Hundreds of jubilant families and friends crowded the jetty to welcome the crew of Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark back to her base-port of Plymouth today after a successful four-month deployment.
More than 700 well-wishers and a Royal Marines Band playing Christmas tunes spread festive cheer as the 360 crew came home for Christmas after a 12,000 miles trip visiting 14 different countries while spear-heading the Response Force Task Group Cougar 13 deployment and reinforcing diplomatic ties in the Middle East.
Leading Engineer Robert Eddie, of Plymouth, was hugged by his little girl Evie, 2.5 years, his wife Holly who cradled their newly born daughter Isla. Robert said: “It’s brilliant seeing my family again after being away and especially little Isla who’s only three months. I had two weeks off the ship to support my wife for the birth and so I haven’t seen her since. She’s grown a lot even in such a short time. She’s sitting up now gurgling. I’m glad I can catch up with her now and have a real good family Christmas.’’
Holly said: “The hard work begins now for Rob and me. Now he’ll be doing is share of night time feeds and nappy changing. There won’t be much of a rest for him. Evie’s really pleased he’s home and so am I.’’
Leading Seaman (seaman specialist) Emma Reeve, 26, of Eastbourne, was met by her fiance Andrew Ochlitree, also in the Navy at HMS Collingwood, and her parents Malcolm and Maggie. She handed her mother a large bunch of flowers and said: “Seeing my family again is as good or better than any Christmas present.’’
Commander Steve Large, of Plymouth, heads the engineering department in HMS Bulwark. He was reunited with his wife Alex and children Oliver, 12, and Joseph, 15. He said: “It’s very good to be back with my family. But there’s no rest for the wicked – I’ll be umpiring hockey in Plymouth as soon as I can.’’
He added: “The main achievement for me is getting the ship and everyone back safely having maintained the ship’s systems. The main challenge was ensuring the systems all coped with the change in environment, contrasting the colder climate here with extreme heat in theatre and with a lean-manned team. Also, it is very rewarding to get my staff through many essential qualifications and courses while away on a challenging deployment – that is a big achievement for them.’’
Captain Andrew Burns, HMS Bulwark’s commanding officer, of Plymouth, welcomed his family wife Wendy, son Samuel, six, and parents Bryan and Pam, onto his ship via landing craft.
Wendy said: “I am so pleased to have him back and Sam is very happy. He will be playing cricket with his dad.’’
Louise Evans, of Tavistock was hugged tightly by her niece Hollie, 5, and met by her parents Phil and Julie. She said: “It was a good deployment. I’m no looking forward to having a family Christmas. Hollie has changed a bit and is looking taller now.’’
Leading Chef Brett Bignell, of Plymouth, was swamped by his reception committee of mother Linda, stepdad Gary, nan Sylvia, brother Jason and wife Katy and their son Teddy, eight months old. He said: “What an amazing welcome. I’ve missed them all, especially teddy. He’s changed so much. I’ve missed half his life already being deployed. He sits up now, it’s amazing. I’m looking forward to chilling out now with family at Christmas.’’
Captain Burns praised his crew: “I am immensely proud of all HMS Bulwark has achieved. This deployment has been a remarkable success and we have exceeded expectations in all we have done. My ship’s company is quite exceptional – a team who have worked together with determination and huge professionalism. I am certain they have achieved so much partly because of the support they receive from their families and loved ones at home. We aim to show our appreciation at our homecoming celebration as the ship returns alongside in her base port.”
On leaving Plymouth in August, the crew focussed on exercising with international partners and maintaining the ability to react to any short notice tasking as directed by the Government.
The first engagement was with NATO forces in Lisbon prior to the ship entering the Mediterranean. A mission rehearsal exercise in Albania gave the ship the chance to hone her amphibious capability by launching night-time assaults with the Royal Marines of Plymouth-based 42 Commando. This exercise in Albania gave the task group the chance to test its readiness for civilian evacuations in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – one of the many tasks the maritime group could carry out.
Throughout the Cougar 13 deployment, HMS Bulwark worked with Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, The United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Libya, Portugal, Greece and the United States and EU and NATO. This allowed HMS Bulwark to strengthen maritime relationships and test its ability to work with different navies in challenging operating environments.
The task group worked under the command of an Omani task group commander with the leaders of the Omani Armed Forces, and the UK’s Commander Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons, visited HMS Bulwark to see an amphibious-landing involving Royal Marines from 42 Commando.
The RFTG is the United Kingdom’s high readiness maritime force, comprising ships, submarines, survey vessels, aircraft and a landing force of Royal Marines, at short notice to act in response to any contingency tasking if required.
The Cougar 13 deployment operated in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, the Gulf, and Horn of Africa exercising with to show the UK Armed Forces’ capacity to project an effective maritime forces any where in the world under the RN RFTG, commanded by Commodore Paddy McAlpine OBE ADC Royal Navy.
HMS Bulwark has a crew of 350 including 4 Assault Squadron Royal Marines. The ship can also carry up to 700 Royal Marines or other troops. The flight deck can land two Chinook or two Merlin helicopters. A large floodable dock holds four large landing craft and with four on the ship’s side.