In recent years, Stirling Airsoft‘s England vs Scotland game, held at Catterick FIBUA complex, has become a staple part of the Monkeys’ calendar. It’s a 60 vs 60 weekend event between two very competitive nations, and when we first attempted it in 2015, England were on a 3 year losing run which unfortunately continued that year and the next. Last year, in 2017, we expanded our numbers to provide nearly half of the team and through sheer determination and teamwork managed to help England to a long overdue win. We hoped to build on that and this year sent 27 Monkeys out to recapture the trophy.
There’s been a lot on our individual social medias, for those who follow, and on the team page on Facebook about the result, but I’ve had quite a few people asking “What was it like?”. It’s one thing to share pictures, and the scoreline, but to actually describe what it’s like to be part of this event takes a lot more than Instagram would allow or that any of us can put into text messages. I’ll try my best here for anyone that is curious, or wants to participate in the future, to story the weekend from my point of view, rather than just put a straight report up.
We’d all been preparing for many weeks in advance. Our private Facebook team page was littered with posts about broken guns, pictures of kit spread across kitchen tables, and requests for batteries and gas. Bags were packed and repacked, equipment lists checked off, everything tested and tested again. Obviously, this isn’t your usual Sunday skirmish. It’s a full weekend away, playing over two days and the nighttime inbetween. For those not familiar with them, Stirling Airsoft specialise in Milsim (military simulation) games and they’re quite a step up from playing capture the flag with your mates on a warm summers day at your local site. Although the England vs Scotland isn’t a strict Milsim, it is a lot tougher and is taken more seriously than most events; moreso with national pride at stake. It takes place in December, which means playing in rain and snow, sometimes high winds, and low temperatures. Daylight fades at around half three, meaning you’re playing through until 11pm in the dark. Objectives are timed. There is a constant pressure to be on task and fighting for points every minute of the day and you need kit that will see you through all that. Being part of a big team means you’ve got plenty of support, and additionally we teamed up with the Reivers from Carlisle over Facebook, who also provide a good portion of the England team and who we’d played alongside successfully in previous years and had a great respect for. All being on the same side, we shared knowledge and planning ahead of the game so that we had that little bit of extra cohesion and understanding once it was underway.
Time flies when you don’t want it to, especially when you’re in the middle of repairing kit, and Friday the 30th November was soon upon us. We all made our way to Catterick over the course of the afternoon to be put up in the barracks on site. Although the accommodation on site is basic, is does give you somewhere warm and dry to sleep (assuming you get any), and is far better than some of the places we’ve slept in before events, and during winter months, a welcome respite from having to live out of a tent in crap weather. The Friday night before the England game for the Monkeys has become a traditional “Pizza Night”, where we bother a local pizzeria with a bulky order and get to catch up with as many teammates as possible, and plan more closely for the next day. The first night there, having left the comfort of home and being relaxed on arrival, tends to be a late one without any concerns for the early start the next day…
It feels like minutes since the lights went out but at 6am, alarms on phones started going off and there were a few groans when the lights were switched back on. You crawl from your sleeping bag, aching from an uncomfortable rubber mattress, and first order of the day is to get your combats and a fleece on and head down for breakfast. The Monkeys boss, Scott “Slutty” Connal brings his ex army Land Rover along and before most of us have opened our eyes properly, he has sausage butties on the go out of his kitchen in the back. It’s still dark out, bitingly cold, but we’re soon wide awake and functioning after being fed. There’s a courtyard outside the barracks which serves as the one of the event safe zones, “Regen 1”. As well as access to the car park, and rooms, Land Warrior have a shop set up and theres a space in one corner with a picnic table. We bring all our kit bags down and set up a ready area around the table. Shortly afterwards, the rain hits. Tarps go up to cover the kit bags but there’s little shelter for the players as we start loading up magazines and donning rigs, armour and assault vests. Looking around the Monkeys and other teams getting ready, it’s apparent that there is an eye watering amount of airsoft and military hardware here. Rifles aplenty, looking highly maintained and expensively accessorised, but also night vision equipment, mortars, grenade launchers, machine guns, and the odd sniper rifle. The more equipment the better in this event, especially things that go bang. The two teams are split into tans and greens, with the Scots playing the greens and England the tan force, largely resplendent in Multicam, with the odd desert pattern here and there. Myself and Aiden “Bubba” Elliot had paid homage on the 25th anniversary of the events of Black Hawk Down by mixing it up with US desert tricolour shirts. It’s a great place to be if you like looking at kit, or planning your next purchases.
After a safety brief, the Scottish team leave Regen 1 and make their way to a wood on the opposite side of the town, “Regen 2”, which serves as their start point, although teams are free to use whichever regen they want once the game is underway. The regens are only open to one team at a time, to prevent both teams shooting each other the second they come back in, and are on 20 minute rotations, meaning if it is closed to your team when you get there, it can be a wait until you can get back into the game (although useful down time for reloading weapons and yourself), but the regens alternate their closings, so if 1 is closed to your team then 2 is open. Once you’re in a regen and your death recorded, you can’t go to the other to respawn back in, so you you have to either try and remember which one to go to at the right time, or just pray you get lucky.
There are 51 buildings in the town, all numbered on a map handed out to you at the start of the game. Thank you Stirling for providing them in a plastic wallet to keep them dry!. On the reverse are the tasks hour by hour and points available. Scoring is fairly simple. You need to hold the specified building at the time requested. On the hour, a marshal enters and checks who is inside. If it’s completely held by one team, they score the points. If it is contested, as in there is one or more players of the opposite team in that building as well (a lot of the houses are semi detached and may have the opposing team breaching the other end of the building), then it is drawn and nobody scores any points. Once the marshal scores it, you’re into the next hour and pushing onto the next building. It doesn’t relent, the pace continues all the way through as you fight to gain control, then dig deep to defend it, usually as your numbers are whittled down by regen timings or supporting forces are cut off by the opposition and unable to reach you, and extra bonus objectives are thrown in too to keep the teams busy locating and delivering laptops. Coordination is key.
Snap back to Regen 1, England base, Saturday morning. The commander introduces himself and quickly shouts at us to form up into squads, stacked in lines across the courtyard. Norvern Monkeys have planned ahead and split roughly into two units, Monkey Alpha and Monkey Bravo. Each unit has a leader, Slutty and Gully taking charge, and a radio operator that links into the wider England command net. Then within the Monkeys, a few senior players are handed Monkey-only radios to communicate between our two squads. We see our friends from Carlisle stacked next to us and are thankfully grouped together, one half of the England team, which splits into two elements, Zulu and Sabre. Because there are multiple targets each hour, our two larger elements can go for two objectives per hour; the larger force more cumbersome than smaller fireteams but able to outgun the opposition with superior numbers (I had noted in previous years that Scotland do tend to have better weapons and equipment than the English team, and our early advance into the town is almost always crushed under a barrage of mortar fire, leaving us struggling to get out of our starting area. The bigger teams I thought here would present a bigger target. Additionally, Scotland in the past seemed to have deployed lots of small teams spread across the town, well dug in, making it difficult to manoeuvre, with incoming fire by the small fire teams being enough to keep your head down).
