Interview: British soldiers with NATO Battle Group reflect on job well done

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Estonia has been a NATO member since 2004, but only in recent years has any of that become more visible to most people. With US troops first arriving in 2014, the impetus grew after the 2016 Warsaw Summit’s decision to strengthen NATO’s eastern presence in the Baltic States and Poland. Within a space of time which might make Brexit negotiators, on both sides, hang their heads in shame, the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) and its principal base at Tapa became reality in 2017.
It is already on its third Battle Group rotation, with the Yorkshire Regiment, and attached units, following on where the Royal Welsh, and before them the Rifles, had already been. However, for many, what the troops here are exactly doing, how they work together, their role, and much more, is still shrouded in relative obscurity.

With the 100th anniversary of the Estonian War of Independence, something Britain played a role in, just behind us, it was timely to catch up with the officers and men of the current British contingent at the base just outside Tapa, a small town less than an hour’s train ride from Tallinn.

Tapa is a very interesting place these days, and we’ll also look at the interface between base and town. I am able to find the base with the help of Pte Davis, from the Yorkshires, who drives me from the train station through something of the monochrome landscape common rural Estonia in late winter, enabling us to get started on time.

Mutli-faceted Battle Group

The guys are already sat down in the room waiting for me and my questions. Most of them are from 1 YORKS, the first Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, an armoured infantry battalion which has been at Tapa since July 2018. However, representatives of other units: The Kings’ Royal Hussars (KRH – a cavalry regiment, part of the Royal Armoured Corps and equipped with Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks, MBTs) and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (the REME, pronounced ”reemie”, tasked with maintaining equipment, including more complex tasks with the Challengers) are taking part too. We are also joined by a representative of the Royal Engineers (RE), which provides the military engineering, in the original sense, mainly maintaining lines of transport, explosives disposal and the like.

I start with a question they’d have answered enough times before – why did you join the army, which I follow up by asking how it differs from civvy street.

”I’d always wanted to join, since I was very young,” says Lt Jim Roberts, from Whitby, North Yorkshire.

”I come from a military family, tracing our history back to the Boer War [of 1899-1902 -ed.], and they’d all been in the infantry, so it was natural that I did the same,” he goes on.

Others who’d wanted to join from an early age included LCpl Sandall, RE, who joined as early as possible, at 16, straight from school.

”Some of the Estonians find that a bit weird – we’re probably the only country where you can join that early. Joining the engineers was something a bit different – I couldn’t imagine doing anything else”.

For others, it was a specific location where the British Army was deployed that was the catalyst.

”The main reason I wanted to join was especially to go to Afghanistan, having seen it on TV documentaries like Ross Kemp in Afghanistan. Unfortunately I missed that because 1 YORKS, at that time 3 YORKS [reorganised in 2013-ed.], had just finished their rotation there, but I’ve got future aspirations to do other things,” says Cpl Rory Ashmore, from Sheffield.

Wealth of different backgrounds and aspirations

The Yorkshire Regiment, like many British Army infantry units, but unlike, say, the REME, draw their recruits territorially, in this case, obviously, from most of the historical county of Yorkshire, in northern England. So it’s a little surprising that one of the guys, Pte Simmons, is from the opposite end of the country: Hastings, on the south coast.

”Well it’s a bit of a long story how I ended up in the Yorkshires, I don’t think we have time to get into it,” he laughs.

Like many British civvies, I tend to get wide-eyed about the military in general, and some of its famed units in particular. Were any of the guys of a mind to go for any of the special forces units, or the Paras – the Parachute Regiment, perhaps the regular British Army unit with the most mystique surrounding it?

”They have an aura, yes, but for the most part the skills and drills are the same. They’re a bit fitter – they have a slightly longer infantry training course to do before P Company [the Paras’ selection process-ed.], which hasn’t had any changes made to its methods over the years, that’s the main difference,” says Capt Piers Odlum, of 1 YORKS, the battalion’s intelligence officer, and press officer.

