We gathered in a small clearing, sat on rustic looking benches crawling with moss and listened to the land navigation briefing given by an E6 Russian linguist. As with most Russians, his English was excellent, with only a dusting of Dostoyevsky’s accent. He sported an Expert Infantry Badge; not something easily attained when you’re part of the Military Intelligence community.
Here’s a pic of the EIB:
We had to wait approximately 30 extra minutes while some compasses were shipped in. There was a logistical misunderstanding as to whom was supposed to bring the M2s, but I’ve learned quickly that this is common in the Army, which has a swarm of moving parts. Staying flexible is an imperative.
We were issued new maps, a pencil and a protractor. The weather was great, with a lot of sun and few clouds. In Germany though, that’s subject to immediate change. We were assigned to our starting “lanes”, which means there is a certain lettered metal post that you stand by until the starting signal is given. You’re also given a small slip of paper that lists the Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate for each of the points that you’re to try to find. Mine had a starting point, three midpoints and a finish point where all of the cadre would gather and record our time and score. Not all of us would find outr way to the finish….
Before the siren blew, I opened the map and didn’t like what I saw. Some of the map’s writing was in German. This usually would not have been a problem, as there was some English translation, but the declination diagram was giving me problems; it wasn’t as clear and easy to read as on the American military maps I was familiar with. There were several numbers, and I was confused as to exactly what they meant. The declination diagram shows the angular relationship between Grid North and Magnetic North. In other words, north on your map is not exactly the same as north on your compass, and depending where you are in the world, the angular relation is different. I plotted the coordinates for each point on my map and recored them in my waterproof notebook, just in case I lost the piece of paper I’d been supplied with. I shot an azimuth with my compass, and when the siren blew, headed off in a direction approximately 800 meters south east of my starting point.
There are three levels of difficulty for Army land nav courses, easy, medium and hard. This one was classified as hard, which meant all of the points were in the middle of the woods, not near one of the roads or trails (Which were everywhere). The terrain was a maddening tangle of thickets, dense forest, and hills. As I set off, I could tell that a direct route to my point would mean walking at a low crouch over uneven and hindering terrain, for almost one click, and there was no guarantee that I would make it right to the point. More likely than not I’d get to the general area then have to search hard for it. The terrain was so think, that all I could do was use the “dead reckoning” method with the compass. I couldn’t see anything far enough away to use the cheek-to-compass hold, where you shoot an azimuth at a terrain feature that’s far away and use the lens to note the degree of travel. Basically, I could only use the center-hold technique, keeping the compass at my sternum and and rechecking my line of travel every few hundred feet, or even more often than that.
Then events conspired against me. First of all, the compass I was issued was faulty. It was old, with huge chunks of paint chipped away indicating its best days were probably back in the late 80s. When a compass is that old, the needle that the north/south indicator rests on becomes dull and inhibits its ability to spin. I’d turn one way and instead of the north indictor counter-rotating to stay on magnetic north, it would spin my own center-axis. Apparently I was spinning the Earth when I moved my body…. Fortunately I still remember the Boy Scout Motto: “Always be prepared.” I’d brought a backup compass, but it was only a regular hiking model. None the less, it came into good use when I had to verify my direction of travel.
Then, thunder clouds coalesced overhead, and the woods grew into a grim, almost gothic scene. Rain sprinkled down. I wondered too, if the electrical storm would affect my compass. Fortunately, the course was rimmed to the west by an autobahn and my first point was somewhere near there. Still hopping over uneven terrain, and moving in a crouch, I came across a large swath of ground looked like someone had rotor-tilled an area for many yards in diameter. Actually, I could see that there were many areas like this. I immediately knew what they were: The feeding grounds for wild boars. I even found a hunting stand, with salt licks set out at various radii, each with the same tilled look around the blocks of salt. I wondered how much pig’s blood fertilized the ground around the licks. Before long, I spotted a few pigs, snorting and scurrying under the trees and bushes, flashes of fur and mandible and feral nature. I scanned the ground for something to use as a weapon; a large stone or sharp stick. Cut scenes of me in the mortal coils of an angry momma boar slipped through my mind. Then another pig, growling, its body like an angry spring of sinew, course hair and muscle, bolted in front me. I’d startled it. Not a good thing. We’d been warned about the wild pigs, and told they could be dangerous. At that point, i was sustaining myself on protein Powerbars, dry and chewy. I found it pleasing to think of how these pigs would taste slow roasted and basting over an open flame…
I considered climbing the hunting stand to see if I could see my point–I thought I was close. But the trees were so thick and tall, that I didn’t think it would help. BMWs and Mercedes roared on the highway to the east. It’s amazing how the sound of civilization is so reassuring when you’re alone and not sure exactly where you are. On my map, I saw a land bridge that spanned the autobahn and decided to head for that, then cast another azimuth to my point. That way I would know exactly where I was in relation to the autobahn. I climbed a steep embankment to the top of the land bridge, and cast my azimuth. My point should have been less than 200 meters west. I walked toward my degree point, counting my steps (which was almost useless do to the terrain). I must have walked three times the distance I’d measured, scouring the area for the post. Out of complete chance, I glanced back to my right and saw the backside of a metal sign. I smiled at my fortune and moved to it. It was a nav point, with the same candy-cane markings as my start point. But to my horror, I realized that I really didn’t know what my nav point should look like. My starting point had been Echo. This one said: Delta 1. I was supposed to write down what the sign said on the sheet given to me, so the cadre could verify I’d been there. I thought to myself: Shouldn’t my nav point for my lane be Echo-something? What if this was just another point in the woods? I cursed myself for not getting clear info on what to look for. I walked back to the landbridge, shot the azimuth again, and began re-tracking. Despite having to zig-zag through the terrain, I was surprised at how much of the same terrain I spotted from my previous trek. I was happy that I seemed to be following a straight line under these tough conditions. it’s not easy to stay on course.
After about thirty minutes of wasted time, it donned on me that this had to be my point. I noted Delta 1 on my paper, and set off for the next point, happy that I’d found a point, but also angry that I’d needlessly wasted time. Time mattered in this event.
At this point I decided using the roads was the best method. Even though the route would be longer, the traveling would be much easier and I could better use my advantage: My physical fitness. I had no way of measuring how I was doing. Perhaps everyone else had found their points already and was sitting back at basecamp, joking about what a dunce PFC Moore was. I came to the conclusion that I would be happy with finding the next point and wouldn’t worry beyond that; each subsequent find would be icing on my cake. This was my first land nav course, what could people expect? I was having a blast despite the sense of urgency in my gut. It was like being a kid, running through the woods and finding new things, wonderful and terrible.