WATCH: Norfolk troops train ahead of peacekeeping mission in Mali
- Credit: Archant
An army training exercise has provided a snapshot of what Norfolk-based soldiers can expect as they head to Mali on a vital peacekeeping mission.
Troops from 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guard (QDG), based at Robertson Barracks in Swanton Morley, near Dereham, are set to undertake a six-month tour of the west African nation.
They will join the QDG's ‘C’ Squadron, which is already in Mali and recently came under attack from terrorist fighters.
The regiment - also known as The Welsh Cavalry - is taking part in the United Nations (UN) mission known as MINUSMA aimed at stabilising a region besieged by violent Islamic extremists.
On Friday, the QDG completed its final realistic exercise scenario prior to being deployed at Stanford Training Area, in countryside north of Thetford.
Soldiers were tasked with responding to reports of mass casualties and a lone gunman in a Malian village, and met with a series of challenging and life-like situations to prepare them for deployment.
Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Lloyd, commanding officer with the QDG, lifted the lid on what will be a tour in an increasingly fragile part of the world.
"This training has been a long time in putting together. It has been a six-month progression, but in truth has its roots further back still.
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"From here, soldiers go into a period of isolation and then deploy to Mali. The tour is expected to last in the region of six months and we'll be based in a city called Gao which is in the east of Mali.
"It's from there that we'll mount operations to keep the peace in Mali, to understand the needs of the Malian people and to do our bit within the United Nations.
"The real trick, of course, as a peacekeeper, is being able to escalate quickly to use force, but then de-escalate as quickly in order to bring about stability in what is quite a complex operating environment."
The Welsh Cavalry will lead the third Long-Range Reconnaissance Task Group to deploy to Mali since the UK joined the MINUSMA programme last year.
Also included in the task force are A Company, 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment and specialist support from bomb disposal experts, mechanics, drone pilots and medics.
"The group itself is about 300-strong," added Lt Col Lloyd.
"About half of that is drawn from 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards, which is the regiment I have the enormous privilege of commanding."
Training has included a host of scenarios which reflect the current complexity of Mali, where troops may have to respond to traffic incidents with multiple casualties or fend off attacks from Islamic insurgents.
In recent days, soldiers from ‘C’ Squadron were targeted in a remote part of the country while taking part in Operation MAKARA 3, aimed at deterring and disrupting terrorist groups in the area of Ménaka.
Travelling from Gao to Ménaka on a security patrol in Jackal armoured vehicles on Wednesday (October 20), troops were forced to defend themselves from armed fighters.
Two jihadists were shot dead during the stand-off, which was the first time British troops have killed or come under fire from hostile forces since combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014.
Although there were no UK casualties, the incident served as a brutal reminder of just how dangerous the region can be.
But Lt Col Lloyd said a key part of the upcoming mission would be to actively engage with civilians in the area to gauge the kinds of problems which may be plaguing their lives.
"The Welsh Cavalry is a reconnaissance regiment," he said.
"Its core role is to find and understand what is going on in an environment by talking to people, by engaging with them. And also, where necessary, to deter threats to security as well.
"It's something that we are immensely proud of doing, and to have the opportunity to do that within United Nations framework in Mali is a huge privilege."
Robertson Barracks became home to 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards back in the summer of 2015.
It had played host to the Light Dragoons for 15 years since 2000, before the cavalry regiment moved to Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire.
In 2016, the Ministry of Defence announced that the site near Dereham would be among 56 bases to eventually close in 2031.