An evolving alliance: 72 hours with the Royal Welsh as British Army adapts to new threats

Andrea Byrne on exercise with the Royal Welsh in Poland
Arriving in Drawsko Pomorskie in the north-west of Poland, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a somewhat sleepy town. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Arriving in Drawsko Pomorskie in the north-west of Poland, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a somewhat sleepy town.

That impression, though, belies a turbulent history of warfare. As camera operator Liam Ketcher and I head towards its centre, we pass two imposing green tanks - a commemoration to the bloody battles it witnessed during World War Two.

Today a military relationship endures here in a different way. On Drawsko Pomorskie’s outskirts lies a vast training area.

This is the chosen location for the culmination of the largest NATO training exercise since the Cold War. Named Operation Steadfast Defender, 16,000 British troops with 800 vehicles have moved across Europe.

In total, 90,000 personnel have been linked with the exercise from more than 30 NATO countries.

Both the 1st Battalion Royal Welsh and the 3rd Battalion Royal Welsh are in the mix here, totalling around 700 soldiers.

Full-time soldiers along with reservists are training alongside the UK’s NATO allies - particularly America. It’s the first time most of them will have participated in an operation anything like this in their careers.

We arrived at the dusty, warm camp surrounded by dense forestry to be greeted by Welsh infantry soldiers who had arrived a few days earlier - and were now being put through their paces in a rotation around a series of different battleground scenarios.

They would be here for roughly a fortnight - and the regiment was keen to show us the programme they had lined up.

We were escorted straight to film an advanced combat drills exercise: training to neutralise the enemy on the ground. As close as it gets to the real thing.

Significantly, many of these soldiers had taken time out from their ‘day jobs’ to be here.

The first troops we met were, by trade, a park ranger and a food industry technician - a nod to how the makeup of the army has shifted in recent years.

A shifting make-up, but also shifting priorities, with vastly changed global threats at the forefront of everyone’s minds, the commanding officer confirming to us that "of course the location for the operation is no coincidence".

Russia’s war with Ukraine continues to rage and the border is roughly 800 miles to the east.

And with such volatility in the region, it’s clear soldiers here in Poland are acutely conscious of a new and different threat.

As I continue to chat to the Royal Welsh here, I hear how they are sharply focused on relearning their skills for uncharted territory. I’m told as we chat in the heart of the thick forestry terrain of north-west Poland, that "things that worked in Afghanistan, would not work here".

ITV Cymru Wales camera operator Liam Ketcher and journalist Andrea Byrne Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

This is a learning experience for the Royal Welsh - but also a display of their toolkit. Later on we are given a display of some of the hundreds of vehicles they have brought here, which demonstrate the force of its land power.

There’s an opportunity to ride in the Warrior armoured vehicle which weighs the same as a full articulated lorry. We get an explanation of how it works with the firepower of the Challenger 2, the British Army’s main fighter tank boasting a top speed of 50km per hour and a 120mm rifled gun. Together, we are informed, they move forward to clear a territory and neutralise the enemy.

At another location, another group is digging trenches - a sight more associated you’d think with the First World War, but here a stark reminder of the changing weaponry in modern warfare. These are "defensive" positions being prepared, from which to fire the latest in anti-tank missiles.

From all we have seen, it seems this is the British Army saying it’s ready for whatever may come its way.

However, this exercise falls against a backdrop of criticism. Only a few months ago a group of cross-party MPs published a damming report saying the opposite, that the army was not ready for a period of sustained warfare. Among other things, it picked up on serious issues with recruitment and problems with the stockpiling of weaponry and ammunition.

Since then Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been in Poland himself announcing a boost to UK defence spending which he says would see a commitment of £87billion a year annually by 2030.

Back in the UK, opposition politicians are scathingly doubtful of that promise being met. They say they have heard it before.

While we were filming in Poland, the shadow defence secretary retorted to the UK Government "you can’t defeat Putin with press releases".

The following day, though, Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron reinforced that funding promise and urged other countries to step up to pledge more money as well.

In Drawsko Pomorskie, there’s no doubt we are seeing a show of force, with the British Army leading on the largest gathering of NATO troops in a generation.

But, as we return home, the debate continues on whether or not it is currently a force to be reckoned with - in light of new and developing international volatility.

What I can confidently say in the current global climate, is that this will not be the last time we see this cohort of Welsh infantry soldiers preparing so earnestly for war.

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