731 Troop – Week 26 & 27
Few things could better set out our transition from phase two infantry skills to commando training than our Exercise Fast Rope!
We were to learn how to scale rock faces, turn about and cast ourselves off, descending at a rapid rate of knots. First however we were to have a re-acquaint with the Mountain Leader, masters of all war fighting, cold and vertical, artisans of inflicting physical discomfort on Royal Marine recruits. After 30 seconds of leaving the coach pulses where already racing and after a minute our legs where feeling a familiar fatigue.
The training package was set within Foggin Tor on Dartmoor. As the name would suggest ‘fog’ made up a large part of the day. Within an hour we were bedraggled and after a number of ‘livening exercises’ and 7 hours with the only hint of a horizon behind the perpetuating and shifting mists that had descended upon us you may think smiles would have been hard to come by, however after 26 weeks of administering ourselves in similar environments for longer periods it was hard not to approach the whole situation with our newly developed pragmatism and refined sense of humour. Spirits were high and every man keen to see how we would fare against this new challenge.
Having been strapped into our harnesses and lead like sheep to the top of the cliff we clipped onto the rope. It is a hard thing to trust your safety to a piece of a metal the size of your fist however when you are hanging over a 60 foot rock face you have little choice. Then after a simple demonstration, what started as a precarious shimmy down the edge of the rock face soon increased to a confident walk and by late afternoon into nothing less than a controlled freefall followed by a rapid deceleration stopping feet from the floor carrying in excess of 100 lbs.
We also practised river crossings, gliding over an icy pool of water clipped onto a guide rope, laying inches above the surface and moved like predatory reptiles with the only hint that we where there at all was a gentle ripple emanating out across the water until we surfaced on the far side eyes steely and alert.
Come the evening and sunset we set about conducting our night training. As we slid through the darkness it was hard not to feel a twinge of excitement prickling on the back of your neck watching 36 potential commandos silently moving through the pale evening fog to a disjointed rock face illuminated only by the diffused light from a waning moon. Then swelling at its base like some menacing sea we ascended like a fleet of ethereal phantoms silhouetted against the stoic rocks before sliding over the summit onto unknown ground.
Final Ex was to be a confirmation of all we had learned in training.
We started off with the greatest of marine traditions, an amphibious assault! As the sun was sinking below the horizon the first section dispatched to secure the beach head, boarding the ORC’s (Offshore Raiding Craft) (fast boats) we glided out of the harbour keeping eyes fixed on the distant landmass that was to be our destination. We soon realized however that even though we where on a boat staying dry was not going to be an option, in open water as the ORC’s began to stretch their legs and on rough seas the panorama in front of the boat soon vanished behind an encroaching wall of water which pulsed over the sides of the boat. The sting of salt water relentlessly cascading against out faces made it all the more welcoming to trade this limited view for one of the back of our eye lids.
We arrived just after sunset and after slipping overboard we swept up onto the beachhead and entered a sparse forest all but vanishing from sight. In the brief moments of inactivity I could not help but cast my mind back over the past months. How far we had come! From ironing bed sheets and marching with no sense of co-ordination to sitting on a secure beachhead next to a single cyalume (glow stick) from which we would bring in the rest of the troop, branching out and moving on to secure the peninsular we found ourselves on. As the troop moved off, the tree line was set alight with muzzle flash and shouting voices, silhouettes darting from tree to tree. It was over in a matter of moments and soon the forces where withdrawing back to the beach line and all was once again silent.
The first evolution of our final Ex complete we where now faced a 12 mile march loaded with in excess of 120 lbs that would carry us through the night. Marching from the beach we made our way round the coast and then cut inland. From sea level we climbed to a spot height where we where met with lashing winds that would have swept us off our feet had it not been for the anchors which we wore on our backs. We trudged onwards, stumbling over tarmac and turf alike.
After five hours with drooping eyelids the welcoming break of dawn saw to revitalize our efforts until we reached our destination.
Soon our chariots arrived, 4 tonne trucks may not sound like the most inviting way to travel but with fatigue and time distortion already setting in, one of the first skills acquired as a nod is the ability to find comfort and sleep, in the most uncomfortable of circumstances.
After a number of cereals based on our old friend Sennybridge we found ourselves in Caerwent. An eerie place of some historical significance. Hundreds of dilapidated buildings dispersed over a massive space held in a state of suspended life.
We patrolled out from our base and undertook various tasks slowly closing down on our fictitious enemy who we had now chased half way across the south of England and Wales culminating in a final dawn attack on a bunker complex. Then end ex… the end of a week in the field, the end of week 27 but more than that, the end of an era of training. We had been confirmed in the eyes of our training team, all that lay ahead was the greatest of personal challenges.
It is said that you never leave education and I feel this is truer here than ever. I have learned to speak another language:
Thanks to my G7 I can plan and execute a recce patrol first on a map and then moving across the ground accounting for the GMA, rolling through RV’s, hitting the FRV and moving on to identify a possible FUP and LOD for a troop attack. If I have covered some distance I may need to use a VHF with a GSA to get comms back to 0, (of course maintaining correct VP) who can then update the G2 to support the G3 picture. But as I have learned, any action is largely dependent on G4.
Or perhaps I could be tasked to set up a snap VCP to pick up a key PAX and escort them back to the FOB where they could be processed. Any injuries T1 through T3 could be left on the axis or extracted to the ERV by the QRF and dealt with at the CAP, which is all pretty hoofing providing the NTM and the NMB give me enough time to crack a hot wet and clock some bag time.
And while this may seem a nonsensical coagulation of TLA’s (three letter abbreviations), to me it has become no more esoteric than Chaucer. I am still a young man and my school days are only a few years behind but I find myself as a student once again. Gone are the theories and uncertainties of historical characters. But I have devoted myself to a new school, poured myself into its study and paid for it with my blood, sweat and tears. My new vocation is war and if I have learned anything over the past 27 weeks it is that I will never be more than its apprentice.
However not all the benefits of training are based on skill development. One of the greatest rewards has been the opportunity to bare witness to the unyielding beauty of nature. I have seen things a civilian may live an entire lifetime and never witness, from bluebells opening their petals in the morning light to shooting stars racing across a galactic panorama. I have slept in woods where day has become night. I have hugged a water bottle to my chest like an infant for fear of it freezing solid and seen beasts prowling amongst the trees, feeding on my waking nightmares.
I feel humbled by these things. Some 27 weeks ago I had only the slightest idea of what it was to be a Royal Marine but I certainly did not expect it would open my eyes in these ways. I find myself on the brink of experiencing a dimension of humanity known by few and understood by fewer.
Practically we are fully trained. We have proven our worth and demonstrated the tactical awareness necessary to take a role in 3 Commando Brigade, but we are not here to be simply soldiers of circumstance. Every man in 731 troop yearns to be a hyperbolic example of their former self; refined, sharper and more robust. To have earned our place amongst such titans who do not shy away from the seemingly impossible. To have the skill to protect those we love and live as a shield between them and those who would do them harm. All that remains is for us to demonstrate that we are mentally prepared. We have walked the way but we must now demonstrate the will… The will of a commando!