ON A dark, drizzly morning, RFA Cardigan Bay crept into Portsmouth Naval Base after three years away at sea.
The naval support ship has been busy in the Arabian Gulf helping to train up the Iraqi navy and provide support to US and Royal Navy units stationed in the area.
The amphibious landing ship dock, which for the majority of the deployment was the largest coalition unit in the area, was also used as a helicopter pad and hosted conferences for senior officers and VIPs.
During her time away, Cardigan Bay, which has rotational crews spending around four months on board at a time, travelled more than 71,500 nautical miles and carried out 24 patrols into the Northern Arabian Gulf. Between them, her sailors earned hundreds of Iraq medals in Operation Telic - the codename for British operations in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
The ship's commanding officer Captain Paul Minter said: 'RFA Cardigan Bay has truly secured her place in the history of Operation Telic and the history of the fledgling Iraqi Navy.
'It has been a demanding but rewarding role to provide support to such an important task, and has demonstrated the versatility of these capable ships.'
He added: 'One of the highlights for me was when the Iraqi naval personnel left the ship for the final time having reached the level of operation capability to defend their own waters. Obviously, with the oil terminals they have got, we wanted to make sure they could protect them. It is something they wanted to do for themselves but they had no knowledge base to start from so we have helped with the Royal Navy and Americans to make that happen and it's been very successful. It's rewarding to see that come to fruition.'
The head of the RFA Service, Commodore Bill Walworth, met the ship for its homecoming early yesterday morning.
He said: 'We are immensely proud of the way the ship and the RFA people have performed. Also, we must not forget the number of Royal Navy and Royal Navy reserve officers and ratings who have served in the ship alongside the RFA in providing this support to the Iraqi nation.
‘It's also been an excellent demonstration of the versatility of these big ships and the versatility and professionalism the RFA delivers and will continue to deliver in the future.'
The RFA service came into being in 1905 as a civilian manned fleet of ships whose role was to support and supply the Royal Navy.
In the government's Strategic Defence and Security Review the RFA fleet was reduced from 16 to 13 ships.
Cdre Walworth said he was optimistic for the future and maintained the reduction will not adversely affect the RFA's ability to maintain its global operations.
He said: ‘The SDSR has left us with 13 ships and we are perfectly capable of managing these.
‘I expect the high tempo of operations the RFA does will continue as it has and I anticipate us doing more operational tasks than we did in the past.'
RFA Cardigan Bay returns from role
helping to train Iraqi navy in the Gulf
by MICHAEL POWELL
Defence correspondent email@example.com