Civilian/military divide

The length of time the guys have served varies from a couple of years to getting on for 10 years, so there’s plenty of experience to draw on with my follow-up question, on some of the main differences the guys have with their civilian counterparts at home.

”’It’s easier to spot soldiers when we’re walking down the street, we can usually tell straightaway,” says Lt Jack Harcourt, KRH, from London.

”Then when we’re on base, we can spot all the British army units here, including the Royal Military Police, the Signals, the REME etc., as they all have very different cap badges, belts, uniforms, berets etc. which is easy for us to differentiate, but to an outsider it’s pretty complex, particularly with the British Army. For instance the Estonian soldiers’ uniforms are more similar, apart from the odd cap badge,” he adds.

”Other than that, you tend to get used to being away from your family slightly more; some years you’ll be at home a lot, others you’re away a lot – we’re probably one of the last organisations which still does that, whereas 20 years ago there was probably more of that with civilian jobs than there is now,” he continues.

The last few years since Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down we’re not in the news so much, so people don’t here about what we’re doing now,” says LCpl Sandall, getting to the crux of one of the main purposes of this interview in fact.

”For me, the biggest difference is outlook on life,” says Cpl Ashmore.

”Most of my mates on civvy street, they’re all married with a job and kids and a house. That’s all they were bothered about, but I wasn’t interested in any of that really. If I speak to mate’s girlfriends they look at me like I was some sort of alien, though, because that’s all they seem to be interested in. But for anyone who was thinking of joining, I’d just say go in with the right attitude, that’s the most important thing,” he goes on.

An earlier, timely arrival of British forces

Last year was the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence, and, while most of the lads would have arrived after independence day in February, the end of the year saw a very significant anniversary of a related event, namely the arrival of the Royal Navy’s Baltic Squadron. The action, part of Britain’s support for the newly-independent Estonia, helped shield the country’s north coast from the navy of another new state, Bolshevik-controlled Russia, whose forces Estonia was fighting in its War of Independence.

Whilst they may be from another service, the guys are well aware of the significance of the anniversary.

LCpl Sandell picks up the story: ”The Royal Navy came over, but there was a really strange coincidence there. In the original action in 1918, the HMS Westminster, a destroyer, was en route to the Estonian coast but she struck a mine and had to turn back home. She was relieved by the HMS St Albans. Then, exactly 100 years later, the HMS Westminster [a type-23 frigate-ed.] was heading over for the anniversary, when she developed a fault, and had to turn back too. By sheer coincidence the current HMS St Albans, also a frigate, was tasked with coming over. She wasn’t even scheduled to come here, but was diverted at the last minute, and was met by the Estonian president and prime minister. We were proud of the fact we assisted, it’s not that well-known a story”.

The eFP commanding officer, Col Harris, and the 1 YORKS Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), also laid wreaths at the British war graves at the military cemetery in Tallinn, as did Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, when he visited last October.

Two days before our interview, Sunday, was independence day again, so presumably some of the guys from Tapa were there too, at the traditional military parade.

”I was there, it was a great day,” says 2nd Lt Adam Wisdish, from Derbyshire.

”I wasn’t there myself, but the Challenger that was a part of the parade was from my unit,” says Lt. Harcourt.

No language barrier

I couldn’t do the interview without asking the other standard question for foreigners here, whatever brought them to Estonia, namely, have you picked up any of the language? Naturally, as the guys are only here for a few months at time, they’re hardly going to be fluent, but they have picked up various standard phrases for day-to-day situations, and there are rumours that the next battle group may even get Estonian language courses.

”Half the problem with us from the UK is that we’re lazy to learn foreign languages, and since most people speak good English here in Estonia, it’s kind of a common thread going that we don’t really learn,” says Lt Roberts.

”It’s also slightly tricky, because polite phrases might be all very well, but this is a long way from military language, so we have to keep that in English anyway,” adds LCpl Sandall.

So much for formalities, but what about the soldiers’ role here in Estonia? An explanation of what the British contingent actually is, is useful here.

