The final amphibious workout of the UK military’s summer deployment to the Baltic saw Royal Marines fight to ‘liberate’ an idyllic island in the Gulf of Riga.
Fresh from displaying what Britain’s new Joint Expeditionary Force can do for the region’s security for Estonia’s president, the task group – led by UK flagship HMS Albion – moved a couple of hundred miles around the coast to the island of Saaremaa.
Saaremaa is Estonia’s largest island – seven times the size of the Isle of Wight but with only a quarter of the population – occupying a commanding position at the gateway to the Gulf of Riga.
For the purposes of this exercise, the island had been swallowed whole by an aggressive neighbour – played by men and women of the Estonian Defence Forces who’d grown up on Saaremaa and therefore knew every rock and tree upon it.
To beat them, Albion launched a series of dummy raids on the sands of Saaremaa by helicopter and landing craft to draw in the defenders… while the real ‘invasion’ took place on the other side of the island.
Royal Marines of Yankee Company, 45 Commando – based aboard support ship RFA Lyme Bay – were quietly put ashore by boats before yomping (forced marching) across Saaremaa, linked up with covert reconnaissance teams who’d spent 24 hours on the island monitoring the ‘enemy’ unseen.
With surprise on their side, the commandos then attacked the well-defended main Estonian position from an unexpected direction.
With British Army Apache helicopters working for the Estonian side, the more numerous Estonian troops rallied and conducted a successful blocking action to repel the advancing marines.
Rather than follow a pre-determined plan, this war game was ‘free play’: no participant knew the outcome as the exercise began.
Instead, a series of military ‘referees’ determined who were the victors of the Battle of Saaremaa – and picked the defenders (the commandos claim it was a draw…).
With the fighting over, breakfast was brought ashore from Lyme Bay and family and friends of the Estonian troops were then treated to a display of UK military equipment, including weapons, Viking vehicles, Apache helicopters, and various landing craft.
“It’s been good for us in Estonia – we got the opportunity to land the Vikings on to the beach and meeting the Estonian Defence League at the end of the exercise, sharing breakfast with them, was a great chance to get to know them,” said 32-year-old Sergeant Dave Clowes of the Royal Marines’ Armoured Support Group.
Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Forbes, in charge of 45 Commando, added: “My Royal Marines, and our partners in the Estonian forces relished the opportunity to conduct challenging training in this environment. Complex training brings out the best in commandos and it is a delight to operate alongside our Estonian partners.”
The Baltic Protector deployment also gave the marines and British Army the rare chance to practise landing a Challenger 2 tank.
Only the marines’ large Landing Craft Utility – a mini military ro-ro ferry – is large and powerful enough to ship the 62-tonne armoured beast from the bowels of HMS Albion to shore.
The King’s Royal Hussars – currently part of NATO’s land forces in Estonia – provided one tank, carefully driven on board the landing craft in Albion’s well dock by 21-year-old Trooper Damien Stratford, while coxswain Colour Sergeant ‘Daz’ Donavan fought heavy seas to keep the craft in position.
There then followed a three-mile journey to the beach where the tank was successfully offloaded.
Although the amphibious element of the Baltic Protector deployment is now over, the task group will remain in the region for another fortnight conducting training and visits before returning to the UK.