166 TROOP: EX FINAL THRUST RECRUIT DIARY – WEEK 26&27
1. The Commando phase has remained almost unchanged since its inception in WW2. Like so many before us, we began our Commando Course by earning the coveted cap comforter (the traditional head-dress of a soldier undergoing a Commando Course) on a 6-mile speed march. This replicates the 6 miles regularly ran by the original Commandos at Achnercarry – near Ben Nevis. Cap-comforters fitted, we now felt closer than ever to those original men – eagerly awaiting the opportunity to complete the ordeals that remain between us and our Green Berets.
2. The next stage was practising the vertical assault techniques we had been learning from the Mountain Leaders. The practical elements of this were undertaken on a bitterly wintry day on Foggin Tor Quarry (a series of granite cliffs, water pools and outcrops used for combat climbing). We practised scaling cliffs in full kit, abseiling, roller tracking (vertical running to expediently scale a cliff) and hoisting kit, all by day and night. The most demanding serial was the full kit river crossing – swimming your bergen across a fixed line in sub-zero water is a very painful and exhausting experience!
4. We were now finally set for Ex FINAL THRUST – the final validation of that quality most valued by a RM Commando: tactical field-craft. A Commando values, above all else, his capacity to remain tactically astute and effective, in austere conditions, no matter how depreciated by inclement weather or sleep deprivation he might be. We therefore deployed under no illusion that Ex FT would be tough, and that we would need to be at our very sharpest if we were to pass the exercise. We had spent the night prior to our insertion frantically packing extra warmers and Gore-Tex in anticipation of the freezing weather promised by the Met Office. As the following evening closed in, we silently boarded our Merlin helicopters, ready in all respects to assault the initial targets we had been thoroughly briefed on.
5. Carrying only our Fighting Order, the first 36 hours were that of continuous pressure to isolate and destroy the enemy forces spread across Bodmin Moor. Following the initial helicopter assault, we sent off into the frozen night to reconnoitre the remaining enemy positions on Davistow airfield. We put all preparations in place for a dawn offensive and launched our well conceived plan on H-hour – quickly overrunning the enemy to secure our objective. After a short administrative period we were back on transport – Bodmin cleared, a wet Dartmoor was now awaiting our arrival.
6. Receiving our full field kit, rations, ammo and equipment at Okehampton; we hastily packed in readiness for the first trial on Dartmoor – a load carry by day to close the ground up to the first enemy stronghold, some 16 km’s south. We launched straight from the lay-up position (at the end of our march) into another round of patrols to find and observe the enemy. A 24 hr period of patrol activity ensued, again setting the conditions for our assault. Now at 60 hours without any discernible sleep, the fatigue really began to test us. The following dark-hours assault earned us some hard-fought respite for 4 hours before it was time to move off again. Continuing south we moved tactically across the terrain to clear several farm and woodblock objectives of fleeting enemy, again wearing only our fighting order to improve our manoeuvrability. This clearance had led us another 15 km south – to a link up with our bergens just prior to night fall. It then dawned on us that another load carry awaited, the final 15 km’s south to the familiar destination of the Scout Hut on Ringmoor. This was to be the ultimate test – drained physically and emotionally following 4 days of intensive work and weather, we shouldered our weight and set off on 5 of the hardest hours many of us had ever endured. The stumbles in the dark, the incessant plodding and shooting pain from shoulders or feet seemed endless.
7. With the final pockets of enemy now fleeing across Dartmoor, our mission became the location and marking of potential ambush sites to sweep up these last elements of resistance. At first light we occupied our ambush and awaited the extraction of a high value target – springing our crushing firepower at the optimum moment. With Dartmoor also clear, our focus switched to the final enemy fortress – a central staging post near to Plymouth, reachable only by the amphibious means of the Royal Marines.
9. Scraesdon Fort is a particularly complex target – surrounded by thick woodblocks and steep terrain, it is also isolated by a moat and high stone walls. The lower levels are a maze of interconnected tunnels and catacombs and there is very limited access. The only feasible approach was by landing craft so the Troop deployed onto HMS BRECON (a RN mine-hunter) to get some rest, receive orders and service our equipment. In the dead of night we then moved inland by landing craft from the ship and launched onto the beaches adjacent to the fort. From here, each Section moved off to undertake their individual tasks. Whether mapping the tunnels and fort layout, scaling the walls to observe the enemy, or patrolling the surrounding area to contain them; the period was very intensive for all as we went about setting preferable conditions for an overwhelming assault.
10. 36 Hours later, we were poised, silently awaiting the moment to crash through the secret, rear entrance and take the fort by force. Just prior to H-Hour, the heavy guns of our fire support opened to suppress the inner targets and cover our break-in to the fort. Under the smoke of our support and relative darkness, we quickly moved with our night vision to engage with the enemy. Before long, we were fighting room to room, passageway to open ground, up stairs and through tunnels to systematically defeat the enemy as planned. The fighting intensified as we pressed, gunshots echoing, trip flares silhouetting the men fighting through the melee, and shouts of “grenade” or directions from the commander’s filled the air. After some time had elapsed, a target that had initially seemed so daunting, had finally succumbed to the aggression and momentum of 166 Tp – the enemy now defeated, and us now in possession of a fort! The adrenaline and joy of success was only amplified by hearing, for the final time, those sweetest of words known to recruits: End-ex, End-ex, End-ex!