‘Beware of difficult terrain, especially at night’ reads the aide memoire handed to all troops before they head out on the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA). Although we’re not troops, we are in support of a military exercise, so we’re governed by the same rules that apply to them, so have to attend a mandatory briefing about what you can, and can’t do, when you’re on SPTA.
We’re there to help run Exercise Roadmaster – a navigation exercise with its roots going back decades. In the 1960s units would enter a team equipped with Austin Champs and Bedford 3 ton trucks. Now every vehicle is a Land Rover. The aim of the game is to get to every checkpoint at the correct time, via the correct route. It’s a bit like a road rally, but cross-country and with the emphasis on safe, skilled driving and accurate navigation.
But events like this don’t just happen. Weeks of preparation go into ensuring that everything from accommodation to marker boards are in the right place at the right time. And that’s what I’m helping with.
The first military crews have already arrived by the time we arrive at Rollestone Camp, our base for the exercise, and hosted by 27 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps. We pick up instructions and head off to the eastern section of the training area to place the letter boards for the crews to spot for the Safari – a section where the crews will have to transpose a map trace onto an Ordnance Survey map and follow the route to the next time control. They’ll have 30 minutes to complete it – but, because we need to be pinpoint-accurate we’ll take longer.
The exercise is being run by British Army Motorsports Association (BAMA) members Ian Licence as Director and Clerks of the Course , Steve Partridge and Bernie Stevens, who have designed all the competitive aspects.
‘Don’t make them too difficult to spot,’ explains Ian, ‘we want them to see them if they’re on the right route.’ With that in mind, we make sure they’re nice and clear – after all, if you’ve ever navigated across Salisbury Plain, you’ll know that the myriad of tracks can make finding your way very challenging. As it is, we’re using Memory Map on a GPS-enabled tablet to ensure we’re on the correct route and the letter boards are in the right place.
We place the 10 marker boards, then re-drive the route to make sure they’re clearly visible. We drive it in 27 minutes, including stopping for a minute or two to let a dog walker by. But we know the route; the crews will find it harder.
We bumble back to exercise HQ to be told that another official, Allan Strachan, has been unable to set out his section as his 300Tdi Discovery is eating serpentine belts – could we set his up too?
Setting out in the dark
It’s 1600hrs already; sunset is just over an hour away and the time allowed for the crews to complete the section is an hour. And we’ve got to drive to the start first.
This time we’re working from an aerial photograph, again with small dots marked showing where the letter boards need to be. There’s no direct correlation between the tracks we’re using on this one and those shown on the maps, so I fire up Google Maps on my smartphone – and fortunately, the aerial images only differ slightly.
With Sean, my son, navigating, we quickly place the first dozen, but still have eight to go by the time the light starts to fade. The Defender’s Lazer ST-4 driving lamps pick out humps and bumps in the tracks, but I’m mindful of our briefing. Some sections – mostly byways we’re crossing – are seriously muddy. I’m running new BF Goodrich All-Terrain KO2 tyres, but we’re alone on the Plain; if I make a mistake it’ll be some time before help arrives.
I leave the Land Rover to place a letter board and Sean loses sight of me – he’s quite concerned when I get back, so I don a fluorescent jacket for the rest of the setting out – at least he can see where I am when I’m out.
It’s pitch-black now. The only landmarks we had – clumps of trees – are now just shadows in the darkness. We’re reliant on the little dot on the GPS to tell us where we are and are continually checking the photograph to ensure we’re putting the boards where they should be. Ideally we should check them in the morning, but we won’t get the chance.
We plant the next letter board and return to the camp for dinner. Except we’re that late, we’ve missed it. Fortunately, regular BAMA caterers Spoilt4Choice have set up a burger van for the late arrivals, so we grab a burger and warming cuppa before settling down to the marshal and driver briefing.
I’ve seen comments on forums about how it is wrong that civilians get complained at for driving muddy lanes on the SPTA, but the military can chew them up in tanks, but you probably won’t believe the restrictions on where and how the military can drive – and the amount of guidance there is, as well as responsibilities for the troops.
Breakfast is at 0600hrs and so we turn in just after the briefing finishes a little after midnight and try to get some sleep. We’re sharing a bunk room with Guy Wood and Evan Chisholm, to members of BAMA’s Adventure section. Though they both own 4x4s, they’re riding their adventure bikes for this event, ferrying scorecards from the various time controls back to exercise HQ. They won’t be needed until 0930hrs – Sean and I are manning the first checkpoint, opening at 0800.
The Exercise begins
But we open it a few minutes early to allow Donald Urqhart to head out. He’s taking the role of course opener to check for any problems, with daughter Eilidh navigating. They need to stay ahead of the crews, and ensure that the marshals are in the right place and ready to sign cards. They head off; then the military crews arrive. They’re all driving Land Rover Defenders – both 90 and 110 models – with a wide variety of specs.
Forty crews start the event and we wave them off at minute intervals, handing them a map with a rally-style route marked on it, just to the left of the track they need to be on. Bizarrely, despite being stationed just outside the camp gates, one crew doesn’t even find us – that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the exercise.
We close our control, hand our check sheet in and head after them. We’re performing the role of course closer, picking up stragglers and getting them to the next section – if they arrive late they won’t get the instructions for the next section and so on.
Because, punctuality is key on an event like this. If you can’t follow the route, find a reference point and make your way to the next check point. This section should be completed in 30 minutes – we find our first crew an hour after they left our checkpoint, just two miles into the route. We go on to collect a further three crews and lead them straight to Time Control 3, where they can rejoin the exercise.
