The toughest driving school

The armed forces have to manoeuvre the most awkward vehicles in the most dangerous terrains. David Wilkins visits the place where they learn to do it
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Britain's armed forces are smaller than they were but you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that they still operate a staggering 60,000 wheeled vehicles. And they're not just any old trucks. The forces' fleet consists of a bewildering variety of specialised equipment, much of it very big and very expensive, which our men and women in uniform are called upon to operate in some of the most inhospitable and dangerous parts of the world.

Bear in mind that most recruits are 17 or 18, and that only a small minority of them have even learnt to drive a car, and it is clear that the armed forces have a huge requirement for training. That requirement is met by the Defence School of Transport (DST), which trains drivers for the Army, RAF and Royal Marines, mainly at its base at Leconfield, a former RAF airfield in East Yorkshire.

I recently had the chance to see the DST's work at first hand - and very impressive it is. Just the numbers are mind-boggling, and the commandant, Colonel Iain Macfarlane, reels them off with obvious pride. Each year, the DST has an intake of 14,300 students, with a further 5,000 being trained under external contracts. At any time, there can be up to 1,200 students at Leconfield.

The site covers 776 acres and contains a total of 16km of roads and 12km of cross-country courses. It employs about 1,200 staff. The use of this large, self-contained facility eases the pressure on local roads, although that is less of a problem in thinly populated East Yorkshire than it used to be in the south of England, where the DST was based until 1977.

Once they have learnt the basics, the forces' specialist drivers can expect to return to Leconfield over the course of their careers in order to extend their skills; there is a total of 97 different courses. About 30 different vehicle types feature in the training, from Land Rovers to the Army's big "DROPS" supply trucks, as well more warlike vehicles such as the armoured Saxon. There are no tanks or other heavy tracked machinery as, with one exception, the DST specialises in wheeled vehicles; that exception is the BV206, a small tracked vehicle used by the Royal Marines in snowy climes.

The DST serves a serious purpose, but once you leave the briefing room and get out onto the main Leconfield facility, there is no denying that there is a lot of fun to be had. Stretches of tarmac mocked up with signs, bus stops and other street furniture to make them look like public roads snake around artificial hills and muddy pits. Four-tonne trucks, Land Rovers, forklift trucks and vehicles used by explosive ordnance teams buzz around the site. And Bedford, a brand of British lorry that largely disappeared from our roads two decades ago, is still well represented in the Army's fleet and at Leconfield. Sadly, the Bedfords will fade away, as new trucks ordered by the MoD from the German manufacturer MAN come on stream. Not immediately obvious to the casual civilian observer are the vehicles undergoing the elaborate process of being camouflaged - another aspect of training taking place at the DST.

One of the more exotic vehicles in the forces' fleet is the Pinzgauer. Developed by the Austrian company Steyr-Daimler-Puch but now assembled in Britain, this uncompromising 4x4 is the nearest thing there is to a wheeled mountain goat.

Sgt Richard Walters of the Royal Marines, a Pinzgauer instructor, showed me what it could do on Leconfield's cross-country tracks. To my untrained eye, the obstacles - steep, slippery slopes, rock-strewn surfaces, muddy water of uncertain depth, and a closely spaced series of shoulder-high bumps known as the "crocodile", looked all but impassable.

But as we crashed around the course, Sgt Walters made it look easy, explaining his driving technique, as well as the use of the Pinzgauer's differential locks and other features as he went along.

Equally impressive was the Army's 4x4 GS (general service) truck, or Leyland-DAF four-tonner. In this case, I had the chance to accompany Alan Richardson, one of the DST's civilian instructors, around a slightly less demanding course, although one that still involved rocks and muddy water. As we negotiated a set of alarmingly steep artificial man-made hills, Alan explained the importance of selecting the correct gear when ascending or descending such gradients.

I drove the four-tonner a short distance and was immediately struck by the vague, slow-witted nature of the brakes, steering and gear change; then again, if you had to drive a heavy truck across rough terrain in muddy boots while being shot at, razor-sharp controls would probably be a curse rather than a blessing.

Mixed in among the military vehicles on the site are some boring Volvo and Vauxhall saloons, although these are used for instruction that is anything but dull. The DST trains defence attachés earmarked for dangerous postings, and the drivers of VIPs, in a variety of specialised evasive driving skills. That means the handbrake turn and its advanced variations, the Y-turn and J-turn, as well as a lot of tyre smoke.

The DST cost about £36.4 million to run last financial year. That sounds like a lot of money but my guess is that very little of it is wasted. The training at Leconfield is designed to be put to immediate practical use as soon as students rejoin their units. As you read this, British soldiers in the world's trouble spots are probably relying on their DST training to keep themselves - and indirectly the rest of us - alive. Bear in mind that the DST also helps the wider economy by training almost a third of all drivers of large goods vehicles in Britain, and that £36.4 million starts to look like a bargain.

TOP GEAR

Pinzgauer

Available in four- or six-wheel versions. Exceptional cross-country performance thanks to its 35cm ground clearance.

DROPS

Demountable Rack Offload and Pickup System; allows loads to be rapidly collected or dropped off

Saxon

Personnel carrier, capable of fording water up to 90cm deep. Has a crew of two and can carry 10 more.

Land Rover

More than 15,000 are in service today, both standard versions and the tougher Wolf variant.

Leyland-Daf four-tonner

The description refers to the payload, not the vehicle weight, which is 7.5 tonnes with a load on board.

Hagglund BV206

The BV206 consists of two separate powered cars, steered via the articulation of the joint between them.

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