Smallest RN ships join big exercise

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Four of the smallest vessels in the Royal Navy’s inventory this week take their place in NATO’s biggest exercise in a generation, the Royal Navy reports.

Patrol boats HMS Biter, Blazer, Exploit and Trumpeter have completed a month-long voyage from their base in Portsmouth to venture further north than any of their class – above the 70th Parallel – have gone in 35 years’ service.

After a journey of nearly 2,200 miles from their home in Portsmouth, the quartet are ready to play their part supporting NATO raiding forces deep in the Arctic Circle as the first phase of the alliance’s huge winter exercise Steadfast Defender reaches its climax over the next week in the fjords, valleys and small towns and villages of Norway’s Finnmark and Troms districts.

While it takes a few days for most participating ships – Royal Navy involvement is led by aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales – to sail from Portsmouth to the exercise area, it’s been an epic of logistics, planning and engineering to send the fast patrol craft to the Arctic,
The boats are designed for operating in coastal waters – usually at sea by day, returning to port at night, although they can be out longer, but never more than a few days.

As a result the four boats have ‘hopped’ from port to port on their epic journey to the Arctic, first via Ramsgate, Scheveningen and Den Helder (Netherlands), then the island of Helgoland off Germany’s North Sea coast and Esbjerg and Thyboron in Denmark.

And then into Norway, gradually making their way up the west coast from Kristiansand in the southwest to north of Tromsø deep inside the Arctic (calling in for fuel and supplies along the way at: Egersund, Stavanger, Bergen, Florø, Måløy, Alesund, Kristiansund, Trondheim, Sandnessjøen, and Harstad).

Lieutenant ‘Teddy’ Bradley, the Royal Navy exchange officer to the Royal Norwegian Navy said having completed the journey, the small boats had an important role to play in the exercise.

‘Deploying four Archer Class to the Arctic is some challenge. Successfully integrating them and their support team into a well-established and specialist force like the Norwegian Coastal Rangers, and achieving operational success is another level entirely.

“It’s a real demonstration to our adversaries of what NATO can do even with the most unlikely combination of resources.”

Engineer Lieutenant Jack Meggs is part of the specialist staff supporting the deployment to the Arctic.

“Bringing the Coastal Forces Squadron to the north of Norway is no mean feat but the teams onboard have proven what we knew to be true, that the Archer class platform is just as capable deep in the Arctic Circle as it is in UK waters,” he said.

Due to their size the patrol boats are limited to waves of no more than three metres – which has forced them either to skirt around bad weather or take shelter in harbour.

And when the weather has relented and allowed the quartet to sail, the craft are operated from a ‘flying bridge’ completely exposed to the elements.

Temperatures this winter have been unusually mild – the lowest the quartet have recorded is -4 Celsius… but the windchill has taken it down another 20 degrees at times.

“While the journey north has not been without its challenges, the ships have continued to perform as we have headed north,” said Leading Engineering Technician Matthew Read, deputy marine engineer on Biter.

“The trip has been one to remember and now that we are working on Exercise Steadfast Defender, it is providing a fantastic opportunity to work alongside NATO allies and partners.”

His shipmate Engineering Technician Kai Hitchcock added: “Deploying for the first time has been very enjoyable, seeing the Northern lights has been a particular highlight as well as entering the Arctic Circle.

“I am looking forward to what lies ahead in the exercise as we work with our NATO partners over the coming weeks.”

The boats will remain in Norway once their role in Steadfast Defender ends; they will make their way back down the coast towards Bergen for Joint Expeditionary Force training with the Fleet Air Arm and Norwegian Navy at the end of April.

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