Category Archives: 135 Independent Geographic Squadron

103 Battalion REME


Ex-Himalayan Tiger

As we sat in the tea house, considering an apple pie masquerading as a Cornish pasty, we began to   wonder exactly what it was that we had got ourselves into.  We were 50m away from Lukla’s airstrip – aka the World’s scariest airport, and several days walk from Everest Base Camp via a lot of “Nepali flat”.  It seemed a long time since the posters had first been put up around the Battalion advertising “the trip of a lifetime” to Nepal.  With just 12 places available for members of 103 Bn REME, the selection involved a classic English trudge across the South Downs one delightfully damp weekend in November 2012, followed by an extreme weekend in Brecon doing the Pen y fan route in Force 8+ winds in Feb 2013.  Suddenly the training weekends we’d completed in the UK didn’t seem preparation enough when considering the mountains we could see out of the window.

View of the mountains

View of the mountains

We’d been in the country for 4 days at this point, and were already 2 days behind schedule.  After sitting in the chaos of Kathmandu domestic airport for 2 days waiting for the weather to clear, we’d given up on the airplane and arranged for a more exciting and possibly less terrifying helicopter flight.  Our first experience of a tea house (trekking phrase for a youth hostel really) was something of an eye opener.  The rooms were basic but nice, and the beds had what looked like mattresses on – they even had sheets and blankets, although you probably wouldn’t want to sleep in them without the protection of your sleeping bag.  But it was just so cold.  This turned out to be one of the themes of the trip, with the temperature decreasing as the altitude increased.  By the time we got to 5545m at Kala Pattar most of us were dreaming of being on a beach in the Bahamas.  But the experience was outstanding.

The glacier we crossed

The glacier we crossed

We made it to Namche Bazaar at the end of Day 2, the main town of the SagamarthaNational Park, the Nepalese name for Everest.  This was our last real sign of civilisation for the next 8 days, and sold almost everything you could wish to buy.  The most amazing part of this is that everything is carried up to Namche either on a Porter’s back, or using Donkeys or Zos.   A Zo is a cross between a Yak and a cow.  We even passed a porter carrying a full sized fridge freezer on his back.  This humbled us somewhat as our measly 15kg rucksacks didn’t really compare.   From Namche our route quickly took us away from the crowds, as we headed North to the beautiful Gokyo lakes.  We had a poignant two minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday next to one of the lakes, surrounded by a thin layer of snow.  The following morning, we had a 0330 hours start in order to climb Gokyo peak in time for sunrise, which was by far the coldest moment of most of our lives, but an incredibly satisfying achievement and a real experience to see the sun rise on Mount Everest.  And we soon forgot about the cold that day, as our route took us over a swelteringly hot glacier.  Crossing a glacier was another first for many of us.  Because of the amount of rock debris that the glacier had collected it took a while for most of us to realise there was any ice at all.  And the huge peaks and troughs on the surface meant that there was little air movement.  The next day was another big marker in our trek, as we headed East to cross the Cho La Pass.  While the group had known this was likely to be the most challenging day of the trek, the sheer scale of it surprised many of us.  It took 4 hours just to get to the top and the last part involved climbing up a wall of snow that was at the limit of what we were able to trek without crampons.  Stepping into the sunshine at the summit of the pass and feeling the heat from the sun was glorious.

The team at the top of Cho La Pass

The team at the top of Cho La Pass

We then wound our way through the valleys as we headed towards Everest base camp.  The altitude was starting to show in everybody.  Energy levels were generally sapped while the body worked hard just to keep the vital functions going; loss of appetite meant that eating anything was becoming a real effort; and trying to drink 4 – 5 litres a day was getting harder and harder.  Reaching the summit of Kala Pattar became an even bigger highlight, because the rest of the trek was then spent walking down to lower altitudes where simple tasks such as breathing were so much easier.   Four days later we found ourselves back at Lukla airstrip, although this time we were allowed to pop into the Irish bar to see what the breweries of Kathmandu had to offer.  As we flew back into the city and said goodbye to the mountains, the rose tinted glasses were already coming over.  With the odd comment of “well, it wasn’t that hard really”, and “Cho La Pass wasn’t that cold”, and with the prospect of a hot shower, a bed with a duvet, and more than Dal Bhat to choose on the menu, that contented feeling was starting to come over all of us.  All round a fantastic trip, and very much the challenge of a lifetime.

