On a mission with the Royal Engineers

On a mission with the Royal Engineers

It is the plant and machinery of the Royal School of Military Engineering (RSME) that keeps our armed forces on the march. Construction Plant News Editor, Lee Jones visits the regiment’s training facility to find out more.

In the civilian sector if a contractor fails to complete a major project on time, or to budget, then they are likely to be faced with the financial penalty of a major fine. On the battlefields in which the Corps of Royal Engineers see active service, it’s lives that are put at risk. These are the high stakes that the skilled plant operators and mechanics that emerge from training at the Royal School of Military Engineering (RSME) are routinely faced with, because in every major conflict in which our armed forces have been engaged, from the Normandy beaches of Operation Overlord to the dustbowls of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is the plant that has been at the vanguard of their progress.

The training at Wainscot Barracks arms soldiers with the skills to be plant operators with basic mechanical RE IVknowledge. If a Corps detachment is inserted with an infantry regiment they will need to know not just how to operate the equipment but also how to keep it moving, because he or she could be the only individual for hundreds of miles who has that knowledge. Not only that but they’ll need that expertise across a host of different machines. As a consequence, the required training, supplied as part of a Public Private Partnership Contract by Holdfast Training Services, is far more comprehensive than anything that you could experience in the civilian commercial sector.

Recruiting for plant courses at the Wainscot Barracks facility actually starts 12-18 months prior to the commencement of plant mechanic training. That’s because, at the Phase 1 stage, the new recruits are learning how to be soldiers, which includes the basic infantry skills which they may well be required to employ in engaging an enemy. Once Phase 1 plant training is completed then Phase 2a begins at 3 RSME Minley – which is focused on combat engineering. RSME Chatham then sees the Phase 2b stage, and instruction in a trade – in this case POM, or Plant Operator Mechanic.

‘Live, Move and Fight’
The role of a Royal Engineer on active service is hugely varied and the motto ‘Live, Move and Fight’ is exemplified in the responsibilities they are expected to fulfil. Everything from bridge building, to demolition, the laying and clearing of mines and battlefield engineering, which could include the construction of anti-tank ditches, for instance, is in their remit. “Senior plant operators will be expected to design roads or airfield runways with the material from the surrounding landscape by sourcing suitable rock, drilling, crushing, screening and compacting,” explains Ben Monaghan, “all for a plane to be able to land safely and quickly – and the responsibilities don’t end there.” Camp Bastion, the largest overseas camp built by the British Army since the Second World War, and at its peak capable of accommodating up to 28,000 people, was the product of the plant at the disposal of the Royal Engineers, whilst the Corps will also be required to find suitable water sources for all tri-service assets.

Plant Fleet
To complete that huge range of tasks recruits have to be fully conversant with a multiplicity of machines. The Army loves an acronym and many of the designations given to the fleet at its disposal differ slightly from their civilian counterparts. A Medium Crawler Tractor or MCT for instance, is essentially a light dozer in industry parlance and the CAT D5N is the machine of choice in this category, where its uses include building ditches to prevent the advance of the enemy. Similarly, the JCB 4CX Sitemasters on active service are Light Wheeled Tractors or LWTs to the army. There are 135 of these vehicles available, with five winterised waterproof variants that can operate in deep water, roughly up to the floor of the cab, for situations like arctic warfare, amongst other theatres. Uniquely to the MOD, all the JCB 436eHT machines, designated as Medium Wheel Tractors (MWT), have 4-in-1 buckets. Similarly, all equipment has to remain self-sufficient in the most remote of locations, with equipment like spare wheels as standard. There are 102 of these in service, seven of which are winterised waterproof versions with self-recovery RE IIIcapability.

The operators of these machines are also front line soldiers, and one of our guides for the day around the Chatham Facility, reports that medals have been won for advancing at the enemy with the bucket of an MWT raised to deflect enemy fire. Medium Crawler Excavators include the Volvo EC 210, equipped with quick couplers and their role in the field includes road construction and anti-tank trap installation.

Armoured Vehicles
One of the most specialised areas in which the Royal Engineers is responsible is Airfield Damage Repair. If the runway is bombed it’s the Corps’ responsibility to return it to service and speed is of the essence. Often the pilot will inform the engineer of the minimum distance required to take off so the engineers know exactly how much to repair – and all of this might have to be achieved with the considerable added complication of coming under enemy fire.

