Royal Navy chefs, helicopter engineers, logistics experts and ground and air crew have learned how to survive and fight in the Arctic – just like the Royal Marines they serve alongside.
Regardless of their rank or role, around 200 personnel from the Commando Helicopter Force have endured sub-zero temperatures, sleeping in tents and living off the land to ensure they can support, maintain and operate the force’s aircraft in the extreme cold.
The Force – based at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset – deploys in strength each winter to Bardufoss air base in northern Norway for Operation Clockwork, honing its Arctic warfare credentials.
Personnel spend two days in the classroom or receiving practical lessons – covering everything from clothing layer systems, kit and pulk packing, ration and cooking systems, tent building, to sled construction and navigation in snow-covered terrain.
They then move into the field for five nights/six days, mastering the art of trekking through deep snow burdened by kit, surviving avalanches, conducting patrols, living without rations in tents, building makeshift shelters and finally, completing the dreaded ice-breaking drill.
Personnel are expected to haul themselves – and their rucksacks – out of a lake without assistance, should the ice crack beneath their feet and plunge them into chilly waters. And once out of the water, they must learn how to warm themselves up afterwards to prevent hypothermia.
“This is the first time I had done the specific cold weather course for the aviation world – I completed the basic survival training eight years,” said Merlin engineer Petty Officer Rich Miszewski-Hall.
“This time around I found it a lot more challenging – mentally and physically – especially having to just crack on through the lack of sleep. The camaraderie was great throughout, which did help a lot.
“Finishing with the ice breaking drills was a treat. It was a little colder than I remember but refreshing after five nights of living in the field.”
The Merlins Rich and his comrades maintain flew to Bardufoss by hopping from airfield to airfield from their base in Yeovilton (more than 1,400 miles) over several days.
Like the engineers, their crews must adjust immediately to operating in sub-zero conditions.
“Aircrew fly everywhere in the Arctic Circle with a bergen packed full of cold weather survival kit,” explained Merlin pilot Lieutenant Andy Duffield.
“After briefing their sortie the pilots and aircrewmen walk to the flight line, stop at the duty kettle, and fill their thermal flasks to the brim.”
Wherever possible, the helicopters are kept in the heated hangar which not only protects the multi-million-pound machines, but also the engineers who work on them.
“Just like ourselves, time spent outside for our Merlins is also kept to a minimum,” said Lt Duffield.
“Keeping the aircraft in the hangar until as late as possible means a much better viscosity for the various fluids and oils inside, making for a safer, quicker, and more assured start sequence.”
The Merlin is moved on to three metal grids – one under each wheel – which prevents the aircraft from slipping on the ice as the engines spin up and the rotors begin turning.
“The Arctic environmental qualifications are underway now, exposing aircrew to the extremes of snow landings. By day isn’t for the faint-hearted, but by night… It’s true Commando Helicopter Force stuff,” said Lt Duffield.
“Would we have it any other way? If it ain’t snowin’, we ain’t goin’!”
Clockwork runs for around another six weeks.