Carnage in the Devil’s Playground
The Sunday Times, Wishtan, Sangin
THE first explosion that tore through the alleyway flung an 18-year-old soldier into the air, killing him instantly. As the dust cleared, troops racing towards the body of Private Johnathon Young came to an abrupt halt: one improvised explosive device (IED) after another lay in their path.
It was Sergeant Paul McAleese who took the initiative. He radioed an urgent request for bomb disposal experts, only to be told the team would take two hours to arrive.
So anxious was McAleese to retrieve the fresh-faced soldier from Hull that he ordered one of his men to attach a chain from his quad bike to Young’s left arm. They would try to winch him out of the kill zone.
Walking backwards out of the alleyway, however, they triggered two more explosions. McAleese, from Hereford — a 29-year-old veteran whose son was born a week before he was deployed to Afghanistan — died beside the body he had been trying to recover.
The incident happened in August in Wishtan, a maze of alleyways and compounds ringed by mud walls 16ft high on the outer edge of Sangin, in the southern province of Helmand. McAleese was the eighth member of C Company, 2nd Battalion, the Rifles, to die in a series of attacks that have made Wishtan the most dangerous place on earth for the British Army.
Of the 120 soldiers who have served there in the past six months, one in three has been killed or injured, according to Major Rupert Follett, the commanding officer of C Company. The vast majority of the casualties — eight killed and 30 wounded, including my brother James — were caused by IEDs, the Taliban’s most feared and cost-effective weapon.
Last week I became the first reporter to reach Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wishtan and speak to those fortunate enough to have survived. The drive from Sangin to the base, along a dirt track known as Pharmacy Road, took us past sand-coloured compounds which had provided insurgents with perfect cover to lay IEDs and an army tractor blown up and left to rust in the sun.
Until bomb disposal experts cleared this road, the soldiers in FOB Wishtan had lived under virtual siege, supplied only by helicopter. The Taliban had placed a cordon of mines 50 yards from the perimeter walls of the base.
The soldiers call Wishtan “the devil’s playground” and most can recall scenes of chaos and horror: sprinting to dying colleagues; holding partially severed limbs in place; returning to bomb sites to collect the body parts of friends and the family photos they carried.
They speak of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) slamming into buildings, bullets whistling past heads and explosions that have left them shaken and robbed them of close comrades. They describe how time slows in the initial seconds after a blast as body armour and rifles are thrown upwards by the force of the explosion.
“Then you hear the screaming of the blokes. You’re seeing everyone whiz round you and you’re just stuck there, dazed. The voices seem far off, as if they’re coming from another place,” said Corporal Steve Childs, one of 10 Platoon’s section commanders.
Wishtan was not always like this. In April soldiers could patrol more than a mile from the base, carrying full kit and weapons. But as the poppy harvest came to an end in May, the warning signs began to appear.
The Taliban blocked alleys with lumps of concrete, channelling the soldiers onto paths booby-trapped with IEDs. They mined doorways, forcing troops to enter compounds by blowing “mouse holes” in the thick mud walls. Then they mined those, too.
“Everything started to tighten up. We knew it was coming,” said 9 Platoon’s Sergeant Jamie Moncho, a softly spoken soldier of Italian descent.
C Company, which had already lost two men in another part of Sangin, felt the first impact in Wishtan on June 29, when Sapper Matthew Weston, 20, of 33 Engineer Regiment, lost three limbs after he stepped on a bomb planted at the foot of a compound door.
“That was a reality check,” said Childs, the corporal. “That was the first time I saw a guy without legs. The men’s faces were in shock.”
A little over a week later the Taliban attacked the base from seven firing points, launching RPGs and small arms fire into a support tower. Old Russian rounds cracked over the head of a soldier manning its .50 calibre machinegun until one slammed into his shoulder, tearing out a fist-sized chunk of flesh.
Yet nobody realised how dangerous Wishtan had become until July 10, when “daisy chains” of IEDs killed five riflemen and wounded five more in the deadliest single attack on British forces since they arrived in Helmand province in 2006.
The Vallon men of 9 Platoon — the soldiers who carry metal detectors — had started to pick up readings indicating the path they were on was strewn with bombs. The platoon was forced to take a different route.
At 5.20am, explosions from the first daisy chain burst through one of the sections as the men took up firing positions outside a compound. Rifleman James Backhouse, 18, from Castleford, West Yorkshire, was killed and six others wounded — including the platoon’s commanding officer, who lost his left leg and most of the fingers on his left hand.
Under fierce Taliban fire the rest of the men covered Backhouse’s body with a poncho and cleared a compound for a helicopter. But as Moncho, the platoon sergeant, prioritised the casualties, the Vallon men discovered another IED on the landing site, forcing the soldiers to turn back.