For this the added manoeuvrability of a 360° Medium Wheeled Excavator is utilised, specifically the Volvo EW 180. The CAT 3030 is also employed in airfield repair as a heavy loader but, unlike the Volvo, is also tasked with removing unexploded bombs – an inherently dangerous job that requires the machine to be armoured. Other armoured vehicles include the CAT 434 Backhoe Loaders, CAT 938 Wheel Loader and CAT 257B Skid Steer. In each instance the armour is added for the MOD at the CAT factory and is designed to protect the integrity of the cab, and thereby its occupant.

“The machine can be replaced but the man behind the controls cannot,” declares Phase Training Manager, Colin Dimmock, “and I know for a fact that we’ve had soldiers who’ve contacted Finning CAT to thank them for the armour plate they provided because it means they can go home to their children,” Equally the MOD has to be sure that its operatives are fully conversant on every piece of equipment they might encounter, which includes variations in the same weight or excavator class from different manufacturers, and that’s why Wainscot Barracks hosts refresher courses for experienced personnel as well as its core work with new recruits. As well as that, if a particular model changes in any way then a new training course is required. The 257B pictured here is equipped with a 4-in-1 bucket, including an earth auger, hydraulic hammer, a set of forks and back actor. In Afghanistan this very machine was used to dig drainage trenches between the tents in bases where its size and manoeuvrability made it ideal for such work.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, goes the old saying, and it is equally the case that the Royal Engineers’ fleet of plant saw significant modifications as a result of recent conflicts. The army learnt a lot from Iraq and Afghanistan, where Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, were a major threat to life. This is where heavily armoured JCB High Mobility Engineer Excavators proved crucial. The HMEE-1 is a backhoe loader designed for blast and ballistic protection. A top speed of 42mph means it’s the only piece of equipment that can keep pace with tanks at the front line, and it’s also equipped with infrared cameras for night operations. There’s also a whole host of Light Dump Trucks, from Terex, JCB and Hydrema, compaction equipment and graders and much, much more.

Many of these machines are actually a very attractive acquisition for civilian contractors. Because of the nature of the roles they are required to perform they are extremely well maintained and have done very few operating hours compared to comparable machines on the fleet of a hirer or construction company.

The TrainingRE II
Eighteen months to two years after their initial Plant Operator Mechanic (POM) training, Royal Engineers recruits are eligible for a Class 1 course and once this has been completed the next step is Plant Section Commander. Higher up the food chain comes Plant Sergeant with the highest designation achieved through a 462 day Military Plant Foreman Course. This final level is essentially the same equivalent to a civil engineer. It takes up to 10 – 12 years at least to navigate all of these levels.

“Although the plans for a dig are all there, we’re encouraged to show our own initiative and problem solve,” explains Phase 1 trainee, Sapper Rodgers, as he steps from a Volvo EC 360 excavator. “We’re also in contact with instructors via microphones and everyone is issued with an iPad where diagrams, safety points and descriptions of how to achieve a particular dig are downloaded. We can also access operator manuals for the machines on the iPads as well so we get the most up-to-date information.”

A picture paints a thousand words and it’s also possible to explain to the operator exactly where they might be going wrong by taking an image on the iPad or shooting a video clip. That’s why GoPro cameras are positioned on the excavators and linked to the tablets. During the Cold War, the field on which the recruits are hard at work once had the honour of an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the most dug piece of land in the world, and recruits are assessed on summative, practical testing, as well as an oral examination on what they know of each machine. The practical element has to be done much quicker than for an equivalent CPCS and will include night digs with no lights. The instructors are all CPCS operators themselves and the majority are testers, whilst many, like Colin Dimmock himself are ex-military, and have frist-hand experience of the very same training. The MOD also utilises all the latest technology with a full suite of simulators for mechanical and operator training.

“We simply don’t know what the next mission will be,” explains Colin. “It could be in a desert, or on the western plains of Europe, so we need to be resourceful and prepare for any eventuality. Royal Engineers personnel remain infantrymen first and will be required to fix bayonets and engage in a firefight with the enemy but they are also multi-skilled engineers, capable of operating multiple machines for such sensitive tasks as bomb clearance.”

For further information on Holdfast Training Services visit www.holdfasttraining.co.uk

For further information on the work of the Royal School of Military Engineering (RSME) visit http://www.army.mod.uk/training_education/24479.aspx

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