Op Ellamy was 'a triumph for the forces and for Libya'
16 May 2012
In the first of two features on the lessons learned from Op Ellamy, Royal Navy and army personnel who served on the frontline in Libya tell DefenceManagement.com some of the real stories behind the success
More than six months since the end of operations in Libya, many of the forces involved in the campaign to topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi are now looking over the lessons learned during the conflict. For those involved, the professionalism of the personnel involved and the operational success in preventing the regime from massacring civilians on a massive scale, are cause for celebration.
Commander Colin Williams, former commanding officer of HMS Liverpool is immensely proud of the Royal Navy's role in Operation Ellamy.
"The Navy did a superb job," he told DefenceManagement.com's Matthew D'Arcy. "We operated right up in amongst the coast, making sure that the signals communication remained open, keeping the vital port of Misrata available for humanitarian shipping to take food and medicines in and casualties out. We cleared mines, we controlled jets, we passed targeting information, we did combat air patrol control, we did naval gunfire support, we did embargo operations.
"We did pretty much the full range of anything that any maritime force could be asked to do and we managed to link in seamlessly with our air commander and other NATO units; A really vital role in making sure that Libya was given the opportunity that it has got."
It was certainly mission accomplished for the Royal Navy, with no UK naval casualties and Gaddafi unable to make good on his threat to shoot down passenger aircraft over the Mediterranean. The success of operations in general, however, was not assured without a fight, and some of the final attacks from Gaddafi's embattled military were directed against HMS Liverpool.
"We were fired on at least 10 times - rounds landing close enough to the ship that you could hear them, you could feel them and you could see them," said Commander Williams.
"Automatic systems kicked in and started to defend the ship," he said. "We fired back in self-defence on a couple of occasions and on top of that we were doing our naval gunfire support role as well. It was actually a very, very busy operational period for any ship in the navy."
At the time of the attack in early August, Commander Williams' response was typically cool. "The artillery that fired at us isn't there any more," he told The Sun. "We achieved our mission."
Now, some nine months after the event, he admits that with the regime largely suppressed, the attack had not been expected.
"The first time we saw it on the radar screens it was a little bit of a surprise, to be honest, but very quickly the training kicked in and literally within seconds it was a cool, calm, collected professional ops room - exactly what you would expect," he said. "And we got on and did the business that we were required to do which was to provide air defence to another maritime unit that was getting shot at. On this occasion we didn't have to fire back but thereon after, every occasion the ship got fired at it just was taken in our stride. It was not a great surprise anymore."
When Libya did become a "kinetic" operation, the navy was well prepared for action, he said.
"The navy historically has gone around the oceans enforcing embargo operations and doing patrols forever," said Commander Williams. "This is not new for the navy, the difference this time is that we were being shot at and we were given the rules of engagement to shoot back. We were out there for seven and a half months, we were trained to do our job, we got on and did it and we came home nice and safely. At the end of the day, as the commanding officer of a warship, that is the only thing I can expect."
The operation also saw international navies and air forces taking part in embargo operations, putting the success of international groupings to the test.
"From a maritime perspective we are incredibly used to operating closely with other maritime nations, and as part of NATO we have tactics and procedures to do that seamlessly, and that happened on this occasion," said Commander Williams. "Working with the air forces, not just the RAF but other nations out there, again we are used to doing that. From a joint, combined perspective -where we're operating with other maritime nations and air force components again at the tactical level – it worked really, really well and I couldn't ask for a better operation."
As well as a triumph for the Royal Navy, the operation was also a success for the people of Libya, Commander Williams said.
"From the perspective of where we started –we had bodies floating past the ship, people trying to get out of the coast of Tripoli and Misrata on the verge of collapse – from the Libyan populations' perspective it was a tremendous success."
The operation also saw the Royal Navy and army team up as Apache helicopters flew from HMS Ocean.
The Army Air Corps' Lieutenant Colonel Jason Etherington said the relations between army and navy personnel on both HMS Ocean and, post-Libya, HMS Illustrious, were "absolutely fantastic".
"They were patient and helped train and develop the competencies of the crews and I really do think there is a relationship that has been built certainly with Ocean, certainly with Illustrious, that will last for many years," said Etherington.
As for the actual combat, the Army Air Corps were exposed to more risk than most, with many of the Gaddafi regime's 20,000 Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) available to hostile forces on the ground and still in use. So how did the crews handle the risk from surface-to-air missiles?
"They were certainly aware of it. The threat was different to what they experienced in Afghanistan but actually the crews have a significant amount of confidence in the aircraft, the aircraft is built for operating within an active battlefield. So we were aware of it but we certainly had the equipment that could deal with the threat," he said.
"There were a few surface-to-air missiles fired at the Apache. If you speak to crews they will say it was relatively hairy, but again the aircraft did its job, defeated anything that was targeted at the Apache and, in fact, at the end of it in September there wasn't a single bit of battle damage on any of the aircraft; so they did their job remarkably."
MANPADS-threat aside, the tempo of operations was said to be "very similar" to Afghanistan.
"The soldiers and the aircrew get used to working at a certain tempo [in Afghanistan], and I don't think the tempo changed," said Lt Col Etherington. "It is a completely new environment, operating from a ship, however they had trained the previous year and they had been on exercise Cougar for three or four weeks leading up to it. Certainly this was the first ever time that Apache has deployed from a ship operationally."
So what lessons will the Army Air Corps be able to draw from operations in Libya?
"The Apache has proven how versatile and capable it is," says Lt Col Etherington. "The crews already had confidence, they have even more confidence in the aircraft, so I think the actual lessons that we've learned from this is how to train to get to that readiness from a ship.
"For us it's about training. Having not done that before we had to hurdle every single one of the training events that we had to achieve. We had to get all of our individuals used to operating on a ship and that takes several hundred man training days. That for me was the biggest lesson. We now know what it takes to prepare ourselves to operate on a ship and we will continue to do that and continue to build on our competencies."