Posts Tagged ‘The Rifles’
The blast tore through Sapper Matthew Weston’s body as he searched the mud compound for mines. The rifle he was carrying sliced off his hand, leaving it dangling by a thread of skin. Both his legs were blown off and he could feel the blood gushing from his two remaining stumps as medics leapt on top of him to stem the bleeding with bandages and tourniquets.
The 20-year-old Royal Engineer struggled to sit up, but his fellow soldiers pushed him back to the ground, afraid he might go into shock if he saw what was left of his legs. “It felt like someone smacking me in the head with a baseball bat. My head was thumping and my ears were ringing,” he told me.
Sapper Weston and his team of mine-clearance experts had been tasked with clearing a dirt track that leads through one of the most dangerous parts of Helmand. Night had fallen when the team from 33 Engineer Regiment began to search for bombs in the compounds that lined the track, known to soldiers as Pharmacy Road.
“I was the man at the front,” he said. “I didn’t have any night-vision equipment. They just didn’t have enough to go round,” he said matter-of-factly, as he sat on his hospital bed. As he turned to his commander to give the all-clear, the bomb that would leave him crippled for life exploded. Seven others were wounded in the blast, some with deep lacerations to their necks.
A quick reaction force was dispatched from the nearest British military base 100 metres down the road to evacuate the casualties.
“I didn’t lose consciousness until they put me on the back of the quad bike. That’s the last thing I remember,” he said.
An American medical-evacuation helicopter flew Sapper Weston to the British field hospital in Camp Bastion, where he was immediately rushed onto the operating table by surgeons who thought he would never survive his wounds.
By the time the doctors had finished operating on him, he had lost seven pints of blood, part of his intestine and his spleen. Shrapnel had shredded parts of his liver. When he got to Bastion he still had his right knee, but the doctors were forced to chop it off, leaving him with two stumps for legs.
The next thing he remembered was seeing his sister by his bedside in Birmingham’s Selly Oak hospital. Both Weston’s arms were in casts, attached to a pulley system above his head, which he could barely turn. He asked where his girlfriend was. “I didn’t want her to see me like this. I didn’t realise I’d been unconscious for a week and that they’d been by my bed all along,” he said. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
‘Dad, I’m sorry,” were my brother’s first intelligible words, whispered through swollen lips and an oxygen mask. Dad leant in close and told his son how proud he was of him.
For three days we had hovered around Jim’s bedside in Birmingham’s Selly Oak hospital — as he lay doped up on a cocktail of opiates, antibiotics and general anaesthetic — since I had arrived with him on an emergency flight from Afghanistan.
“I am having some pretty weird dreams,” Jim murmured as we strained to hear him.
I had always wanted to be a war correspondent. Ironic, then, that the first casualty of war I saw was my younger brother lying limp and lacerated in a field hospital in Helmand.
It was last Sunday that I received the news I had feared but never thought I would actually hear. I was on assignment for The Sunday Times, covering the largest ground operation launched by British troops in Afghanistan.
In four hours I was meant to be on a Chinook helicopter, air assaulting into a Taliban stronghold as part of operation Panther’s Claw with soldiers from the Black Watch, Royal Regiment of Scotland.
Body armour and bags packed, I was waiting in Camp Bastion, the British base, counting down the hours until we were due to fly and worrying about whether I would be able to understand the Jocks’ thick accents.
Jim, recently arrived in Afghanistan as a second lieutenant in the Rifles, was on another operation.
The telephone in the camp’s media tent rang and I was called in. I thought it would be the press team querying an article I had written.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your brother has been badly wounded in an explosion,” said a voice I did not recognise.
The body goes numb and the mind races. How badly wounded? Images of my brother with no legs, no arms — worse — left me nauseous.
That morning, mum had sent me an e-mail from England saying she felt “wobbly”. Around the time she e-mailed, in a deadly and uninhabited Helmand town called Wishtan, her 24-year-old younger son had walked onto an “improvised explosive device”. Read the rest of this entry »
THE Taliban opened fire while four British soldiers were crossing a barren field. As they dashed for cover, a bullet tore through the thigh of one of the riflemen, bringing him crashing to the ground as more rounds thudded into the earth beside him.
It would only be a matter of seconds before the Taliban gunmen zeroed in on the fallen soldier stranded 30 yards from his comrades. It took Corporal Daniel “Danger Faz” Farrell, of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, a moment to realise the danger.“I thought he’d just fallen over so we ran past him initially and went to the edge of a compound. We were still in the kill zone. The soldier was screaming he’d been hit,” Farrell said.
His platoon had been given the task of backing up troops from the Afghan army as they searched villages in an area to the north of the British base in Sangin.
