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GURKHAS AND FFL: MERCS MEET IN THE FRENCH ALPS

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2nd REG JOINS THE FFL

Initiated by Lt. Colonel Frederick Boucher, commanding officer of the Foreign Legion’s 2nd Regiment Etranger de Genie (REG—Combat Engineer Regiment), a training exchange between the Legionnaires of the 2nd REG and Queen’s Gurkha Engineers of the 26 Engineer Regiment first took place last year. This preliminary meeting between Gurkhas and Legionnaires, which proved to be exceptionally rewarding technically and rich on the level of personal exchange, created a bond  between the two units. This year the camaraderie has continued with the 1st Company of the 2nd REG, under the command of Capt. Benoit Delorche, welcoming a company from 70 Gurkha Engineer Squadron at the French regiment’s specialized training centre at Valloire, deep in the French Alps.

 

Created in 1999, the 2nd REG is one of the most recently commissioned regiments in the French Army. Since its formation the regiment has been based on the Albion Plateau, once the site of the French intercontinental ballistic missile launching centre, a mountainous region in the south of France which is ideal for training Alpine troops.

 

The 2nd REG is attached to the 27th Brigade of Mountain Infantry, which is composed of:

7e Bataillon de chasseurs alpins, (7th Alpine “Hunter” Battalion), based at Bourg-Saint-Maurice;

13e Bataillon de chasseurs alpins, (13th Alpine “Hunter” Battalion), based at Barby (Chambéry);

27e Bataillon de chasseurs alpins, (27th Alpine “Hunter” Battalion), based at Cran Gevrier (Annecy);

4e Régiment de chasseurs, (4th Mounted “Hunter” Regiment), based at Gap (armored unit);

93e Régiment d’artillerie de montagne, (93rd Mountain Artillery Regiment), based at Varces (Grenoble);

2e Régiment étranger de Génie, (2nd Combat Engineer Regiment), based at Saint-Christol (Apt);

27e Compagnie de commandement et de transmissions de montagne, (27th Operations and Signals Company), based at Varces ;

• a mountain-specialized commando unit.

 

ROUGH TERRAIN COMBAT AND WINTER WARFARE

The 2nd REG is composed of three combat companies, a command and logistics company, a support company (heavy arms), an instruction company, and a special forces-qualified commando group. The sappers of the 2nd REG are specialized in combat in rough terrain and winter warfare. They are required to pass the Brevet d’Alpiniste Militaire (mountain combat qualification) and the Brevet de Skier Militaire (military ski qualification). Along with intense mountain training in France, the regiment has regularly participated in joint NATO extreme conditions training maneuvers in Norway. Most of the Legionnaires of the 2nd REG have had specialized training at the Ecole Militaire de Haute Montagne, at Chamonix.

 

In the seven years of its relatively young existence, the 2nd REG has become one of the most active units in the French Army. The Legionnaires of the 2nd REG have participated in nearly all of the overseas operations: Kosovo, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Martinique, Gabon and others. The Regiment is also active in training exercises within the French Army and in multi-national training maneuvers such as in Norway.

 

QUEEN’S GURKHA ENGINEERS

The roots of 70 Gurkha Field Support Squadron, Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, stretch back to Southeast Asia where the squadron was raised as 70 Gurkha Field Park Squadron at Sungei Besi, Malaysia, in April 1960. The following year it moved to Kluang and absorbed the Gurkha Training Squadron, which had resided there since 1948. From that point onwards 70 Squadron took over the functions of the old Engineer Training Centre Far East. The Squadron was responsible for training Gurkha, British, Malayan and many other Commonwealth sappers in field engineering and artisan trade training. After twice being disbanded and reformed, 70 Gurkha Field Support Squadron, QGE was reformed for a third time on 17 July, 2000, and is now permanently attached to the 36 Engineer Regiment, Maidstone, Kent.

 

The officer accompanying the Gurkha detachment, Captain Olivier Gill of the 26 Engineer Regiment, told me, “You may assume that coming from a mountainous country like Nepal, the Gurkhas have a lot of experience with this type of terrain. In reality most of them come from villages situated in the valleys and they left their native land when they were fairly young, so very few have had any real mountain climbing experience. And even fewer, any military mountain training. At our home base in England we rarely do any mountain training, so the equipment and the techniques they are learning here are all fairly new for most of the men. But the Gurkhas adapt well to any task put in front of them and they are getting along fine; they are all looking forward to completing these three weeks of training with success. For a British officer, the chance to work with Gurkhas is a great opportunity and it’s really an honor to be here with them and to take part in the training.”

 

The first evening of the Gurkhas’ arrival and their initial meeting with the Legionnaires took place with a round of drinks in front of a large screen television and the World Cup football (soccer) matches. Using football as an international “language,“ the first contacts were made between the Gurkhas and their comrades of the 2nd REG. This turned out to be a rather festive occasion, but it didn’t solve all the communication problems that would later crop up during the training. Captain Gill spoke fairly fluent French and a lot of the legionnaires English, but as is always the case with the Legion, they’ll come up with the perfect interpreter.

 

Caporal Chef Ram Gurung left his native village in Nepal nine years ago and headed to France to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. Other than a two-year tour in Djibouti, his career in the Legion has been spent with the 2nd REG. “The Gurkhas were a little surprised to find a Nepalese here with the Legion. They didn’t suppose that someone from Nepal could join. I’ve been with the 2nd REG since it was formed. I suppose you could say that I’m one of the veterans around here. I’ve been through the mountaineering school and the military ski school and a lot of specialized Alpine training. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Gurkhas and I appreciate this chance to work with some of my fellow countrymen.”

 

MOUNTAINEER TRAINING

Under the direction of Captain Jean Yves Igonenc, technical advisor at the 2nd REG and qualified mountain guide, the young Legionnaires and their Nepalese counterparts endured three weeks of intensive training. The first two weeks of the program were spent mastering various basic techniques of mountaineering: rock climbing, rope work, working on a “rope line,” moving equipment through rough terrain, high altitude bivouac, passing over snow and ice, as well as high altitude-adapted weapons training.

 

The training session ends with a final test—a long distance trek at high altitude where the various techniques are to be put to use in order to successfully complete the course. The results of the various tests and success at the final challenge, a five-hour race against the clock, determine who will win the coveted Brevet d’Alpiniste Militaire (military mountaineering badge). During both the technical tests and the physical endurance exercises the Legionnaire/Gurkha teams worked together to overcome all obstacles. And both sides finished with excellent results. A good part of the Gurkhas left the Alpine training centre with a French Mountaineering Badge proudly pinned to their uniforms. In return a few Kurkis, the famed Gurkha combat knife with its characteristic curved blade, traditional symbol of these mountain warriors, now adorn the walls of the 2nd REG.