If you are interested in joining the REME please visit http://www.serfca.org/en-gb/reservists/ta/rhq103bnreme.aspx

 

 

 

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Army Reserve Open Day


Open Day held at Blighmont Barracks, Southampton

To all those fit 18 – 43 year olds from Southampton who spent Sunday 13 October in the pouring rain, wondering what to do, well you missed a trick.

You all missed a fantastic open day with the Army Reserve, at Blighmont Barracks, Millbrook Road.

It could not have rained harder but chatting to members of 457 Battery Royal Artillery, with their new Stormer Missile launcher on display, 266 Port Regiment with their amphibious equipment, the Army Medical Services, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and the Military Police, the rain had made their day because “It’s not training if it’s not raining!” so they told us!

Obstacle course set up and ready

Obstacle course set up and ready

The hot news is that the Territorial Army will become the Army Reserve in the new year, so Southampton and Portsmouth Reserve Units stepped up their recruiting machine and came together to kick off the Autumn to  put on one of the South’s largest recruiting events seen in Southampton for some time. The Army is actively recruiting both Regulars and Reservists.

Speaking to Lance Bombardier Jodie from Thorney Island she told us, “It’s about working as a team, the Army and the Army Reserve together, it makes sense.”

A busy entrance to Blighmont

A busy entrance to Blighmont

Supporting the Regular Army with a Reserve force is nothing new, Since 2003 their have been more than 25,000 Reservists mobilisations, fighting alongside their Regular counterparts, so to find out if you like ‘training when it is raining’ – visit www.army.mod.uk

On tour with 135 Independent Geographical Squadron Royal Engineers


Thelma in Helmand Province

Hello from Afghanistan!

I am now over 70% of the way through my tour and have just under two months left in theatre. However my return flight is yet to be confirmed so I am not pinning too many hopes on getting home by a particular date! I have been overwhelmed by the amount of support (and food!) that I have received from friends and colleagues so I wanted to provide you all with a bit of an update on what I have been up to. I hope this finds you well.

The arrival of our team out here was staggered over two and a half months with LCpl Wadlow the first to arrive five weeks before me and WO2 Coleman the last to be in post in mid January. During the past couple of months we have beenrotating through R&R, with at least one person out of theatre most of the time.

We are now a complete team for only a few more days before WO2 Coleman goes on R&R, by the end of which Lcpl Wadlow will have finished his tour and his successor will be in place. It’s these milestones that help us keep track of timeas otherwise most days are pretty routine and it can all blur together!

In February I managed to get to Kandahar for a two day visit and to see the Theatre Map Depot where another colleague from my TA unit is working. It was good to catch up with him and to see another base; it is completely different to Bastion which feels really quiet in comparison. Kandahar is based around the airfield and there is a lot more permanent infrastructure there including brick buildings, tarmacked roads and the famous Boardwalk which is an area of shops and restaurants (including TGI Friday’s!) on a raised wooden walkway surrounding a square where they play basket ball etc. It has almost a village green feel to it. Kandahar also has it’s very own tourist attraction in the form of a poo pond where all the waste is deposited and aerates and bubbles away. It is the done thing to go and have your photo taken next to the biohazard sign and I even managed to find a T-shirt advertising the Poo Pond Cafe (I was disappointed not to find the actual cafe though!) Kandahar generally felt a lot more sociable than Bastion as there was definitely a lot more to do outside of work.

