The news that the bulk of the British Army is leaving the British Army Training Unit, Suffield (BATUS) in Alberta, Canada, after some fifty years has brought a wave of nostalgia and a lump to the throat of a certain generation of BAOR warriors.

Whilst the move of the training facilities to Oman seem to make sense in terms of the British army’s new post-Iraq and Afghanistan focus it nevertheless marks the end of an era.


This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines

The author, Stuart Crawford, was a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford attended both the British and US staff colleges and undertook a Defence Fellowship at Glasgow University. 


For those who may not know, BATUS replaced the British army’s extensive training facilities in Libya, which were lost when Gaddafi came to power there in 1969, leaving the British with no large scale fire-and-manoeuvre facility. The first lease was signed between Britain and Canada in 1971, and in the following year my own Regiment, 4th Royal Tanks, was the first visiting battlegroup to use the facility. The training area comprises some 2,700 square kilometres of prairie in the province of Alberta.

I have written before elsewhere of my times at BATUS, first as a relatively young troop leader back in the early 1980s and later as a tank squadron leader. I won’t bore you with the details again except to say that as a troop leader I thought there was no other job in the world that I would rather be doing; as a squadron leader I thought it was as complex a task I have ever been asked to undertake, more satisfaction than fun. I never got the chance at battlegroup level but suspect that might have been another step change in difficulty.

BATUS was the graveyard of many an ambitious and aspiring officer and regimental favourite. I know of one squadron leader who fired live ammunition in error at one of his troop leader’s tanks – and missed, thank goodness – who went on to command an armoured brigade on operations. I also know of squadron leaders who walked off exercise, leaving their commands in the field, because they couldn’t handle the stress. 

In the days before GPS it was easy to get lost out there, for landmarks were few and far between and reading the map contours was never easy from inside your panzer, and impossible when closed down. And although the accompanying safety staff usually helped out when absolutely necessary, oftentimes they weren’t quite sure where they were either. On one occasion they intervened just in time when one of our “fast track” squadron leaders with half of his squadron under command was about to open fire on the other half of his squadron commanded by his 2ic. That was the end of him. 

Minor mishaps were legion. Although most of the area was pretty arid, there were places where you could bog a panzer, and such places seemed to attract young troop leaders like moths to a candle. On another infamous occasion, our REME boys got lost and not only suffered the indignity of being machine-gunned by our own recce troop who thought their ARV was a hard target, but then strayed into a former mustard gas test area where the crew received nasty, but thankfully not life-threatening, blisters to exposed limbs. And the ancient Chieftains we had broke down incessantly, and the boys had to slave over them to keep them going.

But there were good times in abundance too. Driving into that squadron leaguer as the light was beginning to fade and opening that tin of Labatt’s Blue at the end of a hard working day was one, although if the truth be known you and your crew had been tucking into them since about ten o’clock in the morning; the beer was so weak nobody noticed. That wee dram of the Famous Grouse (aka the Game Bird) that you shared with the boys just as it began to get chilly, and you knew your driver would be up half the night maintaining the engine; he above all others deserved it. And the cooked breakfast you got it the morning just as the sun came up. It didn’t get much better than that.

Plus there was the R&R. After about four weeks on the prairie living off our panzers we would come back into Camp Crowfoot, wash down the vehicles, and hand over to the incoming battlegroup which was going to repeat the exercise all over again. I recall we got about a week off to do what we liked, plus another couple of weeks if you chose to go adventure training in the Rockies. Lots of the boys never made it any further than the Sin Bin in nearby Medicine Hat, which offered beer and “exotic dancers” if I recall correctly. I know the Alberta State Police had a couple of cars permanently stationed outside most nights.

In my first visit to BATUS I tacked on my three weeks leave to my R&R and with a pal hitchhiked from Alberta to San Francisco, out via the prairie states of Idaho and Montana and back along the west coast via California, Oregon, and Vancouver. We had various adventures for sure, some perhaps not best recorded for posterity now that we are grown up and responsible, but great fun nonetheless and nobody was permanently scarred. If I was forty years younger I’d do it all again, but sadly I’m not.

Whether Oman, the new training area, and the nearby town of Duqm (I’m told) will have the same allure I very much doubt, but who knows? Maybe there are other fleshpots the equivalent of Medicine Hat in the Middle East that I’m not aware of, so let’s not be presumptuous. Mind you, having spent some time in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s I’m not holding my breath. 

Anyway, with the passing of BATUS comes the passing of a chapter in British military history, and also a reminder that I and my contemporaries are getting on a bit. It was great fun, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and time to move on. The good times keep on rolling, they’re just different.

