Marines blast their way through Latvia

Royal Marines blasted their way through a ‘mini-Stalingrad’ as they practised urban combat in Latvia.

Green berets from 45 Commando and 24 Commando Royal Engineers – the marines’ dedicated sapper unit – and the Army’s Working Military Dogs unit were invited to unleash hell over several days in a ghost town.

For three decades, Skrunda-1 was a key base, its huge radars providing early warning of approaching NATO aircraft coming from the west, the town was closed to anyone but the 5,000 Russians who lived and worked there.

With the end of the Cold War, the Russians pulled out, the radars were blown up and the town – 60 buildings and structures, including a school, barracks, mess and married quarters – left to decay, until the Latvian military took it over and turned the 250-acre site into a training range.

Skundra is unlike anything I have ever seen

Major Mike Richardson RM

Around 300 British and Latvian troops – mostly National Guard – joined forces to practise their urban combat skills overall several days.

The marines showed the Latvians various techniques to turn the multi-storey blocks which dominate Skrunda-1 into fortresses – making the enemy fight for each room, à la Stalingrad 75 years ago: barbed wire was rolled out, windows barricaded with sandbags, doors blocked with piles of rubble.

And the sappers of 24 Commando then demonstrated how to force their way into such buildings – some still adorned with faded kitsch mosaics of Lenin on the walls – from the basics of man-handling rubble and other obstacles out of the way, to cutting through barbed wire and using explosives charges for ‘forced breeches’.

And once an entry was forced, specially-trained dogs were sent in to sniff out explosives and booby traps – or attack ‘enemy’ soldiers.

“Skundra is unlike anything I have ever seen,” said Major Mike Richardson of 24 Commando. “Here there’s a feeling of authenticity – it’s excellent, really good for training. And as an engineer, the highlight is getting to use explosives to blow up things.

“It’s also been useful for understanding language, tactics and how everything fits together. We learned things from the Latvians, they learned things from us. That’s very, very important for us.”

Chief among the ‘live dems’ – live demonstrations – Major Richardson and his men relished was blowing up a brick chimney (in war a potential observation post or sniper position), bringing it toppling to the ground safely in a confined space.

The ‘fighting’ in Skrunda-1 in the Courland region – 90 miles west of the capital Riga – formed the final element of the Latvian ‘chapter’ of the UK’s Baltic Protector deployment, showing how the new Royal Navy-led Joint Expeditionary Force can assist the region if its security is threatened.