At the Poo Pond, Kandahar

At the Poo Pond, Kandahar

I also managed to get out to Lash Kar Gah for a day a few weeks ago. The city is in the Green Zone, about a twenty minute helicopter flight away from Bastion. I went down to deliver some maps and to meet the Geo Cell that are based there. The flight was by Chinook and I took the opportunity to film it from the window. The loadie saw me with my camera and I thought he was going to tell me to stop filming but instead he invited me to sit up next to the door so I could get a better picture! He then spoke over his mic to the pilot who then flew us low over the town and for the first time I saw normal Afghans going about their daily business. There were people on bikes, in trucks and walking their donkeys. At one point we were so low that the wash from the back of the helicopter was making peoples washing flap up violently around on the washing lines in their compounds. It gave me a very brief glimpse in to the world of the every day Afghan and made me wonder about the challenges they face dealing with the insurgency that are all around that area.

Being stuck on base at Bastion can be frustrating at times and I would love to be able to get out more but the job I do does not warrant it. I can’t complain though; at least the chances of me coming home in one piece are pretty high. The base at Lash is tiny in comparison to Bastion and the perimeter fence is only a mile or so long but it seemed friendly and more relaxed Also there were flowers there – tulips, marigolds and poppies (of course). It was the first time in three months that I’d seen any form of vegetation as opposed to just sand, dust and rocks and it was delightful. We travelled back that night by Merlin helicopter in pitch darkness; they switch the lights off to make it less of a target for anyone aiming an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) at us.

Arriving at Kandahar Airfield

Arriving at Kandahar Airfield

I had my R&R during March and it was great, but over far too quickly. Amazingly the RAF got me back to Brize Norton on schedule and we landed at lunch time on my birthday, which was a lovely birthday present in itself. On the way to Salisbury and within an hour and a half of landing I managed to do a skydive, still in my uniform (we were passing Netheravon Airfield anyway and the sun was shining so I took the opportunity!). I visited my family in Somerset and then I went skiing for a week in Austria, where the snow was fantastic and I treated myself to a new pair of skis with my hard earned army wages! I then just had time to see some friends for dinner in London before driving up to Brize Norton and flying back that same night.

All this was lovely but the dashing around took it’s toll (a rookie mistake I’m told – the more experienced, wiser ones just go home and do nothing!) and I returned to theatre ill with a cold…and then got worse not better! After a week of trying to “griz it out” I eventually dragged myself to the med centre where a doctor listened to my chest, confirmed bronchitis and prescribed 7 days of penicillin and as much rest as work would allow. It took another two weeks to start feeling anywhere near 100% again though and it took me a long while to get back into any kind of routine fitness wise with a lot of ground to make up! Sadly there has been another vigil service to attend for another lad who was shot by a rogue Afghan soldier. He was only the second British soldier to die in the time that I have been here which I believe is an improvement on last year but we are only really at the beginning of the Taliban fighting season so incidents could start to increase again soon. However the move towards the transition of power over to the Afghan Army is continuing apace and they are now in the lead for the majority of operations. This means that there are less of our boys out on the ground doing the actual fighting than previously so hopefully the numbers of deaths and serious injuries should remain low. However it also means that the afghans are the ones taking the brunt of the casualties now as the insurgency are not simply giving up. Every so often we get an IDF attack on the base (Indirect Fire – someone trying to rocket us) The loud bang is preceded by tan alarm as there are instruments which detect incoming fire and we have to don our body armour and helmets and get ourselves to the nearest blast shelter (which are located pretty much everywhere). The last one was at 2am on Sunday night and it was the bang and not the alarm that woke myself and my room mate up (although we’re told it did sound). We had to leave our room and congregate in a shelter at the end of our pod while a register was taken and we waited for further information. Apparently there were six rockets in total and eventually the all clear was sounded and we were allowed back to our beds after about 45 minures. Sunday was the Mujahadeen Victory day and we were told to anticipate some kind of action as it is the day that marks the official beginning of the fighting season for the Taliban so things could get more interesting from now on in!

