SPECIAL FEATURE: War games in Croatia

Gazette reporter James Willoughby joined the North-East-based Fifth Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (5RRF) on a military exercise in Croatia.

Fighting through thick smoke which bellows from a recently-detonated grenade while machine-gun fire rains down.

The Army on exercise in Croatia last week. Picture by Chris Hall.

The Army on exercise in Croatia last week. Picture by Chris Hall.

British troops are being hit as hundreds of rounds of shots ring out. The enemy could be lurking around every corner.

It is a high-pressure situation for soldiers from the North-East-based Fifth Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (5RRF) to be in.

An intense house assault deep in a vast expanse of Croatian forest which pushes their resolve, fighting skills and comradeship to the limit.

Two of these soldiers embroiled in the heat of the battle are Lance Corporal Jack Hale, from Rothbury, and Lance Corporal Myles McMullen, of Swarland; both part of the Army Reserve.

Captain John Marcon.

Captain John Marcon.

It is a far cry from their life in civilian street; 22-year-old Hale is studying sports science at Teesside University, while McMullen, 20, is employed at Eshott Hall.

A short time later, the pair have helped their comrades seize control of the building. The enemy threat has been wiped out, the wounded carried to safety.

Thankfully, this is all just an exercise. An imaginary situation based on a real-life scenario, bringing a range of soldiering skills into play.

It formed part of an intense two-week stint in camp Slunj, Croatia, which took place at the end of August and at the start of September and saw Reservists from 5RRF working alongside Regular soldiers from Edinburgh-based 3 Rifles, as well as members of the Croatian Army.

L/Cpls Jack Hale and Myles McMullen on a recce patrol.

L/Cpls Jack Hale and Myles McMullen on a recce patrol.

In the changing face of the British Army, exercises such as this are becoming more and more important.

As part of the Government’s 2020 plan, personnel numbers of Regulars will be cut from 102,000 to 82,000, with a doubling of Reservists.

As Hale and McMullen admit, this type of training is vital.

Not only this, but the testing conditions of camp Slunj, with its dense vegetation and hilly terrain, coupled with scorching temperatures, provided them with the chance to try out their newly-acquired and ever-developing recce (formation reconnaissance) skills.

L/Cpl Jack Hale.

L/Cpl Jack Hale.

This highly-demanding discipline involves gathering information by stealth, without being seen. The recce platoon is the commander’s eyes and ears on the battlefield. By signing up to this, the ambitious Hale and McMullen represent the new breed of soldier and personify the changing face of the Army, as Reservists will be looked upon to play an ever-more important part and develop more specialist roles.

But the pair are thriving in this environment. Not only are they enjoying the added responsibility that recce brings, but they believe that developing specialist skills will encourage more part-time soldiers to stay on or indeed sign up.

Speaking while on exercise in Croatia, L/Cpl Hale, who is also a high-class Cumberland and Westmorland wrestler, said: “Recce is harder and more demanding. You have to operate in harder conditions for longer periods of time.”

The Coquetdale lad, a former pupil at Morpeth’s King Edward VI School, has been a Reservist for around two-and-a-half years. He added: “It is the harder stuff that people really want to do, the stuff that soldiers aspire to and I really think it gives people more reason to stay in. Once you have got your basic soldiering skills it gives you something to advance to.”

L/Cpl McMullen, a Reservist for three-and-a-half years, told the Gazette: “Recce appealed to me because it has always been a hard role to do, not just for Reservists but also the Regulars. Because of this, it makes a difference to how I perceive myself as a soldier.

“You have to go out into the ground and spy on the enemy and gather intelligence and then report back up the chain of command so we can go away and defeat the enemy.

Corporal John Doherty.

Corporal John Doherty.

“You cover a lot of distance and do it with a lot of kit on which weighs a lot and you have to do it without being spotted by the enemy or anyone else.

“It is a tough course to pass.”

The pair have signed up to the new recce platoon at Alnwick Reservist Centre, which has been renamed the Duke of Northumberland Barracks.

The Lisburn Terrace-based venue is responding to the need to develop and build on individual specialisms and the platoon is headed up by Captain John Marcon, from Pegswood.

Captain Marcon, 35, who works for Northumberland County Council as a senior accountant, said: “We wanted to invigorate the battalion and it is an exciting chapter. We haven’t had a recce platoon at Alnwick for 10 years.

“The terrain at the Otterburn range also provides good training opportunities as far as recce goes.

