment’s notice to respond to world events should the Government require it.

This year’s Cougar will take Lusty to the Med – like last year – to work with the French – again like last year. To make sure she’s ready for that deployment, a month’s bespoke training was lined up by the Flag Officer Sea Training organisation, which prepares all RN vessels (and many foreign warships) for the rigours of life on the front line.

So since the training began on May 20 there have been fires daily, injuries daily – everything from minor burns to heart attacks – and most of the 23,000-tonne carrier’s compartments have been flooded, even those well above the waterline. The Portsmouth-based warship was hit by a container ship, helicopters fell off her lifts into her hangar, setting it on fire, and just to add to the fun, Illustrious has come under attack from ‘Ginger’ forces (the default bad guys in many of FOST’s training serials). Never a ship to just sit there and take the hits, Lusty has struck back with her Army Air Corps Apache gunships and the Royal Navy’s submarine-hunting Merlin helicopters embarked. The net result? Everyone aboard – from the chefs and stewards catering for the ship’s company and embarked air groups (pot mess has been a favourite at action stations) – to the medics dealing with those burns and heart attacks, the ops room team trying to fend off multiple missile and air raids and submarine attacks has been put through their paces.

All of which shouldn’t be a surprise to the carrier’s Commanding Officer Capt Mike Utley (if not necessarily his 650-strong ship’s company) as he was one of the people responsible for overseeing this training.

“We have amazing facilities and resources here that bring us as close to real situations and high-intensity war fighting as we can possibly get,” he said. “Flag Officer Sea Training really makes the key difference in giving the Royal Navy the edge we need to succeed in everything we do. “I must say, now I’m on the receiving end of the training that it’s pretty tough! Everyone around the ship is buzzing because they’ve had the opportunity to do what they have been practising for a very long time.”

Illustrious is due to complete her training on Thursday – which, as ever at FOST, will be blessed with the infamous ‘Thursday War’ when everything is thrown at a ship to see how its sailors respond. Once complete Lusty will return to Portsmouth for a spot of maintenance for the ship and leave for the sailors before she deploys in August on Cougar, which will be led by Cdre Paddy McAlpine and the staff of the Commander UK Task Group from the nation’s flagship, HMS Bulwark.


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