4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery RA

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4/73 (Sphinx) Special OP Battery RA
Spec Obs Badge.jpg
Active 1980 – date
Country  United Kingdom
Allegiance Queen
Branch Royal Artillery
Type Regular Army
Role Surveillance and Target Acquisition
Size Battery
Part of 5th Regiment Royal Artillery
Location Catterick Garrison
Nickname The Battery (The Fraggles)
Motto Lateo

4 (Sphinx) Battery Alexandria Day 1 July

73 (Sphinx) Battery Alexandria Day 10 June
Battle honours Ubique

4/73 (Sphinx) Battery is a battery of 5th Regiment Royal Artillery. It currently serves in the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) Patrols role.

Current Role[edit]

4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery Royal Artillery is the Army's only regular Surveillance and Target Acquisition Patrol unit. It is part of 5th Regiment Royal Artillery, based at Marne Barracks in Catterick, North Yorkshire.

4/73 Battery has a liability of 6 Officers and 58 other ranks. Four Patrols Troops sit under BHQ, three Troops consisting of a 3 man HQ and two 6-man Patrols to support the standing Brigades and other tasks, and one troop consisting of a 3 man HQ and one 6-man patrol at high readiness to support 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Working to the ISTAR group in each of the Brigades, the STA Patrols Troop are SMEs on all things Static Covert Surveillance (SCS) and complement the reconnaissance activity conducted by other Ground Manned Reconnaissance (GMR) forces in the Brigade. The Patrols maintain currency and competency in the following range of tasks and equipment:

  • Manned OPs
  • Night Standing OPs (NISOPs)
  • Survive, Evade, Resist and Extract (SERE) training
  • Terminal control of the full spectrum of joint fires
  • Long Range Electro Optical (LREO) systems (covert remote cameras and sensors)
  • The use of long lens optics, cameras and data transfer systems to provide comprehensive technical surveillance and imagery of evidential quality
  • The passage of real time information and imagery to inform the Commander's decision-making
  • The conduct of Battle Damage Assessment (BDA)

By maintaining these skill sets, Special Observers give the Commanders they support the ability to deploy a specialist force element at range, in close proximity to the enemy and in all weathers, to find a target and finish it as required. This is very much in keeping with the original concept behind the creation of the Special Observers in 1982.


The Formation of the Special Observers[edit]

Following the Second World War, the emergence and subsequent development of the cold war between the forces of the Warsaw Pact and NATO had its very obvious focus on the inner German Border (IGB) between East and West Germany. This was a heavily fortified "Iron Curtain" almost 1000 miles in length.

From the early 1970s the 1st (British) Corps General Support Artillery Regiment had been based in the foothills of the Hartz mountains in the town of Hildersheim close to the IGB. This included 5th Regiment RA. The Regiment's role as part of the NATO General Development Plan (GDP) in the event of war was to contribute an imposing delay on the advancing Warsaw Pact forces. This was to be done by deploying its M107 (175mm) guns along the border within the1st (British) Corps boundaries, and firing them deep into Eastern Germany at High Value Targets (HVT) advancing West. With a gun range of 32km and no ability to see that far across the IGB, most targets could only be predicted based on likely Orbat and intelligence form a variety of sources.

The prevailing view is that the most reliable, flexible and effective form of artillery target indication was then, and still is, provided by the trained OP soldier. Operating on the other side of the IGB deep inside enemy territory, however, required specialist training only then undertaken by the Corps Patrol Unit, an SAS force whose role did not permit them to take on artillery identification. It followed, therefore, that 5th Regiment needed its own "special" OP soldiers who could operate in this role. By 1980 the impending re-equipment program, involving the replacement of the M107 by the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) with an even longer range, served to focus thought on a means of making more effective use of what were likely to be the first Allied land forces to fire in the event of a Third World War.

Commanding Officer 5th Regiment Royal Artillery, Lt Col (later Major General) ACP Stone, prepared a detailed paper setting out the case and submitted it to the Corps Commander General Sir Nigel Bagnell. He agreed with the proposal, and tasked Lt Col Stone with the formation of such an organisation. Given that Allied forces could not operate East of the IGB before hostilities commenced, the plan was for a number of Patrols to dig underground shelter and allow the advancing enemy forces to pass by them. Following this, two pairs of OP Gunners would emerge from each underground patrol shelter (by now within enemy territory) and take up covert observation posts to direct the fire from the Regiment's guns, an extraordinarily dangerous operation. At suitable intervals one OP Gunner from each pair would change places with one from his shelter so as to permit rest and recuperation and allowing continuous observation and fire direction to take place.

In addition to thinking through the detailed role, a great deal of thought went into selection and training. In particular, survival and field craft was vital if the Regiment was to get the right type of soldier for this extremely demanding task. Visits to P Company at Aldershot, Royal Marines selection at Lympstone and of course Hereford eventually led to a unique OP selection and training course. It was discussed with Brigadier (later General Sir Michael) Wilkes, the then chief of Staff 3rd Armoured Division, himself a gunner but also former SAS. Finally, course number 1 was set up and the "Stay Behind Special OP Troop" as it was then, was born in 1982, to flourish later as the Special OP Bty, albeit with a role modified and more appropriate to the changing needs of the army.

The first 'selection team' included Permanent Staff Instructors (PSIs) from the SAS, Royal Marine Commandos and the Parachute Regiment, all seconded to 5th Regiment. The Battery retained permanent SAS representation in the form of a single, established, WO2 SAS PSI until the demands on the SAS following the start of operations in Afghanistan meant they could no longer keep this up. Originally selection was confined to soldiers from 5th Regiment but this quickly gave way to a wider selection pool from across the Royal Artillery as a whole. Even this, however, could not provide sufficient trained Special Observers and the pool was widened to all Army Regiments and Corps, and then additionally to Royal Navy and Royal Air Force volunteers. Successful selection is marked by a unique Special Observer badge - the Lateo triangle. 4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery, the successor of the original Special OP Troop, is the Battery's full title and remains within 5th Regiment. From 1998 this became the Army's newest and only regular Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment.

Op GRANBY[edit]

In January 1991 4/73 Battery deployed on Op GRANBY as part of the UK contribution to the International coalition of forces which massed in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The Bty joined the 16th/5th Queen's Royal Lancers Battlegroup and was task organised into two Forward Air Control Parties, a Tactical Air Command Post and five Armoured Special OPs.

As tensions mounted, the Bty moved to concentration area "RAY". With the failure of the Gorbachev peace talks on 22 February, the Battlegroup deployed to its forward staging areas ready for commencement of hostilities. Early on 24 February (G-Day) the break out battle began. The first elements from the Bty entered the battle on 25 February. The advance was swift and the first objective was cleared by nightfall, with the subsequent objectives falling quickly. The Bty protected the flank of the advance and engaged positions with artillery, close air support, attack helicopters and direct action, inflicting heavy enemy casualties.

During the battle to clear one of the objectives the Battlegroup was engaged by a battalion of Iraqi infantry with artillery and tanks in support. The mix of precision munitions and Close Air Support employed by members of the Bty was instrumental in enabling the Battlegroup to regain the initiative and continue with the battle. The Iraqi will to fight diminished and the cease-fire was ordered on 28 February 1991.

Northern Ireland - Op FACTION[edit]

Special Observers from 5 and 32 Special OP Troops first deployed to Northern Ireland in 1989. Their principal task on this first tour was to provide an area defence around the Golf and Romeo towers in South Armagh. Sited to enable the observation of facilitation routes from Southern Ireland, these towers represented key terrain in the battle to stem the flow of terrorist material support and they were regularly targeted. The redevelopment of the two locations required the members of 5 and 32 Special OP Troop to construct and operate from a Platoon sized defensive position for the duration of their deployment. This was the longest time British Army soldiers had operated out of trenches since the end of the Second World War and represented a significant challenge for all those involved.

