The Royal Navy will continue permanently operating a major warship in the Gulf and Middle East after swapping vessels patrolling the region.
After three and a half years in the Gulf, Indian Ocean and Red Sea, frigate HMS Montrose has been relieved by HMS Lancaster, to continue a mission key to the UK’s – and international – prosperity and security, safeguarding merchant shipping, tackling criminal and terrorist activity including smuggling arms and drugs, and working with allies across the region.
HMS Montrose, which left the UK in October 2018 and has been operating from the Royal Navy’s Naval Support Facility in Bahrain since April 2019, soon found herself at the heart of global events when tensions in the region led to threats and attacks on merchant shipping.
They have passed through the Strait of Hormuz – the chokepoint which is the narrow gateway to the Gulf – on 111 occasions, accompanying 132 merchant vessels in the process: supporting the safe passage of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of shipping carrying oil, gas, cars, electronics and other goods.
When tensions subsided, Montrose spent the bulk of her time east of Suez working with regional and international allies and has frequently been assigned to Combined Maritime Forces; the world’s largest multi-national naval partnership, and specifically Combined Task Force 150, which conducts security patrols across vast swathes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.
Since 2020, Montrose has seized over 16 tonnes of illegal narcotics over 10 busts, denying criminal/terrorist groups of proceeds worth at least £80m on the UK wholesale market and making headlines for the ship around the globe.
And in a first for the Royal Navy, HMS Montrose twice intercepted boats trying to ship high-tech weaponry, contravening a UN Security Council Resolution, seizing surface-to-air missiles and engines for cruise missiles in the process.
“Drugs busts and interceptions really allow the ship to show what she is capable of – whether you are part of the boarding teams, an engineer, a chef, it almost doesn’t matter because everyone plays their part and everyone is filled with pride,” said Commanding Officer Commander Claire Thompson.
“Thanks to media coverage these busts receive, it means family and friends are also aware of what we’ve been doing – and that’s really important.”
To sustain Montrose in the harsh Gulf environment, maintenance work has been carried out at local shipyards – including the new port of Duqm, Oman, where Montrose and Lancaster traded places – while every four months the entire crew of sailors, Royal Marines and aviators are swapped like-for-like with a second crew from the UK. Many of the crew of HMS Lancaster have previously served in the Gulf aboard Montrose.
The rotation of crew has spared the ship the month-long voyage to and from the Middle East at the beginning/end of a regular six or seven-month deployment, meant Montrose has been available for more operations, and allowed personnel to plan their lives with much greater certainty than other Royal Navy ships and operations.
“HMS Montrose is leaving the Gulf after four years away from home – I brought her out here as an able seaman,” said warfare specialist Lewis Turnbull, who’s since been promoted to the next rank, Leading Seaman.
“I am proud to now be part of her last ever crew, especially being the most operational Type 23 frigate for so long. But we are also all looking forward to seeing her back in the UK for Christmas.”
Lieutenant Joe Stutchbury, who commands the ship’s Royal Marines detachment, said the time aboard Montrose had been a “unique experience” for his commandos, who’d been at the forefront of a string of drugs busts.
“HMS Lancaster has some serious boots to fill as the next frigate deployed to the region,” he added.
“As the national press have reported, HMS Montrose has made the biggest drugs busts in the history of Gulf operations – but I’m sure our colleagues will do their best to match our achievements and I hope they pull it off.”
Upon her return to Devonport next month, HMS Montrose will undergo maintenance before a final spell of operational duties around the UK early in 2023 and a ‘farewell tour’ – including a visit to her namesake Scottish town – before the ship is formally decommissioned in the spring after 29 years’ active service.