Introduction: Operation Herrick 7

In October 2007, 52 Infantry Brigade replaced 12 Mechanized Brigade as part of Operation Herrick 7. The entire force totalled about 7,200 servicemen and women. During this period, the fighting continued to be intensive and the International Assistance Security Force (ISAF) struggled to consolidate President Hamid Karzai's control of Afghanistan.

The main combat power on Operation Herrick 7 was provided by 40 Commando Royal Marines, The Household Cavalry, 1 Battalion The Coldstream Guards, 2 Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, 2 Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (formerly The Green Howards), 1 Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles and 3 Battalion The Rifles. They were supported by 36 Engineer Regiment and 5 Regiment Royal Artillery. The RAF 15 Regiment Field Squadron and 7 Force Protection Wing protected Camp Bastion and Kandahar, and RAF Chinooks and Hercules provided air transport. Harriers from the Naval Strike Wing and the Apaches of the Army Air Corps gave air support.

20 October 2007 [diary]

Captain Adam Chapman, The Mercian Regiment

It's been over a month since I last wrote as I've only just returned to Camp Bastion after the operation as we ended up spending an extra two weeks on the ground. I didn't bring my journal as we deployed with as little kit as possible because of the weight. Hence we ended up being very uncomfortable for 4 weeks without life's little comforts. But at least we're all back now and I'm flying back [home] in 2 days. I can't wait. It's weird thinking back to the beginning of May and now: a lot has happened.

The last four weeks have been no different in the number of incidents. The op seemed jinxed from the start and this feeling continued throughout with vehicles breaking down and other minor incidents. To be honest, I think everyone was apprehensive as it was the last big op before going home.

I had my 27th birthday out in the desert. I spent most of the day in the lead Viking of a convoy, hoping not to hit a mine or IED. I wasn't actually that concerned, strangely, which is probably a little worrying. Fortunately, all was quiet and I celebrated my ageing with a small bottle of port [illegally] and an equally dwarfish cake. I had to leave all my other birthday goodies back in camp.

The next day was the first proper day of the operation with the battle group, inserting a fire-support group on a small hill to over-watch the Green Zone. My troop were providing some security to the Royal Engineers, who were clearing the area of mines. Unfortunately, one of their soldiers stepped on a mine and it blew his leg off below the knee. He was treated on the spot by a couple of my soldiers and extracted back to [Camp] Bastion without much fuss. When I saw him there was very little blood and it seemed unreal. I felt hardly anything, just: 'Poor bastard. That's his life altered for good.' And we just got on with it.

24 October 2007

McNab: The wife of Warrant Officer Class 2 Pete Lewis, 2 Battalion The Mercian Regiment, kept a diary during his time away in Afghanistan. An edited version of Fiona Lewis's diary appeared in the Daily Mirror. While he was away, he missed his thirty-eighth birthday, his daughter Rachel's fourth birthday and the death of his sister Vivienne, aged fifty, from lung cancer. This was Fiona Lewis's diary entry from 24 October 2007, the day he returned home: 'Pete's coming home today. Rebecca and Rachel have matching new outfits and I've spent ages getting ready. I'm as nervous as a teenager on a first date. We all wolf-whistle as our men march back in their combats. It's hard to concentrate on the speeches when all I want to do is run over and grab Pete. He looks thinner, tanned and shattered. But so relieved. Only thirty-six hours ago he was out fighting Taliban. Rebecca and Rachel run to him first, and he scoops them up into his arms. Then we have a hug – I don't want to let go. I'm crying again, this time with joy. I feel like the luckiest woman in the world – but so sad for the wives who can never hug their husbands again. Back home, I make a special dinner while the girls jump all over Pete. When they've gone to bed we sit on the sofa, Pete with a Jack Daniel's and Coke, just chatting, chilling, cuddling. Early night.'

