The Royal Naval warship HMS Illustrious is another step closer to completing the transformation from aircraft carrier to assault ship.
The ship is in the final stages of operational sea training in the South-West, and has spent the past few days launching a series of amphibious attacks by Royal Marines to prove itself in the new role of commando carrier.
The ship’s amphibious landing exercise in the Bristol Channel involved inserting a group of Royal Marines by Sea King helicopter onto Braunton Burrows, an exercise area near the Royal Marines base at Chivenor, North Devon.
The exercise was overseen by the staff of the Plymouth Flag Officer Sea Training organisation in the build up to the ship’s final test this week, and the assault on North Devon was a precursor to a much tougher task which included sending commandos 50 miles into South Wales after dark.
The assault came in two waves. Four Sea Kings lifted from the ship’s pitching flight deck in the rough seas and rounded a headland before setting down in a neat line abreast on the beach.
Almost 60 commandos – from Taunton-based B Company, 40 Commando – emerged and purposefully fanned out up the beach as the Sea Kings rose in rapid succession and headed back to the carrier for the second wave. That saw a further 20 Marines hit the beach, along with two underslung loads – a quad bike and trailer, used to carry ammunition and to retrieve battle casualties.
With the area ‘secured’ by the Marines the four Sea Kings returned to pick up the landed force and their kit and then prepared for Wales.
From the Royal Marines’ point of view, it was useful training, and for some of the younger tropps the first time they will have got their feet wet in an amphibious landing, having been more concerned with Afghanistan in the short term.
However, for the ship it has been a steep learning curve since her refit in Scotland, and one the ship’s crew is working hard to stay ahead. Lieutenant Colonel Andy Walker Royal Marines, the ship’s amphibious operations officer, said: “Illustrious has had 30 years of being a CVS, and becoming a landing platform helicopter ship (LPH) has challenged the mindset of the ship’s company and the geography of the ship “And both Illustrious and Ark Royal have been commando carriers before – they have been in the LPH role.
“There are physical limitations but it is a great commando carrier, and the crew have been really good at seizing the chance to do something different.”
Officer Commanding Bravo Company, Major Dave Spink, said: “This week has been great. Lots of the lads haven’t done amphibious deployments before so this is a great opportunity to break out of the Afghanistan training. We understand we are not the primary training focus for this – we are here to facilitate Illustrious’ training, but the ship have been understanding in the way they have approached the amphibious embarked forces, doing everything they can to make our stay comfortable.”
Capt Kyd said: “Let’s not forget we only sailed from Rosyth on June 17, and in less than five months we have managed sea trials and worked up the ship in a brand-new role and proved our ability to project power ashore with our Royal Marines. “I think it has been a real challenge to do that training and work-up, and it is a testament to the flexibility and professionalism of Illustrious’ ship’s company that we are where we are today.”
The ship can handle any mix of UK helicopters, Sea King, Lynx, Merlin, Chinook and Apache – and can have a full assault wave away within an hour.
Once the ship has passed its operational sea training, the ship will be ready to step into HMS Ocean’s place when the helicopter carrier takes her turn in refit, following her busy deployment.