For the next five months, two AW159 Wildcat helicopters from Royal Navy’s 847 Naval Air Squadron will act as the flying eyes of the French Navy’s premiere annual amphibious deployment, Exercise Jeanne d’Arc.
The flagship of the deployment, helicopter assault ship FS Dixmude (L9015), left her home in Toulon earlier this week bound the Middle East and ultimately the South Pacific. The taskgroup will transit Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean during the deployment.
It’s the second year running that the Commando Helicopter Force has provided air power for the French deployment. Last year, two troop carrying Merlins sailed to the Far East with the Dixmude’s sister ship FS Mistral. For the 2018 roll-out, the smaller, nimbler Wildcats have been assigned to the French to act as battlefield reconnaissance.
The 30-strong detachment of Brits, led by Lieutenant Mike Wells, left home at RNAS Yeovilton last week for the two-day flight down to the south of France to join 50 U.S. Marines, two Spanish Cougar helicopters and 133 French officer cadets who are beginning their operational training.
All were treated to a traditional French departure from the Marine Nationale’s principal Mediterranean base – coffee and pastries aboard with the families before a formal parade on the 5,200-square-metre flight deck.
After Dixmude’s Commanding Officer Jean Porcher had inspected the parade and Guard of Honour, it fell to the Deputy Commander of the French Navy, Vice Admiral Denis Bèraud, to conduct the formal inspection and wish all aboard: Bon vent et bon mer – fair winds and following seas.
The ceremony also saw the hallebarde – a large axe – presented by the French Naval College to the ship; it’s a symbolic act, passing the baton of responsibility for looking after the young men and women to the ship.
The task group, which also includes the frigate FS Surcouf (F711), will sail as far east as French Polynesia (including Tahiti) – a journey of a good 15,000 miles – and New Caledonia, 900 off the east coast of Australia. The ships are scheduled to return to their homeport on July 20, 2018.
This is the second of three Royal Navy deployments to the Pacific Rim in 2018 under way and the only one under the French Tricolore. As for the RN’s other Pacific missions this year, HMS Sutherland (F81) is currently in Australia and her sister frigate HMS Argyll (F231) is due to head east later in the year.