The Fleet Flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS Bulwark, returned to her base port of Plymouth from its amphibious and diplomacy deployment to a rapturous welcome.
After four months deployed to the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf on the amphibious exercise Cougar 14, 750 family and friends of the gathered to greet their loved ones in Devonport Naval Base. The waiting families waved welcome banners and sang along to festive tunes from the jetty with the band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines playing as the ship arrived.
HMS Bulwark’s commanding officer, Captain Dean Bassett thanked the families for their support back home. He said: “I am immensely proud of all HMS Bulwark has achieved during Cougar 14 and I wish to personally thank my ship’s company for their resilience, flexibility and the utmost professionalism that they have displayed throughout our deployment.”
He went on to say: “The deployment statistics paint an impressive picture of the benefit the Royal Navy’s deployed presence brings to defence but none of this capability is possible without the critically important support of our families and loved ones at home, for which we are extremely grateful”.
First off the ship onto the jetty were two new fathers Petty Officer Andy Morgan and Able Seaman Tom Ryan – both met by their partners and newly-born babies.
Andy, who is in charge of force protection and security on board, cuddled his son Austin carefully – handed to him by wife Steph on the jetty. Austin, aged four months, was born a week before the ship sailed. The proud father, sporting a long ginger beard grown while away, said: “This has been a very good deployment. We’ve been very busy. But the icing on the cake has been coming back home to see my first son – that has made this homecoming extra special.’’
Steph, a nurse at Derriford, said: “It’s been an emotional time waiting for Andy to come home and finally to put Austin in his arms. I’m very lucky to have so much support from the ship and Navy wives and Navy community network. It’s made being apart for four months much easier. This will be the best Christmas ever.’’
Tom, of Liverpool, hugged his wife Katie, and son Elliot, aged three months, who was born while his father and ship were in Gibraltar. Tom said: “It’s lovely to be home for Christmas. I’m so pleased to see Elliot. I’ve not been updated with pictures since he was born, so it’s a big surprise to see him so big now. He’s a happy and healthy baby and I’m very proud of him and of Katie.’’
He said the deployment was enjoyable, but admitted to spending a lot of time looking forward to seeing his son. Katie, a drug abuse advice counsellor, said: “It’s been hard work with a new-born baby at home, but it meant the time went very fast as I waited for Andy. It was bad timing to have a baby which means Tom’s missed the first chortle and first smile. Elliot’s grown a lot, so his dad’s amazed by his new larger son. It’s great to have him home again. We are a full family now for the first time. Elliot is a brilliant present for Tom and a great present for me to see him.’’
Lieutenant Nicola Gibbons said: “I completed the purchase of my new house in Cornwall the day we sailed on deployment so I’m looking forward to picking up the keys and spending my first night in it tonight!”
HMS Bulwark left her base port of Devonport in Plymouth in August as the Flagship of the Response Force Task Group the nation’s high readiness contingent maritime force. Over the last 16 weeks, she has travelled nearly 17,000 nautical miles and has conducted eight large exercises with 15 Gulf Cooperation Council and NATO countries.
Able Seaman Andrew Storer, of Derby, scooped his excited nieces Scarlet, aged four, and Lacey, two, into his arms as they dropped the ‘Welcome home Uncle Andrew’ banner they had created. He was also greeted by his fiancée Rebecca and his parents Margaret and Tony. Andrew said: “It’s so good to see everyone again. The girls made a wonderful banner. It’s been a good deployment. But I’m really pleased to be home.’’
His priority was to return to Derby see Derby County FC in person playing Chelsea in the League Cup.
The Cougar 14 task group has attracted: five royals, one president, one prime minister, eight foreign ambassadors, 9 Service Chiefs and 44 very senior military officers; hosted over nearly 900 invited guests, delivered 19 VIP events, and over 100,000 hits on You Tube.
The ship’s company of sailors and Royal Marines have eaten 35,500 sausages, 44,000 eggs and 33,300kg potatoes! The crew now enjoy leave before the hip has another busy year ahead.
During 2014, for the third year in a row, the Royal Navy’s Flagship has remained at 5 days’ notice for operations, maintained her operational capabilities as an Amphibious Assault Ship and a Command and Control Platform, delivered reassurance through Maritime Security and Defence Engagement both in the UK and abroad. She has spent 238 days away from her base port, 148 of them being at sea.
HMS Bulwark is one of the Royal Navy’s two Assault Command and Control ships and is presently The Fleet Flagship. She has a ship’s company of 350, a quarter of whom are made up from 4 Assault Squadron Royal Marines (4 ASRM). In addition the ship can carry up to 225 marines in dedicated accommodation for long periods and another 500 in austere conditions for short periods. Her flight deck can accommodate two Chinook or two Merlin helicopters. A large floodable dock holds four large landing craft – with another four carried on davits on the ship’s side.
Cougar 14 is the annual deployment of elements of the UK’s high readiness maritime Response Force Task Group (RFTG). Elements of the RFTG have been deployed to the Mediterranean and Gulf regions, exercising the UK’s maritime assets world wide. The RFTG is the United Kingdom’s high readiness maritime force, comprising ships, submarines, aircraft and a landing force of Royal Marines, at short notice to act in response to any contingency tasking if required.