Gwent soldiers prepare to fight in the wilds of Canada
Many Gwent soldiers are currently taking part in a pioneering training exercise with the Royal Welsh on the Canadian prairie. CHRIS WOOD spent time with them and found out the purpose of the exercise
THERE is nothing but barren landscape as far as the eye can see, as four riflemen hide behind sand bags on a hilltop, guns positioned.
Suddenly there are bangs in the distance, as smoke clouds rise above the Canadian prairie, tanks begin manoeuvring and a radio call comes ordering the troops to pull back.
If the situation suggests these troops are at war, it is because they are taking part in a training exercise that will leave them able to respond to a conflict situation wherever and whenever it may arise.
Many soldiers from Gwent, who are part of the second battalion the Royal Welsh are now involved in the most senior and operationally experienced armoured infantry unit in the army.
They will form the spearhead of Army’s newly restructured reactive force and have been training on an area the size of Wales in Calgary, Alberta.
As around 600 troops gathered on the prairie for a live firing exercise, using Challenger Two tanks and Warrior armoured vehicles. Major Dominic Spencer said: “We don’t know what we are training for, we can only guess.
“There have been problems in the Middle East and middle Africa.
“There is also the potential for peace-keeping in failed states, places such as Bosnia where we help to establish peace and the negotiation process.
“We have the hardware, we have to be able to use it if we have to. Wars choose us, we don’t choose them.”
The soldiers arrived in Alberta in August and will remain until October 6, where major Spencer said a focus is developing what is now Britain’s lead armoured battle group, shifting the focus away from Afghanistan and being “ready to face a variety of threats and be able to live and operate wherever we go”.
Despite the huge importance of the regiment, Army cuts mean it will be undergoing some major changes.
From next April, the Second Battalion, based at Tidworth, will merge will the First Royal Welsh, who are based at Chester.
In preparation, 150 troops from First are currently with 450 from the Second and they will eventually form a new regiment at Tidworth Barracks.
Major Spencer added: “The merger came as a huge shock as we felt we are both strong enough not to be taken in the cuts.
“While we are not entirely sure why they made the decision, we need to create a focal point, to centralise things for those coming from Chester.”
While there will be around 750 in the new battalion, that he describes as “the heart and soul” of the army in Wales, there will be no redundancies, as the 300 or so excess soldiers after the merger will go to other battalions, get involved in training or be found other roles.
As he planned the massive operation on the prairie that he hopes will leave the Royal Welsh equipped to go forward into battle, he described the exercise as “paintball with lasers”.
The operation involved tanks and soldiers co-ordinating retreats and advances, firing using live ammunition and defending villages created in the wilderness.
Describing the location in Canada, major Matt Lewis said: “It is a unique area, so much bigger than anything we have in the UK.
“We have used Brecon and Salisbury Plain, but this is on a much larger scale.
“We can have live firing exercises, use real bombs and bullets as it is in the middle of nowhere, 20 kilometres away and with no threat to any civilians.
“The fact the Royal Welsh are here is a significant vote of confidence, training in a mode of warfare we are not used to.”
There are around six regiments currently at the army base at Suffield, near the town of Medicine Hat, and soldiers from the others fought the Royal Welsh on an area covering 40 kilometres, using computer-generated images to help the effect.
Among those involved with the Royal Welsh was Sergeant Major Jason Groves, a former pupil of Fairwater High School, Cwmbran, who has been in the army for 23 years in total.
He is typical of the Gwent soldiers who head straight for the Severn Bridge and home every Friday after a week at their usual base in Tidworth.
He said: “We all miss home, but the Army gives you some fantastic experiences.
“I’d always wanted to go to Hong Kong and, when we went in 1990, it was the trip of a lifetime.
“Being away from Cwmbran is massive, but the relationships with the guys, the camaraderie, the world experiences, and we have a chance to make a real difference.”
He describes his experiences in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as “the highlight of my career”, adding: “We were at the forefront of soldiering and impacted on the country in a positive way.”
But, while many people in Wales hear more about the British Army and their exploits abroad in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, he believes their relevance at home is even greater.
Sgt Major Groves said: “Exercises like this prepare us the best we can for when the Government needs us.
“We are an expensive organisation, costing £37 billion a year, we are the insurance policy, an important tool in the box but also a last resort.
“It is not just going away and fighting, but deterring the threat.
“The world is a dangerous place as was illustrated with 9/11 and the London bombings, there are hostile organisations willing to inflict damage, we have to guard ourselves.”
He believes the training in Canada – with the prairie used as it gives an opportunity to use an isolated and uninhabited area – will leave the Royal Welsh at the forefront of soldiering.
“While this is an experiment, the training will leave us able to be deployed anywhere in the world and go toe-to-toe,” he said.
“We are a formidable force in the world, with the ability to give a serious bloody nose.”
While he misses partner Victoria Holloman and children Sabelle, 19, and Amber, 15, Sgt Major Groves believes the work he is carrying out will help many more people live safer lives – wherever in the world they are needed next.
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