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Tanks For The Memories

by Ray Dick

Top: Members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons load ammo into a Leopard tank during Exercise Resolute Warrior at CFB Wainwright, Alta. Bottom: Soldiers attend a briefing prior to heading out to the exercise area.

The Battle River that in recent times has flowed rather peacefully through the valleys and plains of central Alberta lived up to its militant name last April as some 4,600 soldiers and airmen from across the country gathered at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright for Exercise Resolute Warrior, the largest military manoeuvre by the Canadian Forces for the last decade and the first for this century.

It was a key test by the military at unit and brigade level in a demonstration of collective war-fighting capability in preparation for upcoming overseas missions such as Bosnia and Afghanistan. Included were units from Alberta to New Brunswick, as well as appearances by F-16 fighter jets from Montana’s Air National Guard, CF-18s from nearby CFB Cold Lake and Griffon helicopter squadrons from Gagetown, N.B., Edmonton, Borden, Ont., and from Valcartier and St-Hubert in Quebec.

And it was a month where the residents of the town of Wainwright, about 200 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, were interrupted by their neighbours on occasion night or day by the roar of jet engines overhead, the rolling thunder of artillery, the sharp cracks of the 105-millimetre guns of the Leopard tanks and the rattle of machine-gun and small arms fire on this sprawling 620-square-kilometre military base.

Not that there were any complaints about the racket, either from the residents or from the native wildlife that includes a herd of buffalo at the camp gates, deer, coyotes, birds and other animals that roam the firing ranges and battle grounds with barely a ruffle of fur or feather. But there was nostalgia, and some sadness, that showed through the esprit de corps as members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons from CFB Petawawa demonstrated the prowess in battle of their Leopard main battle tanks. They would be returning to Petawawa without their tanks, marking the end of an era for the Dragoons, who have been mounted on the Leopards for the last 25 years.

The exercise was also one of the Canadian Forces’ first experiments with embedding journalists with the troops in the field, a new method of covering military conflicts that the Americans experimented with during the recent war in Iraq. It was also a first test for this journalist, who found out, in the nick of time it would seem, just what it would be like (awesome) to be at the controls of the army’s 46-tonne main battle tank before age, technology and reorganization of the army relegates the tank to a lesser role in the battle orders of the future. The loss of the tanks by the Dragoons is the first step in the unit’s transformation to a reconnaissance regiment in accordance with the chief of land staff’s vision for army restructuring.

“We don’t think it’s a great idea, losing the tanks,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Dean Milner, commanding officer of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, who was relaxing briefly in the mess tent at Bivouac 9. “It is a political decision,” he adds. “With the money we have we can’t afford them.” The lieutenant-colonel, who has spent most of his military career with the tanks as had his father before him, barely disguised his disappointment when he said the Leopards would be turned over in a special ceremony to the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) based in Edmonton for caretaking after Exercise Resolute Warrior. But not before the Dragoons, who have tended their charges’ aches and sprains in Petawawa since 1993, have repaired any battle damages from the exercise and hosed off the mud of Wainwright from their tracks and armour.

It was a nostalgic attachment that was demonstrated at the Dragoons’ home base before the exercise even started. A convoy of 19 Leopard tanks rumbled through Petawawa and the nearby city of Pembroke March 28, with about 400 Dragoons lining the route near the city’s cenotaph to bid farewell to the tanks and commemorate the historic occasion. Many of the Dragoons, who have served on the Leopard battle tanks since they were purchased in 1977, watched with emotion as they were loaded on flatbed rail cars for their trip to Wainwright.

“The Dragoons have a great regimental history, dating back to 1883,” says Lt.-Col. Milner, “and great esprit de corps.” That, too, was demonstrated during the exercise when the driver of a Leopard mine-clearing vehicle was involved in an accident, and at first believed seriously injured, when the toothed mine-clearing apparatus on the front of the tank dug into the ground after topping a knoll during an attack exercise. After emergency treatment in the field, in which her heart stopped twice, she was airlifted by helicopter to an Edmonton hospital. Milner drove to Edmonton and visited the injured trooper in hospital.

“The first thing she said to me was ‘don’t let anyone drive my tank’,” said Milner. Two days later Trooper Edith Girard was back in bivouac at Wainwright, seemingly none the worse for wear but allowed to recuperate on the sidelines for a few hours at least.

And there were other demonstrations of esprit de corps in the Dragoons. “We will now be known as the black-headed infantry­infanteers with black berets,” said Master Corporal Mike Hopping, one of several cooks in a field kitchen that does much to boost the morale of troopers that spend most of their time eating the packaged field rations in secluded “hides” throughout the exercise area. He was referring to the black berets worn by most tankers since WW II.

