Iraq Crisis: Thursday War in the Channel is dress rehearsal for real thing in the Gulf

HMS Illustrious will arrive in the Gulf next week, amid growing tension, as Saddam Hussein continues to defy the United Nations. Before she left, the ship took part in a mock battle in the Channel to prepare for her deployment. Ian Burrell joined Armed Forces minister John Reid at sea as he viewed the exercise.

"Oh my Christ, we've been hit!" shouted the minister from the depths of the operations room on the destroyer HMS Edinburgh as the news came in on his headphones that a Soviet-made missile had ripped into the side of the ship.

Seconds later, he was being whisked down a passageway where sailors were fighting to overcome a series of fires that had broken out on the lower decks.

The Edinburgh and four other warships, including the carrier Illustrious, were guarding a Navy tanker while under attack from the air, land, sea and submarine by a fictitious Middle-Eastern enemy.

As low-flying fighter jets fizzed over the bows of the ship, their potential for wreaking destruction was manifested in the bloody scenes being acted out in the bowels of the vessel. Prostrate men, with broken bone hanging from gaping wounds, and screaming "For God's sake, help me!" at their pressured colleagues, helped to create a sense of awful realism.

Dr Reid was in the thick of the action, fighting for air just like the sailors as acrid smoke seeped from open hatches.

It appeared to remind the minister of his fondness for nicotine, and he retired to the captain's quarters with a packet of Embassy filter-tips and a debriefing on the battle so far.

Despite the damage, the British force was performing well, protecting its tanker and reacting effectively to enemy attacks. The exercise - known as the Thursday War - had been drawn up in minute detail by officers from the Navy's Flag Officer Sea Training (Fost). It was intended to create conditions as close to a real-life confrontation as possible.

The minister had embarked for the exercise shortly before 8am, and cutting through the heavy mist in a pilot launch, he looked over towards Plymouth Hoe, where Drake was first told of the arrival of the Armada, and said: "There's something romantic about this; better than working on the Child Support Agency."

With the armed services nervous about the priorities of a Labour government and the possible effects of its Strategic Defence Review, Dr Reid's "up and at "em" approach is clearly a source of comfort. "He looks and sounds like a sailor," observed one naval officer. "He is making all the right noises. Let's just hope he can deliver."

As the minister had not experienced such a "battle" before, Navy chiefs were intent on convincing him that their training not only helped to save the lives of sailors but brought in money and good will from overseas.

Fost recoups about 10 per cent of its pounds 10m annual budget by persuading foreign navies to send their sailors to Plymouth for instruction. In past Thursday Wars, ships from Holland, Germany, Portugal and elsewhere have been called into action. Talks are being held with Russian admirals to persuade them to do the same.

Last week, the French air force played a role, dispatching Super Etendard fighters which first appeared above the Channel as small specks before screaming overhead.

The authenticity of the exercise put Dr Reid in mind of the tragedy at San Carlos Bay in the Falklands, where Super Etendards released their Exocets onto stranded British vessels. "It must have been bloody awful in bomb alley," he said.

As he watched the radar showing the incoming movement of a hostile fighter plane, he became acutely aware of the limitations of rules of engagement which only allow ships to respond after they have been attacked. "We have to make a threat assessment and look at the wider strategic issues, such as whether we are prepared to lose a ship rather than start a war," he said.

As he spoke, Illustrious was on the horizon, undergoing its final preparations for almost every eventuality when she replaces HMS Invincible in the Gulf, including the nightmare possibility of a chemical weapons attack. Dr Reid has seen for himself that she could not be better prepared.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent