Covering the ground in Africa with music

WO1 Mick LatterWarrant Officer Class One Mick Latter has been involved with Army Music for 28 years and retires in a few weeks time. Following a successful career in the bands reaching Band Sergeant Major of the Band of The Royal Logistic Corps his last role was Head of Digital and Media Engagement for Army Music. He volunteered to support this task to the continent of Africa as a performer on the French Horn and as media support officer for the deployment. As the saying goes ‘One last time with feeling’.

The Corps of Army Music recently deployed a Short Term Training Team to Africa. The aim was to supply musical training and defence diplomacy work at key events through music across a number of countries; South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe over a period of less than 2 weeks. I saw this as a personal opportunity to visit a number of countries I had yet to visit and probably a once in a lifetime experience and opportunity but it would also give me the opportunity to obtain and generate good quality media and publicity for the Corps of Army Music as it develops this area of its capability. The Corps of Army  Music is directed to supply a number of Short Term Training Teams for countries around the world. Over the last 12 months we have covered Kosovo, Bosnia, Gibraltar, Bermuda, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Kuwait.

The team

The CAMUS Africa STTT

The team of 8 musicians, led by Director of Music Major Lawrence Sale, was made up from 5 other members of the Corps of Army Music and two musicians from two Army Reserve Bands; The Band of The Yorkshire Regiment and the Army Medical Services Band. Three members stayed in Johannesburg to plan for events later in the trip and 5 members that made up a brass quintet drove to Maputo in Mozambique, a 7 ½ hour drive through the stunning open plain territories  of South Africa and Mozambique.

Maputo – Mozambique

We hit the city outskirts of Maputo as dusk arrived, the traffic was building up and we took our lives into our own hands as we fort our way through the chaos and mayhem of the roads of Maputo. Overloaded minibuses, open backed trucks with people on the rear sections, large heavy trucks and very little accurate road signs. At one particular junction a triple articulated lorry decided to run one of our two vehicles (the one I was in) off the road either oblivious to us or no care!

We arrived at Hotel Cardoso on the North side of the city and checked in feeling exhausted and pretty grubby after traveling by air and road for nearly 24 hours. We sat down with our hosts from the Defence Attaché’s office for South Africa, Wing Commander Cookson and his wife for a nice meal and a few light drinks before settling in for the night in very welcoming hotel beds.

Next morning the brass quintet set off to support a Queen’s Birthday Parade event at the High Commission in Maputo, hosted by the High Commissioner, Joanna Kuenssberg. The High Commissioner had invited a number of key political and business influential people to the cocktail party that was taking place in the gardens of the High Commission.  We were there to supply background music and add a ‘soft approach’ influence to the event and most importantly perform the National Anthems for Mozambique and Great Britain. Staff Sergeant Ben Ruffer was in charge of music and had sourced and arranged for the quintet the Mozambique National Anthem. His research had paid off as it was the correct version and many of the guests thanked the quintet in person for a fantastic performance of their Anthem as they had heard it many times before performed in not such a professional standard.

Brass Quintet at British High Commission Maputo

The High Commissioner thanked the quintet after the event. She was very happy that our musical input had made a valuable contribution to the event and looked forward to future events supported by the Corps of Army Music in the years to come should we be able to do so. Lieutenant Brendan Wheeler the leader of the quintet then presented her with a Corps of Army Music plaque.

On our return to the hotel we quickly changed out of uniform and drove down to the coast to admire the Indian Ocean and taste some local food and beer. The Maputo local award winning beer is called 2M for anyone considering travelling to the area. That evening our host took us to dinner in an excellent local curry restaurant of all things to eat in Africa. Being military musicians curry is more often than not a favourite amongst all so there were no complaints and the food was indeed excellent, thank you Wing Commander Cookson.

Return to Johannesburg

Next morning was an early start, up at 5am for departure promptly at 6am as we had to make the return drive to Johannesburg, another 7 hours by car. Our next event was planned in Johannesburg at 5pm that evening so we could not afford to be late and we had to clear the city traffic before it built up with the masses arriving to take up their jobs in the city centre. First turn following the route on our Satnav led us to be facing traffic coming directly towards us on what we thought was our side of the dual carriage way. There were no signs stating no entry, one way or any other related sign but clearly in the morning the system was designed to be traffic heading in only on this particular dual carriage. After several cars flashing us and one near head on miss we soon realised we were in the wrong so quickly turned left to find an adjacent road heading in the direction we required out of town.

4x4 to Maputo

We located the main road out and then weaving through the traffic were on our way but with another near miss where a local minibus taxi decided to dive down the inside of us catching our driver a little off guard, but a quick swerve to the right avoided what looked like an inevitable collision, a time delay we couldn’t afford.

The drive back across 100s of miles of wilderness scattered with an occasional some town led though some beautiful scenery and landscapes and even the opportunity to spot a family of baboons who had crossed the road a little in front of us.

Rugby World Cup 2015 – 100 days to kick off

The next event, or as musicians like to call them ‘gig’, was in support of the promotion of the forthcoming 2015 Rugby World Cup which as I am sure you all know is being hosted in the UK. With the home of Army Music located at Kneller Hall, Twickenham, right next door to the Twickenham Stadium, Rugby Football Union offices and the head office for the Rugby World Cup this was an event we had to support and indeed wanted to support and a good relationship builder with communities outside of the military.

Rugby world cup 2015 RWC

The event was held in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and hosted by the British High Commission. A number of the South African International Rugby Squad were on hand to raise the profile of the event and our quintet added some musical colour to the evening. The team took the photo opportunity with a number of the rugby players and this included gate crashing the stage for a quick group photograph.

