Feeling the heat: Sunderland soldiers in Cyprus

Medic Lesley Baker on Exercise Lion Star in Cyprus.
Medic Lesley Baker on Exercise Lion Star in Cyprus.
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Soldiers from Army Reserve Centres across Wearside have been pushed to the limits in an intensive training exercise in Cyprus. Reporter Tegan Chapman joined the Fifth Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers on Exercise Lion Star to find out more.

AS dawn breaks, the peace and tranquillity stretching out across the Cypriot horizon is shattered by the sound of sustained gunfire.

Hundreds of rounds of shots ring out across a village, as the lead platoon of soldiers pushes forward in an epic battle to take power.

Hours later, the company seizes control of the land and move on to claim victory.

This may sound like a scene from Saving Private Ryan, but it is actually an imaginary scenario played out by reserve soldiers from across the North East, designed to put their skills into practice.

Based on real-life situations, this final battle is the culmination of two weeks’ intensive training on the Mediterranean island that will equip soldiers with the skills for deployment to any future conflicts; skills that could potentially save their lives.

But the soldiers from the Fifth Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are no ordinary soldiers.

Each of them has a day job – there are teachers, plumbers, lawyers and labourers – and make up the reserve army, where training exercises like this are vital to bring the troops in line with their regular counterparts.

Major Andy Sutherland, 47, from Chester-le-Street, who works as a policeman, has been in the Army Reserve for 17 years.

He joined around 100 servicemen and women from the regiment at the training camp near the RAF Akrotiri base in southern Cyprus, where temperatures were close to 40c.

“Cyprus is a completely different environment from the one we are used to training in,” he said.

“The weather and terrain gives the guys a different set of challenges – it is a different challenge to operate in the heat.

“We work by the adage train hard, fight easy. We want to challenge our reservists but not smash them so that they don’t want to do it all again.

“They volunteer and they want to be soldiers and they want to be good, and training exercises like this create soldiers as good as their regular counterparts.”

Now operations in Afghanistan are drawing to a close, the withdrawal of troops has marked a return to contingency.

Training is geared towards preparing to fight a country, as opposed to insurgencies. Medic Corporal Lesley Baker, 33, from Penshaw, works as a radio operator for the ambulance service, and was tasked with caring for the soldiers’ welfare while on the trip.

“I joined the reserves when I was 16 because I wanted to get out and see the world,” she said.

“At work I do 12-hour shifts which is very static, whereas here I am out and about and it is a lot more physically demanding.

“The main problem in Cyprus has been the heat, and we have had three go down with heat, you have to be so careful.

“As soon as there is any sign there is something wrong, we take them off exercise before they get unwell.”

The troops’ mission was to clear a village and make it secure, but they came under enemy fire during the final exercise.

For the soldiers the training may be arduous, but it also gives them the chance to learn new skill sets and offers great camaraderie.

Rifleman Ray Robinson, 39, from Thorney Close, Sunderland, works as a lifeguard at the Aquatic Centre, and has been in the Army Reserve for four years.

“Public perception is that the reserves are decreasing, but we are actually increasing our numbers and growing in size, and are looking for new recruits.

“How many people get the chance to go to Cyprus and be paid to do it?”

Lieutenant colonel Karl Mace, who is the regiment’s commanding officer, added: “This training exercise has been a pilot for the way in which we will work in the future, and it has proven to be immensely successful and has shown that at soldier level the regulars and reserves can work seamlessly together.”

An army officer has said that changes to the way the Army Reserve operates mean there has never been a better time to sign up.

The Government is investing heavily in the Army Reserve – previously the Territorial Army – to provide improved kit, weapons and benefits.

Future Reserves 2020 (FR2020) will see reserve recruits rise to 30,000 by 2018, and will also bring improved kit, pension, health care and holiday entitlement.

Reserve units are now paired with a regular unit as plans for ‘One army – regular and reserve’ forge ahead. And the training exercise in Cyprus was the first time the One Army ideal had been put to the test.

Lieutenant colonel Karl Mace, commanding officer of the Fifth Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, said: “Until now it has been a theory, but now we have tried it and it has been successful.

“In the field you could not identify who was regular and who was reserve, which proves that there is a chance of this being successful.”