IMG_0931

The future of this country relies on the Afghans being able to run effective operations against the insurgency and it is no secret that huge numbers desert the army every year when they have enough of battle conditions. At the end of next year ISAF (international Security Assitance Force – ie us, the USA etc) support will be withdrawn all bar special forces and small mentoring teams so everyone is feeling the pressure.

The team I work in is training a small group of Afghan soldiers to be geo technicians so they can produce their own mapping. These people however did not grow up with computers so it takes them a long time to grasp even basic concepts so the training objectives are constantly being revised and adjusted to fit in with what is feasible as new challenges come to light. Also they do not have the same levels of discipline and timings are not as key in their culture as in ours so they turn up when they feel like it. The training is all conducted through our interpretor, Abdul, a native Afghani who escaped to Canada with his family when the Russians invaded. He is a lovely man who is very patient and humble and is excellent at his job which he has been doing for three years so has worked with many versions of our team. The other day during a tea break in the training he was interpreting for one of the soldiers who was telling us a little about his life. I always want to ask more but there is never enough time. Here we are enjoying a break in training with the Afghans and partaking in tea and some of the cakes and treats sent by friends and colleagues at both Southwark Council and the City of London.

In other news our team chill out area that we started working on before R&R is now finished – complete with decking and hammocks! My contribution was to source all the materials from around the camp and I managed to acquire decking wood, nails, paint, paint brushes and rope. Lcpl Westhead and WO2 Coleman did the construction work and Lcpl Wadlow added the finishing touches by painting Royal Engineers Crests on the walls. We also acquired a barbeque and have had a couple of Saturday evenings eating al fresco, which has made a pleasant change to the noisy and over crowded chow hall!

Also on the entertainment side of things, every so often there is a CSE show (Combined Services Entertainment) for the troops. Celebrities and entertainers arrive and travel round to the different bases for a few days doing a show in each location. Katie Melua was over here a while ago did a gig outside the NAAFI which was very good and drew quite a big crowd. The comedians who did the warm up act though were probably the highlight for most people as they had the whole audience in stitches. Needless to say the humour was pretty rude and appealed to squaddies of all ranks. In the cookhouse after the show I found I was in the queue next to one of the comedians and he invited me to join him on their table for dinner where I got to meet Katie herself.

For more information please visit http://www.serfca.org/en-gb/reservists/ta/135independentgeographicsquadronre.aspx

Turkey – Gallipoli Battlefield Tour 23 – 26 May 13


135 Independent Geographic Squadron Royal Engineers

In the very  early hours of the 23 May, 15 soldiers from Ewell based 135 Independent Geographic Squadron Royal Engineers  made their way to Luton airport for the trip to Istanbul. Having been briefed on the visit, it wasn’t long before somebody got found out for not paying attention to the finer points of the joining instructions.

When boarding the flight, 14 of the 15 got on ok, but I didn’t. Packing lightly isn’t something that comes easily to me so I ended up shelling out £40 to Easyjet as my bag needed to go in the hold, due to its weight and size. What I wasn’t expecting was that this charge would mean that Easyjet didn’t do anything with it, as it turned out they wanted me to take it to the plane – what was the charge for again?

After a 4 hour flight we arrived in Turkey, all wide eyed to what we were about to experience. The trip to the hotel was achieved by boarding almost all forms of public transport, starting with a bus trip then a boat ride and ending with a tram journey.

On arrival at the hotel everyone seemed keen to get a shower and fresh clothes, but this was delayed when the hotel manager could only inform us that our booking was cancelled and we had no rooms.  After many phone calls and haggling we managed to get a hotel in a neighbouring street, which actually seemed better than the original.

The Sqn at the Çanakkale Martyrs Memorial

The Sqn at the Çanakkale Martyrs Memorial

I had pretty much learnt that Turkish people are quite friendly people who are big on hospitality and making there guests welcome. It was also very evident about  their national pride, as most of the Turkish flags are big enough to be seen for miles.

We also made sure the trip was packed with cultural visits to various places of interest within Istanbul. Sgt Walshe being the tour guide was a bonus, as it made visits to the Hagia Sophia and the city walls come to life……The man is a walking encyclopaedia!

