Before marrying Prince Harry in May 2018, Meghan Markle underwent training in everything from how to survive being kidnapped to driving a car in a pursuit, according to a new book.
Finding Freedom, written by royal journalists Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, is based on interviews with over 100 royal sources, but according to a spokesperson for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex the biography did not directly involve the couple.
The authors claim that six months prior to her nuptials Meghan was put on the same “SAS-training course” at a Hereford HQ that all other senior royals (except the Queen) have had to complete to ensure their personal security – the Duchess of Cambridge also did the course when she joined “the Firm”.
It allegedly included Meghan taking part in a staged kidnapping where she was bundled into the back of a car by a “terrorist”. The authors write that it was an “extremely intense and scary experience for Meghan”. But what would such hostile environment training actually involve? And who is likely to undergo it?
Why do they have this training?
The royal family, like many other high profile figures, have whole teams of security staff at their disposal. Each member is given their own personal protection officers at a high cost to the taxpayer (it is estimated security for the royal family costs in excess of an estimated £100 million a year, but the actual figure is never disclosed). This was an issue thrown into the spotlight as Mehgan and Harry stepped down as senior royals – the question being, who would pay now?
So with highly trained professionals watching their backs 24/7, why would they need to be trained themselves? Rupert Godesen, certified protection professional and managing director of HASP Training – a UK-based hostile environment training provider – says the biggest reason is to ensure that clients know what is expected of them in any given situation. “Bodyguards who deal with VIPs need to impress upon their clients that if the clients resist, when they’re grabbed and yelled at to get down, and struggle because they’re not used to being manhandled then they’re hindering their bodyguards in their main job,” he tells The Independent.
Godesen says the main aim of any protection officer is to get the client away from the threat as soon as is possible and by the most direct route “which may well be straight to the ground, behind a car or into a shop,” he says. “The bodyguards have a job to do, as do the royals, and what [they] will have impressed upon them is you do your job so let us do ours, you might rip your trousers if we force you to the ground or lose one of your Jimmy Choos but you’ll be alive.”
Andrew Toze, chief instructor at Hostile Environment Training Ltd, says the training helps to overcome your natural response: “[Being] paralysed by fear is a common natural phenomena that is a direct result of the senses being overwhelmed and therefore the body struggling to make conscious thoughts or reactions to a situation. The training would involve forcing this reaction in an individual through physical contact, extreme aggression, gunfire, smoke and speed.”
What does the training involve?
Finding Freedom gives some indication of what the training involved – notably learning how to deal with being bundled into a car and driven to a new location, being “rescued” by officers with firearms, negotiating if you’re being held hostage, and driving a car at speed. But more specifically what can clients expect?
Alex Bomberg, CEO of Intelligent Protection International Limited, who runs a company providing commercial royalty protection to royal families from around the globe, says: “It is quite possible that new senior members of the royal family will receive will cover briefs on hostage rescue and how that works with possibly a live demonstration – there are some photos of Diana receiving this training.”
But Bomberg says it is not totally accurate to call it “training” and it is more akin to “awareness briefings” than anything more serious.
Toze gives more specific details about what Meghan might have had to do. He says the staged kidnapping is likely to have involved being taught how to avoid being physically hurt at the start of a kidnapping (“where the kidnappers are generally pumped up and overstimulated”), getting panic under control, and implementing coping strategies.
He explains: “Staged kidnappings involve the individual being tied up to restrict mobility and their head being covered with a bag which serves two main purposes – it provides sensory deprivation and can trigger claustrophobia and needs to be simulated to ensure that a panic attack or hyperventilation isn’t going to happen.
“Practical skills are also taught including how to position your hands when tied to allow better circulation and how to position your head to avoid injury and maximise the space to breathe.
“Individuals are taught how to interact with their kidnappers, making sure that they know when to talk and when to stay silent, a list of dos and don’ts in terms of subjects is often discussed and they are encouraged to make themselves human as fast as possible,” he adds.
Additionally Megan will have been taught defensive driving including signs and prompts that she is being followed, driving at speed and how to use her car to ram her way out of an ambush situation, says Toze. When on foot she will also have been taught how to spot an attacker or aggressor including reading body language.
Toze says knowing how to be rescued is also a key component of the training. “All personnel who go through the HRH course will ultimately end up in the Close Quarters Combat/ Battle Environment affectionately known in the SAS as the “killing house”, they will be placed into this environment surrounded by targets and will be subjected to a rescue involving explosive breaching, smoke, stun grenades and live ammunition.
“This is not without risk and relies upon the professionalism and training of the special forces soldiers involved, famously Princess Diana had her hair set on fire when she went through this training after a stun grenade detonated after striking her on the head,” he adds.
The hostile environment course that Godesen runs himself takes place over three days and includes lessons on personal security, which includes “personal situation awareness, personal conflict management, use of body language and security on the move, in hotels, in taxis, and airports” and “being mugged or assaulted”.
Another lesson is in orienteering – finding your way around a new location and emergency rendezvous points. It also includes vehicle security and common road dangers, as well as carjacking and kidnap. Other lessons cover topics such as bribery, intimidation and detention.
Who will deliver the training?
The book claims that the training is delivered at SAS-training grounds in Hereford, but Ian Maine, assistant director of collections and programme at the National Army Museum, says he “doubts very much” it was actual SAS training.
“Quite often individuals are given personal security/close protection training, which enables them to understand what to do in the event of a security incident, and what the close protection people around them are trained to do. Quite often this training is delivered by close protection trained personnel, who are quite often former SAS, but not exclusively.”
So what are they expected to take away from the training?
Bomberg says: “The idea with all this training is to ensure that the royals need to know what is to be expected of them if there is an incident. The last thing the emergency or special forces want is someone running around panicking. They will want them to behave in such a way that they do not further endanger themselves.”
Godesen says that ultimately modern day royals face a very particular security challenge. “They are very popular, public young royals, who the public want/demand to get close to,” he says. As a result those looking after them have a “very difficult job to do”.
“So the main message for them would have been – when the shooting starts, or we grab you and pull you away from someone, jump on you, try to shield you, we’re doing it for a very good reason, so do not resist and do exactly what you’re told to do. If you’re confused and scared, look to one of the team who will be nearby and follow their instructions to the letter.”