Monday, June 22, 2009
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.”