NAVY NEWS, JANUARY 2009 21
HIS is a landscape of brHIS is a landscaandscape ooffbbrrookoken buildings, ken buildings,
The Royal Marines Mountain Leaders course is tough, complex and ThThee RoRoyalyal MaMarinesrines MoM untat in LLeaderseaders ccourseourse is ttough,ough, cocomplexmplex anandd
NorNorwwaay is a par isis a a particularly demanding enticularly dedemandindid g egenvvironment.ironment.
twisted metal and skewed concrete.
formidable. As are the men who survive the challenge. Helen Craven
Some of the students haven’t been to Norway.
Clay bricks and corrugated iron
takes a glimpse at their training.
“They have to pick up the skills very quickly.
punctuate the detritus of destruction. The
“The Cold Weather Warfare Course has a week
cold air is sharp with the tang of explosive observation post that it is perhaps not as covert as always have injuries.”
of range work in the snow using weapon systems
they had hoped. From Cornwall the ML2s move up to Wales
and explosives. A week long skidoo course to use
Royal Marines, eyes close to their gun-sights, in
Once the tripwire is deliberately broken, the flare and the peaks around Snowdon. Here the skills of
dusty combats clamber over the broken stones and
bursts into noisy life as a garish Roman candle; its mountain movement are honed, navigating amid
“We teach them to ice climb, avalanche rescue
await the sharp report of an explosive bang.
purpose to blind the enemy and warn the marines. rocky conditions by compass, learning to understand
drills and avalanche awareness. And we really focus
Yet oblivious sheep graze happily on the lush grass,
The point is to get away quietly into the night, the vagaries of weather prediction.
on the leadership side.”
and the cheerful ex-matelot at the gate greets me with
unseen, not to come out fighting with all guns The Welsh phase is brought to a challenging
The final exercise, Norgi Finale, will see the men
a melodic Welsh accent.
blazing. conclusion with the Aber March, a route-march
cover roughly 250km on skis, doing a similar sort of
This is Caerwent, an abandoned RN propellant
The flare will tell the across the three highest
thing as in Scotland but in temperatures of down to
factory, now a training area in use by those infantry
enemy there was someone peaks in Wales in just
This is where it starts getting really
troops who seek to bring to life the realities of fighting
there, but not when or how 18 hours, testing all the
Once through Norway the ML2s will finish off
in a built-up area and occasionally blowing things
many. A noisy gun-fight techniques in vertical
their last few pieces of training at Brize Norton,
would remove that aura of assault that the men have
practising fast roping from helicopters, before being
It is not perhaps the natural environment that
paranoid mystery. so far been taught.
drafted into units.
is summoned up by the name ‘Royal Marines
Further around we clamber over a pile of collapsed And then headfirst into the ISTAR section, a
“The cold weather expertise, which currently isn’t
Mountain Leaders’, but think about the name a bit
masonry and bricks to look inside the next derelict glimpse of which I have seen today, which pulls the
as relevant as decades ago, could be equally relevant
more and it will start to make sense...
building at an observation post. Except the pile of men across the country from classroom work on
in ten years time. The military climbing and the
Some time in the 1970s the Royal Marine specialist
bricks is the observation post. doctrine to survival skills,
ISTAR skills are.”
Cliff Leaders became Mountain Leaders. So yes,
A sheet of corrugated iron feigning haphazard driving skills, and urban
Maj Venables points to
at this point the experts in military climbing also
innocence is pulled aside to reveal the dark den skills out on the ground.
Most of us here have come from
the men stood around him:
became the experts in cold weather.
within which two men could crawl, training their Those men still standing Afghanistan, and most of us will go
“Most of us here have come
But it’s not as if you send a Royal Marine off to
guns unseen upon the outside world. then face Scotland. “This”,
from Afghanistan, and
straight back to Afghanistan.
climb a mountain just because it’s there.
Maj Dan Venables explains: “The Mountain I am told, “is where it
most of us will go straight
You send a Royal Marine off to climb a mountain
Leader course has changed quite significantly over starts getting really quite
back to Afghanistan.
to get to whoever is on the other side, to watch
the years. cheeky.”
