Charles Upham was one of only three men to receive the VC twice- and the only one to receive two in WW2 (for non-UK readers a VC is the highest award for valour). Upham, a New Zealand farmer by origin, was not only exceedingly brave, he was a tactical innovator. Upham realised that storming a machine gun post armed with just a rifle, or even a sub-machine gun, is a very hit or miss affair. It requires near suicidal courage because the odds are very much stacked against you. However, if you are a skilled bowler- as Upham was, a hand grenade can become a much more deadly and useful weapon. Typically, in the ordinary model of infantry tactics a man will carry 3 to 5 grenades. Upham fashioned a special carry bag on his hip holding up to 20 grenades. He would then advance carefully and throw his grenades accurately, using them to knock out machine gun nests in a dynamic fashion – something a mortar team cannot manage when under heavy fire and moving fast.
But the key thing is the way this personal tactical innovation boosted his courage. Because he now had a weapon that worked really well he had a much better motive for attacking what others saw as hopeless situations.
It is this synergy between personal tactical innovation and courage that drives success in many areas including an expedition.
One of my favourite explorers is the Japanese Polar explorer Naomi Uemura, the first man to reach the North Pole solo. Uemura mainly travelled alone. He trusted himself and he wasn’t foolhardy. His personal tactical innovation for crossing crevasse fields was to wear two long bamboo poles, like a twenty foot ‘X’, attached to the top of his pack. He must have looked like a weird human helicopter. However, if he fell down a crevasse this apparatus stopped the plunge into the abyss below.
Often a personal tactical innovation looks a bit silly. I am sure many people have died because they wanted to keep looking cool.
When I wanted to explore the Sahara I had to endure a mild level of ridicule when I unveiled ‘the trolley’ – a cumbersome 4 wheeled trolley used for carrying up to 200kg of supplies (we actually carried around 120kg). But it worked, allowing two men to travel for over ten days without needing camels or 4x4s.
A personal tactical innovation addresses a seemingly ‘hopeless’ problem with more than just plain human doggedness. Scott’s response to the polar cold was to man haul his sledges. Amundsen’s personal tactical innovations were to use the skills of indigenous arctic peoples (dog sleds and skis) and apply them to the Antarctic. Scott attempted to use ponies and tractors in his attempt. But neither were tested and neither were personal. Amundsen had lived in the arctic for four years during his Northwest Passage expedition. Here he learnt the value of Eskimo ways and enjoyed using them.
A personal tactical innovation is not just a good idea; it is a good idea that suits YOU. It emerges because it favours something you are already good at. It is a personal solution not a generic one. I was interested in the trolley because it involved towing, something I knew I was good at, having towed a canoe up a 1600 mile river in Canada.
During the subsequent crossing my team made of the Rocky Mountains I knew we would encounter a river that had defeated many recent attempts at descent- the aptly named Bad River, a tributary of the Fraser River system. The Bad River was not just very steep, it was ice cold from glacier melt and blocked in many places with logs. Because no native peoples lived in the area anymore there was no motive to keep the river clear. Reports of canoeists retiring with their legs blue from bruises and cold made me consider using a slight, but highly effective personal tactical innovation. I knew that we would have to manhandle our bulky 21 foot canoe over considerable debris, and also resist a powerful current. I knew that even wearing wetsuits we’d get cold after spending hours in glacial melt water. However neoprene chest waders with sock feet would allow us to remain warm and dry at the same time (though each man carried a knife around his neck in case he upended in the waders- trapped air can keep you forced underwater in some situations). This solution worked admirably- and though the Bad River, was indeed a bad river, which supplied a few close calls, it was not in the end, the Worst River.
When we learn a new skill we often neglect our own personal inclinations and aptitudes. We often try and learn something ‘the official way’. My view is to have a go on your own and see what seems, to you, to be the logical solution. Remember this and then see what the regular practitioners are doing. Finally combine both. Many times the ‘obvious’ solution to you has been overlooked because the original solution has outgrown its application, or been superseded by a new development, but people have carried on blindly copying what their elders and better do. I remember aikido students banging their toes on the mat because that is what a top teacher did. Later I discovered he only did this because he had incipient arthritic pain in his toes and this was a way to dispel it. Yet his students did it as if it was part of the technique.