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Live Fire At Petawawa


Story and photographs by Jacques Brunelle

Corporal Marty Smith (left) and Master Corporal Sean Benedict await orders during a live-fire exercise at CFB Petawawa, Ont.

Occupying the rough, mountainous terrain between Algonquin Provincial Park and the Ottawa River, the training area at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa covers almost 400 square kilometres. The Trans-Canada Highway runs north-south through the army base near the river in an area where Canadian Shield topography turns into the Mattawa Plain, an ancient sandy seabed created during the last ice age.

Stretching over four weeks, Exercise Rambling Bear involves about 900 soldiers and combines elements of 1st Battalion (Mechanized Infantry) Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) and other Petawawa-based units. This live-fire exercise is designed to test the operational effectiveness of combat team offensive operations within a battle group. It also allows for a battalion-size command structure.

Overall command of both Rambling Bear and the various units that will participate in it falls under the 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (2 CMBG) led by Colonel Peter J. Devlin, a down-to-earth commander who is well respected by his personnel.

A day in the life of the intense exercise begins when a large briefing map is projected onto a movie screen in the drill hall of 1 RCR at Victoria Barracks. “Time check! It’ll be 0901 in one-five seconds, one-zero, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Time is 0901 hours,” reports Captain Erik Esselaar, the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery forward observation officer attached to Charles Company, 1 RCR.

And with those words, everyone in the place synchronizes their watches.

A youthful looking, yet confident company commander–Major Kevin Caldwell –continues with the briefing for the company’s officers and senior non-commissioned officers. This morning’s meeting is like many others given over the past few weeks. The main points being safety, initiative and the day’s radio code words.

Following the briefing, I’m introduced to Lieutenant Steve Grabowski, 3 Platoon commander, and his second-in-command, Warrant Officer Kevin Earl. I follow these soldiers to company stores for their weapons issue and then outside to the vehicle staging area where I meet the rest of the 30-person platoon. With the exercise now into its fourth week, confidence is high as more and more soldiers become comfortable with their individual tasks, company Standard Operating Procedures or SOPs, and the joint SOPs of this composite combat team, known as CT for short.

Good training increases a soldier’s confidence. So does good equipment. The new GM Defence Canada LAV-III is truly in a class of its own. Soldiers, particularly the drivers, are clearly impressed by the vehicle’s comfort, including the driver’s air-suspension seat and an inflation system that automatically adjusts tire pressure for different terrain. The eight-wheel-drive vehicle is equally at home where no roads exist, or in the passing lane of a four-lane highway. The LAV-III is a versatile Armoured Personnel Carrier, ideal for a fast-paced, mobile, seek-and-destroy mission typical of today’s conflicts.

The most mobile elements of the CT are the infantry sections. For this exercise, there are three such sections in each of the three platoons that make up the LAV Company. Each platoon utilizes four LAVs, with each requiring a three-person crew. The fully equipped infantry sections, each comprised of about eight soldiers, are located in three of the four LAVs. The fourth LAV is the headquarters or platoon’s command vehicle. It is manned by Grabowski and Earl. The LAV sergeant is Jason Buckel who occupies the turret while Private Jason (Brownie) Brown serves in the driver’s position. Headquarters LAV also carries the platoon’s heavy infantry weapons, including the Carl Gustav anti-armour launcher.

The complex Tactical Command and Control Communications System or TCCCS is managed by Pte. Nicco Harper under call sign 33 Headquarters for 3 Platoon command vehicle. The three other platoon vehicles are identified over the communications net and by nondescript vehicle insignia on each turret, as 33 Alpha, 33 Bravo and 33 Charlie. Communications are by secure and unsecured means with voice, data and text digital satellite link-ups. At company and battalion level, this is linked with the state-of-the-art Iris Situation Awareness System, SAS. Information from the SAS is projected onto colour plasma screens located in the LAV driver’s compartment, turret area and section position. This allows everyone to view maps, infra-red imaging or a live video feed from the targeting sights of the turret’s 25-mm automatic cannon, a formidable weapon that’s capable of firing 120 rounds per minute.

Leading up to the live-fire portion of the exercise, various units have conducted field and range training to perfect their combat skills as a platoon, as a section and as individual soldiers. This is especially important for the newer members of the team.

When it is ready, the company, including 3 Platoon’s four armoured cars, is led out of the staging area by foot guides. Although danger is the name of the game in combat, intense live-fire training is ruled by a myriad of safety regulations to minimize injuries. Discipline is a key ingredient for optimum safety, and throughout the next few days I’m with the team, efficient leadership appears to promote maturity, self-confidence and initiative. As with other chosen professions, soldiers–even the junior ranks–now join up at a later age and many have university educations, so it is important that they benefit from their chosen field. Leadership is often by example with initiative and suggestions being encouraged from all ranks.

