Oh crap, it’s 7:30[am], I need to be somewhere! [I fumble my way out of the sleeping bag, sit up and look around] No wait, it’s too dark to be 7:30. Why am I in a forest? Never mind, just get back to sleep.
It was quite a relaxed morning; our first patrol wasn’t until midday: 1-section was to head 4km east to a suspected enemy position and recce (scout) it. As the spotter, it was my job to lead the route. Some-while later, we arrived at the location, but a massive open area meant we couldn’t get close to the position without being seen, and hence another kilometre walk around the field to the other side where a thick wood so we could get closer without being spotted. When we got there it was my job to draw a detailed map of the area with recommended angles of attack and support, while someone else was to take notes of what enemy forces could be seen and eg. what weapons they were carrying.
Overall the mission was a success; we found the enemy, they didn’t see us (we think), and we got back to base before sunset. The rest of the afternoon was spent digging up a scaled map of what we saw based one what I drew, using moss to represent forest, talcum powder for paths and blue tape for main roads.
At 7pm we were given orders for our next patrol. We were to ambush a location that 2-section recced during the day and believed the enemy would be returning. At 8, under the cover of darkness, we left with a warning of “100% chance of snow by 2am”. It was still dry, a little cold but we were all layered up appropriately. I was on sentry during the briefing so didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on; all I knew was that we’d walked for what felt like an eternity before reaching what turned out to only be the first of three checkpoints, and the first snow flakes were falling. It was actually hard to tell, given how dark it was, and because only my eyes were exposed to the elements, I could only feel the occasional flake. That said, the ground did seem to be getting gradually lighter. I was convinced it was just a change in the type of grass, until we came to cross a road. It wasn’t until then I could appreciate how much it was actually snowing. The route turned out to be 8km (5 miles) in total, and when we arrived at the last checkpoint, 1-section’s job was to form a defensive perimeter around it while 2 and 3 sections and the machine-gun group went to line up along a verge, hidden in the grass, ready to pounce as the enemy strolled by.
As I sat there in the woods, I watched the frost building up on my legs, wiping it off occasionally in between bites of chocolate and sips of near-freezing water. It wasn’t too long before a sudden burst of machine gun fire broke the silence, followed by a chorus of 20 rifles.
A few minutes later we were on our way again. The snow had built up considerably, but the air was still calm. This changed as we reached the edge of the wood line and were suddenly slapped by a blizzard to the face. The platoon commander decided it was harsh enough to justify the short cut back, meaning just(!) 3 miles to go. Some jokes were cracked to keep spirits up, while I tried to develop a method of blinking that’d shake the frost from my eyelashes without having to use my hands.
We got back at midnight to find our basha (thin cover sheet that we sleep under) was so weighed down by snow that it had completely collapsed except for a spike in the centre, where it was attached by string to a tree. The snow was building up as fast as we could clear it, and pouring in through the sides, so we set up a second shelter.
Remember this is just a training exercise, not a man-test! If you feel yourself going down, come and find me, we’ll go for a run-around and drop you off at the wagon where you can sleep with the heating on. I don’t want any “heroes” going down with hypothermia!
Despite the cold, I was reluctant to get under the basha and into my sleeping bag. I dried off as much as I could before getting into my bivvy-bag, where I took off my boots and then crawled into my sleeping bag (after scooping out the snow and ice that had collected inside it), where I rolled my trousers down to my ankles. By this point we’d already had to clear the snow off the top twice, and had given up now that we were tucked up, meaning it wasn’t long before the basha collapsed completely and was now effectively a sub-zero, several-inch thick, white blanket. Except normal blankets warm you up, not cool you down.
And so begins a standard sleepless night in a frozen-over hell. It begins with no longer being able to tolerate the cold air circulating around your head, so you dig deeper into your sleeping bag and seal the top, waking up a few minutes later gasping for air because you’re using up your oxygen supply, so you open up and face the cold once more, and repeat the cycle. Meanwhile another cycle is going on elsewhere: water evaporating off your damp clothes, condensating on the edge of the sleeping bag, and then dripping back onto you, and the humidity build-up is slowly working its way deeper into your sinuses.
By around 4:30 I hit the bottom. I was constantly out of breath, probably worn out from shivering so much. I felt an urge to lose a few layers to get more comfortable, but knowing this was an early symptom of hypothermia, I managed to hold the discipline to keep them on. I needed to go wake up the platoon sergeant and jog over to the wagon, but knew that the act of getting out of my sleeping bag into the cold, faffing about putting my boots on and getting back into my still-damp clothes would send me over the edge. Perhaps the safest thing to do after all would be to just stay in the sleeping bag, adopt a tighter foetal position and keep the legs moving to make sure they don’t go numb. Thankfully it stopped snowing and the temperature began to rise a bit. Two hours later, with a sore throat and headache,it was time to get myself up and then wake everyone else, by first checking to see if they were actually still alive.
After doing the rounds, we assessed the damage. There was snow in my helmet and radio earpiece, but worse still, my jacket had frozen solid. For the first time ever, I put on my waterproof on underneath my jacket, as to not get wet while it defrosted on me.
Preparing for the Assault
Orders came for an assault on the position we scouted yesterday, meaning I had to lead the entire platoon through the snowy wonderland, managing to avoid the ponds that has frozen and snowed over, blending in with the rest of the fields.
The attack itself was over pretty quickly; one of our guys spotted the enemy from over half a kilometre away, meaning the machine-guns could get them pinned down pronto and we could advance on their location speedily. I only used half of a single magazine in the entire battle.
Despite the freezing cold, the over-all morale was incredibly high and the jokes were coming out. When things are really that miserable, the slightest comfort, whether it’s an extra hour of sleep, or couple of sweets being handed your way, is multiplied ten-fold. And when we look at the weather forecast, and half the guys decide not to turn up, it means the few that are left are the keen ones who don’t lose morale so easily, taking down the rest of the platoon with them. I’m especially impressed with the 8 army cadets who turned up(and they don’t even get paid to be there!), putting those who wimped out to shame.
On the ride back, we thought about the sight we woke up to. I thought about the 2 tent-pegs I’d lost while shifting snow off the basha, until someone realised: “Crap, our model’s still buried under there!”