(Read part 7 HERE)
We were now beginning to feel like soldiers. The trees are a tough environment and people were falling by the wayside at an alarming rate. I always remember one DS (Directing Staff) saying “If you imagine trying to get through a bush covered in thorns whilst its pissing down with rain in the sweltering heat, and while going up the steepest slope you ever imagined with a small house on your back, carrying your weapon and trying to remain tactical, welcome to the jungle,” he wasn’t wrong. We did a series of navigation exercises in the first two weeks where some days you did well if you travelled three kilometres. We cross-grained, that meant there was no tracks, no ridge lines and no contouring or using rivers. We went in a straight line everywhere, no matter what was in the way. If that meant moving through secondary jungle, uphill then that’s what you did.
It was a long hard way of doing things, and you were permanently soaking wet from the rain and from sweating so much. Secondary jungle is dense and very difficult to move through. But that was to our advantage. If it was difficult for use, it would be difficult for the enemy. They would have to follow us up in the harshest of places if they were going to find us. To move as a small patrol would take hours some days just to gain a few feet. Where the growth was so thick and we had to move silently, you couldn’t just hack your way through. You also needed to leave your trail how you found it. The locals would pick up on every last leaf out-of-place. Ground sign was forever being covered up and this alone could take forever. All this time learning something which was just to get you from A to B. Forget for now what to do when you get there, or how to react if you were discovered. That was a whole host of other lessons. The navigation exercises taught you how to move around.
In between navigation exercises, which usually took two or three days, we started to learn contact drills, which instruct how to react if you came into any sort of confrontation with the enemy whilst on patrol. The classic four man drill was a simple affair on the open clearings outside of the jungle. But now we were under the canopy even if your fire team only went a small way off the patrol line, you could soon lose people. When firing live rounds that could be disastrous, even in training. You had to be all over you personal skills. No spraying and praying here, you had to ensure before you pulled the trigger that’s you had clearly identified the target and that nobody was going to race in front of you as you engaged. We used iron sights. There is no use for scopes in the jungle. You need to be able to maintain some peripheral vision.
We repeatedly did drill after drill after drill. You were hot, tired and sweaty. The drills were from all angles, contact front, rear, left and right. After each drill the DS would give you a blow-by-blow account of how they saw it. Not before they had asked you how you thought it went. You would have to take a lot of criticism and if you couldn’t handle that, then you would soon be asked to leave. If you had a point, it needed to be valid and well presented. If not, you would be in for a hard time. The pressure was immense, not just to perform but because everything was live, if you got it wrong you could seriously or fatally injure someone. To add to the experience there was still the daily feed, rest and clean yourself issues which are amplified in the jungle. Gradually we started to learn more and more. We learned how to carry out recces (reconnaissance patrols) of targets, we planned attacks and wrote endless patrol reports. Everything we did, we documented and entered in our best books. Our best books became our own personal bibles of soldiering. It was an extremely hard task to maintain a document neatly and without ruining it. I would wear surgical gloves as I scribbled away under my basher to try and keep the thing dry. I would even wear a bandana to stop me from sweating on it. The DS would inspect your “best book” as it was known, and if it was a mess again you could even be moved along. The same applied to your patrol reports. These had to be handed in as if you had done them in a classroom back in the UK. You put them together as a team, and so if you had a guy who was good at drawing, it seriously made you look good. All sketch maps and targets were reproduced in the reports which contained all the information another patrol would need if they were to take the task on after you had left it. There would be no time to conduct further recces, so if your information was garbage it could potentially get someone killed. There was huge emphasis placed on patrol reports and again some guys just couldn’t get it.
As we approached the end of the first three weeks although we were tired and beaten up by the trees, we did feel like we now had some pretty decent skills stacking up. The numbers were down and it was still very much a do or die phase, but now I personally felt I was beginning to see some light at the end of this extremely long tunnel. The next three weeks would be our chance to show the DS we had understood what they had shown us.
We would deploy on a final exercise which would be as close to the real thing as you could possibly get without going to war. The last time before the exercise began I went back to my basher full of excitement. However the next 21 days were going to be a mean one, which I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. We were becoming operators and we felt like we had seen a glimpse of what it was really like to be a member of a sacred Sabre Squadron.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia