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A whirlin' Merlin and the crash of the 4.5in gun announce HMS Westminster's return

HMS Westminster returns
23 February 2017
A Merlin of 829 Naval Air Squadron whips up the surface of Plymouth Sound as HMS Westminster welcomes her first helicopter in two years.

With the Type 23 frigate anchored at a buoy in the Royal Navy's traditional training ground, the Merlin Mk2 made the 50-mile flight from its base at Culdrose to conduct basic landing and take-off drills.

The spray kicked up by the 14-tonne helicopter - pictured here from the relative shelter of Westminster's port 'waist' passageway - was a reminder to the flight deck team of Merlin's powerful down draught, which is far stronger than a Lynx or Wildcat.

Merlin is also considerably larger, leaving little room for manoeuvre for the pilots before its safely lashed to the deck.

Before going into refit back in 2015, the 'capital's ship' was the RN's premier submarine-hunter, thanks to a combination of equipment (Merlin, Sonar 2087) and personnel (some of the most senior anti-submarine specialists in the RN headed by the Captain Anti-Submarine Warfare).

The combination of Westminster's sophisticated sonar and the range and agility of the Merlin forms a comprehensive submarine hunting package

Lieutenant Commander Matthew Cox, HMS Westminster's Weapon Engineer Officer

There could be no thought of resuming that role without the presence of a Merlin - which carries torpedoes or depth charges, as well as a sonar on a long wire and state-of-the-art touch-screen computers to monitor what is going on beneath the waves.

"The combination of Westminster's sophisticated sonar and the range and agility of the Merlin forms a comprehensive submarine hunting package," explained Lieutenant Commander Matthew Cox, the frigate's weapon engineer officer.

His ship emerges from refit at the same time as sisters HMS Montrose and Argyll - having undergone one of the most comprehensive revamps in her 24-year career.

Systems and sensors have been enhanced, the Seawolf missile system replaced with the newer, longer-range Sea Ceptor, and a refurbished main 4.5in gun reinstated on the forecastle.

Like everything else aboard it's been silent for two years…until the moment the words: 'Four-five engage' echoed around Westminster's operations room.

And in an instant, an 88lb shell left the barrel at more than twice the speed of sound, heading for a target a dozen miles away.

After one shell, another. And another. Until Westminster was hammering away at 23 rounds per minute - the main guns maximum rate, one round every two and a half seconds - leaving the whiff of cordite drifting through the passageways and any cobwebs impeding the gunnery team blown away.

Firing the gun demands the efforts of all aboard, with weapon engineers maintaining the weapon, logisticians providing the ammunition and the warfare branch controlling the battle space.

"As a junior officer it was an exciting opportunity to not only see the ship develop, but also to train in new skills myself - it's not every day you drive a ship with a gun firing off the end!" said Sub Lieutenant Andrew Smart, one of the officers of the watch.

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