In April 2008, 16 Air Assault Brigade returned to Afghanistan and replaced 52 Infantry Brigade as part of Operation Herrick 8. The entire force totalled around 7,800 servicemen and women. A great deal had changed in 16 Air Assault Brigade's eighteen-month absence. UK forces in Afghanistan now used a large number of forward operating bases all over Helmand, which had been built by the Royal Engineers. These were designed to reinforce the platoon houses and provide launching pads from which troops could patrol the surrounding area.
The pattern of life in towns such as Sangin and Musa Qa'leh was far more normal than they had previously seen and large-scale construction projects, such as the Kajaki hydroelectric plant, were taking shape. However, the Taliban had not gone away and in places the fighting was as fierce as the Paras had endured in 2006.
The main combat power of Operation Herrick 8 was provided by 2 Battalion The Parachute Regiment, 3 Battalion The Parachute Regiment, 1 Battalion The Royal Irish, 2 Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, 5 Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland and 7 Parachute Regiment The Royal Horse Artillery. They were supported by the Royal Logistic Corps, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and elements of the Royal Artillery. Helicopter support was provided by the Sea Kings of 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons, as well as the Lynxes of 847 Naval Air Squadron and RAF Chinooks from 18 and 27 Squadrons and Army Air Corps Apaches. Harriers of 4 Squadron Royal Air Force gave air support, and Hercules from 30 and 70 Squadrons, and The RAF Regiment were responsible for Force Protection
Ranger David McKee, The Royal Irish Regiment
Ranger David McKee, 1 Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, is twenty. He was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. The son of a steel welder, he has two sisters and a brother. His great -grandfather served with the Royal Irish Engineering Corps and he has an uncle in the RAF. McKee left school at sixteen. He had grown up during the Troubles and had wanted a military career since he was ten, having seen soldiers patrolling the streets and being supported by the local population. He joined the Royal Irish in March 2006. His visit to Afghanistan in 2008 was his first overseas tour and he worked for OMLT [Operational Mentor Liaison Team] 2, B Company. McKee, who is single, is based at the Royal Irish's barracks at Tern Hill, Shropshire.
Before we left [the UK], I was looking forward to the tour but, then again, I was a wee bit frightened too. We'd obviously heard the news about boys getting into contacts, roadside bombs and all that. But when it comes down to it, you think: It [trouble] can be dodged. It can be avoided if you go back and do what you're taught to do.
When I arrived, I was part of the OMLT. Our role was to train the ANA. We were training them in lots of different subjects: basic field drills, patrolling skills, teaming through their own weapons, and getting them converted from the AK-47 to the M16, the American rifle. We went out on patrols with them. We took them through IED clearance, mine clearance, room clearance, compound clearance. Our aim was that they would eventually be able to do it themselves without the British.
Some of their skills were nearly there [to a professional level] but the thing that confused them was having different [British] regiments coming in with different perspectives. So they ended up with one regiment training them to do something in a particular way and then our regiment, or another regiment, would do it completely differently. And then they would have to try to adapt to it.
Some of the ANA's soldiers were average but many of the new recruits coming in were absolutely terrible. We always spoke to them through an interpreter. Our role was to turn them into an effective fighting force. We knew it was going to be a challenge.
Major Jonathan Hipkins, Royal Military Police (RMP)
Major Jonathan Hipkins, of 156 Provost Company Royal Military Police (RMP), is forty. He was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. His father worked as a car designer, his mother as a PA to a company managing director. Hipkins, who has a younger brother, left school at eighteen. He hoped to become a fast jet pilot in the RAF but failed a secondary hearing test and was commissioned into the Supply and Movement Branch in 1988. After nearly six years in the RAF, he left to become a civilian police officer in Coventry from 1994 to 1997. During his time in the force, he also became a yeomanry officer – a TA cavalry officer. After a short-service voluntary commission with 9/12 Lancers, he transferred to the RMP in 1999. In the last decade, he has done tours of Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Married to a police officer, he has two sons and is based at Colchester, Essex.
The Royal Military Police does a traditional policing role for the military – investigations into crimes, etc. But we also provide Provost support – myriad military police tasks from reconnaissance to route signing and from prisoner and detainee handling to evidence gathering. If a British soldier is killed in Afghanistan, that incident has to be investigated for a UK coroner by the RMP.
The role of the Royal Military Police in Afghanistan is often unsung but it is hugely important. There was an incident when, in a convoy of vehicles, the first vehicle hit a mine. Everyone in the first vehicle was killed. It was a Snatch armoured vehicle and four service personnel died. In the second vehicle, I had two members of the Royal Military Police who then had to get out and conduct the preliminary aspects of a murder investigation in a hugely threatening environment. Then they literally had to pick up the bits of the friends they had just seen killed and put them in their day sacks. They were scraping up hands and feet – literally. These lads were in their early twenties. On other occasions, I have had soldiers who have had to take DNA swabs from the dead body of their friend, take photographs of it.
It's hard to imagine more horrific circumstances and, for me, the quiet courage of those individuals on that day was something that is very rarely acknowledged, but is worthy of recognition. It wasn't a case of an individual charging an enemy machine-gun. It was just normal blokes doing a normal job – or perhaps it's more accurate to say, doing an extraordinary job in extraordinary circumstances. I think there is a perception in Civvy Street that soldiers are to a certain extent immune from what they see. But nothing is further from the truth. I have had individual RMP guys who have seen and done too much out here and I have had to take them from their jobs and put them in less stressful areas to give them some down-time because of the things they have seen and experienced. These lads are so young and it does affect them. I know it affects them. I certainly wonder in later life what sort of impact the things they have seen and done here will have on them. For me, this quiet heroism, this unsung heroism that never gets talked about, is worthy of note.
There is this kind of approach to life in the military where it is all about machismo – retaining that manly, macho approach to life. But you can see that some of them are hurting through some of the things that they have seen whilst they have been out here. Very often they won't talk to me because I'm their boss. I'm the person who writes their confidential report and any sign of weakness could be seen as just that. But I would never look at an individual and consider them weak in that respect. I would consider them an individual who has seen a little bit too much and they need, probably, a little bit of extra care to make them feel better about themselves. The way they are treated will reflect that. But I have plenty of people around here who are trained to do that and have done it for some of my soldiers. People are different. Some individuals will talk about it quite freely, others will bottle it up. I'm not going to force people to talk about their issues but we're there for them if they need us. And as I say, to date, I have had a number of individuals who are obviously in need of a rest.
It's blatantly obvious, because of a reluctance to go out or the fact they are in some way, shape or form behaving differently from how they were prior to an incident. In that respect I have pulled people off front-line duty and put them back into the police station in order to give them a bit of respite. But they are also very young and, for most people who are in a position of command/responsibility, it is something we're very aware of out here – high stress, you know, a very fast pace of life, a hugely dangerous environment for them to work in. If you're any sort of decent boss you've got to be acutely aware of that and to react on an individual basis when your people have got something that they need, when something is happening in terms of their normal approach, which is not normal any more. Then you need to give them the care that they require.
7 April 2008 [diary/interview]
Ranger Jordan Armstrong, The Royal Irish Regiment
Ranger Jordan Armstrong, 1 Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, is twenty. He was born in Omagh, Co. Tyrone. The son of a computer worker, he is the second of five brothers. Armstrong was an Army Cadet until he was seventeen when he decided to pursue a military career. He joined up in May 2007, when he was eighteen. He enlisted because he specifically wanted to go to Afghanistan, which he saw as a great challenge and an opportunity to gain experience of battle. During his time in Afghanistan, he kept a daily diary about his thoughts. Armstrong, who is single, is based at the Royal Irish's barracks at Tern Hill, Shropshire.
I joined up just as our boys were starting to go to Helmand province. I wanted to go and experience the fighting. I knew before signing papers in the careers office that I would go to Afghanistan. I had seen videos of the boys in Afghanistan. It definitely looked mad but I still wanted to try it. I always got a nervous feeling just thinking about it.
We flew to Afghanistan for my first tour on 25 March 2008. I had been abroad once before – to the South of France for holidays – and that was it. We flew out from [RAF] Brize Norton [in Oxfordshire] to Kandahar. I was thinking: This is it. I'm going to do whatever I have to do and hopefully I'll come back. I had butterflies when we were on the runway at Brize Norton. I thought: I have a long six months ahead of me.
My first impression when I arrived in Afghanistan was of the heat and dust – and how flat it was. It was flat in Camp Bastion. I'm an LMG [light machine-gun] gunner. That is my weapon. I'm trained to fire it. I was in Corporal Harwood's section. There were eight of us in it.
April 7 was a bad day. The ANP [Afghan National Police] came back from a patrol to Sangin DC. We were supposed to go out at the same time that they came back in – around 3 a.m. But the FSG [Fire Support Group] boys were firing off Javelins [anti-tank missiles]. One got fired and instead of going off into the distance it actually landed in the camp [Sangin DC]. But it didn't explode so they cordoned it off. This meant our patrol was delayed. It was good for us because we were then still at the base to deal with a major incident.
An RPG, being carried in a bag by the ANP, went off inside the camp. I think it was dropped by mistake. They had been carrying the RPGs in a bag on their backs. It blew up seven of them. Two of the men were killed, others lost limbs. It had gone off at the back of the base – Sangar Two. It was an ND – negative discharge. I don't know if it was bad drills or bad luck.
We were nearby unloading. I ran over with the others. I saw a lot of boys with their guts hanging out. There was one being carried away with both legs blown off above the knees. He wasn't screaming. He was quiet. We got them [the injured] on stretchers and took them over to the med centre. I had to pick up one of the dead boys. His back was blown out and I had to throw him up in the truck. It sounds a bit rough to throw him in the back of a Land Rover but that was what I was told to do.
I hadn't seen anything like that before [Armstrong was then just nineteen and only two weeks into his first tour]. I was actually all right when I saw them [dead and maimed bodies]. I wasn't sure whether I was going to be sick but, as soon as I saw them, I was all right. I thought I would have been faintish, but I wasn't. We had a good platoon sergeant. He took control and said: 'Get a grip, boys. Just get the job done.' Some boys were sick, though – they couldn't handle it. You don't know how it's going to affect you until you see it.
15 April 2008
McNab: Some deaths inevitably capture the public's attention more than others. This was one: Senior Aircraftman Gary Thompson, fifty-one, became the oldest serviceman to be killed on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He died with a comrade, Senior Aircraftman Graham Livingstone, when their Wolf Land Rover was blown up during a patrol outside Kandahar airfield. He left a widow and five daughters, aged from sixteen to twenty-four. His family said that Thompson, who was the ninety-third British serviceman to die in Afghanistan, 'touched the lives of everyone that knew him'. In February 2008, he had told the Rutland and Stanford Mercury, near his base at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire: 'I have five daughters, three of whom are at university. I want women in Afghanistan to be given the same opportunity as my daughters have had.' Thompson and Livingstone served with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment.
Ranger David McKee, The Royal Irish Regiment
My first contact was when we were out on foot patrol in Musa Qa'leh. It was during an afternoon patrol – from 2 to 4 p.m. – with the ANA. We were six Brits and thirty ANA. We went through this big piece of open ground, then past a graveyard. I was carrying a 51mm mortar plus my LMG. We got up to the graveyard and it came over the net that they [the Taliban] had spotted us. 'Get your men ready, get your guns,' they warned us. So the boss, on hearing this, decided to pull us back and get back into the base, which was about three miles away. We had noticed that on the way in there were people about. There were shops open, kids running around. But now we looked behind and everyone had gone. The place was deserted. At this stage, we knew we were going to get hit. As soon as we reached that open ground again, one single round was fired, followed by this big burst of machine-gun fire hurtling up beside us. We were in open ground, so there was no cover. All you could see was the splashes everywhere. All you could hear was 'Contact rear,' and the boys were just running to find a decent bit of cover.
