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Introduction: Operation Herrick 6

In April 2007, the men of 12 Mechanized Brigade replaced the Royal Marines as part of Operation Herrick 6. The entire force totalled about 5,800 servicemen and women. As the Afghan summer returned, the fighting once again intensified. The Anglian and Mercian regiments, with distinctive and bloody histories, soon found themselves embroiled in action akin to that fought by their predecessors.

The main combat power for Operation Herrick 6 was provided by 1 Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, 2 Battalion The Mercian Regiment (formerly The Worcesters and Foresters), 2 Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and 3 Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, with the Light Dragoons providing armoured reconnaissance; 26 Engineer Regiment, 19 Regiment Royal Artillery and 4 Logistic Support Regiment gave their specialized support. The Army Air Corps flew Apaches and the RAF Harriers from 1 Squadron provided close air support. RAF Chinooks and Hercules supplied transport while Force Protection was the responsibility of the RAF Force Protection Wing Headquarters and the RAF Regiment.

April 2007

Captain George Seal-Coon, The Royal Anglian Regiment

Captain George Seal-Coon, 1 Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, is twenty-seven. He was born in Norwich and grew up in the nearby town of Aylsham. He is the son of a solicitor, who served in the Territorial Army, and has a younger brother. He went to school in Norfolk and, after favouring a career in the military, was awarded a sixth-form scholarship from the Army. Seal-Coon went to university in Nottingham to study French and Russian, then in 2004 to Sandhurst. Afghanistan was his first overseas tour and he was deployed there from March to October 2007. He is single, and based at Pirbright, Surrey. As well as being a full-time soldier, he is a part-time artist and has sketched many military scenes, from on and off the battlefield.

I was platoon commander of 7 Platoon, B Company, in Afghanistan – in charge of roughly thirty men at any one time – although that number dwindled with casualties and times away on R&R [rest and relaxation]. When we arrived at Camp Bastion, we were apprehensive but at the same time we felt well prepared, having trained intensively for the better part of nine months prior to deploying. We were keen to get on with it. Everyone was aware that at some stage we were going to come under contact, and we were keen to know how we would react when that moment arrived.

Initially, we deployed to FOB Rob [Forward Operating Base Robinson] to provide security for the artillery fire base. It was fairly quiet, although we were rocketed a couple of times. It was opium harvest time and the Taliban weren't really up for a fight. So we didn't have any big contacts initially. It did, however, give us time to get out on patrol, work with the Royal Marines' Armoured Support Troop and generally get a feel for the place.

In mid-April, we were involved in Op Silicon – the Viking [tracked armoured fighting vehicle] battle group's first major op. The aim of that was to clear the Green Zone [of Taliban] – the fertile farming area either side of the river Helmand above Gereshk. The plan was to clear it up to the limit of exploitation [LOE]. Further up the valley, we were then to secure the area for the engineers to establish patrol bases for the ANA [Afghan National Army], from which they could then project force.

We deployed with Vikings out to the high ground overlooking the Gereshk valley. We got settled there for the night. It was quite a strange, stormy night. As soon as we were settled, with sentries out, it started to rain – and it got windy: on one or two occasions, we were lying, trying to sleep, when someone's roll mat came whipping past, disappearing into the desert night.

We launched into the Green Zone just before dawn. It was a battle group operation involving well over a thousand men. My company, B (Suffolk) Company, was point at the time. We had A Company on the northern flank, on the edge of the desert. There was an area up there called the Red Fort, a medieval fort, built from red sandstone, which dominated the surrounding area. A Company had to push up there. Our job was to push towards our LOE about six K away, defeat any Taliban we encountered and provide security. Then the engineers would move up and build the FOBs and we would patrol the area.

Initially it was quite quiet. We moved out in the Vikings to a drop-off point on the edge of the desert. A few shots were fired as the Taliban sentries pulled back into the Green Zone. We moved in, on foot, quickly, with very few problems. We had it reported that the women and children had largely moved out of the area, which was often a precursor to the fact that something [a fire-fight] was about to happen. We pushed up the valley, through poppy fields, compounds and dense undergrowth, with an Apache overhead providing some eyes out into depth. The first big contact was on the company's right flank. We had the Vikings there as flank security, moving along a wide canal path. The ANA were supposed to follow up on that flank but had not yet pushed forward. At the time, my platoon was point. We were about to cross the edge of an open field to break into some compounds when the Vikings were opened up on from the south-east, beyond the canal they were paralleling. We also began to take fire from positions to our front. We moved in amongst the compounds fairly rapidly, making use of what cover was available. This was mid-morning and it was already getting pretty hot – about 45°C. We were carrying quite a bit of kit, ammo, body armour and radios: the GPMG [general-purpose machine-gun] gunners were probably loaded down with about forty kilos and the rest of us not too much less.

At first, we came under small-arms and PKM [machinegun] fire. Then RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] were fired. The fire was all being directed at the Vikings so we extracted back to assist them. I liaised with my OC [officer commanding], Major Mick Aston, and pushed forward to support the vehicles. Two of my sections and I crossed the canal over a narrow footbridge, with the vehicles and 2 Section providing fire support – we were quite exposed at this time and you'd be surprised at how quickly you move, even with all that kit!

On the far side, we took cover in an irrigation ditch, waist deep in water and taking quite sustained, accurate enemy fire. My personal weapon was a rifle and each section had a GPMG and two minimis [light machine-guns]; a couple of guys had UGLs – underslung grenade launchers. My platoon sergeant 'Woody' Woodrow had a mortar man with him, with a 51mm mortar – an excellent weapon. This first contact went on for three hours, solidly. I suppose, during the entire day, we were in contact for about seven hours.

We identified two positions in a field, about 150 metres to our front and engaged. At this point, I had two sections spread out along the ditch, suppressing the enemy. Not long into the fire-fight we were engaged from our rear. Fortunately everyone was in cover. Between ourselves, 6 Platoon and a Javelin [anti-tank] missile, we managed to silence that threat. It was really a case of winning the fire-fight and providing ourselves with security, guarding against Taliban trying to outflank us. We suppressed them and tried to call in an Apache [attack helicopter]. They were unable to identify the enemy positions, deep within the tree-lines. The Taliban had about a platoon [-sized force] and they were fairly spread about, using the cover well.

The Taliban tried to push around our flanks and we then had RPGs fired at us. We had a lot of fire-power going down. It was my first proper contact and that of almost everyone there. Initially, it was a shock to the system. The compounds were constructed of compacted mud walls. The villages were a web of these compounds, often with a couple of alleyways weaving through. The walls were really hard, offering good protection from fire and blast. Every time we breached a compound, we had to use explosives and crowbars. During the day, I fired on a couple of occasions but for the most part I was trying to co-ordinate my sections. My mortar man, Private [Richie] Barke, used his 51mm [mortar] to pretty good effect, getting his bombs on target every first or second shot. We also used it to mark the enemy for CAS [close air support], firing a few smoke rounds on enemy positions and then air – I think it was a Harrier – came in and dropped 500-pounders [bombs].

We had extracted back over the canal using the Vikings as cover and were sheltering, waist deep, in another irrigation ditch, in anticipation. The first bomb was a blind – the second on target. We stopped taking fire on that flank after that. 6 Platoon had been pushed into the village and ended up in danger of being isolated in a compound to the east, with the Taliban pushing forward and attempting to surround them. Effectively, they were taking some fairly accurate and concentrated fire, defending this compound. Ourselves [7 Platoon] and 5 Platoon then broke back into the compounds and cleared through to them. We were clearing buildings on red[aggressively, as distinct from on green: a softer approach], due to the proximity of the enemy from that point. We would breach a wall or door, possibly with an explosive charge, throw a grenade in, then clear the compound in an aggressive manner. We took one or two RPGs fired in airburst [exploding above the men], as we progressed towards 6 Platoon – fortunately they were ineffective. 2 Section were about to grenade one particular compound after creating an entry point, when the grenadier and Corporal Parker heard a noise. A family – mostly women and children and a couple of older men – had been sheltering within a room. They were shaken up and scared but uninjured. We spoke to them, reassured them, and they told us that the Taliban had extracted ahead of us and pointed us in the right direction. One of the men guided us a short distance along the route.

We linked up with 6 Platoon, the Taliban fleeing ahead of us. 7 Platoon became point platoon again and we pushed up towards our LOE. By this stage, it was about 5 p.m. and we had fought through the hottest part of the day, almost nonstop. Spending so much time in the flooded ditches had been a relief – I think that prevented a few people going down with heat exhaustion. We continued to clear compounds. About 150 metres short of the LOE, my lead section commander, Corporal Mann, came back, reporting his lead scout had spotted something. We pushed through cautiously and discovered a wounded Taliban fighter trying to hide in the bushes. He was badly injured in the leg so we secured the area and gave him what first aid we could. We discovered a further three Taliban, whom we took prisoner, and there were a number of enemy dead in the area who had been engaged either by us or the AH [attack helicopter]. There were about seven dead in all. This was on the edge of the built-up area bordered with cornfields. Meanwhile 5 Platoon and Major Aston's tac [tactical] group discovered a number of enemy forces in depth and they killed a further five in that area.

We had gone through the day with a couple of biscuits, travelling light on kit to provide more room for ammo. The guys were pretty tired and the adrenalin rush and exertions started to take their toll. It was seven o'clock when we reached our LOE. We didn't get dry clothes or food and water resupply until ten or eleven o'clock. Remarkably, there was only one casualty. One man, Private Sheppard, was slightly wounded in the face by an RPG fragment. Bearing in mind the intensity of the fighting, we were very lucky. I was massively proud of my men that day. It was a huge step forward for all of us.

We had taken the Taliban off guard. It was quite rare for our guys to see the Taliban up close. They [the victims] were dressed in drab colours and Afghan traditional dress, with Soviet-style chest-rigs [load-carrying equipment]. We recovered a number of RPGs, AK-47s and a couple of PKMs from their position. Most of the dead were probably in their twenties or early thirties. 5 Platoon had to remove the corpses the next day and for some of the guys it was an unpleasant task. In the heat of the day, the bodies were in quite a state, in particular those that had been killed by AH fire. The bodies did not seem like they had been human beings. Their skin was quite waxy: they almost didn't seem real.

April 2007

Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Nieves, The Royal Anglian Regiment

Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Nieves, 1 Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, is thirty-four. He was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, the son of a builder, with a sister, who has died. At sixteen he left school to go into the Army. He had intended to work as a thatcher but his sister bet him £20 that he couldn't join the Army and he took her up on it. He was a member of the junior Parachute Regiment based in Pirbright, Surrey, then progressed to the adult ranks. In 1993, having sustained stress fractures in his legs, he decided to transfer to his local infantry battalion, The Royal Anglians. He has completed tours of Northern Ireland, Croatia, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. His second tour of Afghanistan in 2007 was as a colour sergeant. Married with two sons, he lives in Pirbright, Surrey.

I had done a tour of Afghanistan in 2002, in Kabul. My second tour of the country began on 2 April [2007]. This time we were in Helmand province. In the build-up, we knew it was going to be more kinetic than in Kabul. During the Kabul tour, we had a lot of interaction with the local community – there was a lot of PR stuff. But in Helmand province we soon realized we were going to have much less contact with the public and the locals.

When we arrived, the temperature was already warming up – it was up in the thirties [centigrade]. As soon as we arrived, I went to [Camp] Bastion for a while – I was part of B Company. Soon after that we had new orders and we took over FOB Robinson with 5 Platoon and 7 Platoon. That was in a big and untamed valley. I was platoon sergeant of 5 Platoon at the time. FOB Robinson was the main fire support base for the Sangin valley – the artillery was already in. We were relieving the unit that was already there.

The OC at the time was keen for us to get our first contact and he organized a three-day familiarization patrol where we got out of FOB Robinson. We had someone come into the base to man the sangars and provide protection. And we went out as a two-platoon group for three days. It was a case of having a look around the villages, doing an over-watch, seeing the women and kids move out. But nothing happened for three days. There was a seventy-strong patrol, all Brits with the ANA attached. I thought it was going to be another of those tours – all the hype but nothing happening. I had not been in any contacts in Kabul or Iraq. At this stage, I had been in the Army for fifteen years, but I had still never been in a contact.

April 2007

Lance Corporal Daniel Power, The Royal Welsh

Lance Corporal Daniel Power, of Fire Support Company, 1 Battalion The Royal Welsh, is twenty-six. He was born and brought up in Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales. The son of a builder and a 'full-time mum', he has four brothers and a sister. His grandfather was in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and he has a younger brother who serves with B Company, 1 Battalion The Royal Welsh. At school, Power wanted to join the police or the Fire Brigade. But then a group from the Royal Welsh came to his school, Peny y Dre High in Merthyr Tydfil, and he decided to go into the Army. Power is a fitness enthusiast, and is based at the Royal Welsh's barracks in Chester, Cheshire.

When the Royal Welsh came to my school [on a careers day] I said: 'I want to be a sniper.' They said: 'That's not a problem but you'll have to join the Army first.' I was always focused on what I wanted to do, so as soon as I could after I left school I joined up. I was always quite robust as a kid – into the gym and fitness – and I used to play a little rugby and do boxing.

The idea of being a sniper appealed to me. It was the idea of not being seen, being quite sneaky around the battlefield, being quite stealthy and picking off your enemy without them seeing you. There is also a fear factor with snipers on the battlefield. Whenever there's a sniper out there, it's always in the back of someone's mind. When I left school I was too young [to join up], so I was waiting around on a prep course to join the Army when I was aged sixteen years and nine months. That's the earliest they'll take you. I was first deployed to Northern Ireland a couple of days past my eighteenth birthday. At nineteen, I was deployed to Op Telic 1 in 2003 – the invasion of Iraq. I had just passed my snipers' course in Aldershot. I joined the Black Watch as part of 7 Armoured Brigade. From the Royal Welsh, there was a fourman sniper team to bolster their platoon.

The standard weapon then [in 2003] was the L96 – a 7.62mm medium-range rifle. The rifle we have now is the L115 – that's a long-range rifle. The L96 has a range of up to 1,100 metres. The L115 rifle range has a range of up to 1,500 metres. When you're trained on the snipers' course, you're taught to shoot in various different positions: lying, standing, using shooting sticks. At first, there's quite a lot of maths involved with sniping. You work in a pair but also as part of a bigger organization. The firer will be looking down the sight adjusting it while the number two is basically doing the maths and the radio: working out distance to the target, your elevation, difference in incline, the heat, the wind speed. There is actually a little formula we use to acquire a range. It's all to get that one shot. If you have been given a window for that target, it's important to get it right first time. Normally, we move into position without being seen so we have enough time. But we're talking minutes to prepare – three or four minutes or less. We work as a pair, side by side. If I am looking down the sight, my number two is my protection.