It was during this deployment that two Special Observers were killed when the land rover they were travelling in was destroyed by an IRA roadside bomb as they transited through Londonderry. This was the first loss of Special Observers on operations and this tragic incident cast a cloud over what had otherwise been a very successful tour.

Members of 4/73 Battery subsequently deployed a six-man patrol to the Province in 1993, tasked with running a rooftop OP on Templar House in the New Lodge area of North Belfast. This was one of the four OPs in the city which was created under Op FACTION. The aim of these OPs was to observe and report on terrorist activity in the City in an attempt to restrict their freedom of action. Training began in September 1992 and from the outset a strong emphasis was placed on terrorist recognition and urban patrolling skills.

After completing the Op FACTION cadre the patrol was ready to deploy and on 6 January 1993 the Bty began its relief in place with a patrol from the Queen's Own Highlanders. The first week was occupied with pattern of life familiarisation and identifying key members of the local population. By 13 January the Relief in Place was complete and the Bty spent the next six months maintaining persistent surveillance of the New Lodge area. With Special Observers manning the site, confirmed sightings of known terrorists immediately doubled. Having proved their utility in this role, Special Observers were rapidly deployed to the remaining 3 roof top OP sites for the remainder of the tour.

During this tour, on 17 May 1993, a Special Observer was on duty in the Templar House OP when a loyalist gunman engaged the local Sinn Féin offices in Lepper Street with automatic fire from an AK-47. He engaged the gunman with a single shot, hitting him in the chest and preventing his escape, enabling a nearby multiple to detain him. This was the last time a terrorist was shot by a member of the regular British Army on operations in Northern Ireland.

Op GRAPPLE and Op HAMDEN[edit]

Following increased use of indirect fires against UN forces on Peace Keeping Operations in the former Yugoslavia, Britain and France deployed its high readiness reserve (the Theatre Reaction Force (TRF)) to deter future acts of aggression against their personnel.

The Bty deployed as part of the British contingent, providing a Forward Observation Officer (FOO) party attached to 19th Regiment RA. Soon after the TRF arrived in Theatre, Srebrenica and Zepa fell to the Bosnian Serb army. They continued to shell Sarajevo, causing significant civilian casualties.

In response, the leader of UN forces ordered a sustained NATO air campaign against Bosnian Serb heavy weapons and C2 facilities. To safeguard against retaliation the TRF flew out of Theatre on 31 July 1995.


4/73 Battery had personnel permanently deployed in Bosnia from 1995 to 2000. This started as the deployment of single personnel to act as UN Observers, but from 1996 onwards the Bty had a 6-man patrol permanently deployed as part of the International Force (IFOR).

During this 4 year period, patrols were deployed as Forward Observation Officer (FOO) parties and supported every level in the chain of Command, from Division to Battlegroup HQ, and worked directly to British, Canadian and Malaysian Commanders.

Other tasks included helping the Royal Engineers clear the Livno minefield, one of the biggest ever laid in the former Yugoslavia. They also deployed covert OPs as part of Op COMET and Op METEOR, an initiative to return all displaced persons back to their homes. Overt OPs were also employed to assist the 2 RRF Battlegroup with an operation designed to allow displaced persons to return to their homes in the Divichani Valley.

In 1998, following a number of successful covert OPs carried out by a 4/73 Battery patrol working to CO 19 Regt RA, the Commander British forces, General Delves, ordered the patrol to be attached to the reconnaissance platoon from the RGJ. The RGJ had recently completed a two year tour in Belfast as a Close Observation Platoon (COP). It soon became apparent that the Special Observer skill set was proving to be most effective and the 4/73 Battery patrol was given the lead on the planning and execution of all covert observation tasks in the UK AO.

