THREE and a half hours outside Tallinn in Estonia and I’m venturing through the Vora County. There are large open landscapes between the villages in this part of Eastern Europe.
It is beautifully green with stretches of forrest and open lakes. Totally untouched.
A turn into the village of Rapina and on the horizon there are signs of an army presence. Parked up in a garden is an army support vehicle, flanked by soldiers.
This is Operation Springstorm 2016.
I am here to meet with some of the newest recruits to 1 Lancs, a light role infantry batallion, part of the Duke of Lancaster Regiment, currently ‘playing’ the enemy in one very serious army game.
I’m told in basic terms to imagine a laser quest style ‘mission’ on a whole county scale. This live battlefield involves approximately 6,000 troops from Great Britain, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Netherlands, the United States and the Estonian Defence Force.
For nearly a week , the soldiers have scaled this wild landscape by foot and machine, mounting an assault against Estonian conscripts coming to the end of their two-year training.
It all sounds very exciting but is all, well, static. When I meet up with the Burma Company of 1Lancs in the hours before the ‘final assault’ - the Estonian conscripts I’m told didn’t quite make the gains they should have yesterday.
But I do not for a minute underestimate the complexities and tactical thinking at this stage of the ‘game.’
The stand-off, tactical manoevring and maintaining of strongholds is very much real.
This is a chance for commanding officers to watch their recruits working under different pressures and for soldiers to demonstrate the strength of their military skills.
If you’re going to make mistakes this is the place to do it and while this may be just an exercise, it is in fact as close to the real thing so far for some of the soldiers of 1Lancs, who are currently on what is known as ‘short notice to deploy.’
Springstorm is their chance to put into practice all they have learned and they are eager to be ready for any operation, whatever and whenever that may be.
Morale is genuinely high amongst the lads here.
For six days they have been living out in the country, surviving on rations, whilst facing daily assaults, finding themselves waist high in swamps, surrounded by opposition fire in the forrest, covering huge amounts of ground, all while carrying 25kg of kit.
“It is one of the cliches isn’t it?” says Kingsman Conor Good, 22 from Blackpool, “But it’s exactly what I signed up for. I never wanted to do anything else.
“I wanted to sign up at 16 but my mum wanted me to give it a few years, I studied psychology and sociology at college and I enjoyed it. But I said I’d be in the army by the time I was 21, I was.
“I’ve been posted to Cyprus, been to Kenya, Jordan, now Estonia - this is good hands on experience.
“Working with the Estonian military has given us a new insight.”
Junior officer, 2nd Lieutenant George Steele, 23, from Bowness and Windemere echoes the sentiments.
“I absolutely love my job. Working in Estonia has been phenomenal and we’ve all learnt so much.
He adds: “I never wanted a desk job and this exercise has enabled me to test my own skills and relationships with the kingsman.
“I’ve very much led from the front even when we were neck high in a swamp. It worked to our advantage in the end!”
(George tells me their swamp detour ultimately led to them to a clearing space, which put them in a strong position against the opposing force.)
These young men all demonstrate a maturity beyond their years. They’ve had to grow up fast, some like Kingsman Mason Naylor, just 17, have only been with the battalion six months.
He was posted to Episkopi, Cyprus, where the battalion is currently based, in December. For Burnley fan Mason, this is also his first experience living away from home.
Already this year 1Lancs have been on exercise to Jordan and have just completed two weeks of fire training in Brecon, Wales ahead of flying out here
How have they found working with the Estonian soldiers?
Kingsman Kieran Makin, 23, from Warrington says: “The guys have been really sound, we’ve been working with a driver and gunner, operating the vehicles.
“It’s been different for us, working with the Americans and other forces too. We’ve got on really well. Everyday has been a challenge, long days, hard work but exciting - the pressure has been on just like a real life situation.”
Major Rob Small, officer in command, of SpringStorm tells me this is the first time these troops have worked with the armoured personnel vehicle, the Pasi X188
But as well as the opportunity to work alongside new machinery, this exercise he says is also vital for inter-operations with international forces.
He says: “This type of engagement is important on a company level.
“These are real conditions and there is a lot of physical work, there is no staging involved, we literally are moving into people’s back gardens.
“But as well as the training it serves as a reassurance for all the NATO forces.”
As I leave the field the troops are gearing up for the last assault, a makeshift bridge is under constuction by Dutch army engineers.
I ask Kingsman Good is he ready to get back to camp “Nah - I have loved it.
“This is just the taster - what to expect should we be out on operations. No luxuries, no phone, I’m dreading turning it on my whatsapp and snapchat will be insane.
“It will be good to get back on the X box though, oh, and have a shower.”