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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Sport
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
transfers
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
News
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
science
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

£15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

£250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

£30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home