One of the British Army’s two full-time professional free-fall parachute display teams have just come off spending two weeks on Op ROSE. This is the military’s code word for the operational deployment of troops supporting the Department of Transport in the testing for Covid of all lorry drivers and hauliers bound for continental Europe.
‘The Tigers Army Parachute Display Team’, to give them their full title, comprise of soldiers from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (PWRR) who ordinarily would be in training ahead of a summer season of public displays. However, eight of the ten-man team have been sent to Kent to help in the fight against Covid.
Since the advent of the Kent strain of the Coronavirus, all those crossing the Channel to mainland Europe are required to be tested for the virus. So, it was to the military that the Government initially turned to support the massive logistical challenge of testing and registering the tens of thousands of lorry drivers that pass through the Channel Tunnel and Port of Dover. Their task to initiate and run several large-scale testing sites in Kent to be handed over to civilian contractors as early as possible.
The soldiers have had to instruct the lorry drivers on how to conduct the Covid-19 lateral flow test. This involves preparing a phial of solution, demonstrating the taking of swab samples from both the back of the throat and each nostril. How to combine solution and sample and then the actual method of dripping the solution onto the indicator and reading the outcome of the results.
The team deployed to the Inland Border Facility; a huge purpose designed expanse located at Sevington just outside Ashford in Kent. It was constructed as a border control point for the checking of lorry documentation following Brexit and is being utilised as a location at which to ensure every driver has tested negative before heading on to the channel ports.
Corporal Liam Donovan (36) from Torquay explained, “This is all very different from what we would usually be doing. Normally in February we’d be busy doing reccies (reconnaissance visits) to display arenas checking out obstacles, approaches and any hazards; others would be getting down to training and trying out any new routines.”
The team performs between 25-30 shows each season that usually starts around Easter time and goes through until September. “We have eight of the team on Op ROSE, working two 12 hour shifts - four on nights and four on days, they are long shifts, but as we say we’re always soldiers fist and showmen second, so happy to ‘jump in’ (pun intended) and help.” Corporal Donovan went on to say, “It was our Officer Commanding the team , Lieutenant Ollie Soord-Gurney who got approached as he is a Army Reservist with the 3rd Battalion PWRR and it was he who asked whether the team could provide additional manpower to the task here in Kent.” It was all very appropriate really as the PWRR is the county regiment of Kent and recruits from across the county.
The troops work around the clock operating a two twelve-hour shift pattern. Each day the troops at the Sevington site have processed some 600 to 700 lorries and across the other sites in Kent that figure rises to over 2500 per day.
Despite having to endure working in sub-zero temperatures as Storm Darcy’s arctic blast swept across the south east many of the soldiers said their biggest challenge was having to communicate to so many differing nationalities – they also revealed it provided the greatest amusement to both them and the lorry drivers. With a combination of improvised sign language and a selection of pre-loaded images on their smart phones they managed to explain their way through the testing procedure.
The military are now in the process of training up their civilian counterparts who are expected to take over the running of the site in the next few days.
Although it remains very uncertain, the team hope to be able to once again thrill the crowds at some point later on with their free-fall displays Corporal Donovan said, “We are all very much looking forward to getting back to jumping again we all have our favourite shows such as Bournemouth, but for me coming from Torquay I’ll have to say I’m a bit biased towards the display we do for the Torbay Air Show. It’s been great to once again be able to assist when the country is requiring help.”