Mud, sweat and cheers: Simon Hart meets soldiers on the Cambrian Patrol
A gruelling 65km route through the rugged Welsh mountains,
taking in rivers and knee-high mud, has become one of the world’s
most famous military exercises. Secretary of State for Wales
Simon Hart, who completed the Cambrian Patrol as a reservist in
1987, met with soldiers from across the globe taking on the
challenge this year. Kate Proctor reports.
As we pull up to the gates of The Barracks in Brecon, home of the 160th (Welsh) Brigade, the iron-grey sky looks ominous. Rain is a distinct possibility and there’s a chill in the air. “We actually like the weather to be a bit worse than this,” jokes one of the officers organising the event, playfully suggesting those currently out on the hills are getting an easy ride.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The 48-hour Cambrian Patrol, now in its 61st year, involves hundreds of soldiers in teams of six tracking their way through Brecon while carrying a 32kg backpack – about the weight of a 10-year-old child.
They face military exercises along the way. After 40km they switch from the “reassurance phase” of soldiering to an intense fighting phase where teams must defeat an enemy. For this section, if they’ve made it this far (and many don’t), they ditch their kit down to a 15kg “fight light” pack.
As they progress through the entire 65km mission, teams are met with various scenarios. They’ll deal with mock casualties from a bomb blast – actors with worryingly realistic-looking severed limbs. They’ll swim across a freezing river with their kit; sleep outside in all weathers; detect chemical threats in an abandoned village; drop “bombs” and shoot at “the enemy”; identify military vehicles from other nations; and deal with a simulated captured persons incident. There’s no GPS to guide them – it’s all down to a map and compass, and teamwork.
We’re told, as a fresh batch of teams head out, that it’s about “grit and guts” and learning how to create the winning edge on the battlefield. Just to get round is an accolade – there will be injuries, and teams often return to base with their numbers depleted. Those that prove particularly impressive are given bronze, silver or gold awards. Gold is considered an Olympic medal in patrolling and only about five per cent of participants achieve it in any one year.
Among our party is Simon Hart, Secretary of State for Wales. He completed the Cambrian Patrol as a reservist in 1987. “It brought back quite a lot of amusing, happy and painful memories! It was brilliant and this exercise is so highly valued it still flourishes today,” he says.
Hart recalls getting to the top of a particularly arduous hill in the lashing rain, only to then sink knee-deep in mud with every ensuing step. It took his team hours to make progress, and they had to use their SA80 rifle as a crutch to pull themselves through.
“Let’s face it, we weren’t doing anything especially extremely dangerous in that year of military history,” says Hart.
“A few people were in the Falklands a few years before but, by and large, I think it was a relatively peaceful time so the armed forces weren’t in large numbers anywhere.
“So in terms of us being subjected to really quite extreme physical conditions… Cambrian was right up there,” he says, picking up a backpack to remind himself of the weight they had to carry.
The motivation for Hart and his team was to complete the course ahead of the full-time soldiers. “The one thing you wanted as a reservist more than anything was not to be beaten by a regular soldier, and the one thing the regular soldiers dreaded was being beaten by a reservist. It was a matter of pride,” he says.
Another officer overhears and laughs: “It’s a creative tension in the institution, that’s for sure.”Hart says he wanted to prove that, just because they were working in the week, didn’t mean they would be any less determined, or fit, than those doing it full-time.
Sadly, on the day of our visit, none of the reservist teams completed the course, possibly due to disrupted training during 2020. The University Officers’ Training Corps teams, however, put in a particularly impressive display.
It brought back quite a lot of amusing, happy and painful memories.
Such is the global reputation of the patrol as a gold standard event, the number of international teams taking part grows annually. This year there were participants from France, the Netherlands, Greece, Pakistan, Lithuania and Denmark. A team from India won a coveted gold. And when Hart hands out a silver medal to the warrior-like Hellenic team at the end of their patrol, the participants look as stoic as you could imagine.
The international reputation of the Cambrian Patrol is also good for Wales, Hart explains. Only patrols in North America are on a par in terms of testing a soldier’s skills, fitness and mental strength. And at the Brecon barracks, a dedicated team works all year to prepare the Cambrian event.
“Wales has always punched above its weight in terms of military recruitment, and its military contribution is world famous,” says Hart. “It’s great to be back seeing it with my own eyes.”
Remembrance Day on 11 November provided an opportunity to reflect on the wider, and often life-saving, work the military does in Wales, Hart says, which explains why they are so often warmly received by the local community.
Personnel have been assisting the Welsh Ambulance Service with provide drivers due to the “extreme pressure” the service is currently facing during Covid, with patients waiting hours for paramedics to get to them.
The first cohort of 50 troops from the 4 Regiment Royal Logistic Corp were deployed in mid-October and trained at Newport’s Raglan Barracks.
Hart says: “Throughout history the army has always been on hand to come to the aid of local communities in times of need. The pandemic is a classic case where they’ve been able to drop everything and do some things for which I suspect they’ve never been formally trained but, because it’s a problem-solving mindset, they should be able to turn to whatever the task.
“It’s been one of the very reassuring elements of the pandemic that we have been able to rely on that.”
The secretary of state adds: “Now more than ever, Remembrance Day is a crucial time for us all to remember and reflect on the sacrifices and service of men and women across the country.
“The last 18 months have reminded people across Wales just how dependent we are on our armed forces service personnel, whether that was through the setting up of Nightingale hospitals or driving ambulances to support the NHS.”
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