WEEK 20: Brecon Beacons – home of the Infantry Battle School

God’s country? Then God must have a fine collection of Gortex and hot brews!

The debate of which military is the finest is one that will continue forever. One of the main calculators to the efficiency of a force is its training environment. Brecon Beacons is home of the Infantry Battle School. Every infantry Soldier from the rank of Corporal to General has at some point crossed into that hallowed land.

Brecon is our trump card, nothing quite compares to it, you can experience all four seasons in a day, admittedly summer will last about five minutes at best and winter will last twenty-three hours, but still, it is a harsh an unforgiving environment, and it was for week 20 the home of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. We had snow, sun, rain, thunder, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes and the great plague. OK, some of that was an exaggeration, but nevertheless, Brecon chucked a lot at us.

This was however, my favourite exercise as yet, in comparison to a rather sunny and warm Ex SELF-RELIANCE or MONTGOMERY’s MARK. There was a lot more to chew on to for want of a better word. We conducted ambushes, company attacks, some fighting in built-up areas, more reconnaissance patrols and most excitingly, night raids! I also had quite an exposure to various different appointments, such as CSM for the deployment and Platoon Commander for the night raids, great fun! For those of us who want to go into what is known as the “teeth arms” this was everything that we joined for. Regardless of the rain, snow, cold, lack of hot food, it was somewhat beautiful.

I did have a low point however, and that was at 2am when I was ordered to a Platoon Commander’s O-Group during a thunderstorm; to cut a long story short, I lost the track plan on my route back to my shell-scrap and ended up spending twenty minutes stumbling around a pitch-black harbour looking for my shell-scrap, and at one point I was prepared to just stand there until I was found. It took some time, but as you can tell by the fact that I am writing this blog, I made it back, the means I used I shall keep as a secret ’til my dying days!

On the exercise there are a lot more resources thrown into the pot too. We now use special kit, which can inform you if you have been shot or killed. We also have GPMGs attached to us and demolitions too. We came under frequent indirect artillery fire and were constantly CASEVACing our comrades up hills. Personally me and my mates find it a lot easier just to chuck someone over our shoulders and go hell for leather up the hill, but you can usually only do this for about 200m, and when you have a CASEVAC uphill which is longer than a kilometer it is time to crank the stretcher out.

The exercise finished with a dawn attack on an enemy stronghold; we had to go and rescue some friendly prisoners of war. And just by that statement you can tell how much more intense this exercise has been compared to the usual “three times enemy entrenched positions”. Ultimately, this exercise has reaffirmed why I love what I do, being cold, being muddy, being soaked, but ultimately, knowing that we are being better, more hardy, more determined than the vast majority of people our age. I would rather be in Brecon than I would on the drill square, and I would definitely rather be in Brecon than working 9-5 (in most circumstances!)

WEEK 19: Allenby’s Advance

· DIA Exam
· War gaming
· Army Fitness Test
· Prep for Allenby’s Advance

Week nineteen is without a doubt the silence before the storm, which will be ALLENBY’s ADVANCE. The program is more orientated around pushing our minds than our bodies. Nevertheless we still had a minor thrashing with the physical training wing. On the Monday morning we had a defence and international affairs exam on whether the world is unipolar, to which I will hide my view and let everyone debate this on the blogs Facebook or LinkedIn posts.

We had our introduction to war gaming too, which was very interesting. Now, many people may get the comic impression of a group of old men stood around a table moving figurine Soldiers around a map, well, that is how it feels at times. It is a very useful tool in planning operations, with one side role-playing the enemy, it can bring the battle estimate more to life and add complexities which are otherwise hard to come across.

During our introduction lecture, we were given an overview of war gaming in the military context, how the Prussian Army, which is in my opinion, one of the finest military machines that has ever existed, invented war gaming. It was also used by the German military for the very successful invasion of France in 1940.

It could be suggested that more effort should be placed on actual battle exercises, but these can become too expensive logistical, and when some of the other armies such as the Chinese are investing heavily in war gaming, and when its context historically is so pertinent, you really understand the importance of that map and those unit ID cards. It did however cause some tension amongst my Platoon when I destroyed one of my friend’s armoured personal carriers.

Mid-week we also undertook the Army Fitness Test (AFT), this was without doubt one of the easiest PT sessions we have had in a long time, which is very encouraging. The aim of the PT staff is to train you to such a level so that when it comes to testing, it is actually relaxing and not challenging.