Moving to Pretoria

Next morning the team had to move cities to support a Dinner Night reception for the British Peace Support Team. Self-driving with the world’s worse SatNav the team moved by road from Johannesburg to Pretoria taking approximately 2 hours.

On arrival in Pretoria we settled into our third hotel and prepared our uniforms for tonight’s gig at the Pretoria Country Club.

The event was a dinner for the British Peace Support Team and guests including various Defence Attaché staff from South Africa and neighbouring countries. The Brass Quintet opened the evening, while guests drank cocktails at the entrance to the Country Club, performing a couple of pieces of music including the theme from Dambusters. The quintet were then joined by a local Bagpipe and drums group who performed the classic ‘Highland Cathedral’ tune with the quintet. This was really appreciated by the guests and the bagpipers were excellent; we only had one 5 minute rehearsal prior to performance with them!

The most important element of any dinner night in the military for the musicians is the performance of National Anthems and any after dinner music. In this case we had to perform the South African National Anthem, the British National Anthem and a rendition of Post Horn Galop performed by Staff Sergeant (Bandmaster) Ben Ruffer.

bagpipers

Flight to Malawi

Next morning after an early start the team had to move by air to Lilongwe in Malawi. Traffic from the city centre of Pretoria to the airport was a bit of an issue especially with our under powered 4×4 vehicles. Arriving at the airport the accompanying Defence Attaché staff organised the excess baggage allowances and we made it through customs and on to the departure gate with minutes to spare – then the flight took off late, typical. With clear skies we could see out of the windows of the plane to the African landscape below. What struck me was that it is far greener than I imagined it would be.

On arrival Major Lawrence Sale and I headed off to Recce an event while the rest of the weary team settled into hotel number four this week.

Training the Malawi Defence Force Band

 Musn Claire Hutton  with the Malawi Defence Force Band

Sgt Windley  with the Malawi Defence Force Band

Next day the team set off for the barracks in Lilongwe where one of the two Malawi Defence Force Bands are located. We were met at the rehearsal location by their director of music, Captain Levi Chisambi. Captain Chisambi was musically trained to lead the band at the Royal Military School of Music the home of British Army Music at Kneller Hall for four years and then completed a six month command course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst before returning to Malawi several years ago. I personally remember Captain Chisambi from his three year course at Kneller Hall as I was a member of the staff during his period there so it was good to catch up with an old acquaintance.

The first part of the morning was spent running a couple of pieces under the baton of Captain Chisambi so the team could hear and see what level the band was at. This is a repeat visit for the Corps of Army Music as a team had visited the band 12 months previously.

The band were able to hold a piece together and with some of the players only having started on certain instruments some weeks before the best plan of action was deemed to be to break the band down into smaller sections with each of the team members, who are specialists on their instruments, taking the Malawi musicians away to practice the music and develop key skills.

An hour later the band reformed to see if any progress had been made, remembering that in some cases the musicians had only been learning their instruments for a few weeks! The Band then performed the three pieces under the batons of Major Lawrence Sale, Lieutenant Brendan Wheeler and again Captain Chisambi. The Band performed ‘I Know Him So Well, Serenade and Scarborough Fair’ which was an arrangement by Captain Chisambi.

After lunch the band and the team took to the main square and under the direction of Staff Sergeant (Drum Major) Shaun James (who by this stage had been nick named ‘Susat’ after the British Army’s rifle optical sight due to his shocking reading glasses) of the Army Medical Services Band undertook some drill and marching band practice. The temperature was in the high 20’s but this did not seem to bother the Malawi band some of which had jumpers on! Staff Sergeant James added a degree of humour to the training with the threat of a late night drill session with him at 2300hrs for all those you could not comply with his orders and instruction.

The rehearsal included marching the band as a whole on parade and to help demonstrate the drill movements required to change direction and halt five of the team formed the front line of the band and led in the early part of the rehearsals. The Band learnt quickly and very soon a marked improvement could be seen. Finally the band performed on the march with music and without members of our team leading the way. By the way Staff Sergeant James did not order anyone back for late night drill sessions on this occasion.

After marching band the team’s brass quintet gave a short recital to demonstrate some of the performance points we had given during the day. This was concluded with a performance of the Malawi National Anthem with the quintet playing and all the Malawi band singing, quite a sound.

The Band were excited to have us training them and the end of the day was a frenzy of thanks and many photographs taken and new friendships made. Strange thing was we are due back there in two days so we could expect much of the same excited enthusiasm. But we enjoyed it and were keen to return.

Return to Training

Two days after our first visit to the Malawi Defence Force Band the team returned to continue the training programme and help develop the musical capability of the band.

We started again in the practice room this time with two new pieces and the under the direction of Lieutenant Wheeler and it was soon apparent the Malawi Defence Force Musicians were learning very fast, a good sign that they were taking on board what we were teaching them.

We also took the opportunity to meet and talk to several senior Officers of the Malawi Defence Force and discuss future possible plans to assist the band and how they could help the band develop with small investments.

We concluded the training with a further marching band session once again under the direction of our very own Drum Major Shaun ‘Susat’ James, but this time the Malawi Defence Band Drum Major led the band. She soon took on board the advice and guidance given to her and the bands drill and movement across the parade square was improving all the time. Training with the Band was very rewarding and all the team members hoped to be able to return to Malawi in the future.

