Officer Cadet Todd Ledwith writes from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst about a week lacking in sleep…
How quickly 5 days pass when the total amount of sleep enjoyed is about 5 hours.
EXERCISE FIRST ENCOUNTER is designed to allow cadets to experience leadership under fatigue and this is achieved by setting the task of digging a 7m x 1.5m x 1.5m ‘stage 3’ battle trench in a company-sized defensive position. The trenches consist of two fire bays from which to observe any enemy threat and a covered area in which to grab what little sleep we could and each platoon digs eight such trenches. Whilst the process of de-turfing a 13m x 7.5m area around each trench, digging down, putting in the metal work, covering the enclosed areas and then re-turfing was occurring, recce and standing patrols were sent out to observe possible enemy positions under the control of section commanders. Whilst a recce patrol moves to a likely enemy position, observes and then withdraws to compile a report at the company defensive position, a standing patrol is more static; observing any enemy activity from a fixed location and reporting it back via radio communication. The standing patrol is relieved by another section (usually 8 men) after a set period of time so that the information flow can continue unbroken.
Once the trenches were finally completed and with the lack of sleep causing people to start hallucinating slightly (I believed that every clump of grass that I saw was a piece of issue kit; others found tomato sauce bottles in their trenches or spooked themselves with phantom enemy sightings) only two days of the exercise remained. The final night saw each platoon move to the enemy positions previously identified in order to launch coordinated attacks. However, due to the heightened CBRN threat (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear), the attacks were conducted in CBRN protective suits and overboots with respirators carried around the waist. After we had successfully attacked the positions, we came under indirect fire and had to don respirators and extract from the area, wheezing and spluttering inside the full-face rubber masks. The next morning we were to rely on this equipment again as our defensive positions were assaulted by the enemy, the Sennymand Protection Force (SPF) – played by the Gurkha Company Sittang – under a barrage of CS gas. Many trenches were overrun, including mine, although a timely withdrawal under covering fire meant that everyone in the trench escaped unharmed and that the counter-attack could be launched. The company re-took all of the positions and centralised all casualties before ‘End-Ex’ was called and we were debriefed on the last 5 days. The work wasn’t over yet, however; each trench had to have its metal removed, be filled in (luckily, this time, with the help of a JCB) and re-turfed before finally, at around 18:00, the area passed inspection and we were on the coaches bound back to Sandhurst; tired, dirty and unconscious within seconds.
The exercise taught us a great deal about ourselves and each other, as was the objective of removing the opportunity to sleep, and will hopefully serve to make us a more efficient unit as a result.
Now, back in camp, our training in such areas as skill at arms, PT and the estimate and orders process continues, only now with ever more appreciation that we return to sleep in a warm bed at night rather than to a hole in the ground which requires even more digging in order to complete.