Golan Heights training: ‘Get up on that f**king left bank,’ shouts someone at a machine gun team

Members of 68th Infantry Group put through paces in live fire exercise in Glen of Imaal in advance of deployment to Syria

It’s a pleasant but slightly chilly Wednesday morning in Co Wicklow and the hills of the Glen of Imaal are a scene of organised chaos.

For the last hour the soldiers of the 68th Infantry Group, who will next month deploy to the Golan Heights in Syria as part of a United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) mission, have been coming under relentless attack having encountered an ambush down the road.

They respond with grenades and hundreds of rounds of rifle and machine gun fire. In the distance, little plumes of dust can be seen as bullets hit the ground. It’s a reminder this is not an ordinary training exercise; the soldiers are firing live ammunition and have no idea where the next target will appear. They’ve already suffered two casualties, which take the form of life-size dummies weighing 90kg each, and are running low on ammunition.

“Make sure to share that out between you,” roars the platoon sergeant while passing up more magazines. Behind a small ridge a group of soldiers are struggling to get one of the injured on a stretcher. “Get up on that f**king left bank,” shouts someone at a machine gun team. Nearby, the grass has caught fire, probably the result of a wayward 40mm training grenade.


Watching all of this, Lt Col Oliver Clear, who will be leading the group in Syria, looks happy and surprisingly serene.

This is live fire tactical training (LFTT) and it’s the gold standard of mission preparedness, he explains. The whole purpose is to introduce unexpected scenarios and to force troops to make on-the-spot decisions. In other words, it’s supposed to be stressful.

The risk of using live rounds is judged to be worth it because of the sense of realism it provides, says Lt Col Clear.

“We’re preparing for the worst case scenario where we would have to use our weapons, and in Undof that means self-defence or protecting UN property,” he says.

“With blanks, the risk is much, much lower. When you introduce live fire there is a risk. But everyone is trained to a very high standard. It is as safe as you can make an activity that is somewhat risky.”

Salvation for the troops soon arrives in the form of four armoured personnel carriers (APCs) which appear over a hill and suppress the targets with their heavy guns. The troops clamber in the back with their casualties and the vehicles deploy a smoke screen to cover their withdrawal.

The task of Undof is to maintain the ceasefire between Israel and Syria which was agreed following the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It is one of the more unstable theatres where Irish troops are deployed, particularly in recent months with the launching of missiles into Israel from the Syrian side and the increasing numbers of Israeli settlers moving into the area.

“The country is in an interesting place at this time,” Clear says euphemistically. But the Golan Heights is actually one of the safer borders around Syria, he adds.

During this six month deployment the job of the 133 Irish troops will be to serve as the mission’s Quick Reaction Force (QRF), meaning they’ll have to be able to respond at ten minutes notice to any threat to UN personnel.

While armed confrontations are rare, they are not unheard of. In 2014 the Irish QRF rescued a group of Filipino peacekeepers who were being held hostage by Islamic militants

“We hope it doesn’t happen but we should be ready for it,” says Lt Col Clear. For him, a bigger concern is that Irish troops will stumble into a dangerous situation while on patrol and be forced to respond. That was exactly the scenario facing the troops on Wednesday morning.

The deployment will be all the more challenging due to the fact that this is the last Irish contingent to take part in Undof. Earlier this year, the Government made the decision to stand down the Irish contribution to free up resources for the newly revamped EU Battlegroup.

The Defence Forces is contributing a reinforced mechanised infantry company to the Battlegroup, and its perilous manpower situation means it can’t do that and Undof at the same time.

This means, as well as getting themselves home safely, the 68th Group will be responsible for repatriating the large amount of Irish equipment that has been out there for years. That includes 16 APCs which will have to be brought home by ship.

“It’s going to be very challenging. It’s a long time since the Defence Forces pulled out of a mission,” says Battalion Quartermaster Sergeant Colm Donnelly. “Every round, everything, has to be accounted for.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times

Chris Maddaloni

Chris Maddaloni

Chris Maddaloni is Head of Video at The Irish Times