Fastnet update: 13 August 2013 – Need more wind

 

Update AM 0630 Tue 13 Aug. We are making steady progress and have been on the same tack for hours, but the wind has dropped and is due to drop further – conditions that do not suit our boat. We need more wind! Sailing at night under the moonlight and stars is always exhilarating. You have to keep a lookout for lights as ships and tankers can creep up upon you very quickly.

Capt Lucie Allaway

Capt Lucie Allaway

Watches change every 4 hours and I’m on with Lorna and Sam while Leila, Caz and Emily make up the other watch. The stint between midnight and 0400 always seems to pass the slowest but we are keeping our energy levels up and morale with copious amounts of food. ( perhaps we should rename this race the ‘fatnet’?!) Seriously though, just moving  around the boat while heeled over and bouncing through the waves, especially visiting the heads (loo) is hard work as you have to hold on tight and keep your balance. It almost feels like an obstacle course! We are now passing the Isles of Scilly to our West and heading north.

My sister and her family live on St Mary’s so I’ve given them a wave 🙂  This morning we were blessed with a beautiful sunrise as dolphins played in our wake and bow. 236 miles covered but a number still to go- somewhat demoralising when we know that some of the bigger yachts will finish today!

Fastnet update: 11 August 2013 – The race begins

We arose at 0700 with mixed  feelings of excitement and nervousness. We then slipped just after 1000 wearing life jackets and with our storm sails up to queue behind the long line of yachts and progress through the identity gate. Race rules dictate that we have to do this before the race actually starts. The Solent then became a fleet of white sails bobbing around the starting line as skippers inspected which end to start from. This is always a difficult time as all eyes are on deck watching for boats to avoid collisions! Helicopters were swarming overhead filming the start and hearing the radio and starting gun became very difficult.

We set off at 1230 and tacked our way out to The Needles passing dozens of spectator boats and crowds of  people at Hurst Point. We were tacking every 2-3 minutes for 3 hours so we were pretty ‘pumped’ as we exited the Solent and moved into watches. It was an amazing sight to see all the other boats on the water and we were in awe as the class one huge monohulls and trimarans screamed past us!

After a scrumptious home-made ricotta and spinach lasagne made by Lorna and chocolate brownies made by Sam we sailed through the night and are now heading to Start Point near Plymouth. Winds are hovering around 11 knots and we have completed  110 miles. Morale is high!

Fastnet update: 10 August 2013 – Caz’s birthday!

Heidi up the mast.

Heidi up the mast.

Capt Lucie Allaway continues to update us on the team’s progress ahead of the race…

As Cowes Week has now ended we managed to secure a berth at Cowes Yacht Haven and moved Redcoat down the Medina River to a pontoon with shore power and no need for a paddle in the tender to get ashore. It has been a busy day making final preparations to the boat and reassessing our personal kit and rations required for the event.

Lucie and Saskia attended the skippers brief and have buried their heads in weather and wind forecasts, various navigational charts and tide atlases working out our route. Getting the navigation right is key and we have every faith in their decision making.

Final team meal ashore with cake for Caz.

Final team meal ashore with cake for Caz.

After our final meal ashore and some scrumptious birthday cake made by Sam, we have hit our bunks for an early night. We slip tomorrow at approximately 1030 and our start for IRC class 4 is at 1230. (All starts will be screened live on the RORC Fastnet website.) Thankfully our tracking device is now working after a few hiccups today and everyone will be able to follow us on our journey over the coming days. We are all getting excited now; fingers crossed for a safe finish in Plymouth.

Fastnet update: 9 August 2013

Maj Saskia Hart takes over the narrative of the crew’s preparation for the Fastnet race, which starts on 11 August…

Today is ‘victualling and rationalising’ day, i.e. loading up with food and getting rid of excess baggage (and that’s just the crew).

Pastry wizard Maj Sam Shephard was dispatched to a nearby kitchen to bake Cornish pasties and coronation turkey with her able sous-chef Maj Leila Greene, while the independent Scottish contingent, Maj Lorna Craik, was tasked with the spinach and ricotta pasta bake.

Meanwhile, back on the boat, our ever-cunning skipper, Capt Lucie Allaway, watched with a beady eye while we emptied Redcoat of non-essential items. Out went our electric kettle, saucepans, pillows, the five-year-old box of sugar with the coffee-coated spoon embedded in it like Excalibur… Not to mention personal kit that would not be required: non-sailing shoes, jeans, large bottles of shampoo, seven tubes of toothpaste (one large one should last us the week) and towels (no opportunity to shower during the race!).

We also received a small pile of Royal British Legion parcels which contained T-shirts, polo shirts and a flag that would double up as a spinnaker (approximatey 6 by 4 metres). At least nobody will miss us!

Final shopping done, and off to Cowes to berth on Whisky pontoon in order to watch the end of Cowes Week fireworks.

Sam's yummy home-made pasties to keep up our morale!

Sam’s yummy home-made pasties to keep up our morale!

 

Update 7 August 2013

Update 6 August 2013

 

Fastnet update: 8 August 2013

Maj Heidi Spencer writes about the crew’s preparation for the Fastnet race, which starts on 11 August…

We enjoyed a more leisurely start this morning, and Emily cooked us some yummy sausage sandwiches because little wind was forecast first thing. Caz also mended some sails – there are always maintenance jobs to carry out!

We then headed out from Cowes and into the Solent to do some more spinnaker work, each time trying to get faster and more slick with out hoisting and dropping drills. Lucie was pleased with our performance, and we anchored up in Osborne Bay for a bit of lunch and a chance to discuss and plan our food menu and shopping for next week. Keeping our energy and hydration levels up will be key.

If there is no wind next week, we will have to use the anchor as a brake to reduce the effect of the tide pushing us backwards. Fingers crossed there will be wind – anchor drills are messy and laborious. As we nibbled on lunch, we could see in the distance a fleet of colourful racing spinnakers competing in Cowes week, reminding us that our own race is only three days away… Bring it on!

Update 7 August 2013

Update 6 August 2013

Enjoying the sunshine in the Solent – Lucie at the helm.

Enjoying the sunshine in the Solent – Lucie at the helm.

On the rail.

On the rail.

Alongside in Cowes – stickers on ready for the race!

Alongside in Cowes – stickers on ready for the race!

Fastnet update: 7 August 2013

Maj Heidi Spencer writes about the crew’s preparation for the Fastnet race, which starts on 11 August…

We slipped yesterday from Cowes at 0800 hrs and headed out into the Solent. There was very little wind, so we practised some light winds sail trim and spinnaker hoists and drops. In the afternoon, the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) and Soldier Magazine visited us in Cowes and interview the skipper Lucie and Leila, Saskia and Caz. We headed out with them into the Solent and they were really happy with the shots and footage they got from the rib kindly lent to us from Toe in the Water. BFBS will put their story out on Friday.

After a fun afternoon, we headed out for a crew meal in Cowes.

Update 6 August 2013

Motoring out of Cowes to start training

Motoring out of Cowes to start training

Spinnaker flying

Spinnaker flying

Leila on the spinnaker sheet

Leila on the spinnaker sheet

Lucie being interviewed by BFBS

Lucie being interviewed by BFBS

Fastnet update: 6 August 2013

Maj Heidi Spencer writes about the crew’s preparation for the Fastnet race, which starts on 11 August…

We awoke this morning to very little wind, so carried out some dry land training on sail trim. We then set off an immediately had to return to the pontoon as we had sprung another diesel leak! All very frustrating! After another call-out to the engineer, it was fixed and we were on our way.

This afternoon was spent on the Solent practising sail changes with all the sails on board, and putting in and shaking out reefs (to reduce the size of the main sail). We’ve now had some supper afloat and are just heading into Cowes before some more sail change practice in the dark… We hope the wind picks up tomorrow!

