As well as putting commandos onto the snow and shingle near the Norwegian port of Harstad, Bulwark landed their counterparts from the Netherlands and the USA, and equipment and vehicles, not least BV tracked vehicles (which are perfectly suited to operations in the Arctic), and the ‘Beast’ recovery vehicle - the Royal Marines’ ultimate ‘tractor’ capable of shifting anything if it gets stuck on the shoreline.
Beyond serving as the UK’s flagship, Devonport-based assault ship Bulwark is the lead ship for Cold Response, a Norwegian-run exercise for NATO and allied nations. From Bulwark’s viewpoint, the training, which sees her in charge of an international naval force operating in the fjords around the Arctic port of Harstad, will ensure she remains ready to conduct a wide variety of tasks around the world in any climatic conditions.
The fleet flagship has two key roles: to act as the command and control hub for all task group activity and to put men and machines ashore (currently marines from the UK, US and the Netherlands) by sea via landing craft or by air using Fleet Air Arm helicopters.
Amphibious operations remain the most complex operation any nation’s military can undertake, as Bulwark’s Commanding Officer, Captain Alex Burton, explained:
It is not simply park the ship and offload it. In war - and therefore in training - we have to take account of the environment, enemy forces in the air, sea and on land, co-ordinate people into boats and naval helicopters, all to arrive on target, in the right order, at the right time, to achieve the battle-winning effect.
Few navies deliver this successfully and most aspirants look to the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Fleet Air Arm, with our war-proven capability, for guidance - on the sea, in the air and on the land.
Ahead of the landings, Bulwark was positively brimming with Royal Marines, having embarked an extra 90 Green Berets from HMS Illustrious who were transferred to the flagship by Sea King helicopter.
Never an easy manoeuvre given the amount of equipment the commandos carry in their Bergen packs on their backs, the Arctic weather added to the challenges air and flight deck crews faced (operations were temporarily suspended on Monday when a snowstorm swept through the fjords), and the marines had to wear their bright-red watertight suits when flying over the ocean to protect them should the Sea Kings have to ditch.
They didn’t, thankfully, but the whole transfer took the three aircraft from the Commando Helicopter Force several hours.
Once aboard Bulwark the new arrivals found accommodation rather austere, calling corridors, passageways and camp beds their home - although, unlike the 320-strong ship’s company, they’re only aboard temporarily; for short periods, Bulwark can accommodate more than 650 troops:
My ship is phenomenally versatile and in this exercise we act as the hub to bring together all the units that make up the modern-day complex battlefield,” Captain Burton added.
Taking the fight ashore from the sea using helicopters and boats is not for the amateur but I have a ship’s company of complete professionals. For us it’s what we do.
Following Cold Response, Bulwark will undertake a similar role in another international amphibious exercise in the waters around Scotland.
And the ship will be off Weymouth and Portland for the bulk of the summer, acting as a floating command centre for the security mission surrounding Olympic and Paralympic sailing events being staged in the bay.
Meanwhile, helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious is returning to Portsmouth on Sunday following her participation in Cold Response.
She successfully carried out amphibious helicopter operations in extreme conditions. It enabled the completion of vital training for all members of the ship’s company and helicopter crews.
Illustrious is returning to complete the repair of two small holes caused when one of four tugs came into contact with the ship’s starboard quarter while assisting her to berth at Harstad on 9 March. An investigation is being conducted.
The holes are well above the waterline and do not affect her seaworthiness or safety. No-one was injured in the incident.
Initial repairs were carried out by the ship’s engineers and, while she could have continued to participate in Exercise Cold Response, the decision was taken to return her to Portsmouth so that the repairs could be completed to ensure that her future programme is not affected.