Sandwiched amongst a caravan park and a housing estate in a tranquil corner of Poole, the Hamworthy Camp is a suitably discrete locale for the headquarters of Britain’s most secretive elite armed forces force – the Unique Boat Service.
At some point shortly after 10.04am on Sunday, when the captain of the Nave Andromeda oil tanker broadcast a mayday information on the open up airwaves stating that stowaways had confronted his crew as the vessel sailed off the Isle of Wight, a phone would have been made to the Poole barracks bringing a single of the SBS squadrons on everlasting alert inside to action stations.
In just several hours, a group of 16 commandos, aided by some 35 comrades which includes a group of divers sent to examine no matter if mines experienced been put on the Liberian-registered tanker, was completely ready to board the ship anchored off the mouth of the Solent with its 22 crew now locked in its “citadel” – a function-crafted strong area used to ward off pirate assaults.
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Shortly after 8pm in pitching seas, the SBS force descended on ropes to the deck of the Andromeda from 4 Royal Navy helicopters which experienced taken off minutes before from Hamworthy Camp, otherwise known as Royal Marines Foundation Poole. Between the first commando touching down and the seven stowaways deciding to surrender in the confront of frustrating force while the crew ended up produced safe and sound and audio a overall of 9 minutes experienced elapsed.
It was a textbook operation of the correct nature for which the SBS trains, ironically in the very same waters where by the Andromeda ground to a halt on Sunday morning after radar picked up its erratic system as relations deteriorated between the crew and the stowaways, whose presence on board is comprehended to have been known by the crew several days just before the tanker arrived off its spot port of Southampton after leaving Lagos in Nigeria on 6 October.
Discussion continued as to regardless of whether it amounted to a hijacking – a scenario denied by associates of the 42,000-ton ship’s Greek homeowners.
‘Training is demanding and constant’
Both way, in search of to disrupt the passage of a large ship in the backyard of the SBS would not seem to have been a move of tactical genius.
As one military source put it: “This is the sort of op that these men exist to execute. The instruction is arduous and constant, and they know these waters like the backs of their arms. Every incident where control of a vessel is unclear has to be addressed as a likely hijacking right up until we are confident that is not the case.
“But you really don’t need to be a criminal mastermind to function out that seeking to seize an oil tanker seven minutes traveling time from the headquarters of likely the finest elite drive in the world when it arrives to naval special ops won’t close very well.”
Veil of secrecy
In holding with its plan of never confirming or denying unique forces functions, the Ministry of Defence stated only that “Armed Forces personnel” have been involved in the storming of the tanker.
Indeed, in the netherworld of Britain’s elite armed forces models, a especially opaque veil of secrecy is thrown about the functions of the SBS.
Formed around the exact time as the better-known Special Air Service (SAS) during the Second Planet War, the unit is the elite power of the Royal Navy and consists just about completely of personnel from the Royal Marines, which includes a number of frontline female recruits.
The force has evolved in recent many years, assuming obligation for maritime counter-terrorism operations alongside its part in extra common covert warfare part. But compared even to the SAS, the pursuits of the SBS are normally held firmly out of the headlines.
It is comprehended to be smaller sized than the SAS, consisting of about 150 to 200 personnel organised into four “squadrons” which rotate through duties from counter-terrorism to overseas deployments. Even with its naval heritage, SBS soldiers are regularly deployed on floor functions and have served together with the SAS and American elite forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But it is the preparedness to offer with waterborne terror threats that can take up an rising share of the unit’s workload. Its commandos perform typical physical exercises to deal with situations from a terrorist assault on a cross-Channel ferry to countering the hijacking of a vessel to conduct an assault on a key port or town.
In December 2018, a SBS drive boarded an Italian cargo vessel, the Grande Tema, following four stowaways ran amok and threatened crew customers on the Thames Estuary. Like the adult males arrested on the Nave Andromeda, the culprits had boarded the ship in Nigeria in research of better lifestyle in Europe.
Armed forces commanders argue that in an more and more instable planet, there is a escalating threat that functions this sort of as the 10-hour stand-off on board the Nave Andromeda could take on a far more sinister complexion.
Previous Royal Navy Rear Admiral Chris Parry explained: “Next time it may well not be just stowaways. It could be terrorists, it could be persons smugglers or anything at all. We’ve bought to technique this problem in a much more advanced way, we’ve acquired to up our intelligence.”