THIS is what it is like to be on the receiving end of the Royal Navy’s main gun.
Viewed through the ‘eyes’ of a Wildcat helicopter’s hi-tech infra/optic camera – capable of seeing through clouds – these are 4.5in high explosive shells from destroyer HMS Duncan crashing down on a rocky outcrop north of Crete.
The Portsmouth-based warship tested her marksmanship with devastating accuracy, striking the rocks of Karavia – from a position 10 miles to the east, flexing her muscles as part of a NATO task group patrolling the Mediterranean.
Sixty-six shells rained down on the rocks during a concerted shoot by the destroyer’s gunnery team.
Hovering a safe distance from the target, the sensors on board the Wildcat can direct and fine tune the targeting chain to provide Duncan continuous updates on the enemy’s movements.
The fall of shot was guided by a specialist observer or ‘spotter’ in Duncan’s Wildcat helicopter from the Royal Artillery’s 148 Battery.
They are the experts the Navy turns to when it wants to provide effective gunfire support to forces ashore, such as on the Al Faw Peninsula in Iraq in 2003; the spotter feeds the Principal Warfare Officer with details on the accuracy of the rounds and any adjustments to the gun’s elevation and direction.
‘Flying is always invigorating, whether it’s routine reconnaissance or a search and rescue mission,’ said Lieutenant Tom Horne, the Wildcat’s observer – responsible for navigation and mission/weapons systems on board.
‘Gun shoots are special though – a combination of oversight and mission control as well as the chance to provide real-time support to the teams on the ground. Naval Gunfire Support is an integral part of the ship’s contribution to wider operations.’
Making sure that the Mk8 Mod 1 4.5in gun functioned throughout the concerted shoot was Chief Petty Officer John Davies, the weapon’s senior maintainer, and his team.
The many moving parts in the gun mechanism are expected to allow the ops room team to fire up to 23 rounds a minute at targets 15 miles away.
The gun is electrically and hydraulically driven – the motors must be able to move up to 33 tonnes in weight to ensure the training of the turret and elevation of the barrel.
Despite the level of computerisation/automation in the 21st Century, a gunnery shoot remains crew-intensive with seven sailors at their posts throughout.
‘This type of shoot is always one of the most exhilarating,’ said John. ‘As the chief maintainer I will direct the gun from below, feeding the rounds and monitoring the systems. The noise, as it shoots, is deafening – the vibrations are all around. It is fantastic to be so close to the action.’
Somewhat further removed – although the entire destroyer judders as each shell leaves the barrel at more than twice the speed of sound – in the operations room was Lieutenant Hugh Gaskell-Taylor, one of three Principal Warfare Officers aboard Duncan.
‘Firing the 4.5 is old-school warfare. It is a concept that has been around for centuries and is still relevant to this day,’ he explained.
‘It is my job to conduct the firing and direct the mission on behalf of the captain but owing to operational commitments it can often be difficult to get this type of training into the programme so I am lucky to have been able to conduct this shoot on board.’
Duncan is currently attached to a Nato task group patrolling the eastern Mediterranean having already worked with French flagship Charles de Gaulle supporting operations against Isis in Iraq and Syria and trained with two US carrier battlegroups – USS Abraham Lincoln and John C Stennis.