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From The Archives ~ Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations

A Royal Marine, wearing his green beret to present a less menacing appearance, guards in an entrance to Kuçovë Airbase ~ behind him a colleague provides back-up with a 7.62mm GPMG atop a BvS10 Viking [© Bob Morrison]

Operation POLARBEAR, the current UK Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation or NEO in Sudan prompted me to delve back into my archives, writes Bob Morrison.

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A little under a decade ago, on 1st September 2013 to be exact, a Royal Navy Response Force Task Group supporting the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (now Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office) mounted a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation rehearsal in the Balkans. A couple of days beforehand I made my way independently out to Albania and, with the assistance of both the Albanian MoD and the British Embassy, I was on the ground at Kuçovë Airfield when the NEO rehearsal commenced. The following article, first published in the now long out-of-print COMBAT & SURVIVAL Magazine, illustrates how UK Forces regularly train for situations such as the one currently underway at Wadi Seidna Air Base near Khartoum; though for the current operation (POLARBEAR) the deployment and extraction are courtesy of the Royal Air Force rather than the Royal Navy.

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Just a few miles from Kuçovë there is actually a major oilfield so the scenario involving oil industry workers requiring evacuation was not far-fetched [©BM]

Fighting wars, or preparing to do so, is only one facet of military operations and although warfighting has been very much to the fore over the last decade [i.e. at time of writing, 2003 to 2013] Britain’s armed forces have also participated in various humanitarian assistance and multinational operations where direct combat was not the primary role. Operation PATWIN in the Philippines, where military personnel were deployed to provide aid to civilians in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, and Operation TOSCA in Cyprus, where troops (mostly unarmed) are deployed on United Nations peacekeeping duties to patrol the land boundary between former combatants, are just two UK missions where fighting was/is not the primary aim.

One of the sixteen Vikings belonging RM Armoured Support Group inside the main gate of the Albanian base ~ twenty years before this would have been unthinkable [©BM]

A third type of mission which the UK Ministry of Defence has to both prepare contingency plans for and ensure a force of trained personnel is always available to participate on, usually at very short notice, is the Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation or NEO. This type of mission is very much military in nature and the troops go into it armed and issued with live ammunition, but shooting enemies is also not the primary goal … though those with boots on the ground need to be prepared to open fire to protect both themselves and those civilians they are there to assist. Operation PALLISER in war-torn Sierra Leone in May 2000, which saw the evacuation of around 500 British nationals and friendly nation civilians by a combined force of UK Special Forces, Paratroopers and RAF personnel, was a typical and noteworthy successful NEO.

Royal Marines on perimeter patrol pass a line-up of mostly Chinese-built MiG fighters [©BM]

As part of the COUGAR ’13 deployment the Royal Navy’s Response Force Task Group (RFTG) was called upon to assist the fictional government of Benalia to deter aggression from an insurgent group and to help restore stability in the country. Not specifically linked to any world events but designed to test the Task Group in a variety of scenarios, the four day exercise ashore culminated in a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation in which British expatriates and contractors employed at oilfields in the region were shepherded to safety despite the efforts of insurgents to prevent this happening.

Inside the requisitioned hangar used for processing evacuees a pair of Royal Marines stand in front of a Chinese copy (Y-5) of the Antonov An-2 [©BM]

For the purpose of the exercise insurgent group activity by the notional BLA (Benalian Liberation Army) and recent de-stabilising events were deemed as having endangered the nation’s economy and security, following a period of relative stability within the borders of this fictional NATO member country. It was assessed that this instability would continue to worsen and, without intervention, threaten the Government of Benalia’s ability to govern successfully as well as causing wider regional problems.

Once the airbase was secured Commandos erected tents where evacuees were searched before being allowed into the hangar [©BM]

As a result of the instability UN Security Council Resolutions (fictional) were issued, directing external assistance with security within Benalia and Britain’s RFTG was ordered to deploy to the country for up to 90 days, setting conditions for follow-on forces. As British citizens, including many civilian contractors working in the region, were trapped in the fictional country by an upsurge in violence by the BLA, an extraction by helicopters and RAF transport aircraft was mounted from a regional airfield (actually the disused former Cold War era base at Kuçovë in Albania) to which civilians and dependants had been told to proceed.

Evacuees were conveyed inside Vikings from the perimeter to this initial reception point – note observation post and sniper position on the hangar roof [©BM]

With the ships of the RFTG anchored in Vlorë Bay the Lead Commando Group, formed around 42 Commando, was put ashore by landing craft (including both LCU and LCVP), Mexeflote powered rafts, and helicopters. Juliet Company of 42 Commando, plus elements of 30 Commando Information Exploitation Group, then moved overland by BvS10 Viking all-terrain armoured vehicles of the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group to Kuçovë under cover of darkness to seize the inland airfield from the control of armed insurgents and allow Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) staff to be helicoptered in to receive and process eligible evacuees.

Conditions for the troops were spartan but at least the sun was shining ~ the map taped to the hangar door showed Juliet Company’s area of responsibility (AoR) [©BM]
This unit ambulance was used as a forward aid post to give evacuees any necessary medical care [©BM]

The Albanian Ministry of Defence kindly agreed to grant me unfettered access to Kuçovë airbase on the day of the NEO to record the events so I pitched up very early in the morning, after the night assault had gone in and the base had been secured by Royal Marine Commandos, to await the arrival of the FCO team and the influx of evacuees. With Commandos manning a secure perimeter and ready to deter any attempt by insurgents to disrupt the evacuation, the base was in total lock-down and those wishing to be evacuated had to convince the men of Juliet Company guarding all approaches that they were entitled to proceed to the requisitioned hangar where the FCO team had set up their temporary processing centre.

On arrival every evacuee was escorted through the reception stage by an unarmed Commando [©BM]
Female military personnel accompanied the Marines to search female evacuees [©BM]

Over the next four hours the trickle of role-players became a torrent and various spanners were thrown into the works to challenge both troops and FCO staff alike. By early afternoon, however, the evacuation was in full flow with scores of civilians fed, watered, processed and despatched out of theatre. They did not know it at the time but the next mission for Juliet Company, Operation PATWIN in the Philippines, would be for real.

The backload at Pasha Liman quay at the end of the NEO ~ Juliet Company’s next humanitarian assistance mission would be Op PATWIN in the Philippines [©BM]

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Footnote: Operation PITTING, the August 2021 mission to rescue British Nationals trapped in Afghanistan after the Taliban overthrew the incumbent government, was the largest NEO undertaken by UK Forces in recent decades.

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