Once clear of the 1 RCR compound, Charles Company heads towards the Trans-Canada Highway to the western end of the Mattawa Plain under light snow on this late October day. Also out in the field working up with 1 RCR’s vehicles are the Royal Canadian Dragoons’ Leopard C2 Main Battle Tanks or MBTs, and Coyote Reconnaissance LAVs, the M109A4 self-propelled artillery of the
2 RCHA and the M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers, and the Badger or Armoured Engineering Vehicle of the 2 Combat Engineers Regiment.

Soon, the column splits up as the prepared dirt road disappears. 3 Platoon, the one I’ve joined, takes a hilly, muddy track that is interspersed with deep sand and large puddles. I’m standing in the right rear crew hatch, ducking overhead branches and trying to keep myself steady as the vehicle moves at approximately 30 to 40 kilometres an hour.

Notwithstanding the digital age, when a platoon is in close formation, hand signals are still used as one method of communication. This includes the usual mechanized signals for vehicle velocity and direction as well as more interesting signals that could indicate complex commands such as how far to drive, who dismounts and when, as well as descriptions of obstacles and enemy strongpoints. When used, hand signals vary from platoon to platoon. Not surprisingly, they are often the subject of amusing idle conversation.

Along the way–and at several locations–we encounter oncoming military traffic. Our drivers are very cautious, especially while moving around blind corners and crests. Even so, one startled jeep driver instinctively slams on the brakes when he confronts our armoured column at a blind curve in the single lane path. Fortunately for him and others, our more capable eight-wheel-drive vehicles give way to these echelon four-wheel-drive transport and ambulance vehicles. Moving in and out of the deep, muddy ditches isn’t much of a challenge for these rugged vehicles that barely spin a wheel in the process.

After entering a forest, we stop in a clearing. Grabowski signals for the LAVs to park closely abreast. When that is done, the crews and infantry sections meet behind the vehicles for a briefing given by the lieutenant. In preparation for tomorrow’s live-fire portion of the exercise, the lieutenant sets up a practice session. The enthusiasm among the soldiers is strong and everyone seems comfortable with their assignments. The winding path ahead, explains the lieutenant, is hostile with unknown combatants. The platoon is to plot a slow course in order to locate the imaginary hostile units, and it is to give special attention to ambush points such as curves and junctions. Infantry sections are to be used as required to flush out any hidden enemy that may be waiting with deadly anti-armour weapons.

Although working alone at this time, the platoon, which is on the move again, is communicating with the company command vehicle a few kilometres away. The company has been plotting the platoon’s progress by Global Positioning System. Meanwhile, I am impressed by the way in which the LAVs protect each other; there is always one LAV stationary with its rapid firing main gun aimed at the next threatening wooded area. On several occasions, the three sections are again rapidly ordered out of the vehicles through the quick opening rear ramp.

Using the two lead LAVs as cover, the sections carefully advance on foot towards an imaginary enemy outpost. They are walking through knee-deep grass, abreast of each other with roughly five feet between them. Everyone is focused, but the mood among the men is calm. 33 HQ is stationary and calling the shots from approximately 25 metres back from the advance, while 33 Charlie remains in reserve approximately 20 metres further behind. Satisfied with the practice session, the lieutenant orders the soldiers back to the vehicles and the platoon continues down the road. At this point, the platoon is roughly five kilometres from where it started at Victoria Barracks.

Before the crest of yet another hill, the troops are again ordered out as Harper hits the hydraulic ramp actuator and yells: “Ramp clear!” And he does this while scrambling out with his rifle and radio pack.

Once again the sections quickly take up their positions in line abreast, this time heading through the dense woods on both sides of the road, leaving the LAVs under the command of Buckel. The vehicles move along the ditches on either side of the trail in an effort to reduce their silhouettes. Meanwhile, the officer in charge signals them to advance as he follows on foot with his full combat gear and C-7 rifle. Finally clear of the woods and pleased with the results of the teamwork, the lieutenant holds a briefing where he and Earl review the section’s performance and overall platoon effectiveness. Everything appears to be going as planned.

Mounting up again, the platoon heads for another point on the grid map. The ride, while navigating through the forest in deep mud and sand, is impressively smooth for such a large, heavy-duty vehicle. Before long, the company orders a break in another open field. This time after opening the ramp, Harper remains in the vehicle and hands out instant coffee and cups of hot water from the LAV’s hot water dispenser.

