This is a special guest post from Ken Miller who recently attended the highly regarded Norwegian winter warfare course. -Jack
A few months back my Unit began asking for volunteers to attend the Norwegian School of Winter Warfare. With my time being stationed in Italy coming to a close in 10 months, I jumped at the opportunity to attend since I figured it to be a once in a lifetime opportunity that I was not going to pass up.
The flight into Oslo landed late in the afternoon on an early January day and after rushing to get my bags, I made it onto the last train out of Oslo Airport to Elverum, where the schoolhouse was located. On the train I met a group of Dutch Marine Junior Lieutenants who were also attending the course along with a few of my fellow Paratroopers. Introductions were made and we made small talk until the train pulled into the Elverum station. The conductor pointed us in the direction where we needed to go and, laden with our bags, we made our way the 300 meters to the camp entrance.
The camp itself was relatively small and quiet with a couple guards checking our ID’s and adding us to the class roster. From there a grizzled logistics officer met us and showed us to our barracks. After squaring away my kit, I racked out; tired and jet lagged but excited to start the course.
Day one was for the most part like other military “gentleman’s” courses. We were given an introduction to the course, a class syllabus, assigned an instructor, and broken down into sections. From there it was the standard “death by powerpoint” of classes primarily focused on Cold Weather Injuries and their prevention which was by far the most in-depth I had received in my 11 year Army Career.
Once classes were finished for the day we had what was referred to as an “Ice Breaker” at the bar on the Camp, which involved sharing our expectations for the course with our Instructor and the rest of our section over a pretty decent amount of Norwegian Beer. The rest of the week included a full issue of Norwegian Equipment (which I was a little miffed about considering I had spent close to $700 on my own stuff for the course), getting squad equipment prepped, and ski fitting, followed by a full day of ski instruction, which was particularly challenging for me given that I had never skied a day in my life up to that point.
Week 2 continued with more instruction on safe routing over frozen lakes and through Avalanche Areas, as well as Buddy Rescue techniques utilizing avalanche beacons, probes and shovels, which basically boils down to that if you’re caught in an avalanche and trapped under more than a meter of snow, you’re more or less screwed.
We also did the “Break Through Ice Drill” which consisted of going to a frozen lake with a three meter by three meter hole cut in it, putting on skis and ruck then jumping in, ditching your ruck, and pulling yourself out with ski poles ( think arctic specific Combat Water Survival Assessment). We had another day of practical cross-country skiing with squad equipment, which were pulled in two pulkas (sleighs) rotated through the section essentially turning two members of the squad into human sled dogs. That particular day provided us the opportunity to apply, modify, and perfect the techniques we had been learning the previous week in a practical setting, which included setting up the tent we would be utilizing as well as getting stoves into operation in order to melt snow to provide ourselves with water.
The following day was a range day of basic rifle marksmanship, effects of cold weather on weapon systems and ballistics as well as a demonstration of different calibers on snow/ice fighting positions (watching a .338 Lapua plow through almost two meters of snow and ice to liquefy a block of ballistic gel was both impressive and somewhat disheartening). From there it was prep for a 12 day Field Training Exercise (FTX) that was to take place in two different locations and encompass the practical application of everything we were taught thus far.
Friday of week two, we drew weapons, loaded busses and traveled roughly two hours north to the Military Training Area near Rena. Once there we began movements by cross-country skiing to different AO’s, practicing movement Techniques, trail-breaking, as well as bivouac set up and routines (which played a pivotal role later on). In total we spent five days below the tree line in Rena, learning track concealment, arctic survival techniques, improvised bivouac building, skijoring (skiing while being towed by a horse or dog), snow science, practical avalanche rescue, shooting from skis and snowshoes, as well as react to contact, break contact, and attack by fire battle drills. The final night there we received a pretty nice reprieve with a massive heated section tent, as well as steak and rice cooked over a bonfire.
From Rena, we were bussed two and half hours farther North to Tolga where we began the final seven days of our FTX. In all honesty for me it was the most grueling portion, after starting below treeline, we marched to where the treeline ended, donned skis, and starting pushing across a massive mountain plateau, which although being flat provided little to no cover from the elements making our nightly bivouac set up difficult the first night.
Essentially the first two days of the march were just that, movement from sun up until sundown, then setting in for the night. Day 4 was a little more interesting, where we practiced more avalanche rescue and then were given 40 mins to build an individual emergency snow bivouac where we slept for the night. Day 5 we once again did a break through ice drill, this time, having to set up the tent and burners in order to dry out the clothing and gear of the unlucky guy who volunteered to do it.
That night we began the tactical portion of our FTX, moving across another plateau, down into the treeline, and setting in whilst preparing for our final operation. We moved to our final bivouac site the following day, sent out a reconnaissance element to locate opposing force (OPFOR) and bedded down. The final day started with movement at first light to the objective rally point, conducting an attack by fire, withdrawing and moving to the extraction point at which time we ended the exercise, got on busses, and headed back to the camp at Elverum.
Some of my personal takeaways from the course included how important attention to detail is in a cold weather environment, even more so than any other environment one may find themselves in. Our Instructors, were keen to remind us that everything in arctic environment is black and white, there are no grey areas, if you make a mistake, the effects of that mistake become apparent immediately. An example was on Day 3 of the second portion of the FTX, I neglected to finish all of my morning ration, which has never caused an issue in the field for me before but by mid-day I was ridiculously fatigued and had to down as much of the snacks from the ration as I could in order to keep functioning.
Another takeaway was proper use of cold weather gear, which included layering up, and layering down based off of our section’s movement that day. For the most part I used my own equipment which included a combat uniform, boots, and lightweight Kryptek Over whites but for the next to skin base layer I used the Norwegian long underwear which consisted of a top and bottom woven into an almost fishnet style that creates an air pocket between your skin and the next clothing layer that is warmed by your body heat. I also utilized their loft style “Happy” Jacket at long halts.
For the initial five days, I wore a pair of lightweight Lowas boots with wool socks and over boots and my feet remained for the most part dry or relatively so. Before going on the second portion of the exercise I changed out into a heavier cold weather boot that was lined with Gortex and my feet were almost destroyed due to sweating in them so much which also led to blisters after the second day. Needless to say I switched back as soon as possible.
Overall, I’d say the course was excellent, and gave me and others a skillset that seems to be more and more applicable given the current world situation. The instructors were absolutely excellent, many of them doubled as Norwegian SERE Instructors and had a plethora of experience. Many had multiple combat deployments to Afghanistan or had been stationed in units that exclusively operated above the Arctic Circle. Our section instructor for example had served in the Norwegian equivalent of a Ranger Style unit, specifically designed to go to ground in the event of an invasion, wait for the main force to pass and conduct hit and run operations on enemy supply and logistics lines. He had also done multiple combat deployments to Afghanistan with the Telemark Battalion (of the “Till Valhalla” video fame) and almost all of the instructors had similar backgrounds so there was no shortage of good instruction.
In conclusion, I’d say the Norwegian School of Winter Warfare was by far one the best courses I’ve attended in my career and as a NATO school and it provides some of the most practical training for Cold Weather Operations. Also as previously noted, the skills learned there seem to become more and more applicable, especially in the European Theater. I would encourage anyone who is given the opportunity to attend to do so.