“One of the challenges is getting the right men for the job. You need a lot of experience and a high skill set, including better navigation and stamina.” Of the name change of Alnwick Reservist Centre, Captain Marcon added: “It was named the Duke of Northumberland Barracks to bring it in line with the Regular Army. Before they had barracks and we had centres. Now we all have barracks.”

The Duke of Northumberland Barracks is having an open evening on Tuesday from 7.30pm to 9.30pm to give people the chance to see the recee platoon.

The venue is also a base for assault pioneers, who are responsible for a number of duties, including the construction of tools for infantry soldiers to cross natural and man-made obstacles, as well as breaching enemy fortifications.

Corporal John Doherty, 54, who lives at Ford and Etal Estates, has assault pioneer experience. Speaking from the exercise in Croatia, Cpl Doherty, who is part of 5RRF’s Berwick detachment, said it was good that Alnwick was providing a base for this specialism.

He, along with Captain Marcon, and L/Cpls Hale and McMullen, also told the Gazette that working alongside the Croatian Army was a beneficial experience.

SHADOWS OF THE RECENT PAST STILL PLAIN TO SEE

The fighting may have stopped nearly two decades ago, but the remnants of the fierce Croatian War of Independence are still painfully clear to see.

A twisted wreck of a Serbian plane and battle-damaged buildings, which form part of an open-air museum in a suburb of the city of Karlovac, offer a haunting insight into this most bitter of conflicts.

Even homes on the main street, which appear to have been renovated, still carry the scars of the war. Shrapnel-ridden walls have been left untouched, despite the rest of these properties undergoing a complete transformation, more akin to the western-style of design, instead of the old Eastern block type.

It is a distinguishing feature of many of the residential buildings in this part of the city; seemingly a deliberate act in memorial to those who were embroiled in the war, or maybe, even, in defiance.

Either way, this dark chapter of the past is clearly not forgotten here.

Karlovac suffered much damage during the Croatian War of Independence, which spanned from 1991 to 1995. The southern sections of the city found themselves close to the front lines between the Republic of Croatia and the rebel Serbs.

And it is a conflict which still looms large in the memory of veteran Drazen Culig. The 43-year-old served on the front-line of fire during the first year of the battle, defending Karlovac, his home.

In his own words, he is not a hero, simply a man who was there at the time. A man who simply did what he had to do.

The married father of two, who was just 20 years old at the conflict’s outbreak, remembered: “I saw on the news, at the beginning of the war, that the enemy troops were destroying everything; damaging buildings and lightings fires.

“I had a necessity, an obligation, to defend my city and my family.

“I was on the first line of fire. The fighting was very intense, real fighting, really hard, on a daily basis.”

Perhaps one of the biggest insights into the brutality of the conflict, and the desperation of the people fighting, also lies at Karlovac’s open-air museum; in the shape of a series of home-made, improvised armoured vehicles.

A tractor, for example, has been transformed into a battled-hardened war machine, complete with gun turret and protective outer layering. Another has clear signs of combat damage on one side, with its camouflaged, thick metal exterior peppered with bullet holes.

Drazen admits: “We didn’t have many weapons. People did what they could and many things were built by hand.”

In the shadow of these fierce-looking people carriers is a ruined, roofless Austro-Hungarian military base.

This war-torn structure, severely damaged in the heat of the conflict in 1991, holds a painful memory for Drazen.

He told the Gazette: “It was my HQ building. I was only 200 metres away from it when it was destroyed. The roof was on fire.

“One-hundred and seventy people were killed in this area (the museum) in the first two years of the war, mostly in the first year. The feelings I have about this particular area are very strong.”

The ghosts of the past can also be found further down the road, at camp Slunj.

This vast expanse of forest, with its thick, dense and impenetrable vegetation, has recently provided the stage for members of the British and Croatian armies to work together during a military exercise.

But nearly two decades ago, it was a key backdrop in the Croat-Serb war. To this day, large expanses of forest are taped off because of the scattering of mines, while a former Serbian trench still remains.

In the town of Slunj, Croatian flags fly from lampposts and buildings; giving an indication that nationalism and identity is a strong feeling among the people.

Drazen admits that the war was horrible, but the Croats and the Serbs are learning to live together.

Incredibly, Lt Crnugelj Krunoslav, who is part of the Croatian military, reveals that the two nations worked together only a few years ago on an exercise.

Reflecting on this, he said: “We trained with the Serbs about three years ago. It was strange and a new experience and co-operation is developing.”

L/Cpl Myles McMullen during the house assault

L/Cpl Myles McMullen during the house assault

Soldiers in action during the house assault.

Soldiers in action during the house assault.

A casualty is carried away during the house assault.

A casualty is carried away during the house assault.