French invade... (but it’s only an exercise!)

HMS Illustrious leaves Portsmouth for the last time
Picture: Shaun Roster

RETRO: Watch the last voyage of HMS Illustrious from Portsmouth

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Barbed wire fences, wild bracken and an invading force of French troops. This picture doesn’t look much like Gosport, but it is.

Helicopters are buzzing overhead as a large landing craft approaches the seafront at Browndown and unloads dozens of armoured vehicles and trucks.

INVADERS The French navy on Browndown beach. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (13678-9979)

INVADERS The French navy on Browndown beach. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (13678-9979)

Bursts of machine gun fire fill the air as further inland, legionnaires fire their rifles at targets.

And a steady stream of troops march along the shingle under the watchful eye of the Tonnerre, a 21,500-tonne French navy ship lingering in the Solent.

Not, despite appearances, a serious invasion, but a training exercise to 
highlight the ongoing defence co-operation between London and Paris.

The Army training camp at Browndown played host to hundreds of troops on Saturday as the Marine Nationale, or French Navy, staged an invasion on the beach to test their ability to launch an amphibious assault.

Hundreds of people gathered on the seafront either side of Browndown to watch the exercise unfold.

Landing craft circled the waters off Gosport as they waited to offload troops and equipment on the shore.

Captain Yves Le Corre is a French naval attaché.

He told The News: ‘This is something a bit special.

‘We have a long-lasting co-operation between our two navies.

‘This exercise is an outstanding opportunity because it gives us the chance to train.

‘It shows people that we are co-operating and we can work together.

‘Our navies are a bit different and we don’t do things exactly the same but we are very similar.

‘Portsmouth is a marvellous port to call in for us because of its history and also to see the Royal Navy.

‘It was important for us to have our first stop here.’

The troops and sailors arrived under cover of thick fog on Friday morning, before launching their invasion on Saturday morning.

By the afternoon, the fog cleared to provide the invading French forces clear visibility under the afternoon sun.

Captain Jean-François Quérat is the commanding officer of the Tonnerre.

He oversaw the operation from the bridge of his ship.

Capt Quérat told The News: ‘We were happy to be welcomed into Portsmouth with the fog.

‘It was interesting for the midshipmen, as it’s quite rare for us to see such conditions.

‘It was an honour to welcome on board the Mayor of Portsmouth and other dignitaries.

‘This mission marks the beginning of a five-month deployment for us and it was a great way to start.’

Once the operation drew to a close on Saturday evening, the French forces departed straight away to continue with their deployment.

There are around 180 sailors serving on board the Tonnerre, with another 200 cadets embarked as part of their training programme.

And a further 200 legionnaires make up the amphibious force.

The ship also acts as a floating hospital, with two operating theatres and 69 beds.

Its hangars and flight deck are capable of holding 16 helicopters, along with 60 armoured vehicles or 13 tanks.

A training suite on board the ship allows the accommodation of hundreds of cadets, who can combine learning in a classroom with experiencing life on board the ship.

Pierre-Louis De Fendÿl is a supply officer in the French Navy.

He said: ‘It was very nice to spend some time here in Portsmouth; our time here was too short. We left Brest two days ago and Portsmouth is our first port of call before we move to the Mediterranean.

‘Far away, for a long time, and all together – that is the motto of our mission.’

The last time French troops landed on British soil was in 1797.

The invasion is called the Battle of Fishguard and is known as the last invasion of Britain, as it was the most recent effort by a foreign force that was able to land.

The weekend’s exercise is the latest example of co-operation between the UK and France on defence matters after the signing of a defence treaty in 2010.

INVASION WAS ALL IN GOOD HUMOUR

AS THE French forces rushed on to the beach, it seemed I was one of the only people trying to get on the Tonnerre, not off it.

Escorted by legionnaires and sailors, I was being taken to the ship – not by force – to see her commanding officer.

And with the promise of a tour around the 21,500-tonne helicopter dock, they assured me I would be delivered back to shore before they sailed for the next stop on their deployment – Beirut.

I met sailors from the lowest ranks right up to the captain of the ship, and each one spoke of their joy at being in Portsmouth, and having the chance to spend a few hours enjoying a beer in the home of the Royal Navy.

A French invasion force putting boots on British soil certainly raised a few eyebrows, but it was all in good humour, and we are all the better for it.