Before I knew it, most of the other boys were in cover. But I was still running. There was me, my mate [Ranger] Simon Wade, and the boss, Captain [Graham] Rainey. So I jumped behind this small bit of dirt [mound] that was on the floor and Simon and Captain Rainey were in a compound firing out of a hole. At that time, I was shitting myself, proper crapping myself. I could see the rounds bouncing, literally beside my feet. And I could hear the cracks flying over our heads. It was the first time I had ever come under contact. I thought: Oh, fuck, here we go. I had to lie down flat on my stomach because the mound wasn't that big at all. And I knew that if I stuck my head up, I'd have exposed every part of my body, pretty much. So I was down. I was hoping to fire my LMG, but I didn't fire it once. Then the boss came over the radio and said: 'Get the 51 out and start firing it.' I shouted down to the GPMG gunner to give me fire support so I could get the mortar up. He started firing up towards the hill [where the enemy was firing from].
And what we could see was a [Taliban] PKM gunner on the top of the hill plus and an AK. The PKM gunner was down on his belly, firing the machine-gun. The other guy was standing firing and moving about down the hill trying to get away from us. So I got the 51 up and I asked Sergeant [Charlie] McKinney what to do – because he is an MFC – a mortar fire controller – and he knows all about this. He came up to give me guidance on the target. First of all he said: 'Go for 250 metres.' So I dropped in the bomb first and fired. It came down but it landed behind the hill. So I decided to drop fifty metres and go for 200 this time. So I threw the mortar down the barrel and I was waiting for the splash to come up, just waiting, and it was bang on target. That PKM gunner would have shot his mouth out after that bomb had landed on top of him. And everyone said later: 'You got him. You definitely hit him.' But because of the dust and all that, I don't know if it landed right on him or slightly beside him. But it shut him up and he didn't fire at us ever again. So he was gone. He was out of the picture then.
The next thing for us to do was extract. There was no fire coming from our front, but we had to worry about our flanks – because we had just come under attack from the flanks. The boys were exposed on the left. We – me, my mate Simon and Captain Rainey – were right in front of the urban area. We were the ones that were more protected. We decided to give fire out in the flanks so the other boys could extract back through us. But what I forgot to do was to pack the mortar away. I was in a predicament where I had to get people to come down and protect me so I could pack the mortar away, get my weapon – my LMG – and extract. All I could do was to get one of the lads to give me cover. He had a UGL [underslung grenade launcher] and he was firing grenades at them. He was firing away. He said: 'Right, leave your LMG where it is and get the mortar into the hard cover.' I went down, packed the mortar away, put all the bombs in the rucksack and then got my LMG. But I couldn't move yet. I was standing behind a wall with my weapons and the rounds were coming in. But in the end I just grabbed my LMG and everything and did a runner. And that was us [heading], all the way back into base. We were power smoothing: you had two [soldiers] moving down and then another two moving through you and so forth, all the way down. Just to give protection. That was really, really scary, so it was. You hear people talking about it [a contact] and you see it in the movies, when the rounds are landing beside people's feet. But I didn't actually think it happened like that. I always thought: If they're going to start shooting, they're going to hit us. The rounds aren't going to start landing all over the place. But that day, the rounds were landing all over the place. I'd seen it, the fucking dust kicking up by your feet and thinking: Oh, my God!
Lance Corporal Daniel Power, The Royal Welsh
I was with the Royal Welsh in a sniper role. We were up on the hill above Now Zad that looks over the old town. We had all the fire-support elements up on there – machine-guns, etc., Javelin anti-tank missiles, etc. We were all sleeping in these man-made bunkers, which were only waist high. We had to crawl in; at best you can sit in them. On a daily basis, we used to get contacted there, mortared, we had rockets fired from there. Now Zad is deserted; most of its residents have been moved out of the town. We were over-watching the old town and there was enemy known to be in that area. We identified where they were hiding out in the Green Zone. We would often push into the town, to draw the enemy out into a contact, then hit them hard. We would normally have a couple of contacts.
We were out on an op one day in May. We surged into the Green Zone on a planned op. We had no reaction, really. A couple of rounds, but there was nothing to sustain it – to fix on the enemy. But on the route back one of the MFCs initiated a victim-operated device – a pressure pad – which exploded into his groin area and he ended up losing half his foot for that. This was Corporal Dan Sheen, who is in his mid-twenties. He was on a foot patrol and he stood on the device and initiated it. This was just after midday, close to Now Zad. I was nearby at the time. I saw him being carried on to the Chinook. You can't really crowd the situation. As much as you want to help you have to leave it to the trained medics. They got on with that. But something like that is always disturbing. We have been quite fortunate as a unit. We have been in quite a few contacts during two tours in Afghanistan and – not to lose anyone – we have been really lucky.
I would say I have been in five big ambushes in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have been in a lot more contacts, but proper ambushes? About five. I count myself quite lucky to be alive from that. The thing with ambushes is that you [the target] are not meant to survive. For the initial part in any contact, you are on auto-pilot: you do what you have been trained to do, like a racing-car driver does, or a boxer. You train that much that your reaction becomes instinctive. With the Taliban, you rarely get to spring ambushes on them; they normally spring them on you for the simple fact that they can blend quite easily into the civilian population – their biggest weapon. And it's hard to keep track of them. The Taliban were fighting long before I ever joined the Army. They have a lot of skilled people, they are well organized. They are always well concealed. If they were wearing uniform, this job [restoring law and order to Helmand province] would be done and dusted by now, I imagine. But the hardest part is identifying your enemy. One thing is certain – when dealing with the Taliban, I will never get complacent.
8 June 2008
McNab: Another tragic landmark. The number of British servicemen who had died in Afghanistan reached 100 when three paratroopers were killed by a suicide bomber. It happened when an insurgent detonated a large explosive device strapped to his chest as servicemen were on a routine patrol near their base in Helmand province. The three privates who died, two aged nineteen and one aged twenty-two, were from the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment. A fourth was injured. It was the deadliest attack on British forces to date in 2008 and the biggest single loss of life by troops in the country since August 2007. The 100 victims were aged from eighteen to fifty-one. Of those who died, seventy-four were killed in action from enemy fire or explosives and twenty-six died as a result of non-combat-related injuries. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said of the 100 servicemen: 'They laid down their lives for their country and their comrades. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy.'
Ranger David McKee, The Royal Irish Regiment
As part of the OMLT, we worked with the ANA. But that didn't mean we trusted them all. Me and my mates said the only people we trusted in Afghanistan were the Taliban – because we knew they were the ones that were trying to kill us. Some of the ANA were a bit dodgy: we suspected that some of them did support the Taliban or, even, that some of them were members of the Taliban. There were some situations where it got out of hand and weapons were pointed.
I had first-hand experience of that in Musa Qa'leh. We had gone out on a foot patrol in the Green Zone, just to get a bit of ground orientation with the ANA. There were six British and thirty ANA soldiers. It was daylight. It was an early-morning patrol – when we would leave at about 7 a.m. and be back in at 10 a.m. But we weren't back in for ten that day – trust me.
To start with, it all went well. Then, suddenly, bang on right beside us, there were mortars being launched. They were being launched at British forces and PBs [patrol bases]. It was a co-ordinated attack. The mortars were being launched beside us but they were hitting different PBs, including Roshan Tower. When it kicked off, we had been out for about an hour and it was eight o'clock. When you hear the first bang, your initial reaction is to get on the ground, find cover and find out where it is coming from. This was only our second contact of the tour.
When it kicked off we had three different teams of ANA – one with us [the British] and the other two off to the flanks. The ANA commander got on his radio and tried to find out what was going on. He discovered our right flank had come under heavy contact – including RPGs. They were fighting like fuck up there, so they were. And they needed reinforcements to come up and help them. But as we went up to help them, we came under contact from our left.
So we ran. It was a beast of a run: I'd say we were running at least 800 metres in that heat on uneven ground with boys falling all over the place. It was boiling hot. I was an LMG gunner so I was carrying my LMG, full-scale ammo, a pack of water, water bottle, rations just in case, body armour and helmet. It must have all weighed about eighty pounds. It was absolutely lethal, so it was.
Our first reaction was to get the boss, Captain Rainey: he was the OMLT commander. At this point we got a few rounds off. I managed to get some off. I could see clearly what I was firing at. There were people running across the fields with weapons and they were firing – they were taking pot-shots at us as they were running. They were doing the team drills that the British Army do because obviously they had been watching us out on patrols. So there was one guy firing, there were other guys peeling around him and getting down and firing as well. I would say they were at least 500 metres away from us. Light machine-guns can fire that far and pretty accurately. But it was impossible to say whether I hit anyone.
I was firing at the ones running into the compounds, which were all linked together. Me and the boss were going to go around and flank the compound. But before we could get out in the open, these boys [of the OMLT] had called us back [on the radio] and they sounded pretty scared. Initially we thought one of our boys had been injured. We had run down and the compound door had been kicked in. And we went in and the ANA were beating up a member of the Taliban whom they'd caught as he was trying to run away. They were beating him up with boots and fists. Around that one Taliban I would say there were six or seven of them. So the boss, being aware of the Geneva Convention, ordered the ANA to leave him alone. All we wanted to do was to get the ANA off him, treat the Taliban casualty and extract him so we could gain information from him. He had not been shot but the boss wanted me to patch him up. Through the interpreter, Captain Rainey was shouting at the ANA, telling them to get off him. Most of the ANA stopped and backed off, but our main concern was the ANA sergeant major. He didn't take too kindly to us pretty much offering our help to this Taliban. He – the sergeant major – was the boss of that group we were with.
So I – the team medic – was patching up the Taliban casualty. He had a gash on his head, blood running from his nose. His one leg was badly swollen: I mean, the whole leg was massive compared to his other leg. We felt around – he was complaining about pains in his side – and there were a couple of ribs knocked out of place. He had also taken a good boot to the head, which had hurt his neck. He was young, early twenties. He was in a bad way. But he wasn't frightened – he was angry. He was slabbering [ranting] like mad, even though he was in pain. When I was down patching him, he was slabbering and spitting. But you have to take that, you know what I mean?
The ANA didn't like us helping him. So, as I was patching him up, one of the ANA came over and he cocked his AK and stuck it in my head. The interpreter said: 'He says he's going to kill you if you don't stop.' So I thought: This is it. This guy is going to kill me. I sort of put my hands up in the air. But then the boss, who was on the radio, and Sergeant McKinney came over and pulled him out of the way and told him to wind his neck in.
At that point, the casualty was still lying there and then, suddenly, we were fired on again from this compound. The boss told me to engage the enemy. I saw this guy who was firing his AK-47 from less than a hundred metres away. He was fiddling about with his weapon behind a tree. I lifted my LMG up to fire, but then I got a dead man's click. It didn't work. It was a stupid moment. I moved into the smallest piece of cover [from a wall]. I was trying to rectify the stoppage. Captain Rainey had asked where he [the Taliban attacker] was and I showed him.