Marching with the Malawi Defence Force Band

Cocktails at the British High Commission

Some 500 guests were invited to this event hosted by the British High Commissioner and the teams brass quintet was lined up to support the event and our very own one man band saxophonist Staff Sergeant Shaun James and his backing tracks. After the cocktail party a local band had been booked to supply music for select guests including the team. Members of our team even joined in with the band. Major Sale our resident drummer was soon leading the rhythm section and clearly enjoying the moment on stage as a performer.

Now to Harare in Zimbabwe

After a 10 hour drive in three vehicles to Harare in Zimbabwe the band settled into the hotel for the night. The drive was an experience; poor roads, long winded boarded controls (my passport now has more stamps in it than I ever thought I would see being a European), various animals from chickens to cattle stepping out in the road. There were a large number of locals walking from one village to another or in some cases cycling what seemed to be extremely long distances. On coming very large trucks were also a concern and at times we had to take evasive measures to avoid them including leaving the road completely at about 60mph as we came round a corner to find several very wide loads coming towards us spread over both lanes. Anyway we made it safe and sound and in one piece.

Road to Harare from Lilingwe

The next morning the team visited Wild is Life Animal Sanctuary just outside Harare. This place is magical, more like a personal home with many endangered species roaming freely. More dangerous ones like lions were behind wire but you could get right up next to them. The sign clearly said we cannot rescue your fingers from the lions but we all came away with them all intact, I think.  Other animals at the sanctuary included a baby elephant called Moyo who had a dog and a sheep for companionship. Moyo was introduced to us in person and loved you to blow down his trunk. We were warned though that he could if he wished knock you over and if you put your fingers in this mouth it would be like slamming your fingers in a heavy door. There were also a number of really friendly giraffes and baby giraffes which you could hand feed.

Other big cats you could get up close and personal to included two cheetahs who contently laid just a couple of metres from us with their keepers purring away like a domestic cat.

Their sanctuary’s pride and joy is a rare Pangolin, a strange creature with large scales on its back who lives solely on ants. This animal is so rare and valuable that it is cared for 24 hours a day and when it goes off to hunt for ants up to 8 hours a day a keeper carries it and when stands by it at all times. The relationship between the Pangolin and the keeper is clear to see.

Pangolin

leopards Giraffes

Back to music supporting UK influence and business

The next musical event we were supporting was at the British High Commission Residency in Harare. The event was another Queen’s Birthday parade cocktail party in the stunning grounds of the home. Hosted by the British High Commissioner who had recently had an audience with the Queen in London this was major event for UK diplomacy and relationship building in Zimbabwe. This was also the first time in over 12 years or more that British Soldiers had undertaken any activity in Zimbabwe. It was originally planned that our team would be engaged with community activity and training of Musicians in the Zimbabwe Army but due to political reasons this had not been secured but the British Defence Attaché was fairly confident that the bridges may have now been developed to encourage engagement for future years.

The Brass Quintet’s major task at this event was as usual to entertain guests, network and encourage defence engagement at the lowest level and perform the National Anthems. The unusual element of the Anthems this time was we were to perform them with choir of approximately 20 members of staff of the British High Commission in Harare. The choir members were all amateur singers and had come together about 2 months ago and along with our quintet did a sterling job.

Return to Johannesburg

The next day the team left the hotel early for the Harare airport for a return flight to Johannesburg. We boarded a small plane with only 30 seats and wondered if all our equipment had actually fitted in the hold. We joked with Major Sale about the Drum Major’s Mace and box which is over 7 feet long was strapped to the wing or roof of the plane; Major Sale is not a good air traveller so this may not have helped.

We were on a tight schedule today and it was going to be a long day. Major Sale had met a lady on the flight over who worked at a charity in Johannesburg called Children of Fire. This charity looks after badly burned children many of which the families are unable to care for or their injuries are so live threatening they could not possibly continue to live in some of the poor conditions many South Africans live in in the various shanty towns. The children were often injured from house fires but in some cases deliberately burnt.

Lieutenant Wheeler led the Brass Quintet as we played various pieces of music for them and demonstrated the instruments which included getting the children involved. On hand again was our very own saxophonist Sergeant James who the children played as he performed several famous pop ballads.

At the end of the performance we mixed and chatted with the children and Sergeant Marsden of the Band of the Yorkshire Regiment an Army Reserve Band had many of children intrigued by his Tuba, the largest instrument within the team.  The Children had also made various British Patriotic Cakes for us to eat including enormous doughnuts with Union Jack flag designed icing.  In a small way we hoped make their lives a little happier if only for a brief time.

Childen of fire charity with the CAMUS team

Sergeant James Saxophonist at Children of Fire charity

Final show in Johannesburg

This was to be my final gig in the Corps of Army Music after 28 years, supporting a Dinner to mark the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

The dinner started with a speech about the actual battle of Waterloo and then we performed a number of pieces of music with various European and British famous pieces of music to suite the theme of the dinner.

At end of the Dinner we performed the famous Post Horn Galop, due to the misplacement of the actual post horn it looked at one point that we would not be able to perform the tune. But the event was being held in Light Horse Regiment HQ in Johannesburg and the building was home to a military music museum and Sergeant Ruffer spied something that would suit his needs the bell section of a fanfare trumpet.

At the end of the dinner I was mentioned and thanked in the speech for my service to Army Music for the last 28 years and the fact that during this tour I had been notified that I was to receive the Meritorious Service Medal something I never expected to receive and I am extremely proud to be receiving.

The musicians with me on this epic trip had one last touch to mark my last musical event in the Corps of Army Music and they struck up with the tune Auld Lang Syne, it seemed I had slightly hijacked the end of the dinner!

