The seas around Britain’s biggest warship churned red as the Navy developed tactics to protect HMS Queen Elizabeth from all manner of attacks.
For five days, the Portsmouth-based carrier worked side-by-side with frigate HMS Kent and her Merlin helicopter as every perceivable threat – air attack, submarine, surface fleet and terrorist strike – to ready the future flagship for her maiden deployment on Exercise Crimson Ocean.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is undergoing a concerted work-up for her maiden deployment, conducting extensive training with the F-35 stealth fighters of 617 Squadron, better known as the Dambusters.
When the carrier sails on front-line duties next year, she’ll be at the heart of a task group of British and allied warships charged with supporting and protecting her, including a destroyer to fend off air and missile attack (and also direct the F-35s on to their targets) and an anti-submarine frigate, such as Kent, to keep the ‘enemy below’ at bay.
Kent had just finished taking part in NATO’s biggest workout of 2020 in the Baltic – with many of the scenarios she dealt with there replicated in company with HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The frigate’s sailors were also treated to a morning witnessing F-35 Lightning strike fighters operating from the carrier’s flight deck and a regular helicopter service was also run between the ships, allowing some members of the ship’s company to visit the aircraft carrier for briefings.
“It was amazing to be able to see the F-35s taking off from HMS Queen Elizabeth from so close,” said 20-year-old Engineering Technician Nicolas Gilroy.
“I just couldn’t believe how loud they were – it was a good job we had been told to wear ear protection is all I can say!”
A hunter-killer submarine may also be assigned to the carrier group – part of the defensive ring against hostile submarines and surface ships, but armed with cruise missiles able to strike at strategic targets hundreds of miles away.
For the first time a Submarine Advisory Team of specialist naval reservists was mobilised to join Queen Elizabeth for the exercise, bolstering the carrier’s staff and providing additional expertise and experience.
“This marks an important milestone – the beginning of a 50-year partnership,” explained Commander Ben Horner from the Maritime Reserves’ submarine operations capability.
“Today’s Submarine Advisory Team watchkeepers are leading the way for those who will support the carrier for many decades to come, supported by our specialist communicators who train and deploy alongside us.”
Among the team dispatched to Queen Elizabeth is Lieutenant Commander Mark Driscoll, whose job involves controlling both British and NATO submarines.
“The tasking ranges from protecting the strike group and defending the aircraft carrier to land attack missile operations and gathering intelligence,” he said.
At the end of the exercise, the ships conducted a final sail past with Kent paying her respects to Queen Elizabeth and the embarked Commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group – Commodore Steve Moorhouse.
The Portsmouth-based frigate then broke away for a short port visit to Reykjavik in Iceland before she heads to Norway to join her sister HMS Westminster.
The two ships are taking part in the second of NATO’s annual anti-submarine exercises, Dynamic Mongoose, testing the ability of the alliance to find and hunt down hostile underwater threats in the cool waters of northern Europe.
Leading Photographer Dan Rosenbaum