UK: 24 hours in the life of Lt Col Richard Iron.

UK: 24 hours in the life of Lt Col Richard Iron. - The commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the King's Own Royal Border Regiment plays many roles in the course of a day.

by Al Senter.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the King's Own Royal Border Regiment plays many roles in the course of a day.

Last year, at the comparatively tender age of 40, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Iron was appointed commanding officer (CO) of the 1st Battalion of the King's Own Royal Border Regiment (KORBR), an armoured infantry division stationed at Bourlon barracks at Catterick camp. A graduate in engineering from Cambridge, he brings to the position a wide diversity of experience both practical and theoretical with particular emphasis on weaponry and its transformation in the age of technology. Spells in Oman, at the Army Staff College, an exchange year at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and inside the Ministry of Defence have all added to his portfolio of skills. He is responsible for the 625 members of the battalion - all but a handful male - including 39 officers and 120 soldiers with families.

Iron has formulated a vision for the KORBR - to become the best armoured infantry division in the British army. 'There are three keys to the successful realisation of the vision,' he explains. 'The moral element is concerned with motivating our people - in encouraging pride in who they are. The second element is the physical - ensuring that the companies are trained to the highest possible standard with the best possible equipment. The third component is conceptual - training the individual's thought processes, the intellect, to enable one to gain a common understanding of how we fight.'

Enjoying comparative autonomy from the brigade commander - 'I see him about once a week. He will set me the broad objectives of what he wants me to do' - Iron prefers to extend the same light touch to his officers.

'If I knew everything that was happening in the barracks, it would worry me. I'd expect to be fully briefed, of course, but not to the extent that I'd be over-controlling.'

When taking up his position in 1997, the colonel was concerned at the low level of morale he found in the battalion as far as career planning was concerned. 'People were missing out on their career prospects because they lacked a proper career strategy. Career management is very important for these professional soldiers and we need to look ahead several years and plot something of a path. Our exercises in self-assessment have encouraged soldiers to think of ways in which they can influence their careers. I might have an idea of an individual's eventual destination but I want him to come up with his own ideas of how to get there.'

The battalion's recent tour of duty in Bosnia as part of NATO's peace-keeping force provided the colonel with an early opportunity to put his philosophy of empowerment into practice. Widely scattered in remote pockets of Bosnia, the five company commanders' duties involved repairing a fractured society as much as keeping the peace. 'The colonel has given us greater empowerment with less need to refer up the chain of command and this has created a greater sense of solidarity,' reports one company commander.

'The greater the care we feel is taken of us, the greater we feel valued and the greater efficiency we show in delivering the product - our military capability. Colonel Richard is no autocrat; he is a leader in a time of transformation and enormous fluidity.'

09.00 - It's a drab Monday morning in North Yorkshire but there's a palpable air of purpose as the 20 officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) of the 1st Battalion, the King's Own Royal Border Regiment file into the conference room for the weekly management meeting. At the head of the table sits the CO, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Iron. By his side his adjutant, Nick Wood, shuffles his papers, preparing to chair the meeting.

Among the personnel facing them are the COs of the five companies that form the battalion, the two quartermasters, a rare female sighting in the person of Captain Nicola Knights-Johnson, the regimental medical officer, and the reassuringly traditional regimental sergeant major (RSM) who barks his title as a way of introduction, then retreats to the far end of the table.

Adhering with strict precision to the highly structured agenda, Wood runs through the minutes of the corresponding meeting held a week earlier.

As we shall discover, the army is addicted to abbreviations and acronyms that baffle the civilian, showing an almost maidenish distaste for anything beyond a monosyllable. But before we explore the mysteries of what are known as G1, G2, G3 and G4, it is time to run through the diary, courtesy of the colonel's second-in-command, Major Matthew Perkin. Among the forthcoming attractions are the brigade sports day 'for fun rather than outright competition', a visit from the Irish military and a possible swoop by the brigadier, scheduled for the end of the month. With a major exercise due to take place in four weeks' time on Salisbury Plain involving the latest laser weapon technology, a reminder is issued that the ammo must be checked in preparation.

Wood then moves briskly through G1 - matters of manning and discipline.

He reports disapprovingly that soldiers have been playing hookey from their dental appointments - squaddies will face any adversary, it seems, other than a dentist with a drill. The mention of problems relating to the £2,000 the battalion spends on hiring a local council workforce to sweep the barracks rouses the colonel's interest. He reminds the meeting that existing arrangements were made in order to spare the soldiers this tedious chore and so improve their quality of life - a subject close to the colonel's heart. As one officer grumbles that there's seldom any sign of cleaning in his locale, the colonel stresses in his characteristically incisive way that they should endeavour to make the existing system more effective.

With comparatively little to occupy the meeting through G2, security, G3, operations and training, and G4, logistics, it is left to Any Other Business to provoke some lively and pointed discussion.

As part of his philosophy of listening and responding to the needs of his soldiers, the colonel has zeroed in on the 1930s Sandhurst barracks, home to over 400 single men, and will shortly conduct an inspection of its dingy and depressing corridors.

Radical redevelopment of the accommodation could lead to a break-up of the bonding system whereby companies are billeted together. Major Jeff Moss, officer commanding (OC) Burma Company, is alarmed by such a prospect and the colonel tries to allay his fears with a well-judged mixture of conciliation and firmness.

He emphasises to the meeting that 'there are no sacred cows' and that the army 'must drag soldiers' accommodation into the 21st Century'. With additional steel in his voice, he asks Moss and other potential critics not 'to prejudge the matter or assume that decisions have been made'. Moss appears to be reassured.

09.55 - With the conclusion of the management meeting, Iron returns to his comparatively modest office, passing a swaying line-up of uncertain new recruits, making their first clumsy attempts at drill. The colonel is no believer in drill for its own sake and the parade ground remains surprisingly deserted - once the regular 8.10 parade has been observed. On Fridays, prior to weekend jollity, the colonel does insist on a line-up followed by a run across the surrounding countryside in which everyone, officer and soldier, is expected to participate.

From manager, the colonel now has to switch to the role of magistrate.

His next task is to mete out justice, a common activity in a society where discipline and the instincts of its mainly young males are not always compatible. He explains he is about to preside over a formal military procedure and that his office will be transformed into a court where he will pass sentence.

The youthful miscreant, with the RSM baying endearments in his ear, is marched into the colonel's presence. Although an intelligent boy, to judge by his quiverful of GCSEs, this private has shown himself to be a serial absentee, clocking up eight offences of going AWOL and recently surpassing himself by disappearing for two weeks. It seems he spent this latest time in hospital or recuperating at his girl friend's home from what was diagnosed as internal bleeding. Significantly he refuses to say how he had come to suffer such a condition.

Throughout the interview, the colonel takes great pains to ensure that the young soldier is fully apprised of his rights at every stage of the process. Having initially opted for a court martial at their previous meeting on Friday, Private X has undergone a change of heart over the weekend and decided to throw himself on the colonel's mercy. Encouraged by a positive report from the soldier's commander, the colonel elects to give the offender one last chance. He will be spared detention but is fined £35 and it is made clear that a repeat of this behaviour will mean instant discharge.

Few employers faced with such gross misconduct would have been as apparently forgiving as the colonel. But he has a genuine belief in exercising what he terms 'a duty of care' towards those misfits and outsiders who are often attracted to a military career. In its promotional literature, the KORBR makes much of the NVQs it offers to potential recruits in subjects such as IT, word-processing, carpentry, car maintenance and HGV driving and the colonel clearly feels that the army has an obligation to return its soldiers to society better qualified and better equipped to make something of themselves in the outside world. The first step, he emphasises, is to develop in these young men, often from society's most deprived and dislocated areas, a belief in themselves.

'One of the key elements of the vision I have for this battalion is the creation of motivated soldiers proud of what they are. That's an absolutely fundamental cornerstone of what we are trying to achieve here - as important as our system of management and career development.'

10.30 - The colonel is no desk-bound manager summoning his colleagues to meetings on his territory. Instead he prefers to bound briskly across the empty parade ground, heading for the quartermaster's office and the eventual tour of Sandhurst barracks. En route he receives stiff salutes from all those who cross his path. In response he offers thanks and shows an informed interest in the circumstances of every individual he meets.

One man has just completed a course, another, still swathed in camouflage, has been brushing up his sniping technique. To all the colonel displays an avuncular charm, rather like the head of a family firm processing across the shopfloor.

Captain Alan Hewett, the quartermaster (QM), receives the colonel with a hint of apprehension. An amiable man, he has been charged with organising what New Labour would certainly recognise as a focus group among the soldiers - an idea to send old army hands choking over their chota pegs (brandy and sodas) in the In-and-Out. A committee of elected representatives has been formed and a survey carried out of what the men want from their living quarters: what is wrong with the present conditions and how they could be improved short of wholesale demolition - a tempting but impractical option. The colonel looks wistfully at the palatial new gymnasium currently taking shape and reflects that the money invested in this welcome but secondary facility could have been better spent on a comprehensive overhaul of the Sandhurst barracks. Instead previous regimes have preferred to penny-pinch over inadequate refurbishment, which will make biting on the financial bullet all the more painful. Before the colonel takes his shopping list to the brigadier for approval, he will need to have a clear idea of what is required. We proceed down gloomy passageways and peep into spartan institutional bedrooms - some single, some divided into four sleeping spaces where light penetrates with difficulty. Because of ongoing security problems, soldiers leaving for a weekend need to pack up all their possessions and store them elsewhere, adding to an air of impermanence that the cheap furniture only serves to underline. We wander through the deserted cookhouse kitchen and into the cavernous restaurant, a room with all the cosy charm of the canteen in a Moldavian tractor factory. This is also on the colonel's hit-list. Whatever is decided, the colonel stresses, action must be swift.

There is no point, he reminds Hewett, in raising expectations and then failing to deliver - in encouraging input and then sitting on the feedback.

A series of realistic options should be put to the troops, the colonel concludes in another display of cutting to the chase, and they should be asked to make choices. The QM, less than comfortable in his new role as facilitator, one senses, agrees.

11.30 - The colonel climbs aboard a Warrior tank and we rumble for five minutes over rough terrain, avoiding the sheep that dawdle across our path. Eventually we arrive at a clearing in the surrounding woods where half a dozen armoured vehicles are grouped in a circle, facing outwards like covered wagons ready for a Wild West onslaught. They are draped in camouflaged netting and tarpaulin. In their midst an enclave has been created, with benches, tables and easels to which maps, diagrams and a flip-chart are attached. This is Battle Group Headquarters (BGHQ), and for the next two days this will be the epicentre of a searching examination which is designed to test the battalion's ability to communicate in simulated battle conditions. With minds focused on a big exercise scheduled for Canada next spring, it is vital that all aspects of communication are subject to the closest scrutiny.

For purposes of the war game, an enemy - unnamed but assumed even in these days of detente to have been trained in Soviet tactics - has landed in the Yorkshire Dales and is attempting to advance towards the North Sea coast. The KORBR, in company with its brigade colleagues, the Queen's Dragoon Guards, the 1st Highlanders and lst Royal Irish, is tasked with halting and reversing this advance in an area to the north and west of Ripon. It therefore needs to know the terrain, the crossing points of any of the area's numerous rivers, where there is higher ground affording tactical advantage and where there is reliable cover.

Added to the equation is the number of tanks at the battalion's disposal, the extent of the support available from units of the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery, and provision of medical facilities for treating the casualties. As the imaginary battle rages, the colonel will make periodic visits to see how the battalion is responding to changing circumstances, how it is liaising with the other units and the support services, and how orders passing down the chain of command are received and implemented.

After a lunch of passable 'spag bol', and yet another swig of black coffee, the colonel returns to his office. The only matter of substance to have emerged during his absence is a problem of compassionate leave. One of the battalion, newly arrived in Canada, has suffered a family bereavement and will have to be flown back across the Atlantic. Even death is subject to an army classification. This is a Category A personal loss which allows for a speedy return for the soldier concerned.

13.30 - The affable Major Rufus Watkins, holder of an MBA from Cranfield, is the logical choice to have a marketing and recruiting brief added to his duties as OC Arnhem. He will be departing shortly for the Dutch town which gave his company its name, where all week there will be ceremonies to mark the burials of the three British servicemen, including the KORBR's Corporal Froud, missing in action since the Arnhem landings in 1944. But first the colonel wishes to discuss the vexed question of recruitment.

Currently slightly short of its full strength of 630, the KORBR prefers to concentrate its recruiting efforts in the traditional trawling grounds of Cumbria and North Lancashire, a largely rural and underpopulated area save for the centres of Carlisle and Lancaster and the troubled industrial belt of Barrow, Workington and Whitehaven. The team spirit which the colonel is keen to foster is best preserved by building on its strong local identity and presence. Links with the community are therefore closely cultivated and the colonel frequently takes to the road to press the flesh of the counties' great and the good. Somewhat surprisingly, Watkins seems cheered by the prospect of a possible recession and the colonel wonders about targeting their efforts on the area's all too many unemployment black spots, calculating that some young men would find the parade ground preferable to the dole queue. Watkins recommends another tour of schools and colleges but the colonel takes issue with his sense of timing.

