4 May 2012

HMS Ocean squeezes up the Thames

The Royal Navy’s biggest ship made its way up the River Thames to take its place as part of the security for the Olympics. Channel 4 News Correspondent Carl Dinnen was on board.

“We’ve plenty of fuel if we find the ship first time,” said the pilot, and so began the helicopter flight from RAF Northolt in London to HMS Ocean. He did find it of course, off the south coast of England, and the immersion suit that made me look like an orange Tellytubby wasn’t needed.

HMS Ocean is the biggest ship the navy has and it is sailing up the Thames. The difficult bit is getting through the Thames barrier. HMS Ocean is some 35m or so wide. The largest gaps in the barrier are not much over 60m or thereabouts. That doesn’t leave a great deal of margin for error on either side.

“The trick is to be going straight,” Captain Andrew Betton tells me. His crew has practised on a Port of London simulator.

Thereafter it’s on to Greenwich where the serious business starts. For all her war fighting capabilities – some of which we watched being drilled in the operations room yesterday – Ocean is going to be an Olympic heliport.

Onboard for this week’s exercise and eventually for the Olympics will be 8 Lynx helicopters. Four operated by the Army Air Corps will carry RAF Regiment snipers. Their job will be to divert, or if necessary shoot at, aircraft which enter the air exclusion zone.

Should the moment come for them to open fire (presumably on a small aircraft) we’re told that authority will come from the “highest political level”. If a plane is heading for the Olympic Stadium that authority may need to come quickly.

Policing nightmare

The other four helicopters navy ones. They too will carry snipers we’ve been told. But their job will be to guard against waterborne attack. They’ll aim for the engines of small boats which may be up to no good. It sounds fanciful but I’m assured that it’s a job they’ve actually done before, taking out the engines of suspected drugs runners in the Carribbean.

Along with Typhoon jets, ground to air missiles and all the rest it’s an incredible amount of security for games at which the biggest threat must be a self-starting bomber with a backpack. How much is it needed? It’s hard to judge. But when I spoke to a security source recently about the Olympics what sprung to his mind first wasn’t air attack. It was the route of the torch: “It’s a policing nightmare”.