Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Afghan heroes parade through central London

Service personnel from 3 Commando Brigade, recently back from fighting in Afghanistan, paraded through central London today, as they made their way to a prestigious Parliamentary reception at Westminster Palace.

Members of Parliament from all parties invited members of 3 Commando Brigade to attend the event to allow them to show their appreciation for the dedication and sacrifice shown by the marines and soldiers on their winter deployment to Afghanistan on Operation HERRICK 9.

Around 120 personnel marched from Wellington Barracks, led by the Royal Marine’s Band. The parade marched down Birdcage Walk and Parliament Square, arriving at the Houses of Parliament a where they were addressed by Lindsay Hoyle, vice chairman for the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Royal Marines. The troops then proceeded to a reception organised by members of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Army.

3 Commando Brigade have been returning from Afghanistan over the past two months, following an extremely tough six-month tour in Helmand province. The tour was marked by high profile, ongoing operations, including Operation SOND CHARA (Red Dagger), which successfully cleared Taleban from the Nad-e-Ali area, and Operation DIESEL, which destroyed Improvised Explosive Device manufacturing facilities and captured chemicals and equipment that, if used to process Opium into Heroin, would have had a UK street value of £50m.

The Brigade suffered 33 fatalities during the course of the tour, and saw many other men seriously injured, a reflection of the extreme intensity of the six month period and the highest of any winter tour.

Logistics HQ deploys to Afghanistan

Tri-Service Headquarters staff of the Joint Force Support deployed to Afghanistan recently where they will be ensuring that troops on the front line have all the support they need to do their job.

The Headquarters, which is formed around HQ 8 Force Engineer Brigade, normally based at Headquarters Land Forces in Wilton, will be responsible for providing approximately 9,000 British soldiers, sailors, airmen, and embedded troops from coalition partners, with everything from buttons, bullets and food to medical care and welfare support.

It will command 2,200 logistics troops based around Afghanistan in Kabul, Lashkar Gah, Camp Bastion and all the Forward Operating Bases in the British area of command.

The 35 men and women forming the core HQ, who come from the Royal Navy, Army and RAF, deployed last week (21 June 2009) and will join another 80 personnel from all three Services already based in Kandahar.

Commanding the Headquarters is Brigadier Chris Tickell, late Royal Engineers, who says there is a great advantage to having a Joint Service Headquarters of this kind:

"It brings a vast wealth of experience from different backgrounds which, if harnessed, will make a very effective organisation," he explained. "As Commander I have already learnt a huge amount from the Navy and RAF - they look at problems in different ways - so the trick is prioritising tasks across the three Services.

"We will be arriving at the time the national elections take place and the United States inflow is continuing, so the challenge will be to understand the dynamics of my own force elements, and making sure we have the right support in the right place at the right time."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Royal Engineers help reconstruction in Helmand

A specialist team of Royal Engineers are helping deliver reconstruction projects worth over six million dollars in Afghanistan including the construction and refurbishment of nine health clinics, twelve schools, six mosques and twelve roads.

The specialist team, known as STRE, works closely with the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) based at Lashkar Gah, a multi-national, civilian and military partnership leading the stabilisation process in Helmand.

Amongst the soldiers working in the STRE is Warrant Officer Class Two Mark Boardman. He said:

"The PRT identify the projects and we deliver them. Over the last year, the STRE has implemented over six million dollars worth of construction projects, ranging from the construction of school latrines and police post perimeter security enhancements, to the building of a brand new prison, an orphanage and numerous mosques, schools and health clinics.

"Working out here is a special challenge, but the job satisfaction is immense. Seeing local children go to school for the first time ever, at a school that we've built, or patients being treated at a hospital we've completely refurbished, is incredibly rewarding."

WO2 Boardman, who is on his second operational tour to Afghanistan, continued:

"We use local Afghan contractors to actually do the building work. It's a good way of injecting money into the local economy and generating employment. My team and I provide infrastructure advice and guidance, and oversee the contract to completion."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Life abroad in the British forces - BBC

Servicemen, women and veterans are being honoured in events around Britain on the first Armed Forces Day.

It is a chance for people to raise a flag to show they are appreciated.

The BBC caught up with serving men and women posted to far-flung destinations around the world.


Staff Sgt Grant McFall is a Royal Engineer who works as part of the reconstruction and development team in the provincial capital of Helmand Province for 522 Support Group Royal Engineers.

He said, from his point of view, things were "really progressing" in Helmand: "We do all kinds of reconstruction, from schools to mosques, and we get contractors in, and do everything from tenders to project managing - the whole life cycle of a construction site.

"We go out on patrol with the infantry and close protection team, and mentor the civilian contractors and try to bring them up to British standards. They're top class, the Afghan contractors, very keen to learn.

"The contractors I've worked with at Lashkar Gah are keen to work with Isaf [International Security Assistance Force]. However, when we turn up on a construction site, we only have 10 minutes of walking around the site because if we do get noticed, it could jeopardise the contractors' well-being, being seen to work with Isaf forces.

"But there are more projects than there have been in the past. I've been out here three months, and have around 16 construction projects here. When Isaf first came out, they were mainly doing smaller cash projects. Now we are overseeing the construction of a new jail in the province, costing £1.6m

"I have three months left of this tour. I did my clerk of works construction course, and I've been thrown straight into the deep end here. I love it. It's a dream come true - this job is brilliant.

"On this Armed Forces Day, I'll be out on patrol on Lashkar Gah keeping an eye on the construction sites. My wife's a nurse in Nottingham, which keeps her busy, and my son Kian, who is two and a half, will be at nursery.

"I think that having an Armed Forces day is a great idea. I don't think the British Army gets enough acknowledgement of what we're doing out here."

Friday, June 26, 2009

VIDEO: Inside the Taliban's Afghan ranks - BBC

Weakening the Taliban on the battlefield remains a key part of the western strategy, but NATO also plans to sit down and talk to the militants.

In this special report, Ian Pannell talks to members of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Harrier heroes return home

RAF and Royal Navy top guns are on their way home after five years of supporting heroic soldiers in the battle against Taleban extremists.

1 (F) Squadron’s Harrier jump jets, from RAF Cottesmore in Rutland, have been fighting for the people of Afghanistan, and supporting brave British and NATO troops by attacking insurgents in the blistering deserts and barren mountains of Afghanistan. They depart Afghanistan on 26 June.

Since 2000, the RAF and the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm have flown Harriers together under the Joint Force Harrier formation. Navy and Royal Marines pilots have been fighting alongside their RAF comrades since the Harrier first arrived in Afghanistan five years ago.

Every Harrier pilot from every Harrier squadron has taken part in the fight. Over the past five years, more that 22,000 hours have been flown on more than 8,500 sorties, mainly over Helmand province.

1 (F) Sqn – the RAF’s oldest squadron, formed in 1912 – has been in Afghanistan four times before, alternating with the RAF’s 4 Squadron and the Fleet Air Arm’s Naval Strike Wing. The last Harriers in Afghanistan have been replaced by Tornado GR4 strike jets from 12 Sqn, based at RAF Lossiemouth in Morayshire.

Wing Commander Dave Haines, 1 Sqn’s commanding officer, says that Taliban fighters would “flee in terror” when they heard the deafening roar of Harrier jets giving “shows of force” when troops were under fire. “We deliver an awesome effect,” said the 39-year-old.

“Our guys on the ground can guide us to the enemy using TV data links. After making sure that we’re not going to harm any civilians, we can fire our missiles from such a distance that the insurgents don’t even know we’re there; sometimes the last thing they hear is the crack of a missile’s sonic boom before it hits.

“We’re here at the invitation of the Afghan government,” he added. “We do absolutely everything we can to make sure that civilians are safe; they’re the people we’re fighting for.”

Royal Marines hero Captain Michael Carty, 27, has been fighting Taliban terrorists since 2002 – first as a troop commander with 45 Commando, leading Marines into battle, and now as an elite Harrier pilot supporting Our Boys from above. “I used to lead 35 lads on the ground,” he said, after a 3-hour mission to hit the Taliban’s fighters. “That gives me a great appreciation of what it’s like for those in the field.”

Capt Carty now helps to keep insurgents at bay while RAF and Royal Navy helicopters fly medics into battle to extract wounded soldiers from the front line. “It makes me really proud,” he said. “Even helping our guys in a small way is fantastic.

“Whether we’re keeping an eye out for insurgents while the troops are clearing a compound, or warning patrols about suspicious activity, I get huge satisfaction from knowing I’ve done my bit.”


• Engines: RR Pegasus 105 or 107 turbofan
• Thrust: 21,750lbs
• Max speed: 574kts
• Length: 14.36m
• Max altitude: 43,000ft
• Span: 9.25m
• Aircrew: 1

Thursday, June 25, 2009

VIDEO: UK military dog survives 'explosive' scare - ITN

British troops 'clear Taliban stronghold'

Troops conducting one of the British military's largest operations in Afghanistan have cleared a Taliban stronghold in the south and are encouraging villagers to return, an officer said Thursday.

About 12 British and US Chinook helicopters dropped 350 British troops into the Babaji area of the southern province of Helmand at midnight Friday, in the largest British-led air assault operation in Afghanistan.

"The operation continues to be successful and we are now encouraging the locals to return to the area to benefit from the improved security and freedom from Taliban control," British Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson told AFP.

Babaji is about 12 kilometres (eight miles) north of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand -- a vast desert province that shares a porous border with Pakistan across which militants are said to enter the Afghan insurgency.

The British troops working with Afghan forces had "pushed the Taliban out of one of their strongholds," Richardson said.

There had been some engagements that had caused fatalities to the insurgents but none to the troops, he said, without giving figures.

The Afghan defence ministry reported Wednesday that troops had killed 25 "terrorists" in days of operations in the area.

Richardson said Afghan locals had known about the operation and many had left ahead of the troops.

"The local people had been warned by a variety of means that there was an operation about to happen to allow to them to avoid the fighting," he said.

Helmand is perhaps the most intense battlefield in Afghanistan's insurgency which has grown apace since the hardliners were removed from government in a US-led assault in late 2001.

Attacks are at a record high in Afghanistan with a growing number of Afghan and international security forces on the ground, which the military says is stirring up insurgent nests.

The violence has led the United States to announce a new strategy in Afghanistan which includes deploying 21,000 troops, mostly into the south where forces have previously been unable to hold areas after driving out insurgents.

The security forces have meanwhile redoubled operations ahead of the August 20 presidential elections, which authorities fear could become a target of the insurgents.

VIDEO: Pakistan's unseen offensive - BBC

The BBC's Orla Guerin was given rare access to the frontline in the tribal region of Bajaur

The Pakistani army is preparing a new offensive in the tribal areas adjoining the Afghan border, the main stronghold of Pakistan's Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud.

Much of the fighting against militants is taking in remote mountains and valleys - and much of the action is unseen.

Our Pakistan Correspondent Orla Guerin was given rare access to the frontline in Bajaur, part of the tribal belt, where the Taliban have been putting up strong resistance.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Black Watch storm Taleban stronghold - Times

By Charlene Sweeney, Tom Coghlan

The Black Watch, whose experience of combat operations goes back to the Battle of Fontenoy and the Peninsula War, yesterday claimed success after taking part in one of the largest air assaults in its long and distinguished history.

The night-time attack was launched with the aim of seizing a Taleban stronghold in western Helmand province, and was carried out by 350 soldiers from 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland (the Black Watch), flown in by British and American Chinook helicopters on Friday at midnight against Nad Ali, a western district of the restless province.

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Cartwright, Commanding Officer of The Black Watch, described it as “a major air assault operation with a large number of helicopters, both UK and US.” He added: “The Black Watch met some resistance but we were able to establish a firm foothold in the area.”

Black Watch digs in after daring swoop on Taleban's heartland - Scotsman

By Jerome Starkey in Lashkar Gah, Helmand

HUNDREDS of Scottish troops were consolidating their positions yesterday, following a daring airborne operation to seize a vital piece of territory in Helmand from the Taleban.

Around 350 soldiers from the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, swooped into Babaji, in central Helmand province, on a wave of Chinook helicopters, backed up by Apache gunships, American Black Hawks, Harrier jets and unmanned drones.

Officials said they overwhelmed Taleban fighters who tried to defend a series of key bridges into the district, as engineers worked through the night to build a chain of combat outposts for the Afghan security forces.

The regiment's commanding officer, Lieutenant Stephen Cartwright, said: "The Black Watch met some resistance but we were able to establish a firm foothold in the area."

The airborne assault began just before midnight on Friday. The initial wave of troops were reinforced by around 150 soldiers including a further company of Black Watch and Royal Engineers who drove in convoys of Viking armoured vehicles, along with soldiers from the Afghan National Army.

Afghan commanding officer General Ghulab Mahayudin Ghuri said:

"There was a Taleban commander with around 60 men, who was attacking police checkpoints. At least 25 of them were killed."

The farmland, just eight miles north of the British base at Lashkar Gah, has been largely beyond the reach of UK and Afghan forces until now. Babaji sits between Helmand's two main towns, but it was cut off from government control by irrigation canals, used to water its poppy fields.

Refugees from the fighting claimed at least two British vehicles were destroyed during the attack.

Mohammed Nabi said: "There were two vehicles on fire, and soldiers patrolling everywhere."

Colonel Nick Richardson said troops found more than 1.2 tons of poppy seeds, which are grown for opium and turned into heroin. They also seized bomb-making equipment and home-made explosives during house-to-house searches. He said the operation was only possible because of the US surge into southern Afghanistan, which he said would "change the balance" in Helmand.

Most of Britain's troops are confined to patrolling close to their bases while the Taleban enjoy freedom of movement across huge parts of the province.

"This operation has been achieved in many ways due to the arrival of extra US troops into the south of Helmand, which has provided Isaf (the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force] with a massive increase in capability," he said.

Although Britain has around 8,300 troops in Afghanistan, only 4,500 are based in Helmand. The Americans are expected to outnumber them by the end of the summer.

Helmand governor Gulab Mangal said yesterday that security for the August general elections was his top priority. Col Richardson added: "This operation is all part of the wider Isaf plan to deliver that."

The Black Watch are based in Kandahar as a region-wide reserve for Isaf.

The operation in Babaji, code-named Panther's Claw, follows similar operations close to Lashkar Gah designed to flush out Taleban fighters who tried to storm the city last year.

But until recently, a shortage of "boots on the ground" has made it impossible for either Nato or the Afghan security forces to hold ground.

"It was very easy to capture this area, but it will be much harder to hold it," Gen Ghuri said.

It is not yet clear how this operation will impact the Taleban's ability to operate. The Black Watch are expected to occupy the new outposts until the Afghan police are ready to take over.

In Lashkar Gah, police were last night guarding a culvert, less than 100 metres from the British HQ, where they had found a roadside bomb.

In Ghazni province, two civilians were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a convoy of international troops, while further north three charity workers were killed when their car hit a roadside bomb in Jowzjan province.

In Khowst, in the east, six people were also killed in two coordinated explosions in Khost.

VIDEO - 3 SCOTS launch massive air assault - ITN

British soldiers are taking part in Operation Panther Claw, a huge airborne assault on the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Monday, June 22, 2009

UK troops clear Taliban stronghold - PA

British troops in Afghanistan have carried out one of the biggest air operations of modern times, the Ministry of Defence has said.

Operation Panther's Claw secured a number of canal and river crossings to establish a permanent International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in what was previously a Taliban stronghold.

The assault was carried out by Scots soldiers on one of the last Taliban strongholds in Helmand Province in the run-up to presidential elections.

Twelve Chinook helicopters, supported by 13 other aircraft including Apache and Black Hawk helicopter gunships and Harrier jets, dropped more than 350 troops from the Black Watch into Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah, when the operation began just before midnight on Friday.

