Meet the Royal Navy sailors from Portsmouth helping to defend the Gulf from Iranian attack
IT IS a crisis taking place thousands of miles away from the peaceful, chilly shores of Portsmouth.
But under the scorching sun of the Gulf, hundreds of sailors from the city are putting themselves in harms way to protect vital shipping lanes in the Middle East.
And The News has been given rare access to the men and women of the Royal Navy as they fight to defend sea lanes threatened by recent Iranian military aggression.
In the past few months, the critical stretch of waterway has seen drone and missile strikes, mine attacks and ships being boarded by Iranian military forces.
A host of British naval vessels, which includes a destroyer from Portsmouth, two frigates, four minehunters and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ship, are currently based in the Gulf attempting to calm things down.
Front and centre is the mighty HMS Montrose, a frigate forward deployed to the region as a permanent presence until 2022, when she will then sail back to her new home of Portsmouth.
And in the few months Montrose and her 400-strong ship’s company has been in the area, she has played a critical part in guarding the Gulf.
In July the warship prevented the Iranians from seizing the vessel British Heritage by performing a dramatic ‘handbrake turn’ at full speed before warding off harassers.
Since then she has faced near-daily probes by Iranian patrol ships and helped to escort more than seven million tonnes of British shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
Commander Ollie Hucker, Montrose’s commanding officer, has been on the ship since September, when he and his crew took over Montrose from the ship’s sister crew, which is now back in the UK.
The 37-year-old dad-of-two, formerly of Southsea, said all eyes were now on his team.
‘Over the last three or four months there has been a significant increase in motor vessel attacks, there have been the limpet mines attacks too – so we are in a region where there are certainly things happening,’ he said.
‘The world’s media was focused on the ship when Stena Impero and the MV British Heritage were having significant interaction with Iranian forces. So that’s always in the back of our mind that in whatever we do. That does put a little bit of pressure on us.’
Cdr Hucker added: ‘We can take things all the way to high-end warfare, this is what the ship is available to do. But we’re not in that stage, we’re de-escalatory and there to make sure the global normalcy is continued while we are out here offering presence and reassurance.’
Leading Physical Trainer Lee Owens, of Hilsea, has the tough task of keeping the ship’s company fit in scorching temperatures of the Gulf.
‘It’s definitely challenging keeping fit in these conditions,’ said Lee, who celebrated his 29th birthday at sea. ‘Temperatures, especially in the gymnasium on the ship, have reached 46 or 47 degrees. The temperatures can be a challenge but people like to keep fit so it’s down to me to motivate them to keep them fit.’
As a secondary role, Lee acts as a quartermaster on the bridge, driving the ship through the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s busiest stretches of water.
‘That can be quite tricky sometimes – when you’re going through the busiest shipping lane in the world, you can have some really busy days,’ said Lee, whose brother, Ian is in the navy on HMS Queen Elizabeth. ‘It definitely keeps you on your toes.’
Able Seaman Dhillion Walters, 18, is on his first deployment with the navy and said dealing with the Iranians was always a tense moment.
‘It is scary sometimes,’ he admitted. ‘You don’t know what they’re going to do. The Iranians do occasionally come out and come towards us before turning away. But it can be worrying.’
Keeping sailors healthy in the horrendous heat of the Gulf falls to the ship’s doctor, Lieutenant Surgeon Charlie Rowland, 30, of Portsmouth.
‘Being in the Gulf has been pretty challenging,’ he said. ‘It’s tricky at times. Safety is the most important thing, we cannot afford to be breaking people because of the climate – it’s about being aware of the risk and making basic changes to people’s routines.’
HMS Montrose is the first Royal Navy frigate to be forward-based in the Gulf as part of a renewed British presence in the region.
She is operated in rotation by two crews – each made up of about 200 people – who spend between about five months out in the region.
Montrose, which formerly operated from Plymouth, was re-based to Portsmouth as part of a shake-up of the fleet in 2017.