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Dutch and British pilots reignite bonds with intensive sorties over the South West

16 November 2023
Dutch and British pilots have reinvigorated bonds dating back to World War 2 during two weeks of intensive sorties over the skies of the South West of England.

Flying from Royal Navy Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, aviators from the UK’s Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) and the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s 860 Squadron launched missions that laid the foundations for joint operations across the globe, starting in the Arctic Circle from January.

The joint training – the second in a series of exercises codenamed Guardian Defender – saw the UK’s Commando Merlin and Commando Wildcat and Dutch NH-90 helicopters operate together, learning how one another work, sharing knowledge and expertise to ultimately create a joint force able of operating side-by-side on the frontline.

This combined training comes on the 50th anniversary year of the UK Netherlands Amphibious Force – Europe’s oldest force of its kind, which has seen the two nations share training, tactics and kit since 1973.

That relationship has sometimes laid dormant, but the flights this autumn have rekindled historic ties, which began during World War 2 when 860 Naval Air Squadron (as it was previously known) was in British service but comprised of Dutch pilots who had escaped mainland Europe to take the fight back to the Nazis.

The squadron was transferred to the Netherlands in 1946 after operating the Fairey Swordfish and later the Fairey Barracuda as a bomber/reconnaissance squadron. 

Lieutenant Commander Pete Straker, 845 Naval Air Squadron’s Senior Warfare Officer, said: “Building on the success of the first iteration of the exercise, part two aimed to provided increased force cooperation opportunities. 

“Overall it was hugely successful, with elements of most of the functional areas in Commando Helicopter Force working together and helping to support the Dutch. 

“860 Squadron departed for the Netherlands having completed all their individual training objectives and again extolling the huge benefits they get from operating out of Yeovilton alongside CHF.

“The exercise has moved CHF/860Sqn integration another step forward, putting the partnership on a strong foundation for Exercise Nordic Response in the Arctic early next year”.

Across two weeks of activity, Dutch pilots worked with 846, 845 and 847 Naval Air Squadrons – which make up the Commando Helicopter Force – to bring together a range of complex skills that culminated in a mock helicopter assault.

During this final assault, a Dutch Anti-Armour patrol were brought in by a NH-90, guided into position at night by the Commando Mobile Air Operations Team (MAOT) – which guide helicopters to the best possible landing sites to complete their objectives, allowing assault forces to enter the area.

The best landing site was recced by the MAOT while working in tandem with a Commando Wildcat that was providing reconnaissance and feeding information on the picture on the ground to pave the way for troops and equipment to be landed. 

The assault by the Anti-Armour team moved quickly with objectives taken rapidly, before Merlins, Wildcat and NH-90 combined to extract forces back to base.
As part of the overall training, a Dutch sergeant was given training by the Commando MAOT team to qualify him as a helicopter handling specialist – working on the theory of the role and building up the final tactic scenario which tested him in a ‘real-world’ setting. 

“The interaction and proven interoperability between UK and NL aviation and ground assets has reached a level where both parties are comfortable operating in the same airspace, with positive comms between air and ground assets and full understanding developed for terminal guidance and helicopter landing site recce capability,” said Lieutenant S [FIRST NAME] Watson, the officer in command of the Commando MAOT.

“The next step will be to exploit these relationships in the challenging environment of Norway.”

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