HMS ARK ROYAL Op Telic 2003

This year is the 10th anniversary of Arks deployment to the Gulf on Telic and the tragic deaths of seven aircrew from 849 Squadron
Always rememembered never forgotten

Admiral Massey sums it up so well on the memorial website.


Admiral Alan Massey was captain of Ark Royal during Operation Telic. He left the ship in October 2003.
The following are his thoughts on those times written in April 2003, some four years later and after the inquests into the deaths of his seven crew members
ARK ROYAL and the Iraq War
It’s now 4 years since we - the ship’s company, Squadrons, Royal Marines and staff of HMS ARK ROYAL – were committed to Operation TELIC, the coalition war against Iraq, in March-April 2003. Memories of those few weeks remain sharp in the mind: weeks in which ARK ROYAL was re-tasked from a planned Far East deployment, prepared for combat, played her part in mounting and supporting the invasion of the Al-Faw pensinsula, and then made her way back to Britain whilst readying herself for the next potential call to arms.
It was the most extraordinary period: one which took us all through uncertainty, apprehension and fatigue; from elation to utter dejection; back up to grim, determined moral strength and – finally – to the satisfaction of a mission successfully completed…though at a tragic and unforgettable cost.
What one remembers most clearly is not so much the sight and sounds of the ship herself, although these are always impressive and captivating. But rather, the faces, personalities and mannerisms of the 1,080 people who sailed in her from Portsmouth to the very northern end of the Arabian Gulf. A rich mix of ages, backgrounds, experience and attitudes, it is they who personally brought ARK to life and gave her the vibrant, upbeat, resilient character for which that aircraft carrier has always been so well known around Britain and the world.
The ship was filled with men and women whose hard-won professional competence was more than matched by unquestioning moral commitment, enthusiasm and – above all – the humanity, humility and humour that most clearly distinguish the really great teams from the merely good. These things were everywhere in evidence: as much so in moments of relaxation, ribaldry and fun as in the long days of hard, repeated training; and eventually in combat itself. The whole team came together with an unshakeable sense of purpose and a determined will to win. And they needed precious little steerage from above.
As we moved from January towards possible, then certain, combat operations, the ship’s senior leadership knew it would be very important to maintain an atmosphere of normality on board. Yes, we had to prepare seriously for battle, and the threats and risks would be real enough. But the transition-to-war process needed to be measured, carefully balanced and sensibly paced. We took great care to keep familiar routines in place: fitness circuits and aerobics training several times a day (bless our two indefatigable Physical Training Instructors), film nights, quizzes, quarterdeck church services, Divisional briefs and meetings, band concerts. And of course that flight deck barbecue on 2 February in the Red Sea, immortalized in Lt Philip Green’s marvellously evocative ‘Boys of Summer’ video clip, in which 849 Squadron made their characteristically lively and irreverent contribution to the ship’s life.
Meanwhile, every entity and individual within the ship worked themselves ceaselessly up in flying, amphibious assault procedures, gunnery, damage control, firefighting, chemical defence, medical emergency, communications, tactical warfare, navigation and seamanship. And for much of the time - around 60 days of our total of 89 unbroken days at sea - most of the crew were in ‘defence watches’: relentlessly 8 hours on, 8 hours off , for weeks on end. For the youngest and most inexperienced – we had many 18-year olds on board, and also many sailors and Marines only in their first real jobs in the Navy – it was undoubtedly physically tiring and mentally stressful. It was crucial to keep everybody involved, informed and encouraged. As always, good leadership at every level meant personal contact, constant communication and a deliberate message that every single person had something vitally important to contribute – which was abundantly true. Safety was paramount; and a sense of family community within our austere grey surroundings was critically important to shared commitment, instinctive teamwork and clearly-defined common cause.
The boys and girls of 849 Squadron played their full part in all of this; and more. The professional Royal Navy – especially the aircraft carrier community - has a deep affection and respect for the ‘Bags’: helicopters, pilots, observers and ground crew alike. This was firmly reinforced during Op TELIC. Always seeming that bit wiser, more guileful and more willing than most to think and operate ‘outside the box’, they worked wonders with their - forgive me - slightly ageing and ungainly aircraft. And they usually emerged from training exercises with the emphatic upper hand – be it during fighter intercepts, surface surveillance and attack control, or even ‘routine’ airborne early warning sorties. During this deployment, they generally strode grinning from the flight deck; and were predictably noisy in the Wardroom and other Messes afterwards – Lt Andy Wilson’s famous dent in the Wardroom ceiling, inflicted by his head during a night of typically high jinks, quickly acquired totemic status throughout the ship.
