Royal Navy Affiliated Service Unit

HMS Bulwark

HMS Bulwark

​Having handed over the gauntlet of Fleet Amphibious Flagship to HMS Albion, Bulwark headed for Norway to deploy 45 Cdo for Artic training. After a weekend in Rosyth, sailing under the Forth Bridges with just 6m above the main mast to spare, we headed for Copenhagen. With sub-zero temperatures and ice surrounding the ship, we conducted a Defence Industry and Security Day; an opportunity to promote British defence industry and trade in other countries. Breaking through the ice, we then headed for North Shields and a chance for family and guests to sample an evening onboard prior to a series of visits to many of the affiliates in County Durham. We welcomed aboard the Master Coachmaker and three Coachmakers for the return to Devonport.

On return to Devonport Bulwark entered a docking period, enabling deep maintenance of vital equipment, machinery upgrades and accommodation improvements. While preparations were under way for destoring the ship in March, Captain Gavin Pritchard returned to County Durham to accept a top civic honour on behalf of his crew. The Freedom of Entry to the City of Durham grants the ship’s company the ancient right to march through the city with bayonets fixed, drums beating, bands playing and colours flying, a right that Bulwark would later exercise in the summer.

Destore complete, Babcock Marine, the primary refit contractor, and the ship’s sailors gently manoeuvered Bulwark into a very narrow dock with less than a meter to spare each side, ready for maintenance to commence fully. In June, the officers and crew of the assault ship took time away from their busy refit to kick-start their affiliated county’s celebrations of Armed Forces Day by exercising their right to march through the streets of Durham. Hundreds of locals, family members and affiliations turned out to line the route and watch the parade culminating in the ceremonial raising of the Armed Forces Day flag over the town hall.

Back in Devonport, the sailors continued with the £30million refit with a change of Commanding Officer. The Executive Officer, Commander Nick MacDonald-Robinson, assumed command of the 18,500-ton amphibious landing ship from Captain Gavin Pritchard (who commenced his new apppointment as Deputy Chief of Staff, Resources and Plans, at Navy Command Headquarters in August) on 13 July.

Bulwark prepares to emerge from her Docking Period with the next major evolution of surrounding her with water again fast approaching. Regeneration will continue with the ship’s crew due to move back onboard in October to take over responsibilty from Babcock and proceed safely to sea in January. This will mark a significant step towards reassuming the Fleet Amphibious Flagship role from HMS Albion later in 2011.

The first HMS Bulwark was launched in April 1807, measuring 1,940 tons burthen, 181 feet on the gun deck, a 49 feet beam, with a complement of 590 officers and men. Five ships have since been named Bulwark and the latest vessel to bear the name is the 18,500 tonnes Amphibious Control and Support Ship launched in November 2001. Past Master David Almond was present at the launch when the affiliation with the Coachmakers was established. The ship’s company numbers 350, of which a quarter are Royal Marines.

History of HMS Bulwark

HMS Bulwark

In November 1805 the French 74-gun ship Le Scipion was captured in a sea-fight off Cape Ortegal known as Strachan’s Action. She was taken into the Royal Navy as HMS Scipion, and the British retained her French name in defiance to the enemy. However, this meant there had to be a change to the name of the Scipio, a 74-gun ship being built at Portsmouth, which was renamed HMS Bulwark by Admiralty Order of 28th April 1806, the date of the Admiralty Order to establish the Scipion as one of His Majesty’s ships.

The Bulwark (ex-Scipio) was first ordered in 1794, but work on her construction only began in April 1804. Measuring 1,940 tons burthen, she was 181ft 10in on the gun deck, 49ft 3in beam, with a complement of 590 officers and men. She was launched on 24th April 1807 and later that year sailed for the Mediterranean and the blockade of Toulon.

During the next few years the Bulwark, commanded by the Hon Charles Fleeming, was often found off the coast of Spain, providing supplies to and co-operating with Spanish irregular forces in their guerrilla actions against the French.

After repair at Plymouth in 1811 she sailed as flagship of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Durham for the blockade of France’s Biscay ports, shifting billet in 1813 to the North Sea to deny the Schelde to enemy shipping.

After another refit at Plymouth she sailed under the command of Captain Farmery Predham Epworth for the North America station, where she formed part of the force blockading the New England coast. Part of the coastline of Maine was taken and occupied until the end of the war, and the American corvette Adams was driven up the Penobscot River and burned. The first US line-of-battle ship, USS Independence, was blockaded in Boston harbour, and American privateers and merchant ships were taken at sea. With the end of hostilities, HMS Bulwark convoyed British troops from Canada to Portsmouth, arriving just as Napoleon’s escape from Elba meant they were required for the 100 days’ campaign which culminated at Waterloo. Her next years of peacetime service were spent on home stations, and she was broken up at Plymouth in 1826.