The Dragoons, however, were only a part of this brigade-sized exercise that brought in land and air-based units from across the country to Wainwright, a base that now has become the primary training location for regular and reserve force units from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Vancouver Island. In the planning stage for almost two years, including computer simulations to make sure details could be worked out, the exercise utilized about l,000 flatbed rail cars to move some 1,500 vehicles and the more than 4,000 soldiers to what now is called the Land Force Western Area Training Centre.

“Welcome to Exercise Resolute Warrior,” said Brigadier-General Andrew Leslie, commander of the land force central area and the exercise in Wainwright. He was speaking at the first of two media days during the month-long exercise, both to journalists who just came in for the day to get an overview of the exercise and a few who came in from the field where they had been embedded with the units for several days. Leslie went over the extensive planning needed for an exercise of this size, saying such a highly trained battle group is needed for continued rotations to Bosnia and the commitment of some 1,300 troops to Afghanistan.

Operations and training officer Major Dave Anderson filled in some of the details. Because of the increased operational tempo of the Canadian Forces, the army was shooting for a similar exercise on an annual basis to confirm the war-fighting capability of the troops for operations the following year. The Forces would benefit by economy of scale in holding the major exercise in the same area each year. “We are taking the money and putting it in one spot,” he added.

It cost $17.1 million–45 per cent of the army’s training budget–to bring the vehicles and troops to Wainwright for Exercise Resolute Warrior. Add on another $17.6 million for ammunition expended over the month-long exercise.

But it was safety, and perhaps a bit of trepidation, on the minds of journalists as they boarded a big yellow bus at camp headquarters for a tour of activities in the training area, spurred on in part by a warning from a safety officer that in many cases the troops were using live ammunition and “not to pick up anything on the battlefields.” An indication of what could, and does happen, was a stop at 2 Field Ambulance from Petawawa, the primary medical unit responsible for battlefield evacuation and medical support and the same unit that sprang into action when the tank trooper received her injuries. In a scene reminiscent of television series MASH. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), a convincingly bandaged soldier arrives by helicopter, is transferred to a waiting ambulance for a short trip to the mobile hospital where the patient is evaluated by medical staff under direction of brigade surgeon Major Jim Kile. “Most of the injuries can be treated at the fully equipped medical unit,” said Kile. “Some can be taken to Edmonton or Saskatoon, depending on the injury.”

The second stop for the journalists was a decontamination site on the banks of the Battle River where soldiers and several army vehicles, previously contaminated with a mixture of chemicals that caused symptoms similar to exposure to mustard gas, await decontamination by Lieutenant Dave Yurczyszyn and his cleanup crew that hose down the vehicles and strip down the soldiers, male and female (bathing suits were allowed because of the presence of the journalists).

After a familiarization flight in a helicopter so the media could view the training area from the air, the journalists were treated to lunch in the mess tent of one of the bivouac areas. A visit to foot soldiers on patrol, assault rifles loaded with blank ammunition, and a ride in a LAV III (light armoured vehicle) wheeled armoured vehicle marked the end of the tour for most of the media. While they took the yellow bus back to base headquarters, I hitchhiked a ride back to my embedded quarters under tent and sky with the Royal Canadian Dragoons. What the visiting journalists did not see were the thousands of troops and armoured vehicles hidden away in hides and scattered through bivouacs across this sprawling base.

Besides the Dragoons, several other Petawawa units were taking part in the exercise, such as 1 Air Defence Regiment, 2nd Regt, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, 2 Military Police Platoon, 2 Field Ambulance, 2 Service Battalion, 2 Combat Engineer Regt., 2 Cdn. Mechanized Brigade Group and Signals Sqdn., 1st Bn., Royal Cdn. Regt., 2 General Support Bn. and 3rd Bn., Royal Cdn. Regt. Other land elements included 1st Bn., Princess Patricia’s Cdn. Light Infantry and Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) from Edmonton and 4 Air Defence Regt. from Moncton, N.B. Air elements included 1 Wing, 400 Tactical Helicopter Squadron from Borden, Ont., 1 Wing 438 Tactical Helicopter Sqdn. from St-Hubert, Que., 1 Wing 430 Tactical Helicopter Sqdn. from Valcartier, Que., 1 Wing 408 Tactical Helicopter Sqdn. from Edmonton and 1 Wing 403 Helicopter Training Sqdn. from Gagetown, N.B.

Providing support from the air, but not landing at the small base airstrip, were fighter squadrons from nearby Cold Lake, Alta., and the 186 Fighter Squadron from the Montana Air National Guard.

That list of participants may seem a bit dry on the surface, but being embedded with the Dragoons and their armoured units on the ground was anything but boring. It began on arrival at Wainwright, a base established in 1940 as a wartime ammunition and training facility, then evolved from a prisoner of war camp to an operational training detachment, battle school and now the main training base for regular and reserve force units in Western Canada. After the mandatory safety briefing, the embedded journalist is issued with a kit that should ensure survival in the field with a minimum of damage, if not comfort. The kit includes two sleeping bags, one sleeping bag liner, air slim-profile mattress (inflatable by blowing) one cot (assembly required), an all-weather army jacket, gloves, toque, helmet, flak jacket, rain gear and ear plugs.

