Exercise Finn Harz Endeavour was an Adventure Training package to the Harz mountains in Germany from 24th August to 1st September 2019. This adventurous training exercise was planned in order to enhance each soldier’s courage and physical attributes whilst participating in mountain biking and hill walking in a challenging environment.
This resulted in the encouragement of esprit de corps through the integration of reserve and regular units of the Royal Artillery. Without the fantastic support of the Ulysses Trust, RFCA(NI) and Lt Colonel Dougie Peters (ATG(N), 38 Irish Brigade, this Adventure training simply would not have been possible. A detailed financial spreadsheet is provided at Annex A defining our costs, income and expenditure.
In preparation for the mountain biking in Germany, soldiers from 206 Bty attended an introduction to mountain biking session in Castlewellan Forest Park, County Down. This proved to be valuable training with the soldiers who attended gaining the basic skills required to approach the activity with confidence.
The beginning of Finn Harz Endeavour for Royal Artillery soldiers from 105 Regt RA, meant the journey from respective locations (Coleraine, Newtownards and Edinburgh) to Dover where accommodation was booked in the Adventure Backpackers Hostel, which was located opposite the main ferry port.
For most, this was a full day’s travel, and after a well-deserved night’s sleep, the group were given an introductory brief by the Expedition Leader 2Lt Joshua McKee. Following this, the crossing of the channel brought us to the European mainland for the start of the journey through France, Belgium and the Netherlands to get to our destination in Germany. Here, we picked up our vignettes for the vehicles to ensure all legal requirements were met whilst in the country. Finally, we arrived at our destination, Torfhaus Lodge, late on the evening of the 25th August and found that our accommodation was of a very high standard and included facilities such as a locked container for the mountain bikes. Everyone made quick use of the comfortable beds which were a very welcome sight after another long day of travelling.
A welcome surprise was in store as there was an abundance of cereals, eggs, meat, yoghurt, fruit, cheese and bread as well as hot drinks, all of which were prepared by our impressive chef Cpl S. McFadden. He was able to cater for the dietary requirements within the group and ensured there was plenty to choose from for pack lunches daily.
After breakfast the group met to be briefed, split into groups and introduced to the instructors. Equipment, including the all-important maps were issued following the completion of risk assessments by the instructors, WO2 Irvine and WO2 Beckett.
The kit issue continued with the instructors carrying out M checks to the mountain bikes and getting everyone ready promptly, so we were able to leave camp by 10:00 hrs.
The Harz National Park is placed in the heart of Lower Saxony, and is a large, quiet park which is ideal for beginners. There are many established trails to use, so compasses are not required but could be used to practise bearings. For more experienced mountain bikers, the trails could be completed in two or three days however, for our first day out with beginner level riders and few other groups on the trails, it was a perfect location. The novice mountain bikers apprehension and the more experienced biker’s excitement were to be given another challenge in that the first trail was covered with tree roots and stones with careful steering from one junction to the next being the only way to make our way to the end of the run. The weather conditions, however, were fantastic, as would be the case for the entire week.
Mountain bike fans will fall in love with the mountains’ surrounding landscape; over 2,200 kilometres of narrow trails, forest track and rocky passages with jumping opportunities, as well as five bike parks, put your technical abilities on trial. The national park is covered almost completely by forest. Expansive beech forests and ancient spruce forests in the higher altitudes characterise its look. The high humidity levels mean that the forest floor is covered with a thick blanket of moss, while many tree trunks are encrusted with bizarre lichen. Even higher, rock formations, stone pits, clear mountain streams and moorland create a wild mountain landscape, before the ancient mountain spruce forests are limited by the treeless mountain heath of the Brocken. The Harz mountains are the only German low mountain range to reach a natural tree line.
Saddle legs eventually initiated the return to camp with the participants feeling satisfied with the progress they made on the first day. The first-class food provided by our resident chef then gave everyone the chance to unwind and reflect on the day’s mountain biking and hill walking before bed and reveille at 0630 hrs.
The daily briefing held in camp by the Expedition Warrant Officer, WO2 Gary Irvine and the Instructor IC, WO2 Beckett ironed out any administration issues and gave the students some guidance into the Aims of AT, setting the stage properly now that everyone had been gently broken in. Sgt Watson transferred from the mountain boking group to the hill walking group to Recce the area he would be using for his expedition on the Thursday. This allowed him to develop his leadership and command skills.
The novice and intermediate mountain biking group headed straight off with the relevant instructors. Although some of the novices struggled with the fast Kaiserweg run which ran down to Oderbrueck, the quickly overcame the challenge. This was indeed a test for their instructors to guide them slowly to more mundane territory where they could continue with the basics kills required, working on confidence and movement skills. Again, the weather was excellent, but the challenge was met with the more advanced bikers having to wait at the next junction to avoid separation of the group.
