A team of journalists joined Leicester based Army Reserve unit over a five-month period. LeicestershireLive reporter Alan Thompson and photographer/videographer Andy Baker joined 2 Company, 3rd Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment on a vast military training area in Norfolk.
Learning how to combat the scourge of IED threat on the front line
The Stanford Training Area, a few miles north of Thetford, was developed during the Second World War for British troops.
Five villages were evacuated to create the 46 square-mile area, which, ironically, provided many of the locations for the TV comedy, Dad’s Army, including the iconic end-credit sequence where the platoon move across open ground wearing camouflage.
But it’s also a place where soldiers, regulars and reserves, learn tactics and techniques that could save their lives in a war zone.
With more than 300 UK service personnel losing limbs in the conflicts in Afghanistan (291 from 2001 to 2017) and Iraq (32 from 2003 to 2017), counter IED (improvised explosive device) measures are a vital part of training.
An eight-man section of 2 Company is briefed by section leader and ex regular, Cpl Marlon Gray, 32, of Leicester on a training scenario where they have to detect a number of dummy IEDs, while under threat of enemy fire.
Their mission is to create a new supply route along a lane (track). Progress is painfully slow, prolonging their exposure as sitting targets on the open ground. Satisfied each particular threat is clear, the section moves on until, unwittingly, they trigger an IED. It prompts sustained enemy fire from which they must retreat, carrying a wounded colleague tieing up half the section while the remainder provide covering fire.
Permanent staff instructor, Corporal Sam Rogers, said: “The point man (head of the patrol) spotted a lot of stuff that they put out there for them to spot. “They’ve done really well up to that point and the observation’s been really good. They’ve functioned (triggered) an IED because they’ve missed it as they’ve gone along and come under contact (enemy fire).
“It took them a couple of minutes to get themselves going.
“Once they did, they’ve extracted well.”
The Afghan veteran added: “You can never really replicate what happens out on the front line, to the extent of all the carnage that ensues around you.
“But if you know what you should be doing, it makes the commander’s job that little bit easier.
“When they get out into theatre and, heaven forbid, they do have a bad day, they’ll be prepared for it in some small way. The counter IED training is one of seven disciplines spread over a 12 kilometre area the soldiers have to “tab” (tactical advance to battle) between before competing against other units under the watchful eye of instructors and umpires.”
Pte Tarun Patel, 26, of Birstall, joined in 2016 before graduating with a degree in computer science. He spent six months in Australia, India and Cyprus, working with the Indian and Australian armies, to compare skills. “I was going to join the regulars, but I was advised to get a feel for it first, so joined the reserves. There’s a lot more opportunity and there’s a nice balance between civilian and military life. My great granddad was in the Bahraini Army and my granddad was in the Kenyan Army. I’d advise anyone to give it a shot, if it’s not for you, you can leave, but there are loads of opportunities available.”
Pte Will Blackburn, 24, working as a paralegal, in training to be a lawyer, said: “I wanted to see what it’s like being a soldier, doing something different. “I’m able to serve as a reserve while pursuing my legal career and I will hopefully get a commission. It’s so different to my daily life,you get to do all sorts of cool and different things and enjoying pretty good pay while you’re at it.”
Rusting armoured personnel carriers and two Russian T54 and T55 tanks sit incongruously in a landscape that would not look out of place in a Constable painting. They are used as targets on the Underslung Grenade Launcher range.
The troops are firing practice rounds – the high explosive replaced by orange powder paint which bursts and cascades on impact. The launcher attaches to the underside of the SA80 assault rifle with its own firing and sights mechanism.
Sheep and their lambs chew and gambol disinterestedly nearby as the practice rounds, similar to riot-control baton rounds are fired. Puffs of orange paint are accompanied by meaty “pings” as the rounds hit tank metal.
Private James Moore, 25, of Great Glen, said: “The combined weight of the UGL and the rifle is significantly different to just the rifle and takes some getting used to, and a few of the lads have not used it before.”
Jack, a 25-year-old private, from Leicester, said: “We’ve done a 7k tab to get here. You get a chance to test the range of the target you’re firing at. “There is minimal recoil with the UGL, unlike the SA80 and the sights system is different.”
Colour Sergeant Jason Holdenby, 34, a senior permanent staff instructor, said: “The HEDP (High Explosive Dual Purpose) round has a 5-metre kill zone and a 25-metre danger area. “If you’re within five metres of impact, you’re going to get some “frag” (fragmentation) from it. “ It’s a section level weapon used by infantry in the open and bunkers.”