Stuart Crawford was a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford attended both the British and US staff colleges and undertook a Defence Fellowship at Glasgow University. He now works as a political, defence and security consultant and is a regular commentator on military and defence topics in print, broadcast and online media.
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BigH1979
BigH1979
1 month ago

Fond memories of a Med Man 4 spent in BATUS with the Devon and Dorsets 😀

Ian M.
Ian M.
1 month ago

Sorry Stuart, your memory is letting you down: “The first lease was signed between Britain and Canada in 1981, and in the following year my own Regiment, 4th Royal Tanks, was the first visiting battlegroup to use the facility.”
I did my first Med Man as a fresh faced L/Cpl straight out of S.E.E Arborfield with the 13/18 Hussars in June 1976 and I believe the lease was signed in 1972. Faced with a squadron of ancient Chieftains in the dust bowl, still wet behind the ears and trying to figure out how to find a “Neg earth” fault.

cheers
Ian

Stuart Crawford
Stuart Crawford
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian M.

You’re right! It was 1971. I’ll try to get that corrected.

Fiona
Fiona
1 month ago

I noticed you said you started in 1980, which is when we left, did you take over from Major Quick?

Stuart Crawford
Stuart Crawford
1 month ago
Reply to  Fiona

I didn’t do BATUS until 1981 and I was but a lowly Troop Leader I’m afraid.

Mike
Mike
1 month ago

That is a noble picture of a Challenger 2 firing….My tank in 2014.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
1 month ago

Moving Armoured BG training to Germany/Oman makes sense as there are too few armoured vehicles left to justify having so many sitting in Canada as a dedicated training fleet.
In Oman they can be duel hatted as training/ forward deployed pre positioned BG.

Just wish as usual the British Army would stop the spin they put on everything “BATUS isn’t closing”

It’s not, but that is not the point. It was ideal for its size.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
1 month ago

Daniele, It’s a really bad idea to double-hat a training fleet as an operationally deployable fleet. The BATUS training fleet will mostly either be thrashed (mid-to late training season) or will be undergoing ‘winter renovation’ and also may not be the latest version for upgrades etc. Also, in a long high-intensity war, you need to be able to continue doing realistic collective training during TTW and into wartime – you can’t if the training fleet has disappeared to go to war. Anyway there are only 22 CR2s at BATUS, although admittedly there are loads of other vehicles (A and B… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

I’ve read some in Ashcurch are not kept in the best condition, not all in CHE.

Fair points. I also read on Sir Hs blog that another issue is moving said fleet from Oman. Our logistic to ros are not there and might still take weeks to arrive before the vehicles can move to where they are needed.

May be not such an issue at Sennelager, Munchengladbach.

Cymbeline
Cymbeline
1 month ago

Never did Suffield, but did Wainwright twice back in the mid/late 70’s. Loved it.

Noel barker
Noel barker
1 month ago
Reply to  Cymbeline

I was the lucky one did2 years and six m oaths and loved every minute. Looked after the local purchase for all BATUS met many many real soldiers from the battlegroups. Had some fab times and the sgts mess ranks highly as did the Canadians in particular the Cdn RSM..

James
James
1 month ago

Did 6 Canda Tours with the Blue and Royals in the late 80s and repeatedly got myself put down as spare crewman so to stay out and do as many Adenture Training and Road trips to USA as possible…
But it could be grueling work on the Canadian Prairie Track bashing or Engine lifts on beat up Chieftain Tanks at all hours.
Nothing quite like the rat race back to Crowfoot on endex trying not to be back on the back of a ARVE But many happy memories.

Andy
Andy
1 month ago

I enjoyed medman 7 in 1990 and menman 6 in 91 and 3 in 1993 but the last medman in 1994 was the last for me when the warrior I was in ran over a red top and sadly killed the driver, myself and my team fought desperately to save him but sadly failed….never did medman again went to Bosnia on op grapple 7 then I left the army

criss whicker
criss whicker
1 month ago

will this turn out to be another mistake, we should remain in canada if only in part, moving it all to the middle east i think is a bad move,
time will tell i supose, just an opinion.

James
James
1 month ago
Reply to  criss whicker

We aren’t leaving fully. Media spin. We are still there just the bulk is moving.

criss whicker
criss whicker
1 month ago
Reply to  James

nice to know

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
1 month ago
Reply to  James

What will we continue to use BATUS for in future?

John Clark
John Clark
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

I wonder if it’s future of BATUS will be to deploy the future deployable formations currently standing up (Ranger Groups, SF and SF Support Groups etc) for realistic training, complete with their equipment into the field. To really stress test deployable force elements as a whole, RAF fixed wing fast jet, drones, transport (fixed wing and Helo), plus AAC units.

It would make sense to me…

If we are really serious about deploying rapid reaction forces, we should be able to deploy and test force elements on exercise at short notice.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

If not Rmour what’s the point. What I understand was it’s main selling point, it’s sheer size vs SPTA.

Rob Wyatt
Rob Wyatt
1 month ago

I never got as far as Suffield, but as cabin crew on 10Sqn VC10s spent many days in Calgary ánd Gutesloh shuttling troops between the two. I Loved Calgary even for a quick turnaround of a day or two.

