Guarding the priceless Crown Jewels is a monumental responsibility, and none of the Guardsmen on duty at the Tower of London can afford to let a heatwave, even one classified as Category 4, affect their concentration.
We met up with the Irish Guards just before they finished a week on guard at the Tower of London, England’s oldest permanently Guarded fortress, to find out what they had learned from operating as frontline infantry in some of the world’s hottest places, lessons that they can offer others as the thermometer rises.
With heat being a potentially lethal enemy, soldiers are trained early on to spot the dangers and deal with them swiftly so they can then concentrate all their efforts on their main mission. While many tourists to London may pity the Guards carrying out their ceremonial duties in such extreme weather, little do they realise that the discipline this requires, and the resilience it creates, is precisely that which will make them battle ready for frontline operational success.
While it will be hot and sweaty, the measures we have put in place ensures the Guard Mount never stops Lieutenant Colonel James Shaw, Brigade Major The Household Division
The 1st Battalion Irish Guards looked surprisingly cool on what was one of the hottest weeks not just of 2022, but since records began. While tourists flaked in shorts and t-shirts, the Guards were as stoic and immaculate as ever in their scarlet ceremonial wool and brass buttoned uniforms, thick, heavy, mirror polished parade boots and towering bearskin caps.
Heat can be very dangerous
Luckily these dual role soldiers have had recent experience of working in even more blistering temperatures than those experienced in London recently.
They have spent the last two years away from ceremonial on operational duties including serving in countries such as South Sudan (which can hit 40 degrees Centigrade) and Iraq (which can suffer a mean 46 degrees Centigrade in Summer).
Irish Guards Captain Ryan Robinson, 44, from Armagh is highly experienced in combatting the worst the heat can present. He’s served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cyprus and knows the signs of heat damage all too well.
As Captain of the Tower of London Guard in some of the worst of the heatwave he was determined none of his Guardsmen would suffer heat exhaustion.
Heat can be very dangerous, as he explained: “It’s tough and hard work to keep your concentration when it’s hot. The heat debilitates you very, very quickly, you dehydrate fast, and that has a domino effect as it affects your brain’s ability to function, your decision making, your concentration, your body’s ability to cool itself down, and all too soon everything goes wrong”.
Combat soldiers first
“It’s important that the public understand that the ceremonial soldiers they see on duty at the Royal Palaces are professional combat soldiers.
"Many of us have considerable experience fighting in severe conditions overseas, but some are brand new to the regiment and ceremonial duties are a great introduction to building the discipline and resilience needed to be effective in a challenging combat environment.
these soldiers are learning really important lessons about understanding what the body needs to function, how it reacts when those needs aren’t adequately met, and how and when to correct it, not just for themselves but for their fellow soldiers too Captain Ryan Robinson, Irish Guards
Ceremonial is demanding
"Because ceremonial is so demanding, and there’s no room for error because we’re operating firmly in the public eye, these soldiers are learning really important lessons about understanding what the body needs to function, how it reacts when those needs aren’t adequately met, and how and when to correct it, not just for themselves but for their fellow soldiers too.”
On overseas missions, The Guards can find themselves wearing equally heavy uniforms to their ceremonial clothing, especially when you take into account operational body armour, helmets and protective pads.
Some will be operating in armoured vehicles which can add ten to fifteen degrees to the outside temperatures.
Those on foot will be required to routinely carry heavy loads in the heat, including ammunition, additional weaponry, water, rations and other survival equipment. This adds up to around 65kgs per person, (about 145lbs), which, especially when the temperature rises, requires lots of energy, physical strength and mental resilience.
For the Guards, operating in the heat is something they must be able to do, and preparedness always comes first: ensuring that soldiers are fit, well rested and have the right nutrition is key. As the worst of the Heatwave approached, the Irish Guards, their seven day stint completed, handed over duties to the Scots Guards. With temperatures breaking all records the Army adapted and introduced additional safety measures.
Commanders watched each and every soldier and conducted regular checks on those on sentry duty to ensure they were keeping hydrated and to look out for the first signs of heat illness.
Captain Ryan Robinson explained: “Every soldier learns about how to prevent heat illness when they first join the Army. How to spot and treat it in themselves and others is reviewed and updated annually as part of their mandated continuous training course, so every Guardsman is always keeping a vigilant eye not just on themselves but on every other member of the battalion to ensure that everyone is healthy, fit and looked after.
“It’s this high degree of teamwork that keeps people at their optimum level, focussed and ever ready to react to whatever eventuality presents itself.
“It’s so important to keep checking up on people in the heat, because often the person worst affected may not realise until it’s too late.
"People tend to think someone that’s sweating profusely must be really suffering, but actually it’s when someone isn’t sweating despite wearing body armour and carrying 30lbs that the alarm bells start ringing. That’s a clear sign their body isn’t working to keep them cool anymore because it’s too dehydrated.
“Before they reach that stage you’ll notice they might be a bit dopey, not that responsive, making silly little mistakes. They might seem a bit detached. These are all clear signs somethings going wrong.
