Officer Cadet Ledwith blogs from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst about a challenging outdoor exercise in Wales…
As expected, Exercise CRYCHAN’S CHALLENGE was cold. Very cold. After an early start at 0330 on Monday morning, we drew weapons, enjoyed our last non-ration pack meal at breakfast and then loaded onto the coaches for the much-welcomed sleep-filled trip to Sennybridge in Wales – our base for the next five days. On arrival and after securing our kit, we made our way to the woodblock which would house our harbour area, the secure base from which we would conduct our advance to contacts (moving as a platoon until making contact with the enemy and then assaulting the positions discovered), recce patrols (moving covertly at section strength of around 8 men to gather information on the enemy), fighting patrols (a platoon night assault on the positions previously observed) and finally, a company attack on the enemy occupying our area of responsibility (AOR) in Sennybridge. Before this could take place however, we had to dig in our two-man positions, known as ‘shell-scrapes’, in our triangular harbour. Although the frozen ground proved somewhat difficult to break through, we were all glad to be warm from the effort of digging since temperatures were well below freezing and set to drop to -10oC that night. The density of the woodblock we were occupying meant that there was almost no ambient light whatsoever from about 5 o’clock onwards and so the night routine of posting sentries, rest and personal administration had to be conducted by sound and feel alone in order to maintain light discipline. The ‘track plan’ or clear path around the inside of the harbour marked by string is essential in such instances and stopped most, but not all, cases of people crashing through each other’s shell scrapes by accident.
After the most sleep we were likely to get on the exercise of about 4 hours, we awoke to pack everything away into our bergens in order to ‘stand to’, observing outwards in case of enemy attack at a time they would believe us to be vulnerable; first light. Unfortunately, not everyone had managed to pack all of their kit away properly and so as a platoon, we suffered a round of hill-running in kit to negate such future mistakes. After a delicious ration-pack breakfast we were delivered our orders and moved off to begin our advance to contacts for the day. For the second of the three I was given the role of platoon commander and although the attack on the located enemy position and subsequent two ‘depth’ positions was ultimately successful, I have a lot of practice to do before I can be truly effective in the role; ‘more haste, less speed’ sums it up.
That night we conducted the first of our recce patrols on an enemy position and found them to be ill-disciplined but with high morale and mutually supporting positions. After returning to the harbour area and compiling our patrol report, I was able to get 45 minutes sleep in my sleeping bag before we were up again for stand-to (which was much more conscientiously carried out this time) and the morning routine of cleaning our weapons and ourselves, eating and preparing our kit for the day’s advances to contacts. Before we began these, we attended a company field chapel service which included hymns and a sermon and was followed by some morale-boosting chocolates, courtesy of the Padre. It was certainly one of the most interesting and enjoyable services I have ever attended. Then, it was back to the business of clearing the enemy from the area. On the first of the attacks however, I went down and scratched my eye on a single stem of reed (what are the chances?!) but thought that the pain would go and that it would improve quickly. After the second attack where I was given the role of section commander -bursting out of the woodline and through smoke to assault an enemy position- and the third, my eye had still not improved and the pain was increasing. After persuasion from the platoon, I sought a member of the Directing Staff and was driven to Abergavenny A&E where it was discovered that I had a scratched cornea, although my vision was still fine. To my dismay, after returning to Sennybridge camp at 4:00 am I was told that I was being taken back to Sandhurst and that I would not get to see the exercise through to its conclusion. It was gutting, especially considering how trivial the reason for the injury was.
As a result, I missed both the night fighting patrol and the final company attack, which with the inclusion of simulated mortar fire and with three platoons working in unison, I was very sorry not to have played a part in. It was good to get back into the platoon when they had returned to camp despite the pirate comparisons; I had missed being part of the team and I will always regret not having finished the exercise with them. Up until I was no longer allowed to continue, I felt I was learning masses more about command and control at all levels within a platoon and I look forward to getting out into the field again (although without suffering any stupid injuries this time).
Now, we enter our final week of the Junior term and are starting to pack our rooms for the move to New College as well as look forward to the last two events of the Sovereign’s Banner competition, the Communication and Signals test and the Steeplechase.