Ex STEELE CASCADE: Canadians in Chile
By: Captain Karl Tams
On Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, sixteen Strathconas from A and B Squadrons departed a snowy Edmonton for the summer warmth of Iquique, Chile, for Ex STEELE CASCADE. Despite nearly missing our Calgary to Dallas connection, we arrived safely in Iquique on late Thursday after logging in more than a day of travel time.
Our introduction to Chile and its history started immediately on arrival, with us learning (some more than others) about various local customs and traditions. Our first two days were spent learning about the historical significance of Iquique, especially about the Pacific War (where Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia). We visited the site of the sinking of the Esmeralda by the Peruvian Navy and a nitrate mining town located in the middle of the world’s driest desert, the Atacama Desert. The Atacama Desert terrain has been compared to the surface of Mars and has been used by NASA to prepare for its Mars expeditions. To demonstrate its dryness, if you poured out a bottle of water on the ground, that would be more water than the area would receive in an entire decade’s worth of precipitation! We also visited an oasis complete with mango, orange and lemon trees and a most excellent Air Force hotel; I guess all the world’s Air Forces stay in hotels, not just our own Air Force!
Day 3 saw the Canadians turning bright red in the bright sun of Chile as we spent the day on the beach basking in the warmth of the Chilean summer. This resulted in the very concerned Commander of VI Division asking our guides if they informed the Canadians about the merits of sunscreen. Thankfully, Corporal Matthew “Ole Ging” Smith, made extensive use of that miracle cream, something Corporal William “Billy Bob” Rollins, might want to consider next time. The next day saw us actually working, the real reason for our exchange with Chile. We spent the day in CECOMBAC’s (Chilean Army Armour Cavalry School) simulators getting qualified on the Leopard 2A4 CHL tank. This was our first exposure to conventional operations in a desert terrain. After successfully completing the simulator qualifications, we travelled back to the Atacama Desert to 2nd Armoured Brigade’s base to prepare our tanks for the upcoming field exercise. This was also our first real exposure to ‘chusca,’ a very fine talc-like dust.
On December 18th 2013 at 1945hrs as the sun was setting, we departed the base and headed into the endless sand for the start of the field exercise. Turrets were busy scanning all the arcs, gunners were keenly searching for targets and the drivers were basically driving blind due to our own dust cloud. All crews wanted to be Bravo (lead tank) as Sergeant Jason “Why are you all so dirty?” Clark’s crew looked so clean in comparison to the rest of the troop. At the assembly area, we carried on with night routine and orders. We used massive camouflage nets that covered the entire tank, which was essential for hiding our tanks from enemy air threats. Chilean night routine was quite different from the normal Canadian version of merely parking the tanks in the treelines of CFB Wainwright.
The next morning, the Strathcona tank troop departed for its task, an Advance to Contact. We crossed a simulated border and then proceeded to destroy the enemy’s Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs), logistic support vehicles, and anti-tank missile teams. We had to be aware of the enemy’s tanks moving to reinforce its defensive positions. Due to the ‘chusca’ and our own massive dust clouds formed when our tanks manoeuvred, a simple 90 degrees shift in axis of advance turned into a very difficult movement. Warrant Officer Richard “Where did everyone go?” Sherren, was nearly lost forever in a massive dust cloud that appeared to swallow his tank entirely. Lesson 1 to learn in the Chilean desert was that not even a simple move is simple. After a short halt to reorient, we changed formation and pushed on hitting our first enemy contact. The enemy’s IFVs and missile teams were no match for our Leopard 2 tanks and neither were the hapless logistic vehicles further in depth, but the enemy’s counter-moves tanks conducted a textbook ambush against us, that devastated the troop. Lesson 2 was that the dust is either your friend or your foe. Clearly, the Chilean tankers knew how to use the desert terrain to their advantage and we Canadians did not. We were humbled, but Sergeant Doug “Where’s my ammo?” Headrick’s crew did score a minor victory by taking down two enemy tanks before joining the rest of his destroyed Troop, thankfully everyone was soon brought back to life using the weapons effects simulation system.
We halted for an After Action Review and were joined by the Commanding Officer (CO), Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Peyton, and the Regimental Sergeant-Major, Chief Warrant Officer Tony Batty. Also present were Officer Commanding B Squadron, Major Clayton Gardner, and Squadron Sergeant-Major Master Warrant Officer Kevin King. Once the After Action Review was done, we conducted a hasty withdrawal and finished the tactical portion of the field exercise. Our navigation had to be perfect for a particular portion of both the advance and withdrawal as we crossed the only pipeline carrying water into the city of Iquique, damaging this pipeline would have led to an international incident.
Once this crossing was completed we moved to the Chilean range and prepared for a live fire range. Once again the daily afternoon wind storm appeared and with visibility closing to about 50m we had to wait for the wind storm to calm before firing. This meant that all sixteen Canadians went for a nap in the only shade available for miles around, which was the range tower. Our gracious hosts had provided five service sabot rounds and four smoke grenades for each of the tanks to fire. Outside of theatre mission specific training for Afghanistan, none of the Strathconas present had ever fired service sabot, thus it was a treat for all of us. Corporal Evan “Freddie” Cook managed to hit his first target in only six seconds, much to Corporal Michael Korenowski’s chagrin. Upon completion of the range, the Troop redeployed back to Iquique.
Our last day of work was the final exercise After Action Review. We finished the day with a Chilean style smoker and exchanged gifts. Our CO provided CECOMBAC’s Commander, Colonel Cheg, with a Strathcona flag as a gift and Warrant Officer Richard Sherren presented the Chilean Non-Comissioned Officers’ canteen with a Strathcona brand. Our final day in Iquique was spent at the Sea of Humanity known as the Zofri, the duty-free mall.
On December 23rd, we said good-bye to our gracious Chilean hosts, Captains Bataller, Villagra and Corporal Onate. We also said good-bye to the constant horns, fire crackers, super-sensitive car alarms and the Christmas caravans (it is never remotely quiet in Iquique), and started the journey back to Canada. Despite missing our connection in New York, we all made it safely back to Edmonton in the twilight hours of Christmas Eve, just in time for a much needed Christmas Leave and time with our families.