21 November 2007

McNab: The Taliban has a permanent presence in most of Afghanistan and the country is in serious danger of falling into the group's hands, according to a report from a Brussels international think tank. The Senlis Council claimed that the insurgents controlled 'vast swathes of unchallenged territory' and were gaining 'more and more political legitimacy in the minds of the Afghan people'. It said that the Nato force in the country needed to be doubled to 80,000 front-line soldiers who should be allowed to pursue militants into Pakistan. The 110-page report said that its research found the Taliban controlled 54 per cent of Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence dismissed the report, saying: 'The Taliban does not pose a credible threat to the democratic Afghan government.'

6 December 2007

Captain Dave Rigg, MC, The Royal Engineers

It was a brilliant day. Mum, Dad and Anna – my girlfriend – came to Buckingham Palace with me so I could be presented with the MC [for bravery at Jugroom Fort]. I received it from the Queen. Everyone asks me what we talked about, but I'm ashamed to say that – in the excitement of it all – my recollection of what she said is a little vague. I was surprised at how nerve-racking the presentation was. For a little old lady, she has a huge amount of presence.

The investiture is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life, but I regret that I was unable to share it with my fellow 'volunteers'. I doubt that I will ever again experience the selfless commitment to one's friends and duty that I saw on that day.

January 2008

Flight Sergeant Paul 'Gunny' Phillips, RAF

I can tell you about my worst day. We were out tasking at about midday. We got a message to go and pick up some walking wounded from a mine strike. This was up towards the east of Musa Qa'leh. We had an empty cab and we spoke to the ops back at [Camp] Bastion and said: 'Right, we have not got any medics on board. How badly are they [the wounded]?'

They said: 'It's a couple of T3s.'

So, it was walking wounded, minor injuries. The gen was that it was a patrol that had gone out to the east of Musa Qa'leh and they had had a mine strike. We said: 'Yes, we'll go in and pick the guys up. Just make sure they're all bandaged up and we'll put them in the cab and fly them back to Bastion.' So they gave us the grid and we had an Apache [attack helicopter] with us [as an escort]. So the Apache scooted over, had a quick look around, saw where the guys were. The guys on the ground marked the HLS [helicopter landing site] with green smoke. So we landed on the green smoke: it was on a little ridge. We were facing north and we had Musa Qa'leh on the left-hand side and desert on the right-hand side. I was on the right-hand side, near the door. The patrol had parked their vehicles about 150 metres behind the aircraft. I was standing watching the patrol because there was a lull where nothing was happening. We were saying: 'Where are these guys [the wounded]?'

One of these little Pinzgauers started driving towards us. And I said: 'Guys. This must be them coming now.' There was a little dip just before the Pinzgauer got to the aircraft, about a hundred metres away. The Pinzgauer started to drive down and suddenly it hit a mine: an anti-tank mine. I watched the front end disintegrate and a corporal was thrown a good fifty or sixty feet in the air. He was that close that I could see his right leg had gone from the hip downwards. He impacted the sand fairly heavily. The front of the Pinzgauer was burning away. I could see the guys who had fallen out of the back. A few of the ground troops started running towards the wagon and then they realized, 'Oh, fuck. It's another mine,' and they stopped.

The Apache then got a message to us saying: 'It is probably best if you get out of there.' So we lifted and went and sat at FOB Edinburgh and we had this big discussion within the crew whether to go back in and try and help them again or wait until the IRT [incident response team] got there. It was a case of some of the guys wanted to go straight back in but I said: 'Look, these guys have just had a major incident. Let them sort themselves out, patch the guys up, re-org. They're going to have to extract out of a potentially mined area anyway. If we go back in, it's just going to cause noise, confusion, a bit more panic. It's going to put pressure on them to try and get the injured guys back to the aircraft. When they're ready, they'll bell us up [on the radio] and ask us to come back in.' While that was happening, they had already got a message back to Bastion and the IRT aircraft actually went up because they had got medics on board with the right kit. When they went to pick these guys back up again, they said that the corporal [from the Pinzgauer] was still alive on their way back. I found that a bit of a surprise but unfortunately he didn't make it back to Bastion.

