A month-long Caribbean mercy mission by Royal Marines earned them the military’s highest humanitarian award – for an unprecedented fourth time.
The men and women of 40 Commando today received the Firmin Sword of Peace – recognition for providing life-saving aid, assistance and security to communities across the Caribbean when a succession of ferocious storms battered the region in the autumn of 2017.
The commandos, based at Norton Manor near Taunton, were among the first people on the ground in Anguilla, the British Virgin and Turks and Caicos Islands in the wake of devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.
They delivered food and fresh water, set up makeshift medical centres, cleared roads, restored power supplies, helped local authorities maintain law and order – the prison in the Virgin Islands was damaged and 141 inmates escaped, while looters armed with machetes plundered stores – patched up homes, secured an airport so flights could resume, rescued stray dogs and cleaned schools of debris so classes could resume.
Colour Sergeant John Dixon led a team of assault engineers who were heavily in demand for clearing debris, rebuilding and restoring vital services.
“Every single man stood up to the mark when required – it was quite humbling. We had to get a result in such a pressure-keg situation – and we did,” he said.
40 Commando’s work was part of a major effort by all three of Britain’s armed forces in response to the natural disaster – codenamed Operation Ruman – which also saw helicopter carrier HMS Ocean which dashed across the Atlantic.
It was 40 Commando’s efforts which stood out above all others, however, according to those who award the coveted sword, presented to the military unit which has done the most to promote or sustain peace or provide humanitarian assistance.
Originally known as the Wilkinson Sword of Peace, it has been presented since 1966 – though only if a unit was deserving; if there’s no suitable recipient, the sword is not awarded.
It fell to the country’s most senior serving Royal Marine – General Sir Gordon Messenger, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff and Commanding Officer of 40 Commando during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – to present the sword (a new one is produced for each winner) to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Maynard on his final day in charge of the Norton Manor unit.
General Messenger said he had followed the marines’ mission in the Caribbean from his office in Whitehall with admiration.
“This is a huge achievement and this unit should be proud. Every new member of 40 Commando who sees the four swords in their display case should take enormous pride – it speaks of 40 Commando over the generations,” he added.
Lieutenant Colonel Maynard said that the 34 days his men and women were committed on Operation Ruman had been “the best demonstration of commando spirit I have seen”.
He continued: “What I witnessed in September 2017 was courage, unselfishness, determination and humour – 40 Commando at its best.
“Our presence alone and the amazing sight of the green beret had a calming effect on the widespread panic, the looting stopped, and help was delivered to those who needed it.”
40 Commando was also the inaugural recipient of the sword back in 1966 when based in Singapore for its peacekeeping efforts in Borneo.
The award was presented again six years later after a difficult tour of duty in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles and in 1984 for a six-month stint in Cyprus helping to bridge the gap between the island’s Greek and Turkish communities.