WEEK 24: Barbours, Baguettes and Beaches

Exercise Normandy Scholar, no rifles, no stag, just seventy officer cadets storming the beaches of Normandy and the drop zones of Merville with their TAMs and history books. Normandy scholar is an academic exercise, considering tactics in a historical context.

We have been studying the Normandy campaign for the past few weeks by now. We’re out on the ground now and we get the opportunity to create our own plans, would we change what the Officers did at the time? In each syndicate we have a member of the permanent staff and an academic, one to help us with our reformed plan and the other to tell us what happened at the time.

Indeed, this exercise is invaluable to our tactical mindset, many of the problems which allied and German forces faced are similar to what we face now, such as communications, logistics and anti-fractricide. Nevertheless, nothing could stop the small giggle I had at our dress code, a sea of Barbour jackets, chinos and wellington boots; a year ago today I would have been sporting the t-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and flip-flops look, I guess I am slowly making the visible transformation to a gentleman.

We considered the stresses that a young Platoon Commander would have had to deal with on the beaches of Normandy, having to give a set of quick battle orders in a matter of seconds. Also the efforts of 6 UK Division who used parachutes and gliders to neutralise the internal structure of the defences a few hours prior to the main landing force. One stand, which really stood out for me was the attack and subsequent defence of Hill 112; not greatly known amongst many, but without doubt shows the true grit and determination of British forces.

One of the more sobering moments of Hill 112 was the memorial woods, a small wooded area planted after the war in the name of the German and British troops who paid the ultimate sacrifice there. What really stood out for me was how many soldiers had requested to be buried there some sixty years after the war, to me it really hit home how tight a brother-hood these men must have been, they never wanted to leave each other’s sides. We also went to pay our respects at a war grave and held a drumhead service there. Next week we have an exam on all we have learnt the past few months in regards to tactics, ground, doctrine, capabilities and everything else Normandy.

Our ferry landed back in England on the Friday morning, disorientated and discombobulated we were told that we had PT in the morning. Fridays in the academy are known as “Hell Friday”. The idea that we put in one more big hard session Friday morning and then we slow down into the weekend routine. Hell Friday is something that we must get through, there’s no real way of putting it gently, it sucks big time! Well Hell Friday was just made worse…

Each PT stream has their own individual Physical Training Instructor (PTI), and as expected each PTI has their own traits. Our normal PTI has never been seen to break a sweat on a TAB and we have a very good rapport with him. But on Friday our PTI was away on a course, so the “Thrasher” stood in. The Thrasher is a PTI well known amongst Officer Cadets, mostly because his sessions end up with us being in total and complete agony. He had decided that we would do a chipper exercise, 200 kettle-bell swings, 200 squats, 160 tricep dips, 160 chin-ups and a couple of fireman carries around the gym. By this stage of our training you would assume that we should be able to take most things thrown at us; well, the general consensus after that session was that we all needed a lay down, my body is broken!

WEEK 23: “Digging in”

Week 23. It’s awful. I will never say that about Sandhurst, but if I found something good about this week then there would seriously be something wrong with me. It is pure and utter hell. I hated every second and never want to relive it.

Ok, maybe I would re-show it if I had to, but I would not look forward to it. We counted 87 hours of no sleep, then we had 3 hours sleep, then we carried on for a further 20 hours roughly. We all hallucinated at some point. Not because Bob Marley was serving us our rations, but because when your body has lacked so much sleep, but you are still pumping in thousands of calories a day, your body stays awake, but your mind falls asleep. This results in your dreams encroaching in your waking life. I saw the Lady of the Lake from King Arthur walking around our defensive position, she turned to me and told me that the King requires a finer thread. Heaven knows what was happening, I just took another slurp of coffee, took a bite of a sausage and carried on digging. In hindsight it is all very funny, but at the time it is bloody horrific.

The exercise starts with “digging in” every four man pair needs a fighting trench, 1.5m deep and 7m wide, the trench needs supporting by another trench behind for administration. This needs to be built on a company basis. But they are not just like the trenches you would see in the Great War, they are the pièces de résistance of the trench war-fighting world. They’ve got sleeping quarters, which have over-head protection, firing steps, range cards, supportive banks. They are magnificent. But my gosh does it take a lot of blood, sweat and hallucinations to make one!

Once the trenches are made, which takes in excess of 48 hours, an obstacle plan needs to be built, so out comes barbed wire, trip flares, and standing patrols. Now, a trip flare contains phosphorus, and let me tell you, setting one of them up, whilst you have not slept in days, is probably one of the most nerve wracking things I have done to date.