Nick Mercer
Nick Mercer
1 month ago

Formative teaining for thus ex Young officer, i went 4 x 1978, 1979 2 x and 1980; as an Gunner command post officer, controlling the fire of 6 x tracked 105mm Abbot SP guns. Next as tge Gun Position Officer myself, without a B K to interfere; next as an FOO with a sister batery as the Battle Group was enlarged with a 3rd Canadian army company from the PPCLI to make 3 x combat teams. I supported A sqn 14/20H, whos wonderful sqn leader taught me all i neede to know about tank attack drill in 2 weeks on… Read more »

Alwynne Hulme
Alwynne Hulme
1 month ago

Sorry to say this ,but some of you are wrong,looking at my little red book,l was at BATUS from24/5/74 till 22/6/74 .

Mark Robertson
Mark Robertson
1 month ago

I was part of the arty redtops crews as a young gunner in 1996 from median 3 – 5 (medman 6 was called off as the weather turned cold early)
Was certainly an eye opener for a young gunner, especially the night shoots.
Stayed on for winter repair revamping the 432’s, the workshops set up there was brilliant!
I certainly remember the Assiniboia Inn, and also a green windowless strip bar called Cheetahs, plenty of entertainment in there.
To echo your thoughts Mr Crawford, if I could go back 25yrs I certainly would!

Maplewood
Maplewood
1 month ago

Alberta State Police? There’s no such thing and never has been. I think you mean the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

Leonidas
Leonidas
1 month ago
Reply to  Maplewood

The Alberta Provincial Police is what the author meant, I’m sure.

Mickey
Mickey
1 month ago
Reply to  Leonidas

RCMP. Alberta’s ‘provincial police’ disbanded close to 100 years ago.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alberta_Provincial_Police

MR A G MACDONALD
MR A G MACDONALD
1 month ago

105mm Abbots, pack lifts on the Prairie 1976

Trevor Lucas
Trevor Lucas
1 month ago

Aah yes, fond memories of a Redcap attached to the Lifeguards regiment for several months back in ’75. Driving a Ferret scout car as a forward control observation unit was a welcome change to rounding up drunken sqaddies back in BAOR. Happy days and nights relaxing in Medicine Hat and a taxi back to Crowfoot with Vic, probably the best taxi service ever !

Jerry groves
Jerry groves
1 month ago

Did Med man 5 in 1980 as a 18 Yr old infantry man with B Coy 1st Royal Anglian Regt. Really good memories of BATUS as my first major mechanised EX. Flew back to Germany only to go straight on Ex Crusader . Good Times never forgotten.

Keith, Lttle Legs Wright
Keith, Lttle Legs Wright
1 month ago
Reply to  Jerry groves

Remember Crusader 80 well mate: my last ex as a regular squaddie although did many more as TA and civvy supporting Chally 2 when it was a new toy

Charles Branchaud
Charles Branchaud
1 month ago

I think that by being moved to Oman, this training facility would be more exposed to direct terrorist attacks and British personnel (and their family for the resident staff) would not enjoy the freedom of movement they do in Canada. Further, what would be the cost of opening such new facility in the Middle-East; not only in training aids and infrastructure, but also in the cost of security systems and infrastructure to deter potential attacks ?

Stuart Crawford
Stuart Crawford
1 month ago

Thanks, Charlie. Good points. Gun feucail roimhe dhad!

GARY W RAYCRAFT
GARY W RAYCRAFT
1 month ago

Just a point of Canadian order…there are not “state police” in Alberta. It is not a state but a province. While Medicine Hat has a municipal police force all non urban areas are policed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Gary the Canuck

Stuart Crawford
Stuart Crawford
1 month ago

Thanks, Gary, always pays to be accurate. I stand corrected.

Keith, Lttle Legs Wright
Keith, Lttle Legs Wright
1 month ago

Happy days, mostly: lots of bog ins, beer and getting lost just like to Colonel says. First outing was in 1977 on Chieftain dumping oil everywhere and with steam effusing from the exhausts making a tactical approach impossible, Oh happy days! On a sadder note when out in 2001 a Chally 2 took the turret off a warrior that was unfortunately well within the arcs of fire. I believe two chaps were killed but I guess that was the hard face of live firing. The one + point of that incident as I recall was that a very famous ‘then… Read more »

Leonidas
Leonidas
1 month ago

There’s no area in Germany that can be used for the type of training done at BATUS? European terrain seems to be the most likely place for the Army’s remaining armoured forces to see combat now, not the desert in the Middle East, anymore.

Marius
Marius
1 month ago

Most enjoyable article and certainly brings back memories of all and anyone who served away from home. Thank you for sharing it here!

Stuart Crawford
Stuart Crawford
1 month ago
Reply to  Marius

Thanks. Good to get it down – errors and all – before we all forget about it!