What is a NATO Battle Group?

”We’re a battle group, where engineers, artillery, tanks, armoured infantry and others all work together in cooperation, all as part of the 1 YORKS Battle Group. After rotation we’ll all go back to our camps in the UK; I’ll return to my unit, the KRH, for instance. We’d then either go on to another battle group, or some other role.

”The organisation of a battle group is pretty much the same, Wherever you deploy, you’ll always have an armoured element,” says Lt Roberts.

The eFP and its battle group is staffed based on rotation cycles, where units are brought in from the UK (or elsewhere) and spend a few months in Tapa at time. One standard cycle is about eight or nine months, but a fair amount cycle out after just four months, however, so some of the guys have been here longer than others.

So far as individual roles go, these depend on unit of course.

”I’m a dismount commander,” says Cpl Ashmore, referring to a role particular to armoured, or mechanised, infantry units, as against light infantry units who do not make use of armoured infantry fighting vehicles, like the FV510 Warrior, which 1 YORKS is equipped with.

”Basically, the Warrior is an armoured fighting vehicle which works alongside the Challengers, creating a shock and awe effect as the challengers roll through, and the warrior drops soldiers out of the back, so it’s a case of really fast aggression, dismount out of the back and take the position,” says Cpl Ashmore.

”In reality this is going to be in an urban environment or similar – what we call FIBUA, fighting in a built-up area, clearing that through. The role is similar to what a section commander would do in a light role, but in a mechanised unit,” he explains.

Lt Harcourt can then take us through how the Challengers fit into the jigsaw: ”So the Challengers and Warriors work together, plugging each others’ weak spots, which is the main idea behind a battle group really. For example, tanks wouldn’t be very effective at clearing infantry out of a wood block, a block of forest, because that would involve stopping, and you aren’t really doing your job if you stop in a tank. They’re supposed to keep moving forward, so you can’t satisfactorily clear the ground from trenches of bunkers that way, which is where the Warriors come into their own. On the other hand, the Challengers have bigger armament than the Warrior, [a 120 mm rifled gun vs a 30 mm RARDEN cannon-ed.] so we can hit targets they can’t.

NATO colleagues and comrades

But the eFP, while it may be UK-led, in Estonia (the equivalents in Latvia and Lithuania are Canadian- and German-led respectively) is well-served by units from others of the NATO 29, including Danes, Belgians and French troops, with US personnel coming and going on occasion too, the guys tell me. Does that not raise any issues of different doctrines or way of doing things?

”There’s always going to be teething problems with kit, and various characters and how people conduct themselves, but it worked well with the Danes and I’m sure it will with the Belgians too [the Belgian unit, including personnel from the Chausseur Ardennais armoured infantry battalion , arrived in January-ed.],” says Lt Harcourt.

One interesting difference is the Danish soldiers can have longer hair than permitted in the British army. Beards aren’t allowed in the British Army either – save for just one particular rank, a Pioneer Sergeant, about the equivalent to a Colour Sergeant, the guys say, but otherwise it’s clean-shaven all round.

”It was sometimes like wandering around surrounded by vikings, when the Danes were here – if you saw anyone below six foot it was unusual, and if they didn’t have a beard you wondered when it was going to be issued to them,” jokes Lt Roberts.

”They’re a cool bunch though,” he adds.

”There’s also the problem with respirators – they won’t seal to your face if you have a beard,” says Cpl Ashmore.

But the mix of nationalities has definitely been a boon, from what the guys say.

”We were down in Latvia on a range doing some firing. And across the three battle groups in the Baltics, plus the [US-led] one in Poland, there’s something like 14 nations ; one thing I’ll take away is seeing all these nations and how they are very different, and also similar, that’s what I’ll take away as most important. That’s been a real positive. We do make it work,” says Lt Harcourt.

Off-base activities

The battle group’s role extends beyond exercises, duties on base etc. as well.

”Info, activity, outreach – meeting people – that’s been a major part of what we’ve done and it’s been very well-received; we’ve interacted with so many people,” says Capt Odlum.

