THE patrol set off in darkness. Through fields of poppy and wheat, 100 men from the Brigade Reconnaissance Force stumbled towards their target, a strip of compounds that had been used by the Taliban to fire on British troops.
“Right, lads, the Taliban are waking up. They’ve already pinged our position,” said Captain Andy Breach, the BRF’s intelligence officer, as he listened in to the insurgents’ radio under a moonless sky.
Then the mine exploded. With an enormous, ear-piercing bang, a cone of earth and rock hurtled towards the heavens 40 yards in front of me in a flash of purple from the phosphate in the home-made improvised explosive device.
“Contact IED!” Breach shouted into his radio.
An eerie pause followed as a plume of smoke spiralled away on the breeze above the dirt and gravel track we were following beside a canal. One of the soldiers shouted for a medic. As men raced past me, barking out orders in rasping voices, I sat on a bank in shock, an image of the explosion frozen in my mind.
“Foxy, get your vallon [mine detector],” said Colour Sergeant Stew Cain, grabbing the nearest medic and running towards the seat of the explosion. “Start clearing the area in case there are more devices.”
But Foxy never replied. In the gloomy, pre-dawn light, a group of soldiers found him on the track. They dragged him on to a stretcher, each man taking a corner, and sprinted towards a landing zone being cleared for a helicopter in a wheat field.
Breach, co-ordinating the medical evacuation from a ditch 10 yards away, asked for news of Foxy’s condition. Cain looked back at him and shook his head twice.
Sergeant Paul “Foxy” Fox, 35, from Manchester, married with three children — the youngest barely more than a year old — had died instantly.
I HAD known Foxy for only a month, but I fought back tears as I watched the two men stare at each other across the field, shocked by the loss of a friend.
A few minutes earlier, Foxy had been walking six men ahead of me, talking into his radio as he navigated the irrigation ditches and tree-lines, the rest of the platoon following.
This was Operation Dark Rest, aimed at killing or capturing a particularly lethal group of Taliban near the town of Marjah in central Helmand.
The soldiers of the BRF, an elite unit, had just had time to de-flea their sleeping bags after 10 days of living rough in compounds following the launch of the much larger Operation Moshtarak to regain control of the area.
Thus far they had seen relatively little fighting. Now they were targeting “a nest of vipers” who had shot and wounded six men from US special forces and seven Scots Guards in the space of a week.
The accuracy of the fire suggested that highly trained Pakistani gunmen may have arrived there from Marjah, where US troops have become bogged down in fierce fighting.
“We will likely take on casualties,” the commanding officer had said on the eve of Operation Dark Rest. “We may have to have down days, where we recoup for a day or two. We will need to stay alert. They only need to be lucky once; we have to be lucky every day.”
On Friday, the men woke at 3.45am, packing up their sleeping bags and ponchos before making a hasty cup of tea and gobbling some food. They lined up in their sections, sharing a final joke before they set out.
Foxy checked over the men in his section, ensuring they were in the correct order of march and that they had the right kit with them — night vision goggles, enough water to last the day, extra rations and ammunition. I was attached to 3 Platoon, where Foxy was one of three section commanders.
It was hard to see the ground with no moon to guide us. Some of the soldiers tripped in the uneven fields. Others lost their footing as they hurdled ditches, slipping into the water before scrambling up the bank.
“Foxy, tell me when you get to the large ditch,” said Breach, 29, the intelligence officer from Shrewsbury, Shropshire. “We’ll go firm there while we wait for the others to get into position.” Dogs bayed in the distance, giving away the soldiers’ stealthy advance.
Foxy was not the first man to walk over that mined patch of land: others had turned to cross a bridge in safety. His death was as random as the piece of earth you choose to step on.
The soldiers’ training kicked in immediately. The men to Foxy’s front and back, who had been hurled to the ground by the force of the blast, got up and, still dazed, began to search for more mines.
A bomb disposal team extended the search and 3 Platoon not only cleared the landing zone but pushed men out to cover the area in case the Taliban launched an attack.
The men took up firing positions and radios crackled over the still air as commanders reassured them, urging them to stay alert. Some of the men, evidently in shock, wiped away quiet tears.
“I think everyone had a moment. I think all of us were pretty emotional. It is impossible not to be,” Breach said later.
The soldiers huddled round Foxy in the field popped a brightly coloured smoke grenade as the rumble of the approaching Chinook helicopter grew louder.
“Stay alert, lads,” said Breach, commanding Foxy’s platoon. “If the Taliban are going to try anything, they’ll try it now.”