Heading up to Cowes

Heading up to Cowes

Saskia Hart and Caz Olive washing up

Saskia Hart and Caz Olive washing up

Skipper at the helm

Skipper at the helm

First Fastnet women-only Army team

Capt Lucie Allaway (seated), Maj Saskia Hart, WO2 Caz Olive, Maj Sam Shepherd, Capt Emily Williams, Maj Heidi Spencer, Maj Leila Green, Capt Lorna Craik

Capt Lucie Allaway (seated), Maj Saskia Hart, WO2 Caz Olive, Maj Sam Shepherd, Capt Emily Williams, Maj Heidi Spencer, Maj Leila Green, Capt Lorna Craik

The first women-only Army team to enter the prestigious Fastnet race is making its final preparations before the race start on Sunday.

In total, there are just three all-women teams taking part in the infamous 608-mile offshore race, where as many as 380 yachts from 22 countries will set sail from Cowes in a race to the Fastnet Rock off the coast of Ireland before returning via the Isles of Scilly and the finish line at Plymouth.

The race is notoriously dangerous and difficult to complete, with the all-female crew having the added challenge of not being as strong as some of the other teams, explains skipper Captain Lucie Allaway.

“The challenges of the race are similar for all the teams, indeed sailing is one of the few sports where men and women can compete on a level playing field,” she said.

“However, with so many females in the team it makes our average height 5’4” where normally you would have at least one six-foot man on board who can heave on ropes by himself to release anything that is caught where we have to work as team to overcome those kinds of challenges.”

Despite the challenges though, Lucie was determined to enter an all-female team.

“I’ve been sailing all my life but it was only last year at the Inter Service Regatta that I realised that while ten percent of the Army are women we don’t have a ten percent representation at competitive offshore racing. So, having done the Fastnet myself the previous year I was thinking of doing it again, and maybe skippering, so I thought why not do it with an all-female crew?

“It is challenging and nerve racking as I’ve never sailed this as a Skipper, let alone as leading the first all-women’s Army team, but it’s exciting too. Ultimately for the military teams taking part though it will come down to the weather. If we get heavier weather this boat will love it, but if we get lighter winds there are lighter boats that will do better.”

Just back from Afghanistan

Also keeping her eye on the elements is fellow team mate Captain Emily Williams who returned from Afghanistan four weeks ago.

Capt Emily Williams

Capt Emily Williams

“I’ve tried not to look into the dangerous parts people know about with this race, but it is difficult as it is a bit of the planet that has its own ideas about whether or not you should do well,” explains Emily, who agreed to take part in the challenge before she deployed to Afghanistan as a relatively inexperienced sailor.

“There is no one bit of the race that if we get passed it is going to make me think: we are OK now we on the way home. I will be more aware of the weather and the sea than anything else.”

Emily did as much training in the gym as she could for the race in Afghanistan and admits that while she would normally be on extended post tour leave, while she waits to start her next post, the opportunity to compete in the race was too good an opportunity to miss.

“It’s actually quite hard to come back from tour where you are working all the time to suddenly not working at all, so I would have given up my leave to do this even if it hadn’t been extended. It’s Fastnet! It’s not like doing two weeks training for qualification. It’s doing one of the biggest races in British sailing.”

The race starts from Cowes on Sunday August 11 and will be the 88th Fastnet.

Raising music from the dust

Major Kevin Roberts

Major Kevin Roberts

Major Kevin Roberts is a Director of Music in the Corps of Army Music. He is currently working in Jordan with the British Military Advisory Training Team developing the musical capabilities of the Jordanian Armed Forces. In this blog, he talks about the origin of the country’s military music and the challenges of teaching Jordanian trainees…

A British Military Advisory Training Team (Jordan) was set up in April 2010 to revue, evaluate, analyse and develop Jordanian Armed Forces capabilities.  At the behest of the King of Jordan, King Abdullah II, the team was to include an Army Officer as Music Advisor with a broad spectrum of responsibilities aimed at developing the Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps.

Jordan is an Arab kingdom in Asia, situated on the East Bank of the River Jordan.  Countries that surround Jordan include: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Libya and Israel – one might say that Jordan sits in a fairly rough neighbourhood. Thankfully, the Jordanian Armed Forces – under the direct control of the King – is considered to be amongst the most professional in the region; instrumental in maintaining the country’s reputation for long term stability.

Eight bagpipe players

The first organised Jordanian Army was established in 1920 with 150 men under the control of a British officer.  Over the following decades the Armed Forces grew rapidly, primarily under the command of a succession of British Officers (most famously Glubb Pasha from 1939-1956), and currently employs over 105,000 active personnel. Music was introduced in 1929 when King Abdullah I introduced eight bagpipe players from Egypt and Syria.  Whilst very little documentation is available on the development of the band corps it is known that in 1949 there was an expansion of Army music to meet the increasing demand for musical support.  It is believed that at this point wind instruments were introduced to the Army bands, with players being brought in from neighbouring countries.  In 1966 a small School of Music was built in order to begin training Jordanian musicians.  The last major increase came in 1982 when King Hussain approved the introduction of an army orchestra for the sole purpose of State events.

Jordanian Army marching band.

Jordanian Army marching band.

Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps is currently establishment for 761 personnel and in many respects the organisation is modelled on the British Army regimental band system of the 1950s.

The major obstacle for the Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps is that trainees arrive at the School of Music, after their initial basic training (4-6 months), with no understanding of music.  In addition to this, western music is as alien to these young soldiers as Middle Eastern music would be to our own.  The School of Music teaches soldiers from a position of zero musical understanding.  All teaching staff are military instructors (Officers, WO and NCOs) or retired military musicians.

Music in theory

The Basic Course lasts for two years, with the first six months (or often considerably more) being purely theory of music.  We have made strenuous efforts to convince the Unit Commander to allow the issue and tuition of some form of musical instrument from the outset of training.  Those of you who have worked in the Middle East will understand that change is difficult to achieve – and never quickly.  However, this has finally been approved and is producing what is perceived as near miraculous results.  The practice of teaching un-pitched tonic sol fa is the next quest!

Following two years of basic training the players join the Junior Band (Pipers undertake their training within the Bagpipe Platoon, String players with the Orchestra) for a further year – much in the same way as the British Army’s Junior bands were organised up until the 1980s.  Once this training is complete the musicians join their military band.

The Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps run three further major courses:

Advanced Instrumental (Rank of Corporal) – A six-month mandatory instrumental course aimed at giving players the opportunity to develop their playing skills away from the workload of a regular band.

Instructor – A six-month mandatory instrumental course aimed at teaching instructor skills.

Bandmaster – a nine-month course of musical instruction – including a number of leadership training elements.

Historically Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps has been keen to send its musicians on courses outside of the country in order to gain the benefit of more advanced western-music training.  In one instance a string player was sent to Vienna for seven years of violin tuition. No doubt an excellent course.  The British Army’s Royal Military School of Music (RMSM) has also hosted a number of Jordanian musicians on the Bandmaster Course, including: Jamal Atiah, Adel, Eyas, Mohammad, and Amareen.  Mohammad (Lieutenant Colonel) is the only one currently serving.

The role of the bands is twofold:

State Ceremonial (25 events)

Armed Forces Musical Support (200 events)

State Ceremonial includes support to the Royal Family, the Government, and a small number of ambassadorial events.  For these performances a ‘state band’ is formed from one of the unit bands, augmented where necessary.

Armed Forces Musical Support includes all events from a Junior Non Commissioned Officer cadre (two drummers) to a massed band parade of two hundred musicians.  Generally speaking, the higher the rank of the inspecting officer the more musicians on parade.

There is also an occasional opportunity to support the Army’s Operational Role by volunteering as an Individual Augmentee with units outside of Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps or, on rare occasions, as part of small musical deployments.  However, the Jordanian Army has never deployed a full military band.