You're firing, judging distance, stalking. We do a cam [camouflage] and concealment training. You have to understand the ground quite well, get to your target area and move into position to take that shot without being seen. I have always enjoyed my work. I feel a pride and privilege doing the job.

I had carried out my first kill in Iraq. It didn't really affect me in any way at the time. To me, it was just a target going down. Afterwards, when you come back to civilian life, you kind of think about it, you have certain dreams about it. But at the time [of the kill] you are happy, excited, anxious – all in one. Time kind of slowed down and then sped up. We had quite a few contacts in Iraq. I remember this guy's face, an Iraqi soldier. I remember looking down and he had been shot. A burst had gone up his body and he had a couple of rounds in the neck and one in the head, which had taken the top of his head off. There was no brain in there but his eyes were sunken and had rolled back. When I got home, it was that kind of image that I kept replaying. It didn't really affect me that day, but sometimes you remember it in your dreams – and that was the face that kept recurring.

I first deployed to Afghanistan with Bravo Company [in March 2007]. We did build-up training in Cyprus. Then we flew to Kandahar airfield. We expected at that point to be in a secure location but with a lot of fighting all around us. It was quite well set up. Our role was as a regional manoeuvre unit, which meant we were going to be mounted up in vehicles and called all over southern Afghanistan to do specific ops.

In Fire Support Company, you have a lot of assets. You have your mortars, your Javelin – an anti-tank weapon. You have your machine-guns, your recce and snipers. We were working with Bravo Company, a rifle company. FSP Company is normally the largest company in the battalion. At one time, it is between 100 and 120 strong.

I remember our first contact in Afghanistan. We were going to move up to FOB Price to do some tasks up there. We were given a time we were to depart from Kandahar, but it had been brought forward. We were going to move by vehicles – for a journey of about six hours to FOB Price. We were travelling in light-skinned WMIKs [armed Land Rovers] and Snatches [lightly armoured Land Rovers]. I was commanding a Snatch. It was night time. We were travelling in the early hours because that was when the Taliban seemed to be at their rest. We'd come out of Kandahar and we were literally a K and a half out of camp when we got contacted. We had prepped our weapons, done everything. We were in convoy. At one point, we were having difficulty with the grenade machine-gun mount, so we stopped just outside the camp, sorted that out, got it mounted. Then we proceeded off – it was 2 or 3 a.m. There was a fire-support element so there were roughly ten vehicles and about sixty people in the convoy.

We were driving down these streets, shops on either side. They were dead: it was quite suspicious-looking. In some parts, it was quite well lit and in others it was not. I was sitting there – and that was when it happened. When I least expected it. RPGs initiated the contact, three or four. The first thing I saw was a blue-green trail from this RPG that landed on the other side of the road. It came at an angle past the windscreen. It was in between the two vehicles: the spacing was short through the town centre, about fifteen metres. We were kind of in a vulnerable position and they [the Taliban] were in a high position on the left-hand side. They were no more than twenty metres away, firing down on to our vehicles. Some were in buildings, some were on rooftops. The buildings are quite odd in Afghanistan: they have rooftops that lead on to verandas. And they [the Taliban] were spread out down this street on the one side. You couldn't really see how many [enemy] there were.

Our SOP – standard operating procedure – is to put fire down in the killing area, then push through it. So instantly we opened up. The two top cover [in the Snatch] were firing, they had a light machine-gun and an assault rifle with a UGL. We had WMIKs in there too. They have grenade machineguns, 50-cal; then they've got GMPGs, which are mounted on the vehicles. Everyone was giving it into likely enemy positions. It was at night and they were firing so they [the Taliban] were quite easily identified from their muzzle flashes. My platoon commander and platoon sergeant were in the lead vehicle and an RPG grounded about a metre away from their vehicle – it just fell short. And all the shrapnel from that tore through the vehicle – a WMIK. Hot metal tore through their kit. My platoon sergeant was driving. Shrapnel flew across the bonnet into his hands, into his face. My platoon commander was shot in the arm. There were volleys of RPGs, there were assault rifles. There was a lot of automatic fire coming down on the positions. A lot of the vehicles had bullet holes in them and stuff like that.

I was in the fourth vehicle. My role was to command my vehicle while top cover got fire off – they put a lot of rounds down. It was hard because our platoon commander and platoon sergeant were out of action. But there was also excitement – like we gave these guys [the Taliban] a fucking hammering.

The fire-fight was quick, less than two or three minutes. After our first vehicle was contacted, we put a heavy rate of fire down. Then we pushed through, out of the killing area, and that is when we came up with our plan: how to out-flank them, how to extract from the area. Because of the injuries that we sustained, we deemed it necessary to get them evacuated so we were given a grid. We withdrew to there, where we stayed for the night, and then we had a helicopter come in and lift out our casualties. But we had fought through and it was later reported that there were six or seven [Taliban] killed because the ANP [Afghan National Police] had to go and identify the bodies. This was our first patrol – and all hell had broken loose. This was – welcome to Afghanistan.

I had seen a lot in Iraq, which had prepared me for Afghanistan. But for a lot of the guys there, this was their first contact and it affected them. One or two were shell-shocked – we all knew 'This is what we're in for,' but they all reacted as they were trained. My platoon sergeant, Mark Moore, and platoon commander, Matt Hughes, were casevaced back to Kandahar, then shipped [flown] on to the UK. They both received shrapnel injuries to various parts of their body. My platoon commander needed an operation on the injuries to his arm.

We left for FOB Price the next morning. I took over the vehicle that my platoon commander and platoon sergeant were in. I commanded that WMIK down there. We drove without incident. I was happy, really, because when I was in the Snatch I was in an enclosed vehicle. You cannot do anything except command and get the guys to do their job. But when you're in a WMIK, you have got your own machinegun on your commander's seat. So, eventually, I was more than happy to get out of the Snatch and into a WMIK – even though there was less protection in a way.

April 2007

Captain George Seal-Coon, The Royal Anglian Regiment

On day two of Op Silicon, we fortified a compound in the Green Zone, near Gereshk, where we stayed for a few days, patrolling and gathering intelligence. There had been a cow living in the compound with a number of chickens. We ensured they stayed alive, and were fed and watered during the few days. This was despite 2 Section's attempts to convince me to allow them to cook the chickens. I didn't think it would be great if the owner turned up and we had barbecued them – and there wouldn't have been enough to go around anyway.

The nephew of the owner eventually turned up to take his cow away. The nephew and the owner himself arrived a couple of days later to pick up his valuables. We had conducted a fairly extensive search of the area when we moved in, only finding a few Afghan dollars. That was it. We put them to one side, ensuring they were safe as we lived there. We showed them through the rooms, apologized for the sandbags on the ceiling and the doors we'd forced open.

The owner then paced out to a spot in the centre of the compound. There was a field of dead and dried opium poppies. He marked a patch of ground and instructed his nephew to dig. After a couple of minutes, he pulled out this bucket of opium resin, which was a bit of a shock to all of us. I'm not sure what the street value was, but that had been beneath our feet all the time. As it was, due to the 'hearts and minds' policy, we decided not to destroy any drugs. I think if we had done so, we would have ended up fighting considerably more than the Taliban. We weren't the Drugs Squad. We were stuck in the middle of their community and we needed as much goodwill as we could get from the farmers and locals – so we left them to it.

April 2007

Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Nieves, The Royal Anglian Regiment

Shortly after we had established ourselves in FOB Robinson, we had orders for the first big operation from the battle group. We moved back to Camp Bastion where we started the battle procedure. Our first op was Op Silicon. There were two companies forward and one in reserve. Primarily, the aim was to clear the Green Zone north of Gereshk and then to establish PBs [patrol bases], thereafter to provide more security. We had to push through the Green Zone and had to then go 'firm' at the limit of exploitation [LOE]. Then the engineers were to come in and build the PBs. There were about 240 Brits altogether, with the ANA in the rear.

Anyway, we were pushing through and clearing the Green Zone – in mid- to late April. 6 Platoon had moved into a small compound in a village area – and that was when we pretty much had our first contact. It was fairly hefty. 6 Platoon was cut off and I had my platoon in the ditch taking fire from three directions. We were taking some quite serious fire. It was about eight thirty in the morning when it kicked off. The first thing was hearing the gunfire from a distance. Then it echoed around and, as we pushed up, we started taking fire as well. It was hard to pinpoint where the fire was coming from. We couldn't see the Taliban but we could hear the crack and we could hear the thump. We could hear RPGs coming over and we could see the trails.

I was the platoon sergeant and it was our first major contact. I had a brand new platoon commander so I was trying to control things, making sure the platoon commander was all right. I was also trying to get amongst the blokes to make sure they didn't get excited and waste all their ammunition. I had three heat casualties at one stage and I was trying to get them sorted out. It was a manic situation.

We were pinned down for a good hour and a half in this ditch taking constant fire, sometimes sporadically and sometimes heavy. Then we got the call – we were told we needed to push forward to link up with the platoon that was cut off. We prepped for that, pushed forward and broke into the village. We then started fighting through the village. From that point on, we were fighting to the LOE.

I was controlling the mortar fire and I got some rounds off at the end. The Vikings had been forward of us and then we started taking fire. To my immediate left was the OC's tac [tactical group]. That was when we identified the Taliban. So, with a few of my guys, we swept through this poppy field. I don't think they [the Taliban] expected us to push that far.

At one point, the Apaches were called in to take care of the Taliban we had spotted in a tree-line. Then there were some Taliban in a compound and the fast air [support] dropped a 500-pounder [bomb] but it didn't detonate. There was a big confab on the radio about what to do. They [the pilots] said: 'There are Brits only 350 metres away. Is it safe [to drop a bomb]?' In the end, they dropped the 1,000-pounder and it was so loud you felt the shock waves. I was about 350 metres away. It was the first time I had experienced a bomb that size go off. We were down in a ditch but what struck me about the Taliban was, almost immediately the bomb had been dropped, they fired some rounds off as if to say: 'We're still here.' All through the day we saw muzzle flashes but we didn't really see the Taliban.

We finally reached the LOE at about 1830 and we were still fighting with a fleeing enemy at that stage. It was a wholeday battle, very intense. One of the young guys – a private of twenty-two or -three – took a nick of shrapnel under one of his eyes. It was nothing serious – it didn't even warrant first aid. Other than the heat casualties, that was our only small injury. But there were twenty to twenty-four casualties [on the Taliban side]. We caught the Taliban on the hop that day. I counted twelve bodies at the LOE – how many we got [killed] extracting I don't know.

It is hard to explain how exhausted we felt at the end of the day. The minimum kit we had was 80–85 pounds plus the Osprey body armour, which weighs a good 35 pounds on top. It soon weighs you down – especially with a heat of 30°C. The adrenalin got most of the guys through but the following day everyone was: 'Fuck, what happened there?' I went around with a camera and got some good photos of all the boys, looking physically exhausted, sat up with all the kit on.

Because it was the first time we came across so many dead Taliban, we had to seek advice from higher up on what to do with the bodies – so that we respected their religion and everything. It was the first time we had pushed that far forward – they [the Taliban] are usually pretty quick about extracting their own bodies and you don't get to see them [dead bodies]. But this was different.

We managed to establish contact with some of the village elders. We got the bodies centralized so the village elders could sort out the burials, which they did. It took me, the company sergeant major and some guys I had hand-picked to move the bodies. It wasn't nice but it had to be done. The smell – you can't train for it. It was not so much the bloodied state of them, it was the smell that will always stay with me. It's hard to describe but I have never smelt anything like it before. After, the men were washing their clothes in a stream because they could still smell it. Later on, we stayed firm for a while to do clearance patrols and I could still smell that smell.

That night we pushed down. There were a couple of small buildings that we had got into. The guys were sleeping beside the vehicles [Vikings]. I certainly didn't get much sleep that night. You were sleeping with one eye open. After fighting all day, it was hard to get to sleep.

7 April 2007 [email home]

Robert Mead, Ministry of Defence press officer

The moment you've all been waiting for is upon us. Today is my last day in fair, sunny, and getting sunnier, Lashkar Gah (I hope – unless, of course, I get bumped off the helicopter flight).

You will all be delighted to know that I don't have time to compose my usual 5,000-worder as my helicopter departs in a few hours and I have vital packing to do, smalls to wash and prayers to Allah, peace be upon him, to complete.

However, there is still some uncertainty concerning my final arrival back on the green and pleasant soil of olde Englande, namely that I was told there was a flight on 10 April, provisionally booked it three weeks ago, only to ring yesterday to confirm and while doing so was rather irritatingly informed that: 'Eh, sir, there isn't a flight on the tenth.'

Great. The flights are now on 9 and 11 April, so I am provisionally booked on the flight home 11 April, arriving Blighty early hours of 12 April or, if I am very lucky, they may be able to squeeze me onto the flight tonight, meaning I will be back at home in the early hours of tomorrow, i.e., Tuesday. Gosh, even to the end it's so exciting.

Either way, for all those who can join me, I shall be having a Great Boo's up in Colchester on Friday where you can all gather round like an episode of Jackanory and I shall regale you, my select selection of bestest chums, with my stories of bravery and gallantry/bore the bleedin bejesus out of you, or at the very least all those who can be orsed [sic] to come out on the pretence that I may buy them a drink. Fat chance.

Whizz-bang (which hopefully is the closest I will come to this sound in the next 24 hrs).

30 April 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

Captain Adam Chapman, 2 Battalion The Mercian Regiment, attached to 4/73 (Sphinx) Special Operations Battery, is twenty-nine. He was born in Gillingham, Kent, one of three brothers. His father served in The Royal Engineers, and they settled in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, when Chapman was five. He left school at eighteen and went to the University of Manchester to do a degree in social policy. It was there that he decided to work in the military, something he had long considered because of his father's career. He eventually joined the Army in early 2003, aged twenty-two. He visited Cyprus, Belize and Malawi with the Army before going on tour to Afghanistan in 2007. Chapman, who is engaged, is based at the 2 Mercians' barracks just outside Belfast.

It's the night before I deploy to Afghanistan on Op Herrick 6. I am taking B Troop of 4.73 Bty [Battery] to bolster the 12 Brigade Recce Forces [BRF] on what is recognized as one of Britain's most demanding deployments in recent years. Not only is it a dangerous op, it is also a dangerous job for all of us and we know it. Our job will be to go and find the enemy. The BRF, already in theatre, have suffered their first casualties: one gunshot wound and three shrapnel wounds after an incident on one of their first missions. This is obviously not the type of news you wish to hear before deploying, but it has to be expected, unfortunately. All I can do is get on with the job. We have been training for this for some time and I am confident of what we have got. My soldiers are volunteers from across the Army, and they are motivated and focused and, most importantly, trained for the job.

