BUILDING THE MODERN DAY SOLDIER | Darrin Henry
I’ve just spent the day with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), Corps of the British Army, climbing into a Challenger 2 tank, checking the fit of the pilot’s seat in a Lynx helicopter and peering down the sights of an SA80A2 rifle. A kid let loose in a sweet shop could not have had more fun.
It’s been the most inspiring day. Sharon and I have been guests of Warrant Officer Class Two, David Leo who is an Artificer Quartermaster Sergeant, in the REME. (You say it as, ree-me).
David is in charge of REME recruitment and engagement and we are bursting with pride to say he is also a fellow St Helenian. Based at the REME Corps Headquarters, in MOD Lyneham, David is keen to encourage young people from all walks of life to consider British Army careers, including those from St Helena, hence an invite for ‘What The Saints Did Next’ to help spread the good word.
A couple of years ago I toured a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Lancaster, for our blog, so I’m dead chuffed to add an army story now.
MOD Lyneham was previously RAF Lyneham. It’s huge with large aircraft hangers that have proved perfect as training centres. Concrete block maze-like partitions separate the various workshop style ‘classrooms.’
We began by joining a group of potential recruits on a week long, ‘try-it-and-see’ type visit. They all wore coloured bibs reminding me a bit of sailors on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. With exposure to each of the eight REME Corps trades, this hands-on tour would help the youngsters decide whether army apprenticeships and careers, in this unit in particular, is for them.
The British Army REME Corps Armourer
On benches in the Armourer section were rifles and small hand guns. Everyone got to handle the weapons under the guidance of experienced instructors. No live ammunition involved I’m pleased to say.
Every unit of the army has weapons and they all depend on the Armourer (one of the eight REME trades) to ensure they are serviceable and ready to fight. From a gun to a tank to a helicopter, Armourers are responsible for the repair, inspection and modification of all weapons systems in the Army.
Sharon was surprisingly more animated by the machine guns than me and when invited to pick up a gun, of course, she had to go for the biggest on the table.
The British Army REME Corps Vehicle Mechanic
We left the new recruits testing out the machine guns and headed into the vehicle repairs ‘classroom.’ Like surgeons operating on ill patients we found small pockets of men and women wearing latex gloves studiously dissecting Land Rovers. This was part of the Vehicle Mechanic trade of REME. Doors open, bonnets up, it was a busy scene with army mechanic instructors close by directing, encouraging and assessing the work.
I was struck by the clinical environment, not at all the greasy, oily workshop scene you might expect.
Nearby was Vehicle Mechanic, Corporal Carrie Allen who told me she had always been interested in cars and engines as a young girl which prompted her to find out how to join the British army at the age of 16.
Eleven years later she’s still loving every minute of it, mechanical engineering jobs with REME have taken her all over the world, including Germany, Canada and Kuwait.
Trying not to offend but still very curious, I somehow bumbled my way through asking her about being not just a female in the army but a female mechanic. With a smile that indicated my question wasn’t new, Carrie told me being a woman does not restrict her in any way being an army mechanic. She began her career fixing Challenger tanks so nothing fazes her.
For anyone considering following in her choice for an army vehicle mechanic job Carrie’s advice is go for it, “definitely worth joining. The army has great opportunities for education and travel with every opportunity to obtain a university degree while getting paid.”
Forget University, Join The Army!
David was moving us on, conscious there was a lot of the base still to see.
Right next to the Land Rovers we came upon the wiring rigs (that’s what I’m calling them). Metal box-like skeletons that represent the basic shape of the tanks and vehicles minus the panels, engine, chassis and axles. What was on show though was the electrical wiring network, including switches, lights, motors, batteries, fuse boxes… everything electric related.
It’s an amazing visual learning facility, like a life-sized, walk-through diagram from a Haynes maintenance manual. (Does anyone still use Haynes manuals?) I would love to have done a course in these type of classrooms. The visual method of learning looked awesome. How could you not soak up knowledge in that place?