Over the past year progress of the Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps as a whole has been steady, but in terms of performance standards, there has been huge development – not least during the successful visit of a Short Term Training Team from the Corps of Army Music.

The entire training process has been reviewed and the recommendations approved.  It has been necessary to completely re-write each of the major courses and pilots (trials) are currently being delivered by the author, supported by a small team of Jordanian instructors.

Leadership, management and training ethos within the Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps is very different from that used in the British Army of today.  There are constant disruptions and changes to the training programme, often with no prior notice.  It is not unusual to arrive at work to find that the entire School of Music has been given the day off because an officer, unconnected to the School, feels the trainees are working well.  From a western perspective, time and scheduling are of low importance and the effect this has on training is somewhat disruptive and frustrating, and greatly increases the time required to complete any task.

Training team led by Major Roberts.

Training team led by Major Roberts.

The opportunity to work as part of another country’s Armed Forces is a fantastic experience, offering huge scope for personal development.

The initial job specification focused on training – in particular, course design and development.  In isolation this could be easily achieved but would result in the Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps being presented with a number of documents that had no possibility of being implemented, due to the fact that there is no underpinning training regime.  We have therefore had to visit every aspect of the training process and in many cases there is a need to modify elements of cultural behaviour and attempt to retrain officers and musicians who perhaps have a vested interest in keeping the status quo.

This is a long-term project that requires the Jordanian Armed Forces Band Corps being supported in every aspect of the training process, whilst at the same time developing workable management practices to support training and development.  Those within the Corps of Army Music who get the chance to assist training in Jordan should grasp the opportunity with both hands.  However, you will need to be very motivated, self-directed, and willing to keep getting up each time the whole process turns to dust.

Leaving home behind … welcome to the war zone

Lance Corporal Joshua Crook

Lance Corporal Joshua Crook

Lance Corporal Joshua Crook, of Y Company 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (1RRF), joined the Army in January 2011 and attended the Infantry Training Centre Catterick for the six-month Combat Infantryman Course. He joined 1RRF in September 2011 and since then has completed countless exercises. Joshua attended and passed the Fire Team Commander’s Course in January this year and was promoted in Afghanistan in April.

I just want to start by saying how impressed and grateful I am at the response and feedback from the first blog. Thank you!

Seeing as this is my first operational tour, I thought I’d try and describe how it felt coming out here: What I expected, what I was met with and challenges I’ve faced so far – leaving family, girlfriend and friends at home; the atmosphere in a battalion that hasn’t been on tour in five years; and a bit on the feelings I had on arriving out here in Afghanistan.

Both my family and I knew that a deployment to Afghanistan was almost inevitable when I joined the Army and, as is to be expected, the thought of it left concerns with everyone. It felt like it took forever to get here and as far as I was concerned, it couldn’t have come quick enough. After all, this is what a lot of my training was to lead up to: an operational deployment.

The weeks leading up to deployment was leave for me; I spent the best part of the first two months of this year away on a promotional course so couldn’t spend as much time as I would have liked back home, but pre-deployment leave of nearly three weeks was enough (as well as the knowledge of a pay rise for promotion out here) and when I arrived back at Battalion, 1RRF, I only had eight days to push before my flight out here.

‘See you in a few months’

Everyone back home took it well; I guess they had it planned out for a while, me leaving for tour and all. A ‘see you in a few months’ meal was in order with the family, and everyone wished me luck for the tour. I’d say it was emotional, but it wasn’t really like that. Some members of my family expressed their nervousness to me, and I reassured them of how I’d be fine – but ultimately, you never know. Anything could happen on tour; after all, this is a conflict zone.

Those thoughts don’t enter your mind though. I’ve found that throughout my time in the army the only thing you think about is the job in hand and what effect that will have – not on you, but the men and women around you and on the mission itself.

I’ve been out here for two months now and of course, because of the environment you are living and working in there are always dangers that come with the territory. However it helps to remember and reassure those back home that you are part of the best army in the world, and rock solid in situations like those that arise in Afghanistan. This seems to keep family and friends back home content, and although the “best army in the world” line is cheesy as hell – you say what works!

The same situation goes for my girlfriend; she knows what is going on out here and is more than aware of the dangers, but like family, she is extremely supportive and no doubt puts on the “brave” façade to keep me thinking everyone at home is fine. There are bound to be, and have been moments where people back home find it difficult and it is down to you, thousands of miles away, to bring them back around. I think it’s the not knowing that is often the most difficult. For me over here I know what I’m doing, more often than not on a day to basis, but it might take a few days for me to relay that information back home.

One great thing off the back of this is the bond it brings back home between the family. As you can imagine, there are times when all you can fit in is a quick phone call to one person in the family, and a great system in place back home is if one knows; everyone knows. It keeps everyone in the loop and they gain reassurance just from that.

So, I’ve done my best to try and put into words what I ‘imagine’ people back home are thinking… I could be completely wrong, but that’s the overall impression I get (ha!). Now, I’ll try and put into perspective what it’s like being over here. For some, this will be the first time they have spent more than a few weeks away from their family and friends. I like to think of myself as quite a strong person mentally, but still I find I have days where all I want to do is go home, and I think it’s because of how unfamiliar this place is. Yes, we’ve seen it all before in training but in that case, it’s only a few weeks. You begin to miss the small things, and they can get to you easily.

I miss carpet. And porcelain.

It’s those kinds of things you take for granted, strangely. Obviously, not being able to wake up to your girlfriend in the mornings is a killer, but you cherish the lack of knees in the back after a while (she’ll kill me for this). In all seriousness, the worst times out here are the quiet times, when all you have to do is think. There have been many Friday/Saturday nights where I haven’t realised what day it is, only to log onto Facebook or call a friend to find out that everyone back home is out on the “lash” having a whale of a time. That burns! But, again, this is my job, and everyone else who’s out here and it’s something we grow accustomed to, and proud of.

Mail days are morale days, as I’m sure most of you know. You can send ‘shoebox’ parcels out here with a maximum weight of 2kg for free, and thanks to my family, girlfriend and friends, I’ve not been left wanting nor needing anything. In fact, I have about ten boxes by the side of my bed space with enough sweets, toiletries and coffee to last me a year! But along with the boxes come letters and photographs and walking around the block you see a multitude of ‘home-made morale boards’; boards with photographs of people’s children and families on them. Pictures and paintings children have drawn their dads. It’s great to see and mail days definitely bring morale to all!

Troops outside the wire patrolling in the heat of Helmand.

Troops outside the wire patrolling in the heat of Helmand.

Is Afghanistan what I expected though? The answer is simple. Yes. It’s hot, covered in sand and occasionally smells awful. Inside the wire, unless the threat of an attack looms, it’s just like being back in the UK only, depending on where you are, the conditions are worse and you’re walking around everywhere with a weapon system, not to mention the heat. Outside the wire is different. Of course, over here the culture is so different from ours and they have grown up and lived in times almost unimaginable to us in the UK. I have crossed paths with many children out here, eager to ask for pens, sweets and water and it is hard to comprehend that all these kids know is war. Nothing else. You can see in adults’ eyes the hardship of continuous labour, especially here in Helmand, the agricultural hot-spot of Afghanistan. Out here the people rely on the land and farm for their living. It looks absolutely back-breaking, not to mention exhausting in this heat.

I have done a lot of work on developing an understanding of the ‘human terrain’ as part of my role in the Company Headquarters and what local nationals out here have to endure. It is clear that for some there is a daily struggle for clean water and money and of course the continued threat of attack from the Taliban.

