When I saw news footage of NATO allies, including the British armed forces, undertaking exercises in snowy Norway it reminded me that I hadn’t update you on one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had. Warning: this is a long post so stop now if you don’t like it when I do this!
You already know that I’m in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme in which I have committed to giving as much time as possible to understanding the Navy. It means lots of time reading, in seminar rooms, talking to military experts but also often travelling around the country and sometimes abroad to see our sailors in the frontline and learning about their experiences, capabilities and, importantly, limitations.
Well last month in midwinter when parliament was in recess I was invited to the Royal Marines base in northern Norway, right up in the arctic circle. I was nervous and excited.
When you arrived there was something that hit you like a hammer…the cold! First stop was a meeting room where we were instructed about the cold, its impact on our bodies and how to spot the early signs of hypothermia, frost nip and frostbite. We were shown photos of each on the screen and I looked away when some were posted on frostbite, only to be told to look back by the instructor as it was important to understand just how serious it was. I was also told that each of the photos – which I won’t describe – was of Royal Marines undertaking duties out in the cold on behalf of our country. It was sobering, but after that I did as instructed and never went outside without a hat and gloves on!
The camp houses about a thousand marines and because of the cold and snow it’s designed to provide as much indoor space as possible. So it looks like an industrial park after a snowstorm, only lots of big, very big military equipment neatly Parkes outside gives a clue as to what’s going on there.
The first day was ‘mobility day’. We were taken to another base and shown how Marine commandos are transported into action by water. The fjord was mostly frozen, but waiting for us by a jetty was a speedboat covered in ice and two Marines covered in camouflage clothing from head to toe with only their eyes visible. It was a formidable sight.
After unceremoniously clambering into cold and water resistant kit, I jumped, also unceremoniously, onto the boat. The crew navigated through the ice and then quickly to full speed which was quite something. On land the temperature was -13 and now we were doing 40mph across a half-frozen fjord whilst being taught how these astonishingly proficient crew could get commandos close to any target swiftly and stealthily.
We were then taken in small machines with tracks in place of wheels at high speed across snow fields and through wooded snowy terrain – we were in the back and I don’t think there was a single bump on that journey the driver missed, it was like being in a washing machine! We were then shown another way of moving commandos around.
Extremely heavy supplies were stacked in the middle of a very deep snowfield and when ready a radio operator made a call and within minutes a Merlin 4 helicopter swooped down from just above the trees, hovered above the supplies and was off in moments fully laden.
We then made our way out into the open, stacked our backpacks and lay on top of them clinging tightly. Marines then squished on top of us and once again the call was made. The ground began to tremble, snow blown into your face so hard it stung, but that enormous helicopter had swung back and landed just a couple of feet from us, blades directly above. I was slapped on the back which meant ‘move’ and I did, throwing my backpack onboard and jumping on, strapping in, and we were away. It was quite hard to take it all in! We then swooped just above a river, swinging side to side with the harness holding us in place.
It’s worth saying that only a tiny number of militaries around the wold can operate a full range of equipment and people in these conditions. The extreme cold makes everything difficult, including operating high tech equipment. The British have been doing it for many decades and the skills and experience has been build up over time.
The next day we did the thing I was nervous about when I was invited onto the trip: spending a whole 24hrs outdoors with Marine Commandos. We left mid-morning when it was -10 degrees and were dropped at the edge of a wooded area. We strapped on our snow shoes – everything is difficult in that temperature, especially things like doing up boot straps – and then trekked into the woods. The snow was well over my height in depth, so when I inevitably lost my balence and toppled over with legs, arms and backpack all pouting in different directions, it took a couple of marines to get me upright again (yes, they did mercilessly take the micky!).
When we found the spot to stay we dug into the snow about five feet and pitched tents. Every couple of hours we paused to melt snow and drink a hot high energy drink. We’d been given a 24hr ration pack the contents of which made up over 4,000 calories.
We then saw how the commandos make a fire, in the snow, from nothing but a little tree bark and striking two pieces of metal for a spark, how to gut and cook a fish very fast before it freezes, and when the sun went down, at about 3:30pm, how they navigate by stars (as the Compas on my phone confirmed, it was stunningly accurate).
When it was time to sleep a medic came to our tent and checked my feet just before putting on these huge foot warmers. The outer layer of clothing was wrapped up as the pillow. The next layer was taken off and kept in the sleeping bag so my body prevented it from freezing. The other layers stayed on. Gloves and hat and spare socks were all bundled into the sleeping bag too which was wiped up around my head with only a tiny hole through which a piecing tiny little jet of air came.
It was so tightly packed in that sleeping back that I could barely move, but I didn’t get cold. I wriggled around to try and get comfortable but it wasn’t easy. When I finally drifted off to sleep I jolted awake a few moments later having had a hideous nightmare about being buried alive! I unzipped my sleeping bag in a panic but got attacked by the cold so took a few breaths and zipped back up again. When I got to sleep again the same thing happened, this time dreaming I was in a coffin! And on it went right through the night.
I tell you this because it was one of the most surprising lessons for me which I would never have truly understood unless I’d experienced it myself: we all know that the fighting, hiking, and endurance aspects of being a Marine Commando is tough…but I’d never even imagined that even sleeping is stressful!
The next morning we undertook a series of other activities. One of the group I was with was actually taken to the base hospital with hypothermia that morning which underscores just how serious these conditions are.
We hiked again that morning and then strapped on the cross country skis we’d been carrying and continued trekking into the beautiful wilderness with deep, deep snow. I’m lucky to know how to ski downhill but never used cross country skies before…I was falling all over the place but loving the experience hugely. The Marine instructor was amazingly good at teaching and encouraging and I was with three Marines trying it for the first time too (which made me feel slightly better!).
You can imagine how amazing that hot shower was once we returned to the base. I’ve had some amazing experiences in my time and most of them I’d love to do again. I was so pleased and proud to have done that 24hrs outdoors, it was one of the most educative, powerful experiences of my life. But if I’m totally honest I wouldn’t do it again, it was very tough and stressful. So when I tell you that when the Marines are undertaking this training they do what I did for 30 nights in a row…yes, thirty, plus carry heavy guns, ammunition and equipment, it just gives you a glimpse of what our Marine Commandos are capable of.
So when I say this I know you’ll believe me. I spent a lot of time with marines in those days. I Shan’t name them but if any read this they know I mean them. They told me their stories, I asked about every aspect of their work, attitude and approach to their work. I saw them in action. I saw how they supported each other, actively looked out for each other’s (and my) health, and I got a glimpse of their sheer professionalism, grit, and capability.
Having seen all this with my own eyes my respect for them it total. Total.
There was so much else we did on the trip, so much more we saw and learned, but this post is already too long so I won’t go into more detail. Other than to say that the base I was in is only a few hundred miles from the Russian border with Norway and we now understand why this kind of capability, both human and physical, is so important.
Committing time to these kinds of visits is a huge privilege but also teaches me so incredibly much about how our military actually works, what their capabilities are and the human stories behind it. It is after all the people and their abilities that makes our armed forces one of the very best anywhere in the world.
And on that chilly note…I hope you’re all enjoying the sunny weather this weekend! Peter