The down-draught from the Chinook flattened the green sheaves of wheat. The pilot lowered the back door and the stretcher party ran inside, handing Foxy to the medics on board. The helicopter kicked up more dust as it sped back to Camp Bastion, the British base.
“Right, lads, we’re going to push on over the bridge and into those compounds,” Breach said. “I know how you’re all feeling, but we need to get on with the job now. Get your gear on and let’s move out.”
Foxy had talked incessantly about his family to friends in the BRF. A fanatical Manchester United supporter, he wanted his sons to grow up enjoying football as much as he did.
It was hard to avoid thinking about them as we moved on. But Foxy, a veteran of Northern Ireland who had worked his way up to sergeant in 28 Engineer Regiment, would have been proud of the way his men rallied, proceeded towards their target and conducted themselves under subsequent fire.
It was while they were walking past the spot where he had been killed, glancing down at a crater a metre and a half deep, that the first shots came from a series of compounds 400 yards in front of them. Breach shouted to them to get into hard cover as they lay flat in the fields. One by one, they ran towards a chest-high ditch as their comrades covered them with bursts of bullets.
Single shots from a Kalashnikov assault rifle mixed in with longer bursts of automatic fire cracked above their heads. Some returned fire, allowing others to manoeuvre closer to the insurgents.
“Right, lads, we need to remain professional. It’s going to be hard after what’s happened but we can’t afford to kill civilians,” Breach warned. “Positively identify the firing point and then engage with accurate fire. I don’t want anyone brassing the place up.”
As his section commanders passed, Breach told them to watch for any signs of distress.
One section entered a shop directly opposite the IED blast on the other side of the canal. Red tracer rounds ricocheted off the ground as the soldiers crept along ditches, bobbing their heads up occasionally to shoot when they identified an insurgent.
During a lull in the fighting, an American mine clearance team attached to the BRF found the explosives that Foxy, a demolition expert, had been carrying in his rucksack, and destroyed them.
The previous night, as he sat marking his map under the light from his head torch, he had told me he wanted to get rid of them: the perfect photo opportunity, “as long as you frame me in the foreground”, he had joked.
The fighting soon picked up again. Mortars were called in to provide a smokescreen as the troops advanced on the Taliban’s position. The threat of IEDs made progress slow. At one stage, insurgents’ rounds kicked up dust only yards from where the soldiers lay.
Beside a compound wall, a white minibus dropped off a man who opened fire on the troops before darting into a building. A child was seen acting as a runner between the insurgents’ firing positions. Other fighters were glimpsed popping their heads around compound corners or peering through “murder holes”. One was wearing a burqa.
An unarmed man in a white shalwar kameez moving between compounds was assessed to be a Taliban commander.
“The f***ers say they’re going to try a flanking attack on our position,” Breach said into his radio. “They say we’re surrounded.” In reality, the insurgents were cornered. Their only option was to flee.
After four hours of sporadic gunfire, 2 Platoon spotted the commander escaping on a motorbike 400 yards away. A single shot threw him from his motorbike into a ditch.
Minutes later a drone circling above spotted a man pushing a wheelbarrow with what looked like a body heaped inside. Another platoon entered a compound, forcing the Taliban to abandon their positions. As 3 Platoon moved in to search, the soldiers found a trail of blood leading into a concrete room.
NO more shots were fired that day, although it would not be long before the fighting resumed. Foxy was on all the soldiers’ minds as we walked back to base, the clouds gathering overhead. Breach, who had started writing a eulogy in the field, thought hard about what he would say to his men.
“I’m not very good at this,” he began, sitting on a tin of ammunition in front of his Jackal vehicle, the men kneeling at his feet. “I could talk for hours and it wouldn’t make a difference. But I will say this: you can’t bottle it up. You must talk with each other about what happened, otherwise you will climb into your doss bags tonight and you’ll remember some tiny detail — Foxy’s boot, his knee pad lying in the dust.
“We have a job to do now. This is not the time to grieve. We need to get back out there tomorrow. We cannot and will not let this get on top of us.”
By the light of the rising moon, the men gathered in a semi-circle around the unit’s acting priest John Radubuli, a softly spoken Fijian lance corporal, and bowed their heads as he read a prayer from his Bible.
Then the unit’s five Fijian soldiers began to sing, softly at first. Their soulful voices carried out over the surrounding fields, sending a cold shiver down the spine. The commanding officer read a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye, ending: “Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there. I did not die.”
A mortar fired into the night sky marked the beginning of a minute’s silence until another round exploded in the air, its yellow light flickering across the sombre faces of the men.
