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Friday, January 2, 1998 Published at 17:04 GMT




Arctic survival training with the Royal Marines


One of Britain's most feared fighting forces is the Royal Marines. They were formed three hundred years ago to provide soldiers for Royal Navy vessels, often acting as disciplinarians on board ship. Nowadays, they have a commando role and operate all over the world from the deserts of Brunei to the Arctic Circle. Our man of action, Jonathon Savill, was hoping to visit the Caribbean with them - but it didn't quite work out that way.

A scruffy long-haired Norwegian army conscript gives us a lethargic wave as we drive through the gates of the barracks. A thousand miles north of Norway's capital, Oslo, on the 48th parallel and well inside the Arctic Circle, is Asgarden. It's currently home to the cold weather training arm of Britain's Royal Marine commandos.

Asgarden is a grim and miserable place. Treacherous looking paths are cut through head-height snow. We're warned not to go out of our huts, in case we die of exposure.

The next morning, we're given a cold weather survival lecture, delivered in a monotone by a Royal Marine mountain specialist. "If you get caught in an avalanche, dribble" he advises. "feel which way the spit moves on your face, so you can work out which way up you are". Then we sit through a two-hour lecture on frostbite.

We're told that nothing works properly in the Arctic Circle. Batteries discharge in seconds rather than hours, clothes get frozen and solid in minutes if you're not wearing them.

And we're also told that we have to develop huge appetites. Most Europeans eat around 2000 calories a day. But Royal Marines eat 8000 calories every day in this climate. They need it for the fight against the monotonous and pervasive cold.

I've come here to do "Ice Breaking Drills" an experience designed to give soldiers an idea of what it's like to fall through a hole in the ice, into the frozen depths below.

27 marines, and I, are dressed identically in T-shirts, tracksuit bottoms and very thin white polythene suits called Cam Whites. We're led to a hole about six metres by four in the ice for the demonstration. The wind howls across miles of desolate whiteness, it's relentlessly noisy and bitterly cold.

The Royal Marine Sergeant demonstrating puts on his skis, picks up a back pack which contains 25 litres of water, and falls agonisingly slowly into the dark icy water. While immersed he must remove his skis and get his Jerry can out of the water before he's allowed out.

After several attempts the half frozen sergeant makes it out of the water and then rolls in the snow to get warm, before being whisked away to get changed in a waiting vehicle. I catch a glimpse of his face - he looks like death.

I'm the only civilian and the only person over 30 in the group.

The officer signals that my turn has come. I grab my pack and loop it over one shoulder. In a strange, semi-conscious state, I hit the water after having been pushed hard from behind.

As my head goes underwater I can just hear the tail end of the question "Are you ready, sir?"

The water is mindblowingly, heart-stoppingly, freezing cold.

Somehow, I manage to find my pack, swim to the edge of the ice and on my fifth attempt, get it up and onto the edge. Then I find the ski poles and use them as daggers to pull myself out. It's effective but not very pretty.

I've been in the water only 18 seconds. But, as I run back to the snow tractor, I begin to slow down. I can feel the energy draining out of my body and I have an almost comic sense of watching myself from outside.

Such life-threatening events are part of everyday life for the Royal Marines. They train here because they believe that a soldier who can keep his motivation in these conditions can operate anywhere in the world. Their stamina is remarkable.

So it's hardly surprising that the Marines have trouble finding the right grade of recruit to fill their ranks.

On the plane home, I suggest to Colour Sergeant Peter Carr that this might be the perfect career for me. "I don't think so, do you sir?" he says raising an eyebrow. "Tell you what, why not try the army?"





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