Live fire realism for Vikings training in Kenya
Norwich soldiers are training in Kenya with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment in a gruelling exercise which includes live-ammunition battle simulations.
The old army adage of 'train hard, fight easy' seems particularly appropriate for the Norfolk troops currently in the middle of a six-week training exercise in Kenya.
For it is hard to imagine a more hostile place to practise the drills and tactics which could ultimately help these Royal Anglian soldiers survive an awaiting war.
One task facing the Vikings is an assault on a village and defensive trench system held by an imaginary enemy, represented on this occasion by painted targets.
As soldiers advance, ear defenders aimed at protecting from the noise of explosions only serve to accentuate the sound of their own heartbeats and laboured breathing. Body armour and weaponry take on extra gravity in the stifling heat.
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There is an inescapable feeling that the tension on this particular attack is amplified – and that is because the soldiers are carrying live ammunition.
The combined arms live fire exercise (Calfex) ensures that troops know the destructive capability of their weapons, and the safety procedures to prevent 'blue on blue' friendly fire tragedies.
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Described by their commander as the toughest range he had ever seen, the soldiers must push through tactical positions while drinking up to 10 litres of water a day to stop their exhausted bodies from dehydrating like the piles of bleached animal bones which litter this stretch of bush.
And all this while dealing with the extra pressure, danger and adrenaline of firing deadly live ammunition at their targets.
Heavy machine guns and grenades are also brought into play. And, with each crunching thump of exploding ordnance, the soldiers become increasingly conditioned to the deafening din of war.
While preparing to attack with his reserve platoon, 22-year-old Pte Ashley Welch, from Gorleston, said: 'The adrenaline really kicks in while you are waiting. The fire does come in very close and the sound of the crack of the rounds over your head is a pretty good experience.'
Further forward in this B Company attack was Cpl Chris Goodwin, 29, from Eaton, Norwich, taking shade in the streets of the recreated village which his platoon had reclaimed.
'This training is great for everybody,' he said. 'For the new lads it is a great opportunity to practise real-time. For the more senior guys it is a refresher and a chance to put their experience into the younger members.'
The enemy is imaginary within this scenario but, nevertheless, the Vikings do have a genuine battle on their hands here.
The 600 square-mile training ground near Archer's Post has earned the nickname 'Archer's Roast' among visiting troops. The equatorial temperatures and desert winds all add to the feeling that the soldiers are being slowly baked in a fan oven. The 40-degree heat would be debilitating enough without soldiers having to carry half their body weight in armour, equipment and weaponry across the scorched sands.
But it also creates another relentless enemy in the terrain. Vegetation is baked into vicious thorn bushes, with advancing soldiers crashing headlong through needles the size of cocktail sticks which embed in their skin and risk damaging their eyes.
The Calfex exercise creates several minor casualties through dehydration, heat exhaustion, twisted ankles, scratches and infections. Diseases like malaria are a possibility, while soldiers in the field must powder their feet regularly, maintain their cleanliness and take precautions like putting socks over their empty boots to guard against venomous scorpions.
Pte Welch summed it all up fairly concisely. 'There may not be an enemy here, but everything else in this country is out to get me,' he said. Lt Col Mick Aston, the Vikings' commanding officer, said the Calfex training would boost the confidence of his troops.
'When the guys get to the end they are really buzzing, because it is a real achievement,' he said.
'It will make them better soldiers and it teaches them to make decisions. It heightens everybody's tensions and senses because of the dangers of live firing. But that is what we do on operations, so we need to do it in these conditions where the guys are tired, hot, hungry and thirsty.'