More than 80 men and women, most of them Army Reservists from Lancashire, have spent two weeks in Italy on a training exercise. Laura Wild spent three days with them in the field.
I wasn’t exactly taking part in the Army exercise, I was there as an observer, but to observe I had to run to keep up with the well-trained reservists battling through grass taller than me in the blazing Italian sunshine.
The ‘advance to contact’ phase of the training exercise I saw was part of a 15 day trip to Northern Italy with the Preston-based 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment.
The purpose of the Exercise Roman Star was for army reservists to test themselves against the high standards of full-time soldiers as part of their annual foreign exercise – but for me it was a rude awakening.
Over the course of the fortnight the 80 soldiers were practicing everything they would do in real-life scenarios and they were put through their paces by Italy’s tough 7th Infantry Regiment and 32nd Tank Regiment.
The reservists set up camp in a field in the middle of Spilimbergo, north east of Venice, surrounded by the Dolomite mountains. They had to sleep two-by-two in ‘bashas’, military slang for a primitive shelter comprising of little more than camouflage sheet attached to a couple of posts erected in the ground. Many of them managed just four hours sleep a night and had to survive off water and army ration packs.
As I caught my breath, stood in the middle of the training area, as the tall grass brushed against my arms and face and the sun was beaming down on the back of my neck, the sound of gun fire echoed around. It was a sound I had never heard before; it was fast and sounded like something from a video game, and the humongous Italian tanks, named Dados, were closing in.
The thunderous noise of the tanks as they powered across the landscape brought home just what this situation could be like in reality.
Thankfully the bullets weren’t real, but that didn’t take away from what these guys were doing. They treated the whole day as if it was real life, as if it was war.
Their aim was to find the enemy and destroy them.
They had got information to help them track them down and find their location during a night ambush the night before.
And in near 30C heat they managed to take down the enemy in three different locations spread across the acres of the Italian range.
I didn’t dare complain about the heat, as sweat pumped down my face and dripped down my neck, because I was just wearing a t-shirt and light trousers. The troops running by me were wearing their full army kit, heavy boots and 20kg on their back. Some carried rifles and others machine guns, which weighed 20kg too.
As an onlooker everything looked precise, the aim was to get things right, but while they were firing blanks it was also a time to learn from any mistakes.
It was hard to imagine that back home these guys work in very different roles - I met a butcher, a court worker, an exhaust manufacturer and a geophysicist.
They didn’t just had to run carrying incredibly heavy kit, they had to look, observe, have their wits about them and most of all listen, because at the end of the day, one wrong move could mean they were dead.
I didn’t just spend time with the soldiers in field, I watched them patrol a new ‘harbour area’, a place they would set up camp and call their home for a few days. The aim of the patrol was to search the area and check it was safe to enter.
I also spent brief spells with the troops sat under their bashas, watched them clean their weapons and watched the different ranks give orders.
The thing that stood out the most was the passion, these lads and lasses, who are all away from their families, are the best of friends ,who have some of the best banter I have ever heard, but when they need to be serious, they are.
They volunteer to be in the Army, they have full time jobs at home and they give up their home comforts and their luxuries to train and be the best.
WHAT THE MAJOR SAYS
Major Nick Kennon’s face is covered in camouflage paint, he is sweating, and as his radio is bleeping away.
With troops around him glugging from their water bottles and enjoying a few moments of rest after the gruelling training exercise, he smiles and describes his pride at the way the day has gone.
“We were given a mission,” he explains. “Our mission today was to clear this area of all enemy. If we missed any we would fail, if we couldn’t clear them out we would fail.
“We started at the FUP (Forming up Point) crossed the line of departure, and from there we advanced to contact.
“When you encounter the enemy you conduct attacks on them. We had a number of sequential positions, there were two on the first, three on the second and four on the last position.
“The enemy were actually getting stronger. We rolled through three enemy positions today and what we have seen is co-ordination between different platoons, we have a machine gun section which provides fire support for some of the assault. We have also coordinated with the Italians, the armoured infantry and armoured vehicles as well, which considering we have only been here about five days and we have got one interpreter to pass the instructions and the orders, it is a pretty good.
“We have done about 2km, cleared three enemy positions, it has taken us about four hours or so.”
Nick, a solicitor from Carlisle, added: “If it was for real and you lost track of where you were you might not have enough ammunition or have enough water. You might miss some of the enemy, you might have a ‘blue on blue’ (injuring your colleague). So this training is very important to co-ordinate what we do and more challenging when we work with multinational forces. The fact it went so well is down to the effort that was put in.
“The lads have grafted, it is a really hot day, they have carried thousands of rounds of ammunition.”