Angus County Press reporter Fiona Pringle took a ride on the wild side joining Arbroath’s 45 Commando Group Royal Marines on an arduous exercise in the searing heat of the Southern Californian Mojave Desert recently.
Although British Forces have now pulled out of Afghanistan the men of 45 Commando continue to train for all situations.
In the 13 years of operations in Afghanistan more than 14,000 Royal Marines have been deployed over 12 operations and their bravery and distinguished service has earned them nearly 200 commendations.
Exercise Black Alligator, a six-week operation played out across 1,100 square miles of desert, prepares marines for such circumstances and welcomed Fiona Pringle, from Angus County Press, up close to see what they can do.
Accompanied by a three-man sniper team on a rib shaking ride into the simulated battle, I took my position next to them, atop a rocky outcrop looking out to the action as it unfolded on the battlefield.
As the sniper and spotter set up their L115 A3 rifle and locked on to targets, the sun broke the morning sky and a crescendo of heavy explosive (HE) was released by the mortars, raining down on the dusty valley.
There was barely time to catch a breath before a menacing line of armoured Humvees, mounted with machine guns spattered the volcanic scenery with relentless barrage of deadly firepower.
The tempo continued to increase as M1 Abrams tanks trundled onto the scene plundering the invisible ‘enemy’ with shell upon shell of ferocious blows, punctuated by the whistling thud of a perfectly aimed sniper shot.
Although the F-16 jets dropped concrete slabs for effect, everything else fired was real bullets, so although individuals are given scope to make real-time decisions and judgements, timing and communication is paramount.
This very realistic, carefully coordinated warfighting scenario played out over nearly five ear-splitting hours.
The main aim of the Combined Armed Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX) is to test the basic skills of each marine and their ability to deploy effectively, regardless of current threats or political premonitions on where they will find themselves in next.
Commanding Officer of 45 Commando Group Lieutenant Colonel Dan Cheesman said: “I am not going to guess where we go next but the raison d’etre for 3 Commando Brigade is to train hard in austere environments whether that is mountain and cold weather warfare such as in the high Arctic or in the desert or in the jungles.
“We have to mix and match the training opportunities that we get and frankly at 40 degrees, at altitude in the desert with lots of things that want to eat you and sting you, out here is about as tough training as you can go for and I am very pleased that we’re getting robust education while we’re here.”
The exercise continues with the next stage, an assault in a mock Arab village, nicknamed ‘Fallujah 2’ after the Afghanistan village, where marines can test their close quarter battle skills using ‘kill houses’, structures designed to look like a built up area that can absorb bullets.
Exercise Black Alligator is coinciding with a significant date in the Royal Marine calendar, their 350th anniversary. The hard working troops are being given the opportunity to see the sights of nearby Las Vegas at the end of their training, to celebrate the milestone.