Naval aviators are almost home after five months in the Far East supporting France’s key Pacific deployment of 2018.
Around 30 fliers and ground crew, plus two Wildcat helicopters, from 847 Naval Air Squadron have been embarked on the French assault ship FS Dixmude since February.
They’ve been on board throughout the ship’s deployment to the western Pacific Rim – and say the experience has been unforgettable, given the destinations visited and forces they’ve trained with.
The final stint of the Jeanne d’Arc 2018 (Joan of Arc) deployment from Singapore to the French Mediterranean coast via Djibouti and Crete has largely been an Anglo-French affair, with the Royal Marines using the long spells at sea to hone their board-and-search skills – used for taking down pirates, smugglers and drug runners – and then share them with their French counterparts.
The best and quickest way to catch crews of suspect vessels unaware is to rapid rope – abseil from a helicopter, dropping swiftly down a trailing rope on to a deck, normally in a particularly confined space where a helicopter could not land.
“The ability to quickly employ lightly-equipped troops on to small areas is a great capability at sea,” explained Wildcat aircrewman Sgt Tom Goy, who oversees the potentially-dangerous maneuver.”
With the Wildcat in a stable hover over the flight deck, Sgt Goy dispatched the marines one by one down the rope, starting at just 15ft above the deck and climbing to the maximum height of 40ft
“It’s been great doing fast roping on the Dixmude – the Royal Marines were really keen to get up in the aircraft and do some live training and the French Marines completed theirs very safely. It sets the foundation for further potential boarding operations in the future.”
Meanwhile in the hangar, some of the Royal Marines have been playing victims – mauled by the sole French attack dog on board Dixmude for protection duties.
Having volunteered for that, they stepped forward again when jiu jitsu expert PO Gareth Harvey offered to share his three years of expertise in the field of self defense.
Should anyone ever threaten a Royal Marine with a gun or knife, the green beret should be able to take them out with sheer physical strength, cunning and speed.
“The training was an excellent workout and could prove to be a life-saving skill in the environments in which Royal Marines regularly operate,” said Gareth.
“The guys took to the training with the usual Royal Marines attitude – lots of guts and enthusiasm. After only one session they already had a solid foundation in the techniques, on which we hope to build.”
Throughout the five-month deployment, a small team of engineers and technicians have toiled to maintain the Wildcats “in some pretty unpleasant conditions, both on deck and down below in the hangar,” says CPO Paul Perry, the senior maintenance rating with the detachment.
“We’ve have gone about our business with professionalism and the typical good humour of the Royal Navy,
“We have also learned how our French counterparts go about their engineering tasks and identified where we can learn from each other’s practices – which can only be a good thing.”
Once the Dixmude returns to her home base of Toulon, the Wildcat detachment face a 680-mile journey back to their native Yeovilton, an eight-hour flight from the south of France with stops along the way to refuel and considerable planning to navigate French airspace – something their French shipmates have been helping with.
“The Jeanne d’Arc deployment has been an excellent experience,” pilot said Lt Oliver Leisk.
“We’ve seen some incredible places and carried out some really valuable training with the French and other nations. The assistance from the French pilots has been of great help and is one positive indication of how our working together has improved during the trip.
“I’m sure everyone on the 847 detachment will have many fond memories of their time aboard the Dixmude. That said, we’re all looking forward to getting back to the UK.”