A Comedy of Errors in the British Army UOTC, Part 5
The Four Day Exercise from Hell
If memory serves this was only our fourth weekend in total—if you include the selection weekend and the sitting-around-doing-nothing-while-waiting-for-our-kit weekend. So in terms of proper military training it was only our second, and it would be the first where we would be camping outside.
Suffice to say, most of us were woefully under prepared for what was to follow.
It was already pitch black by the time we arrived at base camp, (i.e. the former farm from before.) We were then unceremoniously told to get out of the tarpaulin sided four tonne Bedford trucks. Considering these trucks had no seat belts, no cushions, and seemingly no suspension either, this was something of a relief.
If you have never been out in the sticks then you probably do not know what 'dark' is. I know I didn’t. It was a new moon at the time, which means no moonlight. Cloud cover was at 90 percent, so there was hardly any starlight either. The visibility was near zero.
The Head Shed decided that this was the perfect time for us greenhorns to go through an obstacle course. Since we could not see, we had to fumble around by touch. All was going reasonably well until I jumped from a tunnel mouth throat-first onto a wire, and almost garrotted myself.
It hurt like hell, but I was otherwise ok. Thankfully I didn't weigh much back then.
After this we were given the briefest of briefings in the cow shed we slept in previously. I’m not sure what we were meant to be doing, except that we were going ‘full tactical.’ This means no noise and no active light sources. Considering we did not have Night Vision Devices either, we were going to have a hard time seeing what we were doing.
We then marched out into the dark. Cloud cover was now at 100%, and it was raining. Visibility was at zero.
As this was our first time out, many of us were making the rookie mistake of carrying everything including the kitchen sink. (And the wet room shower unit too.)
We were overburdened with far too much gear, much of it we would not need.
We quickly got overheated despite the night air being frigid. Worse yet my glasses steamed up and got covered in rain water. I tried to wipe them clean, but to no avail, as I still couldn’t see anything.
At one point we had to hold onto the person in front’s Bergen to keep from getting lost. We must have made for a comical looking conga line if anyone could have seen it.
Unfortunately someone up ahead of me lost physical contact with the person in front of them, thus splitting us up into two columns.
Therefore when the top Rupert quietly called a halt, by telling the people at the head of the column, and only the people at the head of the column, that we should all stop, the message did not reach us, because of this break.
Therefore, we carried on marching. We must have walked straight past all of them, with only a centimetre’s gap between the columns. But it was so dark we just could not see them, nor they see us. Ever heard the expression "so dark you could not see your hand in front of your face?"
This was a literal example of that.
After a while the officers / senior cadets / Ruperts realised that half the platoon was missing and they managed to find out where we had gotten ourselves to. It came as a bit of a shock to us to find out we had been marching on our own in the middle of nowhere for the past half an hour.
We were then taken *somewhere* to try to make camp, but the ground was now a quagmire so the head Rupert decided to cut us some slack and allowed us to sleep in a sheep pen. Three walls and a roof—luxury!
We took our turns on guard duty—or ‘on stag’ as us Brits like to call it. Not that it would have been much use, since none of us could see anything anyway. Trying to get to sleep in between shifts was almost impossible, so the next morning we were completely ragged.
When day broke I was able to see something, but not a lot. It was then that I realised that my glasses were smeared with Cam Cream. I must have 'camoed up' the night before, but then forgot to wipe the residue from my hands. So, yes, you guessed it, when I wiped the mist and rain from my glasses I merely replaced the mist with Cam Cream. If anything, I had made it worse.
Oh well, live and learn.
To prevent a repeat of this I put in contact lenses. This was before the introduction of sleep in contacts, but I figured it would only be for a night or two, so sod it.
At least I could see now. The day was spent marching up and down hills in our far-too-heavy full kit. It was knackering, and I don’t think we learned anything at all by doing this all day. To be honest the day was uneventful and boring, although we did get to see some impressive views of the Beacon’s bleak brand of beauty.