An Afghan local looks after cattle. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

An Afghan local looks after cattle. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Always somebody to listen

1RRF last went on tour as a battalion in 2009, Operation Telic 12 (Iraq) and this is its first of Afghanistan. Yes, there are members of the battalion that have been out here before, but it’s a first for the battalion as a whole.

There were mixed feelings about coming out here for those of us whose first deployment this is – but it’s fair to say we were excited overall. After all, this is what we train to do. But there was nervousness and anxiety, especially in the younger soldiers. Nothing that isn’t to be expected – Afghanistan is a dangerous place and I would question anyone who said they weren’t nervous. For some of us, the next six months mean a lot, the amount you miss back home – the birth of children, anniversaries, friends’ weddings, Christenings, birthdays – the list goes on. Everyone deals with it in different ways, some keep themselves to themselves on a bad day, which everyone has, and others are quite keen to express it and get it off their chest – rest assured, there’s always somebody to listen and more often than not, you find that when one person starts talking about home, it’s not long before a full platoon are sat around a bench all talking about it together!

R&R (Rest & Recuperation, two weeks leave allocated) has started to kick in now and there are quite a few lads from Y Coy enjoying themselves back in the UK with their family and friends. It’s a much needed break, not just from work, but from the sun! I’m counting down the days to mine and there are ‘chuff charts’ as we like to call them, all over PRICE. Charts of how many days are left until R&R and end of tour. I look forward to writing about mine when I’m back, but there’s a short while before that yet!

Well, on that note, and the fact that Y Coy have just been tasked with a Force Protection operation, I’ll leave you be! Again, I hope you have enjoyed it and any feedback is much appreciated. I’ll have a brand new op to tell you all about when I’m back.

Catch you next week,

Crooky

Reflection - Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Reflection – Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Read Josh’s other blogs here

 

Strap kit down, buckle-up, enjoy… the never ending ride (Pt2)

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth is one of 38 trained British Army photographers. He left a career in aviation to pursue his passion for photography; capturing everything that military life has to offer. He is currently in Afghanistan as the Task Force Helmand Photographer on Op HERRICK 18.

Alarm clocks…

…Interesting things that we all rely on a day to day basis to meet our daily schedule. I hadn’t needed one so far. At Lashkar Gah, between all the guys in the morning who rustle around the tented accommodation at ‘sparrow’s fart’, the morning tent-shaking delivery of stores from whatever helicopter passes overhead, or the fact that there are plastic windows that are never closed in our pod, ever, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I will be awake with plenty of time on my hands to get to the gym, have breakfast and walk to work at an unbelievably slow pace.

Annoying as that all is each morning, what it does mean is I don’t have to worry about not waking up or setting an alarm. Ok, the helicopter may change its schedule, but the sun will definitely still rise, and I would risk my house on the fact that somebody will catch some part of their body armour’s male Velcro, on the female Velcro surrounding the tent doorway, and have to prise themselves off it. It’s not that noise that wakes me; it’s the angry vocal expletive that accompanies it that does… but also makes me chuckle.

So there I was at MOB Price having expected to be on a flight home, but instead being told that I was up and out first thing in the morning on another operation. It was around 2000 hrs when I finally got into the transit accommodation, and I was due to be up and out at 0300 hrs. I have no clean clothes, and not really any time to wash them. I had to dig into my kit, re-pack, dust everything off and charge all my camera batteries, which were flat. The unit’s press officer was looking me after. He was gracious enough to loan me a pair of clean socks for the off. I will get them back to him at some point..

I decided to take a chance and swill one set of underwear out in the sinks. I left it hanging outside the tent and hoped for the best.

I turned my camera kit around and re-packed and finally laid down at around 2200 hrs. As I laid there eyelids flickering, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no way of ensuring I was up ready to be out at three. Jumped out of bed, and ran over to the NAAFI. They had sold out of alarm clocks so I ran over to where the press officer worked. He had called it a night and I didn’t know where he lived. There was hardly anyone around camp to even ask, so decided to head back to my room. When I got back, another traveller had slipped in, and was just unpacking his gear. It was a cruel call, but I sweet-talked him into setting an alarm on his iPad to wake me up. Nice one.. Shut eye, at last.

Obsessive neatness

You never really get a good night’s sleep when you know you are up early. This was no different. I engaged autopilot from the second I heard the beep beep. Shower, shave. The usual drill, with eyes wide shut. I grabbed my undies. Yep, they were still damp, but that would be refreshing so on they went.

My transit accommodation was a good 10-minute walk down to the ‘dust bowl’. This was an area where visiting vehicles could leaguer up. It was a fairly enthusiastic walk as I had finally woken up and I knew whom I was going to meet up with. It was 32 Sqn, 3 CLSR and the men and women from the Combat Logistic Patrol I had been out with previously. (If you haven’t read that, I would ready that first, here)

I got down there and ‘tipped my hat’ to the OC, Major Rob Futter, and the Squadron Sergeant Major, WO2 Grant Turley. It was good to see them all again, as we had shared some laughs on the previous trip. This time, I was going to take a seat with the OC in his command vehicle, which was a Mastiff. The crew consisted of Taff, a Welsh Reservist, Britt, a man with obsessive neatness around the vehicle, Tex, the OC’s signaller and a crap-hand at poker (which reminds me of the 20 you owe me..) and the boss. They made me feel as welcome as ever. I was even given a computer to play around with in the back, and shown the text communication systems.

The OC filled me in on all the finer details of the plan. Simple as always. Convoy move to a location, rest up and be prepared to provide logistical support where necessary. As always, I squeezed out the information that was relevant to me. The whole task was going to last between three and nine days. I am sure I made the confirmatory sniff to the armpits of my shirt as subtle as possible when the OC gave me the time-frame. Actually, why was I worried? Even though the convoy was going to top my first bout of 26 hours by nearly another 10, I was in good spirits, because we could wash our gear at our end location; couldn’t we? Well actually, no. There was no room at the inn for the amount of axles we rolled with, so we were going to once again leaguer up in the desert. I even managed to crack a smile.

Once on the road I got down to the usual task of getting what images I could from the top hatch. We were trucking through the desert this time, and the scenery was different from the green zone, but unfortunately a bit bland.

Convoy

Convoy

I got convoy images, but wanted to catch the OC in his top cover duties as that made for a more interesting shot, and wouldn’t be posed. This proved more difficult than you can imagine. As a photographer, I wanted everything to be as ‘perfect’ as it can be, for the picture. Sure there are always outtakes and images that never see the light of day, but as this is a blog about photography, as much as it is about being an Army Photographer I want you to see the differences. During a convoy that is heading in one direction for hours and hours, it’s hard to get the shot you want (if you are only using available light) when the sun is in the wrong place. This is also made worse when you can’t be stood there for hours and hours. I was popping up and down as the patrol moved on and kept on checking on my friend, the sun.

Here is an image that doesn’t make the cut. The light is not that great.

The first go: bad light spoilt play

The first go: bad light spoilt play

However, when the ‘stars align’, in this case, the sun, the whole image can be turned around. I hope you agree, it was worth trying again and again.

Second time lucky: Same angle, different light

Second time lucky: Same angle, different light

Happy with that image, I sat down again in my seat and pondered the mysteries of life for another five or six hours until our first rest stop. I am aware that after my last blog a lot of people are interested in the bodily functions that us guys and girls have to do when we are locked in the back of a moving vehicle for so long, and need to keep hydrated. Let’s just say that as the hours roll on by, the collection of full bottles builds up at the back of the wagon. Fortunately, different manufacturers make bottles with varying opening sizes. Hang on, hang on; before you all run your minds off to the gutter please let me explain. The smaller water bottles are great for the tarmac roads, whilst the energy drink ‘Gatorade’ sized bottles are more your rough-terrain pee-bottle. If you use all your supply of larger bottles up too early in the journey, whilst still on the tarmac, then purging one’s self could become quite interesting when it comes to the uneven ground. Trust me; when the truck is bouncing in every direction, the last thing you want is to do is worry about a ‘rogue stream’.

