Fire and fury of HMS Dragon during two-week exercise in France

Back in her home base after a fortnight of fire and fury just across the Channel in France is HMS Dragon.

The destroyer spent two weeks off the coast of Brittany as part of the Royal Navy’s input to large-scale French war games.

Those war games – Catamaran – have traditionally been a French-only affair, but this year the Marine Nationale threw the invitation to participate to the UK with the two nations on the cusp of creating a Anglo-French naval task group.

From 2020, the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force will be created whenever London and Paris determine there is a need to respond together to international events, be it a humanitarian crisis or natural disaster, through to intervening in a conflict.

Catamaran has been an excellent experience. It’s demonstrated the enduring ability of Royal Navy and Marine Nationale escorts to integrate quickly and operate effectively together.

Cdr Michael Carter Quinn

Amphibious forces – British and French marines, their helicopters and vehicles – will be at the heart of that force… and were at the heart of Catamaran 18, played out along a 130-mile stretch of the French coast from Quiberon southwards.

More than 3,000 personnel from both sides of the Channel were involved, as well as 11 warships (Dragon, amphibious support ship RFA Lyme Bay and minehunter HMS Chiddingfold from the UK) and 11 helicopters, including Dragon’s Wildcat and RAF Chinooks.

Any task group needs protection – in HMS Dragon’s case shielding the group from air attack – while the commandos need firepower once safely ashore, either steel and thunder from the destroyer’s main 4.5in gun or a pummelling from friendly air power whose actions were directed from the British destroyer by Frenchman Lt Bastien Fricot.

He has been on exchange with the Portsmouth-based warship since October last year as a fighter controller, whose task is to guide Allied aircraft on to their targets.

“As a ship, this exercise has trained us for missions by giving us the chance to integrate a large multinational task group with all the challenges that implies,” Lt Fricot said.

“On a more personal note, as a fighter controller I had the opportunity to control French Navy Rafale for the very first time, during a short but complex mission.” 

Catamaran opened with Dragon working in French task group with destroyer FS Jean Bart, frigate Le Motte Piquet and tankers Marne and Somme, developing ways of working and training together to improve and develop the force’s ability to identify and respond to air, surface and submarine threats.

At the same time, British and French board and search teams were tested as Dragon looked for, found, tracked and finally oversaw inspections of suspicious vessels in the Bay of Biscay.

As the exercise progressed, Dragon found herself supporting troops as they landed with highly-accurate gunfire support, while her Wildcat helicopter scouted the Brittany coastline and hinterland for ‘enemy’ troops bearing down on the commandos.

“Catamaran was a great opportunity for me to work with my Navy and be the privileged link between the ship and our French counterparts,” Lt Fricot added.

“We also seized the chance to work hard towards better joint working between the Royal Navy and the French Navy as we completed a number of serials with the ‘Mighty’ Jean Bart to enhance our capability to provide air defence to a large task group.”

As the exercise reached its climax, HMS Dragon was tested in every dimension of warfare to provided protection and support to French assault ship Tonnerre and Lyme Bay, testing our ability to rapidly identify and respond to potential threats to the task group.

For Dragon, the exercise came hot on the heels of eight weeks of intensive training and honed skills which will be needed when the destroyer sails on a nine-month deployment later this year after a spot of maintenance.

“Catamaran has been an excellent experience,” said Cdr Michael Carter Quinn, Dragon’s Commanding Officer. “It’s demonstrated the enduring ability of Royal Navy and Marine Nationale escorts to integrate quickly and operate effectively together.

“Working with the French Navy has been of mutual benefit allowing us to refine and improve our ability to operate within a wider task group in support of the amphibious operations.”