A weekend with the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa.
It's just before seven on a cool Sunday morning. The snow is wet and drifting down from the sky as we sit on a ridge in the bush. Suddenly, the order is given and this quiet forest is filled with noise. Eight C9 machine guns go off full throttle and the barrage echoes throughout the trees as commanders furiously shout.
The ambush had begun.
With a history that can be traced back to the time of Confederation, the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa have made their mark on this nation's history. Taking on the honours from such famous battles as the Somme, Vimy, and Passchendaele in World War One and the Normandy Landings, Carpiquet, and the Rhineland in the Second World War this reservist unit is still going strong today.
On paper the Highlanders technically have more than 200 personnel drawn from throughout the community (although the exact number is 'confidential'). Public servants, university students and members of various trades across the National Capital Region all proudly call themselves Cameron Highlanders.
The ambush was the climax to an exercise for the Highlanders at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa from November 23-25. I had received an invitation to tag along with the unit for the weekend to learn about the training of Ottawa's reservists.
I arrive at the drill hall at 1900 hours. I trudge into the building to see soldiers everywhere running around getting their kit organized. In the military everything is "kit"--helmets, sleeping bags, ruck sacks etc. The scene seems a little chaotic. Some of the preparation was originally planned to be done the night before, but it was called off due to the weather. So last minute decisions had to be made to prepare for the expected -18 degrees in Petawawa.
I am placed with the first section of the second platoon. Although I feel adequately prepared for the weekend, a number of decisions are made regarding this novice military outdoorsman. Since my fancy MEC knapsack is unable to hold a sleeping bag I'm handed the rucksack of a reservist who's not coming on this exercise. Once I get my new military bag all packed up, a sleeping bag, air mattress and bivy bag are tied on as well. When I inquire about what this "bivy bag" is, the kit shop attendant says it's basically like a condom that wraps around the sleeping bag. Right.
Before leaving for "Pet" the section commander briefs his troops on the night's events. From what I can gather the plan is that we arrive at the base and set up our camp, warm up and prepare for a night patrol. I envision a pleasant clearing with a nice cozy lit up tent and a steaming cup of coffee. This isn't going to be that bad.
2213: I'm sitting at the back of a coach bus and our briefing on the evening's patrol continues. Although I can kind of hear what they're saying, I can't quite understand what the military jargon means. From what I can gather I am to be the fourth man of our eight-man patrol. At the end of the briefing the section commander asks if I have any questions. "No," I reply. It's a much easier response than saying I have no idea what is going on.
It's after midnight and we're driving into CFB Petawawa. I managed to grab about 40 minutes of restless sleep, but now I'm intrigued by the scenery of the base. There is nearly a full moon tonight and it lights up the thick bush that grows over a landscape of snow-covered hills and rock, with near-frozen lakes throughout. It's quite beautiful, but it looks cold.
We climb off the bus at around one in the morning. I'm wearing two pairs of socks, long-johns, two pairs of pants, three shirts, a winter jacket, scarf, touque, gloves and armed to the teeth with fortitude. All of our rucksacks are pulled off the bus and I immediately pick up what I think is mine and follow my section to line up. After a slight delay, we are each handed a ration pack to throw in our sacks. Having eaten this food before there is only one kind of pack that I really do not want, and sure enough I am handed the mushroom omlette. Planning to trade it away later, I open my sack and throw it in only to discover that I've taken someone else's bag. The bus has left and I cannot go home until Sunday so I curse myself quietly and scurry around to find my sack.
'Rucking-up' we hike into the bush and settle in an area that looks nothing like the pleasant clearing I envisioned. There's a few rocks and some of the brush will have to be cut away to set up the three tents. The troops immediately set up a perimeter defence around our campsite. I accidentally step on the leg of one of the soldiers that is lying down in the snow.
Foregoing our original plan, it is deemed that we are behind schedule and must begin our patrol. So I put on another fleece jacket and we head out.
Our mission is to find the enemy's outpost and take back whatever information we can for a future ambush. The enemy for this exercise is played by a group of soldiers from the Camerons along with some NCOs who are to be a group of insurgents who are supposedly a threat to the Canadian Forces and the 'regional government.'
The section commander leads us down the road and into the bush. We have been walking for over an hour and although there is some fight from the moon it seems that I have run into nearly a thousand branches and twigs with my face. This is the first time our section commander has led a patrol and I think he is lost. We walk and walk and walk and then stop, everyone makes a circle with weapons pointing out and he checks his map and compass with a red light. To be fair, he may not be lost, but I know I definitely am.
It's just after five in the morning and I'm still walking through the bush wondering why. I think of my nice warm bed back home. Suddenly, a flare shoots up in the sky. We stop and watch this firework light up the bush around us. We must be close. Time for some action!
As daylight breaks we have finally reached our objective--or so it says on our map. Unfortunately, there is no sign of an enemy presence to observe. Disappointed, we turn around and march back to base.
It is now after eight in the morning and we debrief from the patrol and prepare to set up the tents. Although many of the reservists come across as quite disciplined, they are still learning as they go and struggle with the tents. Watching this, one sergeant notes that one of the problems with the reserves is that there are not enough master corporals and senior instructors to lead some units. Although the Canadian Forces are diligently trying to recruit new personnel, he says there is a bottleneck in training. With a 2,500-person battle group being rotated for Afghanistan, senior instructors are needed across the CF, which means that such resources are limited.