Anyway, I'm almost packed and there is little to do but wait. I'm full of anticipation, anxiousness and trepidation. I think the waiting is the worst part but at least my journey begins tomorrow.

3 May

Journey complete. After a relatively comfortable flight on a Tristar to Kandahar, which took seven hours, we then stayed overnight in a very basic terminal. We took a Hercules for the final journey into Camp Bastion. The further the journey went, the more apparent the danger was: coming into Kandahar, we all had to don our helmets and body armour with the lights turned off: a very strange sensation indeed! Then it was helmets and body armour all the way to Bastion.

Camp Bastion is a large, purpose-built camp in the middle of the desert. It's flat, dusty and full of tents and equipment. There's constant activity with construction and movement taking place all over. However, it was relatively quiet as the majority of fighting troops are out on the ground. There's a big op taking place so I wasn't able to see any of my mates from Battalion (who are also on this tour) ...

Bad news today: a young soldier had his leg blown off by a mine on an op (from the Royal Anglians) and a Grenadier Guard was shot in the head. He was flown back to Camp Bastion where he later died. It's strange having this go on close by, especially after getting used to seeing the news on TV. It's not a nice feeling knowing that it could happen to anyone here. Pessimistic as that sounds, the likelihood is that we will come into contact with the enemy – everyone knows that.

We're in temporary accommodation at the moment, but we may not even have any when we return from our first op. I have been sharing a ten-man tent with no air conditioning. It's basic but it's comfortable and that's the main thing. The heat here is intense: at one point the thermometer on my watch read 35°C in the shade! It must be over 40°C at its worst and it's only going to get hotter.

The heat will be a massive factor on how we operate, especially when carrying kit. Even just sat around at lunch I was sweating profusely. We will get acclimatized to it, however, especially as we begin to increase our fitness. There are also flies and bugs everywhere, which are another issue. I'm taking malaria tablets, but there are plenty of other nasty diseases, which have already sent some people home. Finally, the sand and dust: it's so dry and when the wind blows the dust gets everywhere. It leaves a thin layer and gets up your nose, in your eyes ... everywhere!

5 May

Starting to acclimatize now. Obviously the longer you spend out here, the better. We do some phys [physical exercise] every day before 0700 or after 1800 – it's far too hot in between. Yesterday there were another five serious casualties flown back into camp, a combination of gunshot and shrapnel wounds. It was part of a big op in the Sangin valley. During the battle, the mortar platoon fired 600 high-explosive rounds – that's an indication of the severity of things. Every day we hear reports and news of contacts and events. And it's only going to get worse as the summer progresses.

Historically the summer months are the worst for fighting as the opium harvest finishes and there are more fighters, also the winter months are harsh weather-wise. Last summer was bad for the British – a lot died unfortunately. I can see this summer being equal to, if not worse than, last year.

The hospital is in Camp Bastion, so all the casualties (friendly and enemy) are flown in by Chinook, which has been very regular since we've been here. Whenever there is a serious casualty or death, the camp shuts off all ties with the outside world – i.e. Internet and phone – so as yet I've not been able to reach anyone. But I think the phones are working so I will try tonight. I know my parents will be keen to speak especially as they have been worrying a lot – Lisa [his girlfriend] as well.

I received my first letter yesterday, off Scotty [a friend], of all people. Full of humour as usual.

We had our RSOI [reception, staging and onward integration] package today, basically some lectures on Afghanistan, and then we went to zero our weapons [adjust the sights so they are accurate by firing rounds]. It was very hot and the mile or so out to the range was surprisingly sweaty, especially carrying all that kit: the new body armour is massive and extremely heavy. Just found out that a soldier has accidentally shot himself in Garmsir: I'd better use the phones [to ring home] soon!

May 2007

Captain George Seal-Coon, The Royal Anglian Regiment

We were involved in Op Kulang – a big battle group op in the upper Sangin valley. Prior to the main phase of the operation, B Company was tasked to conduct shaping operations south of Sangin. I went out with my OC and another platoon commander for a brief recce to an area called Hyderabad, in the Green Zone, south of Sangin and north of Gereshk. We married up with a company from the 82nd Airborne – Americans. They had just conducted a battalion air assault into this area as part of Op Silicon and had taken part in some fairly heavy fighting. It gave us a good chance to see what they had encountered and get the lie of the land.

We came back to Bastion, had our orders and then pushed out with two platoons' worth of Vikings. On the ground were 7 and 5 Platoons, our mortar-line, FSG [Fire Support Group] B and the OC's tac. The idea was to find concentrations of the Taliban, to disrupt them, and to damage their combat effectiveness. It started off fairly quiet as we headed out into the desert.

The plan was to raid into the Green Zone over a period of four to five days, find and disrupt the Taliban, then extract back into the desert. We started off in a town called Zumbelay, which had been known for some heavy contacts in the past. The other platoon commander and I were expecting things to be fairly serious. That first day we contacted a few sentries who fired RPGs at us. They then legged it. We cleared into Zumbelay a few hundred metres and encountered little else. We then extracted back to the vehicles and moved back to a leaguer [harbour or short stop-off point] in the desert.

The next day we went into Pasab and set up our overwatch. On this occasion, 5 Platoon were kept back on the high ground in reserve. As with the day before, the mortar-line and the FSG, under Company Sergeant Major Snow, set up on a dominating feature. There was a canal that ran along the edge of the fertile Green Zone, separating it from the desert. The village was mostly spread out in the sand with a few compounds dotted amongst the trees on the far side of the canal. We had seen the women and children move out and, getting the familiar rush of adrenalin to the stomach, we began to patrol through the compounds. There were a few elderly people about who told us the Taliban weren't there, had never been there and would never be there – which made us instantly suspicious.

It was not too long after meeting these locals – at about 7 a.m. – when we were contacted from beyond the canal. We engaged this firing point: 1 Section moving quickly into fire positions to suppress it with GPMG and rifles. The Taliban were engaging us with automatic fire – probably from a PKM and AKs. We used an 84mm – a light anti-tank weapon. We saw muzzle flashes and movement amongst the compounds on the other side of the canal but it was often difficult to pinpoint precise enemy positions. As we more or less silenced the first position, 3 Section began to take fire from our left flank and a couple of RPGs crashed into the ground nearby. We had to cross a bit of open ground to properly engage these positions, so I got 3 Section to put heavy fire down onto the enemy as we moved to a better position.

The Taliban were often very mobile, not carrying a lot of weight, and they liked to try and get around our flanks. We occupied this compound and continued to suppress these two positions. It became apparent there was movement in the branches of the trees about fifty metres away. Corporal Parker gave his whole section 'rapid fire' into this new target, whereupon two Taliban fighters dropped dead from the trees into the canal.

With these two fighters gone, it quietened down for a couple of minutes. We got orders to put in a bit of deception as if we were going to cross the canal, to try to draw some fire from the enemy, the idea being to pinpoint their position and to engage them with the FSG. We threw a bit of smoke, notionally to give cover, then ramped up our fire and shouted a few commands. This seemed to work and the Taliban began to fire into the smoke, giving their positions away. They were only thirty to fifty metres away, on the other side of a ditch. We and the FSG poured a heavy rate of fire onto them, quickly silencing the positions. We had effectively done an arc around this village and the OC gave the orders to pull out. But I was not keen to run my guys over the open ground, in full view of the enemy's old positions. The Vikings were sent forward and we piled into the back of the vehicles. During this time, we fired mortars onto the positions to cover our extraction. At a guess we were fighting a little over a section's worth of Taliban [eight men].

On day three, we moved into an area called Hyderabad, setting up our fire support on a higher feature, dismounting and patrolling in on foot along the desert and in the compounds. We saw a number of civilians, some fleeing into the desert, but many who stayed amongst the compounds. We spoke with a few elders, trying to put out the message that we were there for security at the request of the Afghan government: we weren't the enemy. We even arranged a shura [meeting] for the afternoon.

It was an hour or so after dawn. We asked the locals in Pasab if they had seen the Taliban. They told us they had never been there. At just that moment, we heard a burst of automatic fire, from 5 Platoon's position ahead of us. We got close enough to support them. This involved a dash between compounds and along narrow alleyways. 5 Platoon had pushed up to a couple of fairly large compounds and it was there they had taken fire from a medium machine-gun. We also received intelligence that the Taliban might be moving around to strike us. 5 Platoon established a fire-base on the roofs of the two compounds and started to suppress this enemy position.

I was concerned about hanging around to the rear of 5 Platoon, with so little cover. Spotting a deep irrigation ditch to our flank, I moved the platoon there. It was a bit too crowded. Within seconds, there was a very large explosion – from a mortar – twenty or thirty metres away, on top of our last position just as one of the section commanders, Corporal Stef Martin, was getting down into cover. He landed pretty much on top of me. He was hit, not too badly but he had taken some frag through his upper arm, passing through his triceps. Another mortar then landed a little further away.

The FSG were up on the high ground and spotted the mortar position – a puff of smoke and the area it came from. We got air to look into it. It was a B1 bomber overhead that properly identified the position and dropped a large 2,000-pound bomb on it. We took no more mortar fire afterwards. Corporal Martin had the medic pick the frag out, bandage him up tightly and he cracked on.

We had orders from the OC to advance into the built-up areas. In some of the bigger compounds we used bar mines to blow our way through the walls as opposed to cutting across open areas in full view. We were moving forward in bounds. We went through house-clearance drills. There was a chance of running into civilians in the area and we didn't want to cause any unnecessary casualties. The OC tasked my platoon to move forwards to the area of a bridge, more or less on the position we'd stayed, during our recce. We closed up towards the canal pushing through a graveyard. I dropped off one section in over-watch and I held myself and 2 Section back as 3 Section advanced on the left flank through a fertile poppy or cornfield. It was five feet plus full of crops so it gave a bit of cover from view. They advanced up to a mound forty metres short of the bridge. The ground on the other side of the river was visible. You had about fifty metres of open ground that sloped upwards to compounds on the other side. There were compounds left and right of the slope.

We were being very cautious at this point, having already been in contact and knowing the bridge would be a perfect spot for us to be ambushed. We did have ladders as an alternative means of crossing but they were too short to ford the canal. Just before he moved, Corporal [Stu] Parker said he was going to take a couple of guys to check the bridge out just in case it had been IEDed [booby-trapped with an improvised explosive device]. We had an irrigation ditch on our right-hand side and decided that if we got contacted it would be a good place to take cover. Just as he broke cover from the tree-line on the edge of the ditch, there was a whoosh and an RPG came from the compounds on the far side, shooting over our heads and exploding ten metres behind us. Everyone piled into the ditch pretty rapidly. The Section 2IC, Lance Corporal Stevie Veal, was knocked out briefly by this blast but was uninjured and was dragged into cover. Corporal Parker jumped into the ditch and 3 Section opened up on their side and started to suppress these positions. For a few minutes it felt like everything was coming at us. Parky lost count at seventeen RPGs in the first five minutes of fighting. I jumped into the ditch with 2 Section, up to our waists in water, and pushed forward, trying to get eyes on the enemy position. It was difficult to see forward without leaving cover because of the foliage. Parky had brought a couple of GPMG gunners with him. They managed to scramble out of the ditch into a decent firing position. I pushed forward and got some pretty good eyes on, keeping Lance Corporal Veal's fire team back to provide flank protection. Ironically, the compound we were taking the most fire from was one we had spent three nights in less than a week previously.

I managed to send a full contact report over the radio, having had to scramble half out of the ditch to get comms. We moved back a short distance and Stevie Veal shot two Taliban, trying to outflank us. One of his blokes, Gilly [Private Gillmore], had been injured in the thigh by the first RPG but was still engaging the Taliban with LMG [light machine-gun] fire. After those two [Taliban] had been killed, it quietened down a little on that flank.

At that stage, we were just over a hundred metres from the main enemy position – it was mostly open ground between us. I had not heard anything from 1 Section over the net so I was quite concerned. I couldn't get hold of them [on the radio]. I pushed back along the ditch another thirty metres, leaving Parky to carry on the fire-fight and taking Gilly with me to where I expected to be able to find the OC. I couldn't find Mick [Major Mick Aston] but met with the Viking troop commander who told me that 5 Platoon had also been contacted to the flank. I then heard over the net that we had taken further casualties – two privates injured by fragmentation. I couldn't get hold of the platoon sergeant because he had been trying to casevac them. There was also our medic, Corporal McLaughlan, who was shot in the gut and he was in a pretty serious way. He had been shot just outside the compound and was dragged into cover, under heavy fire, by Private Ronnie Barker, who started to administer first aid. Ronnie was only a team medic, not experienced in putting in an IV drip, and Mac was bleeding pretty heavily. Mac managed to talk him through the process, despite the pain. He was a T1 [critical] casualty so it was absolutely vital that we got him back as quickly as possible. The round had gone under his body armour and exited out of his lower back. The two guys who had been fragged were not as serious but it was still a concern. They were suppressed in the compound, unable to exit through the doors due to enemy fire.

1 Section had an engineer with a hoodlum bar [a large crowbar] and he smashed through the rear wall of the compound to get the casualties out. Having sustained casualties and completed our task in the area, we were ordered to pull out. I asked the Vikings to push forward so we could prepare our extraction back. It was annoying, not assaulting the enemy, but there was no way we could cross the canal with the kit we had, without taking serious casualties. We put down a heavy rate of rapid fire to give the rear section enough time to get out and enable us to push the Vikings forward, then piled into the back of the vehicles. We were effectively the last troops out of the area. I jumped into the last Viking, nicely burning myself on 2 Section's GPMG as I did so. At least that raised a smile! We stopped for a quick head count and extracted back to an HLS. We got our casualties into the back of the Chinook and away.

Five casualties was quite a big deal – although everyone survived. The contact had gone on for over an hour and, without indirect fire and with 1 Section's casualties, all we could do was sit tight and kill as many of them as possible. We were getting low on ammunition by the end of it. It was one of those few occasions when you think: Hang on a minute. We could be in the shit here. This might be real trouble. In the final contact we saw about eight Taliban killed but it's hard to tell if there were more – I'm not sure about 5 Platoon's BDA [battle-damage assessment]. The Taliban are good at getting their casualties and dead away and we didn't assault into the enemy position. Later that day we received orders to return to FOB Robinson. That afternoon, we had a mine strike and Sergeant [now Warrant Officer 2, Keith] Nieves and a couple of others were badly injured, with Private Nadriva, Keith's mortar man, rescuing him from the front of a burning Viking. Fortunately, no one was killed but it was a fairly hairy day.