Thing started to get "interesting" in the night.
It had stopped raining for a bit, and the cloud cover was only about 70%, so there was *some* starlight shining through. As a result, we could just about see a few feet in front of us. Not having cam cream smeared glasses helped too of course. None of us got lost this time, so that was a good start.
The first problem was when we encountered what we would later name "Cheeseburger Hill." If you have seen the film Hamburger Hill, or know of the real-life events it is based upon, you will know it involved a hill that was covered in soft wet mud, with the Americans at the top of it, having to fend off attack after attack by the NVA throughout the day and night.
Cheeseburger Hill was something similar. There were no NVA shooting at us of course, but we were at the bottom of it, and the head Rupert decided it would be much quicker to go up and over it, rather than follow the road around it.
So up we went. Or at least we tried to.
The rain had been so heavy and so persistent that the whole hill had turned into a quagmire. Attempting to climb it was a case of "one step up, two slides down." It was so sloppy our boots couldn’t get purchase on anything solid, which made marching up it almost impossible.
A few of the weaker willed cadets started to give up.
I found a way to ascend the bloody thing however. This involved laying on my belly and hauling myself up hand-over-hand using the only solid objects around—the thorn bushes. As you can imagine this was not pleasant, but I was determined to overcome that fecking hill, and perhaps gain some measure of respect from the "ex-public school boy brigade" by doing so. After about fifteen minutes of this effort, using hands that were beginning to resemble pin cushions, we reached the summit.
Or so we thought.
You need to remember it was still very dark, therefore we could see a few feet ahead of us, but no further. We could not see the top of the hill from our position at the bottom. When we finally reached what we had assumed to be the summit we were dismayed to discover it was only a false peak.
A fair number of my colleagues gave up there and then. In hind sight they were perhaps wise to do so.
But not me. I was in full "more balls than brains" mode. That hill was not going to get the better of me. That hill was mine. I was going to reach the summit and make that hill my bitch. Failure was not an option.
So up I went, using the same "snake-with-arms" technique as before. After another fifteen minutes of this I finally reached the summit.
Or so I thought. Again.
This was merely another false peak. I’m not sure how many of my colleagues were still with me on that hill. I still couldn’t see them, but I could hear them. I could hear grown men sobbing, and others straight up refusing to move another inch.
I could just about see the person closest to me, and I thought I recognised them. I did my best to encourage them, showing them the "snake with arms" technique, reminding him to put gloves on first. (I hadn’t when I first started as I didn’t realise the bushes had thorns, and after the first palm impaling I figured, "fuck it, they are injured now anyway, so I might as well carry on.")
This worked and he went up with me to the summit. Or what we thought was the summit.
It was just another false peak. This was too much for my colleague. His will was broken, and he couldn’t go on any further. After checking to make sure he was ok where he was, I thought "Fuck it, at least one of us is going to reach the top."
And so I did. By the time I reached the top—and thankfully this was the summit this time—I was more mud than man. I was also pretty much alone. I couldn’t see how many others had reached that summit, but most of the sounds I could hear were coming from below me, so I suspect they were few.
Still, I had done it. I physically overcame the hill and my will remained unbroken.
What I discovered a few minutes later came very close to doing so however.
The recruits who could not or would not get up that hill were taken back to the road and were allowed to walk around the hill on it.
This took all of five minutes.
The lateral distance we had travelled was less than 400 meters. We had spent an hour traversing less than 400 meters. We had exhausted ourselves for no good reason. My hands were torn to pieces just because the head Rupert did not have the sense to call everyone back when it became obvious just how difficult the hill would be to climb.
To say I was starting to seriously question the competence of our Head Shed would have been the understatement of the year.
I assume those that quit on that hill were not punished, or allowed to go home, since we were all back together not long after this, out in the middle of a nondescript field.
