Welcome to Afghanistan? No, Norfolk

To prepare troops for action, the Army has turned a training camp into a simulacrum of an Afghan village – complete with amputees, fake blood and suicide bombers. Terri Judd reports

To a casual observer there is little to distinguish the peaceful country lane seven miles north of Thetford from any other slice of rural Norfolk. That is until you spy the high fence and the sodden young fusilier standing guard in the rain. Beyond the boundary, far from prying eyes, lies a very different world. Instead of thatched cottages there are mud compounds and instead of the famous Broads there are irrigation trenches.

This is where the men and women heading for Helmand's frontline are given a taste of what lies ahead. It is, if you like, a little piece of England that is forever Afghanistan.

Villages were first evacuated from this 30,000 acre Norfolk site in the middle of the Second World War to provide an army training ground. It was here that many troops prepared for D-Day and where Captain George Mainwaring's hapless Dad's Army later filmed some of their most famous sequences. The original "Nazi" village was later transformed to resemble Northern Ireland and Bosnia. But two years ago the last watchtowers were torn down for its most dramatic transformation to date.

In the newly created village of "Sindh Kalay", Afghan compounds surround a busy marketplace where the smell of cooking wafts over stalls. Meat vendors and mechanics vie for space with livestock. The sound of a call to prayer is drowned out by the noise of an Apache attack helicopter while a team of British soldiers patrols slowly through the crowds.

Sindh Kalay – which cost £14m to build – is populated by hundreds of expatriate Afghans, as well as Gurkha soldiers, who provide a substitute population of tribal leaders, native army and police and inhabitants – a reminder that counter-insurgency in Helmand has more to do with winning local consent than destroying an enemy. Other participants take the roles of Taliban – from the suicide bomber who slips into the market to those waiting to ambush.

Meanwhile a team of amputees are hired to play the wounded, their stumps made up to replicate the nature of the injuries that British soldiers now face all too often in Afghanistan. The attention to detail is so realistic that one young soldier recently fainted when he was suddenly faced with an amputation pumping "blood" to match a femoral arterial bleed.

A team of film make-up artists create the effect, explained John Pickup, of Amputees In Action, adding: "We have had people faint or throw up their dinners. The aim is to desensitise them so they can deal with it and save people's lives.

"We sit in a muddy puddle for hours on end, waiting to jump out and scream and shout, cold and miserable – but then you remember these guys are heading for something far worse," explained Mr Pickup, who lost his arm in a motorbike accident more than two decades ago.

Every amputee is vetted and put through specialist training beforehand to see if they are up to the job, he continued: "For some it is too close to the mark, too realistic. The last thing we want to do is traumatise someone, stymie their rehabilitation."

The same careful consideration must be applied to the Afghans, added Dr Nadir Biyria, who has been advising the military since leaving Kandahar as a political refugee in 2004. While some made the UK their home decades ago, others have very recent experience of the war.

"Initially we had difficulties when appointing someone to act as suicide bomber, as some have lost their loved ones by a suicide bombing," he explained, pointing out such emotional turmoil could be put to better use. "We use the real sufferer when we organise shuras (meetings) with British soldiers as they will be the most realistic."

Former army officers, ministers, governors and police are among the Afghans advising the training, many of whom still have regular contact and updates from key figures such as the Helmand governor Gulab Mangal as well as the heads of the Afghan army and police.

Their motivation, Dr Biyria insisted, was to prevent casualties amongst those they had left behind as well as their new countrymen.

"We hope it will result in cultural awareness as well as a reduction of civilian casualties," he said, continuing: "We are preventing them making mistakes which would result in them losing their lives. Every casualty feels like losing a member of our family."

As well as Sindh Kalay there is a town for those heading to Kabul and an area of rivers and high vegetation mirroring the tortuous terrain soldiers wade through in the notorious Green Zone. Crossroads have sandy lanes where every inch must be checked for roadside bombs. A new forward operating base is built around a helicopter pad where Chinooks practise casualty evacuation. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) hover overhead; fast jets fly above.