11 May 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

I'm finally on the ground, probably as far from home as I could possibly be. I've arrived in the town of Garmsir with an advanced party of TSM [troop sergeant major], patrol commanders and signallers. The rest of the troop arrive in two days. Garmsir is basically the front-line against the Taliban. We are the furthest south of any friendly troops and the enemy have to come past us on their journey north from Pakistan. Garmsir is a ghost town: it's seen nothing but fighting for some time now. The Taliban occupy positions to our south; there is a trench system they use to get up close and occupy, before attacking friendly positions.

These positions consist of the main base called Delhi and then two smaller positions, JTAC Hill and the Eastern Checkpoint, where Guardsman Davison was killed last week. I'll spend most of my time in Delhi, which is an old derelict compound surrounded by a wall and barbed wire. It is only approx. 200 metres in length and width and there are no facilities – it's completely barren. We are very isolated here; as such we must conserve everything. At the moment we will get one litre of [bottled] water a day – the rest comes from a well. There are no fresh rations, electricity, gas, etc. We will get a resupply by helicopter roughly once a week and once a week a large convoy brings supplies down to us.

There are TICs [troops in contact] every day. Just as I arrived, our troops were firing mortars onto suspected enemy positions. But I am calm now and not as worried as I thought I would be. Even on the flight down from Bastion I was fine although I knew I'd be getting off the heli in one of the most dangerous places in the world ...

I'm really looking forward to this. In a few days, we'll be patrolling and operating, which is an exciting prospect. We're sure to see some action. I don't want to sound flippant or macho but that is what I'm here for, and I know my lads feel the same. It's the pinnacle of soldiering and it beats sitting in an office. I wonder how I'll feel in a few months' time.

May 2007

Warrant Officer Class 2 Pete Lewis, The Mercian Regiment

Warrant Officer Class 2 Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant (RQMS) Pete Lewis, 2 Battalion The Mercian Regiment, is forty. He was born and brought up in Nottingham, the son of a factory engineer. He had two sisters, but one died during his 2007 tour. Lewis left school at sixteen and worked for the next five years as a bricklayer. He joined the Army in October 1990 and has served for nearly two decades in the Mercians. During that time, he has been on four tours of Northern Ireland, two of Bosnia and two of Afghanistan. He is married with three children, and is based at the Mercians' barracks outside Belfast.

Before we arrived [in Afghanistan], it was a constant worry for me how our men would react. How would they react last thing at night before going to bed and first thing in the morning? But from day one, as soon as we were out there, every man in the company was awesome.

You hear of people refusing to go back on the ground once they have been in heavy contact. We had none of that. We were lucky in the respect that we were a floating company. We spent about ten days in [Camp] Bastion acclimatizing, and then we went to Sangin for two months. I was a company sergeant major in Grenadier Company. I would say I was a dad to the company, some of whom were only eighteen years old. I am the senior soldier. There's not a lot that happens in the company that doesn't come through me in one way or another.

There were anything from 90 to 120 men in our company. My job is about discipline. The sergeant major has got to work closely with the OC. If they don't get on, then the company doesn't function. I was lucky: I had two OCs on the tour and they were both very, very good. They were very soldier-oriented. And because we spent those large periods of time out on the ground, it was a case of hardships shared. The blokes were eating rations; we were eating rations. The blokes were shitting in oil drums; we were shitting in oil drums. The blokes were burning the shit; we were burning the shit. The blokes were in contact; we were in contact. So the cohesion of the company just grew and grew and grew all the way through the tour.

Sangin was relatively quiet. We had perhaps five or six contacts within those first two months. The only casualty we had was an Afghan interpreter, who got shot through the femur. That was after a thirty-eight-hour push-out. We were coming back into the DC [base] at Sangin. It was around 1400 hours so it was pretty warm. We had a heat casualty on the way back in. I was on foot for this op so a quad bike came out and picked him up, which fixed us on the ground for about thirty minutes. In hindsight, this enabled them [the Taliban] to put the ambush in on us. Because we had gone static, they could predict our movements. It was only two and half K back to base and they picked their spot.

They opened up from across a canal with heavy machinegun. Luckily, we were within the arcs of the DC tower so they had their heavy weapons, which opened straight up. Compared to some of the contacts the boys were in, that was short, only fifteen or twenty minutes. We gave the casualty first aid, then extracted him back on foot with a casevac team. He was picked up in a Chinook. The interpreter was twenty-four or -five and he had worked with us for the first month and a half.

The first confirmed kill we got was at a village near Sangin. We got a Taliban who was quite high up in that district. The boys had gone in to clear a compound and this guy came running out. He had a weapon and he was shot.

Looking back, the only plus about Sangin was that it had a canal running through the base so it was a respite for the boys every day to jump in and cool off.

I think Sangin was a massive reality check for the blokes, me as well. I had never lived on rations for more than three weeks. But we were on rations for two months solid. When we went into Sangin, all our water came out of the rivers from the Royal Engineers' Life Support [and was treated] so it tasted of chlorine. But Sangin was a good staging point for the boys. It got their battle fitness up and it got them used to the heat.

13 May 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

Despite getting up at 02.20, I had a really good day, and saw my first real bit of action, although not personally involved. I went up onto JTAC Hill to watch the other platoon's mission unfold. At first light they hit a compound with several antitank rockets and lots of machine-gun fire. The plan was then to extract to ambush positions and wait for the enemy. They engaged an enemy, with covering indirect fire support. I was in a position to watch as the 81mm mortar and 105mm shells whistled over my head and impacted a few hundred metres ahead. Very impressive to watch and the noise was phenomenal! Any enemy on the receiving end would have been pulverized (but I am dubious). The platoon commander is a Grenadier Guard called Andy. He is a really nice bloke and very professional and capable.

I then drove over to FOB Dwyer to pick up the rest of the troop. Dwyer is where the big 105mm guns are located and is basically a shit-hole in the middle of the desert. It's a pain to drive there but there is no heli landing site at Delhi and I doubt the pilots would want to land there anyway. The lads are in good spirits but some are a little apprehensive. After all, Garmsir is supposedly one of the worst places to be. To be honest, I think it has been built up a little and is not as bad as many make out.

I then went out on a foot patrol in the blistering heat of the afternoon but it was very useful to see the ground. We patrolled through Garmsir centre, which was once busy but is now nothing more than a ghost town, very eerie, almost looked like a Wild West town. The only people we saw were the Afghan National Police, who were too zonked out on drugs to care much!

15 May

We conducted our first patrol last night and it was a relatively successful operation. Purely in the fact that everyone came back safe and that will always be the main thing. I honestly believe that had we encountered the enemy there would have been problems. Luckily we didn't. There was a large contact at JTAC Hill before we left. You could actually see tracer rounds going over our heads in camp and hear the zip of bullets as they flew overhead. A lot of rounds were fired over about an hour and fighter jets flew in to try to find and destroy the enemy.

It was an odd feeling sat here knowing we would be out there very shortly. I was not as nervous as I thought I might have been, going into one of the world's most dangerous places at night. In fact, I was strangely calm ...

28 May 2007

McNab: A sad landmark. A mine strike caused the death of the fiftieth British serviceman killed since Britain moved into Helmand province. Corporal Darren Bonner, thirty-one, served with 1 Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment. He was a committed Christian and had a fiancée. He had been seen by comrades reading the Bible the night before he died. Major Dom Biddick, the commander of A Company, was in the driver's seat when the mine hit his Viking armoured fighting vehicle, but the blast struck the rear. Biddick said of Bonner: 'He genuinely cared about the people of Afghanistan and it is a source of some consolation to those that knew him that he died on operations contributing to a noble cause.'

May/June 2007

Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Nieves, The Royal Anglian Regiment

It was 16 May and we were carrying out 'shaping' operations on the edge of the Green Zone: trying to shape the enemy to let them know we were there. We were trying to push into certain pockets, certain villages where we knew they had enemy strongholds. It was a show of force. After pushing through in the day, we would then move back into the desert away from it at night. And the next morning we would push into another village. So we were fighting in the Green Zone but we were living in the desert [at night] by the Vikings. We were two platoons strong with company tac [tactical support group] and attachments – the [Royal] Engineers, etc., etc. We are talking about 120-plus men in all – there were 5 and 7 Platoons, and we had an ANA attachment as well.

For the whole trip, we had contacts. We pushed into the first village, Zumbelay, I think. We did a bit of firing and pushed back into the desert, rested up for the night and did exactly the same on the second day, this time in the village of Pasab. On the third day, we went to another town – Hyderabad. We set off at about 8 a.m. – we were running a bit late because we were having difficulty getting in with the vehicles. As we were moving through, I saw some locals and thought: This isn't so bad. At least there are some locals down there. I said to my platoon commander: 'Boss, you need to question that guy to see if there have been any Taliban in the area.' He [the local man] said there had been no Taliban in the area for a long time.

I remember pushing through this small pocket and coming out the other end and there was a massive bit of open ground rising upwards slightly. On the top of a hill there was a compound that stood on its own. And then there was a horrific contact. I'd heard nothing like it in my life. It had come out of nowhere. I got the boys down. But, in fact, the fire was not on us. It was on the vehicles on the high ground, which were over-watching our movement.

By now it was about 11 a.m. We decided to break into the compound on top of the high ground. Once we got into it, we started to take mortar fire onto us. We had broken in because we were keen to have somewhere a bit more secure, to get us out of the open ground and into some more adequate cover. Until then, we had had the platoon spread across the open ground. We pinpointed where the Taliban were and fast air came in dropping 500-pounders. We eventually cleared the compound that the Taliban were fighting from, and it all went quiet.

After that there was a lull. It calmed down so we got the orders from high to move through Hyderabad. The village went into a triangle with a bridge crossing at the point where the village ended. I had my platoon [5 Platoon] in a graveyard and 7 Platoon pushed further forward. Then they got ambushed at the river crossing. They took two casualties at that stage. And the fire-fight we had from there was horrific. We couldn't see the Taliban but they were out-flanking us and it was then we took the call that the Vikings were coming down and we had to get the casualties from the other platoon up. I had one medic with me, but I couldn't send him up because we were under fire from small arms. We didn't see the Taliban at all that day but we knew there were a lot of men.

My instinct was to get the guns up [fire] on the trees, which the Taliban were using as a firing point. We were firing GPMGs. From there, the Vikings came down and extracted the casualties under fire. We got the casualties back, but it was a frantic moment. Certainly, as platoon sergeant out there [in Afghanistan], I had two big fears – a mine strike and that I would [inadvertently] leave one of my guys on the ground. And at one moment [during the fire-fight], I couldn't account for all my blokes and they were getting thrown in the back of the vehicles to get extracted. It was quite an unsettling moment for me. I was responsible for thirty-four guys, but I didn't have a hand on how many had been extracted. I had my little book to tick people off with all the names on like a school register – for peace of mind for me – but I didn't really have a hand on it until I got back on top. But once I realized all the men were there I calmed down. I said to myself: 'I don't need many more days like this.'

We then took a call, which hit the blokes hard, that we [the British forces] had had our first two major casualties. One guy was shot by small arms in his stomach. The other had shrapnel wounds from an RPG. Then a Chinook flew in and the casualties were extracted. The guy who was shot had serious injuries, but they were not life-threatening. We then took a call that we were going to extract back to FOB Robinson to recoup the boys – give them a rest. It was now 2 or 3 p.m. So we all loaded up into the Vikings. At that stage, I took my belt off – the webbing with all the pouches. On the route back we had the WMIK in front. I was the lead platoon so I had the Vikings in convoy and we were moving across a desert. It was a big convoy: we had a good fifteen Vikings and six or seven WMIKs along with a refuelling truck. I was the fourth Viking in the packet. We were moving forward, and that's all I remember.

Suddenly I woke up as if I was in a dream: the cab was covered with smoke. I couldn't see anything, and I couldn't hear anything. There was a ringing in my ears. I sort of woke myself up. I looked down at the door – where the mine had hit – although I didn't know I had been hit by a mine at that stage. But the mine strike had blasted the doors ajar slightly, just enough to put an arm or leg out, but not to squeeze my body through. I initially went for the door because I thought: Fuck, I've got to get out of here quick. But I couldn't get out so I sat back down. I saw the whole engine block was on fire on my left-hand side. I just remember feeling the heat and I thought: Fucking hell! I have got to get out of this vehicle! We had four of us in the front cab: me, the driver, the gunner sitting on top and I had my 51 [mortar] man sitting on the seat behind me. In the back cab – because it's a twin cab – I had seven guys: five engineers, a medic and an additional sniper, but they were essentially OK.

It was the right-hand door of the cab that I could not get open. The engine block was all ablaze. I saw my 51 man sitting on the floor in shock so I shouted to him: 'Get me out of this fucking vehicle.' Luke [Private Luke Nadriva] managed, with the driver, to squeeze the [crumpled] armour and I slipped out of the vehicle. As I slipped out, the door shut and all the skin peeled off my arm where it had been burnt. I took a couple of steps and fell over. I had a quick look to make sure my foot was there and it was. So then I started crawling back to try and get away. Being a reserve vehicle, it was full of ammunition. I didn't know where anyone was at the time. It all happened in a split second. And the casualties were starting to get extracted. There were four casualties in total because the front cab got the brunt of the blast. It was me and the driver, who were worst off. The 51 man behind me had minor burns to his arms and the gunner had burns to his arms and his face.

The Viking was smoking: there was thick black smoke. I got dragged to the rear of the sergeant major's vehicle. I was then treated on the ground by a medic and I got put onto the Chinook. I remember flying back. I had this pain in my right foot, but I was more worried about my bloody eyes. The blast had blown all my eyelashes off and I was getting dust in my eyes. I remember screaming out for a damp cloth so I could get all the dust out of them. After that I couldn't take my boot off. I wanted to check my foot was still intact. I didn't have morphine on the ground because I didn't want it. But once I got onto the Chinook and I knew everyone was safe, I had some. I could feel my right foot swelling up. I knew it wasn't right. It was bloody sore. The driver was more seriously hurt than me. He was having trouble breathing because he had a lot of inhalation burns so he was in a bad way.