'You won't get much response in December. February would be much better,' he tells Watkins before adding an unexpectedly theatrical metaphor. 'One doesn't want to play to empty halls.'

Watkins is booking advertising space and putting the finishing touches to a promotional video, but his marketing budget is modest. He'd like £4,000 to spend until the end of the financial year. The colonel looks doubtful. He replies that half that sum would be feasible and suggests they should find some time during Arnhem Week to hold a brainstorming session. He goes on to observe that he is not convinced that they have been making optimum use of the interest generated by last summer's KAPE - Keep the Army in the Public Eye. In a masterpiece of acronym speak, he asks Watkins 'if the RITs are following up on the CRCs' - that is, are the Regimental Information Teams taking action on the Committed Recruit Cards? He is worried that there has been a surplus of marketing but a shortage of recruiting - too much cruising around Cumbria with the road show and not enough of the hard grind of speaking at schools or knocking on doors. Good-humouredly accusing Watkins of being a slave-driver, the colonel agrees to another charm offensive, with the headmasters of the two public schools within their catchment area as particular targets.

The discussion moves on to internal marketing - retention of soldiers is just as vital as their recruitment and the colonel is encouraged by a drop in the figures of those deciding that military life is not for them. Watkins is working on a personal development file, a kind of compact drawn up between a recruit and the battalion, in which both parties agree to certain undertakings. The battalion is in the first stages of working towards an Investors in People accreditation, and exercises in self-assessment have already been conducted. It is early days, but Watkins guardedly feels that the KORBR emerges reasonably well from the research carried out so far.

15.00 - The colonel is off on his travels again, heading this time for the training wing and a meeting with Major Moss, OC Burma, and warrant officer Bellingham to discuss the shape of the forthcoming cadre or general training course. The inevitable refreshments are served - the army, far from marching on its stomach, seems awash with tea and coffee. There must be a kettle boiling and an urn simmering in every corner of Catterick camp. Moss and Bellingham show the colonel the training schedule they have devised. It will last for six weeks, wedged somewhat uncomfortably between the Salisbury Plain exercise and Christmas. They are further hamstrung by the limited availability of rifle ranges and practice grounds for tank driving. This cadre is intended primarily to turn privates into lance corporals and to identify those with the potential to become NCOs and climb higher up the ladder. Above all, the colonel emphasises, he wants to see the development of leadership skills. And there can be nothing better for maturing and bonding the soldiers, he says with unseemly relish, than five gruelling days spent in the hills around Keswick as winter begins to tighten its grip. Although those undergoing the cadre will receive a comprehensive grounding in all the necessary skills, the colonel repeats the message that it is ideas of leadership that should be concentrating the minds of the soldiers.

17.10 - The colonel returns to BGHQ where Perkin has been leading 'frenzied' efforts to have this stage of the exercise completed on time. The imaginary battle has been raging all afternoon with the inevitable cost in men and machines. Given the current positions, asks the colonel, what should be the next course of action? What, in the view of the young seconds-in-command, whose mettle is being tested today, would be the battalion's unique contribution to the next round of hostilities? He listens patiently to their sometimes halting replies, then delivers his critique, chiding them for the flaws in their arguments and pointing out the factors they have failed to include in their analyses. Yet with his characteristic mixture of carrot and stick, he ends his comments with a joke and their uneasy expressions relax into smiles. After 15 minutes for reflection, the colonel summons the team back into the operations room and outlines two possible options for their next move, plus a wild card to whet their imaginations. Important decisions have to be taken but not on an empty stomach. 'Scoff,' declares Perkin, and we file out into the gathering twilight to tuck into roast chicken and indeterminate sponge complete with custard like mother used to make.

Supper over, the Colonel retreats to the back of his vehicle and mulls over the progress of the exercise. 'I'm as much under training as everybody else,' says the colonel. 'We are practising our communication skills, measuring performances and developing BGHQ's ability to make decisions.' He will remain until 00.30 and rejoin his men at eight the following morning.

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