 Bodo and Onyx

On and on we rolled. Mile after mile. I did laugh at the fact that I had only done a journey like this several weeks earlier and had decided that as good an experience it was; there wasn’t much photographic benefit to it. But, the juice was definitely worth the squeeze on this occasion, because I would be spending time with another group of very different people and getting to know how the CLSR does business in a Leaguer. Tex was good company too. He briefed me up on all the different nets the OC was chatting on, who to send texts to and when. It actually made the time pass by a little quicker being given something to do and not just be a passenger. I thank him for that. (But you still owe me 20)

Luckily for us, the journey was broken up with a five-hour stop over at a military base. In we rolled, parked up close and stretched our legs. I still laugh today as I recall watching a steady stream of people emerging from within the tightly woven vehicles in the general direction of the toilets, each person clutching a collection of bottles. Only the military would find this funny.

Break time for the convoy

Break time for the convoy

The guys got down to administrating their vehicles in all sorts of ways. Dust filters needed cleaning, water stocks had to be updated, and minor repairs had to be made when bit’s had been damaged on the terrain. It was still daylight, but the sun was fading fast. Camp cots were being positioned all around, and once food had been consumed, it was time for shut-eye.

I busied myself grabbing pictures, and managed to snap Taff in front of a setting sun.

LCpl ‘Taff’ Davies

LCpl ‘Taff’ Davies

During our short stay, I met another two dogs. One was a protection dog, Bodo a Malin-cross, pictured below, who was handled by Private Chris Jones Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the other was a black Lab called Onyx, a search dog handled by Trooper Jordan Davies. (A ‘Tankie) Bodo took an instant like to me. Or was it the other way around? I have always loved dogs and always wanted one, but couldn’t justify it whilst in the Army. I am away too much to stress about keeping it exercised. One day maybe.

A ball for Bodo, a military protection dog

A toy for Bodo the military protection dog

After a few hours shut-eye, we rolled out. Thankfully it was only another three-hour sprint to our final destination. In the words of the fantastic Tina Turner; “Big wheels keep on rollin’”.

As we pulled into our intended leaguer area, the Danes where pitched up beside us, and behind them as if by magic were the Warthog Group; they had pipped us to the post. I smiled, as I know I would have had a much comfier ride than the guys on tracks. There is always somebody worse-off. I went and said hello to the guys. It had been little under 48 hours since I saw them last, but it was like a year break, and the catch-up banter was cruel, in a way I believe only soldiers understand.

Back over at the CLP leaguer area, everyone was starting to pitch camp, and find his or her little spots for the coming days. I was met by a frustrated looking Britt, who had shoe horned himself out of the driver’s position only to find the rear of his truck had been messed up by yours truly. He quickly got on with re-administering it. I joked he would make a good house-husband and his frown deepened. As I came to realise over the time I spent living with this truck full of guys is that having someone who takes great pride in making sure that every detail is ‘squared-away’ is a real god-send. To Britt, this mastiff was his baby, and he looked after it, and thus, looked after us. So thank you, man.

My bed, bottom right. The wind and sand was unforgiving.

My bed, bottom right. The wind and sand was unforgiving.

One of the first things I noticed was how fine the desert sand was. It actually was more like dust, and there seemed to be a constant wind whipping up everywhere. Dust and sand got everywhere. There was no stopping it, and quite frankly, it was brutal. Nowhere was safe, less in a sealed wagon. It was a massive effort to keep all my kit and equipment clean and dust free. My two cameras took an intense beating whilst living here, but they still pulled through.

I set up my little living area. It wasn’t much. I hoisted up the satellite dish on to the roof and made a little working area. I thought this was going to be my office, but I hadn’t really thought it all through. I was hit with so many problems that I couldn’t have imagined. Up until now, I hadn’t really needed to communicate with the outside world, but I wanted to start sending updates back to HQ. For starters there was nowhere to charge my laptop and satellite. Thankfully, the ‘big-wheelers’ (Tank transporters) had a little gadget that converted 24v DC to a useable output. Next there was the sheer heat. At 42-45 in the shade, the computer does not do well. In fact, it doesn’t really ‘do’ at all. The trackpad does not sense your finger and the CPU overheats; probably from ingesting so much sand. Finally the battery power is greatly reduced. I am talking about a 30 minute window, if I could get the battery fully charged at all. The only charging window was when the trucks started up, and that was only twice daily, so I never really hit full charge. In reality, I managed to connect to the Internet for about 10-15 minutes daily. This was just enough to send an essential update to the real world. That was, until this happened…

Oops!

Oops!

Someone had accidentally broken the main cable that gave me precious contact. So everyone can blame the sun, the sand and whoever snapped my cable, as these are the reasons why the latest blog has taken so long to get to you.

The Littlest Hobo

Over the next few days I spent time capturing different parts of the day; morning routine, exercise and the dogs. I kept wandering over to see Bodo, who always greeted me with a smile. (You haven’t seen the last of him)

Me and Bodo

Me and Bodo

Cpl Gethin Hiscocks, 3 CLSR

The sand engrains itself into your skin throughout the day. Cpl Gethin Hiscocks, 3CLSR.

The Brits make use of the wind and a poncho, to pass the time. The Danish vehicles leaguered up in the background.

The Brits make use of the wind and a poncho, to pass the time. The Danish vehicles leaguered up in the background.

The Brits make use of the wind and a poncho, to pass the time. The Danish vehicles leaguered up in the background.

The Oscar Charlie prepares for the future.

I found a way to contact my boss using the text system in the vehicle. I had left a message and it had finally been received. I had been there a total of four days and had eaten far too much sand. My kit stunk. I had tried rinsing clothes through but only to have it dry stiff with infused sand. I was all pictured out. It was time to leave.

I managed to formulate an extraction plan, as I knew there was a resupply going to happen by helicopter. I was keen to get on a radio to my boss. Through the magic of radio satellite communications, Tex made it happen. I explained what I had done, and what my plan was to get out. My boss however, had different ideas. What he had found out was that there was another Op going on relatively close to where we were. Images were required, and unfortunately I was just too close to miss this opportunity. It was time to pack my bags. The ‘Littlest Hobo’ was on the move again. Just enough time to say my goodbyes and smash one last picture of Bodo and Private Chris Jones.

Bodo and Private Chris Jones

Bodo and Private Chris Jones

One last thing… Tex; you owe me 20!

To be continued…

Read Si’s other blogs here: Life Through a Lens…

Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot

Postman to Soldier – on Target

Rct Richardson

Rct Richardson

Rct Richardson is halfway through Phase 1 training at the Army Training Centre Pirbright (ATC(P)). Upon successful completion of the 14 week course he is set to start training at Blandford Camp as an Electronic Warfare Systems Operator.

My mind was set on joining the army; my Grandpa was in the Royal Tank Regiment, my Uncle was in the Parachute Regiment and later the 2nd Yorkshire Regiment and my brother-in-law was in the 3rd Yorkshire Regiment. I did wonder at times though what I was doing joining the Army. I’ve been with my partner for nine years, had a steady job as a Postman for eight, had a mortgaged property for seven and have two children Dillan and Lucas, aged two and four respectively. This new career move was to be a massive change for both me and my family, but I was certain that the upheaval would be worth it for such a challenging and rewarding career

Week 5 – ‘First Night’

Exercise ‘FIRST NIGHT’ was to be our first real outdoor exercise; two nights and three days in the field.  We started Sunday evening and continued into Monday morning prepping our kit; making sure it was all in working order, waterproofed and all packed into the correct places. Later that day we were also fitted for our number two suits, which we will all be wearing hopefully on ‘pass off’ in nine weeks’ time.  The suits are fitted and felt rather snug; I guess I’m not used to wearing clothing that are correctly fitted; a far cry from the baggy jeans and hoodie I used to be so accustomed to wearing. We all decided to bed down early to ensure we were well rested as we expect to not get too much sleep over the next few nights; early starts, late patrols, staging on and maybe the occasional stand to.  Tuesday morning was an early start as usual; 0600 hours reveille, then breakfast at 0615.  I decided today that I would have a ‘full -English’ in the cookhouse to ensure I had a decent ‘last meal’.