The MERT [medical emergency response team] was on board the Chinook so it was a case of a paramedic giving me morphine. I don't remember much after that. I remember getting put onto the ambulance at Bastion on the HLS. I remember getting into the hospital. I then went in to have surgery to remove the shrapnel from my wrist and to treat all the burns on my arms. From there, I was fast-balled and got put on a plane [still on the same day] and taken back to Kandahar. I got stabilized and then put on a plane to the UK and I was in Birmingham within twenty-four hours, at Selly Oak Hospital. I didn't know the damage to my foot until I got to Selly Oak. By this stage, all my head had swollen up as well because of the flash burns. My eyes had swollen shut. I was put on the burns unit for a week and I had to wait for the swelling to go down in my foot before they could operate on it.

But I had a consultant look at it and I had the X-rays and everything. I knew it was repairable but I also knew it was in a pretty bad way and it would never be the same again. My heel had shattered and was subsequently reconstructed with a [metal] plate and many pins. I have had four operations: two on my right foot, another to repair a tendon in my left wrist and one to take out the shrapnel. Altogether I was in hospital just under a month. I don't feel it's the end of my Army career. I'm on the mend. I have another eight years' service left – so I might as well do them.

18 May 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

Last night and today were significant in that incidents occurred which brought home the realities of war for the first time. I had a section on JTAC Hill that called on indirect fire from the 105mm guns to assist in destroying an enemy position. However, somewhere along the chain, a grave error was made. This resulted in a local village being shelled. Very soon after, a number of civilian casualties were brought to [Camp] Delhi for help, some serious. Unfortunately, some died. The rest were airlifted to Kandahar for treatment. [Chapman has asked for it to be pointed out that the error was not made by troops on the ground.]

The next morning a group of men arrived at our front gate in Delhi, obviously upset, angry and seeking answers. A few of us went out to speak to them and there were some heated debates. I stood back and John (a captain whose job it is to liaise with the locals) and an interpreter dealt with things as best they could. Shortly after this, a vehicle with more men and the body of a young child arrived. Not a very nice scene; emotions were running high and understandably so.

That afternoon my troop was tasked to go down to the village with John on a 'hearts and minds' patrol to see what we could do to help and appease the locals. After all, it's essential to maintain their support. We were worried how they would react so it was potentially a dangerous situation for us.

The patrol was successful: although extremely angry, they [the locals] eventually came to understand it was an accident, albeit a devastating and fatal one. They showed us damage to buildings and a cow that was killed by shrapnel. By the end, I was sat down on a rug with John and some senior local men drinking chai [like tea]. It's a very nice drink. I hope the opium fields and cannabis bushes around the compound had nothing to do with it!

The Afghans are hospitable and friendly, and I felt sorry for them. They live simple lives, in poverty by our standards, and wish only to live in peace. They don't want the Taliban and they don't want us. It's a difficult situation made even more so by dropping [a bomb] on them by accident. But unfortunately that is the reality of modern warfare. It is usually the civilians who suffer the most. But in Afghanistan the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the locals is essential. Without it, we won't succeed. I just hope that we avoid any other incidents. Tonight there'll be some individuals with a lot on their conscience.

I spoke briefly to Mum and Lisa [his girlfriend] last night as there are satellite phones I can use here. Both were surprised to hear from me, so it's good for them to know I am OK. Reassurance is all they can get really ...

22 May

Another busy and significant period. Yesterday there were a number of contacts on the check-points and a member of the ANA died on the Eastern Check-point, but not through enemy action. It's believed it was either a heart-attack or a drugs' overdose. His body is in the camp awaiting pick-up.

The troop also took part in its second major op as part of the company mission to stir up some trouble in Objective Snowdon, before air and artillery hit the Taliban. The plan was for my platoon to get into a fire-support position to provide cover for 3 Platoon's strike on the objective: air and artillery would then destroy any enemy in the area. All was going well until we got close to the fire-support location. We then spotted approx. seven to nine enemy in a wood-line to our south. I made the decision that it would be unsafe to move any further south. I got permission to engage the enemy and did so. My platoon fired a few hundred rounds – rifle and machinegun (I fired about half a magazine). But the real damage was done firing a Javelin anti-tank missile (costs nearly £70,000 and is heat-seeking) and four ILAWs (interim light anti-armour weapons – about £10,000 each). Total enemy killed was about five with many more injured in the follow-up mortar and artillery strike that covered our withdrawal. We got back to [Camp] Delhi and I was very happy. In my eyes a successful op: we killed and injured several Taliban whilst taking no casualties ourselves.

24 May 2007

Flight Lieutenant Christopher 'Has' Hasler, DFC, RAF

This was a special day. I went to Buckingham Palace to collect my DFC from the Queen. My folks came over from Canada. My parents, Michael and Mary Margaret, flew over from Ottawa. My younger sister, Olivia – we call her Livvy – who works in human resources back home, flew over from Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was so nervous that, even two minutes after getting my award, I couldn't remember a word the Queen said to me. But we all [including other decorated RAF men] went to have lunch at Claridge's. All the boys from work got on their number ones [their formal blue RAF uniforms] and we all got pretty drunk in town. It was a day to remember.

26 May 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

Today is a very sad day here in [Camp] Delhi: the mood is sombre and quiet. Another young soldier [Guardsman Probyn] has died and two others have had to have legs amputated after there was an explosion on their patrol. Exactly what happened is unknown as yet, but 3 Platoon were on a routine patrol when it happened at around 0100. Over the next couple of hours everybody battled hard to get the injured to safety and to the helicopter, and then to Bastion. Everyone did what they could but it was chaotic and frustrating not being able to help more. I've got two soldiers who are a little upset and slightly shocked. They were personally involved in moving the dead and injured. Their angst is understandable: a young man shouldn't ever have to see the bloody and mutilated remains of another young man who was alive and well alongside us only a few hours before.

The scary thing is that it could have been my troop who got hit: we do the same job in the same places, and we've been to the same area. Fate, I suppose.

3 June 2007

Lance Corporal Daniel Power, The Royal Welsh

There is one particular contact that I will always remember. We had been tasked to go up to Tarin Kowt, in the Oruzgan province, to help the Dutch. They were carrying out a reconstruction role and they were getting a lot of stick [from the Taliban] up there. So we had been tasked to do certain ops up there. It was a full Bravo Company which was sixty blokes, in WMIKs and Snatches. We got there no problem at all. We did ops in the TK [Tarin Kowt] Bowl. There were a lot of Green Zones there: we were trying to draw them [the Taliban] out of the Green Zones and hit them. We didn't really want to go into the Green Zones due to our [small] numbers because it was such a vast area.

We had seen sporadic contacts up there, nothing to talk about. Then, after two weeks, we were due to leave Tarin Kowt for a vehicle move down to Kandahar – an eight-hour drive. This was daytime. We set off first thing – six or seven in the morning. It was still dark when we got in the vehicles.

Prior to this we had had a hint [intelligence] that there were 200 Taliban on the route we were going to take back. They had been seen there earlier. Some hints you pay attention to – and this was one of them because it seemed like good information. It was known that the Taliban were going to do a surge out on the ground – a mass surge. We were quite apprehensive. You think: Two hundred guys. That's a lot. We had between sixty and seventy guys.

But after we had been on the road for about half an hour, it started to come light. We were driving down. We split the convoy into two packets – two groups so we were not one big target. It was planned that if one of the packets was contacted, we could manoeuvre the other to help out if needed. There were about sixteen vehicles: two groups of eight. There was only 150 metres between the two: close enough to support each other but a bit of spacing too. I was in the second vehicle of the second packet – in a WMIK. It was quite picturesque. It's quite funny because you are in one of the world's most dangerous places and there are some quite picturesque views on the way down.

We had been on the road travelling for roughly an hour and a half and then we came to a winding road through the terrain. On the right-hand side, there was a high-rise bank, and there were small buildings dotted around the place. And on our left-hand side there was a lot of foliage and trees that were slightly higher than head height. Then, again on the left, the ground dipped down slightly and there was a lot of dead ground down there. Just beyond that, in the far distance, there were mountains all around us. The first packet had gone out of sight completely, when we heard a lot of machine-gun fire coming down. It then came over the net [radio network] that there was a contact. And that was when we started to receive incoming: mortar rounds landing in and around our position on the road. Then they fired their first RPGs. They [the Taliban's weapons] were set at different ranges. They like to have their guys set at different ranges. Normally an ambush is a linear one, but this seemed like a

360°: they were firing from both sides. They were firing from right and left, up the road. So it was like a 360? ambush. The ambush was quite long – I think it lasted for twenty minutes. I was on a WMIK so I was firing and commanding. I was firing my GPMG. The enemy are quite brazen as well – some of them are on drugs. There were rounds landing in the engine block, through the bonnet. Basically, the platoon commander at that point decided to hold back the second packet while he formulated a plan. But due to the terrain, there was really only one way you could go. And that was forward. There was a vehicle in front of us that had gone firm – making itself a hard target for the enemy – and the road was only really wide enough to take one vehicle. My vehicle started taking rounds, so I got my driver to edge forwards slightly, then reverse back slightly, then drive forward. Then we identified a building on the left, where armed gunmen had been seen running into cover. So the vehicle in front got an NLAW – a light anti-tank weapon – and fired that into the position. I got my top cover to fire into the position too, with the machine-gun. The compound was 300 metres away. We were smashing the fuck out of this compound. My bonnet was strewn with empty cases because my top cover had used quite a substantial amount of ammo. Then, as I was firing, these two gun men ran thirty or forty metres away into dead ground – ground you cannot see between you and the enemy. They must have been withdrawing from [a fire-fight with] the first packet when we spotted them. That was when I had one of them in my sights and I gave it a couple of bursts and that was when he dropped. It killed him. Then the top cover fired at the other one. It wasn't seen if he had killed him.

While this was going on, we received the go-ahead that we could push through. Mortars were still coming down in and around the area. As we came around this corner, the first thing I saw was a WMIK from the first packet on its side – on fire. It was one of the most horrible times of my life. My immediate thought was: Someone's dead; one of our guys is dead. Can we identify whose vehicle it is? We had desert bergen [rucksack] covers – DPM [disruptive pattern material]. There were a couple of them on fire on the floor and, at first glance, it looked to me like a couple of the guys. So at one point I thought that the vehicle had been hit and the crew had been killed. But it turned out that the vehicle had been hit and could no longer carry on so our forces had denied [to the enemy] the vehicle and the equipment that was on there. If we have to abandon a vehicle, we try to take what we can, then we blow it up. You throw a grenade or another explosive in there. That was what had happened.

After the contact was over, we assessed the damage. We had no fatalities but we had four serious casualties. Bravo Company's OC had a serious injury to his face and one of our guys [from Fire Support Company] had been shot in the leg, and later lost it. One of the guys from Recce Platoon had been shot through the back of the leg, which had shattered his kneecap. Fusilier Damien Hields [who was later awarded the MC for his bravery that day] was shot: the round came through the side of his body armour but, instead of penetrating his ribs, it ricocheted around and came out again. He carried on firing his grenade machine-gun despite his injuries. But we secured an HLS to get our casualties back to [Camp] Bastion. Eventually, two Apaches and a Black Hawk helicopter arrived but we were out of contact by that point. They were firing in the distance – engaging contacts – [Taliban] targets that were withdrawing.

A lot of the other vehicles as well had been damaged, including two of the Snatches. One Snatch was no longer operable: two wheels had been blown up on one side and an RPG had hit it but it hadn't detonated. But the windscreens were all bowed in where they had stopped the rounds. We called in an Apache gun-ship which destroyed the Snatch. A lot of kit was denied to the enemy because we couldn't take it back. So, in all, we had to leave behind one of the WMIKs and a Snatch – they were written off.

Basically we were still on this road for four to five hours before we got back to Kandahar. We were quite happy to be out there, quite excited, but still, whenever someone gets injured in your team, you feel for them. But then you have to put that to the back of your mind and crack on with the job in hand. Who was to say that we wouldn't get contacted again? So we got our weapons squared and just moved off. But there were no more contacts after that. We had a report that more than forty-five Taliban had been confirmed killed. It was believed the ambush had involved more than a hundred insurgents.

When we finally reached Kandahar, I took a look at my vehicle. There were quite a lot of bullet holes. I looked in the headrest of my seat and there was a hole there. I stuck my finger in and pulled out a round – a 762 short – the Taliban had actually fired at the vehicle. You could still see the swirls on the barrel [of the bullet] where it had been fired through the rifle. And I remember thinking how different that could have been. A couple of inches to the left and it would have been all over for me. At any time, in a contact you can be only two inches away from life or death.

6 June 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

It seems that I am only writing in this [diary] occasionally at the moment. That's probably as I've not actually done much, just been in the same routine. Unfortunately I've just found out that a soldier killed today in the Gereshk area was someone I knew. L Cpl Paul ['Sandy'] Sandford was in my platoon back in Battalion. He was shot dead today as my old company were in a large contact. I don't know much else. It's very upsetting as I knew him personally. I bumped into him just before coming out here. It was great to see each other and share a joke or two: we always did. The last thing he told me was that he got married; now he's dead and she's a widow. I know he will be sorely missed by all who knew him – he was a great lad.

Rest in peace, Sandy.

June 2007

Captain Dave Rigg, MC, The Royal Engineers

There had been speculation for some time that I might get decorated for what I had done at Jugroom Fort [retrieving Lance Corporal Mathew Ford's body under fire]. I was on a course in Wales, and my colonel back in Germany, Colonel Phil Sherwood, told me on the phone that I had been awarded the Military Cross – the MC. It was a wonderful honour to be recognized. There had been a lot of acts of bravery and exceptional soldiering feats – even during my short period out there – but very few of them receive official recognition. I was very proud but I also felt a sense of guilt that the other three guys who had volunteered weren't honoured too.

19 June 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

This time tomorrow I'll have deployed on Op Bataka, the biggest op down here in a long time and the brigade's main effort. Over 700 [men] will be involved and my troop has an integral part as one of three assaulting platoons. I'm pretty excited as it will be a dangerous op, crossing the canal for the first time and clearing enemy positions. We'll be fixing bayonets, which is not something I ever envisaged doing, especially in 2007 – it's not 1917! But it's something impressive to have done especially as an infanteer [infantryman].

After the op, the [Grenadier] Guards go north and A Company, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, will take over, which I am looking forward to as they are a different bunch, my bunch.

I received another set of mail yesterday – as always, a great thing. I was hoping to call back home tonight but the phones are out of use. There's been a casualty not far from here and his family needs informing before the phones go back on.

21 June 2007

McNab: Many servicemen and women prepare for the worst by writing letters to their loved ones to be read in the event of their death. The girlfriend of Guardsman Neil 'Tony' Downes, aged twenty, who died this month in a landmine explosion, received this poignant letter: 'Hey beautiful! I'm sorry I had to put you through all this, darling. I'm truly sorry. All I wanna say is how much I loved you and cared for you. You are the apple of my eye and I will be watching over you always. Jane, I hope you have a wonderful and fulfilling life. Get married, have children etc. I will love you forever and will see you again when you are old and wrinkly! I have told my parents to leave you some money out of my insurance, so have fun ... gonna go now.' Jane Little said of Downes, who was from Manchester: 'His major told me after he died that he was thinking of asking me to marry him. I would have said yes straight away. He was a perfect boyfriend. I am immensely proud of him.'

22 June 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

Op Bataka was put on hold for twenty-four hours after there was a problem with the helicopters. It was extremely disappointing at the time because we'd got prepared to go and did not find out that we weren't till the last moment. So we spent the whole of the next day waiting. The worst part was the waiting; knowing that we were taking part in such a huge operation was a buzz.

Fortunately, we finally departed on the op twenty-four hours late. We spent the night in the ground in Eastern Check-point as the battle group reserve. We eventually left at 0300 to attack a small village at first light, quite an exciting prospect.

Everything went according to plan and my troop cleared its objective without incident, meeting no resistance. I got to issue the orders 'fix bayonets', which is a personal highlight as an infantryman. Not many soldiers fix bayonets in this day and age. The lads then cleared two buildings using grenades. There was a massive amount of fire-power supporting us – and it was proper war fighting with artillery and attack helicopters battering enemy positions. We then extracted. The whole thing was a great experience and the highlight of my military career so far, I think. And overall the whole thing was successful. All our boys came home, but not the same can be said for the Taliban.

I saw my first dead person up close. He was killed by the first platoon into the compounds and we had to pass him. He was a real mess and had been shot up pretty bad. He resembled a mannequin rather than a man. It was quite strange, almost fake. I had a good look at him, probably about my age, long beard, but now no longer. It didn't really affect me. I was just cold to the whole thing. I'm not squeamish and we are just doing our job.

June 2007 [poem]

Fusilier Daniel Wright, The Royal Welsh

FORGOTTEN WARS

Through the valley we tread the desolate sand,

The presence of death haunting this barren wasteland.

All emotions are dead bar discipline and fear,

Unbeknown to us all our enemy draws near.

We mount up and travel through IED alley,

Their ambush is sprung at the shadow of Death Valley.

A sound like thunder, incoming like rain,

Their mortars drop short,

Their efforts in vain.

Countless enemy attacks, but we send them to Allah

For in this company of warriors lies an uncommon valour.

Top cover opened fire, like a wall of lead,

In a bloody wave the Taliban crashed down dead.

Another man down in the blood and the dust –

Give covering fire, it's time to de-bus.

Out the back, hit the ground, move fast, stay low,

My rifle lets rip engaging my foe.

Ammo runs low for their pain and my sins,

I throw another wounded soldier on the back of our Pinz.

His eyes drift away, their draining of life,

His words of devotion and love for his wife,

He drifts in and out, embracing his death,

'Stay with us, Richie, this won't be your last breath.'

Bullets hail from an enemy unseen

As this hero's red hand gives me a fresh magazine.

Back in open fire as my enemies fell,

Their cut-off position smashed by my UGL.

Bullets ricochet from the Pinz on one side,

RPGs explode, our vehicle denied,

Metallic taste in my mouth,

Face and hands deep red,

My uniform stained with the blood of the dead.

To the lowest depths of hell we've sunk,

Hard to believe how much blood these deserts have drunk.

To punch through the killing area the WMIKs break track,

The Chinooks circle for the wounded casevac.

Back in the camp all safe, but how long can peace last?

The Union Jack in the breeze, it flies at half mast,

'Royal Welsh, stand together, and you won't fall alone.'

Our orders were simple, destroy the Green Zone,

Rifle company push through us, a further two clicks,

Their weapons grasped firm, their bayonets fixed,

Their heads held high, their eyes open wide,

I'd gladly give my life to fight by their side.

A red mist consumes me, my fury is driven,

But behind the front-line fire support must be given.

Our barrels glow from another fire mission,

Our mortars crash down on another enemy position.

The death count rises, our target's neutralized,

'This one's danger close, men, so all be advised.'

The hunters' moon waxes, with ambient light,

In my hand my St Christopher is held so tight.

I think of my friends behind enemy lines,

I fear for the worst, but no prayers spring to mind.

Then hope in the eyes of battle-weary soldiers

As Apaches take flight, like angels on our shoulders.

The battle rages throughout another night,

Illuminated skies as hellfires ignite.

Days turn to weeks before our battle is won

But throughout Helmand province the forgotten war carries on.

Will they ever know the sacrifice,

In these bloodthirsty wars,

Safe in their homes behind their locked doors,

Comfy and warm, content in their bed,

Their dreams never haunted by enemy dead?

The reflection of war makes us question our sanity –

Do we fight for humanity, or one nation's vanity?

It's not for honour of queen and country we fight,

But for our brothers in arms to the left and right.

With their selfless courage, commitment and unwavering nerve,

In this company of heroes, my honour to serve.

25 June 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

I found out today that my regiment lost another soldier and that four others were badly injured. Drummer Wright was killed when his vehicle was blown up. I don't remember him, but I know two of the others who were injured, one of whom is in intensive care. Another sad day for British forces and my regiment in particular.

We've now got Internet access here in Garmsir, which is a massive bonus as it gives us a little more access to the outside world. No bad thing!

RIP Dmr Wright.

30 June

It's been raining. The place has flooded; it's unbelievable how much it has rained. It's nice and refreshing after the heat, but it's turned into a quagmire. The flood water has receded today but there is still a dark cloud over the camp tonight. I've just found out that Captain Sean Dolan was killed today [it was eventually revealed he died from enemy mortar fire]. His vehicle was hit by some sort of explosive device and he was killed instantly. Sean was a friend; he was, more importantly, a husband and a father. He was an ex-regimental sergeant major and a legend in his own right. His death will be felt hard across the battalion.

There has been another dozen or so casualties across theatre in the last twenty-four hours, meaning our ambush has been cancelled tonight, as all our aircraft are deployed to assist with casualty extraction. I suppose this is what you would call a war. Back home there have been a number of terrorist attempts to kill innocent civilians in both London and Scotland. Three British soldiers were killed in Iraq also.

RIP Sean Dolan.

July 2007

Private Tom Dawkes, The Mercian Regiment

Private Tom Dawkes, 2 Battalion The Mercian Regiment, is twenty-three. He was born in Bromsgrove, south Birmingham. His father worked for an air-conditioning company, but was forced to retire after a serious accident. His mother works as a power-press supervisor and he has one brother and two sisters. Dawkes left school at sixteen and worked for a production company, then later as a tool-maker and as a fork-lift-truck driver in a warehouse. He entered the Army in January 2007, shortly before his twenty-first birthday. He had wanted to join at sixteen, but had to wait for an operation that could only take place when he was fully grown. Dawkes, who is engaged to be married in 2010, is based at the Mercians' barracks just outside Belfast, where he has earned a reputation for writing poetry.

I was still training at Catterick when my section commander came in and told us which companies we would all be going to. He said there was a good chance that I would be going to Afghanistan to catch the end of the tour [with the Mercians]. Some were still under eighteen so they couldn't go. It was confirmed I would be going to Afghanistan shortly afterwards. I was scared. It was going to be the first time that I had left the United Kingdom. It was also going to be the first time I had ever flown.

14 July 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

Things were looking up for a short while. A large operation was planned for the end of the month down here. They planned to attack a village known as Madrassa, an objective known to be full of Taliban. Prior to this, they wanted a detailed recce of crossing points over the river Helmand and routes into Madrassa. The best thing is we got tasked to do this, a very important and high-profile job. I spent a few days planning for an MOG [manoeuvre outreach group: it deploys, self-sustained, into the desert for a period]. I planned to go out for four days and see some good stuff: it looked like being a very good op.

It seemed destined for trouble from the start. The medic I was taking out fell ill with diarrhoea and vomiting, so we were delayed until he got better. We eventually deployed a little late. Under my command, I had 10 vehicles, 21 Marines, a field-support team, interpreter, anti-tank team and my own troop: in total 51 men and one woman. Quite a big command for a junior captain. All was going well. We recced the river and were looking at a suspected Taliban village – then we were suddenly told to come back.

The whole operation was being cancelled. All the resources were being sucked up north for an even bigger op as things seem to be going wrong there. I was utterly disappointed, especially after all that's happened previously. It looked like we had finally got a decent job and it was pulled away at the last moment. Nobody's fault, just the way things happen. One never knows what's going to happen next.

Anyway, we're back in [Camp] Delhi now and back in the same old routine. Groundhog day! Worse still, I spoke to the battle group second-in-command and he still doesn't know when we will leave here. The only thing I've got to look forward to now is going home on leave in 3 weeks. It seems such a long time and I know it's going to drag. I've got a lot planned: can't wait to see everyone and do everything I've missed these last few months. It seems to be all I can think of recently – all I can do is wait.

Another soldier was killed a few days ago – a Grenadier Guard attached to my battalion in Gereshk – and things seem to be going from bad to worse in Iraq, where several more have been killed. And I bet they got nothing more than a tiny bit of media coverage. Pathetic.

16 July 2007

McNab: It was revealed that the rate at which British soldiers were being seriously injured or killed on the front-line in Afghanistan had reached that suffered by our troops during the Second World War. The casualty rate in the most dangerous regions of the country was approaching 10 per cent. Senior officers feared it would ultimately pass the 11 per cent experienced by British soldiers at the height of the conflict sixty years ago. The rise was partly driven by a ten-fold increase in the number of wounded in action – those injured, but not killed – over the past six months as fighting in Afghanistan intensified. In November 2006, only three British soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan by the Taliban, compared with thirty-eight in May 2007. The official injury rate given by the Ministry of Defence among the 7,000 British troops in Afghanistan was about three per cent. But when the figures were applied only to the three infantry battalions on the front-line, it rose to almost 10 per cent.

18 July 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

The camp was mortared this morning. I didn't imagine they would get this close so soon. Fortunately nobody got hurt. The round landed just outside the perimeter (about 25 metres from my room) and the majority of people were asleep under hard cover anyway. If it had landed another 5 metres in [to the] camp during the day, it would have been a different story.

I was awake on duty at the time and heard the whistle, then the loud explosion. I've heard hundreds of mortar rounds go out, but it was a strange feeling hearing one going the other way – pretty helpless, really. Cpl Green saw the explosion on his way back to the block – his heart rate upped a little!

We had jets in the air pretty soon and it's believed they destroyed the mortar. However, it's thought they [the Taliban] have several others in the area. I just hope they don't get any more accurate. We are pretty defenceless if they do.

19 July 2007

McNab: It was announced that two Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC) had been awarded for bravery in Afghanistan. They were to Captain Nick Barton and Captain Tom O'Malley, of the Army Air Corps. Barton was given his award for his bravery when his Apache helicopter was struck by a heavy machine gun round on Christmas Eve while he was supporting troops in a contact at Now Zad and for his part in supporting the Jugroom Fort rescue mission. He calmly kept control of the helicopter – even though it was severely damaged – and even completed his attack on the target. O'Malley received his award for his courage when, under a hail of enemy fire, he flew, with another Apache, to retrieve the body of Lance Corporal Mathew Ford at Jugroom Fort in January 2007. Warrant Officer Class 1 Ed Macy (a pseudonym) and Staff Sergeant Keith Armatage were awarded the Military Cross (MC) for their part in the rescue mission. Captain Dave Rigg's MC was also announced for his bravery during the same incident.

28 July 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

As I count down the days to leaving here, more bad news. I received a message on the Internet from a friend's girlfriend that raised more questions than it answered. But I could guess that he'd been hurt: Martin is a close friend of mine that I've had since uni and we went through our Army training together. He's a Para and now out in Afghanistan.

I had an agonizing couple of hours before finding out what happened. I called her back in the UK. Basically Martin was shot in the shoulder and badly wounded; he's now back home in hospital. He's safe and that's a positive, but the shoulder is in a bad way. I was quite shaken. I've known people who have died out here, but never a close friend. It's quite shocking.

Anyway, I'll be in the UK in about 10 days so, hopefully, I'll be able to visit him. I just hope he makes a full recovery now.

6 August 2007

Colour Sergeant Simon Panter, The Royal Anglian Regiment

Colour Sergeant Simon Panter, 1 Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, is thirty-eight. He was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, and was brought up on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, attending Stradbroke High School. His father is a peat salesman and his mother runs her own beauty business. Panter, who has one younger sister, left school at sixteen. After working as a chef for four years, he got fed up with having to work nights at weekends when his friends were having fun so in 1991 he joined the Royal Anglians as a private, aged twenty. He has completed tours of Croatia, Iraq and Northern Ireland, as well as two tours of Afghanistan. He is married, with two boys, and is based at Pirbright barracks in Surrey. His military career is currently threatened by a serious ankle injury he received on his second tour of Afghanistan.

On my second tour of Afghanistan, I was based in Sangin. I was a 3 Corunna platoon sergeant with A Company in 1 Royal Anglian. Our general role was reassurance of the Afghan national population and deterring the Taliban. I was based at Sangin DC. It was relatively quiet because the CO of the battle group had built a ring of steel around Sangin by using the PBs [patrol bases] to take the pressure off Sangin. It had worked: people had come back to Sangin and it was a thriving market town again, just as it had been before.

On this particular day, our battalion CO [Lt Col Stuart Carver, DSO] was on R&R. Major Charlie Calder, the second in command of the battalion, was at Sangin DC for a couple of weeks while the CO was on leave. Inkerman patrol base, which is three or four miles north of Sangin, was under heavy attack, day in day out. Anyway Major Calder wanted to go to Inkerman to check on the morale and see how the troops were. I was tasked with getting a group of men in four WMIKs to take him up there. We left at 0100 and got there at 0145. We had the route picketed – almost completely lined by the Afghan and British troops – because the 611 was a notoriously dangerous road.

We then got our heads down and were awoken by the sound of gunfire and RPG fire early in the morning when the base was attacked. It was seven or eight in the morning and we had been sleeping beside the vehicles in the open. It all kicked off and we stood to and tried to identify Taliban positions and engage them with mortar. We used all the weapon systems available at the base because it overlooked the Green Zone. They [the Taliban] were probably 200 metres away, 300 max. It was heavy and sustained fire.