The confidence course, which is an aerial obstacle course also comes under the jurisdiction of the PT staff and we began lessons on that. Now, I have no problems with heights, but I am not the most coordinated person in the world, so I do find walking across a scaffolding pole at 30ft somewhat disconcerting, not due to the height, but more due to the fact that I am nearly guaranteed to fall off! I do really enjoy it though; it educates one in how they should react when faced with the door opening on a Warrior IFV or about to storm into a compound in a comparatively very safe manner. Nevertheless, my balance is still atrocious!

All of this week was however in prep for Ex ALLENBY’s ADVANCE. The first round of command appointments have been released and I will be deploying as the Company Sergeant Major (CSM). The roles of a platoon sergeant or CSM are not natural to an Officer Cadet like they are as a Platoon Commander. I have no doubt in my mind in the fact that my stress levels are about to sore through the roof!

Week 18: A Series of Introductions

With week eighteen comes a series of introductions, such as introduction to company level operations, ambushes and operating in built up areas (OBUA).

Firstly, I shall say this, company level operations are something that blow my mind. Considering they are just platoon level ops but on a larger scale, the pressure seems to be so much more. For example, flank protection seems to be ludicrously more intense and the control measures too! Even though it will be nine years at the earliest when any of us shall command a company (usually around a hundred soldiers), Officer Cadets learn the tactics so when we command a platoon (about twenty to thirty soldiers) we understand where we fit in the bigger picture. Admittedly it does make platoon level operations seem a lot easier!

We also now draw from our lessons in the close quarter marksmanship to start building on what is known as OBUA. Most recently known as FIBUA, or fighting in built up areas, it is at its most basic concept house clearing. I have also heard that it has many other names.

As a simple introduction we covered entry into a building and room clearance, later on we will build more into this such as vehicle searches, riot control and stabilisation operations. But, at the moment we are placing L111 fragmentation grenades, counting and then jumping through windows; going “red-light” entry as it is called. It is most difficult as an officer as we must decide when to red-light clear or when to green-light clear a building. Red-light means we know that there are only hostiles, so we can use maximum aggression in clearing the building. Green-light however means that we suspect there could be friendly, neutral, civilian or casualties in the building, so a lot more care goes into the clearance; this is a nightmare as the process seems a lot more drawn out.

Week eighteen also has a three-day exercise where we are introduced to company tactics in practice. As any serving member of the forces would presume, seventy-seven officer cadets first attempt at a company attack is a tad hectic. We occupy a far larger area, and if you ever find yourself as a runner, as I did, you discover that you will end up running a marathon to get a message from platoon to platoon!

There are a lot of things that are taught during the commissioning course that some may be tempted to pay lip-service to, but it is during the heat of a company attack when one platoon has been pinned down, another platoon is currently evacuating two T1, a T2 and three T3 casualties and the third platoon is moving in to close and kill an enemy strong point that all the lessons in radio communications come into their element. Communication is what prevents catastrophe in this instance. With this, we have a lot to learn before we head on our next summative exercise, ALLENBY’s ADVANCE in Brecon, home of the infantry battle school.

Josh, our man on the inside at #RMAS, kick started week 18 comes a series of introductions; to company level operations, ambushes and operating in built up areas (OBUA). Company level operations blew Josh’s mind. But getting ready to command a company with about 100 Soldiers, makes it easier to learn the tactics to command a Platoon (about 20 to 30 Soldiers), understand where he fits in the bigger picture. Josh then joined 77 other Officer Cadets to put everything into practice with a three-day exercise.

As any serving member of the forces would presume, seventy-seven officer cadets first attempt at a company attack is a tad hectic. We occupy a far larger area, and if you ever find yourself as a runner, as I did, you discover that you will end up running a marathon to get a message from platoon to platoon!

There are a lot of things that are taught during the commissioning course that some may be tempted to pay lip-service to, but it is during the heat of a company attack when one platoon has been pinned down, another platoon is currently evacuating two T1, a T2 and three T3 casualties and the third platoon is moving in to close and kill an enemy strong point that all the lessons in radio communications come into their element. Communication is what prevents catastrophe in this instance. With this, we have a lot to learn before we head on our next summative exercise, ALLENBY’s ADVANCE in Brecon, home of the infantry battle school.