Earlier I may have made a tad of a white lie, when I said 87 hours without sleep. I am not taking into consideration the accidental sleeping that happens, this isn’t bunking off or anything, this is falling asleep whilst digging, which is pretty funny to watch I must admit. I personally spent one digging rotation constantly falling over where I was just falling asleep during a dig. It does make time go fast however.

Once the defensive position is complete as a battlegroup, yes battlegroup not company! The fun really starts, Gurkhas begin to probe our position, then they launch a full on attack on my platoon. They’re pretty scary to be frank. I have a feeling now of how the tommies felt in their trenches. Then we come under a gas attack. Usually you should be able to don your Gas Mask in about 9 seconds, on no sleep it takes more like 9 hours! Then we come under attack again, the company commander decides that it is time for us to leave, still in full CBRN kit we begin our extraction TAB. It is snowing, but whilst wearing your CBRN kit and carrying all of your kit, your body temperature feels more like you are in the Sahara desert.

On this extraction march I noticed one thing going through my head. I deployed on Ex Slims Stand with a chest infection, I kind of jacked on myself a bit by not going to the med centre to get antibiotics, but I did not want to jack on my mates. If I had been told that I couldn’t deploy, there would be one less body to dig, cook, mount sentry and basically a lot more work to do amongst an already dwindling platoon. Our company Sergeant Major had told us a few weeks ago that as a Platoon Commander we need to be able to lead in every situation, not just geographical, but when we are at our lowest, our Soldiers will still expect us to lead. I wanted to see if I could still lead when I was less than 100%. And, I found the CBRN extraction tab hellish, I was struggling to breathe without a respirator on, but with one on it was nigh-on impossible.

In my head I was battling with a voice telling me that there is no shame to drop out, indeed the staff all pointed out throughout the week how awful I looked, my Platoon Commander kept on joking with me that I need more vitamins. So I was thinking, actually, I am ill, why shouldn’t I just admit it? But then I thought about my friends, and I didn’t want to let them down/be the first to drop, so in my head I told myself that I would only drop out when I black out. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a mentality that Sandhurst has nurtured in me.

At the end of the TAB we had 3 hours rest, it felt like 3 seconds. The second I got in my doss bag I was getting out of it! I now know why Soldiers call it a time machine. We then began a battle group attack on an urban area. This draws every gram of energy that you have left, because there are no two ways of putting it, throwing grenades into building and storming through windows is bloody cool! Endex was then called and now I have a long weekend to recover/sleep/sleep/sleep…

Next things next, Ex Normandy Scholar and Regimental Selection Boards, at the end of this month I will know what Beret I shall be wearing for the rest of my career!

WEEK 2: Ambushes. Battle simulations. And leading a team.

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7th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (7 SCOTS) is the Army Reserve Infantry Battalion for the North of Scotland. Our Battalion Headquarters is in Perth and there are Company and Platoon locations at Army Reserve Centres in Dundee, Aberdeen, Kirkcaldy, Inverness, Elgin, Stornoway, Dumbarton and Stirling. Our paired Regular Battalion is The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS) based at Fort George near Inverness.

7 SCOTS is a light role Infantry Battalion. This means that we have little reliance on vehicles. Instead we carry all of the kit and equipment that we require in order to live and fight. We pride ourselves on our physical fitness and our mental and physical resilience and robustness, and train regularly as reserve teams to undertake our role. This blog shows a typical weekend on ‘exercise’ in Scotland for our unit.

Friday

The team started to filter through the door at 1830hrs on Friday night. Under the direction of their section commanders, they made final adjustments to their kit and got themselves ready to deploy on the weekend exercise.

At 2000hrs, I delivered my first set of orders explaining the plans for the weekend. By 2200hrs, we had deployed onto the training area, which luckily for us, is roughly a 15-minute drive from the Army Reserve Centre. We occupied a platoon harbor, positioned each section in a defensive manner and posted out our sentries. As soon as the platoon had built their bashas for the night, they got their heads down. It wasn’t long after that I sent out a patrol to recce a potential enemy position that we would potentially have to attack later that weekend.

Saturday

At 0530hrs, I called a stand too and by 0600hrs, the platoon was into its morning routine. Once we’d washed, shaved, and eaten breakfast, it was time to start training. The morning was dedicated to section-level training. Each section went through three different section attack lanes. This allowed them to practice their section-level skills and the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that the section commanders had set out for them.

This was followed by a quick break for lunch and then we were into platoon-level training. The afternoon consisted of the platoon, as a whole, advancing to contact across the training area. This allowed the platoon to perfect the SOPs that I had set out and allowed the three sections to get used to working under my command and alongside each other.

After clearing the final position we patrolled back to our harbor area where we got into our evening routine and the platoon started to get their heads down. I received orders over the radio from the Company Commander for an attack in the early hours of Sunday morning. Once I had checked the information for the previous night’s recce patrol, I set about conducting a combat estimate and writing my orders.