I am not quite leaving the Army as I am I am joining the Army Reserves as a Digital and Media Specialist later this year with the newly formed 77x Brigade, something I am very much looking forward to. So I may be writing further articles and blogs in the years to come for the British Army as I continue to travel around the world.

Find out more about a career in Army Music on our website: www.army.mod.uk/music

Commando training: Jungle Warfare in Belize

Spr Eddie Joseph

Spr Eddie Joseph

I was told early on, that winning the Green Beret is only the beginning of the Commando story; that you can only start to become a Commando when you have acquired the skills to operate in the four key terrains a Commando might have to fight in (Mountain/Artic, Desert, Temperate and Jungle). I was reminded of these words when digging snow holes in Norway and when carrying out cliff assaults in the Deserts of Jordan. The final piece of my Commando development would be to become adept in the art of jungle warfare.

We’ve all seen films like Predator and Platoon, and up and until now this was my only knowledge of “the jungle”. Watching these films made the jungle look daunting, at least from a soldier’s perspective. Section members have difficulty seeing each other, so can’t easily coordinate fire and movement. Directing fire on targets hidden by thick foliage is a significant challenge. Weapons, which in other circumstances can fire accurately for hundreds of metres, are much less useful when you can only see a few metres in front of you. And if you are operating in a mountainous area then visibility is further restricted by the frequent mist and heavy rain. These problems are compounded as all movement becomes greatly slowed. So to maneuverer an attack force proficiently in the jungle requires high levels of training.

I should point out that we were not acting in our Engineer role and that we were to be integrated into a Commando Rifle Company, of 45 Commando. There is always a fair bit of banter when we first start working with Royal (Royal Marines) but when they see that the Sappers can match or, in many cases, exceed them in terms of skills and fitness, they soon develop a healthy respect (although they wouldn’t admit it) which sees the difference in cap badge become a matter of irrelevance. It is training such as that undertaken on Exercise Curry Trail that makes interoperability among the various 3 Commando Brigade elements work so well.

Spr Magee with members of his section from 45 Cdo RM

Spr Magee with members of his section from 45 Cdo RM

As we awoke to our first morning in the jungle, the heat and humidity hit us hard. We had been warned about it but nothing quite prepares you. Yes there were tropical bird singing in the trees but there were also a host of villainous insects that saw us as a source of food.

We attended a briefing on the itinerary for Exercise Curry Trail and what we could expect from the jungle. The list of potential dangers was long, ranging from snakes and ticks to trees with sap that could blind you. However none of the lads seemed particularly concerned as we were all looking forward to getting stuck in. We had a little respite so we could gather ourselves and then it was straight into lessons on the vital skills needed to survive in a CCTE (close country tropical environment).

Over the next few days we woke up at 5:30 to smash some phys (physical training) and then a breakfast of rations cooked by the Royal Marine chefs. In the morning we had theory lessons on the effects of operating in the jungle environment and then practical sessions in the afternoon. The practical sessions focused on radio use among the trees, river crossings and patrol techniques. We trained contact drills and casualty evacuation with full-scale kit Bergens, webbing and our weapon system – of course. Throughout all of this the heat was bearing down and the ground underfoot was quickly becoming a marshland, however this kind of adversity makes an Army Commando feel at home, so we got stuck into the practical’s with gusto.

The day before we went into the field we were given another dangerous animals brief at the Belize Zoo. The zoo staff provided a comprehensive lecture about snakes and then took us to see some of the other animals we might come across in the jungle. It was marvellous to see jaguars and pumas up close; such magnificent creatures.

When we returned to the barracks we did a final equipment preparation and the anticipation was building, we were all eager to get under the canopy and experience the jungle for real. Then came the time for us to depart; we boarded our transport and were waved off by the friendly locals. I must add at this point, the local people were a very accommodating and kind people, and appeared to hold us in warm regard.

Our first day in the jungle focused on CTR (close target reconnaissance). It was the first time we experienced the weight of the Jungle Bergen as we yomped in the heat of the midday sun, in order to conduct a CTR on a target. The dry leaves and bush made tactical movement difficult, as the noise involved in moving could easily have given our position away. We managed to move stealthily into the enemy position to gain information on their operations and just as silently we withdrew back into the undergrowth.

Spr Magee helping Royal Marines to make improvised claymore mines

Spr Magee helping Royal Marines to make improvised claymore mines

Next was Demolition Day, using improvised Bangalores and Claymores, with frag flying over your head as you lie behind some logs, all the time making sure that the log dwelling critters didn’t decide upon you as their supper.

Survival Day taught us the different stances such as shelter building, animal trapping and fire building. The trackers from the Belize Defence Force slaughtered a pig and chicken, in order to teach us how to skin an animal. Then they treated us to barbecued pork and chicken followed by fruits; it tasted better than any Gordon Ramsay effort. After that the sections went off to build a shelter and spend a night out in the wild. Eight of us slept side by side in a shelter that looked slightly different to the ones we had been shown, although they did us proud and kept us alive for the night.

Survival training

Survival training

Long Range Patrolling was the focus for the next day. We yomped through the swamps keeping a watchful eye for the crocodiles, as you can be sure they are keeping a keen eye out for you! I still haven’t found a page in our Aide Memoire on how to handle a meeting with a big ol’ croc.

That evening we had our first wash, which was welcome as the odour emanating from the patrol could only be described as hostile to our olfactory senses. I slept soundly in my hammock that night, as the preceding days training had been gruelling.