By now, we’re all soaked through. Hands, despite wearing silk liners underneath a pair of Mechanix gloves, are numb with cold. I need my other hand to flick the fire select switch from safe on my rifle. Not that anything can be done about the weather, you’ve just got to get on with it. By now, we’ve got our first tasking which is a nearby semi detached house across a cemetery, close to the England starting position. It seems easy enough and we shuffle out of the safe zone. Soon we’re all lined up on the approach road, shouting and jeering, waiting for the start from the marshal. “ONE MINUTE!” comes the shout. Mags in. Weapons ready. It looks disorganised in videos, but the plan is simply to rush as fast as we can into the town and right onto the objective before Scotland get there. “LET’S GIVE THE JOCKS A FUCKING REASON TO WANT INDEPENDENCE!” comes the shout from the England ranks. That puts a smile on everyone’s faces. The minute is up, it’s game on and we sprint forward. The cemetery quickly comes up on our right and we move into the gardens of the building in front, about 70 yards from target, for a bit of cover but fully expecting to make it safely anyway. Visibility is horrendous as a freezing fog descends on the town and makes it difficult to see far ahead, or identify shadowy figures that rush across roads and gardens. I reckon on it being the Sabre guys; Scotland start too far away to be in view already.
“CONTACT FRONT!”. Scotland hit the target building first and all hell breaks loose as England’s Zulu element gets caught in open ground across the cemetery and hesitate on whether to drop back or keep pushing forward. Retrospectively it’s this hesitation that gets you killed more often than not. I get lucky and hit the ground behind a tree as Scotland start cutting Zulu down in front of me, but stupidly decide in a burst of bravado to get back up and rush forward and try to get at least one English body onto the target building but take a burst to the side and I’m back to Regen 1. The objective isn’t immediate and points aren’t scored for another hour and a half, presumably to let the two teams slug it out a bit first, but the first hour sees most of us back in Regen 1 and struggling to break out of our corner of the town. I remember thinking out loud at that point that we were going to take a battering all weekend from a seemingly superior force (may have been along the lines of “we’re going to get absolutely fucked on this one”), and yet the expected mortar barrage that had given Scotland the early edge in the past still hadn’t hit. Not that any of us were going to give in though. Being part of the the Monkeys is all about grit and not giving up, despite our lack of style and operator skills sometimes. We’re given orders and continue, throwing ourselves across the graveyard until the Scottish numbers are depleted by respawn rules and Zulu teammates start using smoke to good effect, with the freezing fog providing the cover we need. There’s a brief respite in the firefight for a few seconds and a couple of Monkeys seize the moment and dart across the cemetery. I follow up with three or four more and we’re at the doorway. The cemetery becomes a little less hostile and English forces bear down on the house, before clearing it and holding on for the points. What seemed impossible at first became a reality and with Sabre completing their objectives too, England shock the Scots by somehow snatching all of the points in the first hour. The morale lifts noticeably in the England camp. The rain is still falling but it doesn’t feel as bad now. We’ve got a foothold in the town and are ahead.
The weather doesn’t lift all afternoon. I had the bright idea to use a spare five minutes in Regen 1 to swap my wet kit for dry, which makes manipulating the weapon much easier and running more comfortable. The radiators in the room are now valuable. Unfortunately the excessive water is starting to have an effect on my primary weapon, the M4, and it starts chewing through cycles and spraying shots everywhere. Without a workbench, it’s swapped out to a 416 with a feed issue, which needs 20 minutes of emergency teching in the room, using electrical tape and a milkshake bottle. It’s frustrating being out of the action but I know the Monkeys are still giving their all for objectives and it’s a relief to get back alongside them. Pushing into the buildings is a daunting but swift. The windows are almost all closed, meaning breaching is a step into the darkness, not knowing how many guns are pointing at you or how many Scots are in the building. Our Mk5 flashbangs, soaked by the rain earlier, simply disintegrate and it hampers our attempts to go grenade first. We’re quick to move through, weapons flicking left to right, calling “clear” with each room secured, knowing that if we get shot, there’s another guy immediately behind who will continue the work. Once we’re in control, it’s a couple of guys upstairs, a handful down and the rest move outside to set up an external perimeter. Then it becomes a waiting game, looking nervously at your watch and hoping against hope that the enemy are occupied elsewhere or all having lunch. Neither happens, and you wait for the inevitable contact, trying to work out which regen is open should the worst happen and you need to come straight back in.
England maintain the lead but darkness hits early, and by 5pm it’s a whole different ball game. The light has gone. Sprinting to objectives becomes a risk. And crucially, the ability to identify friend from foe is lost. In the regen areas, I watch with a hint of jealousy at the guys on both teams who start donning night vision goggles and mounting thermal scopes. I have little beyond a rifle mounted torch (albeit a good one). Going up against guys you can’t see, who can see you, means every step is now more considered. The teams have a challenge and response agreed in the morning. England, either lacking creativity or upholding tradition, go with “Eagle” “Eagle”, Scotland with the slightly lengthier “Electric” “Hedgehog”. Making out a shadow in the dark means weapons up; if you say “Eagle” first, it gives a chance for the enemy to realise what side you’re on and open fire before responding. Waiting for the other guy to say something first means waiting and hoping he doesn’t have night vision and is already going for the shot. In previous years, we’ve been strictly disciplined with bright torch light – it gives your position away to the enemy where otherwise you may have been able to stay hidden. However, in one assault alongside Sabre (I couldn’t make out which group I was following…), an English voiced shouted out of the darkness “They’ve all got NOD’s. They can fucking see you anyway! Light them up!”. It made sense. Bright lights can interfere with night vision and a wall of light would illuminate the enemy and gave us something to shoot at. It was quite a liberating feeling pulling the red filter off and actually using the torch. 30-0 becomes 60-10 as Scotland struggle to get numbers together for coordinated attacks, although it’s clear that they know how to play the Regen system much better than we do. No sooner is one attack staved off in front of you, than the force you just disposed of attacks from behind you.
The highlight for any England vs Scotland game is undoubtedly the Saturday night of the event. Being able to sneak through enemy lines and launch ambushes, hiding in plain sight and hoping they don’t notice you, and dodging street lights or searching torch beams. 7pm. The score is now 70-20, and we’re concerned that Scotland might start picking up points as a few England players start to retire with injuries and fatigue, already having run for longer than their entire Sunday averages. It remains cold and wet. Forming up into smaller groups of whatever Monkeys are fit and available, we press for a building at the far side of the village, behind Scottish lines. It’s risky but we figure if we can contest, it at least stops Scotland scoring. There are woods along the outside of the village and it seems a better idea to press through there in the darkness, rather than straight up the streetlit roads. However, it’s a little too obvious of a plan and most of the squad are cut down by the enemy who had the same idea. Somehow, myself and Dan survive and manage to escape detection. We’re about 50 yards behind Scotland’s line and another 100 to the target. We’re where we want to be, but there are just two of us. To make things more difficult, we can hear a lot of movement either side. The hesitation is back. Attack the main line or try and clear out the patrol advancing from the other side? Do we sit tight and look for an escape route? Can we run to the objective? Unfortunately for Dan, he’s with a sniper who is used to sitting still and waiting. We’re crouched behind a concrete hut, about waist height, observing movement on the main Scottish lines, when the patrol up ahead suddenly decides to try and link up. We’re stuck in the middle. “Go loud!” I whisper to Dan, who brings his weapon to bear on the patrol while I start taking aim at the main lines. To our surprise, the patrol calls out “Electric” repeatedly as they switch their guns onto friendly forces. The main Scottish line, instinctively, returns fire taking out more of the patrol than we did, and suffer badly at the hands of the patrol’s LMG. One of the patrol starts screaming abuse at his comrades in what both parties think is a friendly fire incident in the dark. Somehow, myself and Dan escape the attentions of the disgruntled enemy players and we make a break for the main road, hoping to link up with friendly forces.
It is very important to know how to react to things in the dark. And to know where your teammates are.
