More than 1300 British soldiers and 100 armoured vehicles, including Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank and Warrior Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle, from the 3rd UK Division are taking part in Exercise BLACK EAGLE, a British/Polish NATO exercise taking place in Western Poland.
Soldiers from Tidworth-based The King’s Royal Hussars (KRH), the UK’s Lead Armoured Battlegroup operating Challenger 2, are conducting live-firing battlefield scenarios alongside their Polish counterparts with Leopard Main Battle Tanks, whilst 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh (1R Welsh), with the Warrior, is providing the troops on the ground.
A significant demonstration of the UK’s support to the region and NATO’s Immediate Assurance Measures, Ex BLACK EAGLE also highlights the British Army’s ability to deploy an armoured battlegroup at short notice anywhere in the world in support of the nation’s allies.
A column of Warrior Armoured fighting vehicles move through an autumnal forest track in Poland.
“It’s important to put it in the context of a raft of wider initial security measures on behalf of NATO to reassure our Eastern European allies of the importance of deterrence,” said Lieutenant Colonel Justin Kingsford, Commanding Officer of The KRH. “That has been the foundation of UK defence policy since 1949.
“And, to send that message to our wider Eastern European partners that collective security is important to us, to the alliance and very much to NATO itself.
“It’s been a few years since we have deployed a force such as this at such high speed. But, we’ve got the capabilities to project force when we need to, albeit in a training scenario such as this, at fairly high speed and at fairly long distances.”
Major Alex Michael, Second in Command of The KRH, said: “Coming out here has been a revelation. We have been given the latitude to be able to create some valuable training that we would like to conduct. The infantry companies have found great value in being able to design the training exactly how they want it to run. And we have found that very productive.
Soldiers from Kings Royal Hussars are shown around the turret of the Polish Leopard 2 main battle tank.
“Certainly, there are lessons for us to learn in terms of how to deploy a battlegroup away from our shores, but it’s also been a lesson in how we can interact with foreign armies and how we can do some low level training with them.
“I know that the Polish are very keen to understand how we go about business. For example, low level things like how we mark our maps, how we give orders, and how we manoeuvre across the battle space. And, they have been very generous people and a joy to work with.”
Some of the Challengers, which saw action a decade ago in Iraq, were brought out of storage in Germany and updated with the latest armour and communications equipment. The Combined Service Support Group (CSSG) Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) is responsible for providing support to the battlegroup.
“You have the lead armoured battlegroup and behind them is the CSSG.” said Lt Col Anna-Lee Johnston, the Commanding Officer. “Basically, wherever they go we go and provide what we call second-line support. That’s logistics, medical, equipment support, policing support, signals support and EOD support. We are responsible for deploying and redeploying them.”
Integration has been the key factor on this exercise. “There’s no question they are reassured,” said Lt Col Johnston, who is the first woman to command an armoured close support REME battalion. “The Polish have really enjoyed working with us at every level, from the guys working on the tanks side-by-side with the guys working on Leopards, right the way through to the guys firing mortars or the snipers working together. It’s been brilliant.”
Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) use a maintenance day to do a 'pack lift', which means remove a complete power pack (engine and gearbox) and replace it with a reconditioned one.
Exercise BLACK EAGLE also sees the supporting units practising their drills in real-time on the battlefield, from 26 Engineer Regiment working with the new Terrier Armoured Digger and the General Support Bridge to the Light Aid Detachments (LADs) of the REME maintaining the Challengers and other armoured vehicles and equipment.
Sappers from 26 Engineer Regiment installed a General Support Bridge across the river that splits the training area, with the help of Polish engineers. During the final days of the exercise the bridge will be defended by the British as the Polish take on the role of the enemy.
A 32-metre bridge can be built by ten men in about 25 minutes and can take the weight of a fully laden 62-tonne Challenger tank.
Staff Sergeant Tim Brace, D Squadron KRH, said: “We trained in Poland 15 years ago. The training area is exactly the same but the technology has moved on a lot. The Challengers have been brought out of storage and updated. They’re big old beasts. They bite you sometimes if you’re not careful but they are reliable.
“When you get up in the morning and see a column of tanks, 56 Leopards and 20 Challengers, passing the hide, that’s quite impressive. It makes the ground rumble. They think tanks are a thing of the past… Not at all.”
Sergeant Neal Collins, Warrior Sergeant 1 Platoon, A Company 1R Welsh, said: “We provide the infantry element to the battlefield with the Warrior armoured infantry fighting vehicles. They are tracked and get right into the action, dismount the troops while we are still firing into the position, then the troops assault the position and take the fight straight to the enemy.”
Soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh Regiment prepare for the live ranges by identifying their arcs.
The culmination of the training exercise is the Distinguished Visitors Day (DVD) tomorrow, Friday 21 November, when high-ranking officials from the UK and Poland will enjoy a display of live firing and other battlefield manoeuvres — a scenario where the British are defending and counter attacking the Polish ‘enemy’.
When the UK’s commitment to the exercise was announced in July, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said: “It is right that NATO and partners demonstrate our commitment to the collective security of our allies in Eastern Europe. The commitment of a battlegroup to Exercise BLACK EAGLE shows our sustained and substantial support to NATO’s eastern border.”