Sunday

At 0330hrs, I delivered my orders to the platoon and by 0530hrs we were on the move. By 0600hrs, I had two sections with me in our FUP (Form Up Position) and by 0610hrs my fire support section was in position in a woodblock overlooking the enemy position.

0625hrs. It was H-5 (five minutes away from H Hour, when the battle was due to start at 0630hrs) Battle noise simulators (a type of pyrotechnic we use) began simulating mortar fire onto the enemy position. At 0628hrs my fire support section started to fire upon the enemy position. On the stroke of 0630hrs (H-hour) my lead section began to advance towards the enemy position, a house they have occupied. As the lead section got closer, my fire support section ceased fire and made its way round to join the reserve section to move up and enter the building, aware that I couldn’t get too close to the front of the assault. However, I needed to be able to coordinate all three sections.

The three sections moved through and cleared the house of enemy. I received orders over the radio to set up a defensive position on some high ground to the east of the building. Once up there and completely surrounded in defence, our exercise was complete.

Over the weekend, the platoon performed to a very high standard. We conducted training, which was physically and mentally hard, but incredibly rewarding at the same time. Every member of my platoon, including me, walked away with a sense of achievement, having completed arduous training and having done something very different to anyone’s average weekend in civvy street.

2LT Matthew Ore
Platoon Commander, 7 Scots and Student at Dundee University

WEEK 22: Birthday time!

· Turned 22 on week 22
· Division Curry Night
· Regimental Visits
· Pistol Ranges

Week 22, I turned 22. The last three birthdays I had were spent at uni, with the rugby lads on a bar crawl in fancy dress, then onto a club to dance the night away. My 21st birthday I remember for scoring the winning try in a very important game. Now usually most people would say that any of these are very satisfactory birthdays. On my 22nd, I woke up at 5am, did some physical training and then went to breakfast. Sounds pretty poo? Well, afterwards I then spent time on the pistol range, then went onto the rifle range and got full marks on the mock ACMT (Annual Combat Marksmanship Test), then we had a fascinating lecture on British units in Normandy in 1944. Now, this is going up as one of the better birthdays I have had! To top the day off, one of the Infantry Divisions I am hoping to join held a curry night, not in celebration for my birthday, although that would have been a nice gesture! When I came back to my room my friends had got me a birthday cake and some cufflinks. This is now one of my favourite birthdays.

For those who are wondering what an Infantry Division is, they are a group of regiments who have decided that they share similarities. At Sandhurst they are particularly important as a lot of the RSB process (Regimental Selection Board) is done through divisions and not regiments. An example would be the Kings Division (LANCS & YORKS) or the Queens Division (PWRR, RRF, R ANGLIAN & GIB REG). They are not combat organisation, more administrative and exist purely in infantry formations.

As highlighted before we also had more Faraday Hall sessions on the combat units in the Normandy Campaign, again enjoyable. One of our Colour Serjeants highlighted at the end how many of the problems that were faced by the allied forces during the campaign are still faced by NATO forces now. That made the lessons even more pertinent.

There was also another set of Regimental visits. These are tremendous fun and really remind you why you decided to join the army; for me, it’s to serve soldiers. Soldiers are a scarcity at Sandhurst, it is very rare to meet anyone below sergeant, and even that is limited to the Signals Wing. All of my friends from school joined as Private Soldiers, so I find being around Soldiers a fare site more comfortable than Senior Officers.

So on the visits it is important to mingle with the lads as they are ultimately the people who decide the outcome of your career. We enjoy hearing what they get up to and ask thousands of questions about what they want from a platoon commander, and in return, they want to know what Officer training is really about. It has been a tremendous week, but, Ex Slim’s Stand is lurking…

WEEK 1: Skills. Strategy. And big explosions.

Our time at Catterick has been one of compliance, strategy & big explosions – and we’ve loved every moment of it! We started off with a quick drive down the A1 from Gateshead, with six members of 3 Troop at Wathgill Camp, on a cold Friday night in March. We were there to rendezvous with friends and colleagues, both old and new, from Hull and Wakefield, the two other Troops that make up 299 Parachute Squadron, an Army Reserve Unit that is part of 23 Parachute Engineer Regiment, the dedicated Regular Army Engineer Regiment in 16 Air Assault Brigade..

The aim of the weekend was to refresh skills in live demolitions – skills that all Sappers in the Army Reserves are required to learn as part of their trade training to become a Combat Engineer.

Under the watchful eye of an experienced Squadron Staff Sergeant, sections of Sappers were tasked with ‘destroying’ various targets – ranging from logs to steel girders. This is an essential skill the Sappers need to master; it enables the Army to both fight and move on the battlefield – key components of what the Royal Engineers delivers to the Army.

