An army at home on the range

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The Independent Online
THE EBULLIENT, moustachioed sergeant was looking for volunteers. "Come on lads, I still need some bodies for the boat crew. Don't any of you want a nice trip?" he said, brandishing his clipboard.

In the sub-zero temperatures, most of the soldiers taking a break in the "brew" tent seemed more interested in huddling round the warm tea urn as the heavy guns boomed outside. The fact that the sergeant was asking for men to accompany the regiment's tanks on a possible sea-trip to Kosovo showed just how far the plans for deployment had already gone. This was the scene earlier this week as The King's Royal Hussars (KRH), were going through live firing training on the Hohne range in northern Germany, in expectation of a sudden departure.

After an announcement by George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, on Thursday, the tanks of KRH and the "heavy metal" equipment of the other lead units in the army's 4 Brigade will embark for the troubled Serbianprovince on Monday.

The decision will ensure that their Challenger tanks, Warrior armoured fighting vehicles, and AS90 155mm guns are in the area when peace talks come to an end next week. A total of 8,000 British troops will be deployed only if a deal is agreed. The move is also being seen as a way of applying extra pressure for a settlement between the Serb and Kosovo-Albanian delegations at the talks near Paris.

Those negotiators should have been at the range last week when the Challengers started to fire. Hearing, seeing and feeling the power from their 120mm guns is an experience to concentrate even the most wayward minds.

The commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Powe, was exuding a quiet confidence about the possible job that lies ahead. "We saw it coming, and had been thinking about it amongst ourselves for a while," he said. "The boys are pretty excited about it. They see it as an important task and are confident in their ability [to do] whatever is asked of them."

Even to get to the training ranges, however, had taken a huge effort. The regiment, and other elements of the British lead battle group, which will spearhead the planned Nato deployment of up to 30,000 troops, had received orders to get ready only six days before.

The latest Mark III tanks had to be scrounged from other KRH squadrons to make sure that those which are going were the best available. Extra spares had to be ordered up, while work on the tanks, which spend most of their time idle in hangars, went on day and night throughout last weekend.

Some of the problems give a good indication of how the Army is already struggling to meet its many commitments. The range time had to be "borrowed" from the German army, as cost constraints mean tanks usually fire live ammunition only once a year. Training that would normally take eight days has been crammed into two.

Most startling is the fact that of the 12 tank crews in A Squadron, which will be the first to go, half of the gunners will have never fired a real gun before. Recruitment problems and a high turnover of soldiers to fill other jobs meant that the new boys had previously trained only on simulators.

Staff Sergeant Mark Orr, as regimental gunnery sergeant, is the man directly responsible for making sure all the gunners can shoot straight. He conceded that the situation was far from ideal. "In the old days this certainly wasn't normal, but it is becoming normal now," he said, adding that the experience of the tank commanders would make up for any minor shortcomings. He has 21 years' experience in tanks, including service in the Gulf War. Sgt Orr said that finally getting the order to move had been a relief for the men, even though it meant working hard to catch up, and that the mood as a whole was "pretty good".

"Sure, spending six to eight months on a mountainside freezing your nuts off isn't anybody's idea of fun, and the separation from families will be painful," he said. "But most realise that this is a real job that has to be done, that is what they joined the Army for and that is what we get paid for. This is where the taxpayer gets his money back."

Back on the range, Major Richard Hannay, the A Squadron leader, watched as three guns went off in rapid succession and tracer lights from the training shells streaked towards the shared, moving target. In the middle distance dark earth spurted up against the snow, recording the hits or near misses.

Major Hannay said he was pleased at the way things were going but, talking about the probable role in Kosovo, he added: "I hope we won't be doing anything like this. If we are then something will have gone terribly wrong."