We were also all tasked in teams of three with answering questions related to the Gallipoli conflict a few weeks before the trip, this was to encourage us to study more about the history and the understand the purpose of the trip. Many of the presentations were very well put together, and each team took it in turns to present theirs throughout the visit.

On the last full day of the trip we made the long journey from Istanbul to Gallipoli, which was only interrupted by the mini bus having a cam belt snap.  Once the trip resumed we could look forward to seeing all the beaches that the Allied Forces landed.  Here we saw the difficult terrain the Allied forces had to fight on, and were better able to appreciate why the landings had resulted in such huge casualties and the ultimate failure of the campaign.

I for one hadn’t realised the task ANZAC forces had in taking the cove. Having seen the film of the event, and now actual visiting it I could now fully understand why they struggled to move forward. The Turkish forces had tactical supremacy as they occupied the high ground.  I had also learnt from the trip that allied forces may have actually been successful if the British had continued to make ground and keep momentum, of which they didn’t.

At the British forces memorial WO2 Hunt was able to locate the name of a family member who fell all those years ago. Whilst it was interesting to see all the different Regiments and units that no longer exist, it did remind us of the huge loss of life that was a result of the failed mission of taking the Gallipoli peninsula.

The visit to one of the beaches that British forces landed on turned out to be quite an experience. Craters still exist in the soil along with pieces of shrapnel, and bullet cases. I even found some pottery but was quickly told that it wasn’t that old and I was just picking up rubbish.

Having seen the film about Gallipoli I now know that visiting is a lot more beneficial to learning about history. It gives a sense you were there, and also the conditions the men were in.  Hopefully we can all learn something from the mistakes made all those years ago.

Battlefield tours have a huge role to play in education. Sometimes a book or film isn’t enough, seeing the very place and understanding the reasons for the outcome can become more apparent from a visit. I would recommend anyone to attend a battlefield tour, not just to learn, but also to pay our respects to those who fell.

LCpl Will Dawe

For more information on 135 Independent Geographic Squadron Royal Engineers please visist http://www.serfca.org/en-gb/reservists/ta/135independentgeographicsquadronre.aspx

Exercise Cockney Etrangeres


Tech Task

Whilst on annual camp, 135 Geographic Squadron RE was tasked with carrying out a live technical task – to produce orienteering maps of four areas on the island of Jersey in order to practice our core GIS and Data Collection skills. This essentially involved two disciplines in three stages, Data Survey and map production using ARC GIS 10 (Geographic Information Systems).

The first stage involved the GIS team to conduct a desktop study of existing geographic data.  The field computer banks were transported from Ewell to Jersey Field Squadron HQ via MAN trucks and set up as a working Geo cell.  Using existing aerial imagery of the designated orienteering areas, the GIS team interpreted and plotted overlays on top of the imagery according to the international orienteering map standards.  Due to the fact that the imagery was five years old, features, both manmade and natural had to be verified.  Interpretation of the imagery could be incorrect and there was a requirement to go into the area to confirm and gather information.  For example, what looked like a grassy field on the imagery could now in fact be an impenetrable field classed ‘as wooded area’.

The Hon Col Dr Vanessa Lawrence being shown one of the new orienteering maps by SSM Les Hunt

The second stage commenced with the data survey team going into each of the four areas to be mapped to collect data, armed with the image maps compiled by the GIS team.  Each area was recce’d to choose two suitable base station locations which are fixed in position for the duration of the survey.  Their job is to take continual readings from satellites and between each other to make error corrections in position and then transmit these corrections to the roving GPS poles which are used to collect data.  This improves the accuracy of the positions being surveyed.  We found the perfect location for base station one, on the top of the tallest hill above a second world war bunker. Unfortunately this also meant we had to keep traipsing up and down said hill!

