February 16th 2024

Exercise Cambrian Patrol: Reservist on ‘the best and worst days of my life’

British Army Soldiers take on Exercise Cambrian Patrol in 2022. Photo: British Army.

Imagine marching for 60 hours straight, through day and night, without sleep, while carrying 32kg on your back.

For Second Lieutenant (2Lt) Christian Saunders that punishing scenario was his reality as a cohort from East Midlands University Officer Training Corps (EMUOTC) tackled Exercise Cambrian Patrol, the ultimate challenge in navigation, fieldcraft, tactics and soldiering.

“It was the best and worst three days of my life,” said the 20-year-old, describing the exercise in October as the British Army’s equivalent of an ultra-marathon.

“I learnt so much about myself, other people, how far the human body can go, and so much about soldiering.”

Held around Brecon, Wales, Exercise Cambrian Patrol is the British Army’s premier patrolling event. It has been running since 1959 and sees Regulars, Reservists, and Officer Cadets from all three Services, as well as international Armed Forces, tackle a series of fatiguing mental and physical challenges across difficult terrain.

Such is the scale of the challenge that of the more than 100 teams that entered in 2023, 12 patrols failed to finish.

“Going into it I was nervous,” said 2Lt Saunders, who is originally from London and is now studying history in Nottingham.

“We went on a tab beforehand in Wollaton Park, put 30kg on our backs and ran 8 miles. Afterwards, we were drained and thinking ‘how are we going to do this for three days?’

“I’ve only ever felt that nervous excitement, that apprehension before we started at certain times doing certain things in life. I also felt a rush of adrenaline but I was trying not to get pumped up because I knew I had a long three days ahead.”

British Army Soldiers take on Exercise Cambrian Patrol in 2022. Photo: British Army.

British Army Soldiers take on Exercise Cambrian Patrol in 2022. Photo: British Army.

Through fire and water

2Lt Saunders’ gruelling journey began at 03:00 Friday morning. He estimates his EMUOTC team covered 70km of ground before finishing at 14:00 the following Sunday.

Wearing standard army uniform with their Bergen rucksacks, patrol belts, rifles and helmets and carrying their ration packs, first aid kits and ammunition, they climbed rolling hills and passed through boggy woodlands.

“It didn’t rain but the ground was damp,” said 2Lt Saunders, who was encouraged to join EMUOTC in 2021 thanks to his Mum, a former Reservist with the Royal Army Pay Corps.

“When we were moving, we were warm. But there were points we were shivering because we had to lie on the floor for an hour or two. For Wales it could have been much worse weather.”

If the task at hand wasn’t tough enough, teams had to reach checkpoints by certain times otherwise they risked receiving a warning, having points docked, or being pulled from the exercise altogether.

Each checkpoint would also present teams with a different mental or physical challenge and despite feeling their freshest on the first day, 2Lt Saunders said the Friday was the hardest day thanks to a river crossing.

“We had to cross about 100-150m of head-deep water,” said 2Lt Saunders. “We knew if we didn’t do this properly our kit would be soaked so we changed into our waterproofs.

“We placed all of our gear in our bivvy bags and added empty water bottles as natural ballast so it would float above the water, with our rifles on top, as we swam across. It was a tactical river crossing, so we also needed to secure the home and far shores.

“It was not easy. We had planned this in advance but we had trained during a heatwave not when it was four degrees, windy and spitting rain.”

A testing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear stand at another checkpoint on Friday made the day even tougher. However the team rallied and applied their training to overcome all of the challenges ahead of them.

Overcoming the urge to quit

2Lt Saunders admits he had doubts about finishing the exercise before they had even set off. And these doubts continued to eat away at him, and his fellow Soldiers, throughout.

“The exercise tries to sap your energy and drain you mentally so you start thinking to yourself ‘what am I doing? I can’t do this.’

“I think everyone on the team had doubts. But when you’re doubting yourself and you can’t drag yourself out, that’s when someone who isn’t doubting themselves at that points drags you out.”

2Lt Saunders said his experiences in the Combined Cadet Force laid the groundwork for the resilience he needed to conquer such a challenge.

He added: “As a former Cadet, you’ve built that mental resilience from a young age.

“How many times was I cold sleeping outside for one night? At the time I thought that was terrible but kept doing it which has built up my resilience over time through Cadets, through sport, through the OTC, and at Sandhurst.

“Physically, I think the margins for improvement get very small after a certain amount of time. But mentally, I don’t think there’s a limit to how much you can develop.”

Exercise Cambrian Patrol is not classed as a competition. Patrol performance is assessed throughout based on battlecraft syllabus and individual training requirements, in addition to robustness and leadership.

However, for their performance, EMUOTC was awarded a bronze medal.

“It’s one of the proudest things I’ve done, “added 2Lt Saunders. “Not in terms of what people think, but how I feel about myself.”

British Army Soldiers take on Exercise Cambrian Patrol in 2022. Photo: British Army.

Photo: British Army.

Eyes on a bigger prize

The original plan was never for 2Lt Saunders to tackle Exercise Cambrian Patrol with EMUOTC in 2023.

Looking for the next challenge in his third year at university, 2Lt Saunders had commissioned with 4 Mercian in Bulwell, following two years at EMUOTC, and was only training with the Officer Training Corps in preparation for his Platoon Commander’s Battle Course.

But when one of the EMUOTC Soldiers injured themselves a week out from the exercise, the group’s fate lay in 2Lt Saunders’ hands as he was the only person who had passed the prerequisites and was able to fill that crucial last spot.

When Exercise Cambrian Patrol returns to Wales in October 2024, 2Lt Saunders, who is now a Platoon Commander in C Company, plans to be there leading 4 Mercian.

Not one to shy away from challenges, and this time with more preparation, he is aiming to top 4 Mercian’s silver from 2024.

“This will be another step up,” he added. “I’ve gone from being with peers in the EMUOTC to being an Officer responsible for leading and motivating Soldiers.

“In 2023 it was all a last-minute thing. This year I’m really looking forward to it. I’m motivated and because of the instructors we have and the team, I think we stand a chance of getting gold. I’m really pumped for it.”

Want to push outside of your comfort zone? Find your closest Royal Naval, Royal Marines, Army, or RAF Reserves unit today.