Desert soldiering: Exercise Jebel Dagger in Jordan

Sapper Eddie Joseph

Sapper Eddie Joseph

 Sapper Eddie Joseph is an Army Reservist with 131 Independent Commando Royal Engineers based in Birmingham. A heating engineer by trade, the 25-year old is currently serving on attachment with 131’s paired regular unit, 24 Commando Engineer Regiment. Sapper Joseph is 8 months into a year-long engagement and has just returned from providing close engineer support to 40 Commando Royal Marines on Exercise Jebel Dagger in Jordan. He describes his experiences of desert soldiering in this blog.

 

We reached our desert placement late at night and established a harbour with the vehicles.

As dawn broke I surveyed the stark, barren landscape that we were to inhabit. The camp had been sited on a flat plain surrounded by jagged, rocky terrain. Gusts of wind blew up great clouds of dust that nearly choked us, and found its way into all our kit. Everything smelt burned and blasted.

0600 reveille and we set about putting up tents for the marines prior to their arrival. Containers packed with supplies arrived throughout the day and night. This work, along with the water tank and force protection, continued beneath the hot desert sun. The temperature dropped dramatically at night and as we patrolled the perimeter our night vision goggles gave the desolate landscape an eerie glow.

The flat ground contrasting with the jebel country behind.

The flat ground contrasting with the jebel country behind.

 

The flat ground on which we build our camp.

The flat ground on which we build our camp.


I took stock of our surroundings. Within a few days dust and rock had become a proper military camp: a hive of activity. The British Military, with its ethos of hard work and good organisation, had arrived.

The camp, which had begun as a linear vehicle harbour, had expanded rapidly. 18×24’ tents sprang up day and night like mushrooms. It would peak as a 1000-man base enclosed by hundreds of metres of dannert coil and barbed wire that we had erected in the oven heat, smashing in pickets before lifting the razor wire on. We built shower frames and dug out the drainage.

One of the wire fences we built.

One of the wire fences we built.



By now the Royal Marines had arrived and the field kitchen, providing fresh meals, was established. We began to get some respite from the engineering tasks. Range days were started. Instructors who’d studied in the jungles of Asia taught us how to read signs and spoor left by enemy movement. We learnt ground signs awareness, engine maintenance and vehicle recovery in a desert environment.

We spent our evenings playing risk and poker by torchlight. When Arabic lessons became available I eagerly signed up, keen to expand my cultural awareness. I set upon the locals who worked on camp with my broken Gulf tongue, missing no opportunity to ask  them ‘how are you?’ and greeting them with a cheery ‘peace be with you’. They soon became a lot harder to find!

Mountain training with the mountain leaders.

Mountain training with the mountain leaders.

 

Taking a rest between duties.

Taking a rest between duties.

Our section provided demonstrations for medic training and mine clearance lessons. We used our own time to keep fit, venturing out into the surrounding area on long distance runs and hill reps. On one occasion we happened upon a Jordanian army training village. We sat down to rest in a bullet ridden building as the flaming sun set over the desert, an experience one does not come across often.

The camp held a sports afternoon before a day of operational stand down (OSD). We played games of football and volleyball, which I am duly obliged to report that my section expertly won.  Then, for OSD we were taken to Petra – a city literally carved from sandstone cliffs. It was a fantastic place with monuments rising up the sides of the canyon. It began life as Nabataean tombs, and has since played host to Romans, venturesome Crusaders – and now some portly tourists.

Bulk desalination and purification of water at Aqeba.

Bulk desalination and purification of water at Aqeba.


The next morning we packed our kit, ready to rotate with the section manning the water point at Aqaba port. The water point, next to the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea, made a welcome change from the desert. By pumping seawater through a series of filters and adding a dosed amount of chlorine we could produce potable water for the base in Al Qwarah.

I spent the time between checks exercising in our makeshift gym. It passed quickly. Then I was called back to participate in a vertical assault course with two fellow sappers.  We were trained by mountain leaders to ascend and descend steep faces and cliffs with weapons and equipment, Commando skills we’d previously learned but which demand constant practice.

