Feather sticks, Siberian log fires and A-shaped shelters. Sounds mysterious? Not for the reconnaissance troops of the 15th Mechanized Division, who perfected their navigation and survival skills at a training in the Bieszczady Mountains.
Determine your location on the map and the direction of the route, then simply follow it to reach your destination. Sounds like a piece of cake? Maybe it does. However, the perspective changes when the task has to be executed in the mountains, after having walked for several miles already, with limited access to food supplies and in bad weather conditions. The soldiers of the 15th Mechanized Brigade went to the Bieszczady Mountains to practice their navigation and topographic skills.
“We have a lot of new soldiers and we wanted them to acquire basic skills as quickly as possible, so we took them to the mountains. The training began with the basics – first, revising the rules on moving in an unfamiliar terrain using a map and a compass only. And later... later it only got worse,” says Capt Karol Rajcow, Commander of the Reconnaissance Company.
Best Friend by Your Side
The initial days of a two week long training were filled with several kilometer long marches using an azimuth, later followed by SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) activities. Scouts lit fires, treated water taken from a stream, learned to build simple shelters. All this in order to be able to survive in the event they get separated from their unit in combat conditions. The training ended with a test. The task was to get into pairs and spend a night in the forest. It was difficult due to the fact that the troops had very little equipment. “Everyone had a fire steel, water treatment tablets, flammable touchwood fungus tinder for starting a fire, some string, a compass, a watch, a metal mug, and any scout’s best friend – a knife. Each pair also had a foldable saw. No fleece or Gore-Tex jackets were allowed. Each scout could only wear thermal underwear and a uniform,” enumerates MCpl Daniel Konarzewski, acting Platoon Commander, and instructor during the training. He emphasizes that in order to execute such a task you have to, first and foremost, choose the most suitable place to make camp. It should be quite flat and located on the southern mountainside, which gets the biggest amount of sunlight in daytime and, as a result, stays the warmest during the night. Later, it is time to build simple shelters. The ones prepared by the soldiers were A-shaped. Each shelter had to be big enough to house two beds (made out of leaves and needles) and a bonfire between them. The military decided to build Siberian-type long log fires.
“It is built out of two long logs, placed on top of one another. The fire burns along the lower log. It gives plenty of heat as it can burn for several hours straight,” explains the instructor. “As long as you manage to light it... When all you have are fire steels and feather sticks, it is quite a difficult task,” says MCpl Konarzewski. Capt Rajcow adds that while executing the task, the soldiers had limited access to food supplies. “Although the temperature that night wasn’t very low, around -5°C, it felt really cold without a down jacket or a sleeping bag. However, we wanted the scouts to feel the lack of comfort and experience how the perspective changes in difficult conditions,” he explains. “One thing is certain: after such a night coffee made over a campfire tastes better than one bought in a coffee shop,” laughs MCpl Konarzewski.
Kilometers in Your Legs
In the second week, the troops had to face another challenge. This time, groups of soldiers with military equipment on their backs had to march for several dozen kilometers, reporting at designated points along the way. The route led across the highest peaks of the Bieszczady Mountains, such as Tarnica or Smerek. The terrain conditions did not make the task any easier – the mountains were already covered with ice and the valleys were very muddy. The soldiers had three days to execute the task.
“This phase focused mainly on navigation skills. The soldiers could only use a map and a compass. Every mistake was likely to add several additional kilometers to cover. Given the significant length of the original route, it could be quite challenging,” says the company commander. “As a safety precaution, the commander of each group was carrying a GPS, but it was sealed, so there was no possibility of someone using it to make the task easier without us knowing about it,” he emphasizes. He also adds that the soldiers operated in the field both during the day and at night. How did they do? “For the experienced troops it was just a job to be done, but for the rookies – a new experience and a test. However, they definitely rose to the challenge,” says MCpl Konarzewski. “Several people did go off the path at times, but it is normal in the mountains. It’s easy to make a mistake, especially at night. It wasn’t that bad though,” adds Capt Rajcow.
In order for the training to take place, the army had to obtain the consent of the forest inspectorate and the Bieszczady National Park, and inform the Border Guard about the soldiers’ activities. “We didn’t want the patrolmen to feel disturbed by a bunch of men in uniforms roaming near the border,” says Capt Rajcow.
A Scout’s Daily Routine
Why did the soldiers operate in Bieszczady? “Mountains are the best place to verify your skills and fitness. The weather conditions there are different than anywhere else, very changeable, and you can definitely feel some climbs in your legs. When you have military equipment with you, as well as a helmet and a backpack, doing such steep climbs can be pretty challenging,” emphasizes Capt Rajcow. He adds that it is also a way to make training more interesting. “The very fact of operating outside the proving ground in Orzysz, where they know every stone, is very significant for the troops, let alone the fact they are learning completely new things,” he emphasizes.
BrigGen Bogdan Rycerski, Commander of the 15th Mechanized Brigade, adds that the scouts’ training in the mountains is also important on account of the specificity of their job. “Although we are normally bound to where we are stationed, the soldiers have to be ready to operate in various conditions. Masuria is not entirely flat, but it doesn’t have mountains as such, the terrain is just hilly, especially near the Polish-Lithuanian-Russian border and the Polish-Belarusian border,” he says. “Now, for example, there is a lot of snow. And where else to learn how to move in such conditions than in the mountains? That’s why we don’t shy away from new challenges and we put a lot of emphasis on training outside the proving ground,” he says. His words are confirmed by the fact that the soldiers of the 15th Brigade train in the mountains on a regular basis. In winter, they work on topographic skills and building stamina, and in springtime they train climbing and lowering on ropes. “You never know what obstacle you will have to face and overcome, we must be ready for any possibility. Besides, such training is a perfect occasion to get accustomed to heights. Not everybody finds it easy to operate in such circumstances,” explains the Commander of the Reconnaissance Company.
If everything goes according to plan, the scouts will soon face another mountain challenge. This time, however, the main focus will be learning to ski. This does not mean the soldiers will spend two weeks skiing down the slopes. “There will be several days of downhill skiing in the agenda, but we will mainly concentrate on practicing cross-country skiing, ski touring, also uphill, as well as using crampons or snowshoes. Besides the fact that these are all skills required from reconnaissance troops, it is also a great opportunity to build stamina and fitness,” says Capt Rajcow.
autor zdjęć: Karol Rajcow/ 15 BZ