Military Survival Training. Cold, wet and hungry, but it may have taught me some valuable lessons that help me today

The word ‘survival’ has understandably been used frequently this year. It has been a year of change; personal circumstances, routine, and outlook. As I have been about my business this year, I have seen many examples of the differences in the way people are living. What is evident, however, is how quickly people have adapted to the ‘new normal’ and I am always reassured by how resilient people are to these changes. That is not to say that it is always easy, but in general, the difficulties are overcome.

While in the RAF, I qualified as a Combat Survival & Rescue Officer (CSRO). This was a secondary duty on the Flying Squadron and involved tasks such as running practice sea rescue drills and teaching various evasion techniques using rescue beacons. I enjoyed this type of thing and did some interesting courses, along with the core CSRO training course (ran at RAF St Mawgan), I did a Desert Survival Course with the US Navy in San Diego, and an Arctic Survival Course in Norway.

One of the reoccurring factors to this kind of training was the adaptation to sudden change. For example, an ejection from an aircraft over the sea would lead to a rapid unexpected change in circumstances, warm cockpit to cold water. Or being captured by the enemy, a huge change into a hostile environment. Luckily, I never experienced any of these for real and could only have guessed as to how I would have handled any of these situations. I did, however, get a small insight of how this kind of sudden change affected my state of mind. I did surprise myself on occasions on how I dealt with this positively.

The first occasion I was really challenged on a survival training course was before I did any of the formal RAF CSRO type course. It was 1996 and shortly after arriving on my first Squadron I found I was specially ‘selected’ by my boss to take part in a course run by the Parachute Regiments Pathfinder Platoon at Aldershot. The Pathfinder Platoon is a reconnaissance unit and select high grade applicants from the Army, this survival course was part of the selection process for these applicants; plus me and 3 or 4 other ‘guests’ from various parts of the Military. This was not going to be an easy course to complete and I felt the responsibility of representing the RAF.

One of the ‘highlights’ of this course was that it would involve ‘interrogation’ training. At that time, this kind of training was limited to personnel who were prone to capture, in this case, a reconnaissance unit. If you have ever seen ‘SAS, Are You Tough Enough’ on Channel 4, they have a very vaguely similar exercise based on this where the participants are put through a simulated capture and questioning phase.

A total of 12 of us started the course which was split into four elements: some classroom-based training, ‘static’ survival training, evasion exercise and finally, the ‘interrogation’ phase. In total, 9 days from start to finish, 7 of these out in the ‘field’.
Two days of classroom training took place at Aldershot and covered the theory of survival and an insight into what we were to expect during the evasion and interrogation phases.

There were a few memorable moments, one of these was a lesson on how to conceal things in and on the body. The door opened and a naked man walked in and stood in front of us, the instructor continued without pause; “There are many places to conceal things on the human body, first, the feet”. The nameless naked man turned around and lifted his feet one at a time to show us the soles, a razor blade was taped flat on each. The instructor continued, “second, the hair and ears”, the naked man bent his head forward to show various things in his hair, water purification tablets and chocolate buttons. There was more, but as this is a family friendly site, I will limit the rest of the detail, but I have never touched a Snickers since.

There was a refreshing, but hard hitting, practicality in how the survival phase was taught by the Army. We were taught how to light a fire using a live rifle round, how to neutralise an attacking guard dog, how to disarm somebody and how to use domestic animals for food. The same went for the teaching in how to resist interrogation. One of the things that always sound straightforward but must be almost impossible when confronted with the real situation. The motivation to hold out is not for ‘Queen and Country’ but to hold out longer than your fellow captives, the theory being that the first one to give out will get the worst treatment.

The main message in all of this was ‘Don’t Get Caught’, however cold, wet, and hungry you are, it is always preferable than being a prisoner!

Once the classroom-based instruction was over, we were ‘kitted out’ with old army woolen greatcoats and trousers and sent home to report back the following day for the evasion exercise.

The following day started with a naked medical examination by a military doctor, (well, I hope he was). We could keep anything not discovered during the medical inspection, alas, no Snickers, but a button compass and a few chocolate buttons survived the inspection. Then all into a lorry and a long and cold drive to Dartmoor where the evasion exercise was to take place.

We were split into groups of four and sent on our way, the format was that we were alone behind ‘enemy lines’ and were to meet various friendly ‘agents’ who would direct us to another friendly ‘agent’ who would then direct us to our freedom and back to our own side. There would be a ‘Hunter Force’ looking for us, so we had to avoid detection. In practice, this involved walking long distances overnight away from any roads and then hiding during the daylight hours waiting for the next agent, who would appear at dusk and give us the co-ordinates for the next agent. Where possible, we slept in barns, under hedges or wherever was practical. The other 3 members of my group were fully fledged serving Paratroopers, I was impressed by how comfortable they were in this environment, mostly by their mental resilience. It was cold, wet and everyone was tired, but they carried on in a calm professional manner throughout.

