The sight of a British paratrooper moving forward with a bayonet fixed on their rifle can be one of the most intimidating displays within the army. Captain Henry Willi’s face is smeared with camouflage cream, and although it is hard to tell, he isn’t joking around. In front of him, three rows of recruits are standing on a piece of moorland in North Yorkshire, being battered by wind and sleet. The recruits are focused on a line of sand-filled dummies that are swinging from wooden gibbets.
The chief instructor bellows a command that is unintelligible to onlookers but clear enough to the "red devils" in training. The group screams "On guard!" and each recruit stamps forward with one foot. With a prolonged howl, the front row charges towards the dummies. Running alongside each recruit is a non-commissioned officer who yells instructions about what each soldier should do with the steel blade attached to their rifle’s barrel.
The recruits charge forward while screaming, "In the face!" Above a dummy, a young soldier obliges and strikes the sand-filled bag. Come April, these young people who are in their late teens and early twenties will be deployed to Afghanistan. At the moment, they are on their 19th week of 28-week training (other infantry units complete 26 weeks).
This training is held at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick, where all of the army’s infantry is now being taught. Much of this training involves high-tech drills that are barely recognizable to soldiers from a generation ago. Recruits are taught to shoot using glorified versions of video games that can be typically found at motorway service stations. This training technique is far less wasteful of ammunition.
The "fighting in built-up areas" or Fibua training has an extraordinary Swedish-designed gadget. A computer tracks each recruit as the soldiers clear each room using guns and grenades, thanks to Bluetooth sensors in the soldiers’ boots and pockets, as well as those positioned in the walls of the houses (former married quarters).
Brigadier David Clements is in charge of infantry training for the army, and he says, "The infantry remains at the forefront of every operation. It bears the brunt of operational service, and that’s as true today in Iraq and Afghanistan as it was in the thin red line at Balaclava or the red squares at Waterloo. One thing doesn’t change – in the end, it comes down to the individual’s courage and skill."
Lieutenant Colonel James Robinson, who commands ITC Catterick, where about a third of the army passes, says that "The British infantryman is the finest in the world." If this statement is accurate, then British military training is complementary to it. The recruits may lack the necessary physical robustness, but through a sophisticated regimen of exercise and activities, the recruits are made fit and strong.
Captain Ken Carter, head of physical and adventure training at ITC, says many recruits can lack the required levels of physical fitness. Still, through a series of exhaustive exercise regimes and activities, they are trained to meet the army’s stringent physical requirements. The infantry’s physical tests, which include an eight-mile march in two hours while carrying 55 lbs of kit, are more stringent than they were 20 years ago when the requirement was for recruits to run a mile and a half in boots, Carter adds.
Last year, the army dropped its minimum literacy and numeracy requirement for recruits to entry level 1. As a result, the army is accepting young people with the reading age of five- to seven-year-olds. This is partly because the army needs to broaden its net to maintain force levels and partly because the army is unable to compete on pay with the police service or other employers who may offer higher wages than the army.
Robinson explains that while many recruits didn’t join the military for educational purposes, they quickly realize that obtaining a level 3 education is necessary for career advancement in the infantry. The training program includes practical skills, such as map reading and report writing, which help to embed this knowledge.
Lieutenant Colonel Martyn Wills reports that around 65% of recruits successfully complete the training program. Those who drop out usually do so on their own accord, with roughly 30% determining that the infantry is not the right fit for them. Over-18s have from the fourth to the 12th week to apply for resignation, while 17-year-olds have a longer exit period.
While level 3 education is necessary, almost no recruits fail to reach this level after their intensive three weeks of college. The trainers are determined to keep all recruits, rather than select out those who may struggle. They strive to turn young people who may have had limited prospects into responsible and productive members of society.
Regarding the reported plan to reduce training to 14 weeks for more troops to go to Afghanistan, the training officers find this untenable. However, it is still under consideration.
Clarke Hillyard and Lewis Thompson, both 19, are proud to have made it through the training program and will soon be passing out into the Parachute Regiment. Of the 52 that started with them, only nine will be passing out this week.
As the final week approaches, the recruits are mostly focused on drill exercises before their final parade. Despite changes in the training program, this seems to be a constant.