Royal Navy divers from Portsmouth join huge exercise hunting out mines in the Gulf

EXPLOSIVES experts from the Royal Navy have been sharpening their minehunting skills as part of this year’s biggest naval exercise in the Middle East.

Thursday, 14th November 2019, 5:07 pm
British Royal Navy clearance divers assigned to Task Group 522.3 conduct a search for mines during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX). With a quarter of the world's navies participating. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Daniel Rolston)

Scores of sailors from Portsmouth are among the 5,000 men and women taking part in the fortnight-long International Maritime Exercise (IMX) 19 workout.

Spread across a vast area spanning the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Gulf, the series of war games features about 30 ships and more than 50 nations.

And as it got under way, The News was given a behind-the-scenes look at the teams responsible for keeping the world’s busiest shipping lane mine-free.

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Royal Navy ship HMS Defender and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship RFA Cardigan Bay anchor a formation of coalition mine countermeasures and maritime security vessels at sea, operating in support of the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX). IMCMEX includes navies from more than 30 countries spanning six continents training together across the Middle East. The exercise is focused on maritime security from mine countermeasures, maritime infrastructure protection and maritime security operations in support of civilian shipping (photo courtesy of Royal Navy/Released)

Among them include Royal Navy divers from the UK’s Fleet Diving Unit 3 (FDU3) who are normally based at Horsea Island near Portsmouth but who have a permanent three-strong team supporting operations in the Gulf.

The specialist squad is currently based British support ship RFA Cardigan Bay, which is acting as the floating headquarters for an international team of divers from 10 countries who are taking part in the exercise.

Leading them all is Royal Navy officer Commander Simon Cox, commander of the UK mine countermeasures force in the Middle East.

The 40-year-old, who will soon take up a new post in Portsmouth, said there had been very few historic mines found in recent years.

However, he stressed the importance of having a deterrent force of ‘world-leading’ experts like those from the Royal Navy, was vital to keeping the sea lanes clear of explosives.

Cdr Cox said: ‘Mine warfare has been around for centuries and it remains the single biggest attribution of loss of ships at sea.

‘As a threat it is still massively potent. So the best way we can deter that activity is by preventing mines ever going in the water.

‘We can do that by having the most credible and world-leading capability. That is what the UK offers - one of the most potent expeditionary mine warfare task groups anywhere in the world.

‘We have proven that repeatedly over the last decade and it’s a real honour to be out here commanding that at the moment.’

Two of the four British minehunters based in the Middle East – HMS Brocklesby and Ledbury, both from Portsmouth – are involved in the exercise, plus a battle staff on RFA Cardigan Bay.

The latter normally acts as a mother ship to the Royal Navy’s minehunters, providing them with fuel, food and ammo to sustain operations for extended periods.

Instead, for the duration of the exercise – the third such international meeting of minds on mines – she has become the ‘United Nations of Divers’ with teams more than 100 sailors from 10 nations embarked, including Horsea’s FDU3.

All operating together as one, the divers are working through a scenario against a fictitious enemy. Their role is to focus on the ‘underwater battle’ in finding, identifying and neutralising any mines found beneath the surface of the Gulf.

In the case of FDU3 they also ‘exploit’ mines, safely recovering the devices for investigation to help colleagues cope should they encounter them in the future.

The divers deployed en masse to Bahrain to join the auxiliary, bringing with them a portable recompression chamber to practise recovering and treating any diver brought to the surface suffering from the bends - a potentially fatal build up of nitrogen in the blood.

In November the water temperature of 30C is higher than the air temperature of 28C – the heat poses the biggest challenge to both the divers and their equipment.

Chief Petty Officer (Diver) Les Cockerton, 40, of Portsmouth, said: ‘Anywhere we go is a challenge. In Iceland we have beautiful clear waters, in Norway you can almost see the mine the moment you enter the water, but the environment is harsh on you and your equipment.

‘Out here, it’s the heat. But see it as another challenge to overcome. We always find a way to make it work – and it makes our job exciting.

‘Diving is a great job, there’s incredible camaraderie. Whatever lies ahead, we get on with it, and we get to travel the world doing it.’

Lieutenant Koji Oda’s team of divers from Yokohama in Japan operates much of the same equipment as his British counterparts, such as the Remus automated sonar scanner.

The 36-year-old said working alongside the Royal Navy had been a fantastic experience.

‘The Japanese Navy has many chances to exercise with the US Navy but we don’t often get to work with the Royal Navy,’ he said. ‘I think they are very professional. They have been good to work with.’

The new friendships being forged on Cardigan Bay is a huge bonus for the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Karl Woodfield, who grew up in Chandlers Ford.

The 55-year-old, who has been in the RFA for 38 years, said: ‘It’s great having 130 different military personnel from ten different nations on my ship, all working together. It’s a fantastic opportunity to build on old partnerships, forge new ones, make new friends.

‘I like to think of my ship as the UK armed forces’ secret weapon – she’s incredibly versatile, whether she’s supporting the minehunters or hosting divers and their equipment from ten different nations.’

IMX 19 will conclude next week.