And for two or three days after that I was probably the lowest I've felt in my life. I'd seen a lot of casualties prior to that event, but to actually see the event itself was incredibly shocking. Not something I'm ever likely to forget. We had one killed, and they picked up two T1s and two T2s. We never went back [to the scene] because the casualties were much more serious and we simply didn't have the medical training or the equipment to deal with them.

If you're feeling low, the option is always there not to fly. Nobody can force you to fly. If you fly when you're not firing on all cylinders, you're more of a liability to the rest of the crew than not being there at all. So, if you're that bad, nobody will think any less of you. It's a very open and honest forum. But then again you don't want to turn around and say, 'I'm unfit to fly,' because it's almost like passing the buck to one of your mates. Because someone else is going to have to fly instead of you. So you don't want to let your mates down. So I carried on then even though I wasn't feeling 100 per cent. All in all, Afghanistan has been a huge culture shock. I tend not to talk about my experiences outside the military environment. My mother certainly doesn't know what I get up to.

28 February 2008

McNab: Prince Harry flew back to Britain after completing ten weeks of an intended fourteen-week tour of Afghanistan. He had been deployed there secretly to avoid him – and his comrades – becoming Taliban targets. But his cover was blown by the Drudge Report, the US-based website, after the British media had agreed to keep his deployment a secret until after he had returned to the UK. The prince, then twenty-three, described his posting as 'all my dreams come true' and vowed to return to front-line duties. The third in line to the throne said he had revelled in being 'just one of the boys'. Brigadier Andrew Mackay, the commander of the British Forces in Afghanistan, said Prince Harry – known to his comrades as Second Lieutenant Wales – had 'acquitted himself with distinction'. The Queen said her grandson had done 'a good job in a very difficult climate'. I was impressed by his attitude and disappointed for him that he had not been able to complete his tour.

March 2008

Sergeant Hughie Benson, The Royal Irish Regiment

Sergeant Hughie Benson, 1 Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, is twenty-nine. He was born and largely brought up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He has three brothers, two of whom are also serving with the Royal Irish. Their father, also Hugh, is with The Royal Irish too. Benson left school at sixteen in 1996 and joined the Army the following year. He hadn't intended to follow in his father's footsteps until his final year at school, but he eventually concluded that a military career was the 'best option' for him. All four military members of the family served during the battalion's tour to Afghanistan in 2008. Hughie Benson acted as a team commander for OMLT [Operational Mentor Liaison Team] 1, A Company, training the Afghan National Army (ANA). Before Afghanistan, he toured Macedonia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland and Iraq. He is married, with two children, and is based at the Royal Irish's barracks in Tern Hill, Shropshire.

There were four of us from my family on the tour, all serving with 1 Battalion The Royal Irish. My father is a QM [quarter master], and my younger brothers are Sam, twenty-three, and Steven, twenty. You do worry about them but the best thing is not to think about it. It's quite fortunate because my brother Steven is in A Company with me. When I was in Sangin, he was in Sangin. When I was in Musa Qa'leh, he was in Musa Qa'leh. My other brother was attached to C Company. And he was part of Ranger Company. So when we were in Sangin it was all right because we were all in the same place. But when I moved to Musa Qa'leh, whenever I heard that someone had been injured in Sangin, it was a bit of a worry: the fact that it might have been him. We definitely are close as a family.

This was my seventh tour – I've done two in Iraq but this was as platoon sergeant acting as team commander for OMLT 1, A Company. It was my first tour in Afghanistan. I had to work closely to the ANA – I had to co-ordinate patrols and operations with them. When I arrived, I thought Helmand province had a lot less infrastructure than Iraq. There were a lot of mud huts, and a lot of people working the land and fields. I thought it must be a harder life for them than for people living in Iraq.