It was while moving away along a compound wall that the platoon was caught in another series of explosions, more powerful than the first. The blasts ripped into stretcher bearers carrying the wounded, killing Rifleman William Aldridge, 18, from Bromyard, Herefordshire, Rifleman Joseph Murphy, 18, from Birmingham, Rifleman Daniel Simpson, 20, from Croydon, south London, the father of a baby son, and Corporal Jonathan Horne, 28, from Walsall, West Midlands, who was married with two children.
“It was mayhem,” Childs said. “Moncho got straight onto them again, assessing the casualties and getting first aid in. Lads started coming out of the camp with no armour, no metal detectors, no helmets and with their shorts on. They were sprinting 200 metres down the road to the site.”
The soldiers’ bodies were ferried back to the camp in the backs of armoured vehicles and airlifted to a field hospital in Camp Bastion, Britain’s main military base in Helmand.
“All the guys who were killed died helping each other. They were walking with all the kit and either someone in their arms or on the stretchers. They never thought about themselves,” said Moncho.
Silence fell over the camp as soldiers overcome with raw grief began to blame themselves. The Vallon men were wondering whether they had cleared the area properly. The following day the remaining members of 9 Platoon were ordered to build a helicopter landing site for their base, filling sandbags for five hours in the searing desert heat.
“We could only lick our wounds and guard ourselves,” said Follett, a tall, gentle man sent in to replace his wounded predecessor as commander of C Company. “We felt like we had achieved something by building the site and it was therapeutic to take out our frustration on that.”
The surviving members of 9 Platoon were sent to the watchtowers in pairs. “They weren’t talking to each other. They just didn’t want to remind each other of what had happened,” Moncho said. “It’s still hard to talk to the other lads about it. Someone says something funny, reminiscing, then it goes quiet again.” The men no longer spoke of “when we get home” but “if”.
Lieutenant Tom Parry, whose platoon was sent to Wishtan because there were no longer enough men to patrol the area, said his soldiers had been disturbed to learn where they were going, but none had complained.
“They have a sick sense of humour and they just got on with it. We were tasked with patrolling to show that we were not just going to sit behind the walls. The enemy would have crept back in.”
Disaster struck again nine days later when my brother Jim, the junior officer sent to take command of 9 Platoon, was blown up by another bomb in Wishtan as he went to the aid of seven wounded soldiers screaming in a compound where they had been hit by a separate blast.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Moncho. “I was upset because we were looking forward to him [Second Lieutenant James Amoore] coming. All the lads saw it as the chance for a fresh start.”
As troops from A Company began their patrol back to base, Corporal Joseph Etchells of 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, stepped on yet another IED. The 22-year-old soldier from Manchester died instantly.
The nightmare was still not over. Soon after my brother was flown back to Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham with broken bones, a shredded left arm and an eye full of shrapnel, the base came under attack again. This time an RPG sailed into one of the camp’s accommodation buildings, leaving nine men wounded, some with their ears hanging off.
The next blow came on August 20 with the deaths of Young and McAleese, described as a highly talented commander whose men had worshipped him. He was the last member of C Company to be killed.
About a month ago the men turned a corner. Mine after mine has been cleared in temperatures of up to 45°C. An agreement has been reached with local inhabitants to stop the Taliban using their compounds as firing positions.
Royal Engineers have built a new defensive position halfway along Pharmacy Road, giving soldiers in FOB Wishtan a line of sight to FOB Jackson — the army’s main base in Sangin — and preventing militants from re-seeding the route with bombs.
Extra helicopters and drones drawn from elsewhere in Helmand have also allowed British troops to hunt down IED teams. They have launched dawn raids and airborne assaults on known Taliban strongholds, capturing an insurgent commander accused of supplying mines to local militants and training IED cells.
Pharmacy Road remains a graveyard of images for the men who fought there, a place where every alleyway tells a tale of loss. The nights have played havoc with some of the men’s minds as the voices of their dead friends keep them awake. They have carried lucky charms on patrol, including bullets inscribed with their names or psalms written on the backs of their helmets and inside their body armour.
Many have sought refuge in black humour. Some wrote “left” and “right” on their boots so the medics would not be confused if their legs were blown off. One platoon wanted to write “Welcome to Wishtan — mind your step” on the helicopter landing site, but ran out of spray paint.
These stoical men in their dusty, ramshackle base seem to have drawn a perverse strength from Wishtan’s daunting reputation.
“We had all been through the same thing. We had seen some horrible things. But there was a shared feeling that we had been through it together and that we’d get through it again,” said Follett.
Wishtan will leave an indelible mark on the soldiers who fought there. “They have been through too much already,” Moncho said. “They are definitely not the same fresh-faced youngsters I met six months ago. Their expressions have changed. They have grown up.”
My younger brother Jim, 24, a second lieutenant with 2 Rifles, was blown up as he walked through a compound door to reach fellow soldiers hit by another explosion.
I spent two months at his bedside in Selly Oak hospital. When I left him last month the sight in his left eye was poor, there was no movement in his left hand and he was learning to walk again. He has since moved to Headley Court rehabilitation centre. He hopes to return to Afghanistan and mentor its fledgling army.