THE crew of HMS Brocklesby returned home from Libya to a heroes’ welcome yesterday.
Relieved families at Portsmouth Naval Base shrieked with joy and the crew of fellow minehunter HMS Cattistock led ‘three cheers’ as the ship came in flying a makeshift Jolly Roger flag – a signal that it successfully destroyed enemy targets.
In this case it was a buoyant mine laid by Gaddafi’s forces in a bid to destroy humanitarian aid.
The minehunter was sent in after Libyan troops mined the harbour in the war-torn eastern city of Misrata.
Operating within range of enemy rockets and shells for seven weeks, Brocklesby’s crew searched for mines and exploded two devices to allow an aid ship to get in and rescue 900 stricken refugees.
Ship captain, Lieutenant Commander Jim Byron said: ‘I’m so proud of my team. There’s been no drama, no worries. They’ve just got on with the job and done it well.
‘It was as dangerous as it gets but we made a big difference by clearing the mines so quickly. We proved to Gaddafi it was pretty pointless to try that tactic. I think he would have been tempted to lay more if we had not been there.’
Lt Cdr Byron said one scary moment came when confusion almost led to anti-Gaddafi rebels firing on Brocklesby.
The rebels had contacted Canadian warship HMCS Charlottetown, which refused to confirm if the minehunter was in Misrata harbour.
Lt Cdr Byron said: ‘Charlottetown knew Gaddafi’s forces were listening in. They didn’t want to give our position away so they said there wasn’t a vessel in the harbour. The rebels then got ready to fire on us so Charlottetown had to say we were there. For a while we were sitting ducks just waiting for the shells to come but fortunately they never did.’
The ship used its Seafox robot to destroy two mines and clear the way for aid ship MV Red Star to evacuate refugees.
Lt Cdr Byron said: ‘I’ve never been as nervous in my naval career as the day after we declared the port safe.
‘If we had missed a mine there were 900 lives at stake.’
The second-in-command of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Trevor Soar, visited Brocklesby yesterday to personally congratulate the crew.
He said: ‘Everybody has spoken about the UK minewarfare capability as being the jewel in the crown of the international effort off Libya.’
Brocklesby left Libya two weeks ago and was relieved by the minehunter HMS Bangor.
For the sailors, it is a relief to be back – especially as they have spent just 15 weeks at home in 18 months. Embracing his girlfriend Laura Chapman, Able Seaman Simon Carr, 23, said: ‘It’s so good to be back.’
Laura, 27, said: ‘It’s amazing to have him home.’