Blasts under the stars in Africa as 2 Rifles take on the Queen’s Dragoon Guards
It is 4am in a remote location in central Kenya, and there is the distant sound of gunfire.
Protecting a tiny forward operating base (FOB) a very long way from home, the 1st Battalion Queen’s Dragoon Guards are settled into layers of defensive positions.
The outline of the soldiers can barely been seen in the pre-dawn light hunched over their guns surveying the landscape.
It has been a night of trying to sleep on a narrow cot pitched on the red sand, listening to muffled conversations of the commanders and faint shuffles of soldiers patrolling the perimeter, occasionally silhouetted against the bright full moon in the sky overhead.
There is a pervading sense of watchfulness in every direction as just a few miles away, the soldiers of 2 Rifles supported by the Kenyan Defence Forces inch closer with plans to uphold their reputation as thinking Riflemen and their motto with a ‘swift and bold’ attack.
As dawn eventually creeps in, there are the flashes and thuds of explosions and the sound of gunfire.
While every detail of the scene feels eerily real, it is in fact a training exercise designed to challenge 2 Rifles to prove they are battle ready.
The blasts are simulated with pyrotechnics, the guns are fitted with blanks and the soldiers wear sensors which when hit with lasers from the guns indicate whether the wearer has been injured or killed, and should withdraw.
But there is no faking the challenging terrain which include bushes with thorns so sharp they can tear apart a leather boot or wildlife including scorpions and snakes, not to mention to searing heat and the kit the soldiers are carrying over all those miles that can weigh up to 40kgs.
There is also no faking that by this stage the soldiers have been living in this climate in basic conditions for three tough weeks already.
Around 400 soldiers from 2 Rifles and the Kenyan Defence Forces have fought across 15km of this challenging landscape overnight, building bridges and encountering the “enemy” enroute before laying siege to the FOB where a ferocious sounding gun battle ensues.
The exercise, which is undertaken by six British battalions every year, is tough, but it is designed to prepare these infantry soldiers physically and mentally for whatever deployment they may find themselves in.
For 2 Rifles, that next deployment will be Kabul in 2020, but with the battalion due to be on readiness from April 1, these soldiers could be sent anywhere in the world as the sharp end of the UK’s international relations if the delicate balance of diplomacy should falter.