Commandos practise helicopter rescue behind enemy lines

How would you save the crew of a helicopter crashed far behind enemy lines?

That was the question posed, and answered, by an action-packed two-day exercise run by the wings of the Royal Marines on Dartmoor.

More than half a dozen helicopters from the Fleet Air Arm, Royal Air Force and Army Air Corps, plus ground crews, commandos and ‘enemy’ troops converged on the forbidding terrain outside Okehampton to practise the art of extracting comrades by helicopter under enemy fire – ‘Joint Personnel Recovery’ in modern-day military jargon.

The commandos’ new battle wagon, the big green Merlin Mk3 which is taking over from the veteran Sea King, was the star of the show, being chosen for the rescue mission, but they weren’t alone in Devon skies.

Should it go wrong, there's somebody there to get them back to safety

Lt Col Derek Stafford

For before the rescuers could fly in, reconnaissance sorties had to be carried out to scout for the enemy.

Surveillance ‘bagger’ Sea Kings tracked the movements of opposing forces, exactly as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, while new Wildcat helicopters carried out sweeps of the pick-up area on Okehampton range, quickly identifying enemy troops closing in on the downed aircrew.

That prompted Forward Air Controllers from 847 Naval Air Squadron to direct Army Air Corps Apaches to carry out simulated air strikes (a job performed by Prince Harry in Afghanistan) before the ‘recovery package’, Merlins escorted by Wildcat, flew in to collect the stranded personnel.

The Merlins flew in a protective force of Royal Marines from 42 Commando who found themselves engaged by the enemy (played by personnel from the Commando Helicopter Force) who were wiped out by a combination of green beret fighting spirit and aerial firepower.

It’s the second year running the Commando Helicopter Force, based at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset, has run Exercise Forlorn Hope, named after a group of soldiers dispatched or left behind on what we’d today term a suicide mission.

“It’s a big call to place more people in harms way to recover others which is why Joint Personnel Recovery involves a healthy degree of risk management,” explained

Lt Col Derek Stafford, 846 Naval Air Squadron’s Commanding Officer.

“The reason behind exercises such as Forlorn Hope is that commanders have a capability at their disposal to do so if required so our fighting men and women can do their jobs with one fewer concern.

“Should it go wrong, there's somebody there to get them back to safety, reassuring for the families too!”