“I was on Op Jacana – five months carrying
over whatever they are doing from the natural cover
“The whole shift of balance has moved to ‘Really quite cheeky’ from a Mountain Leader is
extremely heavy weights hunting down the Taleban
of the environment, to get
teaching ISTAR within 3 something of an understatement.
through the mountains of Afghanistan.
word back to the command
Commando Brigade.” Once mountain movement in the Highlands has
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done with the
about the exact details that
It’s not as if you send a Royal Marine
ISTAR, once unshackled been picked up, the wannabe MLs plunge into Gaelic
could turn a battle, and
off to climb a mountain just because from its acronyms, stands for Venture, carrying 100lb packs across 150km of
“What we teach the guys here is very
to fight their way out of
Intelligence, Surveillance, Scotland over a period of just over two weeks.
a tight corner if they are
Target Acquisition and “The idea is that we’re then starting to really
Reconnaissance, and push them and assess their tactical competencies,”
And so you have the Mountain Leaders – experts
has assumed a central position at every level in explained Maj Venables.
in climbing, experts in cold weather, who are also
operations. The men are required to work in small teams
top notch in surveillance, in communications, in
The Mountain Leaders are now also running at significant distances from the headquarters,
reconnaissance, in close-quarter battle.
Combat Intelligence (CI) courses for CI specialisation setting up high-frequency communications
No wonder they are looked upon with such respect
Marines – these are the men who brief the troops on back to HQ, taking photographs or sending
even within a Corps which is held in such high
what to expect before they go out on the ground. information back without themselves being
And specialist full-week courses for the Recce located.
Trainee ML officer Capt Ryan Kestle said: “It’s
Operators showing them how to work in that “This is followed by an escape and evasion
the hardest and best course in the Corps. If you’re a
environment. phase. They are expected to survive on
proper bootneck, then this is what you want to do.
Maj Venables speaks with pride: “Mountain whatever they can hunt and find.”
“As an officer there are only six specialisations. For
Leaders have become the centre of excellence for He adds: “It’s quite a demanding
me this is the only one which is outstanding.”
ISTAR in 3 Commando Brigade.” exercise. With the possibility of
He admits: “When you get to the end of a training
He adds: “The other area that we are currently losing people.” (‘Losing people’
phase, you look back and think ‘That’s hoofing’.
developing is urban climbing. means people dropping
“But it’s getting harder and harder.”
“This is to teach the skills necessary for vertical out rather than leaving
There are 11 Royal Marines being put through
assault in urban areas – climbing drainpipes, using potential MLs wandering
their paces in Caerwent midway through their ML2
window ledges. the Scottish Highlands
course, the only intake for this year – some men have
“Finding ways into places rather than blowing a undiscovered... – Ed)
already gone by the wayside, more will drop before
way through walls. And only once each
their gruelling nine months of training is done.
“We can send forward a team to climb up the of these hurdles has been
There are some 80 Mountain Leaders in the Royal
outside of the building, put snipers on the rooftop, successfully crossed does
Marines. Each year up to 20 men start down the road
and dominate the nearby area.” the traditional realm
to join the elite band. Normally half of them fail.
IT’S A matter of note that there is no equivalent to
of the Mountain
Sgt James ‘Grim’ Liepa is watching over this phase
the Mountain Leaders in the whole of the British
Leader appear –
of the training, scrutinising the men and challenging
Armed Forces, no other experts in the specific
challenges of military climbing.
Their task has been to find and man an observation
Where once the Cliff Leaders excelled in beach
post overnight amid the alternately lush and scarred
assault – that defining tenet of Royal Marine life –
when the Marines took up that historic protection
The men had been split into three groups, each
of NATO’s northern flank in Norway, climbing and
is tasked to explain to the others why they chose
cold weather became natural partners in expertise.
the building they did,
Still now whenever
what the advantages and
Finding ways into places rather than Army units or other
disadvantages of each
location were, and what
blowing a way through walls.
outside bodies want
to train in the
they had to do to make the
extreme cold of
places like Norway, they need to take a Royal
As we walk to the first post, a few glances are
Marine Mountain Leader with them.
exchanged among the trainees.
Maj Venables describes the ML2s as “the backbone
Grim stops me and points to the grass before my
of what we do”.
feet. Baffled, I peer at the NCO who points again.
The course begins amid the cliff faces of Cornwall.
Suddenly, briefly, at the tip of his finger a fine slice
“At Land’s End they start with vertical assault,
of tripwire sharpens into focus before being lost again
coming in from the sea, learning everything there it
amid the green blur of the grass.
to know about climbing in a military sense.
Not originally conceived as a trap for the unwitting
“Traditionally it is where we lose the largest
journalist, it’s one of the many methods – broken
glass is another – of warning the marines in their
He’s perfectly frank about the issues: “We do
trained in close
quarter battle at
(left) Sgt Grim
out a hidden
built from bricks
LA(Phot) Andy Hibberd
0021_NN_jan09.indd 121_NN_jan09.indd 1 99/12/08 14:55:27/12/08 14:55:27
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