The operations conducted by this composite force element culminated in the deployment of 5 OPs to conduct surveillance on all the major routes in and out of Drvar for a week long period. Four teams were supplied by the RGJ and one by 4/73 Battery, but the operation was planned and commanded by a 4/73 Battery Sgt. The operation was a resounding success and acted as the start point for a series of subsequent tasks by the remainder of the British force. General Delves then used this as a model to form the Dismounted Reconnaissance Unit (DRU) which endured as a capability until the last British personnel left the Theatre.


The Bty deployed four STA patrols and a C2 element to Macedonia in February 1999. This was as part of the NATO force preparing to intervene in Kosovo in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Serbian military action in the country. The patrols initially conducted work-up training in Macedonia before deploying to a Forward Operating Base on the KRASTE ranges. From there they deployed a mix of standing patrols and overt OPs to watch for possible Serbian infiltration and to develop understanding of the local area.

On the night of 12 June, whilst attached to the Pathfinder Platoon from 5 Airborne Brigade, 2 patrols from the Battery were part of Chalk Four. This was a helicopter insertion which carried the first regular army personnel into Kosovo. Their task was to insert 25km across the border and establish OPs overlooking the Northern end of the Kacanik defile. This was a key choke point on the Main Supply Route which the main body of the NATO force would follow into Kosovo. In June 1999, whilst attached to G Para Bty from 7 Para RHA, the patrols deployed an OP matrix in the capital, Pristina, to observe and report on all movement in the city and trigger additional reaction forces to trouble spots. The Bty re-deployed to Kosovo in February 2000. This deployment saw the Special Observers provide the first Divisional Reconnaissance Unit (DRU) capability in Kosovo, drawing on 5 years of regional experience and the ability to operate in unfamiliar territory. The Bty were tasked with this at very short notice in order to provide an interim DRU capability until the fist formally trained force element could deploy. The tour made use of the Bty's specialist photographic and video surveillance capabilities and no two missions were the same. Tasks included rural OPs, urban OPs in cooperation with other KFOR nations, and reactive OPs mounted to trigger arrest Ops of Serbian personnel by members of KFOR.

Brigade Surveillance Troop (BST)[edit]

The Bty provided six 6-man patrols to act as a reconnaissance troop for 40th Regiment RA, who deployed on Op TELIC 2 as part of 19 Mechanised Brigade. The Bty's first task was to recce the Regimental area of operations. This generated a significant amount of operational intelligence which acted as the start point for a number of lines of operation which would endure throughout the tour.

Two patrols were subsequently attached to the Kings Own Scottish Border Regiment Battlegroup in the Al Amara region. The target packs produced by the patrols led to the successful detention of several insurgent commanders. The remaining four patrols were deployed to the South of Iraq and were involved in counter smuggling and hijacking operations with 40th Regiment RA.

The role of the Bty also extended to the direct action Ops to detain low and medium level insurgent commanders. Having achieved much early success, the patrols were re-roled to form the 19 Brigade Surveillance and Reconnaissance Troop. Based in Basra Palace and working directly to Bde HQ, the troop were given an uplift of digital photography equipment and L96A1 Sniper Rifles to give them a long range reactive OP capability. Three patrols remained in theatre for OP TELIC 3 with 20 Armoured Brigade ensuring that this new specialist capability endured. The patrols were employed in discreet OPs as part of a matrix over-watching hotspots in Basrah City centre. As well as providing intelligence, they also triggered infantry operations leading to the capture and arrest of various insurgents. The troop also went on to develop a Manned Aerial Surveillance (MAS) capability, taking pictures of key areas of interest from the air.

The Bty subsequently deployed a troop on OP TELIC 9 in Nov 2006 as part of a multi-capbadge Brigade Surveillance Company. The troop's task was to provide the Bde with a discreet, covert surveillance capability. This included a long term OP task over-watching the offices of the Martyr Mardir where the leader of the Jaish al Mardir militia attended Friday prayers. The OP acted as the start point for a range of additional surveillance assets, cross-cueing them as soon as a Bravo had been positively identified. Every night a Navy Sea King with a MX15 camera accompanied by a patrol member was tasked to monitor Pattern of Life over Basrah and the area around the militia office. The tour came to a successful conclusion with the elimination of the Jaish al Mardir leader in a joint UKSF and Iraqi SF strike. This was the culmination of an enduring 4 month operation by the Bty.

