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HMS Westminster’s Atlantic autumn as frigate searches for submarines

7 December 2021
Frigate HMS Westminster has spent the autumn in the grey wastes of the Atlantic on the unsung, unseen mission to keep an eye on submarines.

The Portsmouth-based warship has been at sea almost constantly, guarding the UK’s ‘back yard’ and working with our allies to monitor any potential threats lurking in the depths.

Westminster is the nation’s very tip of the submarine hunting spear – the first ship naval leaders turn to for anti-submarine operations, due to the combination of the equipment aboard and the experience of the men and women operating them.

As the Royal Navy’s TAPS – the Towed-Array Patrol Ship – she’s part of a comprehensive protective ring around waters key to the UK’s interests, determined to keep the prying eyes of hostile submarines at bay.

The newest addition to that ring is the Poseidon P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, now in service with the RAF at Lossiemouth.

Westminster worked extensively with both the RAF P8s and their US equivalent which operate from Keflavik in Iceland.

The patrol aircraft provide long-range surveillance. At closer range, the frigate has relied on her Merlin helicopter – Kingfisher Flight of Culdrose-based 814 Naval Air Squadron, which uses both sonobuoy listening devices dropped into the ocean and sonar lowered as the helicopter hovers to pinpoint a submarine’s presence.

And tanker RFA Tiderace has been on hand to keep the fuel tanks full, sustaining both the frigate and her helicopter – but also delivering additional food and mail containing sweets and news from home to maintain morale.

Which was needed at times, because the ship was battered by several strong Atlantic storms, forcing crew to hunker down – though they did not halt the hunt.

After a brief pit-stop in her home base of Portsmouth for engineers to assess the work needed when the ship enters refit in 12 months’ time, Westminster shifted focus to the waters of northern Scotland and training with the Dutch Navy’s HNLMS Van Amstel.

Westminster launched robot devices: EMATTs – Expendable Mobile Acoustic Training Targets – which replicate the noise signature of a submarine and mirror their movements.

With the towed arrays of both ships deployed, the pair with their respective helicopters tracked the remote targets through the night, making a combined Anglo-Dutch hunt much more effective.

“Like most of the Royal Navy, we relish the opportunity to collaborate with partner nations – in this case HNLMS Van Amstel,” said Lieutenant Commander Chris Fox, Westminster’s Operations Officer.

“While conditions were challenging, the ability of both units to continue with the exercise shows the operational focus and drive our navies have in common.

“The short exercise period proved our ability to work together in all environments, although the focus was primarily on anti-submarine warfare.

“Westminster holds the highest level of anti-submarine warfare accreditation in the Royal Navy and we all thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to impart some of this experience to Van Amstel. We hope we will encounter again while hunting live submarines in the North Atlantic.”

The short exercise period proved our ability to work together in all environments, although the focus was primarily on anti-submarine warfare.

Lieutenant Commander Chris Fox

The patrol continued with both ships sailing around Iceland. Westminster’s northerly route took her into the Arctic Circle and meant upholding a longstanding seafaring ceremony as sailors among the 199 crew who’d never been so far north before were welcomed into the land of the midnight sun by Queen Neptune (played by the ship’s Commanding Officer Commander Louise Ray) aided by various sailors dressed as narwhals, polar bears, sharks and sea lions.

“Occasions like passing the Equator or Arctic circle are an important milestone in a mariner’s career,” said Lieutenant Alex Kubara, one of two Hydrographical and Metrological Officers onboard the frigate, who dressed up as a narwhal.

“They provide an opportunity in an otherwise busy operational deployment for some fun and frolics that help the ship’s company to gel together as a cohesive unit. Having worked in the Arctic Circle before, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to support Queen Neptune in welcoming the new members of the team as ‘blue noses’.”

The ship also took advantage of the low Covid rate in Iceland to explore the land of ice and fire, ranging from snorkelling the crystal-clear but freezing-cold waters of the Silfra Rift; through visiting waterfalls, geysers and hot springs; to climbing glaciers and entering ice caves on dormant volcanoes.

After returning to the UK and a week of maintenance in Faslane following her autumn exertions, Westminster is back on patrol.

Her Commanding Officer says it’s a timely reminder that the Royal Navy is ‘multitasking’ at home and abroad.

“While the UK pivots towards the Indo-Pacific, HMS Westminster remains tasked with the defence of home waters,” Commander Ray said.

“Being able to rely on our local partner nations to host and help sustain us during this much needed logistics stop is vital to maintaining the freedom of manoeuvre in the North Atlantic.

“I am privileged to be able to bring a small part of the UK with me to host this small event and help demonstrate what we can achieve together.”

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