The troops were followed by Royal Engineers and explosive teams who spent the last two days building checkpoints - soon to be permanently occupied by the Afghan National Police - on the main routes in and out of the area to hinder movement by insurgents.

The insurgents launched a number of attacks against the Black Watch but each was fought off and the Scottish troops have secured three main crossing points: the Lui Mandey Wadi crossing, the Nahr-e-Burgha canal and the Shamalan canal.

They also found 1.3 tonnes of poppy seed and a number of improvised explosive devices and mines before they could be laid.

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said the find demonstrated the link between the insurgency and opium production "which brings so much misery to the streets of the UK".

He said: "This operation has been achieved in many ways due to the arrival of extra US troops into the south of Helmand, which has provided ISAF with a massive increase in capability which we believe will significantly change the balance in the province."

The operation is the latest in a series over the last few months where UK and ISAF forces have taken and held ground in Helmand.

VIDEO: US Marines fight fierce battle with the Taliban in Helmand - ITN

US Marines fight at close contact with Taliban forces in a fierce battle to secure a compound in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Armed Forces Day: 'I didn't really think about the danger I was in' - Telegraph

When a Taliban ambush trapped his fellow commandos, one Marine put himself in their way, writes Sean Rayment

What should have been a routine patrol into Taliban territory ended in a bitter battle and a gallantry medal for a Royal Marine commando.

Cpl Richard Withers had grown used to fighting the Taliban. After two tours of duty in Helmand, he had lost count of the number of battles he had fought with insurgents. However, one will always stick in his memory.

In November 2007, the 27-year-old was serving as a section commander with the Armoured Support Troop when he was sent to provide protection for soldiers conducting searches in the notorious “Green Zone” – farm land used by the Taliban to mount attacks against the British.

The operation began according to plan as 100 men from A Company 40 Commando moved into the Green Zone without any sign of the enemy.

Using his knowledge of the area, Cpl Withers, who is from Hull, positioned his Viking vehicles so that he could observe possible lines of Taliban attack. As the marines began to search for signs of the enemy, Cpl Withers spotted 12 to 15 heavily armed gunmen moving along a tree line.

Realising the Taliban were about to launch an attack, he opened fire with the Viking’s mounted machine guns.

“We saw a couple of the insurgents drop and the rest fled,” recalled Cpl Withers. “So I moved my section into a position to try to cut them off but at that point another section was ambushed. It was a concerted attack. The other section were taking a lot of fire and were at risk of being surrounded. That could have turned nasty, so I moved down to help.”

With complete disregard for his own safety, Cpl Withers positioned his vehicle directly in the line of enemy fire to protect the Viking section from the enemy. It was an immensely brave but dangerous tactic.

“I wanted to give the other section a bit of space so that they could sort themselves out. It was then that we started to take a lot of fire. Bullets were whistling over our heads and RPG [rocket-propelled grenades] were exploding against the sides of the Viking – I even saw some bounce off. Bullets were pinging off the sides of the turret but it was important that we seized the initiative so that rather than attack us, we attacked them.

“I had so much going through my head that I didn’t really think about the danger I was exposed to. That’s something you go through later over a brew with your mates back at base.”

After his section had seen off the enemy, Cpl Withers was told that the Taliban were preparing to mount another attack against members of A Company who were still conducting the search operation.

“As soon as we moved into the area, the Taliban attacked. This time the fire was much more intense. We were taking very accurate fire from both RPG and machine guns. The enemy was also much larger in size, at around 30, which meant we were outnumbered by about five to one.”

Once again Cpl Withers took the fight to the Taliban. He ordered his section to launch a frontal attack at the enemy, targeting them with rocket launchers and machine gun fire while charging towards their positions.

He went on: “We put a lot of fire into the enemy’s positions as we charged forward. Eventually their fire stopped, so they were either dead or they fled. An Apache helicopter later confirmed there were quite a few enemy dead in the compounds.”

After the final attack was quelled, the exhausted marines returned to base. The operation had lasted about nine hours.

For his conspicuous gallantry and leadership, Cpl Withers was awarded the Military Cross. The quietly spoken marine said he was deeply honoured to receive the award but added that every one of his men deserved recognition.

“I got the award because I was in charge – everyone who fought on that day deserved a medal.”

Armed Forces Day: bravery in the skies - Telegraph

Pilot flew repeatedly through enemy fire to rescue comrades, writes Andrew Alderson.

n the understated words of Flt Lt Craig Wilson, it was busiest day of his career. To his comrades, it was 10 hours of sustained heroics and raw courage that rightly earned him a gallantry award.

Flt Lt Wilson, 33, a Chinook helicopter pilot, had seen little action in the face of the enemy when he answered a call at 7pm to pick up an injured Afghan National Army soldier, who had been shot in the foot.

At the time, he was working as part of an Immediate Response Team that was tasked with flying doctors to the aid of soldiers injured in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, and getting them all out again.

That initial collection of the injured Afghan soldier was straightforward compared with what lay ahead that night: three further daring missions during which he repeatedly came under enemy fire.

“Shortly after we landed back at Camp Bastion, we were called out again to the Sangin valley, where there was a British casualty who had been seriously hurt after his vehicle was ambushed,” Flt Lt Wilson said. “A bullet had gone in under his right arm, leaving a hole, and then it had hit his spine and come out under his other arm – missing his body armour.”

By now it was about 10pm on June 11, 2006. “The area was 'hot’ [with enemy fire] and we had to hold off for a few minutes. Then the Apaches [attack helicopters] went in to suppress the area before we were able to land, amid a storm of dust, by a wadi [dry valley] close to a burning vehicle. We were under fire but we got the casualty back to Bastion.”

Just minutes after returning, they were sent to fetch yet another casualty: this time a British soldier who had lost his left arm in a firefight.

“When we got to the area, there was a really big contact [battle] going on,” he said. This time, the crew had to circle in the air for more than 90 minutes and by the time they landed they were desperately low on fuel. As they landed, they came under heavy fire.

“It was frustrating not being able to land because we knew our guy was in trouble and we wanted to go in and get him. We just had to sit there and wait – but eventually we got him,” said Flt Lt Wilson. All three casualties who were evacuated survived, but even then the night was not over.

The battle in the Sangin valley was so intense that, at 6am, Flt Lt Wilson’s crew, along with two other Chinook helicopters, had to fly in reinforcements, again under fire. “Lots of people have busy days, but that was my busiest day – definitely,” he said, modestly.

Flt Lt Wilson, who was brought up in Kent, had wanted to be a pilot since he was 10 years old. He joined the Air Cadets aged 13 and, after graduating with a degree in electrical and electronic engineering at Glasgow University in November 1998, he headed straight for the RAF.

After training at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire and RAF Shawbury in Shropshire, Flt Lt Wilson received his “wings”. He was sent to RAF Odiham in Hampshire, where he has been based ever since, flying Chinooks.

Twin-rotor Chinook helicopters – each worth nearly £30 million – are used to support ground troops and evacuate casualties. Each can carry up to 54 troops and usually flies at speeds of 125 knots (nearly 150mph). The helicopter is flown by a four-strong crew – two pilots and two crewmen – and is armed with three machine guns. When they go into dangerous areas, Chinooks are usually supported by Apache attack helicopters.

Flt Lt Wilson served in Europe, the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland and Iraq, before tours in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. Iraq was busy but it was only when he went to Afghanistan that it became “common” for his Chinook to come under fire. “We carried out a lot of operations which were 'hot’ [with enemy gunfire] and you could see muzzle flashes or even RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] as you came in to land,” he said.

“Fortunately, I have never had anything hit my aircraft but I have been aware of the thump, as mortars have landed near by. Normally you see things happening [enemy fire] rather than hear it. I prefer flying at night because it makes it harder for them [the enemy] to see us – though it does make flying a bit trickier.”

Flt Lt Wilson learnt in the autumn of 2006, when he was back in Britain, that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his bravery. He considers the award was also on behalf of the rest of his crew – Flt Lt Alex Duncan (who has since also received the DFC for another incident), Flt Sgt Rob Chambers and Sgt Graham Jones – and also the ground crew. He received his award from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in May 2007.