”When the St. Albans was here, they opened the ship to the public, which was especially beneficial for the kids, as they’re the ones who are going to be seeing much more of us in future,” says LCpl Sandall.

”We were very proud of that. We ended up getting invited to the [British] embassy too, as well as other receptions where they generally serve us tea and cake – people genuinely seem to believe that’s what we eat all the time!” he continues.

But what about the day-to-day, on base, in Tapa?

”The routines are similar to elsewhere, but with more exercise than in the UK for instance,” says Pte Hulme, from Scarborough.

”You go on exercise in camp [ie. in the UK] though we have done a fair bit here too,” explains Lt Harcourt.

”The main ‘business hours’ are 08.30-17.00, and you’re able to focus on your own business as a sub-unit within the battle group quite a lot. When we’re building up to an exercise, there’s a bit more excitement in the air, but much of the time we’re doing things like maintaining the vehicles so they’re ready to run at the drop of a hat,” he continues.

Expanded facilities on-camp

”We have a REME attachment, but our guys in KRH are trained for the level one jobs. Anything more complex than that goes to the REME guys but it works quite well,” he continues.

Speaking of the REME, Staff Sgt Kittins, from Bournemouth, is from that very unit, so can provide some insight.

”My job is completely the other way round in fact – I’m busier on camp than on exercise. A lot of prep goes into the vehicles before the exercises here, to avoid them breaking down during it. On camp, on the other hand, there’s a lot of recovery fixing – so it goes to show the hard work done on the vehicles in advance pays off when exercising,” he says.

The camp itself seems pretty self-contained with good, and expanding, facilities.

”The facilities in Canada [where units train in southern Alberta-ed.] aren’t nearly as good as here at Tapa. We’ve got a good gym, a TV room so we don’t miss the football or boxing, two cafes, saunas and more, so we can’t grumble about the facilities, though we need that if we’re here for nine months,” says Cpl Ashmore.

”Each sub-unit has its own PTI instructor, who runs their physical training, and the gym is good for tailoring it to a unit – for instance, with my unit, we get a lot of back injuries with things like lifting up the ammunition to the turret of the tank, but we’ve been able to do a lot of weight-bearing stuff which has been really helpful, which we haven’t been able to back in the UK,” adds Lt Harcourt.

Tapa now a boom town

Tapa base itself, while it may be self-contained, is likely to get pretty claustrophobic after a while. Luckily, the guys are allowed off base, within the town of Tapa, and further afield with prior permission. Some of them have been up to Tallinn a few times, for instance playing in the army football final in September, and to other places round the country.

Those who have been here longer say that Tapa has changed almost beyond recognition in the town as well, with various bars, cafes, restaurants specifically catering to the base springing up, and staffed by very welcoming and appreciative people, as well as an amenable local populace as a whole, including the mayor. This two-way trust is reflected by the fact the guys are less restricted about where they can go, than they were in the beginning.

Maintaining personal security is obviously paramount, given the location and the reason why the eFP is here in the first place. But this isn’t a big issue, and is more just a question of common sense and following the same guidelines you would elsewhere. On the other hand Estonia is a safe country, and the guys have been able to get around without any problems.

”Ultimately we’re here for a job, not on a jolly or something, so although we organise our own events, and it’s great to be able to go to other places, that’s not the reason why we’re here,” points out LCpl Sandell.

Differences between Estonia and home

So from what they’ve seen of the country both on and off base, what are some of the big differences between Estonia and elsewhere?

”The wood blocks here are very different, they’re bigger and not so regularly tailored as the ones we train with back home. This has meant we’ve had to come up with some new techniques and tactics which has totally changed how we look at using Challengers and Warriors,” says Lt Harcourt.

”Where we normally train in Canada is a totally different type of terrain, with rolling prairies and so on, so that has been a good experience too,” he adds.

The famed Estonian stoicism extends to the military and the guys’ experiences with their Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) and Defence League (Kaitseliit) colleagues too.