I was impressed there were so many individual training rigs all lined up across the room, which meant quality hands-on time for individuals in a large training group. Less time standing around.
Also on display were motors and machinery that had been sliced open revealing the coils, drive shafts and inner workings. Again, real life versions of illustrations normally found on the pages of a book.
It’s Classified. We Could Show You But Then…
And then we were on to the big toys, the huge armoured British army vehicles used to transport troops across hostile environments. It was as if we had just walked onto the set of Mad Max! The sheer size and appearance of these vehicles was intimidating enough.
Photography of certain aspects of the armour and vehicle interiors was not allowed, all classified, which only added to the overall excitement and mystique of the visit. To be honest, even if it was top secret stuff in front of us, we had no idea what to look for anyway.
The hulking Challenger 2 tanks sat at the end of the building. The coloured bibs of the recruits-in-waiting were already there clambering over the dark green armour. These machines are metal monsters.
A REME Vehicle Mechanic not only repairs Challenger tanks, they are also required to operate and drive the complete range of British Army vehicles. In a combat environment the REME unit would have their own version of the Challenger 2, capable of fighting but specially adapted to carry out REME vehicle recovery work.
I’m allowed to sit in the tank driver’s seat and right away I’m surprised at how difficult it is to see out. It’s definitely not a Nissan X-Trail. Or maybe I’m just too short. Hmmm. Perhaps I wouldn’t make a good tank driver.
Again, no photography. Highly classified. No problem. This is the last place you want to take chances and upset anyone!
The REME Corps’ Aviation Technician and Avionics Technician
Outside we took a brisk walk to the Aviation building. Or to use its correct name, the School of Army Aeronautical Engineering.
Talk about an eyes bulging reaction – inside the huge warehouse-cum-hanger, there were British Army helicopters lined up left to right like we’d just walked into a gigantic toy store. Only these were no toys, they were all the real thing.
While David went to find someone in charge Sharon and I wandered hesitantly between the parked aircraft, hardly able to believe no-one was telling us off for getting too close!
We were now in the training area for aircraft mechanic jobs, or REME’s Aircraft Technicians, the team responsible for keeping the Army’s range of helicopters mechanically maintained and safe to fly.
The other official trade alongside this is REME Avionics Technician, also working on Army helicopters but specialising in the electronic systems such as navigation, radar and communications. We learned that both Aircraft and Avionics Technicians have high levels of responsibility that also mean faster opportunities for promotion.
We dropped in on a class of 16 military aviation technician students in the early stages of their Aircraft Technician coursework.
“In this phase they’re essentially learning to repair metallic airframes and composite airframe structures,” explained Staff Sergeant Peek. “Using basic fasteners and rivets they’ll make a couple of plates and start joining them together.
“This is probably one of the best courses that we’ve had in the two years that I’ve been here. They are fantastic.”
When I Grow Up I Want To Be Like Claire
Back out in the hanger, former Aircraft Engineer, Staff Sergeant Claire Whittal, now an Aircraft Artificer and training instructor on helicopter repairs, made my day. I’ve always been fascinated by aircraft and flight yet unfortunate twists of bad timing meant I had never been inside a helicopter before. When Claire invited me to climb into the pilot’s seat of an Army Lynx, she could never have known what a special occasion that was for me, even though it was now a retired machine.
Claire explained the flight controls and special features of the Lynx as I unashamedly gawked around the cockpit. Then she took us up onto the maintenance ladder and opened the engine covers to reveal the two engines. I never quite understood the twin-engine concept with helicopters before, I mean they only have one main rotor, right! But seeing them up close it all now made sense.
Claire’s Army story is an inspiration. From school she did a welding and fitting apprenticeship then found employment working on steam trains. In Claire’s words “it was a fantastic job but it stagnated,” so in 2004 when a friend suggested she join the British army that’s what she did, fully expecting to follow a career path in welding.
But the Army had other ideas. “They said, why don’t you become an Aircraft Technician.”