The next day saw us practicing Live Firing. We started off with CQC (Close Quarter Combat), this involved moving down a lane making contact with targets as they appeared from the foliage. The difficulty of operating in the jungle was immediately apparent, as I was up to my waist in a swamp as I fired and moved on to the next target.

Back in our harbour we were “Non-Tactical”, so all around the lads were making use of their newly acquired skills by constructing benches, seats and an excellent door for our head (toilet).

Following on from the previous day, we advanced on to Fire Team Drills, progressing through the jungle until we came across a target at which point we would engage the echelon back out of the danger area. As soon as the Point Man’s light machine gun burst into action, the team would move-out as our drills had taught us. The ground underfoot was some of the worst I had experienced and yet again up to my waist in swamp, with large exposed roots that trapped your boots, to contend with. Nonetheless, we pushed back until it was deemed we were out of contact. After “stop” was called we received our debrief. (I’ve used a lot of technical terms here, but should you choose to become a Commando, then you will know these like the back of your hand).

The final element of our jungle training consisted of a section attack on a mock enemy position. We set off on patrol and just off the target the Point Man raised his hand and gave the gesture to fan-out. We moved like ghosts through the trees, synchronizing our movements until we reached our line of departure. We unleashed a torrent of bullets down the range at the Figure 12 targets, then began moving through the position, I was deep in vegetation on the right flank, ensuring that there were no targets in the trees that would represent snipers. Just as the momentum was building we heard the cry “STOP”, so we ceased fire and applied the safety catches to our weapons. I stopped and waited for info to be passed down the line. In the centre of our formation a medic rushed forward to one of the men. One of our guys had been hit by a tree, the tree was shredded by machine gun fire and had fallen on him. The safety team played it safe sent him off in the military ambulance, in case of any potential breaks (we later learned it wasn’t a serious injury).

Spr Magee with improvised claymore mine

Improvised claymore mine

The remainder of the assault force moved forward to the start of the enemy camp and began clearing the huts. The forward line of exploitation set up an improvised Claymore, then moved back to cover. The enemy advanced and walked straight into the range of the Claymore. With the job done we extracted back through the camp. It was a great experience, which everyone enjoyed. Well perhaps not the chap who got a tree on the bonce.

The final week was the final exercise, testing all the skills we had learnt in a fully tactical real time exercise.

After deploying, our section were sent to recce a small enemy camp. Later we assaulted it holding it for the following day, then finally moving to support a company scale attack on a 4 kilometre area of primary and secondary jungle. With our troop assaulting down a sheer, dense gradient the going was tough but an unforgettable experience. At the end of the exercise we sat exhausted in good spirits reminiscing at the funny experiences of a few weeks well done.

My time with 24 Commando is coming to an end and I can honestly say that from the top down, 24 Commando has in its ranks some of the nicest people you could ever wish to serve with. Yes you must respect the rank structure but this respect will be reciprocated and you will be afforded unstinting support in all things you do in the Regiment. If you are reading this and trying to decide upon which Commando Unit to join, then you will be doing yourself a great disservice if you didn’t at least look at what 24 has to offer.

Read more blogs from Sapper Joseph.

Desert soldiering: Exercise Jebel Dagger in Jordan

Sapper Eddie Joseph

Sapper Eddie Joseph

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

 

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

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

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

The flat ground contrasting with the jebel country behind.

The flat ground contrasting with the jebel country behind.

 

The flat ground on which we build our camp.

The flat ground on which we build our camp.


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

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

One of the wire fences we built.

One of the wire fences we built.



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

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

Mountain training with the mountain leaders.

Mountain training with the mountain leaders.

 

Taking a rest between duties.

Taking a rest between duties.

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

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

Bulk desalination and purification of water at Aqeba.

Bulk desalination and purification of water at Aqeba.


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

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

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

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

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

 

Another amazing Jordanian sunset.

Another amazing Jordanian sunset.



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

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

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

Remembrance Sunday in the Jordanian desert.

Remembrance Sunday in the Jordanian desert.



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

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

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

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

“Our deeds still travel with us from afar,

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

― George Eliot

 

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You’re in the Army now: Passing Out

Recruit Andrew Vaughan.

Recruit Andrew Vaughan.

My name is Andrew Vaughan, I am 26 years old and this is my story so far. I have just finished my fourteenth week of Phase 1 training at ATR Winchester where I hope to go on to join the Royal Artillery.

 

Week 14

Monday

Today marked the start of practising the parade itself with the other troops on the square. We did this in our barrack dress which combined with the extreme heat is killer! We’ve also started paying extra attention to bulling our shoes, as shoe inspections will be coming up to make sure ours are up to standard for our big day.

The basic format of the parade was covered today and the RSM made sure everyone knew what was happening.

In the evening, we showed our skit video to our Troop Staff whilst we ordered dominos in. We spent a lot of time on the skit and it was received very well by all (it was hilarious!).

Tuesday

Today was a sad day in one respect. It was our Troop Commanders last day and another would stand in for him for our parade. He bid us farewell and wished us luck for the future. I hope I’ll see him again somewhere down the line.

The prize winners were announced today and their part of the parade to collect their awards was practised and refined. The whole parade is beginning to take shape, the finish line is in sight.

Wednesday

Flaws and mistakes were tweaked today up to the point that the RSM noticed a huge improvement. We’re so close to passing out now, there’s a huge buzz of excitement in the air!

The recruits on parade.

The recruits on parade.

Thursday

Today was a big day for me for two reasons. One being that it was my last full day and night here at Winchester. The second, it’s my birthday!

