Coachlines - December 2021

16.12.21 Senior Warden Julian Leach

Whirly things and floating things or a visit to Commando Helicopter Force and HMS BULWARK

I am sure as Coachmakers you enjoy our Service affiliations as much as I do. Having never been in the military (I don’t think CCF at school really counts), I am always awestruck by the pride that soldiers, sailors and airmen have in what they do. If you have ever had the privilege to visit any of our affiliates, you will have been impressed by the training schedules and the enjoyment that they get from them.

On 17th & 18th of November it was the turn of the Royal Navy. About 20 Coachmakers, led by our Master, valiantly and successfully (more about why that is significant, later) wended their way to Yeovilton to visit our newest affiliate, the Commando Helicopter Force, affectionately known as The Junglies.

Under the command of Colonel Stafford Royal Marines, CHF is a unit of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. The clue to what they do is in the name. They deploy helicopters and pilots and provide crucial aerial support to the Royal Marines, be they at sea or on land. The helicopters that they have to hand are the large Merlin and the more sporting Wildcat.

After a short introduction by the Colonel, we received an insight into the unit, its strategy and its future goals. Then downstairs we trooped to the hangar, to crawl all over an immaculate Merlin, recently upgraded from Mk3 to Mk 4 standard and an equally smart and recently delivered Wildcat AH1. Presenting them were a number of pilots and engineers who told us about their capability, showed us the weapons and protections and allowed us to sit in the pilots’ seats and fiddle. This was followed, in the hangar, with a genteel cup of tea and cake. The pilots and engineers were very engaging, and happy to answer a myriad of questions as well as regaling us with some tales of derring-do. It was difficult to tear ourselves away, but leave we must, as we had a dinner engagement at the Premier Inn in Plymouth.

After Covid inspired regulations have laid waste to a year and a half in our Livery’s life, it was great to spend a convivial evening in the company of fellow Coachmakers and as always, we had a great deal of fun and fellowship.


The following morning, we drove the 10 minutes to the Devonport naval dockyard to spend the morning on board HMS BULWARK. She has not been at sea for about six years. Some of that time she spent moored on minimum power with a skeleton crew. The Navy has an elegant phrase for this – “held at extended readiness”. There was even a rumour that she might be sold to Chile.

However, much to the joy of the Coachmakers, HMS BULWARK is undergoing a stem to stern refit and once complete she will be put back into full active service in a couple of years’ time. For the moment, she is in dry dock and resembles a steel building site. Nevertheless, we were shown round and given an excellent description of the processes involved in refitting a large naval vessel.

HMS BULWARK is one of two Albion-class amphibious assault ships. Together with her sister ship, HMS ALBION, her job is to land Royal Marines and their equipment, including trucks and tanks, ashore by sea and air. She has the facilities to carry up to 405 Royal Marines, in addition to her crew of 325. She also carries 4 x 200 man landing craft and the flight deck can accommodate two Merlins and two Chinooks.

To deploy the Royal Marines, the rear part of the vehicle deck is stepped down in the stern part, enabling it to carry the four landing craft. The ship then floods its ballast tanks causing the stern to dip down in the water and the hangar like stern door opens, allowing the part of the Vehicle Deck in which the landing craft sit, to flood and they can then float out of the stern.

I have had the privilege to spend a few days at sea on BULWARK, a couple of times and it is the most fantastic experience and one not to be missed, next time it is offered. Not only did we experience amazing hospitality and were able to explore every inch of the ship, but we were also allowed to play with some of the toys and witness the deployment and recovery of the landing craft – an awesome process.

Having seen the work carried out on the ship that we hold in such affection, and now confident that she will be great again, we were treated to a lovely lunch at the onshore mess. At just before 2pm we all headed off for the long trip home.

Well, everyone except me, that is. When I started my car in the morning, it had been misfiring and blowing out fuel-smelling white smoke that the Pope-making Cardinals in the Vatican would have died for. Having arranged recovery, which was delayed, I eventually set off for home. Nothing as romantic as boats and planes and trains but rather Shanks’s Pony, followed by a bus with an extremely disgruntled driver and then a train… I still wouldn’t have missed it. It was a visit very much in the Coachmakers’ vein, seeing and doing things that are not available to the world at large.