It was completely in character for 849 that they should have taken on board their upgraded Mk 7 aircraft in 2002, with its entirely new mission system, and then immediately set about further developing and exploring its utility: well beyond – of course - its designed capabilities. Even the newest, youngest members of the Squadron were instantly imbued with the same desire for that winning professional edge. And it was exciting to see how, with almost every new sortie from ARK’s deck, they worked innovatively to push the boundaries of what the Mk 7 could bring to the ship and the wider Task Group. Pride in their achievement was palpable, and widely shared. Even Commander Air (‘Wings’), an anti-submarine helicopter observer, seemed just about willing to admit that 849 were onto something very special with their swiftly evolving warfare capability.
It wasn’t widely understood at the time just how important the 849 contribution was, in the first days of the war. In the dark, early hours of 21 March with the ship uncomfortably close inshore, we launched ‘D’ Company – some 150 men - of 40 Commando Royal Marines by assault helicopter from ARK’s flight deck, into the hostile territory of southern Iraq. There, they joined with the rest of 40 Commando and 42 Commando to secure the oil infrastructure of the Al-Faw peninsula, dominate the ground, and cover the right flank of the main invasion force as it broke though from Kuwait northwards towards Baghdad. Theirs were the first conventional coalition boots on Iraq’s territory, and during the initial phase of the war they were dangerously exposed to any determined Iraqi counter-attack from strongholds in Basra or further north.
849’s major and unique task at this critical point was to maintain a continuous airborne radar watch for enemy movements towards our Marines, in order both to provide advance warning to the Land Headquarters ashore, and to direct other British attack forces to cut the enemy off. They did both these things with stunning – and unprecedented – success, pushing their mission system to its newly-defined limits while flying round the clock in sometimes tricky conditions and congested airspace. They had a single, unswerving aim: to look after their comrades on the ground.
It came as a shattering, unimaginably awful blow when, only some 24 hours into ‘our’ war, the 849 helicopters Red Rat 34 and 35 collided over the waters of the Gulf, just 5 miles from ARK, in the early hours of 22 March. At a stroke, we lost seven of our finest, most dedicated young airmen, causing a shock wave which – although we perhaps even underestimated its effect at the time – reverberated through every ship of the Task Group, and indeed through the whole of the deployed British contingent in the area. My own crew in ARK will never forget the personal impact of that moment, and the effect it had on us in the hours and days that followed. The sudden loss of close colleagues and friends is not something for which you can readily prepare or train in advance: there is no ‘right’ formula, and I suspect it will always come down to individual strength of character, spirit and heart. But this was a very, very tough time for the ship. And we could not even begin to imagine what it must have been like for the families: they were constantly in our minds, but frustratingly and painfully beyond our practical reach.
It would be wrong to dwell too much on this impossibly sad and debilitating event. But two things remain indelibly in the mind from that day. First, the absolute insistence of every single member of 849 Squadron on getting their remaining aircraft back into the air: to crack on with their job, and finish the mission. Which they did, resoundingly well. And second, the immensely strong and sensitive personal leadership shown by every one of the officers, senior rates, leading hands and team leaders on board, in getting our people back on their feet from shock and despair, and right back into the battle. They – all of them – did brilliantly. And thanks to their efforts, ARK’s contribution to the Task Group and the war as a whole remained undiminished. Their performance was, frankly, humbling.
There is a third thing: that was the extreme bravery and selflessness of the US Navy diving team from USS CATAWBA, who spent day after day in dangerously exposed waters, with the war still in full flow, to seek and recover our lost airmen from the sea. Unforced, unsung and undemonstrative, their incredible commitment was a huge and indispensable boost to our crew, and will always hold our grateful admiration. Just as Lt Tom Adams USN was utterly dedicated to his task as an exchange observer in 849, so this team underlined the great strength of the military bond between our countries.
Four years on, the Iraq war has become deeply immersed in controversy, and plenty of popular wisdom-after-the-event. But this should never be allowed in the slightest to demean or diminish the quality and value of all that was achieved at sea, on the ground and in the air during that perilous period. These things deserve to remain a source of the utmost professional pride and satisfaction, in which everyone connected with ARK ROYAL and her Task Group can justifiably share. One dares to hope that the same will also, always, apply to the memory of the 849 boys who gave everything for our cause, and our people. Their commitment, and the unique part they played in the vibrant lives of their Squadron and ship, will never be forgotten.

Alan Massey
April 2007
Good one Rummers you split my sides with that, I pulled some of the dead lads from the water - not pretty, boxed them up and sent them home to their families with as much dignity as I could manage under the circumstances.

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