Second Lieutenant Toby Fenton-O’Creevy is a Platoon Commander in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) Reserves. He has just completed his final attachment with 29 Commando Regiment, where he deployed on a Multinational exercise on Salisbury Plain – Exercise GREEN CANNON ‘18.
29 Commando Regiment RA – The Royal Artillery’s Joint Fires Unit that supports 3 Commando Brigade.
After returning from CLR, I experienced a strange sensation of déjà vu as I jumped straight from helping CLR prepare for their exercise to preparing for 29’s regimental exercise, Ex GREEN CANNON (Ex GC) 2018. This was to be no small feat – not only was the entire regiment deploying, but also multinational partners. The United States Marine Corps were deploying elements of two units, and were joined by Marines from the Netherlands, France and Sweden.
As it emerged in the week up to the exercise, none of these partners had their own recovery assets, meaning our one SV(R) would be the only recovery asset for the entire exercise unless we quickly found support from elsewhere. Moreover, the workshop was ‘gapped’ for two technicians – if any vehicles or equipment suffered electrical faults, we would have to find external support. Furthermore, this was to be the first time the entire workshop had deployed with the regiment, rather than just each artillery battery’s fitter sections – quite a logistical challenge.
After the now-familiar extended hours push to make the Regiment’s fleet fit for deployment, we set off on Monday morning as the last convoy ‘packet’ to leave Plymouth, charged with sweeping the route for vehicle breakdowns as we made our way up to Salisbury Plain. I commanded the lead vehicle in the packet, an up-armoured ‘Theatre Entry Standard’ MAN SV. This was a first for me – as opposed to a normal SV, the cab is armoured and fitted with heavy bulletproof glass, which makes seeing the area around the truck difficult. Far more welcome however in the Mid-Summer heatwave was the massive bank of internal air conditioning vents which kept the cab as cool as a refrigerator. This was a fact that did not go unnoticed by the Land Rover-Bourne OC, Capt Chris Cornes, who vowed that I would travel back in the heat of one of the old, stifling vehicles.
Because our convoy was composed of several HGVs in addition to the Land Rovers, we were limited to a snail’s pace of 40mph along the whole route, ensuring we took nearly six hours to make the trip in total. Despite being hampered by a route card missing half the pages and having to recover two Pinzgauer vehicles, we eventually rolled into Rollestone Camp in the early evening, where we would be staying for the next week.
Whilst in Rollestone Camp, we were to conduct Military Annual Training Tests, MATTs, alongside the Artillery Batteries. However, alongside these serials we also had the primary tasks of repairing and maintaining the 29 fleet and establishing our Field Workshop location at Avon Camp West (ACW), where the HQ element would remain for the rest of Ex GC. This necessitated some thorough planning, and occasionally panicked improvisation. Thus it was that the workshop managed to clear a large portion of MATTs, including passing their marksmanship tests and conducting chemical warfare training in a CS chamber, whilst also just about managing to keep the Unit’s vehicles on the road and readying ACW, a disused and decrepit industrial warehouse, for heavy production.
Rehabilitating the hangar at ACW was no easy task – when we arrived, the building was filled with 2 inches of dust across the floor, with several crows nested in the rafters. After a lot of sweeping, we began to conduct a formal production estimate to site our assets. Chris set me and SSgt Brown, who would be one of the artificers with HQ, the task of conducting this by ourselves, after which he and the ASM would ‘red-team’ it. No simple task – we had to site the command post, accommodation, power generation and distribution, lighting, communications nodes, the track plan and the production bays.
Some serious head-scratching and whiteboard drawing ensued. Our biggest headache was generating an internal track plan that allowed us to work on both light and heavy vehicles, whilst allowing space for the recovery asset to shunt vehicles in if they couldn’t move under their own power. Another consideration was how to use the very limited lighting to best effect – shift work under cover of darkness was a potential measure we would have to employ if the exercise created a lot of equipment casualties. Finally we reached a state we were happy with, and passed it off to the OC and WO1 Paul Clark for their take on it. We had actually managed to converge largely on their own estimate, and in fact very little tweaking was needed.
The workshop’s facilities were greatly improved by some REME ingenuity, including using a crane to rig a solar shower and a makeshift gym. The power distribution also enabled us to get a television working, which was critical to morale given England’s progress in the World Cup! We set up according to our plan, and began to get into steady state production. Our work was made more interesting by the arrival of Dutch and American vehicle mechanics, who would be co-located with us for much of the exercise. The differences between how they operated to us were fascinating, and it must be said there was a certain amount of ‘kit-envy’ amongst our troops as they examined the Dutch Land Rovers, and the size of the USMC ‘Humvees’, which were about one and a half the width of our own vehicles.
The most interesting period for me came towards the end of the exercise, where I was dispatched out into the field to see the fitter sections working with their respective batteries. Myself and Cfn Kirk, my driver, spent three days living out of our Bergan rucksacks making our way across the plain. Not only did we get an excellent perspective on how REME operates at the most forward edge, but we also took the opportunity to get acquainted with the equipment, loading and firing the 105mm Light Gun and being moved between locations by Chinook Helicopter.
The exercise finished a few days earlier than expected – the hot weather meant a UK-wide live fire ban was imposed, necessarily restricting much of the planned tactical training. This gave us the opportunity to inspect and repair many of the unit’s vehicles before they set off back to Plymouth, making the recovery much smoother than the deployment.
I was left to wrap up loose ends from the year and reflect on my time on LeadFirst. I almost felt like I’d aged three years in twelve months – having been abroad in three different countries, exercises both abroad and in the UK, and having commanded troops in incredibly diverse circumstances, from a deployed platoon with 105Bn, to nearly 40 men in BATUS for four months of intense repair, to working with Royal Marines and Army Commandos across 3 Commando Brigade.
As a Reservist, I’m often conscious of the training gap between myself and my Regular peers upon leaving Sandhurst, and how I can narrow that divide. The breadth and depth of experience I’ve been able to gather on LeadFirst has given me an incredible insight across both the REME as a Corps, and the Field Army as a whole, which will stand me in very good stead upon return to 105Bn in August. I would wholeheartedly recommend LeadFirst to any Reservist Young Officer, or to anyone looking to join the Army Reserve, as the best way to develop themselves as professional leaders, in both a military and civilian capacity.