Friday, August 14, 2009

Combat scuba diving in Helmand

The desert may not be the first location you think of when it comes to scuba-diving, but a specialist Army team has recently been put to good work during Operation PANTHER'S CLAW in Afghanistan.

The crack team of around 18 specialist Army divers from 38 Engineer Regiment, deployed as part of the Joint Force Engineers, can be called upon to work all over Helmand including the southern parts now under US control.

The team has seen action in the notorious Kajaki Dam lake in the north, in the hundreds of irrigation ditches and canals across the Green Zone and in the snaking Helmand River.

Their most recent task saw five divers joining Operation PANTHER'S CLAW in the heart of the Babaji area - a Taliban stronghold which British forces fought for weeks to clear of the enemy and is now under NATO and Afghan forces control.

During the early stages of the break-in battles, a Viking vehicle attempting to negotiate the challenging agricultural terrain came under contact from Taliban fighters and rolled into one of the many irrigation canals which criss-cross the land.

Partially submerged in nearly three metres of swirling green water, the primary concern was the safety of the personnel onboard, who fortunately escaped unharmed.

The vehicle was swiftly recovered but the dangerous conditions and risk of attack meant weapons and sensitive equipment lost in the incident were abandoned in the canal - it was then the diver's task to retrieve these in order to deny them to the enemy.

Soldiers from the Welsh Guards quickly secured the area but there remained a significant risk from insurgent attack. A Fire Support Team, employing snipers and