‘The Vikings’ is the nickname given to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment. The Regiment has three Battalions; the 2nd Battalion is nicknamed ‘The Poachers’ and the 3rd Battalion (an Army Reserve Battalion) is nicknamed ‘The Steelbacks’.
The nickname acknowledges the history of East Anglia as the region, known as the Danelaw, that was settled by Norsemen in the ninth and tenth centuries. For me, the nickname evokes fierceness and skill in battle, which was highlighted by the courage that I witnessed repeatedly when working alongside the ‘Vikings’ in Afghanistan.
The Royal Anglian Regiment was formed in 1964 and was an amalgamation of the four Regiments of the East Anglian Brigade, which in turn were amalgamations of the historic County Regiments of East Anglia and the East Midlands. The 1st Battalion draws its lineage directly from the Royal Norfolk Regiment, the Suffolk Regiment, the Essex Regiment and the Cambridgeshire Regiment with each company bearing the name of the antecedent county regiments:
- A (Royal Norfolk) Company – a Rifle Company
- B (Suffolk) Company – a Rifle Company
- C (Essex) Company – a Rifle Company
- D (Cambridgeshire) Company – Manoeuvre Support Company
Like all of light role infantry Battalions of the British Army, the Rifle Companies comprise three Rifle Platoons and Company Headquarters, whilst the Manoeuvre Support Company consists of specialist Platoons; reconnaissance platoon, mortar platoon, machine-gun platoon, anti-tank platoon assault pioneer platoon and a sniper section. There is also a Headquarters Company, which provides the Battalion’s organic logistic functions (catering, medics, administrative support, transport).
The Vikings’ roots and geographically based recruiting area provide a strong sense of identity based on their forebears’ achievements and strong local ties. For example, A Company is known as ‘the fighting ninth’, a nickname handed down from the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot. Similarly, C Company, traces its lineage to the 44th Regiment of Foot, which captured a French Imperial Eagle at the Battle of Salamanca in 1812. In Afghanistan, I saw soldiers of C Company proudly paint their eagle badge onto the side panel of the Pinzgauer truck that ferried ammunition and water and wounded men between the Company’s forward operating base and the forward positions.
C Company’s forebears also have history in Afghanistan; the 44th formed part of the rearguard on the disastrous retreat from Kabul during the First Afghan War of 1839-42. The 44th famously made their last stand against hundreds of Afghan tribesmen at Gandamak. Starving and severely outnumbered, the small band of survivors, armed with only a dozen working muskets, the officers’ pistols and a few unbroken swords refused an offer of surrender with a shout of “not bloody likely!” Among the few who survived this action was Captain Thomas Souter, who, having wrapped the Regimental Colours around himself (to avoid their capture) was mistaken for a person of importance and spared. He was later reunited with the Colours, which are now laid up in the old Essex Regiment Headquarters chapel in Warley, near Brentwood, Essex.
All of the Battalion’s antecedents fought in the First and Second World Wars. The First Norfolks and the Second Suffolks were mobilised to France in the opening months of the Great War, with the Norfolk soldiers fighting in the Battle of Mons that August. The second Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment fought a fierce rear-guard action at the battle of Le Cateau in 1914. Having lost their Commanding Officer early in the action, the decimated Battalion refused to surrender despite repeated entreaties from the German commanders which extended to German buglers sounding the British call for ‘cease-fire’. After more than eight hours of savage fighting, the survivors were attacked by overwhelming numbers of German soldiers which ended all resistance. The few survivors spent the rest of the war as prisoners.
The 1st Battalion of the Essex Regiment was decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme with 949 names recorded on the Thiepval memorial. In a later action during the Battle of the Somme, soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment took part in the capture of the Schwaben Redoubt, a German strong-point in the Thiepval sector.
During the 1940 retreat to Dunkirk, soldiers from the Royal Norfolk Regiment were victims of a war crime committed by men of the SS ‘Totenkopf’ Division at Duriez farmhouse in the vicinity of Le Paradis in the Pas de Calais. The Norfolk men fought to the point at which many were wounded and the farmhouse subjected to heavy shelling. After making a last stand, the survivors were forced to surrender. Following their capture, 99 prisoners were marched to a barn wall where they were machine gunned by the SS. Two private soldiers survived to be captured by a Wehrmacht unit and survived the war as POWs, the SS commander, Obersturmfuhrer Fritz Knoechlien was arrested, tried and hanged for this massacre in 1949.
The Cambridgeshire Regiment was deployed to Singapore where both Battalions fought valiantly. After ten days of fighting in the face of a Japanese onslaught at Batu Pahat, 500 men from the Second Battalion conducted a heroic fighting withdrawal to Singapore and were attacked on all sides at Braddell Road before being ordered to surrender. 24 officers an 760 other ranks were killed or died in Japanese captivity.
The Essex Regiment also fought in the Far East theatre and formed part of Orde Wingate’s Chindit expeditions in Burma, where they operated behind Japanese lines during the epic battles of Kohima and Impal that led to the turning of the tide against the Japanese in the Far East.
The Royal Norfolk and the Suffolk Regiment took part in the Normandy landings in 1944, with 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment taking Objectives MORRIS and HILLMAN on 6 June 1944. The Battalion later defended the Chateau de la Londe against determined German counterattacks. The now-forgotten Chateau and its grounds were regarded at the time as the most dangerous square mile in Normandy.
Each of the antecedent Regiments served in the various post-war conflicts and trouble-spots that accompanied Britain’s withdrawal from her position as an imperial power and the 1st Battalion saw service in Northern Ireland throughout the ‘Troubles’ and deployed to Croatia in 1995. Since 9/11 the Vikings seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2007, I had the privilege to serve alongside and in support of the men of C (Essex) Company during the first half of their tour of duty in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In that period, almost every patrol resulted in contact with the enemy and fierce and sometimes protracted firefights ensued. The Vikings that I worked with epitomised all that professional soldiers should be. They lived up to the Regimental motto, ‘Stabilis!’ with courage and steadfastness that would be recognised by former generations of Essex soldiers from centuries past. The Royal Anglian Regiment describes itself as a ‘classless’ organisation which sets it apart from some other regiments that carry overtones of social elitism. By the end of my time in Helmand, I decided that ‘peerless’ would be a better description.
‘On Afghanistan’s Plains’, the memoir of a combat nurse will be published on Amazon and Kindle on 5 May 2016.