The crew of the Royal Navy‘s amphibious assault ship HMS Bulwark returned from an international search and rescue mission to a heroes’ welcome by overjoyed families.
About 1,000 friends and families cheered the sailors into HM Naval Base Devonport in Plymouth and the ship was joined by an escort of landing craft and Royal Marines crews and a thunderous flyby salute from a Merlin helicopter. While on the jetty the Band of The Grenadier Guards providing a rousing accompaniment while the crowd waved welcome.
HMS Bulwark has finished its 60-day role to the international search and rescue tasking in the central Mediterranean earlier this month – codenamed Operation Weald.
Master-at-Arms Paul Benton-Strike of Torpoint was met by his family wife Wendy and William, 3, as he stepped ashore. Wendy said: “It’s been very difficult without Paul. But I’m so happy he’s back. William’s been missing him a lot, but doesn’t always understand what is happening. His dad goes and then comes back! They’ll be playing a lot of trains and soldiers. It will be great.’’
Leading Hand Alan Jenkins, a marine engineer on board, was met by his emotional girlfriend Rebecca, from Plymouth and his two children Joshua, 11 months and Matthew, 3. And his sister Carolann and his brother-in-law, from Wales. Rebecca said: “It feels he’s been away for along time event though it’s only for a few months. I’m used to him being away, but it never really gets any better when it happens. I get very emotional at these times.’’
She said Alan had missed a lot of Joshua’s life and the same with Matthew’s early life: “I’m lucky that my mum and dad help a lot with two young children when he’s away. I’m looking for our summer holiday – it’s not far away just a caravan in Bude. But Mattew’s really looking forward to playing football with his dad.’’
The ship was only expecting to be away a few weeks when she sailed on 7th April to anchor the UK’s contribution to the Gallipoli Centenary Commemorations in Turkey, no sooner had these concluded, the Prime Minister re-tasked Bulwark to her SAR mission in reaction to the tragic loss of life unfolding in the Mediterranean.
With 3 Merlin helicopters from 814 Squadron in Cornwall providing the ‘eyes in the sky’, and a detachment of Royal Marines from 45 Commando in Arbroath, Bulwark has rescued nearly 5,000 people from the waters between Libya and Sicily using its landing craft as rescue boats.
Reflecting upon the success of Bulwark’s Search and Rescue mission, The captain, Captain Nick Cooke-Priest said: “At the outset of Operation Weald our mantra was ‘to save lives and lessen suffering’ and that’s precisely what we’ve done.
‘Together with our international partners we’ve rescued thousands of desperate people who would have perished at sea had we not responded. My sailors and marines have consistently demonstrated their professionalism, skills and resilience in the face of some extremely unpleasant circumstances and I am immensely proud of them and all our achievements”
Throughout the operation, a total of 4,747 people have been processed through HMS Bulwark’s survivor reception facility – given food, water, fresh clothing, shoes and medical treatment – before being landed ashore directly or transferred to another vessel for the transit to safety.
Captain Cooke-Priest added: “But none of these achievements would have been possible without the stalwart support of our families and friends, some of whom we are privileged to have here with us today, and for this I express my sincerest gratitude. Homecoming today is all the more poignant given our delayed return and I know that everyone onboard is hugely looking forward to and thoroughly deserving of some well earned summer leave.”
HMS Bulwark is one of the Royal Navy’s two amphibious assault command and control ships. She has a ship’s company of 350, a quarter of whom are made up from 4 Assault Squadron Royal Marines. For Op Weald, she was augmented with 50 additional Royal Marines from 45 Commando.
The ship is designed to carry up to 225 marines in dedicated accommodation for long periods and another 500 in austere conditions for short periods.
Her flight deck has operated three Merlin helicopters from 814 Squadron based in Cornwall on round-the-clock search and rescue operations.
A large floodable dock holds four large landing craft – with another four carried on davits on the ship’s side. The larger craft can carry up to 120 troops or a Challenger 2 main battle tank. For the humanitarian mission, they have been loaded with lifejackets, water, food, medical supplies and shelter.
HMS Bulwark is retained at high readiness for contingent operations – whether combat operations, providing humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, HMS Bulwark remains at 5-days notice to deploy worldwide.