We gathered outside the block with our webbing and bergens, all our kit was checked by our section commanders then our bergens were loaded onto the DAF lorry.  We sat on the grass outside the block excitedly awaiting our next instructions.  Thankfully we didn’t have to march all the way with our bergens; we did however meet the DAF later in a car park, and had to carry our bergens the last mile or so.  They felt a bit heavy, but I guess we’ve got to get used to carrying the weight!

As we neared our destination we put our previous field craft lessons into place; we created a snap ambush with an all-round defence, waited a while, then we occupied the harbour area in our sections, all facing out, creating a 360 degree lookout.  We were then instructed to begin work on our shell scrapes.  I don’t know why they call them ‘scrapes’, they are a 6’ x 4’ by 2’ deep hole and they involve a lot of heavy digging and not a lot of scraping at all.  The shell scrape was to be our ‘home’ for the next few days and nights.

On exercise we put all our classroom based theory into practice.  I particularly enjoyed fire manoeuvres; practising advancing on a target and also tactically retreating, while using cover and also firing blank rounds. This part of the exercise was very exciting; lots of energy, lots of adrenaline!  We did however; have to bear in mind that the skills we learnt and were practising may one day have to be put into a real life situation.

At first light we woke, then had to do our ‘morning routine’.  This meant we had one hour to cook our breakfast, wash, shave, change and strip and clean our rifle.  It was a bit of a struggle, one hour is not a long time when you have so much to do and I just managed it in the time allotted.  I guess I’ll have to go a little quicker when we get tested on our next exercise.  We finished with a TAB back to ATC Pirbright.  A TAB (Tactical Advance to Battle), is a quick march as a squad, not running though.  Being 6’2” with a long stride, I found I really enjoy tabbing.  Exercise first night was highly enjoyable and I am looking forward to more exercises in the future.

Realities of War Weekend

The week ended on a sombre and sobering note; Realities of War weekend.  We received talks from Corporal Verth and Corporal Fell about the realities of war, including some real life situations they have found themselves in, in theatre.  This was very informative and insightful, and was designed to ensure we are very aware of the true risks we may face in our Army career.  We also marched from Pirbright to Brookwood Military Cemetery. I found the visit very emotional when you realised the size of the cemetery, the number of graves and the immeasurable loss of life due to conflicts past and present.  The whole weekend has had a massive impact on me, but I am undeterred in the pursuit of my Army Career.

Week 6 – Live firing

This week mainly consisted of live firing on the ranges, drill practice and lots and lots of ironing and cleaning of lockers.  The drill and cleaning were all in preparation for our Squadron Sergeant Major’s inspection and also our drill test in which the Sergeant Major would also be present.  In the build-up to the big Sergeant Major’s inspection we had various inspections increasing in importance, building up to the ‘big ‘one’!

Monday was to be an inspection from our Troop Sergeant, Sergeant Dale.  When they conduct the inspection they check not only your lockers, but your rooms, the toilets, showers, corridors, communal rooms and also your appearance.  I must admit to a mild case of obsessive compulsive disorder, but this comes in rather handy in the Army, as I like everything to be well ordered, arranged correctly, well ironed, beautifully polished and so does the Army. Monday morning I managed to pass Sergeant Dale’s inspection only picking up one minor point; my smock was zipped up to the top and all the other lads in my section had theirs unzipped, as they would be when worn.  Only a minor point, but it did annoy me somewhat as I pride myself on my pristine lockers.

CBRN lesson

Richardson before CS

Richardson before CS

Richardson after CS

Richardson after CS

The lessons we are receiving from our section commanders are now becoming much more interesting; this week was our first CBRN lesson from Corporal Verth.  CBRN stands for Chemical, Biological, Radioactive and Nuclear and in these lessons we learn how to best protect ourselves from such attacks.  I found these lessons informative and interesting, but also a little worrying; let us hope modern conflict never incurs such attacks.

Learning to shoot

This week was a week for firsts; Tuesday was our first full day on the firing range.  The day started early; Corporal Verth ensured we were on parade early and first down to the armoury to collect our rifles and beat the inevitable queue that forms there.  We got on the range, set up the targets and were ready.  It was a beautiful day; the sun was shining and it was warm.  Maybe a little too warm, but if we get deployed abroad we could end up in places like Afghanistan, so I guess we have to get used to it.

We increased our live firing distance from the initial 25m up to 50m and finishing at 100m.  We fired at the two distances using the four firing positions we will get to be so familiar with: prone (lying down), kneeling, sitting and standing.  50m went well for me, I had nice tight groupings just left of the centre, I was feeling confident about increasing the distance.  My sight had been altered to centre my shots, but for some reason my shooting was appalling.  I had rounds all over the place.

Corporal Fell, who was my coach for the day, could not understand what I was doing and neither could I.  I had too many rounds on some targets, none on others and out of the 20 rounds I’d fired we could only account for about half of them.  This left me feeling a little disheartened and also questioning my ability to fire a rifle at all.  Let us hope my shooting will improve with practice and that I’ll be able to work out what it is that I am doing wrong.

Wednesday was our Troop Commander, Lieutenant Loots’, day for inspection.  We are now being tested on our Squadron and Troop personalities, which will be tested on in our drill test.  Lieutenant Loots also asked us each a couple of personalities, which thankfully I had learnt.

Check shots incorrect

Friday was another day on the ranges; this was to be when we zeroed our rifles.  This is where the troop staff helps us adjust the sight on our rifle to ensure our aiming point is the same point where the rounds land.  We fired five warm up rounds, then a group of 20, our sights were adjusted and then we fired five more rounds to ensure the adjustment was correct.  Corporal Verth said I had one of the tightest groups of 20, but somehow failed to aim my check shots correctly.  At the fifth time of going through this process, I was thoroughly annoyed at myself and so too was my section commander, Corporal Verth.

Sunday was, I am sad to say, only the second time I had visited church.  As previously mentioned church is not what you would expect but trust me, you will enjoy the few times you spend there.  This visit to church was particularly enjoyable; the troop above us, Inkerman Troop, were in their last week at
Pirbright and they did a cover of ‘Ed Shearan’s A team’.  The words they sung to replace the original ones, were funny and clever and all accompanied by a talented recruit who played guitar.

As this week ended we were all looking forward to shortly seeing our families next Thursday, when they visit us for ‘families day’ and also our beret presentation on the same day.

Week 7 – Sergeant Major’s Inspection

This was the week we were all looking forward to, but also a bit nervous about.  We had, at the end of the week, our Families Day and beret presentation, but to get there we had to pass Sergeant Major’s Inspection, the Drill Test and also do bayonet training.  Monday we had the inspection first, our sister troop downstairs, Smith Troop, had their inspection first.  This was good for us as it gave a little more time after breakfast to ensure we had everything just as it should be. We rushed back from breakfast, ensured the room was up to scratch and so too the toilets, sinks and showers.  We made sure the room and our lockers were immaculate, and also ‘buddy – buddy’ checked; checking each other ensuring we looked flawless.  We were stood by our beds as ready as we could be for our inspection.

Smith Troop’s inspection took longer than planned, so we were stood by our beds for an hour.  Not good when all you can do is stand there and running through your head are all the thoughts of ‘Did I clean that?’ ‘Was that folded correctly?’ ‘Have I polished that?’  It turned out that I had nothing to fear, as I passed the inspection without picking up any points.

