Ex-Berwick vicar at home on the Otterburn ranges

The British Army has worked alongside its international allies on a large, live firing artillery exercise in Northumberland.

Wednesday, 6th April 2016, 10:11 am
Updated Wednesday, 6th April 2016, 10:17 am
Alan Hughes at Otterburn

Armed forces from around the world arrived at Otterburn Training Area last month for 1 Artillery Brigade’s annual gunnery camp.

Former vicar of Berwick, Canon Alan Hughes, who now lives at Wark, spent some time there. He is chaplain to Territorial Army Unit 15 Para, a parachute regiment.

French soldiers worked alongside British artillery troops, firing their CAESAR truck-mounted 155mm guns. Danish, Estonian and even Australian soldiers have also played a part in the two-week training exercise, named Steel Sabre. They were joined by pilots from the United States Air Force who provided simulated air support.

Chief of Staff at 1 Artillery Brigade, Major Nicholas Morton, said: “It’s all about understanding how we work in a multinational environment. We are becoming more comfortable with how we do our business together – we understand how they do it, they understand how we do it and we are working out how to do it together.”

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He added: “The issue has always been how to talk to each other, but we are overcoming language barriers and can now co-ordinate heavily on joint firing exercises.”

The French Army has been involved in Steel Sabre in previous years but this time around they sent more weaponry – which Major Morton said was a “great advert” for the exercise.

Soldiers from 11e Régiment d’Artillerie de Marine (11e RAMa) drove from Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier, near Rennes, to Northumberland to fire a pair of 52-calibre guns.

They worked closely with 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, with the British making a “call for fire,” which the French then acted upon.

Executive Officer Major Berthrand Maire, of 11e RAMa, said: “It has been interesting to do a live firing artillery manoeuvre with our friends in the British Army.

“We have developed interoperability and improved our procedures by working together.”

British officers and soldiers watched the French demonstrate their CAESAR guns, firing the self-propelled howitzers from a clearing in woodlands.

The demonstration was watched by 1 Artillery Brigade Commander, Brigadier Jez Bennett, who presented Major Maire with his “Commander’s coin”.

Also present was Brigadier Simon Humphrey, director of Combat Support for the British Army and a selection of French officers.

Major Maire added: “Interoperability is important because we will never act alone on the battlefield as one nation, but rather we will stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies such as the British.”

French soldiers from 35th Parachute Artillery Regiment were also among the 1,400 troops taking part in the exercise which began on February 29.

They swapped their base at Tarbes in the Midi-Pyrénées region of south western France, for the wet and windswept Otterburn Training Area.

One person who was unfazed by the weather was Captain Andrew Geist, 26, from Washington State.

The American Airman said the weather at Otterburn was similar to his home town near Seattle in the Pacific Northwest

Capt Geist, from The 74th Fighter Squadron, said: “Our job is to work with the guys on the ground to develop interoperability.

“Coming out here gives us a better idea how to manage the battle-space. It’s a welcome chance to see things from a different perspective.”

Capt Geist can usually be found at the controls of a Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II – a ground attack aircraft nicknamed “the warthog”.

But for this exercise he swapped his joystick for an Xbox controller which was used to control camera feeds, providing soldiers with detailed aerial footage.

Also on the exercise was Captain Joshua Geidel, his colleague from Moody Air Force Base, near Valdosta in Georgia.

Capt Geidel, 31, from Illinois, said: “We are out here to integrate so we can share skills and knowledge.

“The US and UK have been partners on a lot of things, this is about extending each other’s knowledge base so we can continue to work together.”

Capt Geidel said that while in the UK he had tried British “delicacies” including beans on toast and Yorkshire puddings.

But he said the most interesting part of his trip had been learning about the different British Army regiments and their history.

Capt Geidel added: “There’s a lot more history and tradition in the British Army compared to the US military because it’s been around a lot longer.

“The British soldiers are very proud of this, and rightly so, but they can also get quite competitive about it!”

British troops involved in the exercise were 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, 26th Regiment Royal Artillery, 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, 105th Regiment Royal Artillery, 101st (Northumbrian) Regiment Royal Artillery and 5th Regiment Royal Artillery.

Soldiers have been firing everything from 105mm light guns to AS90 self-propelled guns, mortars to multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS).