'Massive challenge' as British soldiers head to Estonia for winter war games


Gunshots and the thundering roar of armoured vehicles disturbed the silent snowy forests as British and Estonian troops went head-to-head in an ultimate winter war game.

Spanning nine days, Exercise Winter Camp saw more than 100 soldiers from A Company of the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh battle it out with their Nato Baltic State counterparts.

Undertaking a series of attack and defence manoeuvres against their Estonian allies, troops simulated conflict as they fired blanks at each other inside a military training zone just north-west of their camp in the town of Tapa, Estonia.

Speaking to the Press Association, Lieutenant Anthony Strain, from St Albans, Hertfordshire, said such exercises are "incredibly important".

"The reason we all join the Army is to run around in a forest and play soldiers rather than stay indoors - it is great to have an opportunity to do that," the 25-year-old said.

Quizzed on how believable the exercise is for those taking part, Lt Strain said they know and are aware that it is not a life-or-death situation.

"But at the same time the same pressures are on, so over the radio when you are getting told to move to a certain position or come up with a certain idea, then the pressure there is quite real because you are trying to formulate a plan on the hoof," he said.

"So in that sense it feels real, but of course you don't have the risk of someone unfortunately getting injured or hurt - a 50/50 I suppose."

British troops in Estonia
A soldier from 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh fires blank rounds during a training exercise (Joe Giddens/PA)

Despite the plunging temperatures, which were often in double minus figures at night, the British soldiers slept outside in four-man tents nestled amongst their heavy beast-like machinery.

With temperatures dropping down to -19C at one point, Lt Strain said dealing with the cold has been a "massive challenge" as the British Army is used to windy, rainy and more temperate environments.

The Royal Welsh and their fleet of Warrior vehicles that soldiers jump out of ahead of an attack, were supported by a number of Challenger 2 tanks, driven by B Squadron of the Kings Royal Hussars that were attached to A Company.

With the tanks and Warriors shooting out different coloured flares and blanks instead of live ammunition, the exercise was made realistic by the actions of numerous umpires.

They would often tell soldiers on both sides they had been killed, resulting in them having to lie flat on the ground, or that they had been injured - allowing the practice of battle casualty drills for a variety of medical situations.

Infantry and Tanks from the #NATO#eFP Battlegroup demonstrating how to operate together in the #Estonian winter. pic.twitter.com/OYgpIf1q8d

-- The Royal Welsh (@TheRoyalWelsh) February 8, 2018

On the ground, often wading through deep snow as the soldiers stalked enemy positions in trenches and strongholds, both sides would practise and refine their tactics, and would often use a variety of mock anti-tank weaponry.

Once each engagement had been declared over by the umpires, all soldiers would "regenerate" to allow the next phase of the games in the thick forests to begin, and would often prompt the re-piling of The Royal Welsh infantry back inside their Warriors.

The Senior Major of the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, Darren Hughes, said the skills his soldiers have gained from being deployed in Estonia and undertaking exercises such as Winter Camp, which came to an end on Tuesday, have so far been "invaluable".

Describing working in a winter environment as "just a new skill set to learn", he said the troops like the challenge presented by sub-zero temperatures and snow.

"It is a great opportunity to come out here because what soldiers want to do is to go abroad, they want to go to different countries, they get stale if they do the same thing," he said.

"If you then say 'right as an armoured infantry battlegroup you are the guys who can become the experts in operating in cold weather' - they take that as a challenge not as a threat.

British troops in Estonia
Warrior tracked armoured vehicles in the snow at a training area near Tapa (Joe Giddens/PA)

"They will go 'great, we will become the best in the Army for that and everyone will know that the first British battlegroup to go through that was the Royal Welsh', and they love that.

"The soldiers want their bragging rights."

Lance Corporal Connor Bucknall, from Rhyl, North Wales, is currently completing his first operational tour as part of the deployment of UK troops to Estonia under Nato's Enhanced Forward Presence.

Asked for his thoughts on the exercise, the 20-year-old said: "It is different because it is much harder, we are used to open ground, but now we have dense woodland so it is really hard to move through and punch through.

"It is very testing but really brings the best out of you."

LCpl Bucknall said he was "just about" coping with the cold and the snow during his nine-day stint in the Estonian wilderness, and added: "We could potentially be using this training in the future for live ops, so it is good to train in it and do as much as we can."