Page last updated at 19:38 GMT, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

British troops step up training for Afghanistan

By Robert Hall
BBC News, Salisbury Plain

Soldiers drag a mock blast victim
Soldiers taking part in a training session drag a mock blast victim

As the death toll of British soldiers in Afghanistan continues to rise amid preparations for a big push in Helmand province, a new battle group is preparing to deploy to Afghanistan at the end of March.

The members of 4th Mechanized Brigade, which is based in Catterick, have been training for 18 months in preparation for a six-month tour.

In the shadow of buildings erected to prepare for conflict in Western Europe, a group of soldiers and civilians in Afghan dress held a village meeting - known as a shura - for the cameras.

Copehill Down village on Salisbury Plain has a Bavarian feel to it because it was built when the West feared conflict on the plains of Germany.

Mock session

This month it is at the heart of training for a very different military operation.

Along its muddy streets, you're likely to encounter members of the Afghan army who are here to strengthen a working partnership with their British counterparts.

They are joined by parties of Gurkhas who have volunteered to role-play as insurgents as the huge exercise rolls across a freezing Salisbury Plain.

There are more than 6,000 men and women in this battle-group - a tiny fraction of the force has been assembled to give a worldwide audience a snapshot of their capability.

Mock shura
A group role play by holding a mock shura during the training exercise

They have been training for more than a year - getting to grips with new equipment and vehicles, and equally importantly, learning to understand the Afghan culture.

Several hundred now know at least the basics of Afghanistan's two languages - Dari and Pashtu.

The shura may be play-acting today but in a few weeks' time dialogue with villagers may save British lives.

This is a reality drummed into every member of the battle-group who are all too familiar with the risks of operating in a hostile environment, and the daily threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) also known as roadside bombs.

Sgt Danny Smith, 33, of 40 Commando Royal Marines, is deploying for the first time to Afghanistan, and will be saying goodbye to his wife - a firefighter he met when they were serving in Iraq - and three children aged between six months and 12.

"I'm very apprehensive, quite nervous, but I'm also excited.

"There's the expectancy of IEDs, you just don't know what they are going to throw at you. I'm hoping I'm not going to mess up. That's pretty much where my nerves are lying at the moment."

"My family obviously aren't happy about it, but they know it's my job. My wife knew that when she took me on."

He said he was sure the training they had done over the past 18 months was "ample" for the job.

I'm looking forward to it, but I'm still pretty scared obviously
Piper Andrew McKinley

Copehill Down's central square is dominated by the sand-coloured armoured vehicles built to counter the IED menace.

Around them, other young men and women chatted about the mission ahead, and the concerns of their families.

Piper Andrew McKinley is standing alongside his colleagues from 1st Battalion Scots Guards, as they stamp their feet in an attempt to stay warm.

He sums up the long training preparations for this deployment as "very cold". Aged just 19 this will be his first tour.

Originally from Glasgow, in Afghanistan he will be part of a police mentoring team, which will have an Afghan National Police Unit attached to it.

"We will teach them things like patrolling skills, stop and search and detaining. We will be patrolling together.

"I'm looking forward to it, but I'm still pretty scared obviously.

"My mum is really scared as well. She wasn't really happy about me joining the army," he said.

He and his colleagues deal with the fear and stress by "taking the mickey out of each other" and maintaining a decidedly black humour.

"That's how we get through it. We expect it to be hard, and pretty fast-paced," he said.

Medic Abbie Dalling is an Iraq veteran.

Pte Abbie Dalling
Pte Abbie Dalling volunteered to serve on the front line

She said she expects to be confronted by battlefield emergencies beyond her experience, but that she had volunteered to serve with a front line unit.

Did she discuss the risks to her own life with her family?

Abbie smiled: "It's there in the background, but there are some things we don't discuss."

Around us gunfire rumbled, and, minutes later, the Mastiffs, Jackals, and Husky armoured vehicles were rolling back down the rutted tracks to rejoin the exercise, while the journalists trudged back to their own vehicles.

The overall commander in Afghanistan, US Gen Stanley McChrystal, believes this will be "an exceptionally important year" and this summer the men and women of 4th Mechanized Brigade will be part of that vision.

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