‘Very forward-looking of the Navy to name a ship after the future Queen! Gosh – Kate was only two when she was launched…’
‘No, Sir. She’s named after the Middleton Hunt. She’s one of the Hunt Class Mine Countermeasures Vessels, along with the Quorn…’
The 44-man crew of HMS Middleton probably get comments like that all the time. The minehunter had been operating in the Gulf for most of the past three-and-a-half years, and had returned to the UK after a continuous stint of seven-and-a-half months. She is one of eight Hunt Class Mine Countermeasures Vessels that form part of the Royal Navy’s Second Mine Countermeasures Squadron (MCM2) based in Portsmouth, but was in London for Remembrance Day. She moored next to HMS Belfast, and on Thursday evening, 8 November, I was invited on board for a Capability Demonstration – including, of course, the Navy’s amazing talent for hospitality.
The visit brought home several key points. The first was that although one thinks of minehunters as ‘small’ ships, she did not seem particularly small, even though she was moored next to Belfast, which is a World War II Light Cruiser. The second was what a potent and crucial weapons system she is. Lieutenant Commander Steve Higham, the Commanding Officer, explained that the Royal Navy has expertise and capabilities in mine hunting that are the envy of others – including the Americans. Much of the world’s oil comes out of the Gulf in tankers, and a few sea mines in the relatively narrow Straits of Hormuz could turn the lights off in UK quite quickly. HMS Middleton’s prime raison d’etre revolves around her Type 2193 sonar and her Seafox mine disposal system, which was demonstrated to us. The Sonar 2193 is the best mine hunting sonar the world and can detect and classify an object the size of a football up to 1,000 metres away. There are two Seafox variants. The reconnaissance ‘round’ – a ‘UUV’ (unmanned Underwater Vehicle) is orange and can be manoeuvred round a mine and take TV pictures which are seen in the control room. When the operators decide it is a mine, and not a Coke can (which it can also examine), it is recovered and a black Seafox is launched. This is the killer, with a shaped charge warhead, which either cuts a hole in the mine, admitting seawater and making it useless, or, more likely, detonating it.
There also trained Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal divers to deal with difficult targets. On board there is a decompression chamber in case a diver gets into difficulty at depth. American minehunters do not have such a decompression chamber, and when US divers were engaged in difficult and deep operations in the Gulf, they insisted on having a Royal Navy minehunter alongside, in case of trouble.
South of the Straits of Hormuz, as we all know, ships face the of Somali-based pirates. One of the visiting officers said that he had recently had seventeen Somali pirates on his ship, and that they were all wearing Armani suits. He speculated that they had pillaged these from a ship that was taking them to Singapore or Japan.
‘They didn’t claim political asylum then?’
‘What do you mean,” they can’t”. It’s a British warship – British Sovereign territory.’
‘But it’s not a designated point of entry to the UK. So they can’t claim political asylum’.
Another myth exploded…
We visited five stands: a big-picture briefing in the Ward Room, the Seafox control room, the Seafox launching area itself, the Bridge – and then back to the fo’c’sle for drinks. On the bridge another key point emerged. When it comes to tackling pirates an MCMV like Middleton is probably better than a frigate or destroyer. In addition to the Seafoxes, she carries one 30mm MSI-DS-30B gun, which is mainly for anti-aircraft fire, and rather slow to deploy against an elusive, bobbing surface target. But she has three 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Guns and two Mk44 miniguns. These rapid firing ‘gatling guns’, primarily intended to shoot down incoming missiles, each have six 7.62mm barrels and can easily chop drown a tree. Weapons like this make an MCMV perfect for anti-piracy operations, whereas a bigger warship would not want to waste its main armament on such targets. The crew are also all trained to use the British forces’ superbly accurate SA80 rifle.
At around eight-thirty, by which time it had been dark for hours, it was time to haul down the White Ensign. The escort paraded on the aft deck, above the shapely stern, smartly commanded by the Principal Weapons Officer. The captain, Lt Cdr Higham, and the senior visiting Naval Officer, Cdr Nicholas Chatwin, from HMS President, took the salute. So the visit ended – a seamless combination of 21st century surveillance and fire-and-forget technology, and traditional style and ceremony.
For more on the ship, visit: