Photo: Crown Copyright.
Sailors on Portsmouth minehunter HMS Brocklesby are ready to track down – and destroy – underwater explosives in the blistering heat of the Gulf after seven weeks’ intensive training in Scotland.
Crew of the Hunt-class ship – designed to find and neutralise mines in shallow waters – and Faslane-based HMS Shoreham – built to do the same in deeper seas – were put through five weeks of assessment by Royal Navy trainers, then another fortnight in the UK’s biggest naval war game of the year.
After proving that they could successfully deal with routine navigation, seamanship and emergencies at sea or in harbour, Operational Sea Training – delivered for small ships off the Scottish west coast and for larger ones off Plymouth – quickly shifted to the business of war, including two weeks dedicated solely to mine warfare.
Both ships carry a remote-controlled mini-submarine, Seafox, and a specialist team of divers to identify mines and render them useless, normally by blowing them up from a safe distance.
That meant an extended period in defence watches – a heightened state of alert – finding, plotting and disposing of mines around the clock using the ship’s sonars, Seafox and the divers.
For many of Brocklesby’s ship’s company, this was their first experience of OST.
“This has been a great opportunity for me to put my skills into practice and learn lots of new things too. I’ve learnt things about my trade that I did not know even existed!” said communications specialist ET(CIS) ‘Smudge’ Smith.
At the other end of the scale, Brocklesby’s Executive Officer Lt Tom Forbes has gone through the travails of Operational Sea Training (OST) several times.
“Having served in Hunts my whole career, it still surprises me how many different scenarios the staff can produce to consistently create new and challenging incidents for the ship’s company to deal with,” he said.
Having successfully completed five weeks of OST, the duo were joined by HMS Hurworth and Pembroke, as well as two French minehunters to form a specialist task group on the first Joint Warrior exercise of the year.
All six ships worked in company under Cdr Ash Spencer and the UK’s Mine Warfare Battle Staff – the next team to take command of the permanent RN minehunting force operating from Bahrain – clearing routes into the harbours of Pastonia (a fictitious country which closely resembles the northern UK) to enable trade to flow despite Dragonia (a pesky nation which looks somewhat like another part of the UK!) mining the waters.
On top of the challenge of not being blown up by said mines, there was the small matter of spring weather in Scotland (bad) and regular air and surface attacks to distract the minehunters from their main task.
“It was pretty tiring,” said Lt Ben Hammick, Brocklesby’s Navigating Officer.
“The scenario is designed to test your endurance and your ability to keep going despite the near-constant threat of attack.
“One of the highlights for me was when Brocklesby was given control of a Hawk jet to warn and ultimately sink two Dragonian patrol vessels at long range.”
For his ship and Shoreham, Joint Warrior was the final test which determined that both ships are ready to operate in a task group – as they will do regularly in the Gulf.
Both ships will sail next month in company for Bahrain to replace two of the four British minehunters based in the kingdom – a journey of around 6,000 miles.
They are expected to spend three years in the Gulf with replacement crews flying out to Bahrain every six or seven months.