The boss sort of moved around and he looked but he said he couldn't see him. Then you could hear a round: it zipped past his head and hit the wall behind him. The boss then fell at this stage and I thought he had taken a round, a hit. So this was where I started getting a wee bit scared and panicky. I was still fucking around with the weapon, trying to get it fixed. But the boss was all right – he got up, then he said: 'Right, try and get that stoppage rectified and we'll go and flank him [the attacker].' So the boss and Sergeant McKinney went round to flank him. The rest of the team were inside the compound. But this [Taliban] guy, he was persistent in trying to get me. He was firing like mad and the wall kept crumbling. I saw the wall starting to fall apart – the cover was getting small – and I couldn't get the weapon fixed. My only option was to make myself as small as I could. I sort of curled up into a ball. But the longer the boss and Sergeant McKinney took, the more panicky I started to get. I went into a stage of battle shock, so I did. I was calling a mate, Ranger Simon Wade, and he was there with his LMG and I was telling him to fire on him [the enemy], but there was a wall blocking his view. There was no point bringing him into somewhere where he was going to get endangered. So he was there and trying to calm me down saying: 'Davey, calm down. You'll be all right, you'll be fine.'
But he [the Taliban fighter] was still firing, I shouted to my mate: 'Fuck this here. Listen, I'm taking a chance.'
He said: 'Right, I'll get on the radio to Charlie.' That's Sergeant McKinney.
Sergeant McKinney says: 'Right, on my countdown, I want you to move after five seconds.' He started to count down on the radio: 'Five, four, three, two, one.'
As soon as he got to one I was gone. I was straight past that gap [in the wall where he could be shot]. I could hear the rounds smacking into that wall. And it was just me. As soon as I hit the ground, I sat down to get my breath back and all that. There were loads of things going through my head. I just sat there and my mate came up, gave me his water bottle and a fag and told me to smoke it to calm myself down.
When I had calmed down, I got myself back to the casualty, where I was treating him. But then the worst possible thing happened. The ANA came into the compound and it wasn't one soldier [getting angry] this time. It was the whole lot. As I was treating him, as one got my attention, another one come from behind. It was fucking mayhem, they were trying to get more boots and punches in. It was me and the Taliban casualty. All the ANA soldiers had managed to come into the compound by this time. There were at least twelve and they were all wanting a piece of him. So there's me, in the middle, with loads of ANA soldiers around. My mates were trying to get in, to get them away, but I just got up and I lost my rag. The ANA sergeant major came over and cocked his weapon in my face. But what I did was I jumped up and pushed him. Very violently I pushed him. He lifted his hand as if to backhand me and he swung to hit me. But I moved out of the way. In the end, Sergeant McKinney, he came running in then. He shouted: 'Right, if you want to kill him, you have to get through me first.' They [the ANA] were all scared of Sergeant McKinney – really frightened of him. He was giving me a wee bit of support as well, as if to say: 'Listen, you're not on your own. Don't worry about it.'
One guy [ANA] now came walking into the compound. And when you saw this guy you thought, He's no happy chappy – and he always looked like an angry person. And he came walking in and he saw us with the Taliban and he saw all the ANA shouting and he came over and he cocked his weapon – with his finger on the trigger. He was walking backwards saying something in Pashtu. He was all for pulling the trigger on me with the casualty. But by that stage the ANA officer had come in: the main commander. He had heard and seen what was going on. So he went mad and started slapping his boys about, and throwing them out. Next the [British] QRF [Quick Reaction Force] came in, and everything went mad. They had managed to come down in their vehicles to help us out. I now got away with the casualty. But he was complaining that the splint was annoying him and the ANA said: 'Just take it off. Don't worry about it.' I knew the leg was broken. But they made this guy walk back three miles with a broken leg. It was quite sickening.
But as we were going back to our patrol base – Satellite Station North – we heard on the radio that it had come under RPG attack. So the boys we had left to secure the camp were now having to fucking defend it. It was a mad day! Eventually, all the fighting stopped and we did a body-count. It turned out there were three Taliban killed. When we were coming back from the patrol I was thinking: Fuck. That was crazy. But then you and your mates start joking about it. 'Did you see him falling, back there?' one of them said, pointing at me. Because I had fallen in the river, as I was trying to get up near the boss. I had properly fallen in when we were under fire. Eventually, we got back well after midday. We had been fighting through midday heat, which is about 50°C.
When we got back, I just wanted to get my clothes off. I was soaking wet with sweat. My helmet and body armour needed to come off. I wanted to have a sit down on my own, have a cigarette and think about what had just happened. I was thinking: I was nearly killed. I didn't think I was going to get out of there. I was thinking about my family, about the people back home, [times] when I was happy. All I wanted to do was to think happy thoughts.
But I wasn't happy at all that day with some of the ANA and since then I have been paranoid. After that, I was always watching the ANA more than I was watching what I was doing, if you know what I mean. Because I was always scared of one of them popping off a round and putting one through me. They're the sort of people who will hold grudges and they will try their best to get rid of you if they can. It was the sergeant major and one of the sergeants who didn't like me. We knew the sergeant by his nickname – Medoza. He was a nut, he was crazy.
June 2008 [diary/interview]
Ranger Jordan Armstrong, The Royal Irish Regiment
My first contact was in Wombat Wood, when we stayed in a compound for five days. It's just over a kilometre from Sangin in the Green Zone. We were on foot. There was a base for the Afghan National Army. We were there as a decoy, while others were building a new FOB for the ANA. They were putting their base in the Green Zone, up north. It was Friday, 13 June. We – 7 Platoon – went out on patrol in the morning, around 10 a.m. We went out on foot with the whole platoon – twenty-seven of us – and there were a couple of interpreters and medics. We also had five American snipers out with us as well. We were on a resupply route, and we went out as a section over to the ANA [base]. We had rations for them and we were in a convoy, on foot, from the base. Two days later we left the base. The whole platoon went back on the same supply route that we had come in on.
We left at 1430. We just knew, because we had comms [from intelligence], that something was going to happen that day. We had a feeling we were definitely going to get it – even though we had never been hit before. The terp [interpreter] was acting all nervous too. Our section and the quad [bike] pushed up on the open ground and that was when they [the Taliban] fired the first RPG. It landed about fifty metres from where I was but closer still – about thirty metres – to one of the other boys. They started attacking us with small arms. Then the second RPG came in. I think it was an airburst [calculated to explode before it hit something]. It just happened so fast. As soon as that happened, we started firing in their general direction, but it was very hard to pick them out. We fired for a bit. My gun [a light machine-gun] was ready – all I had to do was pull the trigger. My first reaction was to hold it up by my hip [to fire]. Then I got down on my belt buckle and started firing. I had to crawl forward, because we had got caught in open ground, and let off a couple of rounds.
We got penned down for a wee bit – a good ten seconds. Then we ran to a ditch. All the section were in different places by this stage, taking cover. But it [the contact] was soon over. It lasted about ten minutes. We didn't take any casualties, but one of the snipers was sure he hit one [of the Taliban]. It all happened so quickly. You go through the drills – which meant the fear didn't hit me until it was more or less over and then you can think about it a little bit. I can honestly say I wasn't scared because it all happened so quickly. You just had to do what you had to do and return fire. I thought, once it had calmed down: That was a bit close. But we got through it. It showed our drills definitely worked. I thought: If you listen [to orders and training], you can get through, no problem. So that was our first contact, but I was sure it wouldn't be our last.
17 June 2008
McNab: Sergeant Sarah Bryant, twenty-six, became the first British woman killed in action in Afghanistan. She died along with three SAS reservists in what was the deadliest attack since hostilities had begun nearly seven years earlier. Their Snatch Land Rover was hit by an explosion near Lashkar Gah. Des Feely, Bryant's father, said: 'It's truly devastating ... an absolute massive shock. Ever since she was a schoolgirl she wanted to be a soldier. I cannot believe she will not be coming home.' He added that he and his wife, Maureen, were 'absolutely devastated to have lost the beautiful daughter we adored'. Bryant, who served in the Intelligence Corps, had married a fellow intelligence officer, Corporal Carl Bryant, two years earlier. She had been due to end her tour in Afghanistan the next month. Her husband said: 'Although I am devastated beyond words at the death of my beautiful wife Sarah, I am so incredibly proud of her. She was an awesome soldier who died doing the job she loved.'
Captain Alan 'Barney' Barnwell, 845 Naval Air Squadron
Captain Alan 'Barney' Barnwell, a Sea King helicopter pilot, from the Royal Marines serving with 845 Naval Air Squadron, is forty-nine. He grew up in Portstewart, Northern Ireland, and attended Coleraine Academical Institute until he left school at eighteen. The son of a printer and one of four siblings, Barnwell joined the Royal Marines as a 'grunt' – a standard Marine – in 1978. Serving in Commando units as an assault engineer until 1986, he saw action in Northern Ireland and the Falklands War. In 1986, he became the first ever corporal pilot in the Royal Marines. Barnwell served three three-month tours in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He went to Afghanistan in June 2008 to serve his first three-month tour there. Married with two grown-up children, he lives in Montacute, Somerset, and is based at RNAS Yeovilton.
I am loving it [the tour]. Some parts are harder than others, but I enjoy it – or I wouldn't be here after thirty years. My decision to become a pilot was conceived by an incident in 1982. I was in a minefield at night getting 'artilleried' and shot at. I decided I was never ever going to be in another minefield for the rest of my life. The only way of doing that was by being a pilot and you could fly over the top of them. So I went through pilot selection and training with the Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop [Hampshire] and, after many years of flying the Gazelle, here I am now as a Sea King helicopter pilot.
The helicopter is absolutely crucial in a conflict like this. It's the same as in Ireland in the seventies and eighties: nobody ever moved around South Armagh on the road. We are in the same sort of position here, even more so. Every road and track has a proliferation of IEDs, which can be laid quite quickly. The baddie locals, the Taliban, bury the IEDs months in advance sometimes, before they are used [detonated]. So to move anywhere on the ground at all, which is the only way you can dominate an area, is very dangerous. The proliferation of IEDs is such at the moment that there isn't a day goes by when we don't have five or six explosions, and people get hurt and killed. So to use the Sea Kings to carry the troops in makes it much safer for them to move around.
The Sea King is a support helicopter, now some forty years old, which cruises at 120 knots. It normally has a crew of three: an aircraft commander, a pilot [effectively the co-pilot working to the commander] and a crewman. The commander and the pilot sit side by side with the commander in the left-hand seat and his pilot in the right-hand seat. The pilot normally flies the aircraft but the commander takes charge of the situation, doing the map reading, the radios, and he flies it if he wants to. In its original days, the Sea King could lift twenty personnel. It has been updated over the years – including a special update to go to Afghanistan – and it is now Sea King Mark IV Plus. It can carry up to sixteen men – less than before because men now have their body armour and so much kit – and it has less performance in high temperatures. The crewman also acts as door gunner, firing a GPMG.
A military life can be tough on families. Maybe that was why my wife divorced me fifteen years ago – although we got married again. It's hard on her. Being on operations is a bit like having an illness. If you've got the illness you know what's going on and how it feels and how you feel physically. For the person who has got it, it's not so difficult. It's more difficult for those you love. It's certainly the same for us. When we're out here, we know how safe or unsafe we feel. But at least we know. And we can feel it within our own being and we can cope with it. For those at home who love you and miss you, it's a much harder situation because they don't know what's going on. It's difficult to try to explain how you feel about things.
