The sessions can be best described as ’emotional’

Officer Cadet Todd Ledwith writes from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, with details of his latest experiences of British Army officer training.

Officer Cadet Ledwith

Officer Cadet Ledwith

This week was characterised by 2 particularly gruelling physical training (PT) sessions, one involving several circuits carrying 4 logs between the platoon for 4 repetitions around a course and the next, 2 days later (with damaged hands taped-up) running stretchers in hill repetitions interspersed with sections of the assault course and traversing obstacles in the Wish Stream. The sessions can be best described as ’emotional’.

As well as being put through our paces physically, we have also begun to turn our minds to the estimate and orders process in a Counter-Insurgency, or COIN, environment in the run-up to Exercise BROADSWORD on which we deploy in a week’s time. The concern now is not simply a conventional enemy, but one which actively seeks to blend with the local population. Rather than meet force-to-force, this enemy attacks via improvised explosive devices, ambush and by influencing or threatening the mass of the population away from the support of the Security Forces, played by ourselves for two thirds of the exercise. For the remaining third, each company takes its turn at playing the local civilian population, or CIVPOP, and also the concealed insurgent force, interacting with the security forces under the guidance of several ‘serials’ which dictate their actions.

The week did provide some room for leisure, and on Saturday night those cadets who had boxed were invited to attend the DeGale vs Groves fight at the O2 Arena. This was courtesy of Frank Warren, who had attended last term’s Academy Boxing Night. The fights were excellent with the main event being particularly exciting; a close fought bout which will hopefully result in an equally exciting rematch.

Next week we continue our study of COIN as well as enjoying our first Loaded March of the term; a 9 mile route with 25kgs of kit.

Steely-eyed dealers in death

Officer Cadet Elizabeth Eldridge writes from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst: ” …chanting ‘kill, kill, kill’ approached the sandbag, screamed ‘en garde’ and stabbed it in the heart with full force.”

Officer Cadet Elizabeth Eldridge

Officer Cadet Elizabeth Eldridge

If you come down to the Academy today beware of a Senior Cadet with a rank slide and swagger in her step.  Finally, Senior Term has begun and the distant prospect of Commissioning has turned smudge on the horizon to solid land mass; passing out ahoy.

The first week has been very good fun: seeing the gang (as I like to affectionately term 2 Platoon, Alamein Company) and jumping straight into the Law of Armed Conflict and Counter Insurgency campaigns.  We deployed on a short, 24-hour exercise, Senior Stretch, to ensure that the “recess demons” were banished.  The exercise comprised advance to contacts and night navigation.  In the little personal administration time we were given before the night navigation, 2 Platoon stretched out on our bergens and dozed a little in the sunshine (finally, no more cold injuries).  The Company Commander, Major Lytle AAC, surprised the few left awake.

“I don’t object to you sleeping during your admin time but I would prefer it if you did not sunbathe on exercise.”

One or two of the cadets hastily pulled down their t-shirts and coloured a shade of crimson.

There was another check to ensure no one had slacked off on fitness over the Easter break with Physical Fitness Assessment 4; sit-ups, press-ups and a mile and a half best effort.  I was one of the chosen few called into Captain Webb’s office for a dressing down because my fitness had been found wanting.

“Miss Eldridge, you dropped four seconds on your PFA.  What do you have to say for yourself?”

The mood of the cadets in Senior Term is different.  A little sunshine but the training is exacting a price just as it has imbued us with skills and the knowledge of our own capability.  If I were to choose one moment, one episode from last term, which took the civilian from me and replaced it with soldier that episode would be bayonet training.

“What makes the grass grow?”

“Blood, blood, blood.”

“What are we here for?”

“Kill, kill, kill.”

It is hard to believe that one hour can insert a splinter of steel into your very soul.  The cult of initiation into the British Army betrays its pinnacle in bayonet training.

Forty or so Officer Cadets were marshalled into lines approaching straw sandbags by the duty Colour Sergeant whose sidekick, “the motivator” was waiting in the wings to exact physical degradation until you were bereft of sentient thought.  I stood, stamping my feet, chanting “kill, kill, kill” in the beginning with reticence; civilisation preventing engagement with this bloodthirsty ritual.  It took less than half an hour of leopard crawling through ditches or pulling myself along the ground in press-up position before I was too worn out to think at all.

