Royal Marines honoured with Sword of Peace for hurricane relief efforts

Royal Marines who faced a “deteriorating situation” in the wake of a powerful category five hurricane, which pummelled British overseas territories in the Caribbean, have been recognised with a prestigious award.

Barrelling through the region and unleashing life-threatening winds, Hurricane Irma tore a destructive trail and sparked a major UK aid operation in September 2017.

The British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos and Anguilla bore the brunt of the damage, with buildings reduced to their foundations, lush green hillsides turned into brown stubble and a state of emergency declared.

40 Commando Royal Marines parade
Marines during a 40 Commando Royal Marines parade, to celebrate their humanitarian efforts and reaction to Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean (Ben Birchall/PA)

Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Paul Maynard said 40 Commando left Britain and were greeted by a “fast deteriorating situation” on arrival – including civil disorder and more than 100 prisoners on the loose.

The first to arrive, at the peak of relief efforts more than 2,000 UK troops were in the Caribbean, with personnel from 40 Commando Royal Marines deploying with almost no notice in response to the humanitarian disaster.

On Monday, on the sun-drenched parade square of their Norton Manor camp in Taunton, Somerset, 40 Commando were awarded the Firmin Sword of Peace – the only unit across the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Army to receive it four times.

Describing what 40 Commando discovered in the British Virgin Islands, Lt Col Maynard said he had “never felt” the burden of risk before that he was carrying on Operation Ruman, despite having undertaken tours of Afghanistan.

40 Commando Royal Marines parade
The band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines perform (Ben Birchall/PA)

“When Alpha Company first drove down from the airport there were riots at petrol stations, there were people with blood on their face – panic and shock everywhere… all the shops were being looted,” he said.

“Everyone was just very, very scared… those first few days we had nothing really. We had to do the best we could.”

Due to the pace of their deployment, their weapons and radios were left behind in the UK and they arrived with only three days of supplies.

They were forced to break into the police armoury to access firearms, and even used radios from stricken yachts. At one point, the personnel of 40 Commando were also forced to go down to half rations until they could access more.

During their weaponless period, Lt Col Maynard said they were going out and arresting looters that were armed with machetes and cars packed with side arms.

“There was a real threat,” he said. “We had to adapt and improvise.”

40 Commando Royal Marines parade
Royal Marines officer Lieutenant Henry Hives carries the Sword of Peace (Ben Birchall/PA)

Lt Col Maynard said the conditions on the ground were unlike anything he had ever seen, adding that it looked “post apocalyptic”.

The most powerful storm in decades was followed less than two weeks later by category five Hurricane Maria, which proceeded to decimate the islands Dominica and Puerto Rico.

At the presentation event, attended by dignitaries, including the vice chief of the defence staff General Sir Gordon Messenger, the Sword of Peace was presented to Lieutenant Harry Hives on behalf of the unit.

The sought after Firmin Sword of Peace is given for activities above and beyond the unit’s normal role, either within the United Kingdom, or overseas. If no suitable recipient the sword will not be awarded.

“For me the most important thing is that the unit has been given recognition for what it did on that operation,” Lt Col Maynard said. “I am delighted they have been recognised in this way.

“To be the first unit in defence to have four such accolades I think is testament to the ethos, culture and the qualities of the Royal Marines that are clearly being repeated through the generations.”

40 Commando Royal Marines parade
Royal Marines officer Lieutenant Henry Hives (right) carries the Sword of Peace during a 40 Commando Royal Marines parade (Ben Birchall/PA)

The other three swords given to 40 Commando were for Operation Claret in 1966 for their role in the secret war against Indonesia, for Operation Banner in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1972 and a peacekeeping mission in Cyprus in 1984.

Gen Messenger, as a former 40 Commando commanding officer, said it is a “very proud moment”, and added: “Although, notably I didn’t get a sword of peace when I was here, so I am just showing my failings.”

“When you are called upon at very short notice and thrown into a situation that you simply don’t understand, and then being able to adapt in order to have the right effect,” he added.

“And be able to prioritise what needed to happen first, and establish relationships with people that have been shocked and disrupted by the events that happened, that is not easy.

“But it was delivered with aplomb by 40 Commando and I am very proud of them”.

He dismissed reports that the response was too slow, stating they were “absolutely there out the starting pistol”.

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