Ex Southern Bluebell
It’s not every day that you get the chance to get up close and personal with a Coyote! But that’s what I was doing yesterday.
It was with a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation that I pulled up outside the Army barracks at Tidworth on Salisbury Plain for a day with the 103 Battalion REME, the Army’s equivalent to the AA. Not one to know an axle from a drive shaft, I was thrust briefly into the world of petrol heads and greasy mechanics and it was important they thought I knew what they were talking about!!
The Army reservists from the Battalion which has units in Crawley, Hilsea, Ashford and Redhill, were all taking part in Exercise Southern Bluebell, an integrated training weekend designed specifically for REME Army Reservists to undertake training to improve their currency and competency trade skills so they are able to support the Regulars in terms of being fit to mobilise. With a variety of different trades being showcased, from armourers, to vehicle mechanics and recovery specialists, and with Regulars and Reserves sharing their wealth of experience I knew I was in for an interesting day.
From what I could see when I entered the hangar, it was every car mechanics dream! When and where else would you get the chance to remove and replace a drive shaft from a Coyote, change a bulb on a Mastiff or repair a power steering fluid reservoir on a Jackal? From my inexperienced eye, I could see that I was standing amongst several millions of pounds worth of heavy duty and specialised military equipment in the hangars – all with bonnets up and innards exposed!
WOII Adie Leah, 37, part of 5 Battalion REME in Sheffield is a Regular Permanent Staff Instructor responsible for training the Army Reserves. Having served for 19 years, his experience of carrying out battled damage repairs is second to none. “Having the skills to get a vehicle back on the road quickly is the priority, and the Vehicle Mechanics (VMs) need to think creatively, using whatever they have available. It could be a coke can or a bandage – you’d be surprised at how ingenious our VMs can be to get the vehicle and the crew out of a situation and back to safety.”
It struck me very quickly that these members of the Territorial Army, which is soon to become the Army Reserve, have vocational skills training that takes years to accumulate. I was in the presence of soldiers, regular and reserve, who have actually saved lives – not by administering first aid, but by having the confidence and skills to think “outside of the box”, repairing vehicles on the side of the road, under extreme pressure and often under fire and using anything at their disposal. Corporal Reece Hancock, 44, serves with 128 Field Company in Hilsea, Portsmouth. A DT school teacher on civvy street, he swapped the classroom for six months in Afghanistan supporting the Regular Army’s 6 Battalion Close Support. Clearly extremely passionate about his role in the Army Reserve, his enthusiasm was hard to contain when telling me about the time he carried out an improvised repair to the fuel pipe on a Husky. “This training exercise is really important. The more knowledge you have about different vehicles, the better you become at cross-servicing and that in itself gives you confidence to make good repairs under extreme pressure.”
Sergeant Catherine Moat, 44, works for the Border Force and serves with 133 Field Company in Ashford. With more than 20 years’ service under her belt, she confessed to the Army Reserves having changed her life. “It’s tested my mettle that’s for sure. But I’ve travelled the world and gained skills that will mean that I’ll never be out of a job as getting all my driving qualifications means that I can drive a bus, a coach or an HGV. Better still, I can service my own vehicle and no garage will manage to hoodwink me as I know what they’re talking about! You get out of the Army Reserves what you put in and I have made great friends who I know will support me through thick and thin!”
The exercise wasn’t all dirty and hands-on. Corporal Sian Davies, 34, a Solicitor from 128 Field Company in Hilsea, was on hand specifically to give an honest and objective view from her most recent tour to Afghanistan with the Light Aid Detachment. “Giving the guys the benefit of our very recent experience from theatre is all part of the training process. By giving them a short presentation with photos, we can talk knowledgably about what it’s really like out there – anything from the accommodation and food to the handing over processes and how we integrated into the Regular units. For instance on my tour, it was several months before they actually realised I was a Reservist.”
For the afternoon session we left the vehicle mechanics and their spanners to it and made our way to a training area on Salisbury Plain that looked like a scene from one of the Mad Max movies. In plain view was a petroleum truck – on its side – and not looking in very good shape. The task set was to right the 30 tonne vehicle back on its four wheels without damage to either the vehicle or the personnel involved. Well this team of recovery mechanics or “rechy mechs” as they’re affectionately known, made it look easy! However it was far from that and the skills required by the experienced Crew Commander were plain to see. Demonstrating calmness and confidence, he got the team to assess the situation, put their plan together, attach winch lines, strops and then with incredible authority, and because he knew exactly what he was doing and his team had complete faith in his experience, the truck was expertly tipped upright and back on its wheels, almost kissing the ground beneath it. No thuds, no shouting, just pure skill, precision and experience at work! Lance Corporal Ian Bewers, 44, from Benfleet, serves with 150 Recovery Company in Reigate and is a very experienced Recovery Mechanic. On civvy street he trains drivers of petroleum vehicles. It’s a demanding job in itself, which he combines with a busy family, but he clearly loves his part-time role in the Army Reserves too, up to his arms in mud and grease and lugging bits of heavy metal around. “I get so focused on the skills I need for my civvy job, so coming on this training weekend has been great for getting me thinking about other strategies and refreshing and using different skills. I’m hoping to do my Class 1 Course in March, which will enable me to become a Crew Commander, and instruct the other soldiers and supervise these type of tasks. It’s a tough course and I’ll be able to draw from the experiences of this weekend.”
And so, after a really great day and with my introduction to 103 Battalion REME complete, I am off to my car – I’m out of window washer fluid, does anyone know how I open the bonnet .….?
If you are interested in joining the REME check out http://www.serfca.org/en-gb/reservists/ta/rhq103bnreme.aspx