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Territorials on parade in Canada

PUBLISHED: 23:13 11 March 2002 | UPDATED: 11:32 03 March 2010

AS a tourist spot, Canada has a great deal to offer. There's Niagara, the Rockies, the CN tower, and enough impressive scenery to keep you busy for weeks.

AS a tourist spot, Canada has a great deal to offer. There's Niagara, the Rockies, the CN tower, and enough impressive scenery to keep you busy for weeks.

But if you're a member of the volunteer military obsessive, this country has a whole lot more to boast – as Debbie Watson discovered on a training exercise with members of Ipswich's Territorial Army. This is the first part in a three-part series explaining that adventure.

ARMED with their guns and poised like the epitome of military professionalism, a human wall of green is about to take its place in the field.

With temperatures striking 15 below, the wind is biting cold, the snow crisp, but the adrenaline unmistakably high.

An ally force, created chiefly of Canadians and Britons, is set for manouveres in the grounds of an Ontario military base.

They are about to embark on Operation Snow Snake.

A complicated strategy to the outsider, Snow Snake is in fact the fourth international exercise through which two specific units of volunteer soldiers are learning the art of each others' training.

In the British corner – the 158 Royal Anglian Transport Regiment.

In the Canadian – the 23 Hamilton Service Batallion.

Divided by continents but partnered by their dutiful motivation, both forces share the same common goal: they exist as a reserve pool of trained volunteers to assist their nation's military.

Here in Britain, and known country-wide as the Territorial Army, some 40,000 civilians belong to this designated volunteer force. Drawn from all manner of lifestyles, trades and backgrounds, they are seen as a crucial support mechanism – and their training is unquestionably testament to that obligation.

Where most hobbies start and stop within the boundaries of comfortable pleasure, and where most volunteer pastimes are indicative of sheer leisure – the Territorial Army defies those traditions.

Operation Snow Snake could simply not be any greater proof of that.

In fact, it it is the complete and perfect evidence of just how motivated and professional these men and women are.

The premise of the Canadian tour is that the visiting 'Brits' – plucked from Ipswich, Peterborough, Colchester, Bedford and Loughborough – will plunge headlong into the whys and wherefores of Arctic exercise.

It is a working environment quite unlike these volunteers could ever have experienced within the UK borders, and an opportunity to test their physical, mental and psychological aptitude to the very limit.

"A trip like this one essentially serves two main purposes," explained Royal Anglian's Officer Commanding, Major Sam Evans. "One is that we are given the opportunity to learn about working within a multi-national network – something that becomes crucial where a force is sent to action.

"The other is that we are able to continue with our regular training, and that we can do this in an environment which is very different to what we are typically used to."

He said: "This kind of trip is a particular challenge to our British TA members, simply because, at this time of year, there is such a huge contrast in the temperatures and the conditions.

"It takes a special person to be in the reserve forces; someone with genuine will-power and physical stamina.

"This type of exercise is the perfect opportunity for our members to demonstrate those skills."

Unwittingly, the timing of Operation Snow Snake could not have been any better for an outsider to observe those skills in full. Just days prior to the British arrival in Canada, a new defence Green Paper had publicly outlined the intention to have reserve forces playing a greater part in our national security.

It could clearly mean a more active role for the Territorial Army in future years – inspired chiefly by the international unrest surrounding September 11th.

Though Snow Snake is taking place in a relatively mild Canadian winter (as our international friends are keen to assure us), the conditions are still more than a strenuous testing ground for the forces.

Daily life is a mix of navigated marches (aided by snow shoes to relieve at least some degree of exertion), teamwork exercises, the cooking and eating of ration-pack meals, bedtimes under canvas….and of course, combat.

At the centre of the Operation is a night and day exercise code-named Ice Waggon.

Two teams – or temporary platoons – have been formed for the military procedure, with Britons and Canadians required to work together in each of the artificially-created units.

It is this core activity which best tests the competence of an evidently committed bunch of volunteers – be they British or Canadian.

Taken deeply seriously, and planned to the very finest detail, it demonstrates each and every one of the skills for which the Territorial Army was intended to provide.

Communication, map-plotting, defence systems, attack techniques – all our debated and undertaken with the upmost precision.

The Territorial Army suffers no fools.

"There's no getting away from it, this is a real challenge as a TA member from England," said Ipswich's Private Phil Jennings.

"The conditions take a lot of getting used to, because when it's this cold you notice how much longer it takes to do everything."

Pte Jennings has been in the TA for just three years.

Previously in the full-time Army, he is quick to share the comments of his enthusiastic comrades. He is keen to stress the great relationships that are built on a voluntary undertaking such as this.

"It's like a hobby in many ways – but at the same time, it's much more than that. You're gaining skills and qualifications for the civilian world, you're travelling to places you would never have otherwise visited, and above all, you're forming really strong friendships."

That bond of friendship is so incredibly apparent among many of the East Anglian visitors to Canada, and particularly in those who have arrived from the Colchester detachment of Ipswich's squadron.

"The friends you make in the TA are very strong," insisted 29-year-old Lance Corporal Luke Davidson, "and on an exercise like this they become even stronger because you can literally be helping to keep each other alive.

"The friends I have made through the TA Squadron are the friends I will always turn to for support in my civilian life.

"It's a special relationship because of the way you work together in the field and learn to entrust your life into their hands. It's something that we in the Territorial Army are very priviliged to experience."

Lc Cpl Davidson, who by day is a project co-ordinator in Chelmsford, is genuinely sold on his TA world.

"I get the best of both worlds with the TA," he said. "I get a civilian life and the time to lead my own life away from the military, and yet I get the chance to travel to places like Canada and to live the Army life too."

And anyone who doubts the TA ability to present that 'Army life', or believes the TA is a poor relation to the real thing – then Operation Snow Snake would have set that assumption straight.

To stand in the field as mock-gun battle breaks out, to hear the cries, watch the manouevers and witness the professionalism; is clearly to have felt military action at its most serious.

This is no game, no light-hearted exercise or trivial pastime.

This is a test of will, stamina and strength – one that most are happy to do for real.

"Without doubt, most TA members are happy to be used to greater meaning in 'the real world'," commented Lance Corporal Keith Horton from Ipswich's Colchester detachment.

"Personally I think we should be taking on a greater defence role, and members of the reserve forces are well equipped to be able to do that on behalf of the country.

"If I've realised anything from this experience in Canada, it is that we are a force to be reckoned with as reserves in Britain. We're very good at what we do and the commitment is very high."

Fellow squadron reserve, Michael Pilgrim added: "Working with the Canadian Service Batallion, it makes you aware of how many similarly dedicated people there are over the world.

"We've really benefited from working in their climate, comparing their tactics, and liasing with each other over action procedures. It's something so incredible that you can barely explain it to a person in the civilian world.

"All you can tell them is 'come try it'. This is a part of my life I couldn't be without."

Michael's dedication is far from unique.

In fact, even in the coldest, wettest, ddarkest moments, each and every one of the Royal Anglian Regiment could be seen willingly embracing their Canada Operation.

To them, this life is far more than a hobby, no less than a profession.

It is a network, an inspiration – a way of life that they clearly wouldn't alter for the world.

nIn part two of the Canadian adventure, Debbie Watson explains her own personal feelings about this tough military exercise.


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