Royal Marines turned Virginia creepers, stalking woodland outside Washington to practise rescuing downed aircrew from behind enemy lines.
The men of Lima Company, 42 Commando, fought their way through a replica developing world village, developing the tactics they would use to locate, if necessary liberate and finally escort or carry injured or trapped personnel back to either of Britain’s two new aircraft carriers.
The marines, based at Bickleigh outside Plymouth, are the men the Navy will turn to should an F-35 go down behind enemy lines and the pilot need rescuing.
But the mission – known as Joint Personnel Recovery and Combat Search and Rescue in military terminology – isn’t purely limited to picking up individual aircrew trapped in hostile territory.
It’s expanded to embrace all ‘isolated personnel’ – yes, downed pilots, but also trapped British citizens, or troops cut off from the rest of their comrades – in a ‘non-permissive environment’… which means the locals (military or civilian) are less than friendly.
While the carrier is continuing her fast jet trials and training off the Florida coast, Lima Company decamped ashore for several weeks training in and around Quantico, Virginia – one of the US Marine Corps’ principal bases.
The facilities and size of the ranges at the huge American base, about 30 miles outside Washington DC, gives them the space and opportunity to run through most possible scenarios.
Exercise Lightning Angel 19 opened with the commandos practising unarmed combat and navigation through the Virginia undergrowth, before moving on to two weeks of live firing to turn realism levels all the way up to 11.
“Lightning Angel has been great for Lima Company,” said 39-year-old Major John Whiteman, Officer Commanding Lima Company.
“It’s given us the opportunity to practise working from the Queen Elizabeth in the Joint Personnel Recovery role as well as enhancing our skills at a company level.”
It’s the second time Lima – the company permanently assigned to HMS Queen Elizabeth (and soon HMS Prince of Wales) to recover any downed aircrew or their passengers (the ships operate Merlin, Wildcat and Chinook helicopters alongside the F-35s, plus Allied airpower that the US Marine Corps’ Osprey tiltrotors) – have made use of the facilities at Quantico.
“It’s great to be back in Quantico to further our skills – the training facilities and terrain here provide a great environment for doing just that,” said Warrant Officer 2nd Class Neil Smith.
As well as practising rescue missions they will conduct joint training with their American counterparts and renew a long-standing friendly sporting rivalry.
The US Marines invite Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel to take part in the Marine Corps Marathon. The Brits posted a faster combined time for the 26.2-mile ‘jaunt’ around Virginia in torrential conditions, lifting the Challenge Cup for the 28th time.
And the visitors have also treated their hosts to some British pomp and ceremony with a performance at the US Marine Corps’ Museum by six members of the RM Corps of Drums.