Flt Lt Wilson, who has a five-month-old son, now works as an instructor, teaching pilots to fly Chinooks. He is grateful that the bravery of servicemen will be recognised with an Armed Forces Day. “I am proud of the job we do. As the memories of the world wars start to fade, it is important that we remind people exactly what the Armed Forces are doing. And it’s nice to know we have the public’s support.”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Armed Forces Day: the heroes who are just like us -Telegraph

Our servicemen and woman are ordinary people who have chosen an extraordinary job, says Andy McNab.

It is all too easy to think of the Armed Forces as belonging to a different tribe from us “pencil necks” (one of the many terms used by our services to describe civilians). Despite the occasional differences in language and culture, however, they are made up of regular people. They’re just like us.

But, according to a recent statistic, the average Briton is more likely to know a copper in the Metropolitan Police than a soldier in the British Army.

One reason for this lack of integration is that servicemen and women had to go off-radar during the years of conflict in Northern Ireland. When the Provisional IRA started to target our forces and their families, our servicemen and women had no choice: they simply had to disappear from public view in order to avoid getting shot or blown up. When out and about on the streets, they were even instructed not to wear uniform, to reduce the potential of becoming targets.

They have had to keep a “low profile” for more than 30 years, and consequently, they have fallen out of the public’s consciousness, and this, inevitably, has led to them being considered with less regard – simply, because we don’t know them.

Get to know some of the individuals as I have, in the past and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you find people who make you feel proud.

My mate, for example, 48-year-old Paul Harding: a major in the infantry who was killed in Basra in a mortar attack. We’d served as riflemen together as acne-faced teenagers. Paul was a soldier’s soldier, someone who had risen up the ranks because of his devotion and skill. Typically, he was leading his men from the front when he was killed. I gave a reading at his funeral and had to fight hard to get the words out. Knowing that he loved his job, and that not many people are lucky enough to be able to say that, helped me get through.

On a visit to 16 Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan last year, I met 18-year-old (“and one month”, as he kept telling me) Private Rob.

He had recently arrived in Afghanistan. Up to his ears in body armour, and carrying a light machine gun, he had become a man in just a few weeks. But it wasn’t just soldiering he was experiencing out in the desert, he was also getting an education. About 45 per cent of infantry recruits join the Army with the average reading skills of an 11-year-old. I should know, I was one of them. Rob was dyslexic and had a reading age of an eight-year-old. As well as fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, he was fighting his dyslexia with the help of the Army educators. When I met him, Rob was sitting in the back of his Warrior armoured vehicle, doing coursework between patrols. That’s the sort of young man we are celebrating on Saturday .

It’s just not the Army out in Afghanistan: in Helmand, you can’t move for the Navy and Air Force – pilots, medics, mechanics, signers and drivers that all make up our team. Many are, of course, women.

Women, too, have been killed in action and there have been calls to withdraw them from the front line. But you know what? There isn’t a front line in modern warfare. That kind of term belongs in black-and-white war films. Our military now fight in “battle space”, because in an insurgency, they are literally surrounded by the enemy, and there is no forward edge of battle.

Among others in Afghanistan, I met Tara, a 28-year-old Fijian medic. When a foot patrol she was part of came under attack from the Taliban, she took a machine gun from a paratrooper who was temporarily in shock (something that can happen to anyone). She joined the fight and killed a Taliban sniper, saving the lives of her patrol. Not bad, eh?

I also met Kate Philp, a 30-year-old captain, whose job was to call in artillery support. She was living and fighting alongside an Infantry Rifle Company, the only woman among 80 men. But none of the company thought of her as a woman, just as a captain doing a job. She is a formidable soldier, and we don’t get to hear enough about the sheer quality of men and women like her in our Armed Forces.

It’s not only those who have died, or those still serving, who we should remember. We should also pause to remember the injured, too. Kate, tragically, is now one of them. Her left foot had to be amputated after a Taliban bomb attack last year in which two of her fellow servicemen died.

Our servicemen and women deserve 21st-century care for wounds inflicted by 21st-century warfare. That’s why I am proud to be a patron of Help for Heroes, and a small part of what has been achieved by this charity to support our injured troops. The support the public has given has really begun to make a positive impact on their lives.

We also need to remember the former servicemen and women suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Two of my friends committed suicide because of PTSD, and to see them go through this disorder was a terrible thing. They are just as much casualties of war as a soldier who has been wounded.

All our servicemen and women are just like us “pencil necks”. They have mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children to look after, bills to pay and gardens to mow. But for whatever reason, they have chosen to do a job that very few of us would be prepared to do ourselves.

So, on Saturday, I am going to think about people like Paul, Rob, Kate and Tara, and be proud of them for what they are.

Major Sean Birchall killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Major Sean Birchall, from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was killed in Afghanistan on 19 June 2009.

Major Birchall was killed by an explosion whilst on patrol in Basharan, near Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. One other soldier was injured in the incident.

At about 1100hrs, Sean was leading a routine patrol to deliver supplies and check on his men in the check points around Basharan. As the patrol, consisting of three armoured vehicles, made its way from one check point to another an Improvised Explosive Device was detonated against the second vehicle.

Despite immediate assistance from the patrol medic, sadly Major Birchall died as he was being extracted to the Helicopter Landing Site.

Major Sean Birchall, 1 WELSH

Maj Birchall was born on 23 June 1975 in Vanderbijlpark, RSA, but moved back to the UK six months later. He was educated at St Peter’s Catholic Comprehensive School, Guildford, and later at Plymouth University, where he was a member of the Exeter University Officer Training Corps.

He attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1999, and was commissioned into the Welsh Guards on 11 December 1999. He served as a Platoon Commander both on ceremonial duties in London and on exercise in the jungle of Belize. After a stint as the Regimental Signals Officer he returned to the Belizean jungle in charge of jungle warfare training. Following Staff College in 2006-2007 he worked in the Permanent Joint Headquarters, Northwood, but was brought back from that job early to command the newly formed IX Company in Afghanistan.

Major Sean Birchall was the Officer Commanding Number IX Company, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards. IX Company is based in Lashkar Gah, the Provincial Capital of Helmand Province. Early in IX the Company’s time in Afghanistan Maj Birchall led them on a large operation where they operated alongside the Afghan Army to drive the Taleban out of a village called Basharan which is 10km North West of Lashkar Gah. Under Maj Birchall’s inspired leadership the Company distinguished itself on this operation and subsequently Basharan became part of the Company’s 'patch'. IX Company was therefore responsible, together with the Afghan Security Forces, for protecting the people of Basharan and helping them to develop their village.

Sean was enormously proud of the Regiment - a Welsh Guardsman through and through. He was a highly capable officer, and excelled at all he did. He was devoted to the men under his command, and they had enormous respect for him. He had a very bright future ahead of him in the Army. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him. Sean leaves behind his wife, Joanna, and their 18-month old son, Charlie.

Sean’s wife Joanna paid this tribute:

"Sean was a wonderful husband, a doting father and a much-loved son and brother, who cared deeply for his family and friends.

"He has been described as 'devilishly fit, stylish and energetic' and he was so very proud to be a Guards Officer. He was also thrilled to have the opportunity to lead a newly-formed Company in Afghanistan and despite spending such a short time with his Guardsmen, he was utterly devoted to them. He would want them to continue with courage and commitment and to come home safely when the job is done.

"It is the excellence he achieved in every facet of his life that defined Sean. An athlete, an adventurer and an instinctive leader, he was an inspiration to all who knew him.

"He leaves behind his adoring family, the Regiment he loved, and his loyal friends. They will miss him terribly."

Hi-tech Father's Day cards for Army

British troops serving in the remotest parts of Afghanistan received Father's Day messages from their children within hours rather than weeks this year thanks to new technology.

Five "e-bluey" systems have been installed in isolated forward operating bases (FOBs) across Helmand province, allowing families to send photos and greetings to their loved ones more quickly and easily than ever before.

