This week I had a chance to view the Royal Navy put on a maritme combat power demonstration, something that’s been held in various forms under various names for many years, but not recently open to the media.
Up at 0-dark-thirty in finest naval tradition for a train to Portsmouth. Turns out it was also full of MPs from the Commons Defence Select Committee on an away day. Last night they were probably rebelling against the PM’s line on Europe, but today it was tweeds and flat caps for a day messing about in boats, joined by at least two admirals and one general that I recognised. Some Canadian officers and a group of academics plus about a dozen of us journos made up the party.
We began events literally by walking the plank from Warrior Slip onto a Landing Craft Utility (LCU), which in due course set off for HMS Bulwark, anchored somewhere between the Isle of Wight and Browndown Beach near Gosport. Bulwark is classed as a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) ship, which essentially means it can land and launch helicopters from its flight deck, and boats and landing craft from its semi-submerged well deck at the stern.
The back door is how we arrived, and the large LCU slipped inside the starboard side of the well. Ramp down, we stepped aboard. This was my second visit to this ship, having been aboard for one night off the Outer Hebrides about three years ago. Most of it, including the shallow stairs for the embarked military force (EMF) and the unnecessarily steep ladders in the rest of the ship was fairly familiar.
Since my last visit he captain had changed, and was surprisingly youthful. By that I mean he now looked younger than me rather than older. His mantra was that Bulwark is “The nation’s Swiss Army knife” with its helicopters and landing craft and extensive communications suite, capable of (among other things), providing internet up to Secret classification to a task group. Three years ago, on this same ship, I found it pretty hard to send an email, and my colleagues’ fun trying to transmit video led on to a story I’ll maybe save for another day.
While the MPs enjoyed the hospitality of the wardroom, the ladies and gentlemen of the press visited the ops room and awaited a dynamic demonstration on the bridge wing. A Lynx Mk 8 and a Sea King 4 (or ‘Junglie’) lifted off from the stern and positioned to the east. With some time to kill, they treated us to a couple of flybys.
With the stern low (full of water and LCUs) and the bow high, we had a restricted view forward. We could hear the Lynx was approaching, but we couldn’t see it until went by very fast below deck level, followed soon after by the ‘Junglie’, just that little bit higher. With a pedal turn, the Lynx was back hovering beside the ship very quickly, giving us a great view of the machine-gunner and sniper crouched in the door.
A scenario was laid on where a pair of “pirates” was provided for defeat by the navy. The first pistol-packing pirate was distracted by the Sea King while the Lynx slipped in and the gunners shot him. The other legged it to the bridge while a squad of marines fast-roped down from the Sea King, throwing their gloves aside before pursuing him indoors. For the press, the experience of being almost directly beneath the rotor disc was somewhat overwhelming, not to mention hair ruffling, and left water drops and dirt on my camera lens that went unnoticed until somewhat later.
The action then moved to starboard, where the frigate HMS Sutherland was pirouetting to the west. As a Lynx watched overhead, Sutherland launched two boats full of marines to board an errant tug. Several other scenarios unfolded briefly, including an attack by a small boat, which was quickly neutralised by Bulwark’s machine-guns. The question arises, as it did with the pirates – what if there were more than a couple of them and they had more than a few small arms to shoot back with?
After an unusual lunch on the vehicle deck, it was back on to an LCU for a demonstration of amphibious operations on Browndown Beach, a place that must have been in an almost constant state of invasion since the invention of the landing craft.
It was hardly ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Nobody had to jump over the side in a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire or pick up their own limbs. The ramp went down on the gravel and it was more “Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d follow me up the beach” than “Keep those actions clear, move fast and clear those murder holes.”
But that was really the point. The last opposed beach landing D-Day style was probably Grenada in 1983, and that was mostly conducted with helicopters. While the UK and US retain the capability to do that sort of thing, and thus keep the enemy expending resources fortifying their shorelines, as in Kuwait 1991, they would much prefer to arrive somewhere less contested, or by chartered airliner if possible.
Resisting a personal temptation to collect a pebble (there wasn’t much sand) and pop it in a container next to one marked ‘Benbecula’, we watched a scenario based around the evacuation of British nationals from a war zone, something that the Royal Navy has had to do several times in recent years. A sample reception centre stood at the rear of the beach. Evacuees go through several stages of processing, including medical treatment if necessary, feeding and checking entitlement. Her Majesty’s Government doesn’t give just everyone a free ride out of an emergency. In fact, evacuees have to sign a form that says they agree to pay the cost of their evacuation if necessary. Whether they do or not is a decision the government may make at a later stage. The issue of money came up during 2010’s Icelandic volcanic eruption when the navy stood by with much media fanfare to lift stranded tourists from Spain. The evacuation stalled under the objection of the ferry companies (who had whacked up their prices to take advantage of the situation).
Meanwhile, back on the beach, rubber boats full of commandos came ashore. The Sea King dropped off more troops. Another LCU brought in Warthog personnel carriers, which raced a short way inland to the scene of a small battle. Two lads arrived in a silver SUV. They may have been lost. A few pyrotechnics and blanks were expended on other marines dressed as Arabs (where was this supposed to be – Saudi Arabia?), and quickly a beachhead was established.
Follow-up waves of landing craft brought more vehicles, a digger; a section of artificial road, unrolled as if it was the red carpet at a film premiere; and squads of people, including the evacuee reception committee, but probably a few MoD PR minders and friends of the defence secretary as well.
A sailing boat tacked incongruously through the invasion fleet as if it was Cowes week. It was undoubtedly not a part of the scenario, but where the picture and video-taking members of the press gathered was out of earshot of the commentary, so it may have represented an enemy counter-attack or Sea Shepherd protest for all we knew.
After a tour of various bits of kit and helicopters, it was time to head back to the boats. I jumped at the chance of a ride in a Warthog, alongside some Canadian defence attaché types. This was the first tracked vehicle I’d ever ridden in. My verdict: surprisingly smooth (no doubt due to its rubber-band tracks) but fairly noisy on a gravel beach. It also proved only marginally faster than walking by the time we got out.
The commander of UK maritime forces, Rear Admiral Hudson gave a short speech about how useful ships like Bulwark and its sister Albion are (skirting over the fact that the latter is currently mothballed to save money). “Just think that when you are back in your cold offices in London, when you are back in Cambridge thinking great thoughts in academia, that the navy gives you variety, presence and influence, and it gives it week after month after year. That’s the only message I want you to take away”. Adding: “It’s all brainwashing, that’s why we do today”, which got a laugh.
Then it was back in the LCU and after a minor crash into a barge, we chugged back to Warrior Slip on a gentle swell. They didn’t make us walk the plank again. The weather remained kind until I was leaving Portsmouth an hour or so later, when it chucked it down.
Several hours, much traveling and a meal with a friend later, I was surprised to feel my bed gently swaying as if I was still on a flat-bottomed boat somewhere in the Solent. Even in a city a long way inland the sea exerts its influence.