Foxy, a larger-than-life character, was remembered for his banter and for a cheerfulness that lightened the most gruelling of tasks. To those closest to him, he would speak of his son and imagine him growing up and getting his first girlfriend.
“He was such a genuine, friendly guy. No matter how shit the task, he would always tell you that it’d be all right,” said Cain, the colour sergeant, from Scarborough, North Yorkshire. “He would always see the best in the worst of situations.”
HOURS after the vigil, the commanding officer told his men that the Taliban would try to re-lay IEDs along the canal where Foxy had been killed.
Sure enough, an infrared camera manoeuvred by an Xbox games console’s controller on the unit’s desert hawk — a small plane launched by hand — spotted four men moving towards the crater. One knelt and dug while two others kept lookout. The fourth dug next to a roadside ditch at the spot the soldiers had crossed that morning.
The camera tracked the men northwest, following them into a compound. The insurgents seeded their lair with IEDs to protect it from British troops and posted a roaming sentry outside, switching the soldier every hour.
The British commanding officer set about planning an attack, changing it four times before he was confident it would work. Having had little or no sleep since the previous patrol, the soldiers set out again. They travelled light, dumping heavy kit to maximise speed and stealth. Two platoons, numbering about 35 men, plus a section of Afghan troops, crept back over the wheat fields.
The commanding officer’s platoon crossed the canal and ran up to the eastern wall of the compound as 4 Platoon swept round to cut off anyone emerging from a door in the westernmost wall. As 4 Platoon manoeuvred into position, the commanding officer, who cannot be named, and Robin Bourne-Taylor, the captain, climbed up two ladders to peer inside.
As the sentry sat down, his back to the door, the commanding officer ordered his men to climb over the top of the walls. Meanwhile Bourne-Taylor raced into the compound, followed by the Afghan troops. He sprinted across a garden, coming to a halt at the building that contained the insurgents.
As the sentry turned to enter the compound, he was shot and slumped to the foot of the door, dead. The Afghan soldiers shouted at the men inside the building to come out. When there was no response, one of them hurled a “flash bang” — distraction grenade — into the room.
Suddenly a man ran into the doorway, holding a heavy machinegun. He unleashed a salvo at Bourne-Taylor, who was standing a few yards in front of him.
The captain, a former Olympic rower, returned fire, but a second burst clipped the heel of his boot, forcing him to dart sideways. He went prone against a wall before returning fire again. The Taliban fighter in the doorway continued to fire from the hip. Another gunman opened up from inside the building, this time from a murder hole knocked into the side of a wall.
The commanding officer now began to lay down fire, allowing Bourne-Taylor to crawl around the side of the building and hurl another grenade into the room.
Three insurgents rushed out and escaped through a doorway, only to come up against 4 Platoon waiting outside to open fire. They ran for their lives in the darkness.
Two dashed into the next compound, apparently wounded. The other ran west across a field where 4 Platoon cut him down. He got back up and ran another 50 yards, only to be hit by a volley as he reached the wall of a compound. The section turned its infrared sights back on the door. Another gunman fled out of the building and was killed.
Four fighters were still alive in the compound, however. Bourne-Taylor and the commanding hurled more grenades inside. Some of the men entered the room, stepping round the body of a bullet-ridden insurgent. As Bourne-Taylor stood in the doorway, a half-dead Taliban fighter lying on the ground squeezed the trigger on his heavy machinegun, loosing off another burst at the captain, but missing.
Another fighter lying on the floor and presumed dead moved to grab his weapon but was immediately shot dead.
By this time, the grenades had sparked a fire in the building. The soldiers rushed to collect evidence before the Taliban’s ammunition started to explode. They bagged the heavy machineguns and ammunition and prepared to move from the compound.
Meanwhile, 4 Platoon was looking for the wounded fighters in a compound to the north. Breaking into a locked room, the soldiers discovered a man in a white shalwar kameez, soaked with blood. “Who is your commander? Who do you answer to? How many of there are you?” asked the soldiers. The fighter claimed he was a farmer and refused to answer.
A blood trail led the soldiers to another compound where they found a wounded fighter curled up in a small room with gunshot wounds to his legs and right arm. He refused to give them any information.
Just then, the Taliban radio spluttered into life. More fighters were overheard threatening to send in reinforcements. The British soldiers, who had come lightly armed and were not ready for a day-long firefight, withdrew to their base.
They returned knowing they had just destroyed the IED cell responsible for laying the mine that killed Foxy. They had gathered evidence, arrested two wounded fighters and killed six others. “The fact that we hit the same cell that killed Foxy gives the lads some small comfort,” Cain said. “But the strike will never make up for the loss of someone like him.”