"The hairs on the back of your neck stand up. For a minute you are back there. Ask veterans of two or three tours and they will tell you it is genuinely eerie. If you can replicate that, then the shock of the first foot patrol is reduced," explains Colonel Richard Westley, commander of OPTAG (Operational Training Advisory Group).

The village is the most visible sign of a dramatic overhaul of military training in the past 18 months. If the Taliban changes its bomb-making tactics, a team in Helmand feeds it straight back and the new information is incorporated "in minutes".

Training is now moulded by soldiers returning from the frontline, whatever their rank. A corporal heading for Babaji in Helmand will be mentored in Norfolk by his equivalent flown in from Afghanistan. It is what Colonel Westley describes as a "pragmatically refreshing approach".

"We [OPTAG] are an organisation that is entirely comfortable in a bottom-up approach. If I had to wait for policy and doctrine and funding I could not do it. A lot of people are uncomfortable with my approach of 'Do it now and let doctrine catch up'. What we would not be comfortable about is waiting. If we delay here, people die."

His determination is matched by that of the man in charge, Major-General Andrew Kennett, Director General Land Warfare.

"We are much more effective in our response and much better at trying to predict what might come next. We have changed the culture here. The culture was one of waiting to be told. Now we go to theatre [Helmand] and find out," he said.

"In a year and a half, there have been an awful lot of changes. There has been an increase in the realism and sophistication of training, making sure the environment now reflects realistic sights, sounds and smells. We now have a lessons process that is alert to the dynamics of change."

The unrelenting nature of operations means that many regiments begin 21 months of training to deploy to Helmand again within three months of returning. At the moment those deploying this summer, those due out this winter and those on schedule to head out next summer, are all going through different stages of the process.

Late last year, the British military published its new doctrine on counter-insurgency and the task has been to interpret such theory into best practice, to remind soldiers that their exit strategy revolves around training Afghan forces and winning local consent.

The new process is two-pronged – to anticipate changes in enemy tactics while reacting to what becomes evident on the frontline. As well as a counter-insurgency team designed to predict changes on the battlefield in the political context, and to ensure that theories are put into best practice, the Army now taps into the knowledge of allies, academics and scientists, but equally relies on a two-way dialogue with a roving team in Afghanistan.

Brigadier Piers Hankinson, Commander of the Land Warfare Development Group, said: "The guys who are having to fight for their lives have no time spare to look at it differently. Somebody who is not close to the fight can offer reassurance and advice on how to cater for that threat. It is a lessons process – to analyse what has been successful and where the gaps may be and what do we need to work at further."

And that work is in the name. Sindh Kalay may be the exercise name of the model Afghan village but its official title is the Jackson Wright village – named by its designer, Sergeant-Major Simon Turner. He chose it after two friends from the the Parachute Regiment who lost their lives in Helmand.

War games played in deadly earnest

Within a cavernous hanger in Wiltshire sit 140 giant metal containers. Enter one and you are in the cockpit of an Apache helicopter above Sangin, another and you are driving a Warrior armoured vehicle through desert terrain, a third and you are manoeuvring an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over Kajaki.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Ormerod jokes that he is the proud guardian of "the PlayStation to beat all PlayStations", but this is serious business – the military's state-of-the-art training simulators at the Combined Arms Tactical Trainer. It is largest facility of its kind in the world.

For the first time, the new brigade preparing to take over in Helmand is using simulators that replicate the terrain they will face in Afghanistan. New computer graphics, pictured right, will allow a soldier heading for Musa Qala to drive the very road he will need to negotiate in a few months, past the same mud compounds and mosques, and the dried-up wadi riverbed where the locals hold their Monday market. In one scenario a suicide bomber attacks. A British patrol operating nearby is diverted but caught up in an ambush while Apache helicopters and Tornado jets come to their aid. Each participant is in one of the simulators, while officers issue orders from a mock-up of the headquarters in Lashkar Gah in the next room.

Afterwards, the scenario is played back to observe mistakes made not only in terms of the battle but the consequences of such actions on locals. Today the simulated patrol has been hit and undoubtedly paid a bloody price. Lt-Col Ormerod hopes that such training will ensure that troops will not have to do so in reality.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick