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African proving ground

The Royal Engineers are in action in Kenya, which serves as a training base and support centre for peacekeeping activities in east Africa. Gary Sullivan reports


Airfield: The new Batuk headquarters is being built on a disused airfield

East Africa is a busy place for the British Army. Although violent conflicts there have declined since the 1990s, African states continue to be prone to violentclashes, which often result in complex emergency situations.

During the past decade, many countries have had established conflicts continue while new ones have erupted. They often cause long-term harm through disease, drought and famine.

The downward spiral of conflict causes tribal and ethnic differences to surface and fragile democracies to fail. Lives are also lost, refugee crises develop atfrightening speed, trade links stop and organised crime or terrorist groups start to grip the population.

Impoverished people descend into abject poverty, and deaths on a mammoth scale ensue. This is, of course, an over simplification of the complexities of state and inter-state conflicts. But long experience of humanitarian disasters shows that costs to the international community are huge.

Kenya is a hub for the British Army’s activities in east Africa, which range from peacekeeping and mine disposal to supporting the local Kenyan military, and it is allowed to use Kenyan territory for training exercises.

“It is great to have the engineers volunteer to support our local orphanage. Their skill and resourcefulness have really helped improve the conditions for the children”

Major Richard Todd, Commanding Training Wing

The 77 Armoured Engineer Squadron has recently been in action in Afghanistan but its work building a new camp near Nanyuki, Kenya, is very different. Weaponshave been exchanged for trowels and shovels, the product of choice for perimeter walls is not Hesco gabions but blockwork, and body armour is replaced with hi viz vests.

The squadron is working alongside 66 Works Group Royal Engineers to build a new headquarters for British Army Training Unit Kenya (Batuk) and other parts ofthe British Army on the site of the former Second World War air base at Laikipia.

What is known as Exercise Crabapple is a chance for these combat engineers to return to their artisan trades.


Taking shape: The new blocks at Lapikia Air Base

Overlooked by Mount Kenya, the new camp is starting to take shape and the visiting battle groups now have some decent accommodation and ablution blocks, although the sappers are still in tents with Afghan style shower bags.

Construction is never straightforward: the base soil for the new camp is a vertisol, colloquially known as black cotton. This has a high content of expansive clay known as montmorillonite, which forms deep cracks in drier seasons or years.

Vertisols typically form from basic rocks, such as basalt, in climates that are seasonally humid or subject to erratic droughts and floods. Equatorial Kenya’s weather ranges from arid to heavy rains.

This is a test of the versatility of the Sappers, as the exercise involves the design and contract preparation for the new £20M headquarters and camp for the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK)

Fortunately, the Royal Engineers have an expert on hand in the shape of Major Drew Craig, a reserve soldier who is a senior geologist and, he works closely with the Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG). In his day job Craig is a fellow of the Geological Society, with a masters in mineral exploration from Imperial College, and is managing director of Putney-based Rocklore Exploration Services.

The soldiers can turn their hands to many skills: brick laying, rebar tying, carpentry, steel erection and cladding. A skill less familiar to sappers is substructure concreting, but they learn fast.

The early works in the development of the camp involve earth remediation, waste water/oil separator, interim fuel storage tanks, potable water facilities and exercise stores. They also work closely with their counterparts in the Kenyan Army Engineers, and the men and women of 77 get to share skills and develop ideas.

Stabilising East Africa


The British Army in Africa is part of the UK’s wider Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS). The British Peace Support Team East Africa (BPST) is a combination of soldiers and Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff who are deployed to advise and assist in the delivery of the UK’s conflict prevention and stabilisation activity in eastern Africa.

This advice includes infrastructure development, military engineering, pre-deployment training for East African troops, logistics, stabilisation, civil and military cooperation, counter improvised explosive device training, leadership and the development of staff colleges: in effect a defence and security consultancy. The UK is not alone in this endeavour; the British Army is working alongside, French, Belgian, Dutch and US military personnel.

The hub for British Army activity in East Africa is Kenya, supporting and working with the Kenyan defence forces, training British soldiers with the British Army Training Unit Kenya (Batuk), providing resources for International Peace Support Training Centre and acting as the base for the BPST International Mine Action Training Centre (IMATC). The IMATC is a joint British and Kenyan venture aimed at alleviating the suffering caused by landmines and explosive remnants of war, by providing high quality mine action training.

Batuk is a permanent training support unit based mainly in Nanyuki, 200km north of Nairobi, but with a small support logistics element just outside Nairobi. Under an agreement with the Kenyan government, six infantry battle groups a year carry out six-week exercises in Kenya. There are also three Royal Engineer squadron exercises carrying out civil engineering projects and two medical company group deployments which provide primary health care assistance to the civilian community.

The UK Ministry of Defence recently renewed a longstanding agreement with the Kenyan government that allows six British infantry battalions to carry out exercises in Kenya’s arid Great Rift Valley each year.

They have also been helping the local community by assisting construction of water storage and irrigation systems, repairs to toilet blocks and refurbishment of the dormitories of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Education Centre, a local orphanage adopted by Batuk.

“It is great to have the engineers volunteer to support our local orphanage. Their skill and resourcefulness have really helped improve the conditions for the children,” says Major Richard Todd, an officer with the Commanding Training Wing.

In another part of Kenya, 66 Works Group Royal Engineers is also hard at work. Staff Sergeant Dave Lafferty has worked in Helmand in Afghanistan. Now deployed to Kenya, he has no body armour, helmet or weapon. The risks here are from elephants and crocodiles, not insurgents.

Lafferty is a military plant foreman, but has become something of a bridge specialist. The work on the Samburu bridge on the River Ewaso Ng’iro in Kenya is part of the community engagement work carried out by the MSSG, which reports to the Military Stabilisation Support team. The RE are providing technical expertise drawn from the Army Reserve, as well as the regular Army.

The bridge spans the Ewaso Ng’iro to link the Samburu National Reserve with the Buffalo Springs National Reserve. Geographically, it is located in the Rift Valley Province and is close to the British Army’s main training area, Archers Post.

The 65m, three-span reinforced concrete bridge, built in 1964, is the only north/south transit route and is important to the economy of the communities that live in and around the reserve.

Royal engineers kenya

Building the future: The Royal Engineers on site in Kenya

In winter 2010, there were exceptional floods and the southern end of the bridge was washed away. The Royal Engineers created a temporary fix but that too was washed away with a second year of exceptional flooding.

Lafferty is an engineer and soldier, but he also has to be aware of the sensitivities of the local population.

He consulted not just on the engineering solution but on the needs of the community and how the bridge fits into the socio-economic activity of the area. Three design options were provided to the MSSG for a decision.

Elsewhere in Kenya Major Bob Macdonald, who has spent time on attachment with Laing O’Rourke, explains that 66 is also involved with Exercise Crabapple, the Batuk headquarters project at Laikipia.

This is a test of the versatility of the Sappers, as the exercise involves the design and contract preparation for the new £20M headquarters and camp for Batuk. MacDonald explains that the headquarters new build will be put out to tender, after expressions of interest were received from three companies- Trax Kenya, China Wu Yi Co and Mace International - all with different international backgrounds. The new camp will rationalise three locations into one and house up to 1,500 visiting troops and 300 permanent staff.

Capacity is an issue, and withthe Royal Engineers committed to supporting operations, garrisons and overseas bases, they are a busy bunch. As part of 170 (Infra Sp) Engineer Group, they are part of the second busiest unit in the British Army.

The engineers’ remit is to deliver infrastructure engineering support to deployed joint task forces.

This support ranges from expeditionary infrastructure through to maintenance and decommissioning.

The focus over the last 10 years has been Afghanistan, providing the military estate from initial entry, through to ongoing development and its running from main operating bases to tactical bases.

Designing school kitchens and classrooms may be less challenging than providing design advice on bridging solutions or new build projects, but they are equally important to the programme

Since 2009 it has been additionally responsible for all construction undertaken by the Provisional Reconstruction Team in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, steadily improving the capabilities and competencies of local Afghan contractors. The group deploys elements worldwide in its role as a design consultancy for the rest of the Corps and wider defence community.

Staff Sergeant Ram Rai, from Nepal, is one of the newer members of the team and spent his time prior to joining 66 as a combat engineer.

He has just completed a two-year clerk of works course from which he has also earned a foundation degree in construction management. Rai is now working aspart of the design team on the new HQ , specifically the medical centre.


Improving lives: Major Richard Todd and the children from the orphanage

When asked about his change of role he smiles and says that now he goes to war with a laptop, technical books and a calculator.

Warrant Officer Pete “Q” Quinn firmly believes the young engineers coming out of the Royal School of Military Engineering (RSME) in Chatham, Kent, are brighter and better equipped for the challenges of modern military engineering than ever before. Nevertheless, they still have a lot to learn when they arrive in Kenya.

“We can deliver training in a live environment on live projects, with a live client,” he says. In addition to the skills taught at RSME and honed at unit level, the Sappers get the opportunity to spend time with industry.

Designing school kitchens and classrooms may be less challenging than providing design advice on bridging solutions or new build projects, but they are equally important to the community engagement programme.

That engagement works both ways - the RE is always looking to acquire new skills and the Kenyans have been building and using sand dams to harvest rainwater from rivers for a good while now. Keen to learn, the Sappers set about looking at how to improve the design and build, and perhaps use them as flood mitigation tools.

  • Gary Sullivan is chairman of Wilson James’ construction logistics business.

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