Dealing With Disaster

Exploring the British Army’s role in disaster relief

The ‘Dealing with Disaster’ exhibition investigates one of the four core roles of the British Army, to Deal with Disaster and how they deal with the aftermath of natural disasters.  It unpicks the response process, what is done and when, and how the army works collaboratively with partners across the world.   


Some disaster-prone countries have humanitarian organisations in permanent residence, such as the UN’s resident coordinators. The joint headquarters for the British Armed Forces (JFHQ) have a ‘stare list’ of countries they keep an eye on, particularly in seasons of high risk, such as the hurricane season in the Caribbean between June and November. The British Army also has a battalion on standby for national disasters called the UK Standby Battalion. It consists of five Battalions of around 600 troops each from various Regiments across the UK. The Battalions operate one at a time on a rota system, where they will be ‘on call’ for up to 3 months. 


With British forces often being based overseas, there have been instances where the British Army has been present during a natural disaster and able to assist in relief work. 

For example, the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) showed incredible ingenuity when responding to a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Messina, Sicily, in 1908. They constructed a military field hospital stationed in mainland Italy treating injuries such as fractures, sepsis, scalp wounds, pneumonia, and tetanus. The RAMC soon ran out of splints from the number of people arriving with fractures and so they used their creativity to craft splints out of ration biscuit boxes. The carpenter from HMS Duncan made six leg splints from each biscuit box which also proved good support for the operating table.  


There are approximately six phases of military response to a disaster.  

Phase 1 Requesting Assistance – Affected country requests international assistance through organisations such as NATO or the UN. 

Phase 2 Reconnaissance – An initial assessment of the disaster is undertaken by the affected country, UN, and sometimes military intelligence.  

Phase 3 Deployment – Roles are agreed and soldiers deployed 

Phase 4 Meeting Basic Needs – The Majority of support occurs in this phase, such as delivering food, water, and shelter.  

Phase 5 Recovery – This phase includes recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction, such as assistance in restoring the affected country’s critical infrastructure, such as roads and ports. 

Phase 6 Transition – Support in the transition back to normal daily life. Military _ what they have learnt from the operation.

Phases informed by Ministry of Defence, Joint Doctrine Publication 3-52 ‘Disaster Relief Operations Overseas: the Military Contribution’ 2016. 



Disaster relief operations involve collaboration across multiple international organisations. The military may collaborate with the United Nations, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), EU, The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Non-Governmental Organisations and Donor Governments (governments of countries offering assistance). Support from the UK is managed by a UN co-ordinator who divides the required roles into the following clusters: