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Alberta’s British invasion: Massive military base allows troops from U.K. to replicate war

CFB SUFFIELD, Alta. — It’s fair to say that there is enough British firepower here to invade a good chunk of Western Canada before we could have any chance of stopping them.

Twenty-two battle tanks. About 350 armoured vehicles. More than 1,000 support vehicles. And during this particular exercise, about 1,250 British troops armed with everything from submachine guns to anti-aircraft missiles.

But the British remain our friends, of course, and this just happens to be the British Army’s quadrennial mission of sending a battle group to invade a remote chunk of Alberta.

“Very complex, very dangerous … it’s the closest we think we can come to the replication of war,” says Col. Marcus Evans, commander of British Army Training Unit Suffield.

Tristin Hopper/National Post
Tristin Hopper/National PostA lone soldier watches the withdrawal of front line units over a bridge during Exercise Prairie Storm. May 19, 2017.

Evans stands amidst a landscape of British tanks, armour and infantry stretching as far as the eye can see. He is commanding the largest single gathering of British military ground strength outside the U.K. And like a futuristic Napoleon, he can keep tabs on the direction and speed of every single unit from a tablet computer.

But just before addressing local news cameras, Evans turns to a row of his battle-wearied men and urges them to refrain from spitting, leaning or otherwise looking un-British Army while he speaks to the Canadians.

“Just need to make sure my background is looking vaguely smart, please,” he calls back.

This is Canadian Forces Base Suffield, a little-known but massive military base on the outskirts of Medicine Hat, Alta.

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!1m18!1m12!1m3!1d63638.97327679608!2d-111.15680987227238!3d50.28872317462842!2m3!1f0!2f0!3f0!3m2!1i1024!2i768!4f13.1!3m3!1m2!1s0x536d310a5bb08c6d:0xe5003294929189ee!2sCanadian Forces Base Suffield!5e0!3m2!1sen!2sca!4v1495687564807&w=600&h=450]

At 2,700 square kilometres, it’s five times the size of Toronto. Half the size of Prince Edward Island. It’s big enough to fit every other British Army training space combined.

It’s one-tenth as big as Wales — a sobering statistic for the sleep-deprived Royal Welsh Fusiliers deployed in its expanses. In fact, it’s not uncommon that British troops will arrive at CFB Suffield with the mistaken belief that they will be able to drive to Toronto on their weekend off. 

It’s a place so massive that the British Army can stack up a line of tanks six kilometres wide and order them to shell a mock village into dust — and not a single Canadian will file a noise complaint.

“Those rounds travel three or four miles, so the only space we’ve got to do that is here in Canada,” said Major Alex Mills, the unit’s senior operations officer.

Heck, they’ll even shoot aircraft out of the sky.

On the day the National Post visits, the training agenda includes flying a 45-kilogram drone at soldiers and having them blow it out of the sky with a portable missile.

Tristin Hopper/National Post
Tristin Hopper/National PostA British tanker during Exercise Prairie Storm. May 19, 2017.

As far as the soldiers are concerned, this bleak expanse of Alberta is the fictional country of Atropia. The enemy, meanwhile, are the invading Dovonians — another fictional country typically used as a stand-in for Russia.

The battlefields are filled with fake trenches, fake bunkers, fake minefields and fake villages staffed with local actors playing fake French-speaking inhabitants.

The U.K. isn’t planning military operations in any French-speaking countries, per se, it’s mostly so the soldiers can get used to having a non-English language screamed at them.

The Dovonians, meanwhile, mostly appear as distant wooden targets that occasionally flip into view — and are then hopefully blown to smithereens by alert British tankers.

The night before, British forces had conducted a raid of a Dovonian fortification. Artillery sneaked in to pound a cluster of bunkers, and then teams of infantry rushed in to check the still-smoking wreckage for any lingering enemy troops.

Tristin Hopper/National Post
Tristin Hopper/National PostA mock village seen from the air.

The morning of the Post’s visit, the Brits were practicing the subtle art of funneling an advancing line of enemy tanks into a compact vulnerable area where they can be ambushed. It’s effectively a mechanized version of the same tactic that Blackfoot hunters once used to kill buffalo on these very plains.

But whatever they are, the tactics tested here do usually find their way into foreign battlefields. The Falklands War. The 2003 invasion of Iraq. The British deployment to Kosovo. All were carried out by British troops who had cut their teeth by fighting ghost tanks on the Canadian prairies.

And war, it turns out, is plenty dangerous even if someone isn’t shooting at you. In 45 years of training, 42 British soldiers have been killed here — mainly as a result of road accidents.

CFB Suffield has occasionally been dubbed Canada’s Area 51, not because of any extraterrestrial links, but because it is also the epicentre of Canada’s military research.

Defence Research and Development Canada
Defence Research and Development Canada

Military scientists favour CFB Suffield for the same reason the British do: It’s a giant space where they can set off massive explosions without anybody noticing. In the 1960s, they even blew up 500 tonnes of TNT at once to test how well military hardware would stand up to a nuclear blast.

CFB Suffield dates back to the Second World War. The British needed a big chunk of land to test their chemical warfare tactics. So, the Canadian government flipped through their survey books and roped off one of the most barren pieces of land it had. The base has no oil, virtually no trees and every attempt to farm it has ended in failure.

And in a detail that never fails to impress British soldiers raised on American westerns, it is covered with tumbleweeds.

CFB Suffield is now strictly under the control of the Canadian Department of Defence, but the British continue to train here with Ottawa’s permission.

In fact, the whole reason the Brits tolerate visiting reporters is to stay in Canada’s good books. Or, as a conspicuous poster in the mess hall puts it, British soldiers must be sure to “maintain consent to train.”

Tristin Hopper/National Post
Tristin Hopper/National PostWatched by a safety vehicle, a Challenger 2 tank speeds across the prairie during Exercise Prairie Storm. May 19, 2017.

“BATUS provides an austere and complex training environment that matches the expeditionary war fighting experience,” reads one of several stock lines that British soldiers are instructed to tell any curious press or VIPs.

The whole 30-day training exercise, known as Prairie Fire and repeated four times a year, is designed to precisely mimic the British soldiers’ experience of a foreign war. The troops are flown direct to Calgary, bused to the base, given a few days to acclimatize and then thrown into the field for 30 days of sleeping on the ground, eating cold rations and sweating out a flak vest.

Then, with the Dovonian threat successfully neutralized, they’re shipped right back to the U.K.

“They learn to be at the mercy of the Royal Air Force,” says Mills of the troops’ deployment to Canada.

(Mills seems to have an overall troubled relationship with air power. Later, he noted that BATUS’ helicopters — “unlike anywhere else in the army” — actually show up on time).

Tristin Hopper/National Post
Tristin Hopper/National PostMajor Alex Mills, Senior Operations Officer for BATUS. This is not a posed photo; Mills just really seems to enjoy his job.

The end result is that there are thousands of British citizens who can technically claim that they’ve been to Canada — even if their only experience of the country was fending off sunstroke in the middle of nowhere for a few weeks.

The four decades of British Army presence at CFB Suffield have given the whole area a curious British flavour.

In Medicine Hat there is a robust expat community of former BATUS soldiers who either married locals or took off for the wide-open spaces of Alberta as soon as their military service was up.

The neighbouring village of Ralston is almost 80 per cent permanent British Army staff. Union jacks fly alongside the maple leaf. The base canteen serves fish and chips. Officers are fortified with tea, not coffee.

Tristin Hopper/National Post
Tristin Hopper/National PostThe beverage station at Exercise Command, featuring a conspicuous preference for tea.

The area’s military-owned general store has Brits behind the counter, and a special section devoted to licorice allsorts and other “tastes of Great Britain.”

Temporary staff posted to the area are usually identifiable from their “BATUS bangers.” With so many soldiers cycling in and out, local mechanics have put together a racket of selling beater cars to troops: $600 for a sedan, about $1,000 for a minivan.

Even Prince Harry served his time at CFB Suffield in 2007 and 2008. The redheaded royal was occasionally spotted at Calgary and Medicine Hat bars and the Canadian base was the site of an incident in which the prince intervened to stop a rival regiment from beating up a gay squadmate.

“Until he went over and dealt with everything, I was on track for a battering,” Lance-Cpl. James Wharton said in 2013.

John Stillwell/Getty Images
John Stillwell/Getty ImagesPrince Harry around the time of his training at CFB Suffield.

Speaking of batterings, the word around the base is that the Medicine Hat bar district isn’t always tremendously pleased with the regular influxes of wired British Army regulars fresh from a month of enduring mosquitoes and thunderstorms.

In 2008, some bars even shut out British Army soldiers altogether, telling local media that the men couldn’t seem to stop vomiting and peeing everywhere.

It’s also why Royal Military Police vehicles can occasionally be seen on the streets of both Calgary and Medicine Hat conducting routine patrols for any wayward tommies.

As our visit came to a close, the Brits were orchestrating a classic withdrawal (“not a retreat, the British Army doesn’t use the word ‘retreat,’” a captain clarifies).

As a line of tanks guarded the front line, a seemingly endless convoy of vehicles sped over a bridge rigged with explosives and set to explode as soon as the last unit was clear.

Overlooking the whole scene was a trench full of Royal Welsh Fusiliers essentially training for the same type of war fought by their great grandfathers: Sitting in the mud, aiming a rifle at a ridgeline and trying not to nod off.

“It’s kind of outdated, really,” said one corporal as he tried valiantly to hide his shivering.

Tristin Hopper/National Post
Tristin Hopper/National PostA trench of Royal Welch Fusiliers cover the withdrawal of British Army support vehicles during Exercise Prairie Storm at Alberta's CFB Suffield, May 19, 2017.

And the corporal is right. Commanders here are similarly candid that it is unlikely that the soldiers here are ever going to be thrown into a “conventional” war in which uniformed army battles uniformed army in a vast, flat European battlefield.

More likely they’re going to encounter the type of war that is trained for later in Exercise Prairie Fire: Fighting a pickup truck full of guys with AK-47s or staring at a village full of people whose language you don’t understand and trying to parse friend from foe.

As one BATUS officer said while issuing a casting call for Alberta actors, “civilians pose a number of challenges … how you deal with them when you are trying to fight the enemy and then how you deal with them after you’ve won, hopefully.”

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