Messages are sent electronically, then printed out in the FOB and delivered straight to the troops - by contrast, it can take weeks for hand-written letters to reach far-flung camps.

Bombardier Benjamin Stickland, from Tidworth, Hampshire, who is currently based in Musa Qala, said it was "particularly special" to keep in touch with his wife Stella and children Emily, six, Caleb, two, and Logan, 10 months, on occasions like Father's Day.

"The introduction of the e-bluey system in the FOBs has made it so much easier to keep in touch with loved ones and that's the sort of thing that really raises morale when you're out on operations," he said.

The e-bluey system also allows troops on the frontline to write messages which are printed back in the UK within hours, sealed in an envelope and posted to their families.

Sergeant Dean Jackson-Smith, from Colchester, Essex, is the master chef with 2 Rifles Battle Group in FOB Jackson, based around the town of Sangin.

He said getting an e-bluey from his family - wife Lyndsey-Joanne, 25, and sons Louis, five, and Bobby, one - was "like being a kid and getting a birthday card with £10 in it".

"It's a massive pick-me-up just to be able to see the kids growing and changing while I'm here. I'm not able to go on a webcam or anything here, so the photo blueys are great.

"I'm really forward to getting home and doing normal dad things - taking them swimming and being a full-time dad again rather than a part-time one."

Friday, June 19, 2009

3 SCOTS repel sustained Taliban attack

Scottish soldiers have found a large quantity of Taliban weapons and drugs in an arduous six-day operation which saw them coming under sustained enemy attack for several hours.

Under the cover of dark, troops from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS) were dropped by helicopter into Kandahar Province on 10 June 2009 in an operation called Op Tora Arwa.

The Battle Group came under sustained attack for several hours from insurgents using machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) yet repelled the attacks to amass the large finds.

In all, the unit found numerous weapons including AK47s and pistols, AK47 magazines, anti-personnel mines, 1176 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition, 150 rounds of 9mm ammunition, explosives as well as 118kg of wet opium, 190kg of marijuana, and 110kg of marijuana seeds.

Tragically, during the deployment, Private Robert McLaren, from the Isle of Mull, who had recently joined the unit after passing out from training, was killed by an improvised explosive device.

Major Matt Munro, Officer Commanding Alpha (Grenadier) Company, said:

"Op TORA ARWA 1 was an enormous success. We emphatically achieved our mission of disrupting the insurgents, we secured the area and killed large numbers of insurgents and found and denied large quantities of his equipment and material."

"The operation was overshadowed by the tragic loss of 20-year-old Private Robert McLaren. He was a huge talent and, despite his tender years and inexperience was very highly regarded.

"He was killed by the blast from an improvised explosive device as he manoeuvred forward under accurate enemy machine gun and rocket fire in order to support imperilled colleagues. He was the epitome of a proud and effective Highland soldier. He will be sorely missed but never forgotten."

Renowned as the "heart of darkness" by ISAF commanders, the Black Watch deployed into the region from six Canadian Chinook helicopters in the early hours backed by Canadian artillery and American jets.

Operating in rugged terrain, blistering heat and under intense weight from body armour and other equipment, Maj Munro expressed great admiration for his troops.

"The Jocks are awe-inspiring. It is very hard soldiering out here and the boys are shouldering huge weights in very high temperature for days at a time in a complex, demanding and dangerous environment."

In addition to Pte McLaren, two soldiers from the Afghanistan National Army were similarly killed by an IED, and other soldiers were injured in the blast that killed Pte McLaren.

Despite the losses, the morale amongst the troops is buoyant. Private Liam Salter, aged 19 on his first tour of Afghanistan, said:

"These were the most difficult six days of my life; mentally, physically, and emotionally, definitely the hardest, but also the most exciting and rewarding."

The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS), took over in Afghanistan as the Regional Battle Group (South) on 10 April 2009 from 42 Commando Royal Marines.

The battalion is responsible for supporting a variety of operations across the whole of southern Afghanistan, not just those of the main UK Task Force in Helmand province.

The battalion will be based within Camp Roberts at Kandahar Airfield for their deployment and will work directly to the Dutch-led divisional headquarters known as Regional Command (South), part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force.

Kandahar is home to the forces of seven nationalities within the ISAF coalition and contains a huge array of supporting equipment.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

RAF Chinooks in Afghanistan

1310 Flight Royal Air Force Chinooks of Joint Helicopter Command (Afghanistan) are providing essential support for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations in Helmand Province and across Afghanistan

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Up to 10,000 NATO troops for Afghan polls: secretary general

Between 8,000 and 10,000 international troops will join a NATO-led military force in Afghanistan for August elections, the outgoing NATO secretary general said on a farewell visit to Kabul Wednesday.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer steps down in August after five-and-a-half years in the job, during which he made regular trips to Afghanistan, leading NATO's deepening involvement in the insurgency-hit nation.

At a press conference after talks with President Hamid Karzai, Scheffer stressed the importance to the international community of presidential and provincial council elections on August 20.

The vote is a milestone in a Western-backed push for democracy adopted in the months after the extremist Taliban regime was removed in a US-led invasion in late 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda after the September 11 attacks.

With Taliban attacks at a record high, there are fears that the intensifying insurgency will affect the polls, Afghanistan's second-ever presidential vote.

"We are bringing in extra troops in Afghanistan for a protection role -- between eight and 10,000, if you want to know the numbers, will come on a temporary basis to Afghanistan," Scheffer said.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which already numbers around 61,000 soldiers from about 40 countries, would also be protecting the observers of the election, he said.

Karzai is one of the strongest candidates in a field of 41 despite criticisms of his failure to stop the insurgency and rampant corruption in his government, with allegations of graft also touching his family.

Scheffer is due to meet on Thursday two other top contenders, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Describing a sense of nostalgia on his last visit, Scheffer said the foreign military presence had been necessary in war-scarred Afghanistan to allow reconstruction to take root.

"When I mention reconstruction and development, I do that deliberately because we have never been here, we are not here, to achieve any form of military victory," he said.

"I do not know about any conflict in the world which did not end finally with a political solution and I think and I hope... that Afghanistan will see this day as well," he said.

Taliban bullets were whizzing past my head

By Lucy Tatchell

CORPORAL Lee Hodson was part of a convoy driving an armoured open-top Wmik along a dusty track in Afghanistan’s Helmand province when Taliban fighters started firing at them.

He was pinned down by a stream on his right and enemy fire to his left.

Then soldiers from the Afghan National Army jumped out of the truck in front and started firing rocket-propelled grenades, meaning that Cpl Hodson was boxed in and could not drive forward.

“It was two or three Taliban firing from about 150m away,” said the Worcester Warriors fan.

“All I could hear was the whizzing of bullets past my head. I was screaming at the Afghan army blokes to get back in the vehicle. I was just trying to get the vehicle out. It lasted about three minutes but it was too close for comfort.

“I’ll probably get a few more like that before I leave.”

The former Elgar Technology College pupil, of Blackpole, Worcester, is nearly three months into a six-month tour of duty with the 2nd Battalion Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters).

Part of their role is to train and mentor the Afghans so eventually they can provide army protection to their country, which has been at war for more than 30 years.

A company of Afghan soldiers is then partnered with soldiers from the Mercians and together they go out on patrol and carry out operations.

Speaking from the Mercian’s base in Camp Shorabak, 36-year-old Cpl Hodson said working with the Afghan army has its challenges but he enjoyed watching how it operated.

“They just pick their weapons up and they are gone,” he said.

“We have to sort out water and ammunition but they just go to the local town and buy it there.

“When we have contacts they will just get up and run straight for the gun position and go straight for it.

“Sometimes they just want to do it their own way and we cannot tell them, we have to advise. For them it is just the journey to their afterlife.”

British forces to develop new Afghan Army training school

British forces in Afghanistan will take the lead in developing a new Combined Arms Training School which will provide training courses for the Afghan National Army (ANA.

Following agreement in Brussels yesterday, British forces, will lead the development of the multi-national training school to provide specialised courses for Afghan forces.

The UK will provide the strategic direction and doctrine for the school. ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) partners will assist in providing the personnel to deliver the training courses.

The school will provide essential 'train the trainer' courses across Afghanistan for junior officers, non-commissioned officers, infantry support weapons, armour and artillery training. This is an important new stage in the international NATO Training Mission for Afghanistan.

BBC Radio 1 : Reflecting on a week in Afghanistan

By Sima Kotecha
Newsbeat US reporter in Afghanistan

All week Newsbeat has been with British troops in Afghanistan for a series of special reports on life in one of the world's most dangerous countries. In the last instalment of her diary, Sima Kotecha reflects on her time there and prepares to head home.

It's been a day - and a night - of contrasts at Lashkar Gah.

Our last night here and the evening started with a sombre and moving memorial ceremony for the two soldiers killed near here in the past week.

It was a chance for the young servicemen and women to gather their thoughts and pay tribute to lost comrades.

Afterwards, we sat and talked to the soldiers. As ever, there were thoughts of home, of loved ones and lovers.

Also thoughts of the Taliban, their mission and, of course, food.

It's prepared here by a team of Sri Lankan chefs who make monster grub. It's tasty, very popular and eaten in vast quantities. There's lots of curry, too.

Then I spent some time with the Gurkhas who are based here.

They're from Nepal. Veteran Gurkhas have been in the news lately because of Joanna Lumley's efforts to get them the right to settle in Britain.

Loyal and fierce British Army fighters for generations, they command respect - and in their enemies, fear.

We talked in Hindi about their duties here and watched TV together.

Then just time for a few last photos with the lads: I'll miss them.

Now waiting for the Chinook that takes us to Kandahar on the first leg of our journey home and away from this beautiful, troubled country.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Life at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan's Helmand Province - Sky News

It's been almost eight years since British troops arrived in Afghanistan and today more than 8,000 service personnel remain. Sky's Matt Barbet went to meet some of them to find out about life at Camp Bastion.

Life under fire in Afghanistan - Manchester Evening News

James Ferguson

AN RAF helicopter crewman has told of daredevil missions in some of the world's deadliest battlefields.

Sgt Spencer Donnelly, from Oldham, was a paratrooper until a parachute jump went wrong - leaving him with steel bolts in his ankles. The 36-year-old switched to the RAF and now serves as part of a crew of four onboard a Chinook.

Spencer, who lives in Chadderton, regularly dodges enemy fire to rescue injured soldiers and ferries troops to assaults on Taliban positions in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

On one occasion his helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade that luckily failed to explode.

Spencer has done four tours in Afghanistan, three in Iraq and had spells in Beirut, the US, Morocco and Ethiopia. But he is still eager to see more action - and has just signed up for another 10-year stretch.

The former Loreto College pupil, originally from Moston, said: "Before I joined I had never been abroad or flown. This has been a real opportunity for me.

"I have been involved in jobs like delivering emergency generators after the Boscastle floods and rescuing the pilot of a Turkish Black Hawk helicopter that had crashed."

Spencer said that, while it was tough to leave his family, the job had its own rewards.

He said: "Being shot at is never a good thing, but it is exhilarating. It is incredibly rewarding getting soldiers back to safety and medical help."

And he was hopeful that his next tour could see the allies making real inroads into Taliban territory.
He said: "Poppies are a big source of revenue for the Taliban and there has been a bad harvest this year. That should inhibit their ability to restock weapons."

But there was no question that it was the taste of home he missed most.

He said: "The worst thing? No beer and no Holland's pies!"

Afghanistan Diary: Homeward bound with thoughts of war

Reporter Harry Miller

As I boarded the C17 flight out of Helmand Province and back home I thought about the involvement of British troops in Afghanistan and what it had accomplished so far.

With nearly 9,000 troops spread across a region twice the size of Wales their task here is hard at best, impossible at worst.

But, for some reason, with their limited amount of manpower and their forces spread thinly across the region they seem to be winning both the fight against the Taliban and the hearts and minds war.

Local Afghans seem almost pleased to have a force there that not only protects their economic interests but protects them from harm too.

I saw first hand, in one of the rooms of a compound I was staying in, the scars left by the Taliban regime. Blood, excrement and scratches littered the walls of what was thought to be a Taliban torture chamber.

Money was extorted from the locals by way of taxing their crops and their living and drug addiction was rife.

Now, young adult males are being recruited into the newly formed Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police and are being given the chance to play a part in the reconstruction of their country.

The hardest thing to work out is whether the Afghans, detecting the cash and benefits that come with coalition involvement, are just playing the waiting game until they leave so they can go back to their former, almost biblical existence, the gamble for the coalition is if they are.

As a country Afghanistan has never been conquered. The people here have experienced thousands of years of war and have never succumb to outside influence. They have always kept their religion and their way of life and as I walked through villages and compounds I realised just how happy they were.

The children, filthy, wearing torn and dirty clothes,were ultimately, happy. They make do with stones and kites, working in the fields with their family, harvesting their crops.

Their almost biblical existence does not look like it will be changed by what the west is trying to achieve out there.

As one sergeant told me: “The Afghans take great pride in telling us they have never been conquered.” which rings as true today as it did when Alexander the great tried to interfere in a country that simply wants to be left alone.

No matter how much electricity or running water the coalition can bring to them they will still live the same existence and grow the same crops even when a central government, friendly to the allies, has been installed and trusted with the running of this magnificent country and people.

The cost, both and financially and human cannot, in my eyes, be justified if the end result is for the country to simply revert back to its former state.

Yes, women are much more free to learn and are almost gaining the same opportunities as men, but this is still a strictly Muslim country and there are dozens of other countries across the globe that treat women just as poorly who have not had the pleasure of 20,000 coalition troops to bring it out of the stoneage.

I wonder whether Afghanistan's step forward into “civilised society” is just a temporary measure to placate the coalition until it leaves.

Afghanistan has, and always will be, a haven for extremists and as soon as one dies, another ten are recruited either through a mutual belief or money to take their place.

What is confusing, to both me and the troops, is how the focus has shifted from the dreaded and much publicised Al-Qaeda to the Taliban.

When I asked how this change had happened I was often met with a wall of silence as nobody seemed prepared to offer their opinion on the matter.

When the coalition first entered Afghanistan in 2002 it was to hunt down and bring to justice members of Al-Qaeda, those responsible for the devastating attacks on New York, September 11, 2001.

The focus then changed from fighting the Taliban, the people responsible for harbouring the 'terrorist' organisation, then it was fighting Islamists for the sake of national security and now it is the stabilisation and reconstruction of the country.

Whatever the real reason behind Britain's involvement in Afghanistan young men are losing their lives for very little pay and very little benefits. They carry enormous amounts of equipment for hours at a time and sleep and eat in either baking hot tents or in the shells of former Taliban compounds.

They endure hardships for reasons they can't comprehend and put their life on the line for an ideal that isn't their own.

Whether the Afghans were better off with the medieval Taliban or with coalition forces is anyone's guess and while some of the civilised areas of the country seem to prefer life under the protection of the coalition other areas are indifferent and some still totally resent its interference.

Only time will be able to tell if the British involvement in Afghanistan will prove fruitful and hopefully their plan will come to fruition before many more lives are lost for an wishful ideal.

Operation Mar Lewe - Aftermath - Part 3 - Helmand Afghanistan

Part 3 of a three part series covering a joint British and Afghan operation in Musa Qala in Helmand Province.

Operation Mar Lewe Part 2 - The Battle - Helmand

Part 2 of a three part series covering a joint British and Afghan operation in Musa Qala in Helmand Province.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Operation Ma Lewe, Preparation, Helmand - Part 1

First part of a three part series covering a joint Afghan and British operation in Musa Qala, Helmand Province.

US Gen McChrystal Takes Command in Afghanistan

A four-star American general with a long history in elite special operations has taken charge of U-S and NATO troops in Afghanistan. AP's Sagar Meghani reports from the Pentagon.