Today we handed back in our issued kit, cleaned our rifles, had a shoe inspection (which after a week of solid bulling went well), had a No 2 inspection (which after a week of ironing and threading also went well) and finally did more parade practice on the square. We’re now at a decent level according to the RSM which has boosted our confidence and none of us can wait for tomorrow! I spent the rest of my birthday enjoying my last night in Winchester – by taking part in a section attack on the rest of the troop with head torches and water pistols. A brilliant end to my 26th!

Friday

So the day had finally come. 14 weeks of mud, sweat and tears. The amount I’ve learnt and the amount I’ve grown since I’ve been here is astonishing and it has all led to today.

Recruit Andrew Vaughan

Recruit Andrew Vaughan 14 weeks ago before he started

We got into our barrack dress so not to ruin our No 2s and made our way to the square to do a final run through with the band. The band playing in the background got the adrenaline flowing and the goose bumps going, the drum kept us in perfect step. With our final practise over with we got back to the block and got changed into our No 2s whilst our friends and families began to arrive.

We checked each other over and when convinced we all looked the part, marched over to the square and got ready. The speaker announced us on and our pass out parade began. The band playing coupled with the sound of our loved ones cheering us on was an unbelievably overwhelming feeling and one I won’t forget. We performed our pass out perfectly and when all was over we were marched back off the square as soldiers!

We got changed into our civilian suits, said goodbye and thank you to our staff, met up with our families and bid farewell to ATR Winchester. Thankfully all of 2 Troop have come to Phase 2 together but I’d like to give a huge thank you to my training team. It’s been emotional!

 

Visit Recruit Vaughan’s page and read about his journey

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You’re in the Army now: arms drill

Recruit Andrew Vaughan.

Recruit Andrew Vaughan.

My name is Andrew Vaughan, I am 25 years old and this is my story so far. I have just finished my thirteenth week of Phase 1 training at ATR Winchester where I hope to go on to join the Royal Artillery.

Week 13

Monday

Today we began learning arms drill in preparation of our impending pass out parade. Straight away we realised that arms drill is a lot harder than we first thought, with bruises quickly emerging on our hands and shoulders!

We spent most of the day covering basics such as standing at ease, attention and sloping/changing arms. Afterwards we went to the storeroom for our final No 2 Dress fitting. Once satisfied our No 2 Dress fitted, we brought them back to the block to begin to prep them for next weeks parade.

We finished the day preparing for our presentations that we would deliver regarding the Royal Artillery – our chosen cap badge.

Tuesday

We began the day with functional skills, which covered all we had learnt over the 13 weeks. Afterwards we got changed and headed to PT which was a swimming test. The test was the same as our initial – treading water for two minutes followed by six lengths, only this time it was after quite a hard warm up and wearing military kit that weighed us down. After all our training we all managed to pass without any dramas. I even jumped off the top board without hesitation – a small feat which I couldn’t complete at the start of the process and a testament to my development here.

Recruits from ATR Winchester on arms drill

I’m not here, but these are some recruits from ATR Winchester on drill

After PT we spent the rest of the day learning more arms drill, which is confusing a fair few of us at the moment!

Wednesday

In the morning we had the COs inspection and after many hours of hard graft we managed to get the block gleaming. The inspection went well and we breathed a sigh of relief.

We’d packed our bergens the night before and took them to PT ready for our six mile TAB. We had to pass this to pass out and I was very nervous. Although hard work we all pulled together as a troop and apart from one, we all managed to pass. The recruit who didn’t retook the test and passed second time around as well.

We finished the day with more arms drill, learning the final movements before going over all of them until perfected.

Thursday

A couple of financial briefs today, followed by swimming PT and then arms drill practise with the other troops so that we can all get the movements in time for pass out. As it stands, we need more work!

Cadets from ATR Winchester on swimming PT

Recruits from ATR Winchester on swimming PT

Friday

Today we delivered our presentations on the Royal Artillery including when we formed, early battles we’ve been involved in and our influence in modern warfare today. Our presentation was well received and our hard work paid off.

We had strength and conditioning for PT which was brutal! Circuits in the sun which is always a winning combo! More arms drill in the evening to brush up our skills including changing arms on the march.

Saturday and Sunday

This weekend was spent in camp, brushing up on admin and enjoying the last weekend I’ll have here. Our troop spent our time in the NAAFI reflecting on our time here and pondering what was next for us.

Visit Recruit Vaughan’s page and read about his journey

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You’re in the Army now: up close and personal with Ex FINAL FLING

Recruit Andrew Vaughan.

Recruit Andrew Vaughan.

My name is Andrew Vaughan, I am 25 years old and this is my story so far. I have just finished my twelfth week of Phase 1 training at ATR Winchester where I hope to go on to join the Royal Artillery.

 

Week 12

Monday

After a morning kit check we donned our bergens, boarded the coach and set off for Salisbury Plain for Ex FINAL FLING!

Once there, we made a quick stop to cam up and then tabbed to the harbour area. We were briefed on where we were to set up sentries as this was to be a linear harbour area as opposed to the triangular one we are used to adopting.

Then the fun part – digging our shell scrapes. We spent the next few hours digging a hole suitable enough for 2-3 recruits to comfortably fit into, which was harder than we expected due to the vast amount of tree roots present in the area. Eventually though, our shell scrapes were deep enough and work routine came into effect.

