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Royal Navy completes workout with Baltic Navies

RFA Tiderace conducts a double replenishment at sea with HMS Lancaster (bottom) and Westminster (top) as a Canadian Sikorsky helicopter flies past
16 March 2021
The Royal Navy completed its first concerted operation in the Baltic of the year with a link-up with NATO forces in the region.

Frigates HMS Lancaster and Westminster, plus tanker RFA Tiderace spent a week in the confined waters of northern Europe on Baltic Dash.

The exercise was a test of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force to work seamlessly with other Baltic nations – in this case Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – for the collective security of the region and freedom of the seas.

The participating ships conducted joint manoeuvres in close company, tested their gunnery skills and practised maritime security operations – all in icy conditions and heavy seas.

Among the most challenging evolutions in such weather was a night vertical replenishment – shifting supplies around the fleet by helicopter in the darkness.

HMS Westminster’s Merlin was called on to move loads slung beneath it – secured by Petty Officer Richard Newsome and Air Engineering Technician James Wilde, normally responsible for maintaining the sub-hunting helicopter.

They battled not just the motion of the Baltic, darkness, cold and wind, but also the downwash from the helicopter’s blades – the equivalent of winds of 70 knots over the flight deck.

“A night vertical replenishment is a great example of the professionalism required between ground crew and air crew to make a very dangerous evolution seem efficient and effortless,” said Lt William Shenton, the helicopter’s observer (navigator/weapons specialist).

Coordinating the air defence capabilities of a multi-nation NATO maritime task group in response to a simulated air threat was a great training opportunity.

Principal Warfare Officer Lieutenant Daniel Crawford

HMS Lancaster, which led the three-ship British force into the Baltic, launched her Wildcat – used in particular to identify and monitor shipping – for 14 hours of sorties by day and night, while the frigate’s main gun fired 28 4.5in shells (88lb apiece) on target practice.

Even though Baltic Dash was relatively short, it still demanded 2,850 meals prepared by the chefs on HMS Lancaster alone (including 64kg of sausages devoured).

Bad weather brought the curtain down on the exercise slightly earlier than originally planned, with the Baltic States’ vessels putting into harbour.

Before departing, the Lithuanian minelayer Jotvingis signalled the Brits: “Gratitude for ability to train with your units to demonstrate our ability to work together.”

The larger Royal Navy vessels remained at sea and exploited the extra time to join NATO for a couple of days, slipping into its Northern Europe force Standing Group 1.

To link up the Royal Navy force had to battle the weather head-on, ploughing through rough seas with waves crashing over the fo’c’sle making the most basic activities such as eating and sleeping, to say nothing of running a warship, a lot more difficult.

Once linked up with the NATO group, the Brits knuckled down to some combined manoeuvres, practice refuelling drills, communications and an air defence exercise.

“Coordinating the air defence capabilities of a multi-nation NATO maritime task group in response to a simulated air threat was a great training opportunity,” said Principal Warfare Officer Lieutenant Daniel Crawford, on loan to HMS Lancaster from the Royal New Zealand Navy.

“The task group must be ready to react at a very short notice so practice makes perfect!”

The short but useful interaction with Canadian frigate HMCS Halifax and German tanker Spessart was, said the group’s commander Commodore Bradley Peats USN, "a great display of NATO unity, readiness and commitment to the Baltic region’s collective defence."

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