For more than 70 years the people of Sheerness have lived with the prospect of a massive explosion a few miles offshore after the World War Two ammunition ship SS Richard Montgomery, sunk on a sandbank .
The vessel which went down in bad weather in 1944 with around 7,000 bombs of various sizes – 1,400 tonnes of high explosives in all.
If triggered, experts believe the blast could shatter every window in Sheerness, throw debris from the ship 10,000 feet in the air and result in a tsunami anywhere between 4 and 15ft high, adding to the chaos and devastation ashore.
The scenario was played out at Bull Point in Devonport Naval Base, Plymouth, where the crews of all Royal Navy ships practise providing disaster relief and humanitarian aid – typically after a hurricane or earthquake.
Lieutenant Commander Richard Talbot, overseeing the exercise for the RN’s training organisation, FOST, said:
“A disaster exercise is primarily a test of ship’s ability to firstly plan, then carry out dynamic command and control of its personnel and equipment.”
He added: “It tests both flexibility and ability to put a basic plan into practice – then be able to react and adapt as the situation ashore develops. And if there’s one thing that the military excels at it's planning – planning under pressure especially."
Collapsed buildings with people trapped inside, flooded homes, fires, downed power lines, crashed cars and distraught citizens (played by local volunteers) are all thrown into the mix to test sailors and Royal Marines.
Every ship must pass a DISTEX – DISasTer relief Exercise – as part of their extensive training regime before a warship deploys around the globe.
Lieutenant Commander Talbot said:
“There can be no better illustration of this than the role played by HMS Daring in 2013 in response to the Philippines typhoon and HMS Ocean and RFA Mounts Bay in the Caribbean after the hurricanes of 2017.”
But there have also been events in Britain when the civilian authorities are overwhelmed by a situation – such as the severe flooding in early 2014 or the Novichok attack in Salisbury last year.
Military Aid to Civil Agencies, as it is officially called, delivers extra personnel, skills and kit.
Lt Cdr Talbot said the exercise has been a steep learning curve for everyone.
“In an operation such as this, military personnel have to adapt to the way the civilian authorities work and think. Kent has had to rapidly change her mindset from training for high-intensity warfare to providing humanitarian aid.
“Overall, the exercise was a huge success. It proved that military and civilian emergency services can work together.”
Increasingly, emergency services and local authorities have been invited to make use of the facilities at Bull Point so they are better able to cope with a major incident, such as the Manchester Arena bombing, the London Bridge terror attack or Lockerbie disaster.