The tents do not have a floor and so we throw our air mattresses down on the snowy ground. With the stove boiling water inside the tent it actually is quite warm. I manage to trade away my omelette for some wieners and beans and then try to get some sleep using a giant rock as a pillow.
I doze for a couple hours and wake up around 1330. Feeling pretty miserable when I went to sleep, I eat lunch and my morale is now at an all time high. While some guys head off to do another recce patrol, the rest of us go for a hike up a steep hill to the battle headquarters to rehearse for the next morning's ambush.
One of the basic tenets of the military lifestyle is known as "hurry up and wait." Everyone rushes to get 'kitted up' and be at point A at say 1430 only to stand around and wait for orders to be given. "The military effectively manages large groups of people," one captain explained. Nevertheless, 'hurry up and wait' inevitably happens. However, it is a good time to chat with some of the guys.
Many of the troops in my section were either high school or university students and they loved being reservists. Several said that they were using this experience to prepare for eventually joining the regular force, while others just commented that they just thought it was a lot of fun. The number one reason was a desire to serve Canada.
After standing around for a bit, the sergeants shout and the Highlanders go through a number of drills. Before one of the drills started one soldier sheepishly said to his commander, "Sergeant, what do you do in a raid? This is nay first one." He was not alone.
Although some decry reservists as simply 'weekend warriors,' they seem pretty switched on and professional. It is hard to believe that some have only been training for a few months. By next year more than 25 per cent of the rotation into Afghanistan will be made up of such men and women. There are currently 40 Highlanders training for the next battle group slated to head to Kandahar in February. Some of guys commented that they may like to eventually deploy to Afghanistan, but said it was a difficult task. Given that reservists are part-time soldiers, such duties often come in conflict with work and school. Inevitably, the training for a commitment such as Afghanistan is often a full-time duty that many simply cannot commit to.
After training for a couple hours, the troops are sent back to grab supper. We climb down the hill and hike back up for 1900 and receive our briefing for the next morning's ambush. A support group of C9 machine guns on a nearby ridge will start the attack firing for about two minutes at the insurgent outpost about 300 metres away in a sandpit. An assault team will then run in with "maximum aggression" wiping out the enemy. The attack will occur at dawn.
After going through some practice runs, the troops are given some soup and sent back to their tents for "forced rest." At around 2300 I rest my head on my rock and crash.
It's 0145 and time to wake up. Before heading out we are to pack up all of our kit, take down the tents and clean up the campsite. Despite some groggy confusion, this goes off quite well. I stand around and watch because my 'help' will only slow the effort.
At around 0215 we line up and prepare to head off for the ambush. There is a buzz among the troops as they look forward to the attack. We hike into the bush using the same path as the night before only this time I feel like I have a better understanding of where I'm going. This time there are 40 of us trekking through the bush. The enemy must know something is about to happen. The sky is filled with many more flares than the night before and the booms of fake artillery shells catch me off guard each time.
I am stationed with the C9 machine gun support team and we stop at a rendezvous point as one of the other teams head off on reconnaissance. At least that is what I think is happening--it's around five in the morning and I'm exhausted. The soldiers man their weapons and await further orders. I sit in the snow drifting in and out of sleep.
Finally the word comes and we immediately get up and rush to our battle positions. The guys in front of me are running pretty quick and I lose sight of them in the dark forest. I'm instantly terrified that I will somehow just run off and inadvertently disrupt the entire ambush. Luckily, I catch up with my team and I plant my self down in the snow to watch the coming firefight.
According to this civilian, the ambush went off largely without a hitch. The C9s laid siege upon the enemy and from my vantage point, the ambush team sounded like they indeed used "maximum aggression." I breached my ethical restraints as a journalist and threw a smoke grenade. It was cool.
After the attack was over we all triumphantly marched back down the road and I awaited our bus, a nice meal and a snooze. Over the weekend this out-of-shape civilian had hiked many killometres on very little sleep and to be honest I was happy it was coming to an end.
Of course this was the army and much to my chagrin I discovered that we needed to 'ruck up' and do a 5K march back to our bus. The other guys seemed to march along without much trouble, however, this conclusion to the weekend nearly finished me off. I was afraid that the rolling hills I so enjoyed on my drive into the base would become my Waterloo. And yet, in a moment of great personal satisfaction, I more or less kept up with the rest of them-however I should note that they all were carrying a lot more weight than I.
It was around 11 in the morning and on the bus ride home several of the guys complained that they had projects to prepare and essays to write for school the next day. I also said I had an article to write. The only difference is that when they said they would finish their work that night I believed them. When I said I would cram out a couple thousand words that night I was only lying to myself. After all, they truly are soldiers and I am not.
EDITOR'S NOTE: To view more photos of Ottawa's Cameron Highlanders taken by Esprit de Corps' senior writer Darcy Knoll during this weekend exercise in Petawawa, visit our website at
text and photos by Darcy Knoll
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|Title Annotation:||Marching in their footsteps|
|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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