I only joined up for three years. And here I am ten times that later. Anyone who decides on a military career has to expect that the job is going to be different from that of somebody who works in a pub, or on a newspaper or anywhere else. With the job, you have some danger, which for some people is the attraction, even why they joined up in the first place. But for most of us, once you get in the system, the greatest pull is the camaraderie, the friendships you make, the work ethos that you come across and the like-minded people you work with. It's a common enough saying – when we're out there in an aircraft, or on the ground, or making an assault or whatever, we're not really doing it for the Queen, we're not really doing it for the country, but we're doing it for our comrades: the bloke beside you, the guy who joined up, the bloke who's been my mate for the last ten years, the guy you met two minutes ago who seems like a really good bloke. You're doing it for him, whether that involves you doing something a little bit more dangerous than you would normally do, or it goes to the point of some of the extraordinary examples of courage from people out here. You've had people out here storming Taliban positions to save wounded comrades. And the reason they do it is because of the extreme feeling of friendship, camaraderie, brotherhood, whatever you want to call it, for somebody who has a similar life to you.
Colour Sergeant Simon Panter, The Royal Anglian Regiment
The initial incident happened back in the summer of 2007. I was on an op and I lost my footing crossing a ditch and did my ankle in. We had been out in the Green Zone for two weeks. To start the op, we had to march from Sangin in the dead of night, eighteen Ks into the Green Zone. There had been quite a few fire-fights on the way with the Taliban. We had taken over some compounds and we were watching the area. Our supplies had run low. We were getting the odd helicopter drop in but there was one time they did not drop in because they got RPGed as they were coming in. So we had to do a march to FOB Inkerman, which was about six Ks away. We left at 1 a.m. We got there about 3 a.m. to do a resupply of food, water and ammo. Then at 5 a.m. we marched back into the Green Zone.
The remainder of the platoon had just got out of the gate and I was the last man out. I crossed over the 611 [a notoriously dangerous main road], then a ditch, lost my footing and fell over in it. As I lost my footing I thought: Ow, that bloody hurt. It really did. I felt my ankle click three times. I actually thought I'd broken the bloody thing. I was lying on my back wincing and one of the corporals was laughing at me, as you do in the Army. I was like: 'Don't tell anybody. Just give me two minutes and I'll get up.' I started to walk, but the pain was getting worse and worse. At one point I almost wanted to give myself morphine: we always have morphine on us. I got back to the compound – having hobbled six Ks in severe pain – at about 7 a.m.
Because the sergeant major was still in Inkerman, I was acting sergeant major, being the senior platoon sergeant. I was with the OC and he was taking the piss out of me for being weak. But when I got back I took my boot off and got the medic. It was a total mess: my left ankle was all black and blue and swollen. The medic was saying: 'You need to go back to Bastion.'
The helicopters wouldn't come out and get me because they were worried about getting fired at in the Green Zone. I was not an emergency case. And so the CO's rover group came down to pick me up instead. I got the piss taken out of me a hell of a lot because I came out on this makeshift crutch and the RSM thought it would be funny to pick me up and put me on his shoulders and carry me out of the Green Zone. And people were taking photos too. So, of course, I didn't get the piss taken much!
They took me back to Inkerman in a WMIK [armed Land Rover] and then I was casevaced back to Bastion the same day in a Chinook. I got there, had the ankle X-rayed. They said, 'You have got a severely sprained ankle,' and that was that. Then I spent two or three weeks in Bastion trying to get myself back out on the ground with my boys. I didn't want to miss anything so I pleaded with them not to send me back to Britain because I wanted to be at Sangin. The colonel in charge of me in Bastion said: 'You can go back to Sangin as long as you don't go out on the ground.' I went on a routine Chinook flight. Over the next few weeks I sort of cracked on. My ankle really never recovered. I went out on patrol and did it in again.
When I got back to the UK in October, I was still having a lot of problems and I went to rehab. I had an MRI scan and then I had an operation. It wasn't until I had the first operation that I found out the bloody thing was fractured, after all. It was not until they cut me open that they found the fracture. So they repaired it by drilling sixty-two holes in the bone and sorted bits of cartilage and ligaments. But I'm still suffering from it now. I have my own bottle of morphine on tap when I want it. I'm getting an ankle reconstruction next. I hope I'll be able to continue to serve. My surgeon said I might have to think about a career change if the ops don't work. They talk about fusing it, but if that doesn't work, they're even talking about having it lopped off. Hopefully it won't get that far. But it hasn't helped walking around on it for a year not knowing it was fractured.
24 June 2008
McNab: The Chief of the Defence Staff delivered a tough warning. He said that Britain could not carry on fighting two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup said that military operations had left the forces 'stretched beyond the capabilities we have' and that Britain could face decades' more involvement in Afghanistan, which he described as a 'medieval state', lacking even basic government structure. He added: 'We are very stretched at the moment. Until we get down to one operation at this scale, we are always going to be stretched.' His warning came at a time when there were 4,000 British servicemen in Iraq and the total of troops in Afghanistan was about to top 8,000. His comments followed the announcement that another British serviceman had been killed in Afghanistan.
24/25 June 2008 [diary/interview]
Ranger Jordan Armstrong, The Royal Irish Regiment
We knew a couple of days in advance that we were taking part in a big air assault on the Taliban in the Upper Sangin Valley. It was a big compound with 200-plus enemy. It was a stronghold. We were briefed about what we had to do. We knew from the brief that something was going to kick off and it was going to be really bad. None of us had done this sort of op before. It was due to last for two days. We were up early – at 0100 hours. We were up, fed and ready to go. The Chinook picked us up at 0230 hours to be at our target at 0300. The chopper arrived on time. I was a bit nervous as I knew it was going to be hard. As you sit in the back of the chopper, from the way you have been briefed, you think: There is a strong chance I might not be coming back.
I couldn't see anything while we were in the air because I was right at the back, sitting down. As soon as we landed – in the dark – we started taking incoming and I thought: It's going to be a long two days. Even as we were getting out of the back of the chopper, they [the Taliban] fired a massive Chinese rocket at us. It seemed really close because it landed next to us and just went 'bang'. It was difficult to say exactly how close because there was so much noise from the Chinooks. But it seemed really close – landing perhaps fifty or sixty metres away.
As soon as we landed, we were on this big, flat airfield. There was no cover whatsoever. We tabbed away and then we started running, taking rounds. I had twenty-four hours of rations, five or six litres of water, an 800 minimi [small machine-gun], med kit, body armour and a helmet. It must have all weighed eighty to a hundred pounds. And we were boiling because it was so hot – even at night it was hot – but later that day it apparently reached 57°C. We kept going in the darkness and then pushed up to the top of a hill, which made things worse because we were sitting targets and they were firing at us from the Green Zone.
Soon it was breaking into first light. Then we were told that our platoon had to give protection for the Paras' FSG [fire support group]. They had Javelins [anti-tank missiles]. But we couldn't give support because we were being fired at. We were pinned down and getting shot at. Then, as we pushed up, the FSG section commander, from 2 Para, got hit in the side. He [Warrant Officer Class 2 Michael Williams] was killed. For a long time, we were just lying flat in the open ground, in the star-shaped position, with bullets whizzing over our heads and cracking with green tracer. After a bit, it went quiet for a few minutes. Then I heard a shot whizzing over my head but couldn't identify the firing point. Seconds later another fired. I quickly got off the high ground. I was snaking away. I went weak at the knees, as the shots were too close. As soon as I got off the high ground, they stopped firing.
At this point we had roughly over a K and a half until we were where we were supposed to be. It was very slow progress as every time we moved we were shot at. As we moved, they [the Taliban] were able to engage us with RPGs. There was a constant flow of these. We had an airburst right over our heads, which was really close. This continued for at least another two hours as we were still trying to get to our compound. We couldn't really identify the Taliban because it [fire] was just coming from everywhere. Because the Paras were in the Green Zone, it was too dangerous for us to fire. I never fired one round. We couldn't. As much as we got shot at all day, we could not fire a round. That was frustrating.
We went 'firm' behind a compound up on the high ground and we could see the Apache fire its Hellfire. It was amazing and followed with a really loud explosion. The Apache hadn't stopped firing since we landed. It was rattling away with its 30mm cannon at the firing points. You would hear it firing as we were taking rounds – it could identify the firing points from the air. It was a great feeling to hear it opening up.
At this stage, we were just a couple of hundred metres from our compound so we did our best to keep moving forward. We were having difficulty, as there was a sniper about and he had us pinned for a while and made movement very hard and dangerous. Every time we moved, we could see the splashes of the rounds hitting the compounds and the mountains to the left of us. But we moved one section at a time and the FSG from 2 Para was still with us. We all got across [from one compound to another], luckily without getting hit. All we could hear were the crackles of the rounds going past and hitting just beside us. The adrenalin just kept us going and we didn't feel the weight on our back. We got to our [target] compound around nine or ten in the morning. We stayed 'firm' there for a couple of hours. RPGs were still firing overhead and we could see where they were landing. The sniper was still going and so were the small arms. What a sound it made. Exactly as you hear it in the movies. But they [the Apache and friendly forces] still couldn't get the sniper.
It was pushing on after twelve and things were starting to die down bar the sniper. Near 1500 hours, one section had to push on the high ground to secure an HLS. This was for a replen [fresh ammunition and supplies] and to take the body of the 2 Para section commander back. As soon as the Chinook landed, it took a high rate of small arms but was still flyable. We later found out all the aviation stuff had been damaged and put it out for a month until repaired.
We got replenned with water and were told to hold firm in the compound and wait it out. We had all wanted to head back that night but knew we had another day ahead of us and were to push through the Green Zone, which we knew was very dangerous and we had never been there before. As the hours went on and it was getting dark, we had still heard nothing, until 2100. Then we got the news we wanted to hear: we were bugging out.
Around midnight we prepared to move out. By this stage there was no firing and the Taliban had fled. As we couldn't get up the road to the high ground, we had to go on to the 611. The Green Zone was directly on the left. That is where we were getting hit all day and the CO was taking a big risk by bringing the whole battle group up the 611.
We tabbed as quick as we could but some boys were hanging back. We made it safely to the desert and we just about had a K to go to the HLS. The choppers were inbound for about 2 or 3 a.m. We were never so glad to get back to Sangin safe and alive as that was one mad op. We were lucky: none of the [Royal Irish] boys got hit. That was my worst day but it was also amazing. In a way, one of the best [days], one of the scariest. Nearly every bit of fire-power was used: artillery, fast air, Apache. It was amazing. And you could hear all the sounds and the explosions. It was seventeen and a half hours of battle. Just madness. We were met by our OC and CSM [company sergeant major] to say 'well done' and 'welcome back'. Joey [a comrade] had tins of cold Pepsi laid on, which was great. We went to bed around 4 a.m. and lay in until the afternoon, only to find out we were on guard from 1800 to midnight. The boys weren't happy about that as they were still tired from the op.
14 July 2008
Sergeant Hughie Benson, The Royal Irish Regiment
The fighting season didn't really start until all the poppy crops had been harvested and we moved to Musa Qa'leh. We had massive contacts there. It got to a point when you were out on patrol and you were getting hit on patrol or you would hit them, either way, just about every day. Then you would come back and they would hit the base, sometimes with mortars, or indirect fire or Chinese rockets, or whatever they had. Sometimes you would have a small-arms shoot and a couple of times we had full proper co-ordinated attacks on to the PB: Satellite Station North in Musa Qa'leh – it's the most northern patrol base.