“We couldn’t make out where the bullets were coming from,” said Farrell, 24, who commands a section of eight men in A Company’s 5th Platoon.
“They would either shoot more of us or they would have killed the wounded rifleman.
That’s when I thought we can’t leave him, we have to go back and get him.”
Farrell grabbed a comrade, Rifleman Nathan Hau, and sprinted across the ploughed field towards the fallen soldier, braving another hail of Taliban bullets as they did so. The two soldiers each grabbed an arm, dragging their wounded colleague across the field towards a mud compound and away from the Taliban’s firing position 80 yards to their left.
In the searing heat, the two men finally heaved the wounded rifleman to safety through a section of mud wall blown away during a previous battle with the Taliban.
As the platoon’s medic treated the wounded soldier behind the chest-high wall, Farrell shouted for his shoulder-mounted rocket launcher and fired at the compound from which the Taliban were shooting.
Furious that his rocket missed its target, Farrell hurled its empty tube at the wall and ordered one of his men to pass him the heavy machinegun. “I think when the men saw me in that state, they really caught the buzz and they started to return fire in force,” he said.
The platoon, backed by a team of snipers, let loose a torrent of fire on the Taliban’s position, firing 1,000 rounds and two missiles while they waited for a helicopter to take the wounded soldier to hospital at Camp Bastion.
Only once he had returned to Forward Operating Base Jackson after completing the 12-hour patrol did Farrell realise how narrow his own escape had been. “I looked at my pouch and realised a bullet had hit it,” he said. The round, probably fired from an AK47 rifle, had struck the global positioning satellite monitor he keeps in a hip pouch. Two inches to the right and the bullet would have smashed his thigh bone. “I’m not overreligious but I think my friend who was killed by sniper fire in Iraq is looking over me,” the Liverpudlian said.
The rescued soldier is recovering from a shattered femur in Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham.
Farrell’s platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Tom Parry, paid tribute. “It was really ballsy,” he said. “It takes an incredible amount of courage to do what Corporal Farrell did.”
Eleven soldiers serving with 2 Rifles have died during the first three months of their Afghan tour. All but one were killed by roadside bombs. After a month of fighting, the main British operation in Helmand, known as Panther’s Claw, is moving into its next phase with more than 1,000 ground troops surrounding the Taliban’s remaining stronghold in an area known as Greater Babaji.
The enemy is elusive but there are dramatic moments. On July 7, unmanned drones spotted retreating Taliban fighters lashing empty oil cans to their pickup trucks to ford a canal as British troops advanced through the Nahri Saraj district.
British soldiers monitoring computer screens at the nearest forward operating base were soon looking at live images from an assortment of drones, jets and helicopters circling over the battlefield.
A pair of Apache helicopters fired Hellfire rockets and 30mm cannon, leaving four pickup trucks, a minibus and a number of motorbikes burnt out. About 30 Taliban militants were killed in the raid. Intelligence sources later confirmed that one of the dead men was a mid-level Taliban commander.
The fighting of the past few weeks followed a disastrous decision by British, American and Danish commanders to pay Haji Kaduz, a warlord, to keep the Taliban at bay. The deal went sour 18 months ago when Kaduz began to demand more cash, complaining that he had paid $40,000 out of his own pocket to feed, pay and equip his men.
His stipend was cut and Kaduz reverted to drug-running, extortion, kidnapping and even murder to pay for his militia. The population quickly turned back to the Taliban for protection.
One Danish government official described the deal with Kaduz as “extremely naive”. “We were dancing with the devil. Kaduz is one of the reasons the local people allowed the Taliban to regroup and drive into the area 18 months ago,” said Glen Swanson, the district’s stabilisation adviser, contracted by the Danes. “People just want security.”
The Taliban, who govern by fear and intimidation, are slowly losing their grip on Nahri Saraj as the British advance. But they are ruthless foes. They have executed six pro-British tribal elders in the valley since February, as the forces try to win trust among locals in the run-up to next month’s elections.
General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, has ordered his officers to limit the use of airstrikes after concerns that the rising number of civilian casualties is turning ordinary Afghans against foreign troops.
In areas under its control, the Taliban divert water irrigation channels away from pro-British villages, shut down schools and punish villagers spotted talking to British or Afghan troops.
“Only a few people will vote in the election,” said Faisal Haq, the district governor of Sangin who was forced to flee to neighbouring Kandahar in 2007 .
The propaganda war is becoming ever more vicious. Two weeks ago, the Taliban shot a seven-year-old Afghan girl in the head and dumped her body on the steps of her family’s mud compound. Then they blamed her death on the British.
Five British troops killed in Afghanistan on Friday were caught in a cruel trap, retreating from one blast only to become the targets of a second, even more lethal explosion.
