Commandos go Dutch to perfect defence of UKs ultimate weapon

The men who safeguard Britain’s ultimate weapon swapped lochs and glens for the lowlands of Holland and four days of fire and fury.

The Royal Marines of 43 Commando Fleet Protection Group are normally found patrolling either Faslane Naval Base or the nearby armaments depot at Coulport, ensuring no foe gets near our nuclear deterrent.

That mission demands they are (a) at the top of their game 24/7 (b) skilled in the use of a wider range of guns than most of their commando brethren and (c) experts in close-quarters battle.

Which makes the Dutch infantry school at Harskamp, near Arnhem, an ideal place to train.

Not only does the complex feature a series of ranges for pistols, rifles and machine-guns, but there’s also a replica generic European village, a cluster of 20 houses and buildings, built specifically to train troops in the art of urban warfare.

Exercise Gelderland Strike – the name is taken from the Netherlands region where the camp is located – saw the marines begin with a ‘gentle’ physical training session, moving up through the gears to conclude with an assault on the mock village of Oostdorp.

My commandos were buzzing by the end of this high-energy training package and will build on the camaraderie and use their skills back at their home base around the Clyde

Colonel Tony de Reya, Commanding Officer 43 Commando Royal Marines

On the ranges, the marines practised their marksmanship with the C8 assault rifle, Glock pistol, Sharpshooter rifle and General-Purpose Machine-Gun.

Once the men of O and P Squadrons were happy with their individual accuracy, they were put to the test in a group competition culminating with teams battling it out against each other in a 'march and shoot' challenge: running uphill in hot and dusty conditions, followed by live firing down the range.  A ‘casualty’ then had to receive first aid before evacuating him to a medical pickup point, several hundred metres away. 

The return sprint to the range was made even more challenging by carrying an unexpected load of extra supplies.  Further shots were then fired at targets – testing the marines’ accuracy when tired and under stress.  Bragging rights were claimed by the Section achieving a combination of fastest time and best shot accuracy.

“The competitive nature of the scenario pushes you on to do better, as everyone wants to out-do the other teams”, said Marine ‘Mac’ McDonald – a member of the winning team.

“As a troop, this makes everyone build each other up so that the team performs better collectively. The casualty evacuation drills added some urgency and realism to the scenario.”

The bangs and cracks of small arms fire at Harskamp contrasted sharply with the tranquillity of Oosterbeek Cemetery, last resting place for nearly 1,700 troops killed during the failed attempt to end World War 2 in the autumn of 1944 – eight months before the guns fell silent.

Oosterbeek and the bridge over the Lower Rhine about four miles upstream were the focal points of airborne landings during Operation Market Garden. The road crossing at Arnhem became immortalised as ‘a bridge too far’ in the book and film of the same name.

The bridge was never captured and eventually blown up by the Germans, with the houses surrounding it flattened – as the commandos found on a battlefield tour which included paying respects to the men of 1944 and marines explaining to their comrades what happened at key sites around the Arnhem area and outlining some of the lessons learned.

“My commandos were buzzing by the end of this high-energy training package and will build on the camaraderie and use their skills back at their home base around the Clyde, with the exercise helping maintain effectiveness in their core role of protecting the UK’s fleet of Vanguard-class submarines,” said 43 Commando’s Commanding Officer Colonel Tony de Reya.