130 days at sea, three large exercises and as many countermine operations, 18 visited ports in different countries – that’s a summary of a recently completed mission of PKW Czernicki ship within the frames of the NATO SNMCMG1. For the Polish Navy – absolutely exceptional one.
Cold, heavy rainy clouds, gusty wind – the weather on Friday before Christmas in Świnoujście was, roughly speaking, rather bad. In spite of that local naval port was busier than usual. There were three ships on the coast, which have spent last six months in the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG1). Officially, the Navy’s mission was to last few more days. At the beginning of January, Polish commander transferred duties to an officer from Germany. This way, one of the most important of the Polish Navy’s operations in years has come to an end.
Mines and Diplomacy
SNMCMG1 is one of the four permanent NATO maritime groups, and at the same time an element of the Allied Response Forces. It is a group of countermine vessels, which operate on the routes of Northern Europe. The Polish Navy has written a long page in its history. The group already had their commanders and staff officers, a flagship and mine destroyers. The last mission was however exceptional. Never before had Poland deployed in the SNMCMG1such significant forces. In July 2023, Cmdr Piotr Bartosewicz took the command of the group. For the following months, he was supported by international staff, comprised mainly of officers and warrant officers of the 8th Flotilla of Coastal Defense in Świnoujście. The flagship, after its several-year break, was the ORP Kontradmirał Xawery Czernicki, joined by two other Polish vessels: OORP Hańcza and Drużno minesweepers. For the vessels of this class, it was a debut in SNMCMG1. The Poles formed a 140-personnel contingent, which was named PKW (Polish Military Contingent) Czernicki 2023.
“During those six months, we took part in three large exercises and three countermine operations. Our flagship covered a distance of over 12,000 nm, and each minesweeper – about 10,000 nm. We visited 18 ports in 11 different countries. We have mainly been to the NATO member states, but we also went to Swedish town of Visby and Irish city of Dublin. At sea, we spent about 130 days,” says Cmdr Bartosewicz. “For the most time, I commanded seven to ten ships, but during exercises the group was usually strengthened. In the peak moment, I commanded a total of 15 vessels. A small fleet, I could say,” he smiles.
SNMCMG1 operated on the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, on the English Channel, and on the Atlantic Ocean. During the Sandy Coast Exercise at the coast of the Netherlands, the crews were searching for exercise mines. During Northern Coasts on the Latvia waters the main task was to clear the way for the airborne group, which headed for the city of Ventspils. The goal of Freezing Winds was to defend Finland against the attack from the west. The participants operated mainly at sea, although some of the episodes was played in the air and on the ground. The SNMCMG1 vessels were to clear shipping routes for the supply vessels.
However, the seamen struggled not only with simulated threats. During the historical ordnance disposal operations (HODOPs), i.e. mine operations, they dealt with the most real and dangerous remains of last wars. The balance of a combat operation carried out near the coast of Latvia within the frames of Northern Coasts Exercise is 12 neutralized mines. The Seine Bay near the mouth of the English Channel to the Atlantic, the crews detected, and then destroyed, two German mines of LMB type. Each weighed a ton and contained about 700 kg of explosive material. During Estonian HODOPs on the Narva Bay, the SNMCMG1 crew eliminated 15 mines of different types, and one old torpedo. “In total, during the mission we checked the area of 190 m2, and neutralized about 50 different types of dangerous objects,” summarizes Cmdr Bartosewicz.
During World War II these waters were intensively mined. Until today, thousands of retained objects disturb the shipping route. They are gradually being removed by the navies of individual states and by NATO, but it is not an easy task. For example, those who once put the mines, often would erroneously mark their positions on the map. Additionally, there is also the passing time. The sea bottom is constantly working, the objects are being shifted by the currents, covered by sand… “Our work is very arduous,” admits former SNMCMG1 leader. „Worth remembering is the fact that the assessment of particular operations should be taken down to the number of neutralized mines. We verify the key maritime routes. If it turns out they are clear – it’s even better,” he emphasizes.
However, the participation in international exercise and countermine operations is not all. SNMCMG1plays the role of NATO’s outpost. The group is to demonstrate the presence of the Alliance in crucial waters and… remain in constant readiness for action. As an element of the NATO Response Forces, if need arises it can be deployed to the region of crisis or to the war. The missions are alike at this point, however each of them is unique in their own way. This hold true for the mission supervised by the Poles.