”Yeah, they’re very different from us in that there’s no small talk like we have. Once we get chatting, the guys are great, but there is this kind of ‘if there’s no need to talk, why talk’? approach, which is interesting,” says Cpl Ashmore.

”We did have an arrival package which briefed us about stuff like that, that the main difference would be in communication styles – but that works both ways, they probably think we’re weird asking too many questions,” adds LCpl Sandall.

”One thing I have noticed in Estonia is that they are all very proud of their military, be it the EDF, or the Defence League, or other organisations – we’ve noticed that here and in Tallinn and Tartu, and it’s nice to see that there is that level of pride,” says Lt Roberts.

The fact that military service is mandatory for those not attending university is probably an added factor, the guys feel.

But there must be at least a few negative things, it can’t all be good, surely?

”Obviously being away from family is one – we’ve got some great facilities here, the wi-fi works well and so on, but the family is probably the main thing,” says Lt Wisdish.

In fact, only one of the guys is married, Staff Sgt Kittins – whose wife is expecting a baby soon!

”She hasn’t visited yet; I told her she’s not allowed to fly because she’s seven months pregnant! But I’ve only got a couple of weeks before I’m heading over there anyway,” he says.

Cold weather training

Of course, the weather, in particular the notorious Estonian winter, has both minuses (literally) and plusses.

”We haven’t been able to go running when there’s a lot of snow; trying to get everyone through the gym [there are around 900 people with the battle group on base-ed.] has been a challenge,” says LCpl Sandall.

”With my role, we used to use an improvised hangar, but now we’ve got a purpose-built, heated building, we can work longer hours and don’t have to deal with things in the cold than before,” he adds.

Capt Odlum expands on this: ”Since Christmas, the weather has played a massive role in what we do. Just before Christmas we had Mountain Leaders from the Royal Marines over, delivering a training package on how to operate in the cold – their multiple exercises up in Norway mean they have the know how. We had a week on the theory, followed by an exercise in the field to try things out in reality, which has given us grounding in a non-tactical, non-survival sense, in operating in cold weather, using tents, cookers and other new equipment”.

”On the exercise which followed, we added a tactical layer to that and incorporated what we need to do to defeat the enemy, while operating in the cold – the coldest we’ve had is -23C!”.

”I was here for the whole tour and so saw the good weather and the bad. It was nice in the beginning, to go out when it was sunny, and get out of camp; but in winter there’s a massive change and noone really wants to go out. I’ve only ever experienced positive things from people, though,” adds Lt Harcourt.

What next?

The 1 YORKS battle group are coming to the end of their tour at Tapa, leaving some time in March and on to new and different things. So what are some of the takeaways from their time here?

”Coming up with new ways of doing things has been one of the great benefits of the tour,” says Cpl Ashmore.

”I’ve signed off, I’m leaving the army in September after seven great years – it’s a bit of a cliché in the UK maybe, for an army officer, but I’m going to pursue a career in the city [ie. London’s financial district-ed.], so it has been great to have had the opportunity here,” says Capt Odlum.

”A lot of us didn’t know much, or anything, about Estonia before we came, but I personally think it’s a really pretty country, especially in the summer,” says LCpl Sandall.

”I’ve been in Pärnu and some other places while I have been here, so I’d highly recommend it. The technologies are really advance, and the trains are really good too, which makes a massive difference when getting around,” he adds, a glowing endorsement indeed.

I enjoyed my brief time with the men of 1 YORKS Battle Group. I realise I’m biased, but they came across as excellent ambassadors for their units, nation, and NATO, and this was a really valuable experience in getting a civilian’s-eye glance at what is a very interesting and important NATO initiative.

Hopefully I’ll be able to interview the eFP’s commanding officer soon, as well, which can only serve to augment the picture and bring it home that the battle group is professional, ready and highly competent, whilst at the same time being approachable and open. I don’t think any of the parties involved, Estonian people, the eFP itself, and foreigners living here, need ask for anything more.

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