With kit stowed in the back of a jeep, the next stop is Bivouac 9, home on the range of B Sqdn., Royal Canadian Dragoons, and, just a few miles–as the crow flies–from A Sqdn. which has been living in the field with their tanks.

Bivouac 9 is bustling, but bleak. Tanks and other heavy vehicles have churned up the topsoil, which hasn’t yet started to turn green after the winter snows have melted. There is a large mess tent, a tank park where casualties of the day or night exercises are being repaired, a quartermaster’s tent that boasts an animal skull with a cigarette dangling from its mouth, a long line of plastic and portable “blue thunder” boxes, a medical facility and, on a slight rise in the terrain, a cluster of tents that house the men and women of the Dragoons.

“But why two sleeping bags?” I ask Captain Chris Renahan, second in command of B Sqdn. and one of the officers that I would be sharing accommodations with for the next several days. “It can get cold,” he replied, “especially if the stove goes out during the night.” Two small Yukon stoves provided the heat, the fuel fed from jerry cans outside the tent wall. The tent was floorless, however, with various types of local flora of the scratchy kind and fauna of the mousy kind. A hot topic in the mess tent, especially among the women warriors, was how best to get rid of the rodents. It was decided that peanut butter was the bait of choice.

The next several days were filled with the hectic activities of an armoured battle group training for the real thing, including live-fire attacks night and day by tanks, armoured personnel carriers and riflemen, and live-fire defensive tactics that included patrols by the foot soldier over the wooded and uneven foothills terrain. I got a close-up view of the action from the turret of a LAV III, one of several armoured vehicles with safety officers on board that accompany the tanks as they blast away at both stationary targets and others that pop up several kilometres in the distance.

It was in the tank park at Bivouac 9, however, that will stick in my memory of Exercise Resolute Warrior. As the mechanics repaired the damage to the Leopards from the recent attacks and defensive manoeuvres, including damaged tracks and replacement of 800 horsepower engines (about 20 minutes), a casual comment that I had never been in a tank drew an immediate response and a memorable ride. Emboldened by that success, the casual comment the next day was that I always wondered what it would be like to be at the controls of this 46-tonne monster. It turned out that was not a problem either. One of the Leopards damaged in training had been repaired at the facilities at base headquarters and needed to be brought back to Bivouac 9 for further exercise. I could go along with the pickup crew.

A couple of kilometres from bivouac the Leopard halted, and I exchanged my, by comparison, leisurely quarters in the gunner’s position with the cramped confines of the driver’s seat. Facing me were a large gas foot pedal for acceleration, an equally large brake pedal for the left foot, and an aircraft-like yoke for steering, a control lever that activates the automatic transmission (yes, automatic like the family car) and about a two-inch deep windshield for a semi-circular vista of the outside. Directly in front were two spring-loaded levers–the emergency brake. With transmission in third position and the 105-mm gun locked forward to prevent tree lopping, a firm pressure on the gas pedal began a circular cross-country trek followed by a dash back to Bivouac 9.

It was an awesome ride, and amazingly smooth considering the terrain, but it was obvious from looks of envy from some of the other troopers, who had not yet experienced a ride in Canada’s main battle tank, that the Leopards would be missed in Petawawa. “The Strathconas will have the tanks, and Petawawa will be more or less reconnaissance,” said Milner. Chatting as he sat in the mess tent with the strains of the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs in the background, courtesy of a satellite dish on a nearby knoll, Milner said the Dragoons would lose lots of their aggressive mentality and capability without the tanks. “Sure you have to find things on the battlefield, but you also need to destroy things. The tank was our biggest deterrent.” The regiment would continue to do well, but it would lose some of its aggressiveness and not be the same part of the team.

Other Dragoons expressed similar feelings. ” I hate to see the tanks go,” said Major Dyrold Cross, officer commanding the Dragoons’ reconnaissance squadron with its Coyotes, Bisons, Grizzlies and LAVs and camped out not far from Bivouac 9. “With the tanks goes the capability of the Canadian Army.” Many of the troopers of the RCD, however, did not see the loss of the tanks from Petawawa as a death blow, just one more bit of adversity to overcome. “We are sad to see them go,” said Renahan. “But we are more than willing to keep soldiering on.” Many of the Dragoons would be going to Afghanistan in the summer.

One image kept popping into mind as I packed up my kit and made my way down to the mess tent for bacon and eggs with the other early risers. That animal skull with a cigarette butt in its mouth at the entrance to the quartermaster’s tent –was it dinosaur and extinction related and a hint at the future of the tank regiment? “Nope,” commented one trooper.” It’s just an old cow skull we found in the woods.” There was probably also some connection to the dangers of smoking.


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