It lasted for fifteen or twenty minutes and that was pretty much it. And then we found out that C Company were going out on patrol later that day and so I went and spoke to the OC designate at the time, Captain David Hicks, MC [since killed in battle]. He was in charge while C Company OC was on his R&R. I went and spoke to him and said: 'Do you mind if I get eight men and tag along and help you out on this patrol?' I knew they were undermanned because of the R&R.

He gave orders to go out at 1600. The plan was to reassure one of the local hamlets just out to the front of Inkerman. Within forty-five minutes, we'd got to the outskirts of the hamlet and then the forward platoon saw the Taliban in a position with RPGs and AKs so they opened fire on them. We had in the region of eighty men: twenty to thirty ANA and the rest Brits.

I was with 11 Platoon and I was in their third section. I was at the back and there was a lot of RPG and AK fire coming our way. It was getting quite close and I could hear a lot of firing and RPG fire on our left flank. I was speaking to the platoon sergeant at the time, saying we were not sure whether that was ANA or enemy. So I was trying to get in comms with the platoon commander to let him know that we had got some firing on our left flank. Because I was reserve, I thought I would go over there and check and keep an eye on the left flank. In the end I spoke to the platoon sergeant, who thought it was a good idea, so I took the section of eight men and off we went.

We got in this ditch, no more than fifty to a hundred metres away from the main body of the company. I could still hear a lot of gunfire and RPG rounds – coming not directly at us but across our flanks. I was trying to still get comms to find out whether it was friend or foe. There was a lot going on. I couldn't get in comms with the OC or the platoon commander so in the end I took it on myself to go up there with the section. The main reason I did this was that I didn't want a blue on blue [friendly fire] situation to happen. I thought we had best make our positions known to each other with a face to face.

We got the section and started going up along the ditch and I was thinking: This is a bit noisy. Just in case it was Taliban, I was worried they could hear us coming. So I decided to get out of the ditch and go along the bank. After no more than twenty or thirty metres, I heard some more RPG fire and a few rounds getting fired. It was not at us, but to our front, and then after another few metres I actually saw four Taliban in this ditch. They were no more than 100 to 150 metres away from me. We positively identified the Taliban, fired straight at them.

We may have got one on the first burst. We were firing SA80 [assault rifles] and LMG [light machine-gun]. They had AKs and RPGs. We had surprised them. A little bit of a firefight ensued and then I thought: We have to take the bull by the horns here and dispatch these Taliban. So we concocted a quick plan. With the remainder of the section giving fire support, me and another lad, Private Patrick Casey, pepper-potted along the ditch and encountered a Taliban just fifteen to twenty metres in front of us. We hadn't seen him initially. I killed him: I shot him with my rifle. At this point I thought: Bloody hell, they're getting a bit close. So I put the bayonet and a fresh mag on, and as I was doing that I saw some movement in front. I chucked a grenade towards the initial area where the Taliban were and after that we didn't really get any incoming fire back from them. Then one of the lads spotted a Taliban running to our left. He fired and I fired and the Taliban dropped. But I didn't know whether he had gone to ground or not. Then I spotted him again in the ditch about twenty metres away. I fired some more rounds and he was down. I jumped into the ditch towards him. He still had his weapon – an AK variant – in his hand and he was still breathing. I had my bayonet fixed and I bayoneted him, straight into the chest. Several times. We were taught in training: once you shoot, then bayonet them because they have been known in the past to jump up behind you after feigning death or injury. So it's always good to make sure they're dead. He was probably in his late twenties, no more than thirty. He was in black with a black tie around his middle and he had chest webbing on as well. The first guy was dressed exactly the same.

To our right flank, the company were still having a bit of a bun-fight with the Taliban. I think the Taliban we encountered had been trying to sneak up on the main company and ambush them from the flank but they got surprised by us because they didn't know we were there. Then we had a quick chat. Me and Casey went up towards the position where we had first seen the Taliban. And there was another Taliban in there. He may have been injured but he still had a weapon with him so he was shot. I shot him. That was that for the time being. We had a mini re-org to call the rest of the section in, covering all our arcs, doing a head count and re-arming.

Whilst this was going on, a fourth member of the Taliban opened up on us, again from the ditch. This was three or four minutes after we thought the fire-fight had ended. He was firing with AK: it was automatic gunfire from under a hundred metres. So we now fired back at that Taliban position. I said to one of the guys who had an ILAW [interim light anti-tank weapon] rocket launcher: 'Fire at that position.' He couldn't get the damn thing to work so I took it off him and fired at the position, and all the other guys fired everything we had for a couple of minutes. We didn't get any return fire so we assumed he was killed in that initial volley, from less than a hundred metres away. I thought: I'm not going to send any guys up to confirm the death for safety reasons.

Then we searched for the [three] dead Taliban. Two of the guys looked like they were foreign fighters. These were the guys dressed in black. They were maybe Iranian or Pakistani. We found grenades on their bodies and mobile phones. They had two grenades and a mobile phone each. And we took notebooks from them with phone numbers in. The third guy looked like he was local Afghan. He was wearing brown traditional Afghan dress. He had a red sash round his waist and a turban that was off at the time. He was the guy with the RPG beside him.

I had killed people in battle before but never as close as this. You very rarely see the Taliban. They are usually at a distance and well hidden. I sat down at the end and said: 'Fucking hell, lads. You only normally read about this shit but we've actually done it.' Then we cleared things up and got the Afghan National Army. They did a search and took the weapons off them [the dead] and then it came over the radio that the fire-fight had died out at the other end.

I had a face to face with the OC. It then came over the radio that a Harrier was coming in to do a bombing run. So we had to extract out of the area pretty quick and we went back to Inkerman. A couple of times I have shot at Taliban and seen them drop and said: 'That's a kill.' But I had never done anything like this where you can say 100 per cent they were killed at close range. We took no casualties. At least three Taliban were confirmed dead, but there were probably four dead – and there might have been others. There must have been at least ten Taliban involved in the initial ambush because of the amount of fire that was coming down.

August 2007

Private Tom Dawkes, The Mercian Regiment

I flew to Kandahar on a Tristar. I just slept on the plane. I wasn't thinking about what would happen when I got there. Then after two days we went on to [Camp] Bastion. My first impression was that it was hot – very hot! Temperatures were in the forties [centigrade]. I was an infantry soldier in C Company, which had already been posted to Lashkar Gah. We did a few patrols here and there and then did a twelve-day op in the Green Zone in Gereshk. Our role was to try to take this area of high ground that had been controlled by the Taliban.

I had my first contact on the first day of the op. It was eight or nine o'clock in the morning and we were going along on foot. I was armed with an LMG. Then we got ambushed by RPG and small-arms fire at a place called the Fan. We were in open ground and two people – I was one of them – had dropped off their day sacks. Then we took a couple of steps back just before an RPG came straight out of the cornfields. To start with I heard the whoosh. Then it went straight through our group – I was no more than six feet away from it. Straight away they [the Taliban] opened up with small-arms fire. So we just jumped into ditches where there was cover. I jumped into some water. We were firing back in the general direction from where they were. But then they fired another RPG, which hit the wall on the opposite side to us. I managed to get off almost 200 rounds. But we couldn't actually see what we were firing at because the cornfields were about eight feet tall. So I don't know whether we hit anyone. The contact must have lasted about five minutes and then we bugged out back to the compound. There were no casualties and everyone was laughing saying: 'RPG! RPG!'

We found out that we had just about been surrounded by the Taliban. Others [from C Company] had taken shots from behind us. We stayed in the compound – an open building with no roof – and for a couple of hours we used a small bombardment of artillery and mortar fire. I was thinking: Am I going to get through this? It's more mental than physical once you're out there. I just wanted to do my duty to the best of my ability. It was a real eye-opener ...

22 August 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

The last three weeks have passed in a blur. I returned to Camp Bastion for a week before returning to the UK for two weeks' (well-deserved) leave. And now I'm back in Camp Bastion waiting to fly down to Garmsir again. I never imagined all those months ago that I'd be back in Garmsir in late August!

Needless to say, leave was awesome. I managed to see a lot of friends and family and travelled all over the country. I saw Martin [his injured comrade] a couple of times in hospital: he's improving – he was very close to death – but he's strong in both body and mind, and I'm sure he'll bounce back. It wasn't very nice seeing him in treatment. There are lots of injured soldiers there; it's quite depressing. Hospitals aren't the best of places anyway, but there's something upsetting about seeing so many young people in visibly bad conditions. There was one soldier from my regiment who had lost both legs.

The rest of the time was spent travelling, spending too much money, getting drunk, going to weddings and, perhaps most importantly, seeing Lisa and my family. It wasn't that bad being back. I got into the swing of things pretty quickly, but a lot of people were worried about the state I'd be in. I suppose they watch the news back home and hear about things – it's natural.

While I was away some of my troop had a very lucky escape when an RPG exploded when it hit their room: only minor shrapnel wounds, very fortunate not to have lost anyone. And they also had some very big contacts.

The BRF [Brigade Recce Force] have also taken 5 men off me because they are down on men, which is a bit of a sucker punch. The positive thing is I've only got two months to do!

25 August

For some reason, despite having very little to do these last few days, I've been very lazy in writing this journal. I don't know if it's my state of mind after having been on leave or what, but I need to be a bit more proactive.

Three soldiers died on Thursday when an American jet dropped a bomb on them. They call it 'friendly fire'. I call it a tragedy. It's not the first time it's happened, just usually it happens to innocent Afghan women and children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time: extremely saddening. The soldiers were from the Royal Anglian Regiment who have now lost 9 men on this tour. And I think it's over 20 in total. That's just over one soldier dying every week. How long can they keep this up? It's the same thing in Iraq: the Army is undermanned as it is, but men won't be staying in much longer at this rate. I know a lot of men are leaving after going to Afghanistan. I suppose people want a taste of war and then leave it at that. I don't blame them. Especially if they're married with children.

I picked up a new beret and badge today. On 1 September my regiment [the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters] is amalgamating with the Staffords and Cheshires to become the Mercian Regiment; a sad day, really. I'm quite proud of where I come from and my regiment – it's part of my identity, and some of that will be lost. But you have to move forward constantly and I think it will be good in the long run. After all, my regiment was formed from the merger of 2 others.

September 2007

Private Tom Dawkes, The Mercian Regiment

We got to meet quite a lot of the local Afghan people. We spoke to them through interpreters. Their culture is very different from ours and in a way I felt ashamed to be there. Although all the Taliban want to do is kill people, the Afghans are essentially a friendly people. They just want to get on with their lives. But we were – through collateral damage – sometimes destroying their lives. It was a great shame. Innocent people were having their lives messed up. But most of the people were on our side – they told us where the Taliban had been and locations of IEDs. Sometimes they had even seen the Taliban plant them so they told us to go this way rather than that way. Most Afghans know that we are trying to push the Taliban out of their villages so they can get on with their everyday lives. So I think they do trust us. I don't respect the Taliban for what they do, but I do respect them as fighters. They are strong fighters. They will fight to the death, and because it is their terrain and their home ground, it is very hard to beat them. They don't carry heavy kit like us so they are able to manoeuvre quickly. Some of them who have been trained have good soldier skills, but others have just been handed a weapon and told to go out. They can't shoot straight – fortunately!

September 2007

Colour Sergeant Simon Panter, The Royal Anglian Regiment

It was the last battle-group op of our tour: to clear the Green Zone. We had cleared the Taliban out and they had crept back in so we were going to clear them out again.

We were going to be out for one week. We marched from Sangin – about eighteen Ks. We left at 1 a.m. to get there for first light. Throughout the day, we had several skirmishes with the Taliban all the way up and then at the end of the day we had got to our limit of exploitation (LOE). We were not paying a great deal of attention because we were fucked, fighting the Taliban all day in the heat. We had been on our feet for eighteen hours – the whole A Company group, about 120 men. We just settled down: the OC got in the three platoon commanders so that we could organize an all-round defence. We got briefed up and I was on my way back to brief up the rest of our platoon when, suddenly, all hell broke loose. It all kicked off.

It was an RPG-initiated contact from the Taliban. But I had never heard so many RPGs coming our way. It was followed by a hell of a lot of automatic gunfire. We were caught on the hop. Luckily, we had a section pushed out to a compound at the river's edge but it was pinned down. They couldn't move in this compound, getting sprayed with everything the Taliban had, and we were getting exactly the same. But I was in the open: I was caught as I was going back over to my men. My platoon was in a ditch at my left flank – about fifty metres away. I was on my belt buckle – about 150 metres from the enemy – and I saw tracer fire going past in the corner of my eyes. I could hear the whizz of it. The lads were saying: 'Sarge, you want to get over here in cover.' And I was like: 'Fuck, I'm not moving. If I move I'll get shot. There's no fucking way I'm moving.' It was about six o'clock at night. I was caught in the middle of it. There must have been about twenty Taliban. We, the Brits, were very fortunate that day, but the ANA took three casualties from fragmentation – RPGs. One was killed and two seriously injured.

The fire-fight lasted about twenty minutes. But I stayed on my belt buckle the whole time. I daren't move and I didn't even return a single round because I knew that if I moved I was going to get it. Afterwards, I was laughing nervously with the lads but I had several moments when I was thinking: How the fuck did I get away with that?

5 September 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

Since returning from the check-points, we've been back into the same old routine. However, a few significant events have occurred.

We're now definitely leaving Garmsir on 8 September. Finally, after so long (it will be 4 months), we're going, our future as yet uncertain. At the moment, we will be going back to Bastion with A Company, before another large operation up north, then on to FOB Arnhem. Arnhem is even worse than here, by all accounts: lots of mortar attacks as well as IED threat. So, I'm in two minds about leaving. In favour is working with A Coy [Company] again, as well as doing something new. Against is the more apparent danger and learning the ground all over again. But overall I'm glad to be leaving here, and risk is part of my job.

Prior to leaving, there is the little matter of a large op we're doing down here first. We're doing a deliberate company attack to clear a large area of enemy territory. It should be good and a nice, positive way to finish our time here. At the same time, the Gren Guards are taking over again so it will be very busy.

Today started very well but ended badly, in that all-too familiar way. We celebrated/commemorated our amalgamation into the Mercian Regiment. We had a little parade, the padre said a few words, we then had a volleyball competition, followed by some hot dogs – a bonus. It was just a nice day.

However, the OC then informed us that C Company had two men killed and one badly injured; B Company also had two seriously injured in a separate incident. At the moment, we don't know who they are but it's likely I will know them. Another very sad day, and to what end? A lot of people are wondering: is it worth it?

9 September

The op ended in disaster, and became the worst day yet in many ways. All was going to plan until a large contact kicked off. It was almost like an ambush. Fortunately for us, my troop was a few hundred metres to the east of the main body.

