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.
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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.