At 5am, a 30-man platoon was making its way along an alley in Wishtan, one of the most dangerous parts of the northern Helmand district of Sangin, when a bomb exploded between two compounds with 16ft-high mud walls.
One rifleman died instantly and five more were wounded, as well as their Afghan interpreter.
A signaller radioed for assistance and a quick reaction force was sent from a nearby base. A medical team took to the air in one of the few helicopters available to Brigadier Tim Radford, the force commander, as the patrol pulled back to regroup.
While they withdrew, a second bomb in the “daisy chain” went off, killing three more soldiers instantly — including one of the already injured men — and wounding another.
As the medical team arrived, American and British Apache helicopters circled overhead, firing intermittently to prevent the Taliban from mounting further attacks. The seriously wounded were ferried to the field hospital at the main British base at Camp Bastion, but a fifth soldier died on the way.
At Forward Operating Base Jackson, where the bulk of 2nd Battalion, The Rifles are based, the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Thomson, held a brief service of remembrance for the five men, whose deaths doubled the numbers his battalion had lost during their current tour.
“They paid the greatest sacrifice in the service of their friends, their regiment, the battle group, our country and the good people of Afghanistan,” said Thomson. Then he added: “We will not be turned”, and ordered the bugle major to sound the advance.
The deaths took the number of British troops killed in the space of 24 hours to eight. The way they died has highlighted the toll of the Taliban’s bombing campaign.
Twelve of the 15 British soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in the past 12 days were killed by bombs; three quarters of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan in the past two years have died this way.
A large number of soldiers have also suffered “life-changing” wounds in bomb attacks. The MoD refuses to give details, but more than 50 are known to have lost limbs in such attacks.
A shortage of helicopters has forced troops to resort to supply convoys that are up to 100 vehicles long and stretch for two miles, leaving them easy prey to Taliban roadside bombs.
Former generals insist the problem has been a lack of helicopters and the government’s failure to give troops the resources they need. Major- General Julian Thompson, who commanded troops in the Falklands and in Northern Ireland, compared the large numbers of helicopters the troops used there with the small number in Afghanistan.
“I think it’s absolutely critical that you have more helicopters with a decent payload,” he said. “When the IRA mounted their culvert bomb campaign in South Armagh, we never travelled in anything other than a helicopter. Supplies went by helicopter. The commanding officer went by helicopter everywhere.”
Last week Gordon Brown insisted the government had sent more helicopters, saying: “We now have almost twice as much helicopter capability as we had two years ago, and we have made orders for new helicopters as a result of the increasing demands that came from both Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Brown was responding to criticism by Lord Guthrie, the former chief of the defence staff, who blamed Brown and the Treasury for refusing to give commanders the troops and helicopters they needed.
“As far as helicopters are concerned, of course they need more helicopters,” Guthrie said. “If there had been more, it is very likely that fewer soldiers would have been killed by roadside bombs.”
Relatives of one of five dead soldiers whose coffins were paraded through the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett last week, reacted angrily on Friday to a perceived government failure to provide enough funding for the troops. Anne Smith, whose 22-year-old grandson Lance-Corporal Dane Elson was killed by a Taliban bomb a week ago, blamed shortages of kit for the deaths and said Bob Ainsworth, the defence secretary, was unfit to hold office. “He’s not fit to be a minister, sat there speaking to us on the television, uncaring. He hasn’t got a sentimental bone in his body,” she said. “Where is he today, he’s not here with us, is he?”
Elson’s girlfriend, Claire Wells, 23, said that given the limited money the government was prepared to spend on the deployment, the troops should be brought home. “They shouldn’t be there,” she said. “There are too many of our lads dying. They are fighting a war that we cannot win.”
This week an inquest will open into the death of Trooper James Munday, the first of 10 soldiers killed in Jackal armoured patrol vehicles, where the driver and commander are vulnerable to roadside bombs. Relatives of Munday, who was 21, are to speak out.
Yesterday the parents of Ben Ford, a private who was killed by an explosion in southern Afghanistan two years ago, accused the government of wasting money while the armed forces lacked resources. “How much money do we need to throw at other things in this country before we realise the armed forces need that cash?” said Jane Ford. “What is Gordon Brown doing? Is he just sitting there counting his own money?”
Despite Brown’s denials, a lack of resources in Afghanistan has dogged British forces since they first went into Helmand in early 2006. John Reid, the then defence secretary, who said he hoped British troops might leave without firing a shot, imposed a 3,150 “manning cap” on troops deployed. The cap was imposed at the insistence of Brown, who was then chancellor.
