HMS Ocean leads NATO task group on exercise in Turkey

The wings of the Royal Marines took to the skies of the eastern Mediterranean for ten intensive days of flying.

Wildcats and Merlins of 847 and 845 Naval Air Squadrons acted as the airborne eyes and airborne ‘battlewagons’ of the Royal Marines of Bravo Company, 40 Commando, as a NATO task group led by HMS Ocean joined in Turkey’s largest war game of the autumn.

Doğu Akdeniz – Turkish for Eastern Mediterranean – has been run since 1987 and tries to squeeze the gamut of naval operations into its ten-day run, this year focused on the waters off Aksaz in south-western Turkey.

Thirty warships and submarines, more than two dozen aircraft and some 3,500 military personnel were involved, with the host nations providing the bulk of participants – 18 ships and submarines and a dozen aircraft and helicopters.

The Commando Helicopter Force from RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset committed four aircraft to UK flagship Ocean for her autumn deployment: two battlefield Wildcats – used to reconnoitre ahead of the main body of ground forces – and two troop-carrying Merlin Mk3s, able to ferry 16 fully-kitted-out commandos into battle.

being able to operate as one of several NATO participants allowed us to improve our ability to work with other nations

Lieutenant Tom Richards, Merlin pilot

Ocean’s deployment was originally focused on leading NATO’s Maritime Group 2 around the eastern Mediterranean…until the helicopter carrier was diverted to the Caribbean to help British overseas territories devastated by autumn storms.

Once back in European waters, the Mighty O picked up her NATO duties, the first of them being to participate in Doğu Akdeniz.

The exercise seeks to educate NATO forces about potential threats and risks of a crisis in the eastern Mediterranean region, how to collectively deal with such a crisis, train staffs in the art of planning a complex peacekeeping/evacuation operation, and, at the coalface, teach sailors, marines, soldiers and aviators from different nations in the art of working together.

The fliers’ experiences in the Caribbean proved extremely useful during the two-day humanitarian/disaster relief element of the exercise, but the CHF helicopters also flew mock combat sorties, troop transports by day and night, performed tricky winching drills with Ocean’s small LCVP landing craft and even flew a real-world casualty to hospital in Aksaz, the main naval base in south-west Turkey.

“The casualty evacuation and winch transfer serials were extremely challenging but immensely rewarding flying,” explained Merlin pilot Lt Tom Richards.

“Also being able to operate as one of several NATO participants allowed us to improve our ability to work with other nations – as demonstrated during the humanitarian aid phase as we shared the tasking with an SH-70 Sea Hawk and Cougar from the Turkish Navy and air force.”

Turkey is expanding its amphibious forces and its observers were keen to see how CHF conducts its business, ferrying troops and their equipment from ship to shore by helicopter and how our two navies might work more closely together as NATO partners in the future.