We were taught how to make improvised stretchers like the clove hitch or roscoe, so that we can evacuate casualties from remote areas. At night I could hear gunfire as 40 Commando practiced live firing in the distance. I remember sitting on a rocky outcrop waiting to abseil down the cliff, watching tracers and flares going off across the desert, lighting up the sky like fireworks.

The following day we embarked upon a navigation exercise around the surrounding area, yomping up to heights of 1300 metres. At each high point we tackled section tests. Stances included judging distance, map reading and medical training that tested patient care and evacuation technique. On some evenings the cultural advisor gave us briefs on subjects such as the formation and history of the Middle East and the Arab Spring.

We then moved into our second special-to-arm package that consisted mainly of demolitions and urban combat training. We spent the days practising compound clearance, advancing our skill level and using explosive charges to gain entry into otherwise difficult to attack buildings. Concentration and attention to detail were vital.  Nothing compares to the feeling of a breaching charge exploding a couple of metres away from you as you prepare to assault a building.

 

Another amazing Jordanian sunset.

Another amazing Jordanian sunset.



The temperature had begun to fall dramatically at night, partially due to the altitude of the camp. Our nightly showers became colder and colder. Then, our second OSD day signified the approach of the final few weeks. Our stand-down took place at a hotel in Aqaba. It’s always the simple things you miss, and we had a few hours to enjoy a resort with proper showers, porcelain toilets, and a jacuzzi on the roof. I returned to camp that night with a very much-needed haircut (I’d begun to look like some sort of Bedouin Rastafarian) and some good memories.

The following days were spent building a culvert: a pipe that would redirect flash flood water from a road. Once that was done we drove an hour north, to a training camp where we worked like Trojans to build a protective fencing in what felt like record time. At night we told stories around the fire and slept beneath the stars.  It was soon time to return to Al Quwayiyah, and as we returned in convoy we were treated to some fantastic sunset views out over the vast mountain range.

After living with my fellow troops in such a close knit community I felt a sense of camaraderie with my colleagues that’s as old as military life itself. On a personal level I feel privileged to know that I have people around me in 24 Commando who I trust and respect, and whose friendship will last a lifetime.

Remembrance Sunday in the Jordanian desert.

Remembrance Sunday in the Jordanian desert.



On Remembrance Day we went to a nearby cairn upon which a cross had been built. The padre read sermons and the flag bearers stood proud on the higher ground. The post sounded and we took our silence. Remembrance Day parade is a time of reflection for me, the tradition, the fallen, the pride of the service and the country we serve. Around the world people were united in prayer and remembrance.

Our rotation on guard arrived and we took our posts at each gate. Working the laborious ‘four hours on, four hours off’, we ensured that the security of our camp was maintained. Night passed quietly with only the occasional hound – the wraiths of the desert – to usher away as they came to root through the bins.

Finally, we sat around our kit with nothing but the sand and mountains left, just as it had been when we arrived. I thought back over the many experiences I’d had. We piled on to troop carrying vehicles and headed to Titin camp near the port.  There we waited for RAF transport home on the big grey bird of freedom.

Hot showers, Wi-Fi and cooked meals were welcomed, as was the first proper bed in two months – even though it was a near-falling-apart bunk bed.
As the hour drew closer to the flight my anticipation grew. A cold beer and the UK’s unique weather system beckoned.  We got on transport to the King Hussein International Airport and the journey back began, with a 5 hour flight followed by another 4 hours by bus. Soon we were a world away from the sands and heat of Jordan and back in the familiar company of rain and grass. It had been an enthralling escapade and I was happy to be home – but I couldn’t help wondering what adventure awaited us next.

“Our deeds still travel with us from afar,

And what we have been makes us what we are.”

― George Eliot

 

Read more blogs from Sapper Joseph

Commando training: Cold Weather Warfare in Norway

Commando training: Cold Weather Warfare in Norway

Sapper Joseph

Sapper Joseph

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.

Aurora Borealis

A snow-covered Land Rover

A snow-covered Land Rover

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.

Army Commandos and Royal Marine Commandos training in Norway.

Army Commandos and Royal Marine Commandos training in Norway.

Cross-country yomp

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 team in Norway.

The team in Norway.

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.

Sapper Joseph