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?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?