Feature: 'In bad times, good friends turn up'|ERR News on the HMS Albion

The HMS Albion as we approach.
The HMS Albion as we approach. Source: Michael Cole

Last week, ERR News was invited on board British Royal Navy amphibious assault ship the HMS Albion. Fresh from taking part in this year's Spring Storm (Kevadtorm) military training exercise, the Albion's continued presence in Estonian waters is a sure sign of the UK and NATO's enduring commitment to security in the Baltic.

"It's been described as the sound of freedom," says Wg Cdr Scott MacColl, as a British Royal Air Force (RAF) Typhoon roars through the cloudless Baltic sky above our heads. "When they hear our jets, you know, you can really see that appreciation for us being here."

MacColl is the Commanding Officer of the RAF's 140 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW). We're speaking on board British Royal Navy amphibious assault ship the HMS Albion, as it sits just off the coast of Tallinn.

Even though U.K. forces have been in Estonia for a while, MacColl admits that Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine just over a year ago has completely changed the dynamic out here.

"A lot of our team are very used to coming to Ämari, because it's a long-standing mission," he says, referring to the Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) air base in north-west Estonia, where NATO's air policing fighter detachment has been stationed since 2014. "So, when they first step off that plane, perhaps it feels just like, here we are again."

Nowadays though, everyone who arrives from the U.K. to serve in Estonia is well aware of the strategic context in which they are operating. "When you speak to any Estonians, you really get that sense from them that things are a bit different now. It really sharpens the mind."

That's not to say there were any suggestions of the U.K. taking security in the region lightly before last February. "Baltic Air Policing is a long-standing mission for us," explains MacColl. "So, for our pilots and forces on the ground, it's business as usual. They just keep doing exactly what they've been trained to do."


Inside the LCVP en route to the Albion. Source: Michael Cole

One of the things they've been training to do in recent months is expand interoperability and build up an even better understanding with their NATO colleagues, by taking in a series of joint training exercises. The most recent of those was Exercise Spring Storm (Kevadtorm), the Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) largest annual training operation, which this year took place from May 15-26.

"Spring Storm was good, it was really good," Lt. Col. Stephen Wilson, Commanding Officer of the Queen's Royal Hussars (QRH) later tells me. Wilson commands a battle group of just over 1,000 troops, but with as many as 14,000 taking part in Estonia's largest annual military training exercise, he adds, the British contingent "were very much a cog in a big machine."

"Part of our mission is to deter and reassure," Wilson continues. "Training in Estonia outside of the central training areas, on public land, is a privilege, but it also has a real operational purpose and brings things into focus. It was a really good opportunity to train on the territory, which one day we might be asked to defend."

It's a rather sobering thought, but another important reminder of  something Commander of the HMS Albion Capt Marcus Hember also stresses - this is a really difficult time in terms of  wider European security.

"In bad times, good friends turn up," Hember says. "The challenge really is to continue to demonstrate our commitment to security here." He then reels off an impressive list of British and French Forces, which are in Estonia right now, doing just that. And that's not forgetting the Albion itself.

At 176 meters long, weighing 19.5 tonnes, and with the mission of delivering "the punch of the Royal Marines ashore by air and sea," Albion is certainly not in Estonian waters just for the fun of it. After being involved in Exercise "Aurora" over in Sweden, Albion also headed to Estonia for Spring Storm.

"At these difficult times," says Hember, "we take it very seriously."

A Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP) waits at Paldiski to take us out to the HMS Albion. Source: Michael Cole

"Spring Storm gave us a number of opportunities. We need water space and the opportunity to operate with maritime forces. Effectively, we need beaches that we can land our forces ashore up to. We also need exercise areas behind that, as well as someone to exercise with," he explains.

"Spring Storm offered all of those things. It also gave us the opportunity to work alongside our Estonian allies and learn from them about their environment here and how they operate." Crucially, it also provided a chance for the crew to fine tune their tactics, techniques and procedures as well as get to know the area better.

"It's been a really busy operating period," Hember says, when I ask him if he's had chance to see much of Estonia. "As you and I are standing here, around a hundred Royal Marines from 45 Commando are ashore making use of the excellent Estonian facilities to conduct some live firing training." After that, he adds, there will be a couple of days after this to explore a bit of Tallinn.


Spring was well and truly in the air when I arrived at Paldiski earlier that morning.

After a 40 minute drive from central Tallinn, it was only once we pulled up at the port that someone among the group of press and VIPs noticed our small fleet of SUVs were the same colors as the Estonian flag. Thankfully, there was just enough time to line them up in the correct order (blue, black, white of course) to take a photo before we were ushered towards a quite different mode of transport. Designed to transport troops or armored vehicles from ship to shore during amphibious landings, it was hard not to think about war movies like Saving Private Ryan when I first set eyes on the two LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnels) sat waiting to take us out to sea.

"Civilians, grab the red life jackets," we're told, before getting a quick demo of how to put them on properly. After grappling with a muddle of straps and clips, I finally manage to get into mine. But even with this to help keep me afloat, there's no way I fancy taking a plunge into the chilly-looking Baltic this morning.

We then pile into our seaborne carriages and the hatches are slammed shut behind us. I think back to this March, when I was lucky enough to spend the day aboard another British Navy ship, the HMS Mersey. That experience was unforgettable for many reasons, not least due to the realization that me and a life on the waves don't mix all that well. I brace myself in anticipation, that this too is likely to be no pleasure cruise.

But, to my surprise, as we begin bouncing along the Baltic Sea, and water pours in through the tiny cracks in the doors, I find myself really enjoying it. I get chatting to a member of the RAF from Liverpool about the very real prospect of Everton being relegated from the Premiership the next day. "Leicester and Leeds are in worse positions" I say, stating the obvious, as we bob up and down in the water and a row of spare life jackets falls down onto the head of the guy sat next to me.

Preparing to head out to the HMS Albion. Source: Michael Cole

I smile at the advice being doled out to the others on board, who are now looking increasingly pale and no doubt wishing they'd made other plans for the day. "Just keep your eyes on the horizon," someone tells them. "Fizzy drinks help too," I add, recalling the wise words I'd heard from the crew of the Mersey, while silently thanking my lucky stars that this time I appear to have got off the hook.

But, as our voyage to the Albion continues, and our LCVP gets tossed up higher, and then down lower, with every new wave. I too suddenly I start to get that familiar feeling once again. Serves me right for being smug, no matter how silently. Fortunately, I manage to hold it together just long enough until we're plucked smoothly from the waves and winched up onto the side of the ship. Up on the deck of the Albion, there's plenty of fresh air, and a deep breath or two soon sorts me out. Now I can focus on reason I've been invited here in the first place - there's a show of force going on.


And that's when we get our first blast of that "sound of freedom" from the RAF Typhoons that Wing Commander MacColl was telling me about. But, impressive as they undoubtedly are, it's not just about the Typhoons today. They're very ably accompanied in this display of aerial prowess by Apache and Wildcat helicopters, hovering high above the deep Baltic before moving in to perform their own laps of honor around the Albion.

A Challenger 2 Battle Tank boards the HMS Albion. Source: Michael Cole

There's plenty to admire, but no time to stand back and enjoy the view. Before I know it, we're being shepherded inside and down several flights of stairs right into the heart of the Albion. As we reach our destination below deck, I feel like I might have arrived a little late to the party and everyone jostle to get the best vantage point. No one has come this far to miss out on the main event.

As the 71-ton Challenger 2 Battle Tank rolls onto the ship under a huge white banner adorned with the words "Welcome to HMS Albion," I momentarily forget that we're still in the middle of the Baltic Sea. "I need you to stand back please," shouts the soldier in charge of the operation. By now we've all got the photos and videos we need to prove we were here, and none of us is foolhardy enough to even consider disobeying his orders.


At the end of the show, we head back up to find those red life jackets are being handed out once again. After wrestling back into them, there's a momentary pause to absorb a little more of the Baltic sunshine and take a final breath or two of fresh sea air, while the crew prepares the LCVPs to taxi us back to shore.

Just then, a Typhoon flies past once again, for an unexpected final encore. "Do you ever get to go up in those?" I ask the RAF pilot, who I'd been talking earlier about Everton to on the ride out to the ship. "Nah," he says with a knowing shake of the head. "Flying them is really high pressure. You've got to be on alert and ready to go all the time." "But," he smiles, "it is also really cool." And with that, we begin our journey back to shore.

A view of the LCVP from the deck of the HMS Albion. Source: Michael Cole


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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