We all marched on to god-knows-where, feeling thoroughly demoralised. Not much happened for a short while, except I started to lose the feeling in my left arm. This was due to my overloaded Bergen’s shoulder strap not being on my shoulder, instead it was digging into my upper arm. This was cutting off its circulation. I asked to stop for a few seconds to correct this but I was ignored. When we did eventually come to a short halt, at the edge of a field, I used this time to adjust my straps and thus regain the use of my arm. It remained numb for quite a while after however.
"At last," I thought, "The hard part is behind us, now we just need to make camp and all will be fine."
We were crossing the edge of the field, hugging the hedge line when all of a sudden, a machine gun opens up on us. It was firing blanks of course, but on exercise you are supposed to act as if it was real. We then proceeded to make "a tactical movement to cover," in other words, "we legged it."
Until my foot went down a rabbit hole that is, and down I went with it. Apparently, the scream I involuntarily made was “not in accordance with noise discipline.”
Remember that we were in full kit, severely overloaded, and I was running full pelt when I went down. The pain was excruciating, but I picked myself up and half limped, half ran to cover with the rest of my colleagues.
We eventually got to our designated harbour area, and made camp. Note that it was pitch black so we couldn’t see what we were doing, and for many of us this was our first time out in the field. It didn’t go too well, and a lot of things went missing.
For those who don’t know, usually you would want to make camp before it gets dark, i.e. while you could still see what you were doing.
By this point even my will was starting to fray. Even some of the former military academy cadets, who presumably had done this sort of thing before, were sobbing and wanting to go home.
What really pissed me off was that my martial arts buddies were having their Christmas social that evening. So there I was, tired, exhausted, with an painful ankle, covered in mud and about to sleep in a wet field without a tent, whilst they were getting drunk in cocktail dresses and tuxedos in a nice warm hotel bar, and would finish the evening in a nice warm cosy bed. (Usually each other’s, since half of them were dating the other half.)
"I wonder who is having the better time?" I thought to myself.
Another night of interrupted sleep and stag duties ensued. Come the next morning I was finally seen by the medic, and I get my first look at my ankle.
It was not a pretty sight.
It had swelled up to twice its usual size and had turned an alarming shade of purple. They determined it was a bad sprain, but not broken, therefore not warranting a medical evac.
They did let me stay on guard duty with the other walking wounded however.
We were tasked with guarding the rest of the platoon’s Bergens and the tactically essential sheep pen from two nights before. Still, I was not complaining, at least I got to rest the ankle a bit. It was then that I noticed something was wrong with my vision.
It was blurry.
At first, I couldn’t work out why, until I tried winking one eye in turn. It was then that I realised I only had one contact lens in. The other one had either fallen out, or had disappeared behind my eyeball during the night. Thankfully I had a spare, so I put it in and could see again.
I spoke to some of the other walking wounded who were there with me, although by this point morale was so low no one felt much like talking.
One had made the mistake of filling her canteen from one of the Brecon Beacon’s many streams. This had given her a bad case of "Delhi Belly.. I should have been more sympathetic, but we had been told specifically not to do so, since all the streams are contaminated. They may look like clear mountain streams, but the area is full of sheep (it is wales after all) and sheep do not use latrines. No prizes then for guessing where all their "leavings" end up?
I kept up wind of her after that.
The day was uneventful. I spent much of it trying to clean out the mud from my rifle, since it had become as caked in mud as I had up on Cheeseburger Hill.
Towards the end of the day the rest of the platoon returned from their recce mission, where they had been observing the farm we would be assaulting the next morning. This was followed by a largely sleepless but uneventful night in the sheep pen.
The next morning was the dawn assault on the farm, which was the end goal of the exercise.
Most of us were thoroughly exhausted by this point. I know I was. I had not slept properly in three days. My ankle was slightly better than before, so I could put some weight on it. At top speed I could now manage a somewhat comical / pathetic limping run.
