Royal Marines blasted their way through a sprawling 1,000-building mock town as six weeks of intensive desert training reached an explosive climax in the United States.
The troops of Plymouth-based 42 Commando led the way through the town in a nine-day battle which ended Exercise Black Alligator, the most action-packed live-firing training Royal Marines get anywhere in the world.
Around 1,200 Royal Marines Commandos, Royal Marines Reservists, commando gunners of 29 Regiment Royal Artillery (of Plymouth), battlefield engineers of 24 Commando Royal Engineers (North Devon), 845 Naval Air Squadron and their Merlin helicopters (Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, Cornwall) – and Dutch and American marines joined forces at the enormous ranges at TwentyNine Palms, between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
The base is home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Centre spread across 950 miles of the Mojave Desert.
There troops, armour, artillery and air power are all able to unleash over-powering fire power with live weaponry, culminating in the combined and live firing exercise – as close to war as possible minus the enemy.
It began in the rocky terrain outside the exercise town, with rounds from US Marine Corps Abrams tanks and shells from the guns of 29 Commando crashing down on ‘enemy’ positions in the hillsides as they were stormed by the men from 42 Commando and 12 Company Royal Netherlands Marines Corps.
Lance Corporal David Nash hit the ‘enemy’ with a Javelin anti-tank missile by unleashing the 40lb missile – which can knock out a tank at ranges up to 2,500 metres. He said: “It was a great privilege to be able to fire the only Javelin on this exercise – it’s such a rare opportunity.”
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cantrill, 42 Commando’s commanding officer, said: “The experience of feeling the ground shake from the impact of a live 81mm mortar bomb shortly before moving forward on foot to clear the remaining enemy is not a feeling that these marines are able to experience often, but it’s vital that it’s a familiar one when they’re called upon by their country to fight in anger.”
After the desert, the troops moved into Range 220 – the town complex featuring buildings as tall as five storeys, grocery stores (complete with plastic fruit), bookstores, pharmacies, schools, hotels, hospitals and clinics, sports stadia, even a parliament and diplomatic quarter – all made of specially-absorbent concrete which can take the hammering it receives from the marines.
All 42 Commando and the Dutch Marines and armour from the Royal Marines’ Vikings and US Amtraks all-terrain vehicles involved in the two-day ‘battle’ for the town.
The Vikings carried Juliet Company into action providing some armoured protection under fire and extracting wounded comrades, while also pouring down machine-gun fire on the enemy.
Warrant Officer Noel Connolly said: “Having never used Viking before, I’m a complete convert. I firmly believe we should be seriously looking at using these machines as much as possible.”
After the final assault with 600 personnel, Lt Col Cantrill thanked the Americans: “We have been so lucky to have been provided with all the range access, infrastructure and attached arms that we have needed, but it is the wrap of goodwill from the US Marine Corps that has made the greatest impression on me. And I am delighted to know that some of my mountain leaders will be returning the favour, in a very small way, by assisting US Marines to train in the high Arctic of Norway in the New Year.”