 

Gas attack unleashed

Before we could test out our new pits however, we were given a briefing on potential enemy in the area which is suspected of posing a CBRN threat. We got into the appropriate dress state and began our patrol. From a distance, we saw the enemy vehicle being intercepted by 1 Section; however as they tried to detain the enemy a gas attack was unleashed and less than nine seconds later our respirators were donned and purged. The enemy got away, and we patrolled back to our harbour area. We were later given a report that the CBRN threat had been neutralised and that we wouldn’t need to worry about it for the rest of the Exercise. Phew!

 

The training starts to kick in.

All the preparation starts to pay off

 

 

Tuesday

Morning routine and then we were given our first set of orders. We patrolled to a site where we were to later ambush the enemy’s supply route that evening. We planned how we’d go about it and then made our way back. On the way back however we were contacted by the enemy; we won the fire fight but had a casualty. After conducting our MIST report we CASEVACed our casualty back to the harbour area.

We spent our free time conducting personal admin and grabbing any sleep that we could. Once it got darker, we were given our orders and made our way back to the site previous and got into position. The ambush was set and ready. When the enemy supply vehicle came past they set off the trip flares we had set and we neutralised them in one swift blow. A quick check of the bodies and vehicle and we tabbed back to the harbour area for a debrief.

 

Wednesday

Morning orders to start with in which we were informed that enemy morale has dropped since our successful attack on the enemy supply vehicle yesterday which has resulted in the enemy not getting resupplied. Up next is a trip to the site where the main enemy HQ is supposed to be based. Instead of tabbing there however, we were to be taken by a Merlin helicopter!

"On the way back however we were contacted by the enemy"

“On the way back however we were contacted by the enemy”

 

We stood to, kept silent and got ready for a fire fight.

 

We waited for a while and then the helicopter made its approach. As it got close the ground, the force from the blades covered us in the surrounding grass and you can’t help but be impressed by its power. We made our way onto the Merlin and strapped ourselves in, myself being right next to the open side door. We took off and quickly picked up a huge amount of speed – I never realised how fast helicopters can go and also how much they can tilt! Absolutely loved it and had a huge grin on my face the entire journey.

Eventually we were dropped off not far from the enemy HQ. We kept low and looked for areas where we could spy on the enemy for tonight’s recce where we were to try and gain intelligence on the enemy. We found the perfect spot on a hill overlooking the HQ and then snuck away from the area. We had some lunch once we were far away enough from the enemy, regrouped with 3 Section and then went back to camp via a Chinook!

Back at the harbour area, instantly after I finished stag we were contacted by the enemy. We stood to, kept silent and got ready for a fire fight. We heard the enemy sneaking around the bushes directly by my basha and I braced myself. Eventually however the enemy backed off and we were stood down – just in time for me to go back on stag!

After scoff, we reapplied cam and used the cover of darkness to make our way to the enemy HQ. We took it in turns as pairs to make our way to the spot on the hill to use the CWS to spy on the enemy and note down their movements, appearance etc. An enemy vehicle was also roaming the area and a couple of times it’s light scanned the area we were in. Luckily we were completely camouflaged and didn’t move a muscle. Once we all had a good amount of information, we made our way back to camp without alerting the enemy. Success!

Thursday

Our orders today were to patrol an area where enemy vehicles have been spotted and to set up a VCP where we would hope to stop and detain the enemy. After a while of waiting, two individuals made their way down the road and we quickly went about trying to stop and question them. I convinced the one I was dealing with to let me search him and eventually after questioning him, he made a break for it and outran me. Embarrassing! Things didn’t go much better for the other guys either and the scenario was reset. It took a few attempts until eventually we were able to successfully detain suspects on foot and in vehicles.

Before we could head back to the harbour area, we saw that 3 Section had been contacted and we provided covering fire whilst they could make their way to us by which point we withdrew together. Once back we filled in our shell scrapes and covered up our presence there. We used the remaining time we had to get dinner and sleep on before our briefing from the Troop Commander on our all-out attack on the enemy tomorrow morning.

Friday

We woke up at 0000 hrs and our Troop Commander began to give us the plan of attack on the enemy HQ. The HQ consisted of three barns and our section were to attack the first barn and then provide fire support for the section attacking the next barn. During the briefing the wind picked up quite a bit but we ignored it. The briefing finished and we began to get ourselves ready. A bit of rain broke out but we ignored it. We checked each other over and got ourselves into patrol formation ready to move.

 

"It’s great to see how far we’ve come as a Troop"

“It’s great to see how far we’ve come as a Troop”

 

Then an all-out thunderstorm hit us.

We have had thunderstorms hit us on the last night of two exercises! Whilst some of the troop enjoyed the fact that we were now drenched for the final attack, I was not happy!

Despite the sudden weather change, we departed as a Troop to the enemy HQ. The way there was hard work with the weight on our backs but eventually we made it and set our bergens down. We quietly made our way into our relevant positions and waited for the signal to attack – mortar fire! At 0430 hrs the signal was given and our section made its attack! Our firing manoeuvres have never been better and we suppressed, approached and assaulted the enemy with no dramas at all. We kept up the momentum and quickly provided fire support for the other section as they too flawlessly neutralised the enemy. It’s great to see how far we’ve come as a Troop and how we were able to pull it out the bag when it mattered.

In what felt like seconds the battle was won. We made our way into an empty barn and were given a final debrief. That marked the end of Ex FINAL FLING and the end of exercises during Phase 1. A huge sense of relief washed over us and we went about collecting brass and cooking breakfast/cleaning rifles whilst waiting for the coach to arrive.

We got back to camp and made a start on cleaning our kit before finally crashing out in our own beds!