Base station two had to be on the other side of the area being surveyed as there were no obvious high points so we had to settle with a sand dune.  The next day we returned to commence the task, only to find that the wind had picked up, so much so that the instrumentation that we had set up on tripod legs blew straight over.  Down we went to the Land Rovers, retrieved the sandbags and shovel and weighted down the tripod legs, having used the convenient abundance of sand from the dunes all around us.  To minimise the likelihood of a passer by stealing our base station survey equipment, we hid all of the survey equipment boxes (used to transport it) within the bunker.  Base station two was assembled and we were off, capturing data.  Two hours in and the satellite signal died; the battery powering the base station antenna had died. We learned our lesson and opted for the bigger battery the next day.  On top of all this, it was raining each morning but by the time base stations were set up, the Jersey sunshine came out for us.

Cpl Carl Presswood setting up on site

Two survey teams worked in conjunction in each area, communicating by radio.  Comms were critical since requirements were updated throughout the day including location of transportation vehicles and logistical challenges; we had to transport people from camp HQ to survey area and vice versa; this used up resource and slowed up the progress of the task in hand.

Second World War bunkers and gun emplacements were a strong theme of interest throughout our data collection and acted as useful markers and interesting history lessons!

A memorable highlight was when the survey team came to the aid of a lady stranded on the beach in her car. Like good Sappers, we safely recovered her vehicle before the incoming tide swamped it.  She turned out to be the daughter of the founder of Butlins but unfortunately we weren’t offered any free accommodation for next year’s camp!

Myself and Cpl Morley were busy ‘pinging; points when to our horror, as we were approaching our base station being guarded by our sergeant we saw him, stripped to the waist, his pale white body glistening like a beacon as he took in the radiant Jersey sun.  Embarrassed by our heckling since he thought no one could see him hidden in the undergrowth, he quickly got his top back on before any more blinded sea gulls fell out of the sky.

Cpl Carl Presswood and Spr Kieran Terry

This tech task was also a training exercise and the time taken to overcome problems rapidly diminished as the team became slicker.  Once all the information was gathered in the form of GPS linked photographs and GPS data points, they were transposed onto computer and read in conjunction with the existing imagery. The time consuming task of creating the correct international orienteering standardised symbology and correctly classifying parcels of land to the ease of movement was a challenge, especially as we had very little experience of using orienteering maps previously. By day five, tensions were rising in our makeshift Geo Cell; French spellings were being scrutinised, debates on whether bunkers were bunkers or gun emplacements got technical and Naafi breaks had been cancelled. However we were kept entertained throughout by the Radio Jersey karaoke by the chefs in the kitchen next door!

Cpl OJ kept morale high in the Geo cell; as an invaluable asset to the team, he also made certain that it was easier to get into FortKnox than locating the files we were working on!

Sergeant Windle kept us motivated and encouraged us, with comments like ……. unrepeatable in print, and “get this kit set up”.

Cpl Presswood took overall command but like all good leaders, he omitted to tell us that the witness marks had not been taken and then flapped when we told him we didn’t have time to cover for him…haha, funny – we sorted him out after letting him sweat.

LCpl Walmsley did a smashing job in creating the orienteering map and then died of shame when the visiting CO pointed out that there was a spelling mistake.

This same CO caught Cpl Presswood and Sgt Windle eating lunch; the exact time when they downed tools for a brew was the exact time that he rocked up in the car park to see them ‘working’ flat out – busted.

Sgt Trepanier (American exchange) did a great job in collecting survey data on vegetation until she found that she had used the wrong base point and she had to do it all again – next time check first

We had all checked that each team had the correct kit before leaving base, and then one team promptly drove off without the booking sheets meaning that they had to write everything up after the days surveying, doh – special. All good learning points for the next time!

By the end of the five day task, we had captured over 2500 GPS points, taken over 400 photographs and successfully produced two orienteering maps to officially handover to the Combined Cadet Force and Jersey Field Squadron. The customers were happy and we had all learned a great deal.

For more information please visit : http://www.serfca.org/en-us/reservists/ta/135independentgeographicsquadronre.aspx