A major two-week exercise involving British and Albanian naval forces in the western Balkans ended with Albania's President, His Excellency Mr Bujar Nishani, visiting HMS Illustrious.
Albanian Lion, played out around the southern port city of Vlore, featured amphibious assaults by sea and air, fast attack craft raids, divers clearing mines, urban warfare training and finally a civilian evacuation.
President Nishani said:
We are proud you are our partners and friends.
The exercise was the second major workout for the Response Force Task Group, the Navy’s rapid reaction force, on its Cougar 12 deployment.
The group comprises flagship Bulwark, helicopter carrier Illustrious, escorts Northumberland and Montrose, amphibious support ship RFA Mounts Bay and roll-on-roll-off ferry Hartland Point, plus the Green Berets of 45 Commando, the Fleet Air Arm and Army Air Corps squadrons.
After a brief break following Corsican Lion off the namesake Mediterranean island, the task group action shifted to the eastern shore of the Adriatic to work with the newest member of NATO.
The first week of Albanian Lion was devoted to preliminaries involving specialist divers and commandos acting as ‘pre-landing forces’, scouting positions ashore and clearing the way for the main amphibious assault.
Sixteen frogmen from Fleet Diving Unit 2 - the Navy’s very shallow water experts who’ve been embarked on RFA Mounts Bay for the past two months - surveyed and cleared the shallow waters off the target beach of any mines and obstacles to allow the follow-on assault with landing craft.
Meanwhile, HMS Montrose acted as the other springboard for pre-landing forces, Royal Marines and Army commandos, who were put ashore in small boats before being brought back to the frigate to warm up, wash and eat:
Embarking and disembarking the large numbers of commando forces in small boats, usually at night, was challenging work that took time, patience and care to get right,” said Petty Officer McCafferty, Montrose’s Chief Bosun’s Mate.
However we did get it right and it was due to the dedication and professionalism of the ship’s crew.
Despite the long hours and tiring work, the knowledge that we were supporting vital operations was very satisfying.
After that HMS Bulwark and Illustrious joined the exercise.
At sea, the Albanian Navy provided patrol boats to simulate fast inshore attack craft and acted as smugglers so Illustrious could test her boarding team.
Following that, 45 Commando Royal Marines conducted three commando-level assaults (two from the sea).
Once ashore, the Green Berets pushed 110km (68 miles) inland from their beachhead by road and air and then fell back towards Vlore to provide cover for a large-scale civilian evacuation like those the Royal Navy has carried out in Lebanon and Libya in recent times.
One hundred sailors from the two capital ships volunteered to be civvies for the day and their shipmates turned part of Vlore Naval Base into a makeshift refugee camp, erecting tents and processing evacuees:
What we do here is important,” said Leading Hand Alexis Jones, who took part in the humanitarian relief effort in Kenya back in 2009.
The opportunity came up for us to help out; we readjusted ourselves and just cracked on with it.
With the exercise done, President Nishani was flown onto Illustrious by a Merlin of 814 Naval Air Squadron.
After a short speech on the flight deck, His Excellency was given a tour of the helicopter carrier and met her boarding team who had exercised with the Albanian Navy a few days earlier:
We were able to demonstrate to President Nishani how successful Exercise Albanian Lion has been to us, and that his country has provided a great training ground for the Royal Navy,” said Captain Martin Connell, HMS Illustrious’ Commanding Officer.
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Tanner, 45 Commando’s Commanding Officer, added:
The Albanians have proved to be great hosts and fully supported the exercise.
And their country provides exactly the right physical challenges that we need to be fully tested, with high fissures and craggy, difficult terrain.
And finally, the man leading the task group, Commodore Paddy McAlpine, said:
We have been warmly welcomed by the Albanian Armed Forces, well supported by Vlore Naval Base, and well tested by their new patrol boats who ‘attacked’ our defences during force protection exercises.
We look forward to returning and working alongside the Albanian Navy during future Cougar deployments.