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Royal Marines boarding experts take training to the next level

3 December 2019
Royal Marine experts in pirate/drug smuggler take-downs took their training to the next level aboard the nation’s flagship.

The marines of Juliet Company, 42 Commando, are the UK’s specialists in board and search operations – they are behind a string of multi-million pound drugs busts in the Middle East over the past 12 months.

The unit, based at Bickleigh just outside Plymouth, is undergoing a transformation as part of the reshaping of the Royal Marines under the Future Commando Force programme, with 42 in general focussing on seagoing operations – and each of its four companies assigned bespoke roles:

  • Juliet – board and search
  • Kilo – assaults
  • Lima – ‘Joint Personnel Recovery’, rescuing downed aircrew/British military personnel/civilians in a hostile environment
  • Mike – additional force protection for deployed Royal Navy/Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships

Three seven-strong teams from Juliet are currently deployed in the Gulf aboard Her Majesty’s Ships Montrose, Kent and Defender as part of the effort to safeguard shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and the wider mission of general maritime security (such as intercepting drug-runners whose illegal trade funds international terrorism).

Such missions are generally performed by relative newcomers to boardings – they’ve undergone an eight-week training course before joining the small teams assigned to frigates and destroyers. 

That experience means they are eligible, with the relevant training, to serve with the Fleet Contingency Troop – the men called upon to face down a hostile crew on a ship, known in military parlance as a ‘Level 3 boarding’ as the RN classifies its operations thus: 

  1. Compliant (crew of the target vessel will welcome you aboard)
  2. Non-compliant (crew of the target vessel are obstructive and unhelpful, but not openly hostile)
  3. Opposed (the crew will attempt to block any boarding attempt; fighting will be involved)

Such classifications can count for little in the real world, however. “You never know what you are going up against on a boarding. Even on a compliant boarding, someone could pull a gun on you half way through,” says Major John Middleton, Officer Commanding Juliet Company.

Boardings involving the Fleet Contingency Troop are invariably on a larger scale than those carried out on dhows in the Gulf, so Juliet took advantage of flagship HMS Albion as she conducted training off Plymouth to prepare her for a winter deployment to Norway.

You never know what you are going up against on a boarding. Even on a compliant boarding, someone could pull a gun on you half way through

Major John Middleton

Using two RAF Chinook as their steeds and the cavernous loading dock of Albion – packed with landing craft, vehicles and shipping containers – as their target, more than two dozen commandos ‘rapid roped’ (abseiling… without a rockface) from the helicopters and made their way into the bowels of the assault ship.

Pretty much everything Juliet Company wear and carry into action is specifically adapted to their mission:

  • Lightweight helmet with night vision device
  • Additional gloves for fast roping
  • FRIS suit (fire retardant immersion suit) 
  • Tactical floatation system
  • Lightweight body armour which both provides protection and is buoyant should a marine end up in the water
  • C8 rifle with extendable stock
  • Glock pistol 

“The equipment is top end, lightweight, capable, adapted to close-quarters battle,” explained Major Middleton. “Over the past three or four years, Juliet Company has developed its equipment and now we’ve pretty much got the optimum suite.”

The few days on Albion gave his men the chance to get back into the routine of living at sea in relatively austere conditions, but above all train, train, train.

“We are the specialists in this environment and what makes us good is that we exercise all the time. Last week we were boarding a Brittany ferry, this week Albion. It’s all good practice,” Major Middleton added.

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