Saturday

Today I finished cleaning my kit and put my laundry in. I spent the rest of the day bulling my shoes in the Welfare centre whilst watching films. A lot more attention now needs to go into these shoes for pass out – in which I want them like glass!

Sunday

A long day of admin today. I cleaned the magazines and BFA used on Ex FINAL FLING, polished my boots, cleaned my lockers, ironed and folded my clothes, washed my body armour, mess tins, ear defence, mug and respirator. Made my bed, did my block jobs, brought new hangers and rehung my clothes to name a few tasks!

I didn’t stop from 0700 to 2200 hrs with things still to do! It’s amazing how quickly time flies when you’re having fun in the Army! Bring on Week 13!

 

Visit Recruit Vaughan’s page and read about his journey

Find out about joining the Army

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You’re in the Army now: Preparing for Ex FINAL FLING

Recruit Andrew Vaughan.

Recruit Andrew Vaughan.

My name is Andrew Vaughan, I am 25 years old and this is my story so far. I have just finished my eleventh week of Phase 1 training at ATR Winchester where I hope to go on to join the Royal Artillery.

 

Week 11

Monday

In the morning we got into our CBRN kit and headed to the gas chamber for 0800 hrs. We went into the chamber in details and carried out our CBRN test. This consisted of a full decontamination, followed by a drinking drill and changing our PFCs.

Climbing the wall

Climbing the wall

On my first attempt, I didn’t undo the straps on my respirator properly when taking it off and couldn’t put it back on. I tried and tried until eventually I ran out of air and inhaled a huge portion of CS. Thankfully I’m not as susceptible to its effects as others; however I still needed to leave the chamber. I went back in with another detail, learned from my mistake with regards to the straps and passed.

We got changed in rapid time and headed to the assault course to practise for the CO’s comp on Wednesday. It’s a lot harder with kit and rifles on but every attempt at the 12 ft wall showed improvement. Once back at camp, we grabbed our bergens and made our way to the same harbour area we used on Ex FIRST STEP. We had a firing manoeuvre test in pairs, which after a couple of hiccups I eventually passed. We set up our bashas, cleaned our rifles and got our heads down.

Tuesday

Reveille and straight into morning admin which we all needed to pass. A frantic hour and a half to get our rifles and ourselves squared away. When time was up I was inspected and other than some carbon on the gas block which I somehow missed, my rifle was deemed “pretty clean” and hopefully that means a pass.

We did some tests to check how much we had learned from previous exercises and also to prepare us for Ex FINAL FLING. Our Section Commander then went through the ‘Half Tac’ formation and also how to go about being contacted from different positons whilst in different patrolling formations. We also practised CASEVAC, focussing on changing carriers fluidly, which was where we struggled last time. Once all was done, we headed back to camp and packed our webbing for the kit inspection involved in the CO’s cup tomorrow.

Wednesday

Assault Course

Assault Course

We made our way to the Muster square and had our webbing checked by the Sergeant Major; all went well aside from some dirt on some of our water bottles. Damn!

After that we headed to the assault course where we had a nice gentle warm up ready for the course. Once we were suitably warmed up, we were off. We managed to get over the whole course without any dramas and was probably the best we’d done it yet. We adopted an all-round defence and got our breath back. After that, we picked up the stretcher and its 70kg passenger and again we were off. We kept a good pace, changed when needed to without any dramas, however we did eventually drop the stretcher twice due to poor changing. We powered through for the mile and eventually it was over. We finished off with a 25m shoot from the kneeling position which wasn’t too bad – although one member of our section had a stoppage and so scored no points!

Once back at camp, relieved that it was over we conducted admin and packing for our Phase 2 visit to Larkhill tomorrow.

Thursday

We woke up early and excited for our visit to our next home – Larkhill. After a 40 minute coach journey we arrived through the gates and were instantly impressed by how huge and pristine the camp is!

We had a presentation by the Battery Sergeant Major who spoke to us about our upcoming time in Phase 2 and was a good time to ask as many questions as we could. We had another briefing on the regiments and also on the restructure. It seems two of the regiments in my top three aren’t recruiting at the moment and so I’m now going to consider putting myself forward for 26 regiment – based in Germany!

We had a tour of the camp and then some scoff. I’ve always enjoyed the food here at Winchester but the food at Larkhill is even better! Definitely looking forward to meal times there. After that we had a tour on the different equipment the Artillery use and were given more information on the regiments that employ this equipment – all useful in helping us reach our decision in what to join.

Overall a very good, informative day. Once back at camp we received our kit list for Ex FINAL FLING and began to pack.

Team work on the assault course

Team work on the assault course

Friday

First up today was PT where we tackled some outdoor circuits. It’s now been a while since we had a heavy PT session and the warm up itself tired most of us out! The main session involved bear crawls, crab walks, push ups, sit ups, squats and running. By the end of the session three of our Troop puked!

Afterwards was a grenade lesson so that we‘re allowed to use them on Fling. Then we had the results of the COs cup. 1st, 2nd and 3rd place all went to 5 Troop. Congratulations 5 Troop!

We commiserated our loss with a charity curry lunch and then a briefing on how to enter/exit a Chinook and Merlin helicopter. It seems we’re getting helicopters for Fling – buzzing!

Saturday

Today I went to Southampton for a bit of shopping before returning to camp and cracking on with administration. It’s weird how I now find ironing clothes and polishing boots relaxing.

Sunday

Spent the weekend packing for Ex FINAL FLING and enjoying a nice bit of normality before the crazy week ahead.

 

Visit Recruit Vaughan’s page and read about his journey

Find out about joining the Army

Find out about ATR Winchester