Britain’s flagship helped ‘evacuate’ Cyprus as the UK’s military planners tested their response to an international humanitarian crisis.
Amphibious assault ship HMS Albion served as the hub for commandos, landing craft and helicopters as they used the Mediterranean island to practise saving civilians from chaos.
She was joined by a small, specialist team of military personnel – the Joint Forces Headquarters – who are often the first Brits on the ground following a global emergency, working side by side with other government departments and embassies.
This year, they played a key role in evacuating Britons – and other nationalities – from China, Cuba and Peru during the initial wave of Covid.
And they helped the British Embassy establish a new base in the Lebanon after its original building was damaged by the huge explosion in August.
Exercise Aquatic Nexus was just one of nine exercises crammed into a punishing fortnight by the UK’s amphibious task force, the Littoral Response Group, some focused on more traditional use of naval power (such as the evacuation), others concentrating on developing new tactics and using the latest tech to transform the Royal Marines into the Future Commando Force.
The Royal Navy has been called upon to evacuate British and other civilians from the Lebanon in 2006 and Libya in 2011 amid widespread unrest/civil war.
It was a similar, fictitious scenario played out in Cyprus, with Albion sent in to safely evacuate embassy personnel in the face of growing disorder ashore.
The Northwood-based team used the flagship’s impressive planning suites to organise the evacuation, and her landing craft and Wildcat helicopters to pull the civilians out.
The sickbay was used to treat anyone injured or ill, Royal Marines provided protection, and, for the first time, drones were used to monitor goings-on ashore, feeding images directly back to the assault ship to help the team direct efforts on the ground.
“After 18 months in the HQ with operations under my belt that include the Bahamas and evacuations from Wuhan and Cuba, this is the first opportunity that I have had to lead a team onboard a warship,” explained Commander Rory West, who led the exercise.
“This is the first time the headquarters have been able to exercise the ability to conduct an evacuation operation from sea in over five years.
“With full support from the sailors and marines onboard, it has been a pleasure to be able to contribute to the experimental nature of the deployment.”
He and his team concluded that they can deploy to a warship at short notice and plan and direct a large-scale operation from there.