The Army in winter
Whether in the red desert sands of Mali or on patrol in the snows of Norway, the soldiers of the Bundeswehr are ready to overcome any challenge in extreme climates. The German Army showcases the equipment and training needed to prevail in arctic warfare.
Combat in the snow
Surviving in the snow is an extraordinary team effort. Improvisation and creativity are required in winter warfare. In the German Army, the mountain infantry and the long-range reconnaissance forces in particular are prepared to fight in extreme climate and terrain conditions.
Every day, mountain infantry and long-range reconnaissance forces demonstrate their effectiveness in operations around the world. Together with soldiers from different areas of the entire Bundeswehr that also train how to fight in the cold, they develop their own survival strategies in extreme weather, perform strenuous marches in low-visibility conditions, observe enemy forces while remaining undetected themselves, or direct precision fires against an adversary.
In addition to the burning heat of the desert, the women and men of the mountain infantry are specialised in continuing the fight even at temperatures far below freezing. Cold to extremely cold climate zones can be supremely challenging to humans and their equipment. In such an environment, even small mistakes can have fatal consequences. Whoever wants to fight must first survive. The soldiers are willing to go beyond their own limits in combat to accomplish the mission. Mountain troops never give up. They are steady and dependable.
As silently as possible, long-range scouts move through the winter landscape, ideally in single file. They are the eyes of the Army deep in enemy territory. They too must be able to operate their equipment in such temperatures and make sure that it is always ready. For instance, in these weather conditions, the batteries of electronic equipment used for observation, information collection and data transmission lose their charges much faster than usual.
Life in the ice and snow
A mountain infantry soldier is dependable and never gives up. A mountain infantry soldier perseveres, no matter the climate zone.
Through the snowstorm
Winter warfare in Norway – Bundeswehr training at the polar circle
Survival in the ice and snow
In the Bundeswehr, it is particularly the soldiers of Mountain Infantry Brigade 23 “Bayern” who are prepared to fight under extreme climate and terrain conditions. This is especially challenging because temperatures often dip way down past the freezing point. Accordingly, the following applies: to fight, first survive.
Bitter cold reigns around 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The specialists of the alpine platoons use what they carry and anything they can find in their surroundings to construct emergency shelters. They also need to be inventive: Using branches, twigs and cord, they build a frame that is then covered with tarp to make a roof. The shelter must provide enough space for them and their equipment, but must also be small enough to retain heat. In general, igloos are more suitable, because unlike emergency shelters, they keep the inside temperature at around zero degrees Celsius, even in the freezing cold. In temperatures far below freezing, however, the snow is too powdery and cannot be compressed enough to build igloos. The soldiers need to improvise: Using their avalanche shovels, they pile up snow on either side of their shelter. That way, they are protected not only from the wind, but also from observation. Outside the entrance area, a large fire blazes. A thermal shield behind directs the warm air into the emergency shelter.
In the Alps, the mountain infantry primarily use prominent terrain features to find their way. The dense forests in northern Norway provide hardly any clues for navigation. Tree after tree – everything looks the same. Whether on snowshoes or skis: The soldiers use the number of steps taken and the length of their stride to calculate the distance they have travelled. Additionally, compasses behave a little differently this far north. The soldiers use compass bearings – the direction indicators on a compass – to identify the direction into which they need to travel. They must also take into account the magnetic deviation of the compass from true north on the map, which is particularly noticeable in these latitudes.
To move ahead through the densely forested landscape of northern Norway, the soldiers need to cross frozen lakes – a dangerous situation. Because if anybody falls through the ice and is unable to escape quickly enough from the cold water, that person will lose consciousness and drown. “If I misjudge the thickness of the ice or miss an area of bog land, I’ll fall through the ice. Then I have to get out as quickly as possible and dry off,” explains one of the instructors. That is why the soldiers complete a training jump into a big ice hole in a frozen lake. At temperatures far below freezing, the soldiers, who are secured by a line, drop down into the ice-cold water with their ski poles. For a split second, they disappear below the surface of the water. Holding their ski poles, they paddle back to the safety of the ice hole’s edge. There, they drive the tips of their ski poles as far as possible into the ice and pull themselves out of the icy water. Dripping wet, they run back to shore, dive into the snow and roll around in it. “The dry snow binds the excess water,” the instructor explains. Afterwards, the soldiers need to get to camp as quickly as possible to change their clothes. On the way, the wet garments will freeze.
His hands trembling with cold, the mountain infantryman unpacks his fire-starter kit. Just a few minutes ago, he plunged into the icy water. Now he squats at the last station: the fire test. First, he places a bit of cotton wool on a piece of wood, uses a magnesium bar to ignite the kindling and holds a bunch of dry twigs into the flame until they too catch fire. A small campfire develops. He has passed the test. “The soldiers have to be able to build a fire as quickly as possible so that they can then dry their equipment,” the instructor explains. The soldiers will spend the night out of doors in an emergency shelter they have built. Their clothes will dry on a line near the fire.
Their high levels of mobility are what makes the soldiers of Mountain Infantry Brigade 23 stand out – even under extreme conditions such as deep snow. When their BV 206 S Hägglunds all-terrain carrier is jam-packed with equipment, there is no space left for soldiers. Under these circumstances, skijoring is a way to conserve strength when moving from one location to another. Skijoring is actually a winter sport that involves using horses, sled dogs or motor vehicles to tow skiers. In the mountain infantry, a Hägglunds is used to tow ten skiers. Soldiers tie a rope to the rear unit of the tracked vehicle in such a way that two ten-metre lengths of rope can be placed on the ground in parallel behind the vehicle. The mountain infantry troops then line up in staggered formation along both lengths of rope. They should be only loosely connected with the rope so that they are not dragged if they fall. The less-proficient skiers stack up as closely as possible to the vehicle, while the stronger ones stay further to the rear, as that is where the centrifugal force is strongest due to the length of the rope. The driver maintains constant communications with the soldiers on the rope. Should a soldier fall, the vehicle stops immediately.