We got into position, and it was here that I realised just how much exhaustion can impair your perception. I was laying prone at the edge of a field. About fifty meters to my ‘3 O’ clock was a low stone wall. The next thing I know there were about ten cadets crouched down alongside it in full view. I didn’t see them arrive, and I did a double take when I saw them. Could it be that they were there all the time, but I just had not noticed them before? Was it that they had sneaked in? Did I perhaps pass out from exhaustion momentarily? I don’t know.
What I did realise however is that camo that may not be very effective at hiding you from someone who was fully awake and alert, might make you almost unnoticeable to someone who was as exhausted and sleep deprived as I was.
Which in a war, would be pretty much everyone, all of the time.
Not long after, we carried out the assault. We didn’t get very close to the farm, the advanced units had secured it before we got there. I was having difficulty keeping up anyway due to my ankle.
The head shed finally called out End EX. The relief was palpable. It was not quite over yet however, as we had to conduct a thorough search of the assault area to pick up any spent cartridge casings.
It was then that we smelled "IT." Whatever "IT" was, it smelled foul. The stench was indescribable. "WTF could be making it?" We all thought. Then realisation dawned on us. It was coming from US. We smelt so bad we could actually smell ourselves out in an open field.
"Well this is a first." I thought.
After this a few of us were accosted by one of the other universities’ Ruperts, asking us if we wanted to use up the last of the ammo belt on the General Purpose Machine Gun or "Gimpy" as it was affectionately known.
"Of course!" we all agreed at once. What red blooded male wouldn’t?
So we all took turns squeezing off a few bursts until the belt ran dry. Then came the catch. We then had to strip and clean it, a "condition of use" he had neglected to mention beforehand. My distrust of the Rupert class was not abating. To add insult to injury, literally, I then discovered that this particular gimpy was the same one that had been shooting at us two nights previous, the one that caused "ankle-gate."
Looking back I can see the funny side. I didn’t at the time.
This delay of course meant that I got to the barracks after my colleagues, so they were getting ready for the bar by the time I arrived. By this point I was so exhausted (and smelly) that I didn’t care about any of that. All I wanted was a long hot shower. However, Murphy’s law was not done with me yet. Because I was last into the shower, by the time I got there all the hot water had been used up. The nice long hot shower was not to be, and I had to content myself with an unpleasant, short, ice-cold shower instead.
I was not impressed.
I got changed, and limped over to the mess, feeling at my lowest ebb. I then found out that I could not speak, as my vocal chords had been wrecked by all the shouting I had to do in the mornings assault. (Guns are extremely loud, so to be heard over them you must shout even louder.) Ordering a drink from the bar was an ordeal to say the least.
The only thing that kept me going at this point was a conversation with one of the non-public school boy TA cadets, who had been serving for a while and had even been deployed overseas. He told me that "This was one of the most challenging exercise he had done, and he had done many." He went on to state that an exercise such as this should not have been used as a first exercise for total greenhorns like me, and I should feel proud of myself for having come though it without trying to quit.
When we finally got back to uni I treated myself to a long hot shower. I figured I had earned an hour or two in there. I then had to spend the rest of the evening pulling the thorn bush splinters out of my hand with a bowl of warm water and a pair of tweezers.
“Oh well,” I thought, “Its nearly the end of term, and Christmas is only a week or so away. Nothing more can go wrong.”
And nothing did. Except during my last martial arts session, on the very last day at uni for the year, wherein I took a roundhouse kick to the face that knocked me out cold and broke my jaw.
Putting Christmas dinner in a blender and "eating" it through a straw was an experience, I can tell you.
That’s it for 1998. In 1999 we will learn why playing on the beach might not be such a good idea.
By Miraceti (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Brecon Beacons view.
By User:Wiki2014NewUser (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Usien (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gimpy in the snow.
By Andy Denholm (Andy Denholm) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Kick to the head.
By ColbyOtero.com [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons