BATUS: All about the largest Army battlefield in the world

Forces News has been given exclusive access to British Army Training Unit Suffield in Canada.

It is the British Army’s largest training base in the world and allows soldiers to be tested to their limits.

UK personnel have been sent to British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) in Canada for battlefield training since 1972.

Forces News has gained special access to BATUS and saw first hand the range of scenarios they face and the range of activity happening right across the base at any one time.

Eyes In The Sky: Personnel Keeping Soldiers Safe At BATUS

They are the guardians of the skies over BATUS in Alberta.

29 Flight and their fleet of Gazelle helicopters provide medevac (evacuating military or other casualties to hospital by aircraft) whenever needed, flying over the Canadian base every day and clocking up thousands of hours of standby.

Flight Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class 1 David Alexander watches over the troops throughout the year, during temperatures of -30°C to 30°C.

He says: "We need to make sure that it's first of all safe for us to fly.

"Then get them as swiftly as we can off the ground."

"It’s nearly twice the size of the Isle of Wight.

"It’s a very, very large training area, one that you can lose battlegroups inside."

During the exercise period, they have flown eight medevac casualties directly to the city of Calgary more than 150 miles away and will have covered 2,856 hours of standby by its end.

Watch: Sian Grzeszczyk joins 29 Flight on a mission over BATUS.

The dangers of the training are frighteningly clear - more than 40 crosses line an area of the base to provide a reminder of the deaths during training since the Army's arrival in Suffield more than 40 years ago.

Without 29 Flight, the dangers of the vast training area could pose even bigger problems for those exercising on the ground.

Room to Manoeuvre: Live-Firing On Exercise Prairie Storm

Down below, thousands of troops and their vehicles are smoothing out their skills before deployment.

They are training for 37 days to combat near-peer threats in what BATUS Commander, Colonel Mark Ellwood, calls "high-intensity warfighting":

"We’ve got the space here to do it, we’ve got the kit here to do it – we deliver the most complex and largest ranges in the British Army."

Listen: Hear Colonel Mark Ellwood, Commander BATUS, speaking to Sian Grzeszczyk in this week’s Sitrep.

The 37-day Exercise Prairie Storm takes personnel to "the peak of readiness.
The 37-day Exercise Prairie Storm takes personnel to "the peak of readiness.

Commanding Officer of Queen’s Royal Hussars, Lieutenant Colonel Nick Cowley, said the exercise will prepare the troop "to deploy whenever the nation needs us".

"Every soldier here is as good as he or she is ever going to be at the end of this training period," he said.

"Using live ammunition and particularly against a free-thinking enemy, only way to test the battlegroup."

One of those in the heat of Exercise Prairie Storm is Lieutenant Fitzwilliam Dawson, 1st Troop Leader, Duke of Edinburgh Squadron.

He said: "It’s a big adrenaline rush when you see the main armament going off.

"You look to your left and right and see an entire squadron of tanks firing – it’s a pretty impressive sight."

Are Phone Bans Helping British Troops?

Training for future battles on the harsh Canadian Prairies of Suffield in Canada in the rain and the wind for a 37-day exercise is meant to be tough.

While the rain and the wind batter down on the Queens Royal Hussars at BATUS, they had another challenge to contend with - no mobile phones.

Lt Col Cowley brought in the ban on Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs): "We don’t have any phones here on exercise because my view of it is we need a focus on warfighting and what we’re training on," he said.

"We’ve learned some old arts of letter writing, relearning some of those old skills.

"Soldiers are really coming together… because no one can hide behind their screens."

"Honey trapping" and other intelligence-related threats are avoided without PEDs, says Colonel Mark Ellwood, as well as social media "swarming the internet" with false stories and "negating the reasons for being there".

Lieutenant Oliver Plunket, 5 Rifles, B company is one of those who has swapped his PED for a pen.

“Thirty-seven days with no phones is, for some people, quite a struggle.

"To begin with there was a bit of contention with it."

While the troops battle through communication barriers, Lt Plunket imagines it could be worse for loved ones back home like his girlfriend: "Out here I’m busy and I’m in the same boat as everyone else.

"The difficulty is knowing that she is probably waiting for the phone to ring."

Lt Col Cowley hopes personnel will realise they "really can survive" without their mobile phones:

"I hope, like a lot of things that are tough, at the end of it you are more resilient."

Family Affair: What Is Life Like At BATUS?

Soldiers are outnumbered by their children at the British Army Training Unit Suffield in Canada - there are 229 permanent staff, and 250 kids.

Monserrat Mackin, who is the wife of one the perssonel in Alberta, says "everyone is in the same boat" when facing the challenges at BATUS.

“I like this kind of group, you get to meet very nice people and just be open about the military," she said.

"It can be hard but it’s very nice to travel around."

The baby clinic at BATUS accounts for all the variables that have an impact on the military families - from the harsh Canadian climate to different baby-milk varieties.

Jill Foster-Wright, Health Visitor at BATUS, says that interaction between families helps to hold the community together: "Isolation is a big issue here, especially in winter.

"People sit in their houses and get cabin fever.

"[The clinic] reduces social isolation and lets the babies socialise… which is good for their development."

But for Major Jerry Lafferty, Unit Welfare Officer at BATUS, family welfare for families reaches further than support agencies:

"The chain of command looks after soldiers as well, so that’s where welfare starts."

"If you’ve got happy soldiers with happy families… they’ll be more operationally effective."

Cooking Around The Clock

Dozens of chefs work to feed the staff who work on base.

Things will get busier when the battle-group finishes the exercise and switches from rations.

Regimental Catering Warrant Officer at BATUS, WO2 Malcolm Cook, said: "In full-flow, we feed about 1,800 people when the battlegroup is in… that figure can go up to about 2,600.

“We do get a lot of early meals coming in at 3 o'clock in the morning…I don’t think people generally know what we do behind the scenes.

“No matter where the British chef goes in the world, there’s always food on the hot plate.”

Troops that leave BATUS will be well-fed and highly-capable in warfighting, some may even have discovered a passion for letter-writing.