Moments later, different crews from various platoons arrive at our location and begin to casually discuss the training. It begins to snow and there is rock music emanating from 33 HQ. Soon, the conversations shift to more typical topics, including politics, travel and dating.

Heading out in company formation, the long column of roughly 20 vehicles now rendezvous with additional elements of the Combat Engineers Regiment on the heart of the Mattawa Plain within view of the picturesque Laurentian Mountains on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. Other echelon formations soon arrive and a hot buffet is set up within minutes. Even with the satisfactory rations issued to every vehicle in the platoon, brigade ensures that one ‘normal’ meal a day is served in the field, including cake, salad and two choices for the main course. In this case, it was shepherd’s pie or chicken chow mein.

The only missing luxury is a place to eat, so some of the soldiers just sit on the ground while others eat off the hoods or tailgates of vehicles. All the while they continue their amiable conversations in the sub-zero temperatures. Just as quickly as it was set up, all is cleaned up and put away in a well-practiced manner. Following dinner, the troops assemble in the middle of the vast open plain for a pep talk by the company commander. During his talk, the commander quoted a newspaper article that reflected positively on CFB Petawawa’s combat units.

As darkness sets in, bivouacs are set up for the night. Most crews simply use the vehicle tarp stored on the rear of the LAVs as a large, makeshift tent while others set up four-man tents and prepare for the cold night ahead.

By 0500 hours, most of the company is up and preparing themselves to move out at a moment’s notice. By 0645, the combat team is ready after being joined by the RCDs heavy armour and reconnaissance squadrons. Provisions, fuel and live munitions are collected at the replenishment point or RP which is always situated in the rear.

Battalion headquarters is now indicating that a battle appears inevitable. We are informed that the fictional Algonquin Armed Forces, AAF, is up to division strength, but it is comprised mostly of conscripts with light support and two vintage tanks. The order is given to move out. The enemy is situated roughly two kilometres away at this point.

With tension mounting, communications traffic remains minimal until contact with the enemy is made. 3 Platoon, which is pretty close to the front, takes up its position in the combat team column led by Leopard tanks. Calling in 155-mm artillery support from M109A4s several kilometres away, the forward observation officer requests that a smokescreen be laid down by the RCHA battery to protect the flanks of the attacking force. The enemy position is soon overcome by heavy weapons as infantry sections from the three platoons, under cover of their armoured vehicles, mop up the remaining targets. For the purpose of the exercise, the platoon’s targets include two old Centurion tanks, plywood bunkers and dummies made out of straw.

After regrouping, more orders are given to the combat team from brigade headquarters. The force is to continue west towards a place called the Damp Floor Line, the western extremity of the exercise area. This is in an effort to clear out the enemy force, including its reserves.

The next objective is Strongpoint Dragon, situated roughly 10 kilometres to the west in much higher and rougher terrain. As the combat team advances in a long column around hills that resemble typical Bosnian countryside, the RCD’s Leopards have gone cross-country in the mountainous terrain to protect the flanks and to provide supporting fire if called upon. The attack begins with another artillery strike, this time using high-explosive 155-mm projectiles. After 20 minutes of heavy barrage where many direct hits are recorded on the enemy strongpoint, the combat engineers and their Armoured Engineer Vehicles (AEVs) move forward.

In preparation for the attack, the enemy has constructed a deep anti-tank ditch at the only point of assault. The combat team engineers bring forward their heavily armoured AEV which lowers a fascine–a large bundle of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) pipe–into the ditch. While “under fire”, the engineers move quickly to fill in the rest of the obstacle. Moments later, as the artillery barrage is lifted, the first troop of Leopards, led by one equipped with a mine plow, cross over into the strongpoint with 3 Platoon LAVs close on their heels.

Occupying the top of a hill, the enemy’s bunkers and trenches are being overwhelmed by the combat team’s combined firepower. Once orders are given, the sections begin the final assault using thousands of live 5.56- and 7.62-mm rifle munitions, supported by the rapid fire
25-mm chain guns of the LAVs.

The infantry sections are now running–with fixed bayonets–between their supporting vehicles as they fire and advance on the enemy “soldiers” that managed to survive the barrage. Following the obliteration of Strongpoint Dragon, the combat team continues to fight the next day until their objective at Damp Floor Line is met.

Live-fire exercises are critical for realism and coordination of larger units like combat teams and battle groups. Members of 1 RCR take part in only about two per year. Notwithstanding brigade efforts, this would appear to be barely minimal for units that are kept at such high states of readiness. With the numerous overseas deployments imposed on these composite fighting groups by the government, it is critical that their home units are properly funded and trained to ensure their readiness, safety and ultimate success.

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