HMS Sutherland shows her flare in night shoot

Night on the range at Cape Wrath, the northwesternmost tip of the British mainland, and HMS Sutherland illuminates the rugged terrain with a para illum star shell, fired from her 4.5in main gun.

The para(chute) illum(ination) flare bathes the area in an eerie greenish-white light for about 30 seconds.

Such shells have been used by the British military since the Great War, but more recently the Navy has added the less obvious infra-red shell to its arsenal.

It too is fired by a 4.5in main gun and bathes a specific area in light – infra-red light, invisible to the naked eye, but visible to friendly forces wearing the appropriate eyewear; night becomes day and, more importantly, the enemy has no idea he’s being lit up.

The illuminations came in the middle of 18 hours of gunnery during which time Sutherland laid down some serious lead: 180 rounds left the barrel of the 4.5in gun on the frigate’s forecastle (120 during the day shoot, 60 overnight) and crashed down on Cape Wrath as part of two exercises running concurrently.

The gunners in Sutherland’s operations room were fed target positions by observers ashore – specialists from 148 Battery Royal Artillery – who sought out ‘enemy’ trenches, mortar posts and coastal defences.

Naval gunfire support is an advanced operation involving teams ashore and on board. It requires accurate information from the observers ashore, accurate gunnery from us so the shells land in the right place.

Operations Officer Lieutenant Commander James Mitchell

The gunbay team found the forecastle littered with empty shell cases when dawn broke today – while the smell of cordite explosive charges drifted through the frigate; nearly 100 high explosive shells were fired during the shoot.

Sutherland is attached to an Anglo-French task group led by FS Tonnerre and Britain’s flagship HMS Albion testing the ability of the two navies to work side-by-side – ready for next year when the idea of a joint task force becomes a reality, ready to deploy at short notice to respond to international events.

Exercise Griffin Strike is the final test of the concept – a mixed staff under the RN’s Rear Admiral Andrew Burns is directing the many moving parts.

The exercise is taking place under the broader umbrella of the UK’s regular autumn war game, Joint Warrior, staged in, off and over western Scotland for two weeks each October.

A dozen NATO nations are involved, 3,725 personnel in all (2,771 of them sailors and marines, 635 from air forces and 319 troops on the ground), 16 warships, three submarines and nearly 60 aircraft, three quarters of them jets.

Both exercises end later this week with senior officers observing the final climactic day.