UK News From igloos to the tundra - Hexham veteran shares memories of military training in the Norwegian Arctic
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Ever wondered what it’s like to train in the Norwegian Arctic, carrying an eighty-pound Bergen on a pair of skis, surviving on basic rations and sleeping in a snow cave?
Although 76-year-old Douglas Elsworth (Dougie) now lives at the McCarthy Stone retirement living development,, at 18 years old he joined as a Private, and his life-long career as a soldier began.
Born in, Dougie travelled all over the world during his various tours of duty serving in the Ordnance Corps, where he would supply stores, had responsibility for weapons, rations, vehicles, ammunition and other military equipment.
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He was in Cyprus with the military police company from 1968 to 1969 based in Nicosia, and in Hong Kong with the military in the 1970s. He was then sent to Germany in 1978, and Norway in the early 1980s where he trained in arctic warfare.
Much of his training was based on survival skills and being able to operate in one of the most extreme climates in the world. During this time, Dougie spent several months living in self dug ice caves in the Tundra, just below the ice caps of the Arctic.
At over 6,000 feet up in the mountains, Dougie also completed a range of classes, everything from boiling snow to decontaminating and replenishing water supplies, to the use of snowshoes.
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Speaking on the experience, he said: “I’d gone from coping with the subtropical climates and humidity of Hong Kong to now dealing with bone-chilling temperatures. It was a steep learning curve, but if you could operate in this environment, you could operate anywhere. Temperatures would reach as low as -26 degrees during the night. It was the only time we didn’t wear our regimental berets.
"Instead, we wore foraging hats which were fur lined with flap down ears, and arctic socks which were like mini sleeping bags for your feet to keep the frost bite out. We survived by digging deep snow caves where we’d eat and sleep, melting snow to make our boil-in-the-bag rations.
"I always wondered how those little bags of dust could suddenly transform into the most delicious rhubarb crumble. It was remarkable how they did it, we were all eating around 6,000 calories a day just to keep our bodies functioning in the cold.
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"Despite this, when I returned, I’d still lost over a stone in weight!”
Dougie fondly remembers the late-night drills - night skiing at 2am in the morning and what they called, ‘moonscapes’ where a full moon would allow you to see for miles over the ice plains. “It was an eerie sight,” he said, but unforgettable even for Dougie, a relatively mature solider at this time at the age of 35.
“Thinking back, if I was a young solider going out to Norway, I’m not sure I could have hacked it. My previous tours had prepared me well psychologically for the brutality of the environment in Norway.
"I looked around me at some of the young Marines, no older than 18 or 19 they were. They’d never been out of their home country before let alone strapped to the back of a Hercules and dropped straight into a blizzard with an 80-pound Bergen on their back.”
On returning from Norway to his base in Oxfordshire, Dougie recalls never being so glad to see the green fields at Brize Norton. He added: “Looking back, I’m so glad I experienced Norway, although it was pretty grim at the time!”
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During Dougie’s tour of Germany he was involved in logistics and did many exercises to help counteract any Russian advances. Dougie said: “It is ironic now that we have come full circle since the cold war ended to the present threat in Ukraine from Russia.”
His favourite tour of duty however, was his time in Hong Kong. It was here he visited remote Chinese villages, many bordering the Chinese mainland. He helped to erect electricity generators and houses to power them for the first time.
As a young Sergeant then, Dougie found the work very rewarding and fell in love with the area. He explained: “You’d work really hard all morning, but you’d always take your swimming trunks for the afternoon. It was 30 degrees most days so a group of us would head down to the beach, swim in the South China Sea and spend many glorious an hour surrounded in paradise.”
A few years later Dougie was on a working trip to Camberley in Surrey where a chance encounter at a hotel bar would lead to him marry the love of his life, Irene.
“It was 1981 and I was put up in hotel by the Army for six weeks. I was attending a training course, but it was great as I ate like a king the entire time I was there”, he joked.
“£8 per day expenses bought me a top-class meal and a bottle of wine and on the final week after going down to the bar for one last night cap, I caught the eye of an attractive looking Scottish lady, who worked in the hospitality trade and was also there on a seminar. She waved me over and 33 years of marriage later, the rest as they say, is history.”
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Dougie continued his service in Oxfordshire before leaving the Army in 1987 where he had risen to the rank of Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Major (RQMS). He then worked for the Territorial Army for 23 years where he made it to the rank of Captain.
“I’ve lived a charmed life”, said Dougie. “I left school with no GCSEs to my name so to retire a Captain I thought to myself…not bad for a young lad from Newcastle!”
On retiring at age 65, Dougie and Irene enjoyed many happy years living in their bungalow in the Oxfordshire village of Launton, until Irene sadly died five years ago. Some time later Dougie decided it was time to downsize to a property more suitable for his needs.
The garden was becoming too cumbersome for him on his own, and he wanted to be closer to family in Newcastle and Scotland. The move took him to Hexham, to Hewson Court a new retirement living development by McCarthy Stone, where he was able to use McCarthy Stone’s Part Exchange service to complete his relocation in just five short weeks.
Speaking on his new arrangements, he said: “It is the most fabulous thing I’ve ever done. Being born and bred in Newcastle I had always been aware of Hexham so when I heard about them building at Hewson Court I went down to check it out.”
In the six months since, Dougie commented: “It feels like coming back to my roots. I’ve got all the facilities I could need on my doorstep. The House Manager, Cat, is wonderful and couldn’t do more for you and we’ve had some great events here – there’s always things to do.”
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Dougie now divides his spare time between weekly chair yoga classes, spending time fine dining with his adult nephew, trips to the local pub joined by one or more of his new neighbours, plenty of walking and exploring hidden corners of Hexham.
He said: “My family have all remarked how much calmer I am now, and I do, I feel really fortunate to be living in Hexham and very happy and at ease in my lovely apartment.”
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