Exercise Nordic Eagle 2018

Just like clockwork January came around and CHF training personnel were in Bardufoss, Norway in sub-zero temperatures in the depths of winter.

This year it wasn’t Ex CLOCKWORK but Ex NORDIC EAGLE… don’t ask but it was for a very good reason! 

Bardufoss is located roughly midway between Narvick and TromsØ. Dear reader a moment of your time if I may for a snippet of history from WWII. It was in Kaafjord off TromsØ in November 1944 that the German Bismark-class Battleship the Tirpitz – sister ship of the Bismark – was sunk by the RAF in Operation Catechism…but only after the Fleet Air Arm had earlier relentlessly attacked The Tirpitz in another part of the fjord in the middle of 1944 in Ops Paravane and Obviate, which weakened her ability operate fully. 

Ex Nordic Eagle is all about teaching CHF’s service men and women how to survive the harsh Arctic climate; then to live, operate and fight in Arctic conditions. To add to the mix this winter, in addition to those from CHF, personnel from the British Army, RAF, Norwegian Air Force and US Marine Corps made their way to Bardufoss to participate in cold weather survival training, which is delivered by Royal Marine Mountain Leaders who are the Corps’ experts in living and fighting in the harshest of environments – there is little to equal it anywhere in the world. 

Having flown across the North Sea and over the snow covered mountains, Fjords and landscape of western Norway, two 845 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) Merlin Mk3s made their way to Bardufoss where they linked up with the wide-ranging support, administrative and training staff from CHF required to enable any flying to take place. Used to more temperate climates the men and women of CHF and 845 NAS endured temperatures rarely warmer than -9˚C and at times as low as -30˚C, while daylight was limited to just four hours. 

The CHF package headed north with four objectives: to train personnel for Arctic flying, maintain their skills ahead of the next-generation troop carrying Merlin, the Mk4, entering service this year, give them a taster of a much larger international winter exercise in two years’ time (Cold Response 2020) and teach small specialist teams in the art of setting up Tactical Refuelling Areas (TRA).

The course involves two days of instruction at Bardufoss learning the skills needed to survive, followed by three days in the field putting those newly-acquired skills to the test in sub-zero conditions – culminating in the dreaded ‘ice breaking drill’.

The syllabus is extensive and comes thick and fast. The camp-based phase includes the use of personal clothing and equipment from state-of-the-art Carinthia Gore-Tex to sleeping bags, snowshoes to avalanche transceivers, as well as the fundamentals of putting up tents, using lamps and cookers and living on Arctic rations. The specialist cold-weather 4 x man Hilliberg tents were the result of a Quick Win acquisition by CHF through JHC. 

The Driver Training package enabled newly blooded drivers of BVs to set out into the field to deploy and set up a secreted and camouflaged tented TRA with an Oshkosh tanker (holding 3,960 gallons (18,000 litres) or enough fuel to fill up more than 300 family cars), which in turn provided refuelling capability for 845’s Merlin, RAF Chinooks and Norwegian Bell helicopters.  

In an Arctic environment, simple tasks such as siting in a tent become significantly more laborious; digging out the base site and having to continue down through one metre of hard, consolidated snow is both time consuming and tiring. Tents then had to be erected, radio links with HQ at Bardufoss, a makeshift HLS created and clearing space for rescue vehicles. 

The training of personnel to survive was concurrently run. A BV tracked vehicle dropped the trainees several kilometres from their overnight bivouac. Having walked or skiied a couple of kilometres, they had to dig, erect and move into the winterised tents. After a meal, students conducted a snow pack analysis, determining local snow conditions before hands-on practice with the Arva avalanche transceivers. Evening work consisted of lessons on sound and light in the Arctic and astro-navigation. 

The following day, and having survived uncomfortably low temperatures, the instructors lead a snowshoe walk around Bardufoss before switching to more operational training and creating a ‘tactical harbour’ hidden in the woods. Survival is a key part of the training – from the basics of lighting fires and building snow shelters/holes in an emergency, to learning how to safely and effectively butcher a chicken or gut a fish. Instruction of the phase ends with the dreaded ‘ice breaking’ drill – learning how to safely clamber out of a frozen lake should the ice shatter beneath you. CHF aircraft engineers carved a suitably-sized hole in the ice using chain saws, to expose an ice pool“.

Once cold-weather trained the fliers earning their environmental qualifications, which allowed them to fly the snow covered mountains and terrain and fjords, carry Royal Marines and a variety of underslung loads and how to land and take off when there are no visual references because of the of snow thrown up by the rotor blades (aka ‘whiteouts’), and navigating by day and night – some of the most difficult conditions a pilot will ever have to fly in. 

The 845 personnel found time to help out their Norwegian hosts as a means of saying thank you whilst providing exacting and vitally important flying training in extreme conditions – the annual task of lifting firewood logs to remote mountain wilderness survival cabins. 

This year saw US Marine Corps personnel (all rotary or fast jet pilots and aircrew) attend Nordic Eagle and undertake the full cold weather course survival training package. Euphoric having undertaken the training they heaped endless praise on the instructors and struck up strong friendships and enjoyed great camaraderie with their new found British compatriots.