From there, the crews have to complete a Scatter, finding the letter boards in any order from a map; the Aerial Photo Challenge we marked out yesterday; an obstacle course; our Safari; a sequential, where the crews have to visit the plots in the correct order and an orienteering section.
Once the sections are closed, Donald and Eilidh retrieve the letter boards from the scatter and Sean and I clear the Safari and Aerial Photo sections. Recent Goodyear G90 imprints in the ground show us that teams have found all of the boards so at least they were visible. We watch the crews finish the sequential, clear the orienteering away and grab a bite to eat. There’s still one section left.
Into the night
Darkness has fallen when car 1 heads off for the night navigation section. They’re following a plotted route and we’re having to wait for 30 minutes after the last car leaves before we close the course – If we catch anyone, they’ll be out of time and told to return to base.
We’re through the first checkpoint before we see a set of Defender headlights on the hillside. The Land Rovers are all standard – they can’t have any additional lights – and on a military track, so it must be one of our crews. We catch meet them and start to guide them off the training area and meet another couple of vehicles – one of them had got stuck in ruts on a byway the route crosses.
Allan has sorted the problem with his engine and he and Bernie are following me, picking up the letter boards. He briefs the crews on what to do and we lead them to the tarmac road and send them back to camp. The exercise, for them, is over.
We’ve still got another 25 miles of route to drive, though, but I’m surprised when I spot Allan ahead – how did he get in front of me without me seeing him pass? I’d obviously missed a junction, so he pulls over and we pass, but it’s not long before we meet another vehicle.
‘Don’t go down there,’ shouts the driver, ‘there are two Land Rovers stuck – I’ve already recovered one, but the others are up to their bumpers.’
‘Stay here,’ I advise, ‘there’s another vehicle coming along in a minute. We’ll go and have a look and come back for you – we know where you are.’
We cautiously drive along the track and there, ahead is the dim glow of Defender tail lights. I drive to the end of the firm track and stop, walking the rest of the way to assess the problem.
What did the aide memoire say, again?
The Land Rovers are very stuck and though the LRO 90 is very well equipped, with substantial recovery kit, there’s little chance of us recovering the vehicles and being able to drive out ourselves. Allan’s Discovery, with front and rear winches, would be better for the job.
I call Bernie and give him our coordinates and a couple of minutes later Allan arrives with the other crew following behind. With taller mud tyres on his lifted Discovery, Allan can get much further in safely and, after a lot of winching and re-rigging, the first one is out. But then disaster strikes.
The automatic gearbox is running so hot that a weak point in the cooler lets go, emitting a fine spray of oil over the winch. He loses drive and now needs to be recovered himself.
The lads in the front stuck Land Rover have already called for recovery and the four-man crew of the 8x8 recovery lorry turn up, on foot.
‘Where’s the truck?’ everyone asks.
‘Just the other side of the woods,’ explains the vehicle commander, ‘we didn’t want to get it bogged down if we didn’t know exactly where you were.
They check the maps to work out a safe route to get the massive truck in, while we start extracting Allan’s vehicle.
The MAN 8x8 comes lumbering along a track through the trees and backs in as far as is safe to go, attaching its massive winch rope to remaining stuck Land Rover and slowly hauls it out of the ruts.
But when the lorry goes to move, the rear wheels just spin – it doesn’t start moving.
It was in ‘road’ mode. The driver engages drive to all eight wheels and slowly it lumbers forwards.
Meanwhile, I’ve been off scouting a safe route, large enough for the recovery truck, to get everyone out of the woodland and return to lead them back to tarmac. They head back to camp, but we’ve the problem of Allan’s Land Rover. It’s 2345hrs, the temperature has dropped below freezing and we’re 15 miles from the camp.
We slew the Discovery round carefully using a long rope – the ground is that slippery the Defender barely notices the weight of the stricken vehicle. Allan sets to work removing the propshafts at the diff ends, while I make a brew on the JetBoil and hand out homemade flapjack. It’s essential to keep spirits up when things go wrong.
We tow the Disco back towards the road. We disconnect the tow rope at the top of steep descents and go ahead – with no servo assistance, the brakes take a lot more of effort to work – reattaching for the climbs. Then we tow him, cross-country, back to the camp, arriving at 0115hrs, completely exhausted.
How did the military crews do? No idea. That could wait until daylight.
In fact, it waited until well after daylight – we sleep in until 0745 and the others are coming to wake us as we stumble from our sleeping bags and grab breakfast. Allan has arranged recovery and the lorry is already on its way.
Crews from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Motorsports Association (RNRMMSA) have taken the top four places, decisively beating the Army and RAF crews. Rory Lowther and Andrew Richman were overall winners.
All of the Defenders needed a wash, but apart from that there is no major damage to the vehicles – not bad considering they have driven some 180+ miles across the Plain during the exercise.
We clear up and leave the camp, but I’m not done with the Plain yet. The sun’s shining, the military crews have dispersed, but there’s a whole raft of greenlanes between us and home – and as it’s a non-firing day, the central range road is open. I think we’ll take the leisurely way home…
About BAMA events
Events organised by the British Army Motorsports Association 4x4 & Navigation section are open to all serving members of the armed forces. Many are also open to civilian crews belonging to MSA competition clubs.
As motorsport is now accepted as being a sport, green fleet vehicles can be used by serving personnel – DIN orders allow this. For more info, go to: http://www.armymotorsports.co.uk