The next HMS Bulwark was laid down in March 1859 at Chatham Dockyard as lead and name ship of a projected class of 12 91-gun line-of-battle ships. This class of two-decker steam screw ships were, at 252ft length overall and 58ft beam, approaching the practical limits for wooden construction. But it was the introduction of the ironclad frigate (the French Gloire in 1859, and the more successful HMS Warrior in 1860) that spelled the end of the ‘wooden walls’, the two- and three-decked ships of the line. Construction was well advanced when the order to suspend work on the Bulwark and her sister ship Robust was given in March 1861; seven other ships of the class already under construction were hastily (and not entirely successfully) cut down a deck and converted to ironclad frigates. The Bulwark remained on the stocks for a further 12 years, through several limited proposals to convert her, but the incomplete and eventually unwanted hull was finally broken up in March 1873.

In December 1885 HMS Howe, which was built at Pembroke Dockyard 1860 as a Victoria Class 121-gun screw line-of-battleship) was renamed HMS Bulwark. As the Howe she had only once gone to sea, for her initial steam trials, and since 1861 had lain in reserve in the upper Hamoaze at Plymouth. She was HMS Bulwark for only nine months, until September 1886, when she was renamed HMS Impregnable and became a training ship at Devonport. After more than 30 years in this static role she was replaced in 1919 by the obsolete armoured cruiser Powerful, which now took on the name Impregnable. The older wooden ship then reverted to the name Bulwark, and in 1921 she was sold for breaking.

The next HMS Bulwark was a London Class battleship, 15,000 tons displacement, built by R&W Hawthorn, Leslie & Co at Newcastle. Laid down in March 1899, she launched only seven months later and completed in March 1902. She carried a main armament of four 12-inch and 12 six-inch guns, with four fixed torpedo tubes. Her triple expansion engines gave her a designed speed of 18 knots. From March 1902 to February 1907 she was flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, and then flagship of the home fleet for some months before going into dockyard hands for refit. From 1908 she served with various divisions of the home fleet, until she joined the 5th Battleship Squadron in June 1912. On 26th November 1914 she was lying at a mooring in the River Medway, taking on ammunition, when she was blown apart by an internal explosion: Only 12 men from her complement of 750 survived.

A Centaur Class light fleet carrier was the next ship to have the name Bulwark. Her keel was laid at Harland & Wolff’s Belfast yard on 10th May 1945, two days after VE Day, and she was launched in June 1948. However, like her sister ship HMS Albion, there was a delay of several years before she was completed and she was not commissioned until October 1954. In November 1956 during the Suez Crisis she flew off nearly 600 sorties, attacking Egyptian airfields and supporting Anglo-French paratroop drops. In early 1958 the Bulwark joined the Far East Fleet, but was diverted in July and August to ferry British infantry battalions, complete with stores and vehicles, from East Africa to the Middle East in response to a short-lived crisis in Jordan. She was converted at Devonport Dockyard to be a commando carrier in 1959, able to embark a Royal Marines Commando, its equipment and transport, and to project them ashore by her own helicopter squadron and outfit of LCAs (Landing Craft, Assault). The first of the Navy’s carriers to be converted for this role, she had a less complete conversion than her sister ship HMS Albion, which was taken in hand for the work in 1961. HMS Bulwark’s deterrent presence at short notice helped avert a threatened Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in July 1961, and during her second commission in 1964-5 her helicopters provided support throughout the height of the Malaysian Confrontation. In November 1967 she and her helicopters played a vital role in the withdrawal from Aden; this, apart from one exercise off Malaysia in 1970, was her last time east of Suez. Throughout the early 1970s she operated in the NATO area, often in co-operative exercises with amphibious forces of other NATO countries, in the Atlantic, the Caribbean and in the Mediterranean. She was reduced to reserve status at Portsmouth in May 1976, but re-commissioned in February 1979 with an additional role as anti-submarine support carrier, as a stop-gap until the new Invincible Class was ready. For a couple of months in early 1980 she was the only carrier the Royal Navy had in commission.

In March 1981 she paid off at Portsmouth for the last time, and was placed on the disposal list for scrapping on 1st April 1981. She was broken up at Cairnryan in 1984.

The latest vessel to bear the name Bulwark is a 18,500-tonne Amphibious Control and Support ship, launched on 15th November 2001 at BAE Systems’ marine shipyard at Barrow in Furness. Then Master David Almond and his wife, were present at the ceremony where affiliations with the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers & Coach Harness Makers was announced.

She arrived in her home port of Plymouth on 12th July 2004 when she was formally handed to the Royal Navy by shipbuilders BAE Systems. She arrived in Devonport flying the blue ensign which was replaced by the Royal Navy’s white ensign in a ceremony signifying the handover.