Drill Test

Next big hurdle before the weekend was the Drill Test.  For this we were to be dressed in our ‘best’ boots and our drill shirt and trousers.  We marched onto the square, where we were first inspected on our appearance and then our ability to carry out various drill movements and individuals and also as a squad.  This went well and at some points, dare I say, I was actually enjoying myself.  After an agonising wait, I later found out that I had passed.

Visit to Blandford Forum

Tuesday was an exciting and interesting day for me.  All aspiring Electronic Warfare Systems Operators had a visit to Blandford Forum, Dorset.  This would be where we would receive the majority of our Phase 2 training.  We had an insightful brief from one of the members of training staff about what we can expect, and we also had a look at the facilities and accommodation available to us.  This left me with a great feeling of excitement and anticipation for my Phase 2 training.  This gave me a motivational boost, to make sure I pass out from Pirbright and ensure my place at Blandford.

Bayonet Training

Wednesday was to be an emotionally and physically draining day; bayonet training.  Our training staff used various methods throughout the morning to ensure we were emotionally charged in preparation for bayonet training.  We were given unprovoked punishments, like running round the block.  Recalling the Realities of War visits really made you realise the sacrifices that soldiers have to make, including the ultimate one; with their lives. Bayonet training was physically and emotionally demanding, and due to the large amount of shouting involved, I also lost my voice, which pleased my roommates!  I did, however, enjoy myself.  By the end of training I found myself feeling broken, but strangely elated.

Pride in the Corps I was about to join

Thursday was the day we had all been waiting for; Families Day.  It had been seven weeks since we had all seen our loved ones and as you can imagine there was a great feeling of excitement and euphoria within the troop.  Not only did we get to see our loved ones, but we were also to be presented with our new berets.  In front of all our friends and families, we were stood on parade; we then had our old berets, displaying the general service cap badge, removed by Sergeant Dale.  Our troop then had Captain E A Browne, the Squadron 2IC, place our new berets, adorned with our respective cap badges on our heads.  This was a very proud moment for me; now having pride in the Corps I was about to join; The Royal Corps of Signals.

Shortly after the presentation we were dressed in our civilian suits and leaving Pirbright with our families.  I was really looking forward to getting back to Yorkshire, but it also felt a little strange, as I had now started calling Pirbright home!  As I drove out the main entrance, excited about my leave, I was also looking forward to returning and continuing with my training!

Week 8-  the ‘Final Fling’

After our long weekend, we were straight back into week 8.  The weekend didn’t seem long enough, but we had found out that all the training staffs were having their two weeks block summer leave soon.  This meant we only had two weeks of training left before we would have another chance to see our friends and families.

Monday was a busy day; we were prepping all our equipment for our 2nd big outdoor exercise; Exercise ‘HALFWAY’.  We also had BCD, CBRN and Map reading lessons.  I feel like we are reaching a point where all our training is starting to come together; all the skills we are currently learning are all merging, which will finally culminate in our last exercise; ‘Exercise FINAL FLING’.  So I am starting to enjoy the lessons more and more and can now see the end of my journey nearing.

Having prepped all our equipment as before and loaded our bergens onto the DAF lorry, we instead boarded a coach.  This exercise was to take place at Aldershot, which was a little too far for us to TAB.  We did however, as before, put our webbing and bergens on and TAB what felt like a mile or two to our harbour area.  I must say, even with practice, our bergens still don’t seem to feel any lighter!

Exercise HALFWAY

The exercise consists of theory and practical lessons in the field, culminating in tests in all the taught disciplines on the Thursday.  Lessons in the field, even theory ones, are much more enjoyable than in the classroom!  We had a lesson in observation, where we had to spot common military kit in an area in front of us, up to about 100m away.  For this we used varying scanning techniques, this helped, but I still didn’t manage to spot all the items.

We had lessons in camouflage and concealment; helmets adorned with grass and twigs, faces covered in cam cream, good fun!  We had more lessons in firing manoeuvres, this was again adrenaline inducing and thrilling, but you had to bear in mind that these are real skills that may have to be used in theatre.

My favourite lesson of all was when we were taught the varying ways to move while carrying our rifle.  We were taught how to leopard crawl, monkey run, roll and ghost walk.  Leopard crawl is on your belt buckle crawling, the monkey run in shimming along on one knee, ghost walking is a method used to move silently and my favourite, the roll, needs no explaining.  We were taught these disciplines, then given a course to navigate using the differing methods of moving.

We set off staggered, and before my turn I joked with the lad in front of me, telling him I would overtake him on the roll part of the course, down the hill.  When I reached the top of the hill, I lay down, held my rifle tightly and went for it.  I did, as I had said, I had gathered so much momentum that was unable to stop at the bottom and knocked another lad off his feet.

All but one

Thursday was the day all our newly found skills would be tested; I managed to pass all but one of the tests.  I failed the camouflage and concealment test much to my annoyance.  I had covered my helmet, cam cream adorned my face and I hid on the hill side.  Our troop commander then tried to see if he could spot us.  I was spotted due to my boot being visible past the bush I was hiding in.  I was later told by Lieutenant Loots that he too failed that part of his basic training for the same reason.  I thought he was just saying it to make me feel better, me being one of the only ones to fail this test, but he assured me it was true.

I really enjoyed this exercise, as I have the previous ones.  I am especially excited about Exercise FINAL FLING now.  Despite how much I love exercise, it was lovely to return to the block with hot running water!

Week 9 – Still off Target!

This week, we concentrated on our shooting; Monday and Tuesday on the indoor range, and then Wednesday on the outdoor range.  Not forgetting of course the chamber on Tuesday morning!  Monday we had PT, which I am really starting to enjoy now, and then we had a session on the indoor range.

My turn came on the DCCT and my shooting started off ok, but very quickly went downhill.  I couldn’t work out what I was doing wrong.  I had to keep adjusting my point of aim more and more, eventually I was pulled off lane 8.  Corporal Fell had a go on my lane and said that the point of aim to hit the target was a long way off.  I was hoping that there was a problem with that lane and not a problem with my shooting.  I left the range seriously worried about my ability to shoot, especially seen as our Annual Combat Marksmanship Test (ACMT), was rapidly approaching and we have to pass it to pass off!

Tuesday was our first time on the assault course; tiring, muddy but a lot of fun.  We were all shown how to overcome the various obstacles and tried it ourselves, plus we were crawling through the mud repeatedly, but it was fun getting muddy and not caring!

The part of the course that all the recruits dread

Later that day we had the part of the course that all the recruits dread and all the training staff seem to enjoy; the respirator test facility.  We had all been previously taught how to don and doff our respirators and CBRN suits and this exercise was to allow us to experience a chemical attack and also for us to gain trust in the equipment we have.  We entered the chamber, in small groups, with our suits and respirators on.  We then took it in turns to stand in front of Corporal Verth, remove our respirators then state our Army number, name, Corps or Regiment we were wishing to join.

I stood in front of my corporal, took a deep breath and cautiously removed my respirator.  I started to recite my number and thought the CS gas wasn’t too bad, and then I felt the full effects.  I felt my eyes, nose and mouth watering, my chest tighten and a difficulty to breath.  I managed to recite my details, but my corporal asked me more questions.  After a few more questions, and I can’t remember how it quite happened, but I ended up telling my section commander that I love him.  Not just once, but repeatedly increasing in volume each time till he let me out of the chamber.  Embarrassing to say the least, but I can now look back with fond memories of the whole ordeal!

My turn to shoot

Wednesday was to be a full day on the ranges; firing from 100m, 200m and 300m.  I spent most of the day in ‘the butts’.  Moving the targets up and down, indicating where the rounds had hit, so the firer could alter their aim, and also patching up the holes created.  Some people find the butts boring, but to be honest it’s quite a relaxed atmosphere and you get time to chill out a bit.  After the butts, it was my turn to shoot.

