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Royal Navy Officer extols virtues of exchange programme

Royal Navy Officer extols virtues of exchange programme
Carrier Strike Group 9, led by USS Theodore Roosevelt, is patrolling in the Gulf, escorted by the French navy’s air destroyer Chevalier Paul.

As the sun rises, unknown aircraft approach the force and Chevalier Paul springs into action, ordering the fighters to scramble. The accent barking out the orders in the Ops Room and over the frequencies, however, is definitely not French.

Lieutenant Helen Taylor, the Royal Navy’s Principal Warfare Officer (PWO) exchange officer on board Chevalier Paul, is on watch.

“To me, that was the defining moment of this exchange,” she recalls. “A British officer on a French ship, giving orders to American pilots to defend a multi-national task force: that was a good day.”

Helen is one of over 20 RN officers posted to France on liaison or exchange jobs.

In Toulon, the largest naval base in France, the exchanges involve FRMARFOR, Officer of the Watch, helicopter pilot, fighter controller and submariner.

The biggest thing I have come to appreciate is how much we take English for granted; I have huge respect for NATO ships which have to work in a second language

Lieutenant Helen Taylor RN

“We have a great community of British and other expat military here,” Helen says, “and it means that any problem has been seen before and there’s always someone who is happy to help. It’s one of the best support networks I’ve seen.”

Helen, who comes from a background of Mine Counter-Measure Vessels (MCMV) and Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV), took the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) in 2014, and within six weeks was selected to participate in the exchange.

After three months of language training at Shrivenham she moved to Toulon in August 2015 to do a year of training at ESCAN (the French version of PWO course) and taking a post on Chevalier Paul.

Her French exchange partner Lt Florentin Dhellemmes did his PWO course in the UK and is currently on board HMS Duncan.

“I already had a conversational level of French, and regular inspections of French fishing vessels during my time in HMS Mersey helped. “That didn’t stop me having a headache for the first three months – living in a second language is exhausting!”

As it’s the first time this exchange has happened in over a decade, Helen’s role on board has varied; on watch, she has been OOW, PWO and has now taken the AWO role; off watch she is the ship’s languages officer, CBRNDCQ and DWEO – the Marine Nationale combine the Warfare and WE branches.

“You have to relearn everything that you already know: radar theory, the names of ranks and rates, even taking bearings (15 degrees off the port bow = Port 345).

“The reactions to a drill that you could do with your eyes shut in English suddenly become a whole new thing that you need to re-learn. It’s even more complicated when you add in the ‘Jacques-speak’ – French naval slang.

Matelots are still called matelots but a rack (bunk) is called la caille. It can also be very isolating on deployment as the sole non-French person on board a ship of 220.”

The Frégate de Défense Aérienne (air destroyer) Chevalier Paul is one of two Horizon-class ships in the Marine Nationale, and shares the same hull shape and missile systems as the Type 45 Daring class.

Equipped with Aster anti-air missiles, Exocet anti-ship missiles, MU90 torpedoes and capable of carrying the NH-90 Caïman helicopter, her main role is the escort and air defence of the aircraft carrier in a task force.

Since Helen joined the ship in 2016, the Chevalier Paul’s deployments have included operations in the Levant and Black Sea, escort of the Tonnerre in a French-US amphibious deployment to the Indian Ocean, and escort of aircraft carriers Charles de Gaulle and USS Theodore Roosevelt in coalition operations against Daesh.

Her Commanding Officer, Captain Hugues Lainé, has been very supportive of the exchange programme. “What better for our great navies to keep strong ties and prepare for the future than to serve and fight side by side on board the same ship?

“That’s exactly what this exchange programme provides by giving future leaders the challenging but great opportunity of getting technical, operational and even cultural experiences in one of our best allies’ navy.

“Moreover, this exchange brings the ‘other navy’ point of view and expertise to the ship’s company. This ‘think outside the box’ process can be very stimulating for officers and crew.”

Helen will return to the UK this summer after three years in France. “My experience in France has been unforgettable. I have been to places the RN doesn’t deploy to. I have worked in operations that are planned and conducted from a totally different perspective to the RN.

“The biggest thing I have come to appreciate is how much we take English for granted; I have huge respect for NATO ships which have to work in a second language.

“I will certainly miss the sun when I go home… plus being on a ship that has a dedicated boulangerie that makes fresh baguettes three times a day is going to be very difficult to leave behind. But I am looking forward to my first full English after a morning watch in four years.”

For anyone interested in participating in this or any of the foreign exchange programmes in the Royal Navy, the first step is book yourself onto an MLAT through your Education Officer.

Make sure your JPA preferences say that you would like to take part in a foreign exchange and finally, contact your career manager to discuss your options.

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