Operation Atalanta: On patrol over dangerous waters

December 12, 2018 (Google Translation) – The area of ​​operation of the anti-piracy operation Atalanta is larger than Europe. Only by airplane can this huge area in the Indian Ocean be effectively monitored. Our author went on board a German seafaring explorer of the type Orion.

At half past five in the morning the thermometer is already 30 degrees – and rising. Heat and humidity in Djibouti are a challenge for Europeans. The technicians of the naval aviation squadron 3 from Nordholz are currently making their way to the airfield of the French Air Force.

Since September, the German contingent of the “European Union Naval Force Somalia – Operation Atalanta” has again grown to more than 70 soldiers. And this is due to a naval reconnaissance officer of the Navy type P-3C Orion with the radio call sign “Jester”.

Hotspot of piracy

This is the beginning of the intermonsoon season in the Horn of Africa. The sea off Somalia is quieting and the likelihood of pirate attacks is increasing. Along the Somali coast runs one of the world’s most important trade routes. For years, the region was a hotspot of piracy.

Since 2008, Operation Atalanta has been protecting international merchant shipping. Germany is there right from the start: twice a year, for four months each, German naval aircraft patrol the coast of East Africa.

Arrived at the base, the German soldiers begin with the pre-flight inspection. In three hours to start Jester. The “Mission Support Center” (MSC), the operational center of German Atalanta participation, has been on fire for a long time. Server cabinets hum, shimmering fans to cool the room.

Oberbootsmann Hagen Klein * sits in one corner and leafs through a file folder. He is the aerial image evaluator of the contingent. Captain Lieutenant Timo Brasch * and Werner Rudolph * are also sitting in front of their monitors in the MSC, drawing up lists and setting the same data. The two tasking and intelligence officers prepare the crew briefing.

“The missions are prepared, accompanied and followed up,” explains Rudolph. “When the machine comes back tonight, the main work will start for us.” Then hundreds of new photos and videos will have to be spotted. On the tees of the technicians are the first sweat spots, but the mood is solved: Jester is ready for use.

Piracy is a smoldering fire

The briefing begins punctually at seven in the MSC. Today it goes to the southern coast of Somalia. Twelve camps are to be flown and explored, all former pirate nests.

In the past five years, piracy has decreased significantly. “That’s because of Atalanta and the commitment of the participating nations,” quota leader Etienne Wilke explains. The 39-year-old has already been stationed six times as Corvette captain in Djibouti. “It has simply become too dangerous for the pirates here.”

Despite the relative calm, Atalanta remains important. Because without state structures and work there can always be a relapse. “Piracy is like a smoldering fire here. It only takes a breeze – and the fire is rekindled,” explains Wilke.

Half an hour before the start, the crew has assembled on the plane. The navigator explains the route and explains the checkpoints. Then Jester rolls off. Dull blows make the plane tremble before it takes off.

Minutes later, only desert can be recognized. The flight to the operation area will take over two hours. “The field of application is huge, the distances are long,” explains co-driver Torsten Maler *. There is little to do for the operators of the sensor stations right up to the target area.

Alternately on sentry

Main boatman Marcus Bayer * pours himself a coffee in the small kitchen of the plane. Bayer is used on board for overwater detection. For him, it is the third mission at Atalanta. This time the 33-year-old jumped in at short notice, with the team he was fast on a wavelength.

“We always change at the different stations. After a while, it is very exhausting to focus on the camera or the radar. Even as Observer on the windows you can not stare eternally on the water. It just looks like it’s not. ”


The coastline of Somalia is in sight, Jester has reached the operational area. At mid-height, the first camp is overflown. There is a ruined house and orange tarpaulins that once served as tents. No people, no boats on the beach. Nevertheless, everything is photographed to match the camp with old photos.

Continue to the next camp. At his workplace, Bayer looks spellbound at the monitor, zooms in with the high-resolution camera. Everything is recorded automatically. Despite the distance of several nautical miles: On the monitor, everything is crisp and close enough to touch. In the village are people, cars and a camel herd to recognize. On the beach are a handful of skiffs, small fishing boats, typical of the region.

Once again, the camp is overflown to miss no detail. After the third approach Jester turns off. Concentrated, the soldiers sit in front of their consoles, taking photographs and logging.

Fisherman or pirate?

After half of the list is exchanged at the stations. A whaler brings variety. The big fishing boat has aroused the interest of the crew – she flies a loop. The crew of the boat gazes into the sky, but then goes back to work.

“Nothing flashy, probably only fishermen. Sometimes they even pick up their tarpaulins to show their cargo or nets. They know why we are here, “explains Bayer. When all the camps have left, it goes back.

The technicians are already waiting on the base. As soon as Jester has reached his parking position, the aircraft is already surrounded by technicians: connect power and air conditioning lines, open flaps on the engines and on the fuselage. Check fill levels, wire locks and screws.

Every step, every move, the whole process seems like a rehearsed choreography. All have one goal: to make Jester fit for the next job as soon as possible.

An important use
For the crew, the day ends after a brief debriefing. For the three soldiers in the MSC, it takes hours until the mission report is written. Captain Lieutenant Rudolph is satisfied and puts it in a nutshell: “Any sailor who is not kidnapped here justifies this mission.”

* Name changed