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.