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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 02:23 GMT 03:23 UK
How do you move a battalion?
by Chris Summers
BBC News Online in Fallingbostel, Germany

If you think moving house is hard, try moving a whole army unit.

Worse still, try moving six units at the same time.

It is quite a feat but earlier this year the British Army pulled it off.

The Highlanders
Capt Barney McAskill (in civvies) with (left to right) Maj Toby Christie, Maj Jonathan Tink and Maj Brian Ross

The process of moving regiments from one posting to another at regular intervals is called "arms plotting" and it is almost unique to the British Army.

Arms plotting allows individual soldiers to see the world and get trained in different aspects of Army life while keeping the regiment together.

One of the regiments which took part in this "six way arms plot" in March 2004 was the 1st Battalion The Highlanders.

The Highlanders, formed by a merger of the Queen's Own Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders in 1994, moved from Redford Barracks in Edinburgh to its new base at Fallingbostel in northern Germany.

Capt Barney McAskill, the regiment's welfare officer, was the man given the task of organising the move.

He said: "We got about two years' notice of this move so that gave us plenty of time to come over and do a couple of recces and become thoroughly familiar with the place."

The move involved around 550 soldiers, and around 400 wives and children.

Maj Ross, the regiment's quartermaster, said: "We invited several burgermeisters and head teachers over to Edinburgh beforehand so they could tell our families more about Germany and about the schools here.

Highlanders' postings
September 1994: Based in Edinburgh (created by merger of the Queen's Own Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders)
April 1995: Moved to Londonderry, Northern Ireland
April 1997: Moved to Catterick, North Yorkshire
April 2001: Moved to Edinburgh (covered foot-and-mouth crisis, provided fire strike cover and guarded the royal family at Balmoral). Three of the battalion's companies spent time in Bosnia, Kosovo and Belize
March 2004: Moved to Fallingbostel, Germany

"Because of our moves in recent years some children have been educated in the Scottish, English and Northern Irish education systems. You can understand why people sometimes choose to send their children to boarding schools."

Change of role

The move also means a change of role for the Highlanders, who have been on light infantry duties until now.

They are to become a mechanised infantry battalion and are currently undergoing intensive training to allow them to operate the Warrior armoured fighting vehicles.

A mechanised infantry battalion requires more men than a light infantry battalion so the Highlanders have taken on around 100 men from the Black Watch, who they replaced in Fallingbostel.

Maj Ross explained: "I had to hand over all the equipment the battalion had in Edinburgh to the incoming unit - the vehicles, the stores and the ammunition. That meant we had to do a major stocktake first.

A Warrior
The Highlanders are being trained in how to operate Warrior armoured fighting vehicles
"The only military equipment we took from Scotland was the boys' weapons," he added.

Maj Ross was also responsible for transporting all the regimental property - archives, paintings, furniture and silver tableware for the officers' mess and Highland dress for ceremonial occasions, including kilts and spats.

Each barracks is checked and the departing battalion will be billed for any damage which has been noticed by the incoming unit.

"It's just like taking over a flat or a house," said Maj Ross, who added: "Units can make their name in a big way in an arms plot or lose their reputation in a big way."

Capt McAskill said: "We started moving at the end of January and we had the last family here by 16 March."

Bedford Barracks
Bedford Barracks in Edinburgh...the Highlanders' home until March this year

Each soldier had 10 days off duty - five in the UK and five in Germany - to allow for the move.

Maj Ross said: "The good thing about soldiers is that they are very adaptable."

Arms plotting is seen as a mixed blessing by many in the military. While single soldiers are often happy to travel the world and train in new roles some men, especially those who are married, resent the upheaval.

'The Army tells you where to go'

But Capt McAskill said: "At the end of the day the Army will tell you where to move and you have got to go. You can't say 'My wife has got a good job here and she wants to stay'."

But arms plotting could soon be a thing of the past.

The Ministry of Defence, under pressure from the Treasury to save money, is believed to be considering ending the practice - which dates back to 1874.

One senior officer in Germany told BBC News Online: "I can't see arms plotting lasting much longer. It's too expensive."

An announcement could come as early as this week.

ARMS PLOT JAN-MAR 2004
1: The Highlanders - Edinburgh to Fallingbostel, Germany
2: The Black Watch - Fallingbostel, Germany to Warminster
3: The Royal Green Jackets: Warminster to Ballykinler, N Ireland
4: Devonshire and Dorset Regiment: Ballykinler to Catterick
5: Queen's Lancashire Regiment: Catterick to Episkopi, Cyprus
6: 2nd Battalion Light Infantry: Episkopi, Cyprus to Edinburgh




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