Reservists head out to Eastern Europe for intense war games

Captain John Marcon.
Captain John Marcon.
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Fighting through thick smoke which bellows from a recently-detonated grenade while machine-gun fire rains down.

British troops are being hit as hundreds of rounds of shots ring out.

The enemy could be lurking around every corner.

It is a high-pressure situation for soldiers from the North-East-based Fifth Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (5RRF) to be in.

An intense house assault deep in a vast expanse of Croatian forest which pushes their resolve, fighting skills and comradeship to the limit.

Two of these soldiers embroiled in the heat of the battle are Lance Corporal Jack Hale, from Rothbury, and Lance Corporal Myles McMullen, of Swarland; both part of the Army Reserve.

It is a far cry from their life in civilian street; 22-year-old Hale going on to study sports science at Teesside University, while McMullen, 20, is employed at Eshott Hall.

A short time later, the pair have helped their comrades seize control of the building. The enemy threat has been wiped out, the wounded carried to safety.

Thankfully, this is all just an exercise.

An imaginary situation based on a real-life scenario, bringing a range of soldiering skills into play.

It formed part of an intense two-week stint in camp Slunj, Croatia, which took place at the end of August and at the start of September and saw Reservists from 5RRF working alongside Regular soldiers from Edinburgh-based 3 Rifles, as well as members of the Croatian Army.

In the changing face of the British Army, exercises such as this are becoming more and more important.

As part of the Government’s 2020 plan, personnel numbers of Regulars will be cut from 102,000 to 82,000, with a doubling of Reservists.

As Hale and McMullen admit, this type of training is vital.

Not only this, but the testing conditions of camp Slunj, with its dense vegetation and hilly terrain, coupled with scorching temperatures, provided them with the chance to try out their newly-acquired and ever-developing recce (formation reconnaissance) skills.

This highly-demanding discipline involves gathering information by stealth, without being seen. The recce platoon is the commander’s eyes and ears on the battlefield.

By signing up to this, the ambitious Hale and McMullen represent the new breed of soldier and personify the changing face of the Army, as Reservists will be looked upon to play an ever-more important part and develop more specialist roles.

But the pair are thriving in this environment.

Not only are they enjoying the added responsibility that recce brings, but they believe that developing specialist skills will encourage more part-time soldiers to stay on or indeed sign up.

Speaking while on exercise in Croatia, L/Cpl Hale, who is also a high-class Cumberland and Westmorland wrestler, said: “Recce is harder and more demanding.

“You have to operate in harder conditions for longer periods of time.”

The Coquetdale lad, a former pupil at Morpeth’s King Edward VI School, has been a Reservist for around two-and-a-half years.

He added: “It is the harder stuff that people really want to do, the stuff that soldiers aspire to and I really think it gives people more reason to stay in.

“Once you have got your basic soldiering skills it gives you something to advance to.”

L/Cpl McMullen, a Reservist for three-and-a-half years, told the Herald: “Recce appealed to me because it has always been a hard role to do, not just for Reservists but also the Regulars. Because of this, it makes a difference to how I perceive myself as a soldier.

“You have to go out into the ground and spy on the enemy and gather intelligence and then report back up the chain of command so we can go away and defeat the enemy.

“You cover a lot of distance and do it with a lot of kit on which weighs a lot and you have to do it without being spotted by the enemy or anyone else.

“It is a tough course to pass.”

The pair have signed up to the new recce platoon at Alnwick Reservist Centre, which has been renamed the Duke of Northumberland Barracks.

It is headed up by Captain John Marcon, from Pegswood.

Captain Marcon, 35, who works for Northumberland County Council as a senior accountant, said: “We wanted to invigorate the battalion and it is an exciting chapter. We haven’t had a recce platoon at Alnwick for 10 years.

“The terrain at the Otterburn range also provides good training opportunities as far as recce goes.

“One of the challenges is getting the right men for the job. You need a lot of experience and a high skill set, including better navigation and stamina.”