Our attempts are in vain though and Scotland take the 8pm score to 80-30. By 10pm we’ve landed a few more objectives and go into the last hour at 100-50. There are 4 objectives available at 5 points each. One of the Stirling guys, leading Zulu, gives us our objective as building 47 (see map at the top). It’s a “diamond mine”, in reality a ruined house with a trainyard to the rear, rubble around it and set in a park opposite the rather imposing tower, Myself and Aiden rush forward for the Monkeys, many now geared down and trying to get patched up for the following day. We’re short on numbers but not on spirit, Reaching 47, we clamber over a wall and inside with four or five other Zulu players. The guy in charge requests a couple of players go outside and secure a perimeter. Feeling that Black Hawk Down vibe with our desert tricolours on, myself and Aiden take up positions in the rubble and sit tight. I’m out front and it’s not long before one of the Zulu guys spots movement in the tower opposite. It’s about 60 yards away across open ground, at the limit of most weapons, but the front of our building is lit up by fire from a first floor doorway. I’m just about hidden by a large tree, behind my rubble cover, and thankfully they can’t see or hit me at that angle. We don’t take any casualties but aren’t able to inflict any back, though the exchange of fire continues for the next hour as myself and Aiden despatch runners attempting to cross the open ground and attack from the flank. Its a bit like the battle of Mogadishu, but much quieter, although we enjoy our moment. Points are secured by 11 and it’s time for a short sleep before resuming play at 7am.
It’s a pain getting all the kit off after spending 14hrs in it, but our previously uncomfortable rubber mattress and sleeping bag beds are heavenly after a hard day. There’s very little chat in the room that night. Which passes as quickly as the previous one but this time we’re tired and sore. Everything is still damp as we pull clothes back on and huddle outside, the town still dark. The score update is 115-55, and there’s already whispers in the England camp that we only need to contest one building to win. But there’s no let up in effort. We get back to the positions we left the night before, those of us from 47 back to where we left off, and a group of Scottish players opposite file into the building that happens to be the first objective. Very well played, but England are still in control and move to 125-65 after the first hour of day two. It’s almost a foregone conclusion, and looking ahead at the objectives, our last objective of the weekend, two hours away, is 44. The tower. I hadn’t been near it this year so made a point of helping to capture it, and then sitting defending. Fellow Monkey Ronan joins me on the third floor, in a side room, ready to move down a level should the guys below need reinforced.
We sit for nearly an hour before the ground floor defences take some unexpected casualties, and rush down to take up positions. Aiden and Andy are fending off Scotland from the front door, so I move in to help. We’re joined by a few more Monkeys ready to defend our last objective before the final whistle. I’m stuck between two large double doors ready to engage anyone that makes it into the building when Monkeys 2IC alerts us to a large number of enemy closing in. Out of nowhere, smoke grenades start landing through the doors either side of me. If you’ve ever played airsoft, smokes indoors are a no-no, due to breathing difficulties, and I’m stuck without a gas mask. Determined to hold out, I give it a few seconds but we can’t see the grenades to kick them out and it’s a struggle to breathe. I find myself choking on awful chalky tasting white smoke and fire is coming in through the front doors. I’m hit anyway but the first thought is to find an alternative exit. Luckily I catch a glimpse of a doorway through the smoke and run for it, gasping once outside in fresh air but then throwing up into my mesh face mask. I don’t have a spare and need water, so I’m forced to call it a day and retire to Regen 1. There’s half an hour left. The rest of the team manage to secure the objective and it’s everyone back for the trophy presentation, which was a foregone conclusion a few hours ago but it’s still met with a lot of celebration as England retain the trophy. Final score is 150-70 to England. Its a big win and down to sheer hard work and team ethic. We’re proud to have been a part of it. A few photos follow, and then it’s packing up time and off home.
After being treated to some loud dance music all the way home, I collapse onto the sofa. It feels odd, despite only being away a couple of days. The weight of the webbing is gone. Hands aren’t holding a rifle any more, or digging for things in pouches. There’s no more shouting and screaming about objectives and contacts. No more sound of grenades and other explosives. There’s nobody else around and it’s warm and dry.
Then my phone starts going off.
“Well, how did you get on? What was it like??”
Intense. And that’s what you want from an airsoft weekend.