In defence of Europe: Nato soldiers head to Latvia

Soldiers during the exercise
Image caption Combat training in the forests of Latvia is a back-to-basics move for Nato after years of peace-keeping

Hundreds of soldiers from the North West have taken part in a huge Nato exercise in Latvia. Their mission: To prepare for the defence and security of Europe. BBC North West Tonight's Mark Edwardson joined them to see if events in Ukraine have given Nato a new focus.

The dense forests of Latvia do not usually echo with the sound of soldiers barking orders in broad Scouse, Mancunian or Lancastrian accents. But that was certainly the case last week during Nato's "Exercise Silver Arrow".

Two hundred and fifty soldiers from The 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment (known as 2LANCS) have been taking part in an operation the alliance has used to reacquaint itself with its core role - safeguarding the freedom and security of its member states.

It follows years of peacekeeping and counter insurgency elsewhere.

Helicopter gunships and jet fighters roared overhead in the clear blue skies as 2LANCS infantrymen engaged the "enemy" amongst the larch and birch trees.

Image caption Lt Col Hamish McCormack: 'It sends a message of reassurance to the Baltic states.'

Kingsman Dale Williams from Cumbria, a veteran of Afghanistan like most of his colleagues, described Exercise Silver Arrow as being worth its weight in gold.

He said: "We're going back to the old style…in wooded areas and so on. We've been doing a lot of gun training because we've got a lot of new lads in our gun platoon."

The exercise is also designed to send a strong message to Moscow.

Firing blanks

When troops loyal to Russia took control of Crimea in southern Ukraine, it triggered the biggest crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Nato has said it "stands with Ukraine" in the face of Russia's "destabilising" influence., and called on Russia to stop the "illegal" annexation of the region.

Latvia also has a sizeable Russian population. By holding Exercise Silver Arrow Nato hopes to show it's also serious about the defence of its most recent members in Eastern Europe, Latvia included.

2LANCS' commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hamish McCormack, said their presence sent a message of reassurance to all of the Baltic states.

Image caption The training involved helicopter gunships and jet fighters

"It's not just this exercise but all of the other exercises that have been taking place in Estonia and will take place later this year in Poland," he said.

Out in the forests surrounding the Adazi base near the Latvian capital Riga, soldiers were firing blanks - and laser beams.

Sensors built into their fatigues told them if they'd been 'killed' or 'wounded'. While no-one died, it was deadly serious.

Corporal Mick Cousins, from Liverpool, said regimental prestige played its part.

"There's a lot of pride at stake. Everyone wants to win. They've got that fighting spirit in them you know. Especially Chindit Company, 2LANCS. We're not used to losing."

Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)

  • Purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means
  • Also promotes democratic values and encourages consultation and co-operation on defence and security issues
  • Made up of 28 member countries from Albania to the United States
  • Established in 1949 in response to the Cold War
  • About 55,000 military personnel are engaged in Nato missions around the world

The exercise saw 2LANCS fighting alongside forces from Latvia and the US as 'friendlies'.

Norwegians and Estonians played the role of 'the enemy' in this battle group-sized event.

Kingsman Daniel Richardson from Blackpool said: "Afghan was a bit more real than this. But it feels good to work with Nato allies and seeing things that they do and how it comes together."

Dilapidated site

To some, Adazi might seem an ironic location for Nato's exercise headquarters.

The Union Flag and the regimental banner flew above a base that two decades ago would have been filled with Russian-made tanks - their guns trained west, ready to defend the old Soviet Union and its satellites against Nato forces.

Now it's a dilapidated site. But it did at least provide shelter for 2LANCS' headquarters and the logistics staff.

While electricity was in short supply and there was only basic accommodation, there was at least hot food and water. By contrast, the soldiers in the field were forced to endure conditions they'd expect for real.

A week on army rations and a total absence of washing facilities other than those they carried in their kit.

For them, it was a minor issue. Kingsman Jack Urban from Bolton summed it up: "I'm not really bothered about that. I'm used to it. It's what we do. I miss my missus much more."

Soldiers from 2LANCS were challenged and Chindit Company unexpectedly encountered 'enemy fire' and suffered 'heavy losses'. But in the end, the regiment 'prevailed'.

As the shouting subsided and the guns fell silent, Lieutenant Colonel McCormack said it proved they could do what they have been trained to do.

"We've proved that to ourselves, our partners and anyone else who's watching."

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