Published on January 6th, 2016 | by admin0
Mission of Mercy
Since early this 2015, the Irish Naval Service (INS) has been involved in search rescue efforts in
the Mediterranean as part of Operation Pontus, to provide the European Union with a capability to help
reduce the amount of fatalities in the Mediterranean resulting from the unprecedented flow of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe. The exacting nature of the mission, and the harrowing scenes witnessed by the personnel who serve on it, make the contribution particularly significant. Lieutenant Commander Daniel Wall, Officer Commanding the LE Niamh took some time to write about his own experiences on the mission.
What level of preparation was involved as O/C L.É. NIAMH, prior to deployment to Operation Pontus, and what level of handover was done between the L.É. EITHNE and the L.É. NIAMH?
The decision to send L.É. NIAMH to Operation Pontus was made at the end of May. At this time L.É. EITHNE had successfully conducted several search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We prepared by studying L.É. EITHNE’s procedures, their operations and we communicated with our
equivalents on L.É. EITHNE. We needed to adapt, modify and change some of L.É. EITHNE’s procedures as L.É. NIAMH is a different class of ship, with no flight deck and less accommodation. We needed to decide on what ship’s organisation we would use to best achieve the mission. From a
personnel point of view there was no shortage of volunteers for Operation Pontus as everyone in the Naval Service had become engaged with the success of L.É. EITHNE’s mission.
Our crewing level was increased from 44 personnel to 57 personnel in order to handle the anticipated high intensity of search and rescue operations. We sailed with two extra medics from the Army Medical Corps so that we would be capable of carrying out basic medical treatments onboard, a
shipwright for construction of the necessary external sanitation facilities and diving capability to deal with contingencies. Extra communications and engineering staff were also added due to the anticipated higher workload in those areas and six extra seamen as rescue operations are essentially a deck evolution involving the use of ship’s boats and personnel on deck. Onboard we war-gamed out our search, rescue and recovery procedures. In addition we planned emergency procedures and
we equipped ourselves to meet all potential scenarios. A large portion of the required equipment would be left ashore with the Armed Forces of Malta by L.É. EITHNE at the end of her
time in the Mediterranean. We planned to embark most of this equipment (Personal Protection Equipment, extra life rafts for emergencies and extra life jackets for migrants) in Valetta prior
to proceeding to the Area of Operations (AOO), North of Libya.
Our deployment date from the Naval Base was set for the 10th July and whilst L.É. EITHNE was on operations, her crew continued to send us advice and reports in regard to what we would encounter and what would work in advance of our deployment date. In addition our Search and Rescue (SAR)
Officer and Cdr. Kenneth Minehane flew out to L.É. EITHNE at the end of her tour of duty to gather information and advice. In essence our hand over had been completed at a distance before we departed for the Mediterranean from the Naval Base.
The scale of the challenges is apparent from the news footage seen daily, what was your own opinion of the scale of the mission when you arrived in theatre, and what were
some of the biggest challenges you and your crew faced?
After taking stores and refueling in Valetta on the 16th July, we proceeded to the Area of Operations and attended a conference with Admiral Ribuffo of the Italian Navy onboard ITS BERGAMINI. Admiral Ribuffo was the commander of the Italian Navy Task Group (CGN3) and the Italian mission ‘Mare Sicuro’ (‘safe seas’), established in April 2015 after 800 migrants drowned north of Libya in a single incident. The Admiral described the scale of the mission and how the Italian Navy and the Italian Coastguard were managing the crisis. It was expected that migrant smuggling levels would increase during the months of July and August due to the calm weather conditions. The Admiral expected us to be utilised for the recovery of migrants the next day and the next morning we rescued 98 migrants from a 20m long rubber boat. Over the 12 week deployment we conducted a further 23 rescues, saving over 4000 migrants in total. In my opinion the Italian Navy and Italian Coastguard were managing the crisis but were stretched in terms of the number of assets available to rescue and transport migrants. Throughout our deployment, the Italian authorities continued to be very grateful to Ireland for providing Naval Service ships to aid in managing the crisis.
The initial approach to the migrant vessels by our RHIBs (Rigid-Hulled-Inflatable-Boat) by our SAR Officer and RHIBs crews was always a challenge. We needed to keep the migrants settled in
their unseaworthy vessels so that lifejackets could be distributed efficiently and migrants could be evacuated in a safe manner. The migrants had little if any seagoing experience and our RHIB
crews had some tough experiences keeping the situation in the migrant vessels calm and controlled.
On 27th July we faced a big challenge as we recovered 14 deceased migrants from an overcrowded, 20m long, woodenboat. These migrants died from overcrowding, asphyxiation,
dehydration and exhaustion. The recovery of these bodies occurred at night from the internal deck of the wooden boat. The deceased had expired several hours previous. The largest challenge we faced occurred on the 5th of August when we encountered an overcrowded fishing vessel which capsized in approximately 30 seconds. Reports from rescued migrants stated that the smugglers had locked many of the migrants below in the fishing hold and had been using knives and bats to control those onboard. A number of migrants probably went down with the fishing vessel. We recovered the bodies of 25 drowned migrants, some of whom were children. By reacting quickly and effectively we managed to rescue 365
migrants that day. I think my crew can be forever proud of their professional response and performance on that day.