We were given motivating speeches, and to act as we would do if an insurgent was trying to kill one of the soldiers under our command, an eighteen-year-old at that.  I stomped the ground chanting “kill, kill, kill” approached the sandbag, screamed “en garde” and stabbed it in the heart with full force.  I checked my bayonet and put my rifle in the high port.

The Company Commander told me afterwards he was never going to let me near a bayonet again.  Of all the things to be good at bayonet training is not what I would have chosen but should the slimmest chance prevail (for some) and a situation call upon our training, we now know that we are steely-eyed dealers in death.

The price exacted by two terms at Sandhurst is the soft side; a glimmer is visible of why values and standards are so important to the British Army.  You train hard to fight easy but fighting does not come naturally to most; it is altogether “other”, the aggression that must be controlled, yet at your fingertips as just another resource among many to be called upon in the loneliness of command.

In Junior Term we did not know what was going on half the time and were trained not to think. In Intermediate Term we were asked to remember how to think and now in Senior Term, to understand the complexity of current operations and the decisions that will shortly be ours to make, thinking is imperative.   Just as it should be, the magnitude of responsibility that a Platoon Commander, an officer in the British Army, undertakes looms daunting.

Breathless in Normandy

In her latest update from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Officer Cadet Elizabeth Eldridge looks back at an 8-day exercise in the Brecon Beacons and a working visit to the beaches of Normandy.

Officer Cadet Elizabeth Eldridge

Officer Cadet Elizabeth Eldridge

Officer Cadet Wentworth, 2 Platoon, gloried in the wind across her face as she sprinted through the woodland about the lake.  In the undergrowth she spotted a deer, stopped mid-run and took an aimed shot.  Miss Wentworth then continued on her chosen route enjoying the spring weather change.

Unfortunately, there are no deer in the Sandhurst grounds, Miss Wentworth did not actually have a rifle and Captain Power PWRR, 1 Platoon Commander, was driving past on his way home.  After witnessing this very private moment Captain Power related what he had seen to the Colour Sergeants – with what are now known to be embellishments: the throwing of an imaginary grenade and diving for cover in the undergrowth.  At muster parade, the story of Miss Wentworth’s heroics was related to the assembled Alamein Company.

Miss Wentworth is a top third cadet, chosen to represent the Academy at the upcoming games in the US at Westpoint, who is more often than not quite sensible.

Exercise DRUID’S RIDGE spanned 8 days, back in the now-familiar Brecon Beacons.  All 3 companies of our intake, battalion level, occupied CileniVillage.  The village comprises 20-or-so mock dwellings (no electricity or plumbing) modelled on German architecture which are used for Fighting in Built Up Areas training.  The scenario ran that 2 Sandhurst Rifles (the exercise cadet force) were expecting an imminent attack from the Malyban (the exercise enemy force played by the Gurkhas) and had to defend the village.

Barbed wire defences and minefields were constructed whilst the houses were boarded up to minimise likely entry points.  In House 19 were 1 Section and 2 Section of 2 Platoon.  Our stag position was reached by descent into the gloomy concrete basement which was slightly flooded, through two holes in walls, through a tiny floor level gap (webbing, patrol sack and weapon had to be removed) and finally up some stairs to the sand bagged vantage point.  I lost my head torch on a recce patrol the first night and had to negotiate the obstacles in the pitch black with my heart beating a theme from Silence of the Lambs.

The Gurkhas successfully had us “bugged out” in a fighting withdrawal on the fourth day.  The training stepped up a gear; our TCV transport trucks were ambushed, we set a night ambush and were contacted on extraction, the battalion-level recapture of the village was precursored by a 5km hike through babyheaded marshland carrying ladders, GPMG link and other break-in equipment on top of our bergens and, finally, we had to learn how to work in assault groups for house clearance in order to recapture the village.  By the end of the morning on the eighth day at 12.30pm I stood at a window of a cleared house looking out for possible enemy reinforcements from the East.  We had been hiking and fighting for seven hours, the pinnacle of a very long week, when a howl went out: “End Ex.”

The shout was joined by many more voices whooping “End Ex”.  2 Platoon had their photographs taken on a tank, cleared up the defences and headed back to the Academy.

