My life as a Second Lieutenant began with an epic journey west through Wales on a bleak Sunday evening in January, and eventually led me to Cawdor Barracks, the home of 14th Signal Regiment (Electronic Warfare) where I would take over as Romeo Troop Commander in 226 Signal Squadron (LEWT). Six months later I find myself sitting in a white minibus returning from Gatwick airport and reflecting on the journey I have had so far. Inside the office I have just about figured out how to turn my computer on and log into ModNet whilst managing to stay clear of the lurking ogres that wait for Junior Officers (the wrath of the Sqn OC, Adjutant and RSM). However, outside the office I have passed P-Company, become a qualified military parachutist, deployed on multi-national Brigade exercises on two continents, once by night para insertion, commanded a Light Electronic Warfare Team and freefall parachuted in California, USA. If there has been a more high-octane six months in Troop Command elsewhere in the Royal Signals, I would be surprised. I am extremely lucky to be part of such a great Squadron where these opportunities for adventure exist for those who choose to pursue them; here are a few paragraphs to summarise my experiences.
My first week in the Sqn was a baptism of fire of sorts; under the watchful eyes of PTIs, Cpl Steve Langley and LCpl Ash Beck and the rest of Romeo Troop’s airborne contingent, myself and five other P-Company hopefuls from across the Regiment were put though a rigorous screening week, full of loaded marches and gruelling circuits before departing for All Arms Pre-Parachute Selection with the blessing of the 226 Sqn OC and SSM. What followed was six tough weeks of hard work, but through the grit and character of each of us, an unrivalled support network and a lot of Nando’s consumed, all six of us were proudly stood at the end, outside P-Coy lines in Catterick having been awarded our maroon berets. On the final morning of the course was the notoriously tough Stretcher Race, where waiting for us on the start line and then running every metre alongside side were Maj Dave Phillips, a prescription painkiller-fuelled WO2 Andy Heighton and WO2 (YofS) Jim Mackie, who then shared a beer with us all that evening after the course was complete. This was truly a testament to the airborne ethos that exists in 226 Sig Sqn (LEWT) and the reverence given to the course, and was by far my fondest memory of the six weeks.
Just as my body was beginning to recover, I was then straight off on the Basic Parachuting Course in March, held at Brize Norton. After a few days of ground training and about 1000 repetitions of falling and rolling on a blue mat with all the grace of a stumbling elephant, we were ready for our first descent. It sounds cliché, but it is difficult to describe the feeling of the aircraft doors opening and then hearing the words ‘red on, go’ for the first time, but my first descent was an unbelievable feeling. With each subsequent jump, the weight carried got heavier and the aircraft got hotter and slightly less pleasant but after three day jumps and one by night, I was parachute-trained and wearing my wings. Nipped.
Just a couple of weeks later I was then off on my first proper exercise with the Sqn, Ex MAPLE RESOLVE in Wainright, Canada. We deployed, as a part of the enemy force being used to test a Canadian Mechanised Brigade, alongside Canadian infantry 1PPCLI and other attached arms from the US Army and Marine Corps. We spent 15 days in the field in total and despite a few punctured tyres and bogged-vehicles, had a hugely successful time and demonstrated to our allies across the Atlantic how we do business and how dangerously effective electronic warfare can be against land manoeuvre forces, when executed properly. With the high levels of freedom and resources we were granted by our Task Force CO, 226 Sig SQN LEWTs and MEWTs were able to manoeuvre undetected around the battlefield by vehicle, by foot and by helicopter and find the exercising brigade wherever they were located, from tank to air defence radar to headquarters and feed back intelligence that allowed artillery to reign down on these targets. The exercising brigade quickly grew to fear us but by the end of the exercise, we had truly bonded with everyone we met from 1PPCLI and 21 Canadian EW Regiment and the memories of the exercise ‘smoker’ and two days in Calgary were particular highlights for everyone from 226 Sig Sqn (LEWT). We look forward to the same again next year!
From one flight to another, I was then straight into Ex SWIFT RESPONSE in Croatia with 16 Air Assault Brigade where I was able to avoid a manic stint in main headquarters and instead parachuted into Ubdina Airfield with 3 PARA as part of the four-man PARA LEWT on the ground. A night exercise jump by C130 aircraft carrying full EW equipment between four men, class. We then covered many miles in the relentless Croatian heat during the next week and I experienced first-hand how dynamic working with the Brigade is on the ground; the highlight was the sweaty, draining and slightly surreal insertion tab through dense forest into one our OPs which was one of those times that you could only laugh about how grim it was at the time. Thanks to LCpls Louis Cripps, George Norton and Mitch Baldwin for showing me the ropes on the LEWT and to WO2 Chris Freeman and Sgt George Park for their support and hard work on our behalf in the headquarters.
After finally touching home soil again, one week later I was then back out to North America on a regimental adventurous training exercise, freefall parachuting in Lake Elsinore, California. The old army adage will tell you that civilians will pay thousands for a number of dubious things; hill walking in Brecon or an assault course built in the 1950’s, howeer this was genuinely an opportunity that i would not find outside of the army. What a way to round off six months and heres to the next 18 at the Squadron.