Escort Duty in the Strait of Hormuz: Close Encounters, Flares Fired
Nearly 90 British merchant ships and nearly six million tonnes of cargo were safely shepherded through the Strait of Hormuz by the frigate HMS Montrose and the destroyer HMS Duncan during the Royal Navy's first two months responding to threats by Tehran.
Montrose passed through the narrow gateway to the Gulf 38 times – each time observed by Iranian forces, with drones watching every move overhead and boats often approaching with intent.
The Plymouth-based frigate, which completed the first phase of her escort duties late last week, was forced to fire flares on more than a dozen occasions as she warned off the Iranian forces.
The ship prevented the Iranians seizing the British Heritage, performing a ‘handbrake turn’ at full speed and training all her guns on the tanker’s harassers. But just nine days later, Iranian troops succeeded in hijacking the Stena Impero while Montrose was helping to protect other shipping half an hour away.
Since then tensions have lessened, but on her final patrol before a period of maintenance and changeover of crew in Bahrain, Montrose still found herself spied on by drones and an Iranian patrol craft as she accompanied tankers Hellespont Pride and Moonbeam and the container ship Brighton.
The frigate’s crew say the two months on patrol in the strait – 64 days with the ship’s company working around the clock with few breaks – have been tough but hugely satisfying. CO Commander Will King likened the task when Montrose began the escorting mission as “policing an area twice the size of Wales with a single squad car."
Aside from the Stena Impero incident, Montrose alone was responsible for ensuring 60 British ships – carrying more than five million tonnes of oil, liquid natural gas, cars and other commodities - reached their destinations safely.
Commander King said the deployment was intense but rewarding. "We have been probed by the Iranians daily – 115 interactions in all. The numbers – 38 transits of the strait, 60 British vessels accompanied, over five million tonnes of UK shipping protected – speak for themselves," he said.
Despite such threats, Montrose’s sailors have repeatedly sought to prevent a tense situation escalating. So far the only things fired have been warning flares.
Thirty-year-old Leading Physical Trainer Damon Bell from Carlisle was at the ship’s wheel when the attackers were driven away from the British Heritage. “Protecting the British Heritage was probably the best thing I have ever done. Doing what was effectively a handbrake turn around the back of a tanker – that was a classy move," he said.
“It’s a big ‘well done’ to HMS Duncan and HMS Montrose especially,” said Commodore Dean Bassett, the senior Royal Navy officer in the Middle East. “Both have worked tirelessly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in extremely hot and humid conditions, facing a high degree of threat, making sure British merchant shipping is safe. That they have done so is down to the quality of our men and women."
Since Montrose began duty in the Gulf,the destroyer HMS Duncan has arrived, and HM Ships Kent and Defender arrive this month to support the maritime security operation. “Our response is a direct result to the threat from Iran. If Iran sticks to international law and stops it aggressive action, there is no need for warships to be here in force," said Commodore Bassett.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.