Viking operators return from Helmand

Personnel from the Armoured Support Group Royal Marines, who operate the Viking all-terrain vehicle, returned from their most recent six-month deployment to Afghanistan to RAF Brize Norton on Saturday 13 June 2009.

Based at Camp Bastion, the unit was responsible for operating the Royal Marines' Viking all-terrain armoured vehicle throughout Helmand province.

Vikings are amphibious, armoured vehicles, capable of operating anywhere in the world. In Afghanistan, they support troops involved in close combat, allowing them to manoeuvre swiftly and securely around the battlefield.

The 107 men of the Armoured Support Group were led by Major Richard Hopkins who described his men as having developed a 'formidable reputation' over their tour; he noted accolades his men received in the last few days from those that they supported, describing them as 'everything that epitomised the best of the British Armed Forces'.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lieutenant Paul Mervis killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Lieutenant Paul Mervis from The 2nd Battalion the Rifles (2 RIFLES) was killed as a result of an explosion during a deliberate operation near Sangin, northern Helmand Province, Afghanistan on the morning of 12 June 2009.

Lieutenant Paul Mervis, born on 30th September 1981, grew up in London and was educated at King's College Wimbledon. He then spent a gap year in China and Israel before going on to study Philosophy at University College London.

Summer holidays were invariably spent in Africa in the Namibian bush. Post graduation, his passion in geo-politics and travel led him into the world of journalism where he was involved with The Week and The Spectator. But it wasn’t long before his thirst for adventure drew him into the British Army.

Lt Mervis was one of the very first officers to commission into the newly formed RIFLES in April 2007. After the testing Platoon Commander's Course at Brecon, he was posted to 2 RIFLES as the Platoon Commander of 10 Platoon and he was straight into the mix.

He led his Platoon with distinction on a demanding TESEX before deploying with the Battle Group to Kosovo, where he thrived on his first operational tour. He was in his element in the diversity of that place and it soon showed that he was an operational soldier who relished overseas deployments.

2 RIFLES then entered an intensive period of pre-deployment training for HERRICK 10 and, for Lt Mervis, the operation could not come soon enough. Lt Mervis' unique character and leadership forged a very special Platoon.

Every exercise and training serial, whether Platoon, Company or Battalion, was tackled with the vigour, thoroughness and professionalism of someone who cared passionately about his Riflemen and who was prepared to strain every sinew in preparing for the demands of operations in Helmand. During his first two months of the tour, based out of Forward Operating (FOB) Base Gibraltar as part of Battle Group (North), Lt Mervis was at the forefront of all his Company's operations.

He fought hard and led his Platoon through tragic times, when Rifleman Thatcher was killed in action he was a rock to those he commanded. It was typical of the man that he led from the front in one of Afghanistan's most demanding and dangerous districts. Tragically, Lieutenant Paul Mervis was killed, whilst on a foot patrol, by an explosion north of FOB Gibraltar on 12 June 2009.

Lt Mervis' family Jonathan and Margaret, Hannah and Jack Mervis said:

"Paul was a wonderful, loving son, brother and friend – generous and thoughtful, with an infectious sense of fun. Paul was killed doing the job he chose and loved. He was passionately committed to his men – far beyond mere duty. He had read widely about Afghanistan, and went with a genuine desire to help bring enough stability there to enable reconstruction to follow."

Commanding Officer 2 RIFLES BG, Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thomson said:

"Lieutenant Paul Mervis was utterly irrepressible. There was no more committed officer in the Rifles and the Riflemen adored being under his command.

"He was one of those leaders who, out here, was always first onto the objective. He had taken the fight to the enemy at every turn and it had not been without a cost - Rifleman Thatcher was in his Platoon and his beloved 10 Platoon had already had two other Riflemen wounded in action, including his Platoon Serjeant.

"It was a cost which hurt him to the core but it did not deter him. He adored platoon command and the richness of its challenge and there was nothing he would not do for one of his Riflemen. In the Mess, most of us could not keep up with him.

"He was always the first to grab the wine list in a restaurant, opining that only he knew the best clarets. He was the officer who sent my children the highest on the trampoline and they loved him for it.

"But Paul was not just a fun-lover, he was full of enquiry and was a deep thinker - about soldiering and about life. Out here, he had established a model relationship with the Afghan National Army in his Forward Operating Base - he had an enviable ability to encourage, cajole, inspire and motivate them.

"He read more about Afghanistan than anyone as we prepared for this tour and his empathy for the people of this fascinating country was exemplary. He had been due to move on soon to train recruit Riflemen back in Catterick which he would have done brilliantly but it is a measure of the man and his passion for those he commanded that, since our arrival here, he had, on every occasion we met, asked if he could stay on. He was already planning to return to Afghanistan next year.

"His mother and father were so proud of him and all that he had selflessly achieved and our thoughts and prayers must be with them and Paul's brother and sister at this unimaginably awful time. But this will be some solace - their son, Paul, died in command, at the front of his platoon, leading it on operations fighting in a just cause for the benefit of impoverished Afghans.

"He would want nothing more than for us to get back up onto the ramparts, with the Bugle sounding, to let the enemy know that we are coming back."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Afghanistan: 'Decisions made here impact immediately on the lives of so many people'

By Harry Miller

Major Matt Thorpe is the battalion second in command at Musa Qul'eh.

The 41-year-old father of two lives in Kingston with his wife and two sons.

Maj Thorpe said: “The hardest day I have had here so far is when the lad from 3 Scots was killed while clearing a compound on one of the operations we launched.

“He moved into a compound after the Afghan National Army requested support and was shot at close range by a Taliban fighter as he attempted to help the ANA, he was an excellent soldier and will be sorely missed by every one here.”

With his thoughts on home, Maj Thorpe said: “My wife accepts that I am here and this is the job but of course she would rather I was at home with her and our two young children. She will be pleased when the tour is over and I am back at home.”

“My best day was when we took an area to the south with no British casualties, we managed to push what we call the ring of steel, an area around Musa Qul'eh DC, back much further meaning we now have a better hold of the area.

“We found a bomb factory and recovered 39 IEDs that would have been planted for coalition soldiers and could have potentially killed a lot of men.”

“Working back home, it is fundamentally difficult to compare the decisions I make here to there.

"The decisions I and others make here impact immediately on the lives of so many people.

“I always wanted to be in the Army so I am doing what I love but when it comes to fighting the enemy they are a resilient foe, but so is the British Army.”

Private Robert McLaren killed in Afghanistan

It is with great sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that a Private Robert McLaren from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS), was killed in Afghanistan on the morning of 11 June 2009.

Pte McLaren aged 20 years old from Kintra, by Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull, was fresh out of infantry recruit training. He was schooled at Bunnessan Primary and then Oban High School. Pte McLaren joined the Army in November 2007 and trained first at the Army Training Regiment in Winchester and then as a Royal Engineer in Surrey.

Pte McLaren ultimately decided to pursue a career as a Scottish Infantryman and attended and comfortably passed the Combat Infantryman's Course at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick. He passed out of Seven Platoon on 3 April 2009 and was posted to The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland on operations in Southern Afghanistan.

Pte McLaren's family said:

"We are very proud of Robert; he died doing a job he loved and we will cherish fond memories of Robert for ever."

Commanding Officer 3 SCOTS, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Cartwright said:

"Private Robert McLaren has been cruelly taken from us after only four weeks of active service in The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

"The Battalion was conducting an offensive operation against the insurgents in one of the most dangerous parts of the southern Afghanistan. His Company had been engaged in close combat with the insurgents for several hours and Robert had displayed enormous physical courage during this battle for one so young.

"He gave his life for his friends with his selfless commitment, moving forward in the face of a determined and ruthless enemy.

"From the moment he arrived he threw his heart and body into everything he was asked to do. He completed three large operations with his Company and he made an immediate positive impression with his JNCOs (Junior Non-Commissioned Officer).

"Fit, keen to learn and easy company, Robert had so much going for him and was so proud to be on operations so soon in his career.

"Any death in this close knit Battalion delivers an emotional body blow, but the loss of this young man so soon after joining us has hit us particularly hard."