Over the next few hours, the company tried to extract out of the contact. There were a lot of casualties and Pte Botha was missing in no man's land, and couldn't be extracted because of the enemy. My group engaged one compound with an anti-tank missile, killing enemy in there. But, other than that, we weren't involved in the main fight. It was so frustrating and so terrible listening on the radio to the events unfolding. I could hear the screaming and anguish in people's voices. It was horrible. We eventually caught up and moved forward to provide extra ammo and become the reserve, but we were needed to secure the extraction route. Eventually, jets dropped 4 500lb bombs on to enemy positions only 50 metres away from us. It was surreal; it felt like the world was blowing up. That caused a lot of damage and knocked unconscious Pte Stacey, when part of the wall he was hiding behind landed on him.

I could write about this for pages, but it was hard enough opening the journal. Sgt Brelsford and Pte [Johan] Botha were dead and seven others injured, some very seriously. I'll write more when I can but, to be honest, I don't think I want to just yet. Seeing all the young soldiers and even sgts and the OC after led me to tears with them. It was such a blow for every-one and it will take some getting over. What a waste of life.

September 2007

McNab: I know only too well from experience how sad it is to lose a friend and comrade, and the effect it has on the other men so I wasn't surprised that Captain Adam Chapman was reluctant to write in his diary about the events of 7/8 September. Operation Pechtaw had involved A (Grenadier) Company Group, 2 Battalion The Mercian Regiment. On the night of 7 September, Captain Simon Cupples, the officer commanding of 1 Platoon, had been ordered to clear two key objectives. On reaching the second, the lead section was engaged simultaneously from three enemy machine-gun positions, the closest being no more than twenty-five metres away. It was a massive and well-planned ambush believed to involve some thirty Taliban. There were immediate casualties. Cupples, his men and everyone on the op had to take life-or-death decisions quickly and show their mettle time and time again. Warrant Officer Class 2 Pete Lewis takes up the story.

7/8 September 2007

Warrant Officer Class 2 Pete Lewis, The Mercian Regiment

The big one was in Garmsir. This was the day before we handed back to the Grenadier Guards. If you added the contacts up, the boys had probably been in 200-plus contacts by this stage [on the single tour]. And that was deploying every weapon system we had. Casualty-wise, until then we had had a few shrapnel wounds from RPGs, but that was it: nothing worse.

September 7 was the last company op we did down in Garmsir. We were pushing further south than anyone had been on that tour. I left at 1800 hours to put the first checkpoints in for the blokes to come through me. The boys started coming at last light, which was about 1930 hours. It was a funny day as well because it was quiet around camp. Everybody knew that we were going to get some action that night. Even though we had not pushed that far south, we had recced a lot of places we were going. We were probably going no more than 1,800 metres south and then we were going to swing along and go down to CP [Command Post] Balaclava and clear some of the compounds that we got counterattacked from on a daily basis.

I counted the company through at JTAC Hill. Less my tac [tactical support group], there were ninety-four on the ground that night. I was in a Viking as my casevac vehicle. At about 2320 the first contact came. That basically was [an attack on] a point section going around. They got hit by small-arms fire. That's where we took casualties. That night we had two dead, six gunshot wounds, and a lot of minor casualties. I was with the doc: he was in one Viking and I was in the other. I can remember going forward in the Vikings. It just seemed to take for ever to get there. I picked up the first casualty who had a gunshot to the leg. He must have got that in the volley of fire that came through on the back of the initial contact so I chucked him in the back where there was a medic team.

One of the platoon sergeants on the ground was Sergeant [Craig] Brelsford. That was the last time I spoke to him because he got shot that night. I said: 'Brels, are you all right?'

And he said: 'Yes. I've got a casualty.'

And I said: 'How the fuck have you got a casualty already? You're not in the fire-fight yet.'

He says: 'He has just picked a stray round up there.'

So I chucked him in the back. Brels pushed on forward, while I got back into the Viking and trundled forward again

The area around Garmsir is just a maze of ditches, canals and the like. So it just sort of took for ever getting there in a Viking, weaving around. When I got there, the point section was pretty much out of ammunition. I spoke to the platoon sergeant. At that stage, we had got all the casualties back but we still had a man missing, who was Private [Johan] Botha. I did a quick ammo resupply and started banging the casualties in the back [of the Viking] to the doc. At that stage, I had no dead. I had three T3s [walking-wounded casualties] and two T2s [seriously injured casualties] and a couple of guys in shock. The second part of the casevac were two Vikings down at CP Balaclava, with my colour sergeant Duggie Thomson ['Tomo'] and another team of medics in the back. I had two full Vikings [of injured] so I got on the net and told the boss I was going to take them back. It had sort of calmed down at that stage – it was probably about 2 a.m. I had a couple of unconscious casualties. The one we thought we were going to lose was Private [Sam] Cooper, who got shot in the back of the head even though he had got his helmet on. We also had Private Luke Cole, who got shot in the stomach and the leg. It was my snap decision on the ground to go back with the casualties, six of them, in two full Vikings.

The boys were still taking incoming during this as well. So another two Vikings came down with a second ammo resupply. What made it worse for me was that it wasn't a massively ambient night. I don't know what smoke the old Taliban were using but it was like a fucking Chinese firecracker. There was just thick black smoke and you could see fuck-all. So it was strange. At that stage [after getting back to the main base – FOB Delhi, Garmsir], I waited for the IRT [incident response team] to come. I remained in comms with the OC on the ground. But by now Brels had gone forward again to try to locate Botha and he had got shot in the neck. I can remember the message coming across from Tomo now. It was: 'The situation in my wagon has changed so I'm staying.' I picked up straight away that somebody had died. At this stage, I didn't know it was Brels. He was one of the platoon sergeants. He was a really good guy. He went out to try and locate Botha, who was still missing. It would be typical of any of the platoon sergeants but Brels got tasked with that and he went forward with it. At that stage, it was three or four in the morning before first light came. The boss [Major Jamie Nowell] made the conscious decision to come back to Garmsir and re-org.

7/8 September 2007

McNab:With one dead, one missing and four injured, the situation could hardly have been worse for the men of 1 Platoon. Captain Simon Cupples and his men had already risked their lives time and again to go into the 'killing zone' under fire to extract the casualties. At one stage, Cupples himself had crawled to within fifteen metres of the enemy to place himself in front of one of his wounded men. From there, he co-ordinated first aid, fire support and forced the enemy back using his own SA80 rifle. But at the re-organization, it was clear that Private Johan Botha was still missing. That meant only one thing. The battle-weary men from 2 Battalion The Mercian Regiment would have to go out again to retrieve him. It is rule number one on the ground: nobody leaves a British serviceman – dead or alive – to the mercy of the Taliban.

7/8 September 2007

Warrant Officer Class 2 Pete Lewis, The Mercian Regiment

The boys had just been out fighting for eight hours, but there was no lack of volunteers [to go out and get Private Botha]. We all knew that if he fell into Taliban hands and was still alive – it wasn't worth thinking about. If we had not got Botha back that night, the company would be broken [in spirit] for the rest of the two months there. So, just before first light, we moved out.

The task force that came in [to support the Mercians] went and held some of the buildings we had been holding that night, just outside the contact. And then we went forward in a series of six Vikings. The majority of the Vikings had a commander who had been on the ground that night. In the front of my Viking was Mr [Captain Simon] Cupples, who had already located the body at night but had been unable to get it back. I had a snatch squad of myself, the doc, and men out of Botha's section. There were just six of us in the back [of the Viking].

We went forward. I can remember saying: 'Fellas, if the shit hits the fan out there, we've got enough fire support from the Vikings. So just listen to QBOs [quick battle orders] on the ground, and we'll get Botha and back in.' We located the body straight away as we went forward. Daylight had broken. I got out of the vehicle and had a quick look around. The ground looked so easy and flat in the daylight compared to that night when we'd been there. Botha was there on the ground. We picked him up, took him in the back. We were still hoping he was alive. The doc checked his vitals [signs of life] but he said, 'No.'

I got on the net and said: 'Look. There's a T4 [a dead serviceman].' It sort of hit the boys in the back [of the Viking] hard because they were his best mates. And it was they who had wanted to come in the pick-up squad. A couple of the younger boys started crying, and I said: 'Look, fellas. You've just got to get on with it.' Then I covered Botha in a poncho.

But that was a rough night, all right. Initially, we thought we were going to lose Coops [Private Sam Cooper] as well, but he's walking again now even though he's still not 100 per cent. [Private Luke] Cole is doing very well too. A lot of boys earned some good medals that night, but it doesn't make it any easier.

12 September 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

The repatriation ceremony [for Sergeant Brelsford, Private Botha and two other soldiers killed in separate incidents] was obviously quite an emotional event. It was difficult seeing the four ambulances arrive with four coffins. It was quite a sight. The padre and the commanding officer said a few words before the plane arrived to take them home. We had the honour to march on to the parade with A Company, which was a nice touch. People are still mourning and it will take a long time to get over it, but I've seen a lot more smiles and heard a lot more laughter from the boys. But it will be hard for them to go out and fight again.

The last few days have been busy, however, as we're preparing to deploy again at short notice. We're taking part in a massive operation to clear an area of the Green Zone called Zumbelay, which is a Taliban stronghold. If this wasn't difficult enough, we still know very little about the how, when, where, etc., which is not exactly ideal!

We will be on the ground for some time and it promises to be difficult. We've had to strip down what we can take; there's no room for comfort. I'm not even taking a sleeping-bag or this journal because of the extra weight, so my next entry may be some time away.

My birthday is in four days' time and I'll be away. So I've opened all the cards and parcels I've received. I've received lots of food and goodies, but unfortunately I've got no room to take it away with me: except for a small bottle of port and some sweets (I've got to have a treat on my birthday, really). I'm looking forward to going out on this op but it promises to be very demanding and difficult. So it's tainted with apprehension – only time will tell.

September 2007

Private Tom Dawkes, The Mercian Regiment

I've always liked writing poetry – ever since I was a kid. Whenever I have nothing to do, I've always liked to write poems and short stories. I like reading poetry too – mainly Shakespeare. I particularly like A Midsummer Night's DreamMacbeth and Hamlet. But I don't really read war poetry. Then when I was in Afghanistan I wrote my girlfriend a poem – and, of course, all the lads got hold of it. Some of them gave me a bit of stick, but I just ignored it. Then a few of them asked me to write a poem for their girlfriends and loved ones – and so I did. I wrote different poems depending on what they wanted in it. Then eventually they got me to write one for the magazine. I write my poems in the evening – usually when I'm lying on my bed. I usually just write them in a pad using a pencil. Everyone's around me – I don't need peace and quiet. I write poetry most nights, but not all the time. If I'm depressed or angry, I'm more likely to write my thoughts down. Even if I spend just ten or fifteen minutes writing poetry, it makes me feel calmer and happier.

A Poem by Private Tom Dawkes

It all began on a hot summer's night

In the country of Afghanistan,

With the Battalion of stars

Called 1 WFR

To go and defeat the Taliban.

The weeks went on and morale was high,

The Taliban didn't know what hit them.

After laying down rounds

And taking compounds,

Nothing in the world could stop us.

Then one fateful day we lost good men –

This was such a loss,

From dusk till dawn,

Everyone mourned

For the brave men that died that day.

The fighting got intense so the enemy fled

As we started to advance.

We pushed on and on

Till the enemy was gone

And there we started to nest.

For every soldier out there fighting

Is doing it to stay alive.

They all want to go home

Where they are not alone,

To be back and to see their families.

We have suffered enough,

Everyone wants revenge,

So when we attack

The enemy crack

Under a force that's not to be messed with.

The battalion is hard, the battalion is tough,

The battalion is also soft,

So when our men die

All the men cry

But at the end of the day we keep soldiering on.

This is for all the brave men

Of 1 WFR,

Who have shared their love

And spilt their blood.

This is the life of all companies.

RIP all men who have died for a cause not of their own but to

protect the lives of those around them.

20/21 September 2007

Warrant Officer Class 2 Pete Lewis, The Mercian Regiment

We were on an op in which we had established ourselves in the Fan. It was a massive piece of high ground in the Green Zone that dominated the area around it. It had taken us about eight hours to secure the area. There was sporadic small-arms fire all the way through but we took no casualties. We spent the night on the top of the Fan in compounds. But we had orders to move on at 0600 the next morning.

I was fucked because we'd been up for about thirty-six hours. I started to get my head down. I can remember a Claymore [anti-personnel mine] being deployed. I got up and said: 'What the fuck is going on?' There were only two guys on sentry and they had seen movement so they let the Claymore go – but there was no fire following it from them [the Taliban], and there was no fire following it from us.

The next time I got woken up was after the resupply [vehicle] had left. On the way down the hill, there is a sharp turn before you get to the canal. Unfortunately they took the corner too sharply during the night and rolled the Pinz [Pinzgauer, an armoured vehicle] into the water. I went down on the quad bike with Sergeant Moran while the doc had run off to get the Vikings. When I got there [the scene of the accident], there was Private [Brian] Tunnicliffe [Tunni] on the bank. I checked his pulse. He was dead. Minty [Colour Sergeant Phillip Newman] was trapped in the Pinz, which was submerged upside down. There were only two of us on the ground at this stage. I got on the net [radio] and said: 'I need reinforcements.' A platoon [eventually] came down. But I couldn't get into the Pinz. Tried both doors, but couldn't get in. Whether it was the pressure of the water or something else, I don't know. But the Pinz was upside down in deep water. I went in with full kit to start with. I had Osprey body armour, a rifle and everything. But then I took them off and put them on the bank. I thought: Shall I swim into the back? But then I thought: No. If I get caught up, I'm fucked. The doc came down with Pip, the company medic. There were four of us, but there was no way we could move the Pinz.

When the vehicle overturned, there were three in the back and two in the front. Tunni somehow got out at the front [but was killed]. Whether he jumped before it rolled and landed on its roof, I don't know. And a couple had come out of the back door and they were fine, but in shock. Eventually, the Vikings came down and pulled it out of the water. We got Minty out. He was dead as well. I thought at this stage: For fuck's sake! I had known Tunni, who had been driving the Pinz, all his army career. Minty was TA and had been attached to us all of the tour. Later, I went round the platoons individually and said: 'Have you heard that Tunni and Minty have gone? But you've got to focus on today, fellas.'

All in all, the tour saw a lot of hardship, a lot of good times. There were a few low points in it but throughout the tour the men were awesome. I took a company of boys and men out there, but I only brought men back. Some of them are little bastards but, out there, they were brilliant. I couldn't have asked for a better company in any respect.

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