Week 17: Exercise Wolfe’s Crossing, Room Inspections and more!

We carry along with the normal running day, things just become more complex. One thing I have noticed is that things that at times felt irrelevant are now all coming together. Our lectures with the academics now bear striking reality to the tactics we get taught by military personal. The psychology lessons we received in CABS are now being linked with how the British military conducted themselves in humanitarian crises such as the Balkans. One thing I am really enjoying currently is war studies and how tactics work in the wider image. We are studying how the German military operated in the beginning years of the Second World War; there is a lot to learn there, especially as they arguably managed to perfect manoeuvre warfare. However, our military skills are not slackening.

We also deployed this week on Exercise WOLFE’S CROSSING. This is mostly supposed to be just a shake-out exercise, brush some cob-webs off our minds so that we are firing on all cylinders for next week’s Exercise MARLBOROUGH’S ATTACK. The weather however seemed to be against us, at its coldest it was -9 Celsius; this made a 3 am sentry duty somewhat more interesting! Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to get outside. I still find patrolling during sunrise one of the more beautiful things in life, up until I remember how cold and tired I am!

Another notable difference now is our rooms. We had a room inspection from the Company Sergeant Major; now, when you have been used to ironing your socks and making sure all 27 rooms are identical, you go into over-drive somewhat when someone utters the words “inspection”. But, this time, our room inspections were not only marked on cleanliness, but also personality and character! My room has had to make a dramatic transformation with pictures and decorations; it is almost like being given your personality back! We have also had some French comrade-counterparts attached to us for the next few weeks. This is a tremendous opportunity as our two nations draw closer together militarily, and we are learning a lot from each other! Their training is significantly longer than ours, so we have a lot more experience we can draw on, and we are teaching them about the value of a hot brew during a cold English winter. On a side note, I am eating my body weight in custard creams and tea as a living room gives a new social dimension to the platoon. And we are still cruising on Op Functionally-Massive in the gym.

Week 16: Intermediate Term

It’s week sixteen, or week one of inters (Intermediate Term), and in comparison to week one Juniors, it bears no similarity. There is somewhat of a drag of getting back, after all, with three weeks leave many of us had become used to sleeping in until our first meal was lunch not breakfast! Nevertheless, there is a feeling of excitement at getting stuck back into it. After all, many of the regiments held social functions over the Christmas period; I went to a drinks night at the famous In and Out Officers club, which was incredible. We do understand that the term will be harder but as just experienced, it will be more rewarding! We were anxious to find out in what ways it will be and how we will change. When coming back and driving through the gates I saw out of the glimpse of my eye the next intake on IBS (Ironing Board Sunday: named so as everyone walks around looking extremely lost, extremely smart and with an extremely large ironing board!) I arrive at our new accommodation in New College. There are many more luxuries here: in the ante rooms you can find coffee and cake in the afternoon; for breakfast there is the option of pancakes or pains au chocolat; and there is also a baguette bar at lunch, which we take full advantage of. In summary, a lot more food! Could be seen as a ploy. I was sat at one meal thinking, gosh, all this weight I lost (a grand total of nearly 20 kg!) will soon be piled back on. I had that thought until I discovered true Army fitness…

The ownership of personal fitness is now placed onto us, as now we know the best ways to exercise our bodies. You have to understand, being fit in the Army is very different to being a fit civilian. So PT sessions, which were originally squared runs or HIIT circuits, have been replaced with obstacle courses and combat battle training – in other terms, conditions for our career. On the obstacle course I occasionally think I am in the Navy due to the amount of time I spend in the lakes and streams instead of dry land! However, it is a very good mechanism of training, we get to develop our leadership but also it can push you to a level of exhaustion that a run simply cannot. Then also there is combat battle training. From a distance it looks like just brawling, and at times that is how it feels, but here we learn some key skills of hand to hand combat such as striking and grappling methods. Our PTI likes to make it a tad more interesting by throwing in a basic body weight circuit too just to wear us down a bit faster. After these sessions, it’s not like a hard gym session or particularly long run, you ache, and you ache for a while.

Inters is in some eyes the first step into functioning as the field Army does, somewhat more realistic hours, we have longer to eat and get more time to ourselves to carry out personal study. Ultimately, we get time to work on ourselves, I managed to visit the gym six times this week and had a personal training plan written by one of the PTIs at the academy.