The contact that still sticks out most in my mind is when we were caught in a big ambush. It was during the day – early morning, about half past eight. We had been out for about two hours. Bear in mind that it gets light about five o'clock in the summer. We were with sixty ANA: two teams of thirty. And there were twelve OMLT. We were in the Green Zone and at that stage the corn was waist to chest high. The team that was caught by an IED was on the right flank, close to a canal. We were patrolling north. The team on the right-hand side had gone 'firm': they had stopped and provided cover for us. They told us to move forward, past them. We started pushing up so we were about 200 metres ahead. They moved off, then went 'firm' again – and then the ambush began.
It was initiated with an IED attack. They used a remote control: it had a command wire. They had the remote about thirty metres off to the flank, so that went off and then the electric charge went down the cable into the centre of the IEDs. And the IEDs were a daisy chain of twelve, which went off at the same time.
I was about a hundred metres away when they went off. There were six British blokes and a few ANA that were hit. The front call sign and the call sign behind the OMLT were actually on it [the IEDs]. But to this day I cannot believe how lucky they were. There was a wee lad, a British guy, who lost his right leg. His left leg was damaged. He had flash burns to his face and eyes. He was A Company. He was one of the team in Satellite Station North. It was Ranger Andy Allen. He was nineteen. He received immediate first aid from the guys and we were lucky because we had a CMT [combat medic technician] with us, Ranger Kelly. He and Ranger Fox were the first two there.
I wasn't sure who was caught in the blast. But as we started moving forward, we were engaged from two sides with PKM, small-arms fire and RPG. It turned into a large fire-fight.
At one stage, we were lying in a ditch and the corn on the cob was popping above our head. I had an SA80, a rifle. We also had GPMG and UGL [underslung grenade launchers] with us. The ANA had their PKMs, M16 rifles, RPGs. We're talking maybe twenty Taliban. It was pretty hairy and on two sides as well. It was fairly flat but they had occupied compounds and tree-lines, and they were engaging us from there. To begin with, we could see nothing – until we got about and could see where they were coming from. We got eyes on [the enemy]. Regardless of what was going on, the first thing we needed to do was to try and set the conditions to get Ranger Allen extracted. Believe it or not, the ANA were very good. Their company commander straight away launched teams to where he needed them to go, though obviously it was after I had prompted him. Straight away we had sent a contact report on the radio. Then, once we realized someone was injured, we sent a message: '1 x casualty, catastrophic bleeds to the right leg. Amputation.' The team that was in contact were still trying to stabilize him [Ranger Allen]. Bear in mind, we've only got six blokes, and once one of them gets hurt, there are only five left to carry him. So the team commander that was with them and myself were co-ordinating the plan to get him out.
The first thing we had to do was to get him to a pick-up point for the QRF [quick reaction force] to come and collect him. But we had to sort that out while we were in a contact as well. It felt like it lasted for ages, but maybe the entire contact lasted seven minutes max. The Taliban then ran out of ammunition; they just bugged out back into the compounds. Back into the Green Zone. I didn't personally get rounds off but the boys did. We definitely would have hit people [the Taliban]. During the contact, their closest call sign would have been 100 to 150 metres away at one stage. Once we started returning fire, the gap then increased to maybe 200 metres – because they start retreating. But what they were trying to do was to get closer [to where the IEDs had gone off] and try and disrupt the guys dealing with the casualty. But they had no chance because there were sixty ANA and the rest of the OMLT.
If there had been no casualties, a follow-up would have been carried out. But at that stage the main effort was to get the wee man [Ranger Allen] in. I set the conditions and positioned the ANA where I wanted them to go. We created a kind of corridor for the casualty to get extracted down. He was taken on a stretcher to a pick-up point where we were met by Warriors [mini tanks]. We were very lucky again, the four Warriors had just returned to Musa Qa'leh DC and they were parked outside the gate when they heard the explosion. So they started to move and, by the time all this had finished and we had got to the pick-up point – it was maybe just two minutes before the Warriors rocked in. Ranger Allen survived but, because of injuries to his left leg – due to the infection – he has actually lost that leg as well.
Once Ranger Allen had been extracted, the ANA and ourselves regrouped and pushed north again in order to clear the area we had been ambushed in and to secure the IED location. A number of small engagements occurred on the follow-up but nothing that caused concern.
But it had been a very well-planned ambush. Twelve IEDs going off which were spread at the distance the boys normally patrol at: five to ten metres apart. But fortunately no one else was badly injured. A few of the boys got blasted into the canal. There were a couple of minor cuts and bruises, but there was nothing else. We were unbelievably lucky.
Captain Alan 'Barney' Barnwell, 845 Naval Air Squadron
It is quite pathetic to think we were looking forward to coming out here [Afghanistan]. But you do. You get used to doing the job [in Iraq], and it's nice to do a slightly different one. And it has certainly been a new experience here. We managed to get hit within ten days of arriving in theatre. It was getting dusk and we were heading west. I had decided that we would fly low-level rather than high-level. It was my decision, but it was not necessarily the right decision because we got hit. We had just done our third trip into FOB Rob [Forward Operating Base Robinson] and we were heading back out to [Camp] Bastion with six pax [passengers]. I had made distinct efforts to cross over the Green Zone at different locations – two K between them.
The problem was the time of day we were going back. It was obviously knocking-off time for the Taliban, having done their work in the fields. And he [his attacker] had clearly got back to his basher [home] and was sitting outside, having lit the fire, and was having his brandy and cigar, with his AK-47 sat beside him, when he heard the slap-slap-slap of a helicopter zooming back across. So he decided he'd have a quick blast at us as we flew past at around eighty feet, doing 120 knots. I didn't see him on the ground but we saw the first set of tracers coming up from the five o'clock position and he must have fired. We saw five or seven tracers.
So we broke off to the left, with my door gunner trying to get a bead on it. Obviously, his neighbour, about 200 yards up the road, had heard 'Joss Taliban' doing his rounds and he thought: I can't have him doing a few rounds without me having some too. So another position opened up on us as well. But it wasn't particularly accurate this time. One went across the nose – a couple of rounds of green tracer. This time my gunner did manage to get a bead on him and he fired off sixteen rounds back at him from our GPMG.
We continued to do some manoeuvring to get out of the kill-zone. We got over the desert, where there was nobody [no enemy around]. We looked at each other, had a bit of a laugh, then quickly checked out all the instruments to make sure everything was OK in the aircraft. We checked it for vibration and there was nothing wrong. The guys in the back were by now starting to grin and get some colour back in their faces because I think it was the first time they had been shot at in an aircraft as passengers. It was the first time I had been shot at in an aircraft with small arms as well, but never mind. So we then had a fifteen-minute journey back to Bastion, where we checked everything out and had a laugh about it. We gave the gunner a hard time for only getting sixteen rounds off when he had a box of 200. When we landed we got refuelled, went to our parking spot and I said: 'You'd better get the engineers up to have a quick look, just in case.' So they came up and they said: 'Hmm, seems to be a lot of fuel coming out of the bottom of the cab, boss. Oh, yeah, and there's a hole in one of your rotor blades as well.' So we had taken two rounds: one in the fuel tank and one in the rotor blade. I guess it was a narrow escape. All it takes is one bullet in your head and that's it, isn't it? So that was close enough.
Major Jonathan Hipkins, Royal Military Police (RMP)
Part and parcel of the job is to look at incidents in which British forces appear to have injured, or even worse killed, a local national – it's called the shooting incident review process. I look with policeman's eyes to see if I feel there is any act of negligence or criminality – in essence to see whether it's prudent to conduct a formal police investigation.
I review, in a sterile environment, documentary evidence: statements written by people who were there on the ground. So, for me, it is possible to divorce myself to a certain extent from what has gone on out there in a particular incident on a particular day. It doesn't mean that I don't find it sad when, as has just happened, a local girl, who was just six years of age, was killed as a result of a number of smoke rounds fired by mortars that were utilized on a hill to screen friendly forces. The [British] soldiers on the ground took all reasonable steps to make sure there were no local nationals in the area, thus limiting collateral damage, which is in accordance with the Rules of Engagement. And it was unfortunate. They just didn't see that there was a girl in the field on top of the hill. She caught a fragment of mortar shell that went into her chest, and she subsequently died from that wound. But she was so young and she was an innocent. War should be about adults fighting adults. It shouldn't be about kids. But at the end of the day there is only so much you can do in order to limit collateral damage. But I can sit here confident in the knowledge that British soldiers, certainly from what I have seen in all the shooting incident reviews that I have done, have taken every possible step to limit collateral damage here in Afghanistan.
Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Parkhouse, 16 Medical Regiment
Over the past three years, I have dealt with high-energy wounds and low-energy wounds. A wound caused by a rifle round, a military rifle, will always be serious because the bullet, or the round, is travelling so fast that it has such a lot of energy, or potentially an awful lot of energy, to dump into the body. It is not just the hole that it drills through, but the energy it passes through the body. Even though the round might be only 5mm in diameter, the hole it can produce can be big enough to put your fist through. And that is purely due to the energy transfer because the momentum is mass and velocity. It's the velocity that's important when you're talking about a rifle bullet.
If you're talking about mortar shrapnel, by most standards it's travelling fast, but it's actually travelling quite slowly. But it's a big hunky piece of metal or stone or whatever, so that would cause damage to what it passes through. So with a hole caused by an assault rifle, you will often see a small hole where it hits the body, but the exit wound is huge. If it's in an arm, it can take the limb off effectively.
The wounds we were seeing have changed since Op Herrick 4 in 2006: a lot of those injuries were caused because of gun battles. They were full-on Wild West gun battles so a lot of the injuries we were seeing were gunshot wounds. There was just the odd mortar attack. Whereas the injuries that you see now, in 2008, are much more commonly associated with IEDs, booby-traps, mines, things like that. This is due to the fact that the Taliban have realized they can't win a gun-fight and they are putting their efforts now into IEDs – they're laying hundreds. The wounds now are multiple amputations, traumatic amputations. The new vehicles are saving a lot of lives, but we are finding multiple fractures, spinal injuries – head injuries due to the concussion effect of the explosion.
I am married but no kids. My wife, Helen, is excellent. She's ex-forces so she knows the score. I think for all people, the families, it's harder on those who are left behind. At the end of the day you come out here, you're fed, you're watered, you're looked after. All you have to do is get up in the morning, do your job and go to sleep. You don't have to worry about the bills, you don't have to worry about going to work, servicing the car, paying the tax. All the crap of life is done for you, so it's the people left at home who have the harder time. They have the separation, and the worry about what the other half is doing.
But we have bad days out here too. It's never nice when you lose somebody. I think we tend to take it personally, which is bizarre because we don't know these guys. We don't know them from Adam but we still consider them to be ours. We had this guy with a wound to his body. There was a long extraction [rescuing the patient] because they were TIC [troops in contact] for a long time. Unfortunately, we had to circle for several minutes before our forces were able to secure the landing site. Then, eventually, we had to go down and pick him up. So he had been down a long time and he came in cardiac arrest.
We continued doing our usual bits, securing the airway, opening up his chest both sides, pumping in as much fluid as we could. He was covered in absolute crap because he had clearly been dragged through ditches and whatever to get him out – to be extracted. I knew pretty much that he was unlikely to survive and I just realized that there was another family, in about four or five hours' time, who were going to be destroyed. You know it. Their world in four or five hours' time was going to be shattered. There is nothing you can do, absolutely nothing. And sure enough he died. But you take it personally. You shouldn't, but if you reach for perfection, now and again you're going to be disappointed.
