Officer makes history as top student on tough German course

A Royal Navy officer has made history as the top naval student on Germany’s most prestigious course training the leaders of tomorrow.

Lieutenant Commander David Roberts stood out from more than 120 German and overseas military personnel attending two years of demanding learning in Hamburg

It’s the second time the 37-year-old, originally from Croydon, has demonstrated his language skills on a long-term exchange with one of the UK’s closest allies.

Back in 2014, he served aboard French flagship FS Charles de Gaulle as a fighter controller, directing the actions of Rafale and Super Étendard jets.

A few years later and David was selected for the mentally-challenging German Advanced Staff Course at the Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr or German Armed Forces Command and Staff College – roughly the equivalent of the UK’s Staff College in Shrivenham.

Around 120 German military personnel attend the two-year course in the Hamburg suburb of Blankenese, plus NATO and European allies.

Apart from presentations towards the end when students must demonstrate their English-speaking ability to work in multinational staffs, the course is taught entirely in German.

The six Britons underwent 12 months of intensive German language training at Shrivenham.

Which meant getting to know lots of lovely German military terms. Like Kessel (literally ‘kettle’ but in the military a ‘pocket’). Schwerpunkt (focal point or centre of gravity). Matrosen (matelots). Panzerkampfwagen (tank). Or learning how best to employ Streitkräftegemeinsame taktische Feuerunterstützung (joint fire support). And our favourite: Zusammenarbeitsfähigkeit (interoperability, although you can use Interoperabilität).

This is quite challenging and draining, particularly at first. The pace and breadth of subjects covered in the course does take a bit of time to ease into.

Lieutenant Commander David Roberts

As for the staff course, its focus is very much on growing the German military’s understanding of combined global operations and expeditionary warfare.

The German Armed Forces are going through something of a transformation. Defence spending has been increased well above the rate of inflation and Berlin is keen for its military to get more involved in areas of tension abroad which threaten Germany’s interests – such as the new HQ it’s building to direct multinational naval operations in the Baltic region.

And with Germany spreading her wings, its military has a thirst for knowledge about expeditionary armed forces – like the UK’s, allowing British students to share their expertise with the hosts, at the same time as gaining a continental insight into coalition operations.

“This is quite challenging and draining, particularly at first,” David said. “The pace and breadth of subjects covered in the course does take a bit of time to ease into. I previously worked in the Charles de Gaulle as a fighter controller, and that experience definitely helped me with acclimatising in a new language and generally settling in in a new country.

“That and our naturally-aligned national interests and societal norms and mores made it easier to make a significant contribution to the course, as well as to draw lessons which can be useful for the UK Armed Forces.”

After two years’ study he was named both the best naval student, the first non-German officer ever to receive this honour, and best international student on the course – recognised by both the German Navy and, at the graduation ceremony, by the college’s Commanding Officer Generalmajor Oliver Kohl.

Lieutenant Colonel Ben Davenport, the British Army liaison officer at the staff college, said given the high standard of Britons selected for the course, they traditionally performed strongly – especially so this year.

He said their presence meant the UK’s armed forces were “better understood by a key ally” and would form friendships and relationships with tomorrow’s leaders of the German Navy, Army and Air Force which would “bear fruit in the future”.

For the course’s top international and naval student, the German experience – both military and civilian – has been unforgettable.

“Living in Hamburg has been very enjoyable and interesting. The city is bustling and has plenty for both single students or, in my case, young families.

“There is a strong British presence in Hamburg, which helps students to feel at home.”

He now moves on to a job with NATO’s Maritime Command headquarters at Northwood in northwest London – with a better understanding of “the challenges that colleagues have living and working in a foreign country and language, as well as the broad experience they bring and valuable contributions they can make.”