HMS Bulwark was the second of a new class of assault ships and joins HMS Ocean and sister ship HMS Albion at Devonport. Like HMS Albion, she is equipped with the largest and most sophisticated battle command centre afloat in the Royal Navy, carries eight landing craft to move men and equipment to the shore quickly and can operate large troop-carrying helicopters. HMS Bulwark can carry up to 700 Royal Marine Commandos and up to 60 vehicles ranging from trucks to Challenger 2 battle tanks.

HMS Bulwark has a ship’s company of 390, a quarter of whom are made up from 4 Assault Squadron Royal Marines (4ASRM). The squadron fulfils a variety of roles including the operation of the ship’s landing craft, reconnaissance missions and the support of operations afloat or ashore as commando troops.

HM Ships Bulwark and Albion replaced the HMS Fearless and Intrepid. As part of HMS Fearless’ ship’s company, 4ASRM played a key role in the San Carlos landings during the Falklands conflict in 1982 and was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Telic.

Operations

HMS Bulwark on Operations

Amphibious operations cover a variety of activities from limited gathering, through raids to a full brigade assault. An amphibious assault involves establishing with some permanence a force on a hostile shore. It may also be politically expedient to position the amphibious force offshore as a demonstration of intent and capability.

Planning conducted by the embarked amphibious and land staff is carried out in the Command Planning Room (CPR), a state-of-the-art facility which provides the latest mapping data and tactical information electronically using the combat support system. Directly beneath the planning room is the combined operations room, one of the most advanced amphibious battle-staff co-ordination cells of its kind. Specialist operators collate, manage and disseminate information from the ship’s sensors and from the rest of the task force. This real-time information, which is distributed between task force units by data link transfer, enables individual cells headed by the Commander Amphibious Task Force and Commander Land Forces to co-ordinate, plan and execute the Amphibious Task Group’s objectives.

Personnel in the Main Communications Office are responsible for maintaining 24-hour strategic communications links with the UK, NATO and coalition forces and radio links with other ships and aircraft in company.

Assault Squadron Royal Marines (4 ASRM)

HMS Bulwark’s own amphibious force is 4 Assault Squadron Marines. The Squadron provides the surface mobility capability for the landing force on HMS Bulwark and other ships as required. The squadron operates a variety of craft and vehicles.

Land Craft Utility Mark 10 (LCU)
  • 250 tonne (fully loaded) – capable of carrying a Challenger 2 tank
  • Roll-on roll-off design
Land Craft Vehicle And Personnel Mark 5 (LCVP)
  • Four carried on board
  • Ship to shore movement of vehicles and personnel
  • Powered by 2 Vospower 170 Water Jets (Speed 24 kts)
Inflatable Raiding Craft Mark 2 (IRC)
  • Three held by Amphibious Beach Unit (ABU)
  • Used for beach recce and control party
  • Powered by two 25HP Mariner outboard motors

Assault squadron vehicles

In addition to three Land Rovers and a four tonne vehicle, the support troop operates the following:

Beach recovery vehicle (brv) ‘hippo’
  • Based on a Leopard 1 tank chassis and running gear.
  • Designed to push LCU off beach and recover drowned vehicles.
  • Capable of wading to six feet.
Case Tractor Wheel Forklift Rough Terrain (TWFRT)
  • Two in the squadron.
  • One equipped with a bucket for beach grading and improving access.
  • One equipped with a trackway dispenser.
  • Capable of wading to six feet.

HMS Bulwark – facts and figures

  • Deep displacement: 18,400 tonnes
  • Length: 176 metres
  • Maximum beam: 29 metres
  • Draft: 6.1 metres
  • Vehicle lift: 50 linear metres

Complement:

  • Ship’s company: 387 (83 RM)
  • EMF: 304
  • Total: 691
  • Overload: 405
  • Short duration total: 1,096

Aircraft, landing craft and vehicles

Surface
  • Four Landing Craft Utility (LCU) Mk10
  • 72 tonne payload
  • Four Landing Craft Vehicle & Personnel (LCVP) Mk5
Air
  • Three Merlin (two spot operations) or
  • One Ch37 Chinook.
Vehicle carrying capacity
  • 23 high & 36 low vehicles with trailers.
  • Up to six main battle tanks.
  • Up to two Beach Recovery Vehicles (BRVs)

Propulsion

  • Four Wartsila diesel engines generating 6.6KV
  • Two 6MW AC motors controlled via synchro-drive
  • 850KW bow thrust unit

Affiliations

  • HMS Bulwark is affiliated with:
  • The Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers
  • County Durham
  • The Royal Irish Regiment
  • The Bulwark Association
  • Bishop Auckland Hospital Children’s ward
  • Bidwell Brook School