Sergeant Hughie Benson, The Royal Irish Regiment
On one occasion we were conducting a route clearance. It was a road that runs south to north through Musa Qa'leh. There were twelve of us Brits – but there were another hundred Brits clearing the route and providing protection on the west flank in the Green Zone. We were in the urban desert with sixty ANA and twelve of us, broken down into two teams of thirty ANA and six of us. We started about six in the morning and at about midday all was well. The route clearance had gone fine and everyone started extracting. We were the last to extract. And what they [the Taliban] had done was they let us push through inside the urban desert and then infiltrated behind us. I say infiltrated – they never actually had to fucking go anywhere. They had just come out of their compounds, armed themselves and waited for us to come back. So at this stage we were cut off from the patrol base.
When it started, we were about a K and a half – 1,500 metres – away. They [the Taliban] were between us and the PB. So we started moving back. The team that was on the road were engaged with RPG and small arms, and, straight away, we were hit as well from the north. So we started extracting, back towards the enemy behind us. Again, another planned attack on their behalf. We started coming back towards the PB. And then we were hit by those between us and the PB – and we were cut off. At one stage, there were thirty ANA and my team lying on their belt buckles on the floor behind a wall about two foot high. And the walls were just crumbling. PKM, small arms and RPGs were all fired. A couple of RPGs went over the top of us and hit the wall. Then they were airbursting the RPGs above us: deliberately trying to get them to blow up above us so that the stuff [shrapnel] came down on us. We actually got cut off from one of the squads of ANA – about fifteen of them. They were on the other side of the alleyway – they couldn't get across because of the walls. So we RVed [rendezvoused] at a rally point. I managed to get shots back, only because we were trying to get out of there, to be honest.
The ANA in the sangars [at the patrol base] had identified one of the firing points so they started engaging with a Dushka [Soviet-made anti-aircraft machine-gun], the equivalent of our 50-cal. We had a sniper that was at the base and he had pushed up to the top and engaged the enemy. We had people coming to help us but, in the end, we couldn't wait. We had to move.
That was probably the closest I've come to getting shot. We heard the bullets coming in around our feet and they were also hitting the wall we were hiding behind. And the wall was crumbling around us.
Major Jonathan Hipkins, Royal Military Police (RMP)
I'm sometimes asked what is the bravest thing I've come across in Afghanistan. I didn't witness this incident but I discovered that a young twenty-year-old from the RMP had been exceedingly gallant when he reacted to help save the life of Lance Corporal Tom Neathway, who was twenty-five when he lost both legs and an arm in a Taliban IED attack. I had to look into exactly what Lance Corporal Chris Loftus had done and ended up having to write his citation. His unpublished citation – which resulted in him being Mentioned in Dispatches – is detailed here:
On Tuesday 22 July 2008 Lance Corporal Loftus was operating as part of a 7 man Section of X Company, 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment. Whilst conducting a reassurance patrol to the north of Kajaki, Loftus' sub unit was directed to occupy a local compound in order to provide 'over-watch' to the north of the Area of Operations. A short time after establishing the position and without any warning, an Improvised Explosive Device detonated approximately 10 metres away from Loftus' position. As a result of the explosion, the Royal Military Police Junior Non-Commissioned Officer was blown off his feet and stunned. Whilst picking himself up, Loftus heard one of his comrades screaming for help and, without regard for his own safety and despite suffering from shock, he immediately went to the aid of his wounded colleague. Upon arriving at the location of the explosion, Loftus could see that his comrade had suffered traumatic amputation of both legs and extensive injuries to one of his arms. Despite the horrific scene before him, Loftus remained calm and, together with another member of the Section, carried out first aid treatment; applying four tourniquets in an attempt to save the life of the wounded Parachute Regiment soldier. Shortly after they had started medical treatment, the patrol came under attack from Rocket Propelled Grenades and Small Arms Fire. Despite the threat to his own life, Loftus did not flinch from his duty and courageously remained by the side of the wounded man in order to treat and reassure the casualty until a Medic arrived to take over. Loftus then remained in the open assisting the Medic in lifting the gravely injured soldier onto a stretcher and then onto a waiting quad bike. Once the casualty had been safely evacuated, Loftus returned to the scene of the explosion and whilst still under sporadic harassing fire, coolly reverted to his Royal Military Police role, taking a number of post incident photographs and recovering the casualty's military equipment in order to assist in any future police investigation.
Throughout this incident, Loftus displayed a high measure of physical courage and, despite the very real risk to his own safety, a resolute determination to help his wounded colleague. The fact that the casualty survived is testament to this young Royal Military Policeman's fine performance under the most testing of conditions; a performance made all the more remarkable considering that Loftus has only been a Royal Military Policeman for 18 months and is engaged on his first operational tour. He is strongly recommended for the award of a Mention in Dispatches.
Captain Nick Barton, DFC, Army Air Corps
I have never dwelt on how many I have killed [as an Apache pilot]. We debrief everything: you watch it all [recorded film] in slow time on a big video screen. You know if there is any doubt you don't engage. But once you have made the decision to engage, then you need to engage accurately and to kill. There is nothing worse than if you rush it and you can only get twenty rounds off. You want to be in a position where you get the whole hundred rounds in one pass and guarantee that the target is neutralized.
For perhaps 50 per cent of our engagements, you probably don't see anyone [the pilots are firing at buildings or treelines]. If it subsequently came out in an int [intelligence] report that five women were killed in a building you had fired on, you would feel absolutely terrible. Fortunately I have not had any of those. We [the British Apache pilots] have probably only had one example of it and he [the pilot] was completely right to do it [to open fire]. They'd had two guys firing a mortar out of one end of the building and, on the other side, inside the building, there had been two women. It was in self-defence under the correct Rules of Engagement and, prior to firing, he had checked the building and not seen any women. It would be difficult to take but I suppose one must console oneself in that he had done everything right at the time. We have good squadron camaraderie and attitude to debriefing. After a mission, we will debrief everything and we will talk about it. This helps with our drills and improving our support to the troops as well as dealing with difficult scenarios.
I have been in a night-time scenario in Nad Ali that, taken out of context, could be seen to be quite damning from our gun footage. Our guys had been contacted. They had been caught in an ambush, which they had pre-seen but could not get the Rules of Engagement to engage on. They were subsequently contacted and they swiftly dropped two 500-pounders from a B1 [bomber] because that was all they had on station. They were pretty sure they got one [Taliban], but they were still tracking another with an ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, targeting, acquisition and reconnaissance] asset. They tracked him for over a K and a half through the fields. We were on high readiness from Bastion – a ten-minute flight time – and were woken up and launched as soon as the initial contact occurred.
When I arrived on station at approximately three in the morning, I had one guy in the middle of the maize-field. It took quite a while picking him up at night. When I actually saw him, I had no doubt in my mind that this guy was one of the original men from the ambush, still rapidly on the run in the middle of a field using the high crops as cover. I was flying at about 2,000 feet with night-vision goggles on. I had all the Rules of Engagement and fired, and I made sure I did it pretty clinically. That sounds shocking. I fired a burst of twenty [rounds], then readjusted and then I fired probably eighty or a hundred rounds at him. Once you have caught him, once he is on the run, you make sure you hit him really hard. You just want to be professional and clinical.
We video everything we do and watch it not only to improve our weaponeering, but also to record every engagement for any Rules of Engagement questions or investigations. Taken out of context, without the background, this footage would be quite shocking in its cold harshness. The fact that we video everything does put the crews under additional pressure in a way that, perhaps, the rest of the Army does not face.
Major Jonathan Hipkins, Royal Military Police (RMP)
We have just had an incident whereby a British forces ground call sign conducted an offensive operation up near FOB Inkerman. During that operation, they received intelligence to suggest that a certain compound was being used as a formup point to launch an attack by enemy forces on them. They pushed a couple of snipers forward to reinforce the evidence they had got through intelligence. And the two snipers saw two individuals on the roof of a particular compound that they believed was being used as a form-up point and they saw the two individuals carrying long-barrelled weapons.
On the basis that they felt an imminent threat from that compound to them, they decided to launch a strike by GMLRS, the multi-launch rocket system. And they basically hit the compound as a pre-emptive strike to neutralize the enemy threat that was contained within that compound. Unfortunately it appears, and there is no way they could ever have known this, there were civilians inside the compound and unfortunately a female was killed. Two of her children were killed as well and two other children were put in hospital along with the owner of the compound's second wife, who subsequently lost a hand. His nine-month-old baby was also hospitalized and went up to Kabul and lost an eye in a subsequent operation.
And part and parcel of my job was to look at whether or not British forces were at fault in the actions that they took that day. So I managed to get hold of the man who owns that compound, the father of the children, the husband of the wife. He was at Kandahar hospital. He was visiting his injured second wife, and his two injured children were there too. I managed to reach him through the International Committee of the Red Cross. So I had this thirty-four-year-old man in my office in tears talking about the incident where he had lost most of his family and the very serious wounds to the rest of his family. And for me, at that one moment in time, and even now just thinking about it, I felt a tingling down the back of my neck. This poor bloke had gone through a hugely traumatic experience and I had to basically try and find out whether he felt British forces were at fault, whether Taliban were present there that day and whether or not there was anything, in fact, that we could do to recompense him for the loss that he had suffered.
It's a very sad example of the nature of the conflict here in Afghanistan. And really it brought it home to me how these guys suffer no end. British forces always try and do what is right in terms of limiting collateral damage. But it doesn't mean that I am not acutely conscious of the fact that a number of individuals out there have died – innocent people have died – at the hands of British forces. Accidents will always happen, but it's still just as sad, still another person's life.
Sergeant Hughie Benson, The Royal Irish Regiment
We were at Musa Qa'leh – Satellite Station North – when the base was attacked. The base was all Hesco bastion: metal crates that have a cloth on the inside and you just fill them with mud and whatever you want. The ANA had a small compound to live in inside our PB. We had two huge sangars, which were up on the high ground to the north: the northeast sangar and the north-west sangar. And, from there, you could see the whole of the north to the edge of the Green Zone and the urban desert as well.
The base was regularly attacked: depending on how they [the Taliban] were feeling, they would throw different things at you. In the space of about eight weeks, if you went two days without the base getting hit you were lucky. Some [incidents] were just some hero trying to make a name for himself, coming down on his own with an RPG. And then you had more co-ordinated ones where they were firing SPG9 – like an 82mm rocket that they fire at you. You get the odd mortar round – not very accurate. The closest they got was, after about three days of being mortared every day, a hundred metres away from the PB. That was not very good.
But on one day in August, it got lively. There were only ten Brits in the patrol base at this stage because we took two people back who were being extracted – they had finished their tour. The next day we were getting two more people coming up to us. So there were ten of us in the PB and about a hundred ANA. It must have been about last light. The British sangar, which we manned, was engaged with small arms. The top two big sangars were engaged with RPG. One actually hit the front of the sangar but didn't injure anybody. And then that was followed by a full-bore attack. They wanted to have a go – they wanted to take the PB. One minute we were standing around chatting, and then we had to stand-to beside the sangar and start to engage the firing points. We all stood-to. And then everything slipped into place perfectly.
