The Royal Navy’s helicopter carrier HMS Ocean has led a force of 20 ships and over 300 British, Greek and US Marines to ‘storm’ Crete for the Greek Navy’s main autumn war exercises.
The Greeks host Exercise Niriis to test an international naval force and its ability to respond to a major crisis in the region – similar to the Turkish exercise HMS Ocean and the NATO group she leads has just completed. Ships, aircraft and personnel from Italy, Bulgaria, Israel and the USA are also involved.
The UK contribution includes survey vessel HMS Enterprise, over 150 personnel from Bravo Company of Somerset-based, 40 Commando and soldiers from 24 Regiment of the Royal Artillery and 29 Regiment Royal Engineers, Wildcat helicopters from 847 Naval Air Squadrons (NAS) (based at Yeovilton in Somerset) and Merlin helicopters from 820 and 845 NAS (based at Culdrose, Cornwall).
As part of a fictitious UN force they had to conduct boarding operations, deter and interdict illegal activity at sea, building up to an amphibious assault which paved the way for a safe evacuation of civilians from Cretan soil.
Greek, Royal and US Marines were temporarily served in each other’s units as they carried out combined reconnaissance patrols and raids leading up to the final main effort.
Lieutenant Colonel Tony Lancashire, HMS Ocean’s amphibious operations officer, said: “Niriis has provided an invaluable opportunity to conduct large-scale amphibious operations with both US and Hellenic Marines. It’s meant a range of mission types from small-scale reconnaissance to simultaneous raids and larger assaults which really enhanced our ability to operate successfully with one another.”
The Royal Marines of Bravo Company, 40 Commando, based at Norton Manor camp near Taunton, made extensive use of the Commando Helicopter Force assets, which shifted base from HMS Ocean to Maleme airfield on Crete’s northwest coast.
There, the ‘green berets’ descended by rope repeatedly from airborne Wildcats and Merlins – more than 500 descents successfully performed by the 93 men of Bravo Company without a single injury.
When Niriis kicked in, the Merlin Mk3 was committed on low-altitude troop insertions and extractions, as well as being held at readiness for medical evacuations.
The Wildcat proved invaluable in conducting intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions – one of the most comprehensive tests for the battlefield helicopter. Wildcat pilot Lieutenant Dave Burnett said: “The sophisticated camera and mission information system on the Wildcat significantly enhanced our picture of the enemy and proved invaluable during the amphibious raid. The intelligence-gathering serials accompanied by the Land Force Commander were extremely challenging but immensely rewarding flying.’’
HMS Ocean’s commanding officer Captain Rob Pedre said Niriis kept his men and women on their toes: “HMS Ocean has once again demonstrated her amphibious capabilities during this multi-national exercise – we’ve operated landing craft and helicopters throughout and successfully integrated US and Greek Marines as well as soldiers from the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers into our operations. This has been a great opportunity to bolster our ability to operate with NATO and other regional partners.”