Friday, June 12, 2009

BBC Radio 1 : Afghanistan diary: Day Four

By Sima Kotecha
Newsbeat US reporter in Afghanistan

All week Newsbeat is with British troops in Afghanistan for a series of special reports on life in one of the world's most dangerous countries. In the fourth instalment of her diary, Sima Kotecha finds out what it's like out on patrol with British and American soldiers.

Wow, what a day. In the scorching heat, we spent 10 hours in the desert on patrol with American and British soldiers. We were part of an eight vehicle convoy. There were Vixens, Vectors and Humvees. Impressive stuff if you're into your army gear.

The goal of the patrol was to check out areas around Camp Bastion, making sure they're safe and secure. The 4th Mercians introduced the US Marine Expeditionary Brigade to the key check points which they'll be taking over in the next few weeks.

They also wanted the local Afghans to meet the Americans so they know who they are when they go out alone.

It was fascinating watching the two sides work together. The Brits led the exercise and the Americans gracefully took orders. They were eager to learn about the area.

Operation Commander from the Mercians Chris Carter told Newsbeat: "What's actually happened is the US Marine Corps have assumed responsibility for the area around and outside Camp Bastion."

I asked the US troops whether there are differences in the way the teams operate. Marine Sergeant Hurley said: "In all honesty, it's great working with them [the Brits]. A lot of things that we do are similar if not the same. It's a real pleasure to have this opportunity."

Driving through the desert was surreal. For miles and miles there was nothing but sand. The sun sparkled and the sky was a bed of blue. There wasn't a cloud in sight. I took a deep breath and appreciated its beauty.

During the patrol, we stopped several times. We got out of our vehicles and walked around. At one point we heard a couple of loud explosions. My heart skipped a beat. The OC told me it was probably enemy fire. I saw a puff of smoke in the distance.

It's hard not to feel sympathy for the Afghans who live in this conflict. We passed many tents which were erected in the middle of nowhere. The Afghan Bedouins came out to say hello.

One middle-aged man couldn't stop smiling. He stood next to me and grinned at the camera as Pete (my producer) took pictures. His children watched carefully with their piercing green eyes, and laughed with excitement.

Being in the heart of a war zone is terrifying but it won't let you escape the reality of ordinary life.

Our part-time soldiers who give their all in war-torn Afghanistan

Reporter Martin Naylor spent eight days in southern Afghanistan with soldiers from Derbyshire, who battle daily against the Taliban. In the second part of his series on life in Afghanistan, he reports on the bravery of the Territorial Army.

AT the age of 20, David Buckley admits he has already seen heartbreaking sights in his life.

The former Sinfin Community School pupil is an infantryman with the Territorial Army now fighting in Afghanistan alongside the "regulars" of 2 Mercian Battalion.

His job is to accompany medics when they are sent out by helicopter to attend to British or Afghan casualties of the fierce fighting in tough Helmand province, heartland of the Taliban.

In his role, he sees the worst effects of war on the human body – but also takes pride in helping injured people get the help they need.

Within minutes of a casualty being reported to their base, 100 metres from the hospital at Camp Bastion, David and comrades can be on a Chinook helicopter and out in the field to collect the wounded soldiers.

It is a role he relishes.

As soon as the helicopter lands, he and four of his comrades are jumping out, assault rifles cocked to back up their "regular" comrades.

Speaking with maturity well beyond his tender age, Private Buckley calmly talks about the atrocities he has witnessed since he landed in Helmand on March 17.

He said: "When the call comes through and you hear it's British casualties, the heart does go a bit. It makes you that bit more determined to get there and help them out.

"We act as force protection – essentially infantry soldiers the same as the boys on the ground, but there are times when you are dragging injured soldiers on to the helicopter to help out because there are so many injured.

"There are some things I have seen that are certainly not too pleasant but it's what you do. A butcher doesn't freak out when he sees blood from a dead animal, so why should I be any different in what I do?

"The best bit about what I do is knowing that without your help that person could have lost his life or have been really seriously injured."

Pte Buckley said the downside to his role was sitting on the helicopter back to Camp Bastion with either dead or seriously injured on board.

He said: "We bring back both British and Afghan soldiers as well as civilians.

"Seeing the kids either dead or so seriously injured you just know they're not going to pull through is heartbreaking.

"That's definitely the worst part of the job."

Calm, assured and speaking thoughtfully and with great passion about his love for the TA, Pte Buckley is a young man as brave as any of his full-time comrades. He has already helped push back insurgents in Iraq on a previous six-month tour of duty there.

Now, among the unrelenting dust and blistering heat of scorched Helmand Province, the former cadet, a member of the TA's 4 Mercian Battalion is now on call 24 hours a day seven days a week, ready to go into action to help his colleagues in the 2 Mercian Battalion (Worcesters and Foresters).

Back home in Derby, Pte Buckley has two sisters: Elizabeth, 25, who works for the NHS while studying at Derby University, and Linda, 21, full time mum to his two-year-old nephew, Aiden.

When Pte Buckley returns home, he stays with them at their home in Pear Tree, although he was born and bred in the old family home in Carron Close, Sinfin. He said: "I think my sisters get a bit fed up of me when I get back from a tour because I tend to just drop off my washing and go out with my mates for a few days catching up with them in Derby. But I know they are proud of what I do and they send me parcels of stuff out all the time."

Fighting on the front line is a far cry from Pte Buckley's former job as a legal secretary at Derby firm LAK.

When he was first called for a tour of Iraq in November 2007, he said he gave up the job with every intention of returning to it.

But within weeks of flying back in June 2008, he was told by the TA to prepare himself for Afghanistan a few, short months later.

He said: "The firm were great with me but when I told them after Iraq that I would be soon off to Afghanistan they just told me to get back to them about returning to law when I got back from here. So I got a temporary office job working for Anglian Windows until this tour came around.

"I was only actually given around three-and-a-half hours' notice to pack and get ready for Afghanistan as I had changed my mobile number and the TA were ringing around all the family trying to track me down. That was a mad dash, saying goodbye to everyone, packing and getting to the TA centre in Mansfield."

Major Jim Turner, second in command at 2 Mercian, said the vital support 4 Mercian and the TA as a whole offered to soldiers in Helmand was critical to achieving success in the region.

Maj Turner, from Long Eaton, said: "People who volunteer as a TA soldier play a vital role in helping the effort here in Afghanistan and across the world.

"Without people such as these men and women, the work we do here trying to improve the country and help the Afghans would be far more difficult. The efforts they put in are immeasurable and should be applauded."

Camp Bastion, where Pte Buckley is based, is a 1km by 1km square army base in the middle of the southern Afghanistan desert.

It is currently home to 4,800 of the 8,500 British troops stationed in Helmand Province, as well as 9,000 American soldiers, 700 civilians and pockets of Danish and Estonian troops. Surprisingly, despite the unforgiving summer heat, when temperatures can top 50 degrees Celsius, the camp sits above a huge aquifer from which 70,000 litres of water are pumped, purified and bottled each day.

With the average soldier drinking anywhere between six and 10 litres a day to keep themselves hydrated, it's a handy spot to be stationed.

A recent curry night in the cookhouse saw 240kg of rice and 1.2 tonnes of meat devoured by hungry troops.

Air and land vehicles based at Camp Bastion drink 100,000 litres of diesel each day – enough to drive a Ford Mondeo saloon car around the world 35 times.

Located almost exactly 4,000 miles from Derby, it sits 3,000ft above sea level in the foothills of the Taliban-controlled Hindukush Mountains.

For about 100 part-time – but equally committed – soldiers from the 4th Battalion Mercian Regiment it will be home until October.

Pte Buckley, who freely admits he joined 4 Mercian "because the cadet training school was five minutes' walk away from my old home in Sinfin" said he had been fired on a number of times in the past two-and-a-half months.

He said: "You almost treat it like a training exercise, you don't think it's real.

"I have done this for four years and I'll probably do it for another four years.

"Some people think the TA is just a drinking club, but that's not the case at all. You just have to see the work 4 Mercian are doing our here to see that."