Due to previous attacks, all firing points and approach routes were marked and recorded for the 81mm mortars to engage. Everyone, including the ANA, was well practised at defending the PB. We are talking easily sixty Taliban attacking us – probably more. They came through the urban desert and the closest they got that day was sixty to seventy metres away. There was no chance of them overrunning us, but they were definitely trying to take the base. Later on, the ANA were telling us that they had heard through their local sources that they wanted to get in [to the base].
I was the PB commander in charge of the base, so I was coordinating the defence. But everyone knew what they were doing. In there, we had four GPMGs, a 50-cal machine-gun, a GMG [grenade machine-gun], a 51mm mortar, with 81mm mortar on call, which was used effectively, rifles, UGLs and LMGs. Everything was being fired. We had air [support] as well: an A10 American bomber.
This contact lasted three and a bit hours. The engagement finished just after half past ten [at night] – when our last round was fired. We didn't take any casualties. Unbelievable. They did, though. We got reports that they were collecting casualties. We could see them extracting their casualties through [our] night-vision. All the night-vision gets put on just before last light. We don't know exactly how many Taliban casualties they took. But I know for a fact that we finished fighting at half past ten and at three in the morning they were still trying to get casualties out of the canal. And whenever they were collecting the casualties, the ANA were engaging them.
1 September 2008
Captain Kate Philp, 17 Corunna Battery, 26 Regiment The Royal Artillery
I see myself as a front-line fighting soldier out here. I am two and a half weeks into a six-month tour. My parents [Donald and Susan] are extremely proud of me. They think it is a worthwhile career. They think the people they have met through us [their three children] are fantastic, sociable, loyal, hard-working, and have a big emphasis on teamwork.
Nothing has woken me up in a sweat [since arriving in Afghanistan]. I'm a lot happier now that I'm out here. I think the waiting to go and all the pre-deployment training is worse because, by the end of it, you just want to get on and do it. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about going out and doing the job. No matter how well trained you are and how well your team works, going out and doing it for real for the first time is obviously something you can't fully prepare for.
We are all keen to do as good a job as possible. We have been training with the company for the last few months and obviously we want to be able to support them as best we can. And so I hope that we can do what we're trained to do [even] when we're under the ultimate pressure of being in contact and, perhaps, being tired and, perhaps, having taken casualties.
A move [from Camp Bastion to a front-line position] can take from between twelve hours to two and a half days for various reasons. On one occasion [on our move to the front-line], we had several vehicles break down but we also had a rocket come in and a sniper have a go at us, so we experienced quite a few things just on the move up here. But it was probably a really good thing that happened because you get here in one piece knowing that you got through that. You have to face it again but you've done it now for real and you've got through it.
We hope to push down the Musa Qa'leh valley and drive back the Taliban. Whether we stay in this area or move elsewhere, we're here for now, continuing the job the previous company did before us, trying to dominate the ground, providing that intimate support, certainly to the dismounted troops. The protection and fire-power that these vehicles [Warriors] give us is phenomenal, so we want to make the best use of that. If the call comes to deploy us elsewhere, then we'll do so. It's still a relatively new capability out here. We're only the third company to come out in the Warrior role and obviously we'll be going into a winter tour so we would expect our first couple of months to be busy, and then potentially quieten down again. But who knows? We've got to provide stability here for the country to be able to rebuild itself and get back on its feet. At the end of the day, we've got to help these people lead a better life.
The way we do business is to take every measure possible to minimize collateral damage and any civilian casualties. But, at the end of the day, we work under [rules of] selfdefence here. If we're being engaged from a building and we're being pinned down and the only way we can get out of that fire-fight and save our lives is to drop a bomb on it, then we'll do it. Then again, we'll look at dropping the most suitable bomb possible to minimize that collateral damage. Sadly, collateral damage is a fact of war and, unfortunately sometimes an acceptable risk that has to be taken.
I'm in a company of 130 men. When we go out on the ground on patrol, I'll be the only female. It's very simple, in terms of showering here, for example. On the first night we had shelters strung up with solar showers hanging off them. I went last, when it was dark. I said to the boys next door: 'You might not want to climb up on your Warrior because I'm about to have a shower.' And it's as simple as that. I'm not particularly uneasy about it myself, but I also don't want the guys to be uneasy about it, so I'll forewarn them. Also the guys in the gun troop over there have been very good and said I can go and use theirs [shower], if need be. It's being terribly practical and not making a big issue out of it and just saying: 'Look, we need to do this. How are we going to solve it?' It's a very easy thing to do.
To be perfectly honest, I never think of myself as a female captain in the Royal Artillery – I'm a captain in the Royal Artillery. Physical fitness is obviously pretty important and I aim to keep myself as fit as possible. And there's a good few of them [men] who I can beat, which is not me being competitive, although I am a little bit, but it's just one of those things that you will always [as a woman] be deemed to be less physically capable. So that [a physical challenge] is a big way to prove yourself, if you like.
I honestly don't try and prove myself as a female. I just try and prove myself as an officer alongside my peers and, hopefully, here, working for my guys as much as possible. I expect exactly the same from them as any other officer would. In the first exercise I did with these guys – in pre-deployment training – there was a reference made to: 'A normal FOO [forward observation officer] would do this.' I suppressed a small smile, and a wee bit later on I said: 'Look, I am a normal FOO. I may be female. I may need a bit of privacy every once in a while, to wash for example, purely out of practicality. Everything else is exactly the same. If a FOO normally sleeps out here, that's exactly where I will sleep.'
Being an officer is probably the most daunting and most difficult thing you do. That first appointment as troop commander is a challenge. You can be taught all the technical stuff but you can't really teach anyone how to react when you meet the guys for the first time and you're the boss. Yes, you're the boss, but you have to earn respect at the same time. That just comes with time. I remember being told during training that it's a process of hand-over really – from your troop sergeant who, in that interim period between the two officers, has been in charge of the troop and has obviously been with them for a long time anyway. Officers come and go, but soldiers stay, so it's a question of you gradually taking the reins. So even though you're the boss from the beginning, I don't think you actually earn that [respect] until you've been with the guys for a bit and shown them that you can do the job, that they can trust you and you've got their interests at heart. I was extremely lucky with mine [troop sergeant], that he was extremely good from day one. He would discuss everything with me and he would give me a lot of guidance as well, as and when I needed it. But he let me make decisions for myself, which was what I needed to do. So I couldn't have asked for better support.
It's important to listen to other people's advice but have the courage and confidence to make your own decisions at the same time. And it's interesting seeing other young officers who have come in just a wee bit before you and see how well they have been accepted. I saw with a couple that those who had been accepted very readily were humble enough to accept advice from their soldiers and not come in with the attitude of 'Right, I'm the officer, I'm the boss,' because that's rubbish. These are the guys with the experience. You've got to be humble enough to take the advice and ask for the advice as well. But at the same time you've got to have the courage of your convictions. It's a difficult one, but it's not rocket science, and I think it's just something that unfortunately comes with experience. You really can't teach it to anybody. You've just got to let people get on with it and make their own mistakes – and not be afraid to make mistakes.
We have to learn from our mistakes. We're good at writing post-operational reports and I know we're all very busy, but a lot of value could be gained from applying those lessons [already] learnt. We all know that the Army is very busy and we ask an awful lot of our people – and we keep delivering because it's what we're trained to do – but we need to be careful not to take advantage of this and recognize that people need a break.
2 September 2008
McNab: I was in Afghanistan when a force of 5,000 British and Allied troops fought its way across a hundred miles of Taliban territory to deliver a huge turbine that would provide significantly more electricity for up to two million Afghans. The secret mission took almost a week to complete and was described as the most vital route-clearance operation since the Second World War. British commanders estimated that more than twenty Taliban were killed as they tried to prevent a convoy of more than a hundred vehicles transporting the machinery from Kandahar to Kajaki. For five days, the force battled its way through as the convoy crawled at just two m.p.h. as it carried the 220-ton turbine, 300 tons of cement, a 90-ton crane and other heavy equipment. I witnessed parts of the fighting. The project was aimed at improving the lives of many people living in Helmand province and winning the hearts and minds of the local Afghans. The task was attempted at the climax of the Taliban's fighting season and in the knowledge that a single enemy bullet could have crippled the delicate machinery and delayed the project by a year. Quite rightly, the mission drew comparisons with the 1944 battle of Arnhem and the relief in 1900 of the siege of Mafeking. I was impressed and relieved that our boys had pulled off their objective.
Ranger David McKee, The Royal Irish Regiment
The mission to move the Kajaki turbine involved a convoy of more than a hundred vehicles and there were over 4,000 troops on the ground. It was pretty cool. The ANA were leading it this time. We [the British] were just there as support. We were seeing how well they would do out on the ground for once. And they were amazing. I would say at this stage they were ready to do anything. As part of the OMLT [Operational Mentor Liaison Team], we had helped train some of them up and it was very rewarding to see just how far they had come in less than six months. We [the Royal Irish] were given two objectives to clear. One was Big Top, which was a mountain. The second was Sentry Compound, a village filled with Taliban. Pretty much anyone who was inside that village was Taliban. We knew the mission was going to take a week.
On the first day, we started moving down to a secure location where we could gather around in our team to talk things over, make plans and get organized. The second day we started moving – on foot. The only vehicle we had with us was a quad [bike] and trailer because of all the kit that we needed for the operation. The kit we needed was horrendous. Even getting it [the quad] over the Green Zone was a nightmare because we hit rivers, and couldn't get the trailer over the river. Then we hit bumps and ditches. So we started moving down to another secure location and still no contact. After the second day, still no contacts. That second night we hid up in a compound and stayed there overnight. Then on the third day we moved a little bit closer to our objective. Again, we stayed in another compound overnight. But still no contact. It came over the net [radio] that we had made such good progress we were going to take our objectives the very next day.
So that whole night we – B Company – were just sitting there thinking: This is it. This is the big one. It's going to go down in history. And if it is going to go down in history, then we hope it doesn't turn out badly. We knew this time it was us doing the attack. The Rules of Engagement had changed at this stage for us to go in and do the attack. What we were told was: seven o'clock in the morning, first move, and the contact will initiate from a GLMRS [guided launch missile rocket system] being launched into the Sentry Compound. So, the next morning, we were all packed up ready to go and the GLMRS were launched – you could hear the vibrations. The bombing went off and we started making our move through a cornfield. But the mortars were still coming down on top of our objective to keep the enemies' heads down so we could get ready to go in and do an advance [attack].
We were all lined up, ready to go in for the assault, and one of the other teams were giving us fire support. So they were now firing on the position we were going into. As they were firing we made our move. Straight in. By that time, we didn't even come under contact. Our other team had been fired upon but they had sorted it out and dealt with whoever was firing back. We went in – the place was just flattened, rubble everywhere. There were loads of different buildings, compounds. We had to blow some of the doors off the hinges with the engineers. Either the Taliban were killed or they had fled. That whole day we killed 250 Taliban in total. But I didn't have to fire, although there was plenty of firing done.
That was an amazing day. Only because the mortars were commanded to land at 'danger close'. That meant, as we moved in, the mortars were meant to be landing pretty much right beside us. And that was happening. I got an adrenalin rush from this but the ANA were absolutely frightened by it. A lot of them refused to move until the mortars had stopped being fired. But we told them: 'This is the last one [attack] you're going to do. Once this has finished you're going home.' So then they were up for it and they were like: 'Yes, no problem.' So we all went in. This position was clear but the only problem there was that the other two teams were clearing Big Top. And they had come under extreme contacts because the Taliban had all these rat-run tunnels underground and there was loads of bunkers all over the place. All they were doing was running underground, then coming up: they could pop you in your back and you wouldn't even know there was a hole around. But the Taliban came under contact and they had lost everything. They had used all their rocket launchers and near enough all their ammunition.