I was [pleasantly] surprised at what the ANA could do. Prior to leaving, we were led to believe we were going over there and they were people running about with guns. They do have an idea, more than a bit. If you have a strong company commander then that company will know what they're doing. The structure relies heavily on the company commander. If you've got a bit of an idiot as a company commander, then the blokes won't care. There are around a hundred ANA in a company. You will have six in your [British Army] team: so six mentors to a hundred ANA. I was lucky. Throughout the seven months, I had the same company commander so I had the same troops all the way through. You have to trust them. If you don't trust them, you can't go out with them, especially up in Musa Qa'leh. That was the most kinetic fighting that we did. If I asked them to do something they would go and do it. If we were in contact and I asked them to do something, there was trust that they would go and do it. But there are different kinds of trust. Would you go out and leave your iPod sitting on your bed? The answer would be no. But when it comes to trusting them out on the ground, I would.

The co-ordination, the fire-power, and the planning that the Taliban put into their attacks is unbelievable. I don't think they've got the resources to waste them. And they're very good fighters. It's the commanders who know what they're doing; the blokes just do as they're told. And the insurgency, with their IEDs, are getting better every day, which is a scary thing. I would never go out on the ground without an exact plan of what I was going to do because when they do hit you, they hit you hard. And they know exactly what they're doing; there's no rushing them. If it means them waiting for you to move to where they want you – to the ground of their choosing – then they'll wait. That's the way they are – and then they'll hit you as hard and as fast as they can until their ammunition or their IEDs are expended.

7 March 2008

McNab: It is revealed that Captain Simon Cupples, who returned to the battle zone three times under enemy fire to rescue three wounded comrades, will receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross – an award just below the Victoria Cross. Cupples, twenty-five, led a handful of men five times to recover casualties after almost a third of his platoon from the Mercian Regiment had been shot when a force of some thirty Taliban ambushed them from a distance of only twenty metres. Sergeant Craig Brelsford, twenty-five, was awarded a posthumous Military Cross for trying to retrieve the body of Private Johan Botha in the same incident. Furthermore, Corporal Michael Lockett and Private Luke Cole, who was seriously injured, were both awarded the Military Cross (MC) for their conspicuous bravery. The Mercian Regiment, who lost nine men in their six-month tour, were awarded thirteen bravery medals.

The courage of several members of 1 Battalion The Royal Anglian was also officially recognized. They included those who had fought on 13 April 2007, when Private Chris Gray, nineteen, lost his life in a fire-fight. Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Carver, the commanding officer, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for the way he led his troops. Major Dom Biddick and Corporal Robert 'Billy' Moore, who was injured during the fire-fight, were both awarded the Military Cross (MC). So, too, was Captain David Hicks, but his award was posthumous. Captain Hicks, twenty-six, was killed on 11 August 2007, during a violent attack on his patrol base north east of Sangin. Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Carver later paid tribute to the nine men from the 1st Battalion who died during that single bloody tour. He said of his own DSM: 'Personally I see the award very much as recognition of the whole battalion's efforts. You cannot give a medal to all 700 members of the battalion, but my medal is to recognize them all. I'm immensely proud of them. That feeling hasn't diminished over time. The real test of our work will come this summer [2008]. I look back and see that we made a huge difference to the overall campaign. I'm not saying we won it, but we changed the mindset from being defensive to taking the fight to the Taliban.' Colour Sergeant Simon Panter, who killed three Taliban in a single fire-fight, was Mentioned in Dispatches. He was honoured in this way for his 'heroic actions, outstanding leadership, initiative and aggression that sent a powerful message to the enemy that British forces would attack to reinstate legitimate government whatever the risk'. The gallantry awards were among 183 medals announced for bravery largely in Afghanistan and Iraq.

7 March 2008

Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Nieves, The Royal Anglian Regiment

Young Private Luke Nadriva, who got me out of the blown-up Viking after it was hit by a mine strike, has been awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal [the QGM is the third highest bravery award for courage not in the face of the enemy]. Luke is a Fijian lad in his twenties. He was my 51 [mortar] man [in 5 Platoon]. He undoubtedly saved my life. My vehicle was engulfed in flames, but he managed to get all the armour [plating, crumpled in the blast] free so he could open the door. He had to prise it open. There is no way I could have got out of that vehicle [but for Nadriva's courage]. I will always be grateful to him.

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