Sapper Ed Joseph is an Army Reserve soldier from 131 Independent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers (131 Indep Cdo Sqn RE). Having successfully completed the Reserve Forces Commando Course (RFCC), culminating in earning the coveted green beret, we follow him through his subsequent training.
An Arctic adventure
Since being awarded my green beret, a whole new world of opportunities had opened up to me. Two offers were immediately thrown at me upon my return to the unit. The first was the chance to undertake the Cold Weather Warfare Course (CWWC) in Norway, and the other was to join 24 Commando (our regular counterpart) for a year’s attachment as part of the Lead Commando Group. I accepted both.
I returned home to inform my family that I would be off for the next year or so -as you do – and was pleased to find that all in the Joseph household shared my contentment. I was also delighted to learn that my younger sister (who has followed me into the Army Reserves) had won numerous gold medals and bagged the Reserve Forces Nordic Ski Title (at the RLC Ski championships) during my absence.
The day of departure came, and Spr Holt met me at my home to share the journey to the Joint Air Mounting Centre (JAMC). Our flight was set for 0200 and as always I was pleased to be meeting up with the 131 and RMR (Royal Marine Reservist) lads. One of the RMR’s informed me, in an animated manner that we were to be travelling on a Danish Air Force C130. Having previously travelled to Gibraltar on the back of a Hercules, I was less excited about sitting shoulder to shoulder in the netting seats for six hours or so. When we did eventually get on board I somehow managed to sleep through most of the flight, snoring in concert with the plane’s engines I’m told.
Upon arrival at Evenes airport we were quickly ushered on to the awaiting transport for the journey to Asegarden Camp. Asegarden isn’t the most inviting of camps but we got down to camp routine, sorting the billets out and finding someone to issue us our cold kit. In the afternoon we received various safety briefs and were given an overview of the instruction program, which would involve a lot of time in the field.
The next morning I emerged from my billet to find the ground outside had turned into the most horrendous ice rink. Getting from A to B took some doing and was one of many reminders of how quickly things can change in the Arctic. After lessons on how to pull a pulk (a snow sledge used to pull equipment on) we moved on to avalanche theory and survival techniques. With each new bit of information we were edging closer to living outside in the Arctic hinterland. It wasn’t long before we were jumping on to the SV’s for the move into the wilds of the Setermoen training area.
I was hoping that we would encounter less ice and possibly find some nice dry snow on which to ski, but the BV’s (tracked vehicles) had annoyingly compacted the routes into icy passages. So after a lot of difficult manoeuvre on snow shoes we found our way to the harbour area and commenced digging a space for our ten-man tents. It is crucial in the Extreme Cold Weather to have shelter to retreat to; the peculiarly named “snow grave”.
Tents setup, we transferred over to the ski area to start the practical part of our ski training. It took some getting used to, but as when night began to fall I was starting to move around in a more composed and controlled manner. That evening on a night ski we were fortunate enough to see the Aurora Borealis for the first time.
Ice Breaker drills
The next day we practiced our pull pole routine and continued with the ski training. The ground we were training on was becoming increasingly steep which was tough going in the icy conditions. You find it is much harder to complete tasks in the cold conditions and inconsequential actions, like touching the metal parts of your weapon without gloves on, can lead to injury. Perhaps one of the biggest dangers comes when you are sleeping. It is rare, but on occasion the ventilation holes in your sleeping area can become blocked. So a candle watch is instigated, and if the candle flame begins to flicker then you are beginning to breathe dirty air, which requires you to investigate the problem and likely save the lives of the sleeping patrol members.
The next day we pulled pole and moved to the second harbour area. There had been a fresh covering of snow, so our movement on skis was beginning to show a marked improvement. But as one skill becomes mastered you start to think of the next challenge in the training serial. So for me the anticipation of the “ice breaking drills” began to grow. If you are fighting in an Extreme Cold Weather environment it is likely you will have to cross a frozen water feature at some point. The Ice breaker drills simulate ice breaking underfoot and a commando entering the water; it teaches you what is required to extricate yourself from the freezing water.
The morning of the “ice breaker drills” arrived, and I was to be one of the first in. I think with a lot of things like this, the expectation can be worse than reality, but there is definitely a sense of unease before you go in, though if I’m honest I was actually looking forward to having a bash. So there I was, standing on the edge of the freshly cut ice hole, the dark and murky water waiting to embrace me. The ML put the safety rope around my shoulder and got me to sling my bergen over one shoulder. Next there was a call of “ready” followed by a firm shove into the oggin. The water was liquid ice, so I had no problem performing a speedy exit. When you exit the water you run to a makeshift bar, where you are given a tot of rum and told to toast the Queen. It’s these little eccentricities that keep your spirits up. Indeed the morale of the group was lifted after the ice drills and despite my feet feeling frozen for what seemed like an age, I was looking forward to going into Harstad to try my hand at learning a bit of Norwegian.
The weekend passed and we headed into phase 2 of the training, which was to be field based. We received the stores and headed back out to the training area to build quinzhees, which are little snow mounds used for shelter. Once finished, we headed up the mountain. As we moved up we were greeted by sleet, snow and harsh wind. Digging the snow holes and tents at height was tough going, but as the temperature began to drop into the double digit minuses our work began to take on greater urgency. During the dig, I stopped momentarily to adjust my kit, whilst turning to look across the vast snow covered forest beneath me. Gazing across the surrounding landscape made me appreciate how lucky I was as a commando sapper, to get to visit places that many rarely do.
We completed the shelter building and commenced the night time ski patrols. Conditions had worsened and the wind was blowing at 30-40 mph, but it was made especially severe by the accompanying icy rain. That night I was pleased to return to my shelter and savoured the feeling of being warm.
The following morning we destroyed the harbour to return to our first harbour, which was dotted with the little quinzhees we’d previously made. After a day of skiing and practicing drills we bedded down for the night retiring to our shelters like tortoises retracting into their shells. The respite was to be short, as we would need to start early for a cross country yomp across the mountains and frozen lakes. The snow yomp with heavy bergens was extremely taxing and distances appeared much further than what they actually were. About two thirds of the way into the yomp, the weather deteriorated to such an extent that we were forced to take an escape route to avoid potential disaster.
The end of the training serial was fast approaching and after the unavoidable end-ex admin, we were given two interesting briefs from the RMR RSM, including on Shakelton’s exploits. CWWC complete, I’m now embarking on a year’s Full Time Reserve Service (FTRS) with 24 Commando Regiment RE.