SUNDERLAND’S adopted warship HMS Ocean was at the forefront of the first blitz by Apache attack helicopters in Libya.
Two £40million Apache WAH 64Ds obliterated a key radar and communications centre and killed Libyan soldiers who fired at them from the back of a pick-up truck.
The gunships lifted off in the early hours of Saturday from HMS Ocean in the Mediterranean, two miles off the eastern port of Brega.
After using laser-guided Hellfire missiles to destroy their targets, they returned safely to the vessel.
The British choppers’ first strike inside Libya was designed to break the stalemate on the ground and help hasten the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
Captain Andrew Betton, commanding officer of HMS Ocean, said: “The idea of bringing Apaches into the mix is to increase the pressure on Gaddafi’s forces.
“It will enable us in time, if necessary, to attack a different suite of targets.”
A separate force of French Gazelle and Tiger helicopters were launched from the carrier La Tonnerre, chasing other targets.
Capt Betton said: “The mission has been successfully completed thanks to the performance of our Apache force but also a huge team of others who had worked extremely hard behind the scenes.
“This was part of a wider Nato operation carried out in conjunction with the French and this multinational task will continue.”
Meanwhile, HMS Ocean is understood to be on standby off the coast of Yemen, ready to assist in the possible evacuation of British nationals.
A force of around 80 marines was said to be on board a naval support ship, RFA Fort Victoria, close to the strife-torn Arab state.
HMS Ocean, whose officers and ratings were granted Honorary Freedom of the City of Sunderland in 2004, is part of the the same Response Force Task Group, which has been conducting a series of exercises, mainly in the Mediterranean, over the past weeks.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed that there were British military assets in the region but refused to go into detail.
“As part of routine deployment UK military assets are in the region, although we are not prepared to comment further on their exact operational tasking,” a spokesman said.
Following the latest upsurge in violence, the Foreign Office has been advising British nationals to leave the country, while commercial flights are still available.
The presence of the Royal Marines off the Yemeni coast is likely to be seen as evidence of the contingency planning in case events take a significant turn for the worse.