The latest West Indies Guard ship (WIG) – this time provided by the Royal Netherlands Navy – arrived in Curaçao earlier this year. The ship, HNLMS Rotterdam, is a 166 meters (545 feet) long amphibious transport ship, also referred to as a Landing Platform Dock (LPD). As guard ship, Rotterdam has taken on a job usually reserved for a frigate.
The Netherlands has been a maritime nation for hundreds of years, depending on the sea for commerce. Traditionally the Royal Netherlands Navy deployed all over the world in order to protect Dutch interests. Today, the threat to the Kingdom of the Netherlands and her NATO allies has diminished; however, the demand for maritime resources is greater than ever. Warships can now operate independently in international waters for long periods anywhere in the world. They can also operate in coastal waters, thus providing security both at and from the sea.
The WIG ship, one of the navy's two Amphibious Transport Ships, is unique and of significant value in the Caribbean region. HNLMS Rotterdam has the capacity to transport large loads and the ability to disembark a battalion of marines on a coast with their associated equipment and supplies. Once troops are ashore, the ship is able to provide logistic support for 30-days, as a recent exercise involving 90 Marines of the 32nd infantry company, based in Aruba, was to prove.
"Usually we are limited to training at platoon level with the small Boston Whaler boats," says Jan Willem van Dijk, Commander of the 32nd infantry company. "With the Rotterdam we can train for amphibious operations with all the frills!"
The first exercise was planned for early one Saturday morning at Curaçao's Fuikbay. While the Rotterdam stayed offshore, serving as the communications and command ship, the marines landed and secured the beach above and below the water. The troops were followed by three landing craft carrying heavy equipment for possible deployment.
"Landing resources and manpower right where it is required is the goal of these operations," says Peter van den Berg, commander of HNLMS Rotterdam. "And that's basically not where the enemy is, because in amphibious operations, the aim is to find that piece of coast where no enemies are." These operations can be carried out in ports and at locations with limited or no port facilities at all.
Besides her regular crew of 123, the ship can accommo-date more than 500 people. Special communication and radar equipment 'in-house' provides support to operations against terrorists or pirates, and in the event of evacuation operations or environmental disasters. "If we had been around after the earthquake in Haiti, we would have made a significant difference," said Commander van den Berg, referring to the unique qualities of the amphibious ship. "In the past we have seen, especially in the Caribbean, that there is a need for amphibious action in the line of humanitarian aid after a disaster."
Towards the end of the day the exercise entered a more serious phase. The Rotterdam sailed to Bonaire where, at the '1000 steps', a famous dive site at the foot of almost insurmountable cliffs, the marines carried out a pre-dawn landing. After exploring and securing the beach, they scaled the cliffs. Using knotted ropes and tiny ladders, the men silently reached the higher level where they carried out a surprise attack.
After sunrise the exercise continued at Sunset Beach. There, under the watchful eye of STENAPA (National Parks Found-ation) employees, heavy equipment was brought ashore.
Back on the Rotterdam the officers in charge gathered in the amphibious operations room where first they planned the operation and where later they would evaluate the exercise.
In addition to operational activities, the crew of the Rotterdam also supports various island charities, transporting goods and gifts from the Netherlands. On board are the bulky parts of an artificial-grass football field for Saba.
HNLMS Rotterdam and her sister ship HNLMS Johan de Witt will be open to the public during Caribbean Navy Days held May 21-22nd in the harbor of Willemstad, Curaçao.
Els Kroon is a Dutch former teacher who now lives and works as an award-winning free-lance photojournalist on Curaçao.