Fire Support Teams (FSTs)[edit]

The joint fires skills set of 4/73 Battery was first called upon by the Royal Artillery's Close Support community in October 2005. 7 Para RHA were unable to force generate the 6 Fire Support Teams (FSTs) they required to provide joint fire support to the 3 Para Battle Group. This would be the first deployment of conventional forces to Helmand Province. The Battery readily agree to re-role an STA Patrol to act as the sixth FST for the Battle Group, and they undertook a four month period of pre-deployment training attached to the 3 Para Patrols Platoon. On 8 April 2006 the team landed at Camp Bastion construction site and this marked the start of enduring FST support to the Gun Regiments of the Royal Artillery.

For over 6 years, FSTs from 4/73 Battery have deployed as part of every Task Force Helmand joint fires group, and have supported Infantry Companies and Formation Reconnaissance Squadrons from virtually every British Army Regiment that has deployed to the Afghanistan theatre of operations. Force Elements (FEs) from the Battery have been directly involved in close combat in every part of Helmand Province, from Kajaki dam in the north to Garmsir in the south. These FEs have controlled the full array of joint fires assets that have deployed to Afghanistan, from the US Airforce AC 130 'Spectre' gunship to precision Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System munitions. They have also been responsible for the integration of hundreds of task lines of ISTAR to enable their supported commanders to improve their situational awareness and wider understanding of their areas of operation. All of this has demanded a high degree of skill and the ability to make difficult decisions whilst under the most testing of operational conditions.

In deploying out of role the Battery has added significant value to the Royal Regiment of Artillery and all those who have deployed as part of an FST have consolidated their joint fires expertise. This has, however, not come without cost. The Battery sustained several casualties over this period.

Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF)[edit]

During Op HERRICK 6 a Troop from the Battery were deployed as part of the 12 Mechanised Brigade BRF to act as a dismounted Reconnaissance Platoon. The Troop were deployed to the town of Garmsir soon after arriving in Theatre, occupying the District Centre which marked Task Force Helmand's most southern flank. As the final point of civilisation before the Pakistan border, Garmsir was a strategically important location for the flow of foreign fighters of lethal aid that streamed north to support the insurgency in Helmand. The presence of the Troop in Garmsir therefore presented a threat to this vital facilitation route and they were targeted by insurgents from their first day in the DC. What followed was a 4-month period of unbroken fighting with the Taliban. Although other units were deployed to support the Troop, no other 12 Bde force element spent more than 2 months in Garmsir such was the ferocity of the battle to hold the DC. The Troop were somehow overlooked in this regard but held their ground as ordered throughout what was one of the most prolonged periods of fighting since troops first deployed to Helmand Province.

Concurrent to the Troop being deployed on Op HERRICK 6, the remainder of the Battery were preparing themselves to provide the BRF for 52 Brigade on Op HERRICK 7. This was the first time a non-infantry subunit had been given this task and it represented a significant challenge as the Battery transitioned from its core static covert surveillance role to a mounted close combat reconnaissance task. The Battery was augmented by specialists from Support Company, 2 YORKS to give the BRF an integral mortar, anti-tank and sniper capability and, after four months of high tempo pre-deployment training the force deployed to Helmand.

Op HERRICK 7 was a highly demanding but extremely successful tour which saw the Battery acting as an intelligence gathering mobile strike force. As well as providing a steady flow of information to inform Commander 52 Brigade's decision-making, the force also conducted numerous direct action operations to destroy identified insurgent positions. These operations varied from vehicle borne raids to dismounted platoon attacks. In addition, the BRF played a key role in facilitating the operation to re-take the town of Musa Qala by conducting an extended mobile surveillance and reconnaissance mission to identify insurgent locations before a US air assault task force attacked the town. The Battery also mounted a 14 day OP task from a mountain that lay to the East of the town of Nowzad, covertly observing the insurgent Command and Control (C2) location which was directing all insurgent activity in the area. This OP established pattern of life, positively identified insurgent locations and subsequently finished them by directing air delivered ordnance onto the objective.