Although doubting her own academic abilities Claire gave it a go and surprised herself. “There’s no way I would have achieved what I have in my life if I hadn’t joined the army. No way. I’m very grateful of that. I didn’t have the money for a start, I didn’t have the patience and I didn’t have the will really, but the Army has literally changed my life.”
Claire’s career has seen her specialise on the Army’s Lynx and then the newer Wildcat helicopters. She’s completed four tours in Afghanistan, one in Iraq and worked on exercises all over Europe, Morocco and the Middle East, all the while building a wealth of experience and knowledge in Aircraft Engineering. Her four and half year posting in Germany she describes as “absolutely amazing.”
The British Army REME Corps Metalsmith
Time was beating us so we made our final ‘trade’ visit to see, the REME Metalsmith training area.
Staff Sergeant Jake Sweetland, Master Welder, for both the REME Corps and the Defence School of Electronic and Mechanical Engineering met us at the door.
The British REME Corps Metalsmith is a true Artisan trade and can manufacture key components and tools out of anything metal, working from nothing more than a simple sketch.
Jake explained, “Metalsmith training takes approximately nine months, starting with a three-month foundation course learning basic bench fitting – how to file, sharpening tools, cut with a hacksaw, drill work – all the basic engineering principles.”
Academic classes run alongside this practical training; maths and science is as important as shaping the metal.
No Horse Play Here
Then comes trade training for the REME Metalsmith, divided into 3 phases. Sheet metal (6 weeks), blacksmith skills (4 weeks) and welding (5 months).
Like many, my misguided belief that a blacksmith hammered shoes onto horses was soon corrected. For the record, a ‘farrier’ shoes horses. Jake made sure we understood a blacksmith in the REME is very different. “We’re here to make functional pieces, tooling, vehicle components etc.”
The Metalsmith is the Army’s real-time solution people. There’s no Amazon ‘click and buy’ with next-day delivery when the Army needs a part on the battlefield. To get a broken tank moving again these guys will take a raw piece of metal and simply make the part with good, old fashioned metal-work skills. And not a hit and miss cowboy fix like some of us might attempt – no! This is all precision stuff.
Perhaps the most impressive piece of training kit demonstrated to us was the Spanish made, welding simulator. I’ve done a bit of soldering myself but welding is in a different league. Jake fired up the £16,000 high-tech training tool which teaches technique in a classroom minus a real flame. The benefits of saving time and material costs quickly became obvious as he demonstrated the simulator, not to mention the little matter of safety.
A large scale version of the REME cap badge hangs outside the main office building. It includes a chained horse which symbolises power under control. Very apt for everything we’ve been seeing on our visit.
We finished our day at Lyneham with a zip around the REME Museum which is actually open to the public throughout the week. Most of the exhibits are genuine pieces and the story of the REME Corps is shared with great pride.
The British Army Is Leading The Way
I realised a lot of what I had perceived the British Army to be was very out-dated. Yes, the Army is primarily designed to fight, but really that’s just scratching the surface of this modern organisation.
Both Sharon and I came away with a new found respect for the amazing career opportunities available to young men and women who join the British Army. This year, when the topic of gender inequality has made uncomfortable headlines for some, it was an eye-opener to see how the Army, of all organisations, has been taking a lead with knocking gender stereotypes on the head.
But the pride both Sharon and I experienced being escorted at REME Lyneham by one of our own was truly special. Walking around the base other soldiers we met would brace up, addressing our fellow St Helenian, David Leo, as “sir.” He explained, they were just respecting the rank, in an attempt to downplay our reactions.
We both know David and his family from our Ascension days and here he was, smartly turned out in his camouflage uniform and beret yet very modest about his position and achievements. David has also been posted all over the world during his 19 years in the Army, including multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
St Helena can be very proud. The boy done good, for sure.
Producing this blog has opened many doors to Sharon and I, allowing us some incredible opportunities and experiences. Without doubt, visiting MOD Lyneham has been one of the all-time highlights.