On the last day of the evasion exercise we were told by the ‘agent’ to meet at dawn the following day. We deduced at that point we would be ‘captured’ the following morning and taken onto the interrogation phase. As per the course requirements, we all had carried 60 pence in case we had to make an emergency phone call to the Directing Staff. As it was the last night, we agreed we would use this money to buy some food. As this was not strictly within the rules, I agreed/was volunteered to do this as I was a ‘guest’ on the course. The nearest shop to us at the time was in Ivybridge so I ‘popped’ into the Spar with £2.40 in my pocket. On seeing me, I thought the owner was going to call the police, I must have looked and smelt incredibly special. I bought what I need to and returned to the group. I remember feeling at that stage completely ‘outside’ of society at that point and how quickly that happened considering we had been on the run for only 5 days. That night we stuffed ourselves full of Spar Jammy Dodgers and awaited the next morning for ‘capture’.

There was no excitement in the morning, reunited with the Directing Staff, we boarded an army truck and set off for the Military’s purpose-built Interrogation Training Centre. About 3 hours later we arrived. From here, we were ‘Captured’ and now in the interrogation phase, there was lots of shouting, barking (dogs) and immediately blindfolded. Before any questioning, came what is known as ‘conditioning’. Conditioning is the process of removing any ‘fight’ or ‘spirit’ so that one is almost pleased to see an interrogator. If anyone has ever taken a cat to the vet, they may be able to relate to this. Try and get it in the carrier before leaving the house, not so easy. Watch it go back in without any assistance on the surgery table after the vet has removed the thermometer from the unmentionable. That is the purpose of conditioning.

Luckily, no thermometers required for us, but instead, a series of conditions designed to safely achieve the same thing. We were all blindfolded and moved into a large room filled with white noise. Once, blindfolded the other senses became more acute and I could hear people being forcibly moved one by one around the room. I almost jumped as two hands simultaneously grabbed my shoulders and I was moved a short distance and told to sit, cross my legs and put my hands on the back of my head. This is known as a ‘stress position’, it is uncomfortable to maintain, which is the general idea. Then for a period, nothing, just the sound of my own breathing and the incessant white noise. Denied of my sight by the blindfold, my hearing became more sensitive as I tried to make sense of my surroundings. After a period, I heard footsteps, one by one we were lifted from the floor and moved to the wall. This time, a different stress position, legs apart, back straight, leaning towards the wall, arms out supporting your weight. After we all had been moved, another period of inactivity. This became a routine of sitting and standing stress positions with an estimated 20-30 minutes of each. After a period of maybe 2 to 3 hours I was starting to struggle, against the wall was bearable, but I found the sitting position painful, the pain could be eased by slouching slightly but the few times I tried a guard would ease me back into an upright position.

During the conditioning, I found that employing a few ‘mind games’ helped, we had been told before we started, we were allowed one ‘toilet break’. While sat blindfolded with only my own mind for company, I made the decision that I would take this break in the middle of a sitting period. I found when next in the sitting position, I could get through it until the relative relief of the wall, so would take it in the next one. And so, it went on.

Two things happened which helped, the first was that I was counting the sounds of the movements between the standing and sitting positions and therefore how many people were in the room with me. At the beginning there were 12, but then 11, and a time later 10, people were dropping out. This was a mental boost in that It validated that what was happening in that room was hard, it was not just me that was feeling it. The second thing that happened was that I got a quick look around the room. While in the standing position I surreptitiously raised the corner of my blindfold against my shoulder a centimetre or so. And when returning to the sitting position escorted by the guard I could look down of one of my course mates sitting below as I passed close by. I could see the grimace on his face. I remember thinking that if he was finding this hard then it was ok that I did. I took my toilet break shortly after, but it was pretty difficult to go while blindfolded with a gruff voice behind you shouting “hurry up”. Then after what felt like an eternity we were moved out of the room. I still do not know how long we were in that room; we all spoke about it after and the consensus was somewhere around 8-10 hours. I now knew how that cat felt!

For various reasons, I will not go into too much detail about what goes on in the interrogation phase, but in short, we were ‘interrogated’ by various individuals and only permitted to respond with limited information.

It is a fascinating experience but not a particular pleasant one. There is a certain formula to it, and you can recognise the various elements and interrogation types. It was very cleverly done and even though I knew it was not real, at times I felt real isolation and fear. At one stage, I remember standing blindfolded with a guard outside one of the interrogation rooms waiting my turn. From behind the door a few feet in front I could hear shouting, furniture being hurled against the wall, and what sounded like someone crying in pain while being hurled around the room. The noise stopped, the door opened, and something was dragged out of the room. “Right, who’s next”, said a gruff voice and I was marched in. Of course, it was all a bluff acted out by two ‘enemy’, but at the time it never seemed like that.

I made a bit of an error early on in which I was instructed to change out of my grubby clothes and put on a boiler suit. I refused, and despite (in hindsight), the ‘interrogator’ telling me I was ‘permitted’ to do it, I still refused. My mind was suddenly changed by two angry looking men who came into the room, pushed me into the corner and pulled all my clothes off. I put the boiler suit on. During the debrief I was told that the staff watching on the hidden cameras found this very amusing. More amusing than I did for sure.
But that was the end of the course and I was very pleased to have completed it successfully. At the time, it was nice to get back to the Squadron and my main job, even the Boss was quite impressed.

So that is it, I did think about a ‘clever’ summary about all of the things I learnt and how the are valid today. But. From what I can see around me, I think people are working it out for themselves. I’ll close by wishing you all well and a prosperous 2021.

If anyone has any experiences they would like to share, I would love to hear them. Johnny