Six of the best from Navy minehunters as they mark Gulf milestone

Royal Navy minehunters are marking six years of keeping the waters of the Gulf safe – and maintaining the UK’s global lead in dealing with the still-present threat of mines.
Since the end of 2006, Britain has maintained a permanent minehunter presence in the region – currently HMS Atherstone, Quorn, Shoreham and Ramsey.

ROYAL Navy minehunters are marking six years of keeping the waters of the Gulf safe – and maintaining the UK’s global lead in dealing with the still-present threat of mines.

Since the end of 2006, Britain has maintained a permanent minehunter presence in the region – initially two ships, since 2008 a four-strong force.

That constant presence has, says the man currently leading the operation Cdr Martin Mackey, “given the Royal Navy an extraordinary opportunity to deepen specialist knowledge and its force is widely acknowledged by most of their international colleagues as being world leaders.

We’re looking forward to celebrating many more milestone achievements in the future.”

The mission began with Her Majesty’s Ships Ramsey and Blyth; come early 2008 it was decided the force – then known as Operation Aintree, today the ships come under the broad banner of the UK’s east of Suez mission, Operation Kipion – should be bolstered with a pair of Hunt-class ships to join the Sandowns.

Enter Her Majesty’s Ships Atherstone and Chiddingfold, plus a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ‘mother ship’ (presently RFA Cardigan Bay), which acts as a command and engineering ship and base for the Fleet Diving Squadron, who are experts in clearing mines in very shallow waters.

To sustain four warships in Bahrain, there’s a permanent engineering staff in port, the ship’s companies are rotated every six to seven months (Ramsey and Quorn’s latest crews return home in mid-January, while those aboard Atherstone and Shoreham are just settling in to their new surroundings).

As for the ships themselves, they’re brought home (7,500 miles for the Portsmouth-based Hunts, a couple of hundred more for the Sandowns based on the Clyde) for a refit every three to three and a half years.

The force is widely acknowledged by most of their international colleagues as being world leaders

Cdr Martin Mackey

HMS Pembroke arriving in Dubai 

The dark outline of HMS Pembroke silhouetted against the Dubai skyline in January 2010

And overseeing the mission is a specialist battle staff, drawn either from 1st Mine Counter-Measures Squadron (MCM1), in Faslane, or their Portsmouth counterparts MCM2; the latter are currently embarked on Cardigan Bay for six months and led by Cdr Mackey.

He’s been out in the Gulf before in charge of a minehunter – but then since 2006 pretty much everyone in the minehunting community has served in Bahrain.

Some 2,000 crew, 200 mine warfare battle staff, over 400 engineers – who provide support both alongside and aboard the mother ship – have passed through the force in six years. Many have been out more than once – one sailor is apparently on his seventh tour-of-duty.

As for the ships, Ramsey and Atherstone are on their second extended stints in the region, while Grimsby and Middleton have also served in the Gulf.

So what’s been achieved? Well, more than 35 international exercises have been completed, most recently the largest ever staged in the region, involving 30 nations and spread across 1,000 miles of ocean.

Other accomplishments since 2006 include:

  • For the first time, the RN successfully deployed its REMUS unmanned underwater vehicle, which are now key to the Navy’s Gulf mission, and are routinely used;
  • A concerted sweep of the northern Gulf in 2008 to finally declare it clear of the lingering mine danger from the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq so merchant shipping could safely use those waters. As it was, the search found no historic mines – and meant the sea could be re-designated as former mined areas;
  • The Royal Navy has honed its ability to work in warm, difficult waters – both classes of UK minehunters were designed during the Cold War and originally intended for use in the temperate waters of northern and western Europe. The skills and equipment perfected in the Gulf were used to effect off Libya in 2011 when HMS Brocklesby and Bangor disposed of mines off Misrata and Tobruk.