Three Roles of the X
First of all, times are tough. There is war in Ukraine, the tension between Russia and NATO has not weakened for weeks. “The Russian Federation ships would often accompany us, following our moves. Such was the case with the Estonian HODOPs, where we would carry out tasks about a mile away from the Russian territorial waters. In such situations, showing the navy ensign is rather a delicate issue. Some decisions should be made very fast, and one must be careful not to escalate any situations,” says Cmdr Bartosewicz. The former SNMCMG1 commander admits that during the mission he received from the Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) additional tasks. “I cannot talk about details, but at certain point the forces under my command had to be divided into four. Some ships operated on southern Baltic, some on the Gulf of Finland, and some on the North Sea, and some on the English Channel. All the vessels had to be coordinated. It was quite demanding, as usually the team operated within the same waters,” admits the officer.
The Freezing Winds maneuvers also turned out quite demanding. For years these were the internal exercise of the Finnish Navy. This year’s edition was international, and the Finnish for the first time in history were the official members of NATO. “The maneuvers were largely located on the Archipelago Sea with hundreds small and smaller islands. We operated on waters difficult to navigate, in temperatures often falling down to –15°C. For Polish seamen this is not a typical situation. We usually carry out our tasks in the open sea,” admits Cmdr Bartosewicz.
In the meantime, there were more such special moments. The ORP Czernicki ship returned to the team after six years. Last time the ship was a flagship of the NATO countermine group was in 2017. At that time, the ship served in SNMCMG2 and operated in the south of Europe. “As usual, the ship becomes bilingual for the time of mission. All messages and commands are both in Polish and English, because we had international staff onboard,” says LtCdr Michał Bumbul, commander of ORP Czernicki. As usual, the X – as the crew calls the ship – played dual role. Apart from being the commanding platform, it was also a logistics vessel. “We took a diving chamber onboard for secure diving, as well as water and fuel supply for all ships in the group,” explains LtCdr Bumbul. The ship’s crew can share their supplies directly at sea – standing close next to other vessel or on the move. In such a case, the ship crew throws a hose, which the other ship’s crew takes in over the bow. “During the mission, we would go through the same procedures many times. We restocked our supplies several times. Our fuels were used by Polish minesweepers and mine destroyers from Canada,” recalls the commander.
During the mission, the ship also got brand new kind of tasks. First Latvian, and then Lithuanian divers were located onboard Czernicki. They participated in countermine exercise and operations. “They used our boats, the assistance of our helmsmen, and they would blow the mines with the explosives from our ship’s stock,” says LtCdr Bumbul. The Lithuanians also operated their underwater vehicles from the Polish ship. “We were an additional ship assisting with mine search, which we had never practiced before,” summarizes the commander of ORP Czernicki.
Two Polish minesweepers also had to function in new roles despite of the fact that during the mission they would operate only withing the Baltic Sea waters. “For these small vessels, the participation in SNMCMG1 was quite a challenge,” admits Lt (N) Rafał Duszewski, a commander of ORP Drużno. “So far, the longest departures were carried out on the occasion of two- or three-week exercises. Now, we were at sea much longer, and on top of that we were translocating within the group of ships of better sea-kindliness. All of this required extraordinary engagement and determination of the crew,” he adds. There was also a long list of tasks related both with a daily training as well as exercises. The ships participated in Northern Coasts and Freezing Winds exercises. “Particular emphasis was put on the training of under-keel sonar operators, but also ROV operators,” explains Lt (N) Rafał Duszewski. As of recently, the
Głuptak and Ukwiał systems have been present onboard minesweepers, and their task is to identify and neutralize dangerous objects, particularly naval miles. “Operators gained experience during work waters of various depth, visibility and sea bottom shape. We have learned more than a lot,” explains the commander of ORP Drużno.
Like Chain Links
The seamen agree: the benefits from the participation in these types of missions are extensive. “We have confirmed that the Polish Navy is capable to function in international structures and ready to add their part to the system of collected security. What’s more, we can play significant roles in these structures,” emphasizes Cmdr Bartosewicz. The mission is the occasion to build interoperability, which is one of the NATO’s fundamentals. The Alliance is a conglomerate of forces which use different languages and various equipment. It’s important that at the moment of threat all of the cooperate as one coherent organism.
For some of the PKW Czernicki’s crew, it was another participation in international group. However, a vast majority was there for the first time. “The knowledge they gained will serve them in the future. They will share their experience with others. Than, they will go up the ladder of their careers. Young officers will become deputy commanders and ship commanders, they will serve in staffs. This means, we will keep this continuity. It’s important, because such a chain can be easily broken. It’s much harder to later rebuild these lost capabilities,” summarizes Cmdr Bartosewicz.
autor zdjęć: 8 FOW