Saturday, July 4, 2009

Shattered in the shadow of death: The Mail joins our troops on their biggest ever assault against the Taliban

By Richard Pendlebury and Jamie Wiseman
Last updated at 1:50 AM on 04th July 2009

This week the most senior British officer to die in combat since the Falklands War was killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated under his armoured vehicle.

Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe MBE, CO of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards died in Helmand province alongside 18-year-old Trooper Joshua Hammond of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, bringing the number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan to 171.

At the moment that the deaths were announced, Mail writer Richard Pendlebury and photographer Jamie Wiseman were embedded in Helmand with British troops taking part in Operation Panther's Claw - the largest British ground offensive against the Afghan insurgents so far.

Here, they paint a hauntingly graphic picture of the discomfort and privations endured by our troops in an increasingly bloody field of conflict.

Here in 'Afghan', as the soldiers call it, Britain's 'heatwave' is viewed with detached amusement.

After all, the desert afternoon temperature is well above 40 degrees centigrade; the sun seems to leech the blue from a cloudless sky.

Hydration is vital, but problematic. With a sardonic 'just add some Typhoo...', a soldier hands out bottles of drinking water from a stack of thousands sitting in the open on the baked rock.

His quip is no exaggeration; the water's temperature would not shame a pot of afternoon tea.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth recently made a whistlestop visit to Helmand. One of his aides made the crass mistake of complaining about the heat.

This invited a heartfelt put-down from a nearby soldier: 'OK, next time you lot want to invade a country choose one that's ****ing cooler.'

When no task needs addressing, the hours drag in a heat-induced lethargy. Some men shelter in their tents or the shadow of their vehicles; if there is enough clearance, others doze underneath them.

One young soldier sits, eyes closed, shirtless and drenched in sweat, cranking a clockwork radio. Through the static comes the voice of a BBC commentator at Wimbledon describing 'a lovely forehand from Venus Williams'.

Applause from the Centre Court wafts across the airwaves, competing with the crackle of small arms fire from a makeshift range. While Britain pins its hopes on Andy Murray, the soldiers here are preparing for D-Day.

At daybreak, some 700 men of the Light Dragoons Battle Group, to which the men of B Company, 2nd Battalion Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters) are attached, are about to launch the main thrust of Operation Panchai Palang - Panther's Claw - the largest British ground offensive against Afghan insurgents.

The push began two weeks ago when the Black Watch were airlifted into an area a few kilometres south of here, near Babaji. Battle Group Centre South, led by the Welsh Guards, then moved by vehicle to link up with the Scots.

This week, Mail photographer Jamie Wiseman and I have been with the Mercians as they spearhead the final phase of Panther's Claw. No coalition unit has ventured through this area in almost two years. As a result, the Taliban have had control over a rural population of some 50,000 people.

The local tribespeople are apparently anxious for their hegemony to end. But as many as 250 insurgent fighters now believed to be operating in the green zone between the Nahr-e-Burgha canal and the Helmand River will have to be killed or defeated.

Considerable airpower and concentrations of armour have been brought to bear. But it has fallen to the Mercians to lead the ground assault.

B Company is led by Major Stewart Hill. Before the operation begins, he asks his assembled soldiers: 'Is it to be the insurgents' summer or will it belong to us? Of course, it's going to be ours.'

Forward Operating Base Price is in the desert a few kilometres south west of Gereshk. Usually, it is manned by a Danish battle group.

Earlier this week it was also the temporary home of the men of the Light Dragoons Battle Group, which includes the 2nd Mercians and their attached support units.

Dawn on Wednesday saw the first ground moves of the operation.

The Danish battle group moved out of FOB Price, led by three Leopard main battle tanks.

Theirs was a diversionary operation, to probe the Taliban and conceal the place at which the first British troops would cross the canal, 48 hours later.

To give them credit, the Taliban did not hesitate to engage the approaching heavy armour with small arms fire from across the canal.

From the base, we could hear the tanks returning the compliment, sending rounds of high explosive into the insurgent positions, which quickly fell silent. The pace of preparation was quickening.

Inside the base, the battle group vehicle park was beginning to fill with tonnes of shimmering armour of every kind.

By Wednesday evening, 75 fighting vehicles were lined up in four columns abreast. As the sun set beyond them, the fighting along the canal flared up again. Two Apache helicopters circled overhead, firing onto positions in the green zone. There was a large explosion.

The soldiers got another reminder of what lay ahead for them; the 'Ops Minimise' command had just been announced on the base Tannoy.

A few hours earlier, Lieutenant Colonel Thorneloe and Trooper Joshua Hammond had been killed some kilometres to the south.

No one on the base could phone home until the casualties' families had been informed. Next to the guard tent, the Union flag flew at half-mast.

Thursday, 6am. An almost silent camp stirred beneath a gentle sun as sparrows contested scraps of food. And yet it was only a brief interlude of calm between hours of heavy firing along the nearby canal.

Artillery, airstrikes and small arms hammered away at the Taliban positions inside the green zone, as British light tanks and Danish troops pushed across the canal.

For their part, the insurgents could be heard replying with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire. It gave cause for sombre reflection; in less than 24 hours we, along with 6 Platoon of B Company, 2nd Battalion Mercian Regiment, would be stepping across the canal into the thick of it.

At 8am, came the battle group briefing. One of the Danes had been seriously wounded by a landmine in a compound beside the canal. The Taliban leadership intended to ban the use of mobile phones by civilians in Helmand; anybody found with one would be considered a Nato's International Security Assistance Force spy.

Two hours later, every man of the Light Dragoons Battle Group was packed into the cookhouse tent to hear their CO, Lt. Col. Gus Fair, address them. Lt. Col. Fair had invited me to be present on the condition that I did not report his words - which is a pity because his speech was moving and inspirational.

Some men sat at his feet and others craned at the back to hear every word. A minute's silence was then observed for Lt. Col. Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond.

Padre James McWhirter stepped forward with a prayer: 'Be with us Almighty God as we go forth into battle...' He finished by calling down a blessing on the soldiers before him, quiet, sombre, perspiring.

'Amen,' came their loud response. The cookhouse began to empty.

The battle group was now prepared physically, mentally and spiritually for what would come at first light.

The Taliban knew we were coming. It was no secret. It's very hard to hide the build-up of so many men and vehicles.

And so yesterday morning the initial battle group thrust ran into a dense network of Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs.

IEDs have become the scourge of the British forces in Helmand. Thirty-three servicemen have lost their lives here as a result since the year began. That is more than the total for the whole of 2008.

But it has taken the death of so senior an officer as Lt. Col. Thorneloe to once again bring home to the public back in Britain the danger the soldiers are facing on a daily basis.

Early in the day, a light armoured vehicle was flipped on its side by an explosion. Then A Company of 2 Mercians were slowed immediately by the presence of mines, trip wires and other devices which all need to be cleared.

Fifty were discovered in the first phase. But not all of them in time.

In mid-afternoon the news came through that a Danish tracked recovery vehicle had struck yet another IED farther up the canal. Casualties unknown. Meanwhile, B Company made itself as comfortable as possible on the north bank, waiting for the signal to move.

For the moment, caution is the byword. The Taliban are increasingly outnumbered and lack the sophisticated weaponry of the Coalition forces. But a shovel, a detonator and a few kilogrammes of explosive continue to wreak a toll on our forces here.

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