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Royal Navy submarine hunters grapple with the ‘enemy below’ in the fjords

A pilot's eye view of the Norwegian Sea
28 June 2023
Royal Navy submarine hunters pitted their wits against underwater ‘foes’ from Norway and Germany in the challenging waters of the fjords.

Around 100 men and women from 824 and 814 Naval Air Squadrons, normally based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose near Helston in Cornwall, made the journey north for Exercise Green Eel – or Gruner Aal as it known by the Norwegians.

The detachment was based near Bergen in the west of Norway. The Haakonsvern Helikopterbase nestles on top of a steep, rocky hill topped with pine trees and stunning views to the fjords and naval base below.

With its modern, Scandinavian-designed buildings, the Royal Navy sailors dubbed the facilities ‘Tracy Island’, for its likeness to the futuristic headquarters from TV puppet show Thunderbirds.

Three Merlin Mk2 helicopters took part in a series of exercises against Norwegian and German submarines.

The commanding officer of RNAS Culdrose, Captain Stuart Irwin, said: “The ability to work closely with our allies in Norway during Exercise Green Eel has been a superb opportunity for all involved and gave us excellent access to train with live conventional submarines.

“First and foremost, this was an opportunity for our trainee aircrew on 824 Naval Air Squadron to complete the final stages of operational flying training in the Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopter.

“It gave them the experience of locating and tracking real submarines and enhanced the skills and techniques they will now take to the Merlin Helicopter Force’s frontline squadrons.”

Anti-submarine warfare is as vital in today’s world as it ever was, with our reliance on undersea pipelines and global communications. The Merlin Helicopter Force is very much a part of defending that critical national infrastructure

Captain Stuart Irwin

Green Eel also proved a test for the four-strong weather forecasting team – a completely different environment from the squadrons’ usual ‘playground’ off the Lizard Peninsula and Channel.

“I must admit we’ve been having such a good run of weather that I’ve never known a forecast where I haven’t predicted cloud below 5,000 feet for so long. I keep looking for local effects but even the Norwegians say the weather has been usually calm,” explained senior meteorological officer Lieutenant Adelaide Banyard.

“I have to do my job without all our usual meteorological kit. Here I just have my laptop. That’s the difference with civilian met’ officers who tend to stay in the same place all the time, but in the military we deploy anywhere in the world.”

With little darkness at this time of year and keen to get as much benefit from the exercise as possible, sailors frequently worked 12-hour days for the duration of Green Eel.

There has been downtime, personnel enjoyed the sights of Bergen and environs, as well as Norwegian hospitality.

“It’s a lovely place to be and everyone is really friendly,” said Air Engineering Technician Grace Brown who was particularly impressed by her hosts’ new facilities.

“The Norwegians have really taken care of us. Most of us have been out swimming in the fjords or taken the cable car up into the mountains. We’ve had barbecues and they even organised a football match.”

For front-line aircrew such as 814 Squadron’s aviators – they support anti-submarine warfare operations around the UK and North Atlantic especially, operating from shore bases or the flight decks of Royal Navy frigates – Green Eel offered invaluable experience against live opponents. It also allowed the engineers and support personnel to build on their experience, working with the UK’s allies at distance from their main base in Cornwall.

Captain Irwin added: “Anti-submarine warfare is as vital in today’s world as it ever was, with our reliance on undersea pipelines and global communications. Merlin Helicopter Force is very much a part of defending that critical national infrastructure, and we regularly operate in the North Sea, North Atlantic and the Arctic."

Commodore Trond Gimmingsrud, the chief of the Norwegian naval fleet, said: “The Royal Navy and the Royal Norwegian Navy have worked together on a number of exercises and operations lately - confirming our commitment and ability to operate seamlessly.

“During Gruner Aal, we have also worked together with the German Navy – improving our understanding and skills in anti-submarine warfare. The ability to operate from the same base and with short distance to the exercise area has allowed us to frequently share experiences between German and Norwegian submarines and British Merlins. That has made us all better, and I am already looking forward to the next iteration of this annual exercise.”

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