Summer 2004

Field work

The army’s designer-printers hit their deadlines under fire

Printing is a challenging profession at the best of times. Long hours, expedited deliveries, tight budgets, demanding clients and evolving technologies all make it tough. If you are a printer in Her Majesty’s Forces, however, these problems are the least of your worries. British Army printers have to work in cramped environments, in all climates, while moving through war zones, sometimes even under fire. Yet they are still expected to deliver error-free work – because lives depend on it.

Field printing started in 1915 when the British Expeditionary Force established the Army Printing & Stationery Services at Le Havre. The APSS provided on-the-spot printing services, issuing battle-area material produced by soldiers under direct military control on Army presses in the back of lorries. The APSS is no more, but the need for war-zone printed material remains. Today the 42 Engineer Regiment is responsible for printing and has served in all recent operations, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Gulf.

Army field printers are capable in all areas of production, from design and digital pre-press to machine printing and print finishing. They use graphic design skills to prepare material that is manufactured in bulk in the field by offset litho. The main task of Army printers is to produce maps, but they also print psychological warfare materials. During the recent war in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of leaflets were printed and distributed in Basra as part of the ‘hearts and minds’ exercise.

The 42 Engineer Regiment is equipped with digital pre-press equipment, installed in two separate 20ft ISO-type containers mounted on 14 tonne 6x6 trucks containing plate-setters, scanners, computer stacks, plan-chests, monitors and desk-top printers. There are nine printing presses within the Regiment, which are transported, housed and operated from the backs of lorries or containers. They include single-colour Roland Practica presses capable of 10,000 iph and single-colour Heidelberg SRA1 and SORD offset machines. The presses are operated and maintained by two men working twelve-hour shifts to provide a 24-hour service. Additional vehicles house print-finishing equipment, paper and maps.

Printing in battle gives Army printers challenges that are unfamiliar to their civilian counterparts. Operating from mobile units necessitates the levelling and securing of machines before production can commence. Accommodation is cramped, with little room to manoeuvre and negligible storage space; in these circumstances, organisation and discipline are of paramount importance. Field printers have to work in all climates, from cold Serbian winters to the heat of the Gulf summer; in Basra, printers and their presses operate from containers where temperatures touch 50° C. To compound the discomfort, dust is endemic and the presses require frequent de-greasing to prevent abrasion.

Not only does the climate play havoc with the machines, but storing and preparing paper for press also pose problems. There are also cultural considerations. Typesetting and proof-reading unfamiliar alphabets is difficult, and great care has to be paid to regional sensibilities and customs when producing material for local distribution.Advances in technology will undoubtedly address some of the practical problems, but the need for printed-paper products in the field looks set to continue. A printed paper map in a soldier’s back pocket has greater longevity than any of its digital counterparts.