That was the big battle. In our company, there were less than fifty men and we did that operation and even today we're proud of what we did that day. I feel honoured to have been a part of it.
We extracted back after the main battle was done. We stayed in the compound that we stayed in the previous [third] night. But the compounds were getting hit like crazy. At one stage, I was on the roof with no body armour or helmet on because we thought it was all done. Me and the boss, we were up on the roofs of the compounds taking photos and taking videos. And the next thing you know, you could hear the cracks of machine-gun fire. My initial reaction was: 'I'm getting the hell off this roof.' Usually, you got off using the ladder but I jumped off it and landed on my knees, while the boss lay down on the roof. It was just crazy. From then on, we were getting hit every single night but on the sixth night we decided: 'Right, we're leaving.'
As we were leaving, the Apaches came in, the Black Hawks [US utility helicopters] came in. And they just started firing all over the area so we could move out [to provide cover from a Taliban attack]. It was cluster-fuck trying to get everyone out. From our base, there were at least 450 troops on the ground, and trying to get 450 troops moved back in at once was a nightmare. This was moving back into the big base where the [Kajaki] turbine had been taken to. Then we went back up to the dam and everyone was jumping into the water [with delight]. Everyone was taking a dive off the dam. It was brilliant. It was clear blue, proper clear blue, water. And all the boys wanted to do was to go for a swim – and there were big jumps. This was day seven. This was us getting a breather. A bit of fucking down-time. Enjoying ourselves. Having a laugh. The turbine had arrived and the mission had been accomplished.
7 September 2008
McNab: I made the news by launching a scathing public attack on the British government's treatment of its troops. My comments came after a poll revealed that two-thirds of the public thought the level of care for servicemen was 'disgraceful'. I had commissioned the ICM poll, which found that three-quarters of the 3,040 adults questioned believed the Ministry of Defence did not support troops once they were discharged. In the first poll of its kind, the survey found that 76 per cent believed the government's commitment to the psychological care of veterans was 'inadequate'. Almost half (49 per cent) of those questioned said they would be willing to pay an extra penny in income tax to help former servicemen with financial difficulties. I said at the time: 'What we have at the moment is a time-bomb of post-traumatic stress disorder that will go off in the next ten to fifteen years in people who have experienced the horrors of the current conflicts. It annoys me that we continually get politicians of all persuasions jumping on the back of military success only for the same politicians not to back them [servicemen] with money when they leave.'
Captain Alan 'Barney' Barnwell, 845 Naval Air Squadron
Early in September my crew was back in Camp Bastion as the Sea King HRF [Helmand Reaction Force] once again. This is usually an arduous seven-day duty with minimum sleep, and maximum coffee, but everyone likes it as you get interesting and crucial tasks, which give a great sense of satisfaction when completed. Also it has some autonomy, where you can make a certain amount of your own decisions rather than implementing someone else's. It exercises your thinking muscles. The down-side is that throughout the day you are at thirty mins' notice to move and at night sixty mins'. Often we were airborne much quicker, especially when escorting the CH47 MERT [Chinook medical team].
This particular day in question, the second tasking Sea King from Kandahar was unserviceable so we were tasked to pick up some under-slung loads [USL], one from Bastion to Garmsir and then back to Lashkar Gah to pick up another to return to Camp Bastion. The other Sea King would act as escort. Under-slung loads are very useful for carrying oversized stores and in the past I had carried 105mm light guns, even old Land Rovers. But in Afghanistan the altitude and the high summer temperatures have a debilitating effect on the aircraft's performance so the loads must be carefully weighed and the aircraft performance calculations, which include fuel carried, must be diligently made. The distance to the first drop-off was about forty-five miles, then twenty-five to Lash and then pick up some ammo. We would be really light by then and the twenty miles back to Bastion would be a piece of piss.
I calculated the weights, speed about 60–70 knots with a USL, distances, timings, etc. It would be tight but we could make it. The load, we were told, was support weapons for the FOB, so it was high priority. We briefed as a section with the other aircraft crew as usual and got the latest int update for the areas we were going to: Nad Ali and Marhja were pretty hot again with probable AAA[enemy artillery] nearby. I was not overly concerned as we planned to give them a wide berth even though they were on our direct track. We lifted from the spots and headed to the load park 500 metres away. Usually it is the CH47 [Chinook] which does the USL as they have a much greater capacity, so I was hoping the load team had got the load right.
When we got to the load, they didn't seem to be surprised it was a Sea King, which was a good start. Not so good was this mountain of boxes they had in the net for us to lift! The load was the size of a small caravan. I was a bit concerned: if it was as heavy as it was large we would never get it airborne. It was still only 7 a.m. – not too hot – so we had a bit more power than usual. So we set up to give it a go. The load was hooked up and we gingerly raised the collective. As we reached max power, it slowly lifted up. Petchy, my co-pilot, was flying the smoothest he ever had to coax the lumbering beast into the air. We continued to rise at an infinitesimal rate, and as we transitioned into wind I realized we did not have enough air speed to turn and therefore would have to fly over the camp. Apart from it being against standing orders, there was the matter of the caravan-type load underneath and its refusal to fly like an aircraft. If it became uncontrollable, I would have to jettison it. Not a great idea when flying over the accommodation tents of a Para battalion. They might not take too kindly to being flattened by some boot-neck who can't fly properly.
The seconds ticked slowly by and we passed over the camp fence on our way south. As we struggled higher, we realized our load was bulky rather than heavy, which has its own problems. As we accelerated, the load started to swing: this made the whole helicopter stutter from side to side. To stop this we had to slow down. I thought: It must be Petchy – he can't fly for toffee! So I took control. Shit! It felt horrible. Every time we went past forty-five knots, it felt like some enormous hand was grabbing us from underneath and pushing us from side to side. We were about a third of the way there. The stores were important, and I didn't want to fail the task. 'No, we won't turn back,' I said to myself. I recalculated time and distance, recalculated fuel. Well, if we went straight over Nad Ali and Marhja, we could still make it. As we approached Nad Ali, an Apache called that he was in contact. I thought: Shit. OK, we need to avoid that area. Try to increase speed. Shit, more oscillations. How bad do I need to drop the load? I can't, important stores. Shit.
Travelling around Helmand province at 2,000 feet above ground at forty-five knots with a caravan-like load underneath was starting to feel like I was walking around Leicester Square naked with a target pinned to my arse saying: 'Kick me!' In short, decidedly uncomfortable. I thought: New plan. Let's get the load to Garmsir. Then we'll have to divert, get some fuel at the Yanks' place and carry on to Lash. OK, we'll be about an hour and a half behind schedule but we'll get the job done as long as we get to Garmsir without being shot down.
Eventually we dropped off the load and headed for the diversion and refuel, landing on at our minimum allowed fuel. We only took on enough to get back to Bastion as we had a load at Lash to pick up. Hope this one isn't a caravan, I thought. We routed to Lash, feeling particularly proud and happy. We had achieved part one and we were now doing 120 knots again. We lined up for our approach into Lash, zooming past the rooftops just feet below at full speed making a tactical arrival. Coming over the fence, I saw the load by the first HLS [helicopter landing site] spot. Phew, that one's not too big and the empty ammo cases should fly well, I thought. We set ourselves in the hover, hooked on, and the marshaller indicated us to lift. We pulled up the collective, and more. We were now at a forty-foot hover, nicely above the protected walls but going nowhere. I thought: More power. We're at maximum. Try a smidge more. Watch the temperatures. But there wasn't a single movement of the load, not a millimetre. 'Shit! Put her down, Petchy,' I said. The poor Sea King had been wheezing like an asthmatic at the end of a marathon. This load was going nowhere by Sea King: the 'empty' ammo boxes were full! We gave our best sorry expressions, dropped the load hook and made a quick departure. We landed back at Bastion and debriefed the Ops Room on what had happened, then went back to our tent for coffee. It was only 10 a.m.: lots of time left for more fun that day.
I was working in America in November 2008 when a friend emailed me with some sad news. Captain Kate Philp, whom I had interviewed for this book in Afghanistan a couple of months earlier, had been involved in a tragic incident. The Sun had revealed that a large roadside bomb, believed to contain some fifty kilos of explosive, had gone off next to her 25-ton Warrior 'mini tank'. Kate's left foot was blown apart, which meant she became the first woman soldier to lose a limb since the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan had begun in 2001. Furthermore, she is believed to be the first woman in the British Army to become a combat amputee.
There was even worse news for another family. The blast had killed Gurkha Colour Sergeant Krishna Dura, thirty-six, as well as injuring two more soldiers. The patrol had been going to pick up a sniper team when they were attacked near Musa Qa'leh. The large bomb was the first to penetrate a Warrior in Helmand province.
Kate's company commander told the Sun: 'We remain in awe of the courage and selflessness with which she has met this tragic event.' A senior military source added: 'Kate has not complained at all about what has happened to her and does not regret a moment of her military service.' Donald and Susan Philp, her parents, told the newspaper: 'Her morale is extremely high, thanks to her enormous courage and determination, but also thanks to the wonderful care she has received.' In a prepared statement, Kate added: 'My thoughts and condolences go to the family of Colour Sergeant Krishna and to those who were also injured in the attack. And my deepest thanks go to the medical staff and others in Afghanistan and UK who have taken such great care of me.' As Kate was treated in Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital, her visitors included the Prince of Wales. I was glad to learn recently from her father that Kate is making good progress as she recovers from her serious injuries.
There is promising news, too, about another injured soldier. Ranger Andrew Allen, who lost both his legs after being hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in July 2008, is continuing his recovery. However, he has also had to have an operation on his eyes. He had lost his sight but, following the surgery, it is coming back slowly. His friend, Sergeant Hughie Benson, told me: 'I recently picked Ranger Allen up so he could attend the medals parade [at the Tern Hill barracks in Shropshire] and receive his Afghanistan service medal. I picked him up in a hire car. He was in a wheelchair. His eyes were completely closed over then. He couldn't see. I arrived down at Headley Court [rehabilitation centre in Surrey] about six in the morning and he was sitting there with his combats on, finishing his breakfast and ready to go. He asked me why I was late because I was supposed to be there at half five. It was a three-hour drive there and a three-hour drive back. Ranger Allen sat in the front with me. He talked for the first ten minutes, then fell asleep.
'When we arrived, his girlfriend was waiting in the Naafi. I walked him out in his wheelchair at the parade. The regimental colonel presented him with his medal. He paraded with the company after that so he was with all his mates. Then we went up to the Naafi, met up with his girlfriend again. He asked her to marry him and she said yes. He is learning to walk again and his girlfriend, who lives in Belfast, has just had a baby boy – their first child. It's all good. If it was me, I would be in turmoil, but the way he is getting about and conducting himself is unbelievable. He is a brave wee man.'
I will sign off with some more cheery news. In the Queen's New Year's Honours List for 2009, Major Hugh Benson QM, the father of Sergeant Hughie Benson, received an MBE. Sergeant Benson himself later received a Mention in Dispatches (MID) in the operation honours for Operation Herrick 8. The Bensons deserve public recognition for their bravery and service. With Major Benson and his three sons all still serving, this is undoubtedly a family that has done Britain proud.