OUR first glimpse of HMS Albion is through a metal grille, one that's being relentlessly splashed by salt water and cold sea spray.
The grille rises like a drawbridge at the front of the grey Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP: the navy loves its abbreviations), a troop-carrying vessel which seems to have been lifted from the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Today, instead of its usual detachment of Royal Marines, the LCVP is carrying members of Her Majesty's press, invited to tour one of the Royal Navy's flagships from its 21st-century fleet.
Over the next two weeks the waters off Scotland's west coast, from Arran to Cape Wrath, and around many of the islands in between, will become a battleground. Fighter jets will launch low-level assaults on frigates, killer submarines will track aircraft carriers, including the famed HMS Ark Royal, while helicopters will perform ship-to-ship rescues. This is all in the name of the Neptune Warrior training course, which takes place twice a year: this time, however, it will carry a special significance.
Every one of the 19 ships, 20 helicopters, 60 fixed-wing aircraft and 4,000 men and women involved will be reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, the last battle Britain fought alone. Yet the military message imparted at today's event is clear: a quarter-century on, Britain is better equipped than ever to defend itself at sea, following a 14 billion investment package which, in the past ten years, has resulted in 28 new ships, including the HMS Albion, and one submarine.
Once the LCVP is alongside the ship, giant steel cables are lowered, and the entire boat is efficiently hoisted up and secured to davits (the arms that hold lifeboats on civilian vessels), allowing us to step freely on to the ship's deck, where Rear-Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt greets us. The Flag Officer for Scotland, Northern England and Northern Ireland, the Rear-Admiral is our host for the morning. After shaking hands, dispensing broad smiles, sprinkling everyone with a brisk, friendly "welcome aboard", he escorts our party along tight and sharply-angled corridors painted grey, through bulkhead doors and down narrow steel steps, until we reach the main storage deck, which resembles a massive car ferry hold. It is packed with heavy trucks, small military vehicles and a few dozen marines, polishing kit, and sitting atop huge rucksacks.
HMS Albion, which was launched in March 2001, and which weighs 18,500 tonnes, is a purpose-built landing platform deck ship, designed to carry troops as far as possible into combat across water, delivering them to smaller vessels, thence to take the short trip ashore. The LCVP on which we came aboard, and which is capable of carrying 30 marines, is the baby brother of the Landing Craft Utility (LCU), which can carry an 85-tonne Chieftain tank. Four of these tanks currently sit, one pair in front of the other, at the stern. As we wait and watch, the stern slowly opens and the ballast of the ship is adjusted to allow it to sink, the chamber to flood, and the first vessel to drive out.
Even here under a cold and rainy sky, the Rear-Admiral exhibits the excitable nature of a head boy at school. The Royal Navy, he says, is in great shape as the result of the government's investment over the past decade.
"The new vessels have created an incredible flexibility," he says, "from which we now have global reach and greater influence. We can swing from humanitarian work to peacekeeping to actual war fighting; onboard we have all the skills necessary - engineers, electricians, plumbers, even dentists."
When I put it to him that we often read naval "sources" insisting that the service is badly underfunded, he neatly pooh-poohs any such notion: "We have enough ships to do what we are being asked because of our capability. But if the government wants us to do anything more, then that will have to change."
His enthusiasm is infectious; his pride absolute. Even when questioned about the recent wave of poor publicity for the Royal Navy, following the Iranian captives crisis and subsequent media interviews for which those involved were permitted to accept payment, his smile does not waver.
"The Navy is very resilient. You wouldn't want me to talk about what the Secretary of State said," he says, referring to the Defence Minister, Des Browne's recent non-apologetic apology, "so I won't add to that, but what I would say is that the Navy bounces back. The sailor's morale is very robust."
As the LCU takes a few spins around the vessel, offering it a fine view of a military helicopter coming in to land, I speak to a number of local servicemen and women. Alanna MacLeod, 24, from Glasgow is a surgeon lieutenant who works as a Royal Navy dentist.
She joined up four years ago, after completing two years at Glasgow University. "I just couldn't see me operating as a dentist in civvy street. I think I would have died of boredom. You sign up knowing these things [such as being captured] can happen," she explains. "But I don't know how I would react."
Jacqueline McNeish, 20, from Lesmahagow, joined up just ten months ago and is now an engineering technician (weapons). Before joining the Navy she had been working as an apprentice electrician, and she decided that she fancied a greater challenge, as well as a chance to travel the world. "It's great fun. You do work hard, but it's with some great people."
This picture-perfect portrait of a naval career is punctured slightly by James Snowball, 22, a Bellshill boy who knows on which side his bread is buttered. Asked why he joined he explains instantly: "Pension - I want to retire when I'm 42." Yet his accompanying laughter suggests there may be more to his career choice than that.
After the LCU makes its way back to HMS Albion, the Rear Admiral slips away, leaving us to sample the legendary delights of naval cuisine: delicious pork chops and generous amounts of mashed potatoes - I have to admit, it isn't half bad.
Our "lift" back to dry land takes much longer this time: HMS Albion has sailed on "doon the watter" and so it's back on the LCVP to crash through the waves until Largs hoves into view. Our last image of HMS Albion is an arresting and memorable one: a helicopter appears to parallel park, moving backwards into its spot, secure on the ship's top deck.
After even a fleeting visit such as this one, I am left with the sense that, 25 years on from the fire and fighting of the Falklands, the Royal Navy continues to honour those that fell and to support all those who now stand in their place.
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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