CREEPING under cover of darkness, the bitterly cold wind in their faces, a crack squad of Royal Marines embarked on an audacious raid that destroyed an enemy communications base in Helmand province.
As the sun rose above the mountains, the company commander of 45 Commando gave the order to engage, and the soldiers unleashed a skilfully orchestrated ground and air assault, killing a local Taleban chief.
The marines, who are based at RM Condor in Arbroath, have been responsible for patrolling the Upper Sangin Valley since October last year. Their patch stretches from a base code-named Gibraltar, near Gereshk in the south, and follows the Helmand River up to the Kajaki Dam.
45 Commando's Victor Company are holed up in another base called Zeebrugge, in a remote outpost in the mountainous region of Kajaki. Their mission is to defend the Kajaki dam from Taleban attacks.
The dam is critical to the infrastructure of southern Afghanistan. Its turbines provide electrical power and water to a huge proportion of the Afghan population in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
At an altitude of 4,000ft, Victor Company are specially trained for cold weather warfare, their combat skills honed by surviving on limited supplies, while training and living in the most basic of conditions.
The Taleban may surround them, but Victor Company "owns" the high ground and patrols continuously to control the area. Very few Afghan civilians live here now, most driven away in fear of the Taleban.
The key to keeping the upper hand in such a hostile environment is "offensive spirit". Thus, Victor Company executed a strategy to destroy a Taleban command and communications base to the north of the dam. Marines from the reconnaissance patrol's troop set off very early in the morning, moving carefully and stealthily into their positions with the aim of catching the enemy by surprise. They knew they had succeeded when they reached their final rendezvous, in the enemy's back yard, without detection.
By now, the assault troops were in place, and a fire support group moved in to cover their flanks.
Victor Company was poised for ambush. From their makeshift headquarters, hidden on a sand dune overlooking the target, they could see the Taleban sentries change guard. When the commander gave the word, they triggered a punishing assault on the Taleban defence network, co-ordinating ground, mortar, artillery and air weapons. Stunned and confused, the Taleban were pinned down, fixed in their trenches by the ferocity of the attack.
The troops' aim had been to cause maximum disruption with the minimum collateral damage to the wider area. An aircraft then dropped two precision bombs, destroying enemy bunkers and dug-in defensive positions. The operation was a success. Almost immediately, a flurry of intelligence reports indicated that a local Taleban commander had been killed.
Captain Paul Forrest, operations officer for Victor Company, said: "This is a significant blow to the Taleban, which will disrupt their ability to co-ordinate future attacks in Kajaki.
"It should also send a powerful message to them that their roadside bombs and threats against the local community will not be tolerated."
On completion of the operation, the marines withdrew to their operating base.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Morris, Commanding Officer of 45 Commando, said: "This raid was well planned and executed with ruthless precision.
"Defence of the Kajaki hydro-electric station is a task of strategic importance.
"The power it produces is vital to sustain the livelihoods of the Afghan people who live in Helmand and Kandahar."
See the story on the Scotsman website here