Once the targets had been assigned, the Sappers set about laying the charges for demolition. This immersive opportunity allowed them to put theory into practice – with a range of techniques available to use. The demolitions range is a great opportunity to demonstrate everything you’ve learnt in a supervised environment.

As the charges were laid, the type of charge and the expected effect was then explained to the group as a whole. This ensured that we could all learn from the experience and apply those lessons in the future – with confidence and agility.

Having had a briefing on each target, those not in the firing party cleared the area and moved off the range to the prescribed safety distance. And for those staying behind in the firing party, it was time to gather their all knowledge and prepare for firing. With helmets and body armour on, they moved into the bunker.

We waited at the safety point in anticipation and it wasn’t long before the first flash and cloud of detonation could be seen. The crash of the explosion rolled quickly behind. We counted all the explosions – ensuring they were all detonated and there were no ‘blinds’, charges that failed to explode.

Once the ‘all clear’ was given by the experienced Senior NCOs, those of us at the safety point returned to the range to survey our handy work. Logs were cut in two and girders twisted and splintered. We walked amongst the debris and assessed the effect of our charges. This gave us the chance to see what worked as expected and what would need refinement in the future.

However, if you make the mess, you need to clean it up. Working together, we quickly assembled the scrap and shrapnel left behind and cleared the range, ready for the next user.

All that was left for us to do was a quick de-brief on the day. Then there was the declaration, where we all declare we have no explosive material or accessories on our person. This is done to ensure no material is removed from the range before we depart for the day.

After a successful day on the ranges conducting live demolitions training, we returned to Wathgill Camp for an excellent meal. This was all done before 3 Troop made the trek up the A1 back to Gateshead, with feelings of pride and satisfaction that we all had honed our skills and enjoyed a great training session.

2Lt Piers Routledge
Troop Officer, Royal Engineers
Quality Manager at Nationwide Building Society

WEEK 21: The Beginning of Defensive Operations

· Defensive Dream
· Defensive Actions TEWT
· Ex Normandy Scholar Brief
· Ranges

Week 21 is the beginning of defensive operations. This marks the beginning of an entire new set of doctrine regarding defensive operations. At first glance many of us stupidly thought that the British Army has not been on the back foot for decades. Personally, I could not think of a time since Dunkirk when the British Army, instead of going out to close and kill the enemy, has instead had to prioritise their own defense over attack. Well, I thought that until I took some further reading, not just into situations such as the Imjin river in Korea, but in Afghanistan and Iraq, coalition forces have been in a defensive role on a multitude of occasions.

We had a series of lectures regarding the theory, doctrine and historical context of defensive ops. I was sat on in some of these lectures thinking how time consuming it is to build up a defensive position, and then I realised what comes at the end of this module: Ex Slim’s Stand, formally Ex First Encounter, otherwise known as the sleep deprivation exercise. This kind of took the fun out of the learning factor knowing that the summarative assessment is going to involve no sleep!

After the lecture phase our Colour Sergeants took us on Exercise Defensive Dream, a simple couple of hours where we go through how to build a defensive position – everything from trench systems to barbed wire, mine fields to standing patrols. There was a lot to consider! We also began doing TEWTS (Tactical Exercise Without Troops) on how we would defend a position. We were covering the theory of construction and the theory and mental rehearsal of how we would defend a named area of interest against anything up to an armoured battle group. All that was left now was to actually do it on the ground.

Intermediate term also continues a lot of range work; we are spending on average two days a week on the ranges, honing our marksmanship skills and we are now being introduced to different weapon systems such as the Glock 17 pistol. Fundamentally I learnt one thing, all weapon systems, rifle, pistol, machine gun are all relatively similar; learn one, learn mostly all. I will say one thing however, it is difficult to curtail my inner-child when holding the pistol, the urge to try every pose from the James Bond films, quote famous film scenes, shout “desk-pop” or other lines. Of course, we are a professional outfit and passed our weapon handling tests flawlessly.

The week was also interspersed with lectures for Exercise Normandy Scholar, these I have enjoyed a humongous amount! I studied History and Middle-East Philosophy at university, so many of the lecturers who teach us I have heard of before and to be taught by them is a nerd’s dream! Currently we are covering the German forces in Western Europe. And when I say covering, I do not mean to the level that one may find on a TV documentary or even on the internet. We’re looking at minute details such as daily food consumption, the orbat of different battle groups, what regiments were in the region, where they were recruited from, what their doctrine was. I currently feel like I understand the German Army in 1944 more than I do NATO! These are tremendously exciting lectures for anyone who takes our profession seriously. I think Normandy Scholar will be the icing on the cake that is Intermediate Term.