A strategy for British troops to provide security in main urban areas while reconstruction was pursued was undermined by lack of manpower. Instead troops were sent, under US orders, to man northern outposts at Sangin, Musa Qala and Nawzad, where they were under siege from Taliban fighters. They also had only six helicopters, too few to mount effective operations elsewhere.
The Foreign Office and the Department for International Development decided it was too dangerous to do anything and failed to complete the reconstruction projects the Afghans had been led to expect.
“We’ve had three wasted years,” one senior army officer said last week, bemoaning the way in which the Americans were seen as having ridden to the rescue of the British. “As many troops dead as in Iraq and nothing to show for it.”
British numbers in Helmand have increased to just over 5,000, with an 800-man group in neighbouring Kandahar to provide back-up for operations such as the current Panther’s Claw. However, they have just 10 Chinook helicopters, two of which are for special forces use. There are five Lynx helicopters, but these cannot carry as many troops and struggle in Afghanistan’s heat and high altitude.
The Ministry of Defence lacks further decent helicopters to send to Afghanistan, largely because in June 2004 Brown insisted it was spending too much on them. He slashed the budget from £4.5 billion to £3 billion, only enough to buy new helicopters needed by the navy. That decision was taken despite a National Audit Office report two months earlier that there was a 38% shortfall in troop-carrying helicopters that was only going to get worse. The lack of helicopters forced troops to use vehicles with limited protection against bombs.
Nor are snatch Land Rovers and armoured Jackals the only vehicles to prove vulnerable. One of the eight soldiers whose deaths were announced on Friday was driving a Viking tracked vehicle. They have proved resilient against Taliban rocket-propelled grenades, but highly exposed to bombs. In addition, ministers say the
Vector light patrol vehicle, which was specially armoured for Afghanistan but suffers from similar vulnerabilities to the Jackal, is to be withdrawn altogether — except for those used as ambulances to pick up troops wounded by the bombs.
As the death toll rises, what is the way forward in Afghanistan? Tim Collins, the British colonel who won widespread acclamation for his rousing speech before his men went into Iraq, worries that the heart-searching might lead to British withdrawal, which will be seen by Islamists as a victory.
“The big danger is that the Labour government has no policy, reacts very irresponsibly to what happens in the media and crumbles and caves in,” he said. “If Labour loses its nerve on this one — which it has every chance of doing — we are in trouble.”
General Sir David Richards, who takes over as head of the army next month, is determined to fulfil the mission in Afghanistan. “It is vital to our domestic security that we do not allow Afghanistan to once again become an exporter of Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism or give such people a ‘victory’ that could inspire a much bigger threat still,” he said last month.
Civil servants try to play down scathing report on lack of equipment
Senior civil servants are trying to water down a highly critical report on the government’s defence procurement agency after a succession of failures that have deprived frontline troops of vital equipment.
The report, which was commissioned by John Hutton, the former defence secretary, is understood to be particularly scathing of the bureaucracy at the Defence Equipment and Support organisation. Its author, Bernard Gray, a business consultant, believes the organisation’s 8,000 military staff play a key role. However, he said the agency has too many civil servants — 17,000 — who slow down its work.
The report could be published this week — even though it was delivered to Hutton in May. “It is very challenging for the Ministry of Defence and there are elements within the main building who are trying to torpedo it,” said a well-placed source.
One of the worst procurement failures has been the purchase of eight Chinook helicopters for special forces operating in Afghanistan.
They were bought for £259m and delivered in 2001 but were then found, because of a software problem, to be incapable of flying above 500ft unless the sky was clear. The MoD initially decided to write them off but was forced to spend a further £250m revamping them because of a shortage of aircraft. They are due to enter service next year.
Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Thomson, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, wrote a eulogy to his five soldiers on the day they were killed last week and will read it out at a memorial service at Camp Bastion tomorrow. It says:
‘It has been a grim day here in Sangin but at the end of the day, as we prayed for our fellow riflemen who have given their lives in the service of their country and for the good of the Afghan people, the bugle major sounded the advance and it would have been heard right across the valley as the sun slipped behind the ridge. We turned to our right, saluted the fallen and the wounded, picked up our rifles and returned to the rampart.
I sensed each rifleman tragically killed in action today standing behind us as we returned to our posts and we all knew that each one of those riflemen would have wanted us to “crack on”. And that is what we shall do — there will be no turning, the work is too important. We are undeterred. But we will miss each fallen rifleman sorely. They lived and fought alongside us and tonight our lives are much worse for them not being here. But we can celebrate what they were and what they achieved and we are so very proud of them.
And yet in all of this, we know that our grief is nothing compared to that of their loved ones — parents, wives, children, girlfriends and families. And it is them we also hold tonight in out thoughts and prayers and ask that they may somehow find the strength and courage to face the days ahead.