As an officer, you were only the second O/C to participate in a NS mission internationally. What does it mean for your own career in terms of developing and practising skills such as leadership, strategic thinking, crisis management etc?
We were briefed regularly on strategic matters in regard to the migrant crisis and the wider Mediterranean by Admiral Ribuffo and his staff. I observed how a large Fleet Headquarters works
at sea by our daily interactions with Italian Navy operational staff. An experienced Italian Navy Liaison Officer was embarked onboard L.É. NIAMH for the duration of the deployment. Our Italian Liaison Officer was able to provide many insights into the strategic thinking of the Italian Navy and its management of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Visits from Italian Admirals Ribuffo, Pezzutti and Gueglio to L.É. NIAMH at sea, continued to keep us in the strategic picture.
From my own perspective it was a fantastic opportunity to exercise command and lead during an important Naval deployment. My leadership, my Officers’ and NCO’s leadership and our abilities during crises were put to the test. It really was about having a good team and having a good team spirit.
Throughout our deployment, whether it was the deck, gunnery, engineering, communications or supplies department, problems needed solving. We needed everyone to step up to the mark and show their abilities. Motivating people was never an issue, as all onboard were fully behind our mission, which was saving lives.
How important is Operation Pontus in terms of the Defence Forces displaying how they can project capability overseas?
The mission itself is a continuation of the excellent work that Defence Forces personnel have carried out overseas, over many years. Operation Pontus has shown that the Naval Service has the necessary equipment, the right people and the right training to deploy overseas in a Naval role. Our continuous operations at home, patrolling Ireland’s rough seas hone our seamanship, our gunnery and our boat handling skills. The deployments of L.É. EITHNE followed by L.É. NIAMH and L.É. SAMUEL BECKETT to the Mediterranean shows that the Naval Service, has the ability and agility to get mission ready in a matter of weeks. Defence Forces’ logistics, Naval Service logistics and Defence Force support structures are capable of providing for Naval Service ships in an overseas role. Specifically, Operation Pontus has shown that the Naval Service, when deployed into a high tempo, high intensity theatre of operations, will perform to a high standard. It shows that the Naval Service is capable of working with other navies,
foreign organizations and is capable of integrating with foreign Task Groups if the Government so wishes. This mission is evidence of the Naval Service delivering on the international stage.
What were some of the challenges which your crew faced on returning from mission and how well is the NS prepared to assist crew members in any residual difficulties they may face in the wake of such a challenging deployment?
The transition to home life from SAR operations was always going to be a challenge and was planned into our deployment in advance. Seven suitable members of the ship’s crew were selected and trained in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) courses prior to our deployment. These seven individuals, as well as everyone onboard would act as peer support in the event of a stressful incident occurring. On both occasions after the recovery of deceased migrants on the 27th July and the capsize incident on the 05th August, Naval Service counselors were flown to Sicily in order to provide Personnel Support Services (PSS). In addition, on our return leg of the voyage to Ireland, PSS counselors were embarked to debrief the crew and aid our transition back to home life. These services were welcomed, they continue to be available to all onboard and the crew was observed to have engaged positively with the PSS
services provided. Any other thoughts you might have in relation to lessons learned from Operation Pontus and what it could mean in terms of future deployments for the NS?
The demanding nature of the activities that the Naval Service carries out in home waters requires a lot of professional training and commitment from our personnel. The fact that the Naval Service trains for and carries out SAR operations and Maritime Defence and Security Operations regularly in home waters
enabled us to transition to the Naval overseas role. In terms of future deployments there is a huge appetite in the Naval Service for overseas naval missions to continue and for Naval Service ships to deploy overseas on a regular basis.
Could you provide a brief summary of your DF career to date, including key appointments etc?
I completed 17 years service with the Defence Forces this year. I joined Naval Cadets in August 1998 and was commissioned as an Ensign in Sep 2000. I completed my Naval Watch keeping exams in 2003 and was posted to L.É. ORLA as Gunnery Officer. I returned to NUIG in 2004 to get my Honours Bachelor of Science Degree and after graduating was posted to L.É. AOIFE as Navigation Officer in 2005.
My first seagoing appointments on L.É. ORLA and L.É. AOIFE were vital to my professional development as you are consolidating what you have learned in training and gaining a
huge amount of operational seagoing experience in terms of seamanship, navigation, gunnery and communications. From 2007 to 2009 I worked in Naval Support Command as assistant Naval Stores officer, Contracts Officer and in Maintenance Management & Planning. I gained a wide breadth
of experience in Support Command working with many aspects of Naval Logistics.
At the end 2009 I was posted to L.É. ROISIN as Executive Officer (XO) and 2ic. XO is another key appointment for professional development in the Naval Service. During this appointment my Officer Commanding took plenty of time to mentor and support my development in preparation for future
In 2011, on completion of my sea rotation as XO I was posted to Naval Operations as a staff officer. As a staff officer in Naval Operations I worked with higher command, dealt with outside agencies and the wider Defence Forces. It was an appointment that had a strong focus on mission, operations and output. I got promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in March 2013 and I was posted to appointment of OiC Naval Reserve. I was appointed to command of L.É. NIAMH in Jan 2015.