Video: On patrol with Suffolk's new naval crew

Following Ipswich's affiliation with the Royal Navy minehunter HMS Quorn, reporter SIMON TOMLINSON and photographer ALEX FAIRFULL were granted exclusive access to operations in the Gulf with the crew that visited the town in October.

IT was a sad day for Ipswich when the town bade farewell to HMS Grafton three years ago, but the tears have turned to smiles with the arrival of HMS Quorn.

The affiliation with the 750-ton ship is a welcome revitalisation of Ipswich's naval links and offers an exciting venture into the enigmatic world of minehunting.

The crew which visited Ipswich aboard HMS Quorn last October are currently engaged in a seven-month tour of the Gulf on another minehunter.

Due to the rotational nature of operations - whereby ships will serve in theatre for two years while crews swap roughly every six months - the company of HMS Quorn, which includes sailors from the region, are now aboard HMS Atherstone, where we joined them in the Middle East.

HMS Quorn, which also has a new crew, is due to return to Ipswich at the end of this month before embarking on a six-month tour in America on operations with NATO.

Both minehunters are led by Commander David Hunkin, who is in charge of the Second Mine Countermeasures Squadron - a team of eight Hunt class ships.

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Part of comm Hunkin's time involves administrative work in the UK - during which he commutes from his rural home in Suffolk to his naval base in Portsmouth.

His other commitments take him on operational duties - as it did last year when he led a major mission to seek and destroy mines left over from the two Gulf wars.

As part of the coalition effort, Cdr Hunkin was charged with scouring an expanse of filthy, coastal water the size of the Isle of Wight which contained 12 so-called Mine Danger Areas.

These regions of the Arabian Gulf close to Iraq and Kuwait were created in 1991 and 2003 when Saddam Hussein littered the waters with anti-invasion mines.

Using probably the most hi-tech sonar in the world to act like a torch, the Royal Navy minehunters, including HMS Atherstone, trawled the seabed for explosive devices.

When one is identified, a remote-controlled underwater vehicle known as a Seafox is launched to investigate with a camera and can blow it up with an anti-tank round.

But despite the advances in technology, it still often falls to a brave mine clearance diver to take a more hands-on approach.

Cdr Hunkin explains: “Using the Seafox is fine as long as you can see the mine with a camera, but in a lot of places we had nil visibility underwater.

“If we can't see anything it is down to mine clearance diver to carefully feel around for the mine and identify it. He will go down with a pack of explosives and attach it near to or on the mine and blow it up.”

The five-week operation required more than 200 dives and used the latest technology, including the first operational deployment of the REMUS Autonomous Underwater Vehicle - one of which was used to locate the Second World War bomb off the coast of Felixstowe last year.

The real and perceived threat of these waters, which blocked access to one of the region's major ports, had all but crippled trade and commercial shipping to Iraq.

But following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, coalition forces have been able to open up vital trade routes and improve the safety of shipping - a largely unsung contribution to the revival of the region.

Cdr Hunkin joined the Royal Navy in 1987. He moved to the Suffolk countryside four years ago because of family connections with the county and it has proved a great tonic for his hectic career.

“One of the reasons I live here is for the peace and tranquillity,” he said. “I love rural Suffolk. I can get home and switch off.”

MEET the Suffolk-educated captain of HMS Atherstone who runs a tight ship, but whose command style can sometimes land him in hot water at home.

There have been two previous ships of the same name.

The first minesweeper was built in Glasgow in 1916 and served in the Second Fleet Sweeping Flotilla, but she was sold in 1922.

The second Quorn, launched in 1940, joined the 21 Destroyer Flotilla at Harwich on convoy protection, anti-shipping and patrol duties. In 1942, she hit a mine off the Aldeburgh coast.

She was successfully repaired and but in June 1944 she was sunk during a heavy attack by German E-boats on a convoy.

The latest HMS Quorn, which was launched in 1988, is far smaller than her Ipswich-linked predecessor, HMS Grafton, but her size will enable her to get much closer to town in the wet dock, where the public will be allowed on board.

In recent years, HMS Quorn has played a major role in preventing over-fishing in the UK's territorial waters.

FOLLOWING the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001, security in the Middle East was pulled into sharp focus.

Historically, maritime activities and regional co-operation had always been piecemeal and lacked co-ordination.

But in contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, a strong naval link was forged by nations worldwide in what became the Maritime Coalition.

Co-ordinated from the US Navy's base in Bahrain, the coalition's mission - otherwise known as the Maritime Security Operations - endeavours to create a stable environment, complement the anti-terrorism efforts by intercepting vessels, helping mariners in distress and providing humanitarian assistance.