Last week we went to Normandy to study the Normandy landings and parachute operations.  The academics who teach War Studies in Faraday Hall joined us and stern warnings were issued that the trip was not a battlefield tour.  Indeed it was not.  At each site we were given the scenario the officer faced and asked to use the 7-question combat estimate “What are the enemy doing and why?”  to analyse what we would do.  It was mentally taxing as whilst for some situations we were given an hour or 45 minutes these were interspersed with 5-minute considerations.  It was heartening to know that using the tools provided resulted in cadets, in the most part, finding the right answer or perhaps the only answer.

Captain Power took a composite platoon of mixed syndicates, men and women, for the exercise and elicited a poignant moment on our final day.  We stood in a huddle on Gold Beach looking out to where, 60 years before, the landing crafts had approached, 300m from the bunker the allied forces had to neutralise.

“Run” shouted Captain Power.

A minute or less later 30 breathless cadets stood in limited cover under the rocks fronting the WWII bunker.

“Come up with a plan and capture the bunker,” said Captain Power picking on a cadet to play the only officer left standing.

There were 9 machine gun positions protecting the beach front and the gunnery position.  The slight loss of breath, the knowledge that the officers before us had run twice the distance under fire as soldiers fell in the approach, that the officers had been little older than many of the cadets and had kept courage under pressure in order to capture the concrete bunker lent clarity to the final day of learning from the actions of our predecessors.

In the afternoon we visited a memorial to those who had lost their lives in the Battle of Normandy; Padre Stephen Dunwoody led us in a short service of remembrance.  I can only think of the sacrifices of those before as a civilian not as a soldier.  My eyes are irrevocably drawn to the faces of the directing staff who think of those they have lost in recent conflicts; of friends.

“This is what I joined the Army for!”

Officer Cadet Todd Ledwith blogs from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst about his latest experiences of Officer Training which have included crawling through water-filled tunnels on hands and knees, live firing the SA80 rifle and Old College Sunday.

Officer Cadet Ledwith

Officer Cadet Ledwith

The events of this week were summarised succinctly by a member of my platoon. We were crawling through a water-filled tunnel on hands and knees escorting a casualty on a stretcher, when he declared: “This is what I joined the Army for!”.

It has been a hectic week.  We have been running around the local training area, carrying stretchers, wading through marsh and dragging Land Rovers containing ‘injured soldiers.’ As ever this was a role which was convincingly played by the Gurkhas. On top of this we also conducted our first live firing using the SA80 rifle on the ranges. Everyone performed well at a range of 25m although later in the week shooting from 100m proved to be more of a challenge.

Our absorption of other military skills such as the orders process has been less rapid. I imagine that we all have a great deal of work ahead of us before we are able present our orders, late at night in the cold and rain.  To date, getting them right in the comparatively cosy atmosphere of the classroom is enough of a challenge!

On Sunday friends and family were allowed to visit the Academy. Known as Old College Sunday, it is an opportunity to showcase not just Sandhurst, but also the training we undertake.  The visit is also aimed at reassuring our over anxious parents. This reminds me of the enforced letter home at the end of the first week.  At the end of the visit stories were abound of Mothers having serious discussions about the welfare of their son or daughter with the Colour Sergeants over lunch.  No doubt this was much to the chagrin of the Officer Cadets concerned.

This week, details of the Sandhurst Cup were revealed to us. The annual competition is held at The United States Military Academy West Point and pits teams from the United Kingdom, Canada, USA, Netherlands and Afghanistan against one another. It is a demanding and arduous event with challenges focused around fitness, team work, military skills, leadership and shooting. Selection to be on of one of the two 9-strong teams begins soon and competition will be strong.  Spaces are coveted, not least as it entails a trip to the States on behalf of the Army. This year’s team has a lot to live up to as last year RMAS was awarded first and second place.  I have no doubt that the grit and determination of my fellow cadets will see the flag raised high for the United Kingdom once again in 2011.

Only one Cadet failed to hold his drink…

OCdt Todd Ledwith

OCdt Todd Ledwith

Officer Cadet Todd Ledwith is currently in his first term at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS). He is 23 years old and hopes to commission into the Army Air Corps upon leaving Sandhurst.  In his first post OCdt Ledwith looks back at his first five weeks of training.

Having arrived at the iconic steps of Old College on 12 September as the image of the ‘virgin soldier’, the first 5 weeks of Commissioning Course 103 have left many imprints upon the ‘blank slate’ that I once was.

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