Blowing things up

Sapper Bradnam

Sapper Bradnam

Sapper Bradnam’s latest blog from the Royal School of Military Engineering looks back at an explosive week!

Demolitions week. Everyone was in high spirits as the demolitions phase has a high reputation for being one of the better aspects of the course. To begin with, however, we had to learn all of the theory and safety relevant to the use of demolitions. Theory varied between learning the names of various components and their uses to learning the exact burning rates of safety fuse. We also had to learn the various different types of explosive charges such as simple slabs of PE4 to shaped charges designed to cut through bridges. It is, however, not very useful knowing what the parts do without being able to set them up, so we spent a considerable amount of time learning how to put together demolitions using dummy equipment including simple initiation sets and a bridge demolition. The bridge demolition practical was my favourite part of the theory side as it was good to step back and see in practice what you had been learning.

Once the theory was complete it was time to use live explosives, with our first venture being into the bull ring, which  is a sand circle in a wooded area used for detonating small initiation sets. Eight  people at a time sets up small charges at regular spacing around the sandy opening. Each had a different burning rate, timed go off one after another. Everyone initiates the set and then, as calmly as possible, walks out in a line back the way they came past the burning fuses. This might not sound much but when you are walking past a fuse which is burning shorter and shorter into a lump of PE4, all you want to do is run. My heart was pounding as I walked past!

With the bull ring completed we came to the most anticipated day of all – Demolitions Day. On this day we all travelled down to Salisbury Plain Training Area for a day of blowing things up. Each section set up different explosive devices. My section made an improvised claymore (which to the shock of some wasn’t little box with a red laser from “Call of Duty”!) We also showed how to effectively cut through objects such as telegraph poles and trees using small amounts of explosive. Other sections showed how to cut through bridge panels and make a shaped charge out of wine bottles and also how to strip reinforced concrete structures. Once everything was set up we moved back to a bunker and watched as we detonated each set in turn. Once the explosions had awed us all we returned to the wreckage to have a look at the devastation we had achieved. I was shocked to see how accurate the use of explosives can be with things such as the bridge panel being cut almost perfectly in two. With all the fun, there was a serious side to the whole day – to give us confidence in handling explosives and also to teach us how dangerous and powerful they are. One thing that really stuck in my mind was when a detonator alone was detonated. It would be enough to cause severe damage! When using detonators we were always told to crimp down the correct end or it would explode and after seeing that I definitely do not want to be crimping the wrong end!

With the Demolitions phase over it was time for the Field Fortifications phase. This module taught us how to build and defend fortifications. This included razor/barbed wire fences, 2 and 4-man battle trenches, low wire entanglements and even down to the basics of filling sandbags and building a wall. It was a short and sharp phase and I really enjoyed it. We built a Super Sangar which is a bit like the cuplock tower from the water purification module, except it has a permanent stairway and a roof. It is used out on operations at the moment and provides good protection whilst providing good fields of view and arcs of fire. I love building structures like this as there is something strangely satisfying looking at a huge scaffold tower that has been erected from scratch in just a couple of hours.

I thought the first 2 weeks went fast but the course is now flying by. Weeks 5 and 6 involve watermanship (driving around in boats) and mine warfare modules, which I cannot wait to do. If the course continues to be like this then I don’t think I am going to want to leave.

A lot harder and more demanding

Sapper Bradnam – formerly Junior Soldier Bradnam – describes the transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 training, as he begins to learn the trade of a Royal Engineer at the Royal School of Military Engineering (RSME) at Chatham in Kent.

It’s time to begin the next phase of my training as a Royal Engineer. Combat Engineering is the focus of the first part of my Phase 2 training and from day one it was far from what I expected. We arrived on the Sunday to begin training on the Monday, with some more excited than others. Nervous anticipation would be a good way to describe the feeling of starting a new course. However the nervousness rapidly wore off as realisation hit home when the pace of the course was unveiled. From the start we were straight into locker inspections and into the first module of the course – Basic Construction Techniques. To be honest I thought the standards of previous locker inspections were high but this was a whole new level – every single detail of the locker and block was meticulously inspected from the floor upwards and every minute fault found! The standard expected of us now had certainly been raised…

Basic Construction Techniques (BCT) covers various things, from setting up formwork and concreting to learning how to tie basic knots. Every day, new information was fed to us and we were expected to learn very fast. The “best books” [notebooks] that we had were an excellent way of helping us absorb this information. After all the elements of basic construction had been taught, we had our first modular test. There was a theory paper and 3 different practical tests that had to be completed in order to pass. The 3 practical tests included setting out a 2-metre squared formwork, tying basic knots and creating a square lashing, and setting up and using a Makita drill.

Safety on the drill was a main focus, however all the tests were just as difficult. Not everyone passed the test first time – some had re-sit.

Once the basic construction module had been completed the next module we started was Water Supply. This module covered everything that enables us to source, pump, purify and store water. We built a cuplock tower (water tower), set up a small groups water purification unit, NBC purification units and APE (Purification Equipment). Water supply is one of the main roles that Royal Engineers undertake in Afghanistan and it is therefore a very important subject. The module was slightly shorter than BCT however there were a lot of facts and figures that needed to be learnt in order to pass the test. Again the test comprised a theory paper and 3 practical assessments which included using a gilkes pump, using the APE unit and naming component parts from various pieces of equipment.

The pass rate was a lot higher than that of BCT, which I think was down to people understanding the standard required to pass the test and how much work and revision was needed.

On top of all the Combat Engineering we had learnt we also continued to complete physical training, which, in keeping with the rest of the course, is a lot harder and more demanding. In the first week alone we had a personal fitness assessment, military swim test, 4-mile run and a 5-mile loaded march (tab). After 2 weeks of leave this amount of PT was hard work, but everyone pushed on and worked hard and actually did OK on the sessions and tests.

The start of this course has been a real eye-opener into the standards expected in the Royal Engineers and in the rest of the Army. It is a lot harder than Phase 1 and what I expected. That said, I am enjoying rising to the mark and can’t wait to carry on with the rest of the course. Next week is Demolitions week, which has a reputation of being one of the best weeks in the course. I cannot wait!