I really enjoyed firing today; I managed to stay relaxed and my shooting improved.  I had a complete white wash at 200m standing assisted, I got zero out of a possible 20 points, but due to my accurate firing in the other positions I actually managed to pass all the distances.  This left me feeling happier about my shooting and also more confident about my rapidly approaching ACMT.

Thursday we had a swimming lesson, something I really enjoy; being a strong and avid swimmer in the past.  We finished the week with a map reading test with Lieutenant Loots, again being an area I have had a lot of experience with in the past I managed to pass.  This was a great finish to a great week!

Friday we were all suited up, waiting for the bus to take us to the train station to start a two week break.  The leave was actually for the permanent staff and not normally given to recruits, but I guess the staff deserve a break for all their hard work.  None the less, I was looking forward to seeing my family and enjoying the two weeks off.  Hopefully returning, batteries recharged, ready to complete the next five weeks and pass off the square with the rest of my troop!

Week 10 – Brecon Beacons

Definitely a week I was looking forward to; a week in the Brecon Beacons, Wales in the Soldier Development Wing (SDW).  SDW is a week where, through outdoor pursuits, we learn how the core values can be applied to real life situations.  SDW is a relaxed week for us, we get to know our troop staff better and we get to spend some time in civilian clothes;  quite a big thing for us as we’ve spent the last 9 week in military clothing.

From Pibright it was going to take about 4 hours on a coach, but the staff were well prepared and had some films for us to watch.  We also got to use our army ID at a service station and get a bit of discount off a Costa coffee.  We arrived at SDW, Sennybridge, we dismounted from the coach and awaited instructions.  We were greeted by some of SDW’s permanent staff and were split into our groups for the week.

I found myself in a group with mostly lads from another section, but it would be nice to get to know some of them a bit better and the lads in my section could probably do with a break from me!  Next we got shown our room.  It was old accommodation; a long room with beds either side, enough to fit our whole troop in.  Not quite what we were used to, but we’ve been spoilt at Pirbright with great accommodation and facilities.

SDW had all the kit we would need for the week and the first evening we went down to collect some of our clothing and equipment for the week.  The centre provided us with trousers, a rucksack, and waterproofs etc, all really good outdoor equipment.  I was looking forward to a great week, and for once the weather in Wales was fantastic; dry and sunny.  It was just a shame that we didn’t have the whole troop with us, as some were re-doing Exercise HALFWAY.

Rock climbing

First activity on the agenda for my group was rock climbing on the Tuesday.  I’m an avid climber, but haven’t been climbing for some time, so I was still looking forward to it.  SDW had provided all the harnesses, helmets and rock shoes, and had driven us to the old quarry where we were to climb.  The rock face; the Great Wall, was part of Morlais Quarry and was a short walk from the minibus.  The staff set up several climbing routes and one abseil route.  I’ve climbed before, so for me it was nice to not climb so much and instead belay the others and let them get time on the rock.  For some of them it was their first time rock climbing.  Some, struggled a bit, but got through it with encouragement.  The fun really started when the staff made some of us wear blindfolds while climbing.  The abseil was good fun, but a few did look a bit scared.  The weather stayed nice all day and everyone really enjoyed themselves.

Wednesday we went caving, not good for people with claustrophobia or a fear of the dark, but having previous experience I was excited about going.  We tried our kit on before we went and the warm suit you wore under your waterproof protective suit was a big fleecy onesie and we all looked like Telly Tubbies!  We arrived at the caves and read the information board which gave us some brief details of the cave system; Porth Yr Ogof.

Once inside we were set various challenges to complete as a group, some without the use of our head torches in the pitch black.  When we got wet the cold was intense, but we soon warmed up.  The challenges were all to build personal confidence, confidence in your mates and other core values.  Again there were a few in the group who struggled with the tasks, but as a group we all got stuck in, helped each other out and completed them all.  It was a great experience and it was funny when our section commanders Corporal Whyte and Corporal Fell occasionally fell over in the dark caves.

Wednesday night was also the evening we got to imitate our staff.  We were encouraged to do skits; these were little comedy sketches where we were allowed to gently tease our troop staff.  A couple of the lads in my section came up with some really funny skits and I had written some comedy verse, all of which were really well received by our training team!

Leap of faith

Thursday we did a ’round robin’ at camp.  We had a map reading test first thing, which I passed.  We then went onto the ‘high wire course’.  This was a frame about 30 feet high with various apparatus that you had to climb, as a team, and sometimes blindfolded.  There was a totem pole with a small platform at the top, which we had to get three people stood on.  And there was ‘the leap of faith’; a small platform at the top of the frame, with a trapeze bar six foot away and you had to jump off the platform and grab it.  The high wires were brilliant for team work and building trust, but they were also really good fun.  Some people struggled with the leap of faith; it took one lad 25 minutes to jump and catch the trapeze bar!

After that we had an hour orienteering.  This was enjoyable, but tiring running around using a map and finding numbers at particular points on camp.  Rct Platt and I came a respectable third out of the eight involved that day.

The final day for us was hill walking with Corporal Whyte.  The evening before we had planned our route using grid references for waypoints provided by the corporal.  We climbed up Pen Y Fan, 886m above sea level.  We were along the way asked to take bearings, work out distances and give timings for particulars legs of the walk.   The sun was shining, visibility was excellent and as a result the view from the top of Pen Y Fan was awe inspiring.  This was an amazing end to a highly enjoyable week.  When we returned to Pirbright I was sad to say goodbye to Wales, but I do so with fond memories.

 

The Challenge of Communication

R&R is just around the corner and the joy of having lie-ins and a few cold beers on a hopefully sunny July afternoon puts a smile of my face as I post this. With more people going on R&R in quick succession the work load seems to be never ending. Everyone is now looking at their watches and seeing the days flying by. I am really looking forward to seeing my family and girlfriend and spending some chilled out time before coming back and finishing the second half of my tour with renewed vigour.

There are a lot of special occasions that have happened in the UK whilst we have been out here, noticeably the Queens Diamond Jubilee. Watching this on the T.V on a British forces news channel was a real morale boast, as was the added touch of receiving a little jubilee box filled with teabags and biscuits which spread a little joy around the camp.  

Communication bubble

Within my location there have been vast improvements in the overall living and communications lay out since I arrived in Combined Forces (CF) BURMA. When the 1 Royal Welsh battle group (BG) arrived we were the second British battle group to have been here and you could tell. After three months of hard work from everyone within the communications bubble here in FOB OUL the difference is remarkable.

My training at the school of signals in Blandford was a very intense and complicated but has served me well in work as there is even more to strive for within this tour with the challenge of installing and linking together a complex and hopefully rewarding new set of communications systems… The user guides supplied at the end of the course in Blandford were definitely needed in the packing list and it has paid off!

New challenges in communications

New challenges in communications

With the Forward Repair Team (FRT) soon to deploy to this location the RSIST (Royal Signals Infantry Support Team) Comd can now stop having nightmares about the TiGR system, to quote his feelings on this new capability, “IP this IP that! Bring on boots and haircuts!” However there are still some more minor hurdles left to overcome so probably a few more grey hairs on the horizon Staff!

Many new challenges

As my location is constantly being updated with the latest equipment it is important that this incoming material is managed and accounted for correctly. Alongside being a communications systems operator I am also the second in command of the BG Stores under the RSIST Comd. This breeds many new challenges that I have never come across before. With the constant influx of people coming in and out needing different items the work literally never stops.  Morning, noon or night we are constantly on call. 

And with that, I’ll have to get back to work. 

I look forward to communicating again soon, LCpl Whittaker.