Op HERRICK 7 was a high risk deployment for the Battery which sadly resulted in two soldiers being killed in two separate mine strike incidents, as well as three seriously injured. The Battery broke the record books during the tour by mounting the longest uninterrupted long range desert patrol since the Second World War, living off their WMIK vehicles for 7 weeks without an operational pause. After successfully identifying and engaging a suidide bomber who tried to drive his vehicle into the BRF convoy whilst they were transiting through the town of Gereshk, the Taliban nicknamed the BRF "warriors protected by God".

Theatre Surveillance Troop (TST)[edit]

In May 2012 the Battery deployed a STA Patrol at very short notice to conduct an Operational Capability Demonstrator (OCD) of an Unattended Ground Sensor (UGS) system in the highly dangerous Sangin area of operations. This new system would enable Commanders to receive live full motion video of activity in dead ground around their bases. This represented a significant force multiplier for the ground holding Companies, who were under constant pressure from the insurgents operating in the blind spots around their locations. The patrol quickly set about proving that the system could be deployed covertly in Theatre. Unfortunately, the first task the Patrol undertook ended in tragedy when one Special Observer was killed in an IED blast. The same incident seriously injured two more and reduced the patrol from 7 to 4. The remainder persevered with the OCD and went on to deploy the system in the most dangerous parts of Helmand to prove the utility of UGS in counter insurgency.

As as result of the efforts of the first Patrol, Task Force Helmand approved the formation of the Theatre Surveillance Troop (TST) to deploy UGS in support of joint operations across the battlespace. Led by the Battery and supported by the HAC, the TST emplaced UGS from Op HERRICK 13 to Op HERRICK 18. It was responsible for over 35 successful covert surveillance operations. From Op HERRICK 16, the TST branched out to provide the full range of static covert surveillance tasks. This included manned OPs, evidential quality stills photography, Manned Aerial Surveillance (MAS) and Pre-emplaced Command Actuated Munitions (PCAM), where a remotely detonated M18A1 Claymore is linked to a UGS system.


Whilst most Gunners wear a dark blue beret, since 2008 soldiers of 4/73 Battery have changed to a Khaki beret to mark the close working relationship of the battery with the Honourable Artillery Company, which provides the Reserve STA Patrol capability. Soldiers within the battery that have passed the STA Patrol Course also wear the Special Observers badge - the Lateo Triangle - on their arm as displayed above. Lateo is Latin for "I lie hidden".

The Sun Military Awards[edit]

4/73 Battery was the Army nomination for Unit of the Year at the 2013 Sun Military Awards.[1]

Selection and training[edit]

4/73 Battery recruits robust and intelligent individuals who want a challenging military career. Volunteers can join directly from Basic Training with the Royal Artillery or apply to join from any other part of the Armed Forces. Volunteers must complete the 13-week Surveillance and Target Acquisition Patrols Course (STA PC).[2] The course is run once a year starting at the end of August and begins with 3 weeks fitness and navigation training in the Northumbrian hills. Applicants then progress through Medical and Communications training, Patrol skills, OP Construction, Live Firing Ranges and a Final Test Exercise. By this point they will have earned the right to wear the coveted LATEO Triangle - the badge of the Special Observers. Once volunteers have completed the STA Patrols Course they continue with training in Advanced Photography, learn to call in Artillery strikes and complete Survival, Evasion, Resistance to interrogation and Extraction (SERE) training. They will then join a six-man patrol ready to deploy on operations anywhere in the world.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Sun's 6th annual Millie awards". 
  2. ^ Further information can be found DIN: 2013DIN007-164, a useful reference document for potential recruits already serving in the Armed Forces.

External links[edit]