The day began with the usual morning routine of breakfast, pack lunch prep and morning meeting. Some changes occurred to the groups as the mountain bikers now became hill walkers and vice versa.
The hill walking group made it to the top of the Brocken mountain. The Brocken, also sometimes referred to as the Blocksberg, is the highest peak of the Harz mountain range and also the highest peak of Northern Germany. Although it’s elevation of 1,141 metres (3,743 ft) is below alpine dimensions, its microclimate resembles that of mountains of about 2,000 m (6,600 ft). Luckily, as we were there in August, we avoided the snow which lies on its peaks almost all year round. A huge sense of achievement was felt by all having completed the journey to the summit.
As for the mountain biking group, they too achieved success as some participants managed to complete much more difficult trails on challenging terrain, further bolstering confidence.
The beginner groups were now competent on the faster routes and working better as a team helping each other back to their feet and down more challenging routes of the mountain. The walking group also completed a 15 mile walk from Torfhaus Lodge to Eckerstausee lake across the Eckeraumauer dam and back again. On return to camp, moral was heightened due to the presentation of prizes for the endeavours of this diverse group of people who came together to make this experience a success. The awards were as follows:
Long Service award Cpl Samuel McFadden
Best Male Biker Sgt Drew Campbell
Best Female Biker Ssgt Anne Henry
Most Improved Biker Gnr Mark Nichol
Epic Fall: 2Lt Joshua McKee
Best Driver: WO2 Mark Beckett
After the morning routine and very early start at 0530 hrs, everyone tidied the Lodge from top to bottom and then handed back the accommodation at 0745 hrs to Spot. We then made the trip to Ypres, Belgium, where a wreath from 105 Regiment was laid at the Menin gate during the Last Post ceremony at 2000 hrs by Cpl McFadden, WO2 Henry and 2Lt McKee. All the participants especially Gnr Lamberton were “extremely moved by the solemnity and dignified remembrance to the fallen soldiers of World War One whose bodies were never recovered – a truly memorable experience. [He] did not realise that the remembrance ceremony had taken place every single day since 2nd July 1928.”
Visits to the In Flanders Fields museum and Tyne Cot cemetery took place on Day 6, carefully following the Battlefield Tour itinerary planed by 2Lt McKee. A poignant moment was the reading of the famous war poem Dulce et Decorum by Wilfred Owen by WO2 Beckett amongst the tranquillity of the white graves. This stay in Ypres also gave the group the chance to indulge in the local cuisine, and purchase those all-important Belgian chocolates for their loved ones back home.
The two vans made the long journey back to Calais. After advice the best route turned out to be via the Netherlands and on to Dunkirk, where time was made for respects to be paid at the Dunkirk Beaches and memorial before the final short drive to Calais and the return across the channel. A different hostel at YHA Medway, Gillingham was used to get the vans closer to Cairnryan and allowed everyone able to bed down for the night before another early start for the final drive home. For the N Ireland contingent another ferry still to be embarked at Cairnryan towards Belfast.
Throughout the expedition the students were able to upload photos to a main group Whatsapp chat which is to be used for recruitment and retention across 105 Regiment. This is crucial to the recruitment campaign of the Army Reserves, as Adventure Training proves popular amongst new recruits who are wishing to gain new experiences.
The hard work in preparation, and fund raising for the trip ensured a smooth undertaking and thanks must go to all the instructors who tied the training together, meeting the needs for the courses undertaken. Their experience of the core activities was invaluable, with the advice and guidance of Spot proving to be very helpful. Harz National Park and surrounding resorts are perfect for groups wanting to gain experience in Mountain Biking and the opportunity to enjoy fantastic conditions and trails in a controlled yet challenging environment.
Crossing Europe via self- drive of 2 x vehicles provided its own challenges but was well worth the effort and tested the leadership and planning skills of the Officer and SNCOs alike. Furthermore, it gave all involved the opportunity to practise driving and navigation in an unfamiliar environment. At the planning stage it was pre-empted that tolls could be expensive if travelling directly through France, but as planned, using the route from Dunkirk through Belgium and the Netherlands into Germany proved to be the best route with good driveable main roads and few delays in local traffic.
The use of 206 Bty mountain biking equipment was adequate for the level of the audience, and the accommodation and camp facilities were very good. The use of a chef within the regiment and the provision of meals during the trip was financially feasible, with participants needing to only contribute to their final night out in Belgium as a treat.
The Adventure training had been well supported by various organisations including the Ulysses Trust and RFCA NI for which we are extremely thankful.
Overall the Expedition brought soldiers with various experiences together from the Royal Artillery Reserves and gave them the opportunity to be challenged and tested in an environment fully suited to the task. They did so with enthusiasm and gusto, and all soldiers in attendance had a thoroughly enjoyable time.
2Lt Joshua McKee 105 Regt RA