Royal Marines hone desert warfare skills

More than 1,000 Royal Marines and Royal Marines Reservists are feeling the desert heat once again as they take part in an annual exercise with their Dutch and US counterparts.

For the next six weeks the marines of Plymouth-based 42 Commando will be honing their war fighting skills in the sweltering temperatures of California’s Mojave Desert.

Exercise Black Alligator is played out on the US Marine Corps’ huge all-terrain exercise area near the town of Twenty-nine Palms, California – a space eight times larger than Salisbury Plain to allow unparalleled use of firepower in training.

The full range of the Royal Marines’ armoury – Viking armoured vehicles, 105mm field guns, mortars, heavy machine-guns, Javelin anti-tank missiles and combat engineers – will also all be tested over the next six weeks. Alongside the Dutch and US marines, the Commandos will take part in live firing, perfect their urban combat drill and conduct a Battlegroup-sized live-fire Commando raid.

Marine Daniel Stiggles from 42 Commando said: "This is one of the best training areas in the world. The training here is as close as it can be to the real life situation and you can't really match the level of training with what is available in the UK."

Ex Black Alligator 15 forms part of the multi-environment training package that the Commando Group takes part in to ensure they remain at high readiness. This will also include specialist training in cold weather warfare in Norway; jungle warfare in Gabo; plus armoured vehicle, aviation and chemical warfare training.

Black Alligator is the highlight of 42 Commando’s training year and crucial to our regeneration to become the UK’s very high readiness Commando Unit in Spring 2016

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cantrill OBE MC RM, Commanding Officer of 42 Command Group

Next year will see the men of 42 Cdo take over the nation’s high-readiness Lead Commando Group – a contingency force able to deploy anywhere in the world at very short notice.

However, Exercise Black Alligator is not designed to prepare the UK’s Commandos to act alone. The British elite marines have also been joined by 230 Dutch marines from the Korps Mariniers and will soon be bolstered by over 300 of the US Marines Corps’ own troops who will bring their own artillery, engineers and battle tanks to create an allied force of over 1,500 personnel.

Corporal Steven Court from the Australian Army 3rd Battalion is working with 42 Commando, and said: "I am having a really good time working with the Royal Marines, the boys have been really good and bought me up to speed with all their drills and treat me like one of their own.

"It is another adventure, I've flown from the most eastern point in Australia to the western coast of the USA, I've done nearly a lap of the world to learn new skills, everything is shiny and new out here and it's good to see how the rest of the world does it."

Also taking part in Black Alligator is a selection of Royal Marines Reservists from units across the UK. The majority of Reservists have careers outside of the Corps and give up their time to support UK amphibious forces.

RM Reservist Finlay Shaw is a full time student at St Andrews University. He said: “As a reservist there is no distinction between us and the rest of the regulars, we are performing the same tasks and completing the same drills and exercises. Being fully integrated with the unit, there is a lot you can learn from all the other lads - there are a lot of skills you can pick up and see into the life of a regular marine."

Following a series of exercises and drills, the final part of Ex Black Alligator will cumulate in a high intensity 'battle' in a purpose-built town featuring a complex tunnel system, buildings from one to five storeys high, grocers (complete with plastic fruit), bookstores, a pharmacy, hotels, hospitals and parliament buildings. The buildings have been designed with special bullet-absorbing material, allowing this complex to be reused without the exercises causing any long-term damage.

Four Royal Marine companies, plus one Dutch, and one US Marine Corps will form together to participate in the final assault. They will yomp (fast walk) overnight to reach the town, before an intense 12-hour battle of unbroken urban assault through the outskirts and into the densely-packed town, fighting their way through more than 500 buildings to ensure they have cleared the enemy.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cantrill OBE MC RM, Commanding Officer of 42 Command Group, said: "Black Alligator is the highlight of 42 Commando’s training year and crucial to our regeneration to become the UK’s very high readiness Commando Unit in Spring 2016. Expeditionary in nature the exercise deployment prepares us for worldwide deployment and allows us to bring together 42 Commando with its Battlegroup attachments, and with joint enablers such as Navy Merlins and RAF Chinooks, with Regulars and Reserves fully integrated.

"Crucially it allows us to train alongside our Dutch Marine and US Marine brothers, ensuring we are ready to operate together at a moment’s notice. Culminating in a 1,500 person Battlegroup final exercise on the best training estate in the world, 42 Commando will return to the UK with real confidence, ready to refresh amphibious skills, and jungle and arctic skills, and then assume the mantle of Lead Commando in May 2016."