“If you find someone like that it’s really important to act fast.
"Straight away get them cooled down, get them in the shade, get water on board, and call for medical advice. We all carry electrolytes in case of emergencies and they can help boost hydration quickly in people who’re suffering from heat exhaustion.
“When it’s hot we’re very strict about what we drink. No fizzy drinks, no energy drinks, because your body just needs water and anything else puts too much strain on your system.”
It’s not just the challenge of enduring duties in the hot sun that makes working in the heat so challenging.
Once the duties are done, the Guardsmen can’t rest as they then need to prepare for their next duty.
It's always double the effort in the heat Captain Ryan Robinson, Irish Guards
Maintaining the highest standards
This means making sure their weapons and uniforms are at the highest standards.
Captain Robinson said; “Usually a Guardsman will spend a couple of hours a day after duties preparing their kit for the following day. In the heat that more than doubles to four and half hours as you’re having to be much more thorough in the heat. It’s the equivalent of having to constantly apply cam cream on jungle training and constantly cleaning your weapon in the desert. Whether you are on ceremonial duty or on operations, it’s always double the effort in the heat.”
It's a sweaty business
Their uniforms are silk lined to prevent chaffing from the heavy wool, but this will become saturated with sweat in the heat and need to be cleaned and dried.
Sweat on the brass curb chain that holds their bearskins in place will need scrubbing off with soapy water and then the chain needs re polishing before every use.
Worst of all are the parade boots. The deep layers of wax that give the boots their mirror shine melts in the heat so when the Guards come off sentry duty often the first thing they’ll do is start the painstaking process of preparing their boots again for their next duty.
Bearskins protect from glare
Captain Robinson explained: “People think the worst of being on ceremonial duty in the heat must be wearing a bearskin but they’re surprisingly cool. The fur is stretched over a wicker frame which allows the air to flow around your head.
"Because the fur comes over your eyes it protects them from any glare, it stops you squinting and it offers a good amount of shade.
"When you’re getting them fitted you want to choose one that’s a little bit big, because in the heat your head swells and you don’t want to end up with a bearskin that’s clamped to your head because it will stop the blood flow and you’re likely to faint.”
At the top of their game
It’s been a very tough week but thanks to effective teamwork with everyone looking out for each other and passing on all the experience and tips of how to cope in the heat they’re doing really well. Captain Ryan Robinson, Irish Guards
Not everyone on Tower Guard this month is experienced. Three of the Irish Guards soldiers have just joined the Army and finished basic training in Catterick four weeks ago. Suddenly they’re serving in the heat working at the top of their game.
“It’s asking a lot, I’m very, very proud of them” said Captain Robinson. “It’s been a very tough week but thanks to effective teamwork with everyone looking out for each other and passing on all the experience and tips of how to cope in the heat they’re doing really well.
Constant checks keep everyone safe
“We check on each other constantly, making sure that everyone is eating plenty to keep their strength up.
“Standing still for an hour in ceremonial kit with a 9.5kg weapon in your hand is physically strenuous. It takes a lot of effort and self discipline.
“You need to get enough calories in to you to be able to maintain that high standard of turnout and discipline every day. When the temperatures soar, we reduce the sentry duty from two hours to one, and keep giving each other drinks while on guard, keeping a close eye on everyone, just like we do when on operations.
“If you can continue to keep your kit up to standard, remain motionless and focussed for long periods despite all the distractions going on around you you’ll be a successful frontline combat soldier on deployment”.
The sentry boxes at the Tower of London are very close to the public, and while for the youngest soldiers that could be distracting, it’s great preparation for operating in an overseas combat role that could place you in crowded marketplaces for example.
It’s really important not to lose focus when you have a mission to complete, and time spent in the boxes helps soldiers learn to home in on what’s important, to filter out the harmless “noise” and spot any genuine concerns.
The Guards on show are only part of the defence the Army provides. So when on Monday and Tuesday the temperatures became so severe the ceremonial Guards were temporarily withdrawn from the sentry boxes at all the Royal Palaces in the heat of the day, the Scots Guards on duty at the Tower of London remained poised behind the scenes to react to any eventuality.
Lieutenant Colonel James Shaw is Brigade Major of the Household Division which is the organisation responsible for all the Army’s ceremonial and public duties. As records were broken in the heatwave in London he was reassuring: “The safety and wellbeing of our soldiers is a priority at all times whether undertaking guarding duties, training, on exercise or deployment.
“While many of our Guardsmen have operated overseas in temperatures up to 50c, we have put in place additional measures this week such as regular checks, flexible duties and additional water to ensure they can continue to safely carry out their duties.
"The Guard Mount at Buckingham Palace took place yesterday but with a shortened ceremony due to the heat, and today guard personnel at all the Royal Palaces carried out reduced duties as temperatures peaked.
"While it will be hot and sweaty, the measures we have put in place ensures the Guard Mount never stops."