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Operation ELGIN ~ British Army SRF Deployed to Kosovo

Communications via radio are established and tested prior to an assurance patrol conducted around the Area of Operations by members of the PWRR Battlegroup on Op ELGIN in Kosovo [Crown Copyright: Cpl Paul Watson]

The British Army holds the Strategic Reserve Force (SRF) battle group that can be deployed to re-enforce NATO’s peacekeepers in Kosovo.

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News Release, Whitehall, 20 October 2023: The British Army holds the Strategic Reserve Force (SRF), a battle group that can be deployed to re-enforce NATO’s peacekeepers in Kosovo, the Kosovo Force (KFOR) should the need ever occur.

In the 24 years of KFOR’s presence, providing a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement within the region, the SRF has never been called into action. That was all to change on 24th September this year following the discovery of a significant cache of arms being moved around the administrative boundary line that separates Serbia and Kosovo. A large gun battle ensued claiming the life of a Kosovan police officer and as a result tensions in the region became inflamed to the point whereby NATO ordered the activation of the SRF; a prudent step to ensure KFOR had the forces and capabilities needed to fulfil its UN mandate.

Foxhound vehicles belonging to the Royal Yorkshire Regiment arrive in Albania ready for use by the PWRR Battlegroup on Op ELGIN in Kosovo [Crown Copyright: Cpl Paul Watson]

The role of the SRF is assigned to infantry units for a period of 12 months; it was the 1st Battalion Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment who were on SRF duty when the activation was called. Elements of the SRF were already in the country conducting a rehearsal exercise for just such a scenario when the violence broke out and all of a sudden rehearsal turned to reality.

The rapid deployment of the full battle group meant the transport of some 200 plus troops and the shipment of 117 vehicles to the other side of Europe in a matter of less than a fortnight; with some troops having only five days’ notice to pack and fly. The move affected troops in different ways, for not only was it the case of hastily rearranged diaries for those flying out to Kosovo; for some already in country, it meant awkward phone calls to loved ones to explain they were not, in fact, coming home but would be staying and unsure as to how long.

Vehicles during a road move from the Port of Durres in Albania to Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo that will reinforce the PWRR Battlegroup during Op ELGIN [Crown Copyright: Cpl Paul Watson]

As the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nick Zorab outlined, “We’ve been at readiness for this task for a number of months, we knew there was a chance we could be deployed at short notice, although it did come at pace. The soldiers were mentally prepared for that; of course, their service does come with some sacrifice at home and for their families, but it is our job, and we are very grateful to be able to do that job and provide this capability to the Commander of KFOR.”

Private Veretareki ‘Tini’ Tinikabuta had been in Kosovo for six weeks during the rehearsal exercises and was six days’ away from going home when he was told that he would be staying, “I was looking forward to getting back to see my girlfriend, but it’s something you get used to in the Army. It was hard to explain over the phone to my girlfriend as we had planned on going to Italy – it was emotional because it was the first time she had gone through something like this.”

Despite his separation Tini explained how he enjoyed working in Kosovo saying the people were friendly. “My job out here is to go out on patrols, I’m the eyes and ears on the ground for the Commander whilst making sure there is no threat. I have had security training back in the UK which is really useful. I can read peoples’ body language and determine if they are lying or hiding something.”

Standing ready for launch a bombardier readies his PUMA RPAS on a hilltop in northern Kosovo whilst deployed on Op ELGIN [Crown Copyright: Cpl Paul Watson]

Just as the 200 plus troops were preparing themselves to move to Royal Air Force Brize Norton for their flights out to Pristina, some 117 vehicles were travelling from as far afield as Thirsk and Cottesmore in the W. Midlands to embark on the MV Hurst Point at Marchwood Military Port on Southampton Water for their 5-day passage to Durres in Albania. This was an amalgam of vehicles from many differing units and as it was a battlegroup taking form, it meant these would come in all shapes and sizes ranging from quad bikes up to the mighty Man SV recovery trucks belonging to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; along with in excess of 20 armoured Foxhound protected patrol vehicles.

Whilst everyone in the UK was frenetically going about getting themselves out of the door, there was one group already sitting in Kosovo on whose shoulders were borne perhaps one of the more onerous of tasks – the Motor Transport Platoon. Already in theatre on the rehearsal exercise when the activation was announced, their role was to change dramatically to not only managing the fleet in Kosovo, but additionally to have all the preparation in place to receive the upload in vehicles once the MV Hurst Point docked. If that was not enough they also had to orchestrate the onward transport of the 200 plus troops soon to land at Pristina.

Assurance patrols conducted around the AO by members of the PWRR Battlegroup ~ a soft posture of no long barrel weapons or body armour is used [Crown Copyright: Cpl Paul Watson]

To put that into perspective, prior to the SRF mobilisation the MT platoon had 70 platforms (vehicles, trailers, and support equipment) on their books, but that dramatically increased to 211 once the ship docked. Little wonder then that seldom did the lights go out before midnight in the MT office before, during and after the activation.

It was Corporal Luatale Salailagi’s job to make sure all the customs documentation was in place for each vehicle as it rolled off the ship’s ramp. “There is an awful lot of paperwork to do especially with vehicles on the back of transporters. The documents had to correspond with the trailer and the vehicle on it and packaged together; I also had to make sure the trailer was appropriate for the load.”

The MV Hurst Point docked and disgorged its’ cargo at the Albanian port of Durres, the closet available seaport to their final destination, Camp Bondsteel. It meant an eight-hour convoy drive in packets of 20 vehicles through the spectacular mountain scenery. While glorious to view in the autumn sunshine, this route, and the many others these vehicles are to ply will soon take on very different guise with the onset of winter.

Foxhound vehicles belonging to The Royal Yorkshire Regiment sit at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo ready for use by PWRR Battlegroup on Op ELGIN in Kosovo [Crown Copyright: Cpl Paul Watson]

As the MT Sergeant, Gary ‘Bobby’ Moore pointed out, “There are already processes in place for winter, we have our snow chains at the ready as they came out in the freight. As the temperatures start to drop we have the means and procedures in place to mitigate the effect.”

The rapid deployment and the fact that all the additional vehicles came from other units placed a considerable load on Lance Corporal Raveen Rai who is responsible for coordinating the maintenance scheduling for the fleet. “Because we do not hold the maintenance records for these vehicles, we don’t know any of their individual faults or the standard of that vehicle, but we have rolled with it, and we’ll make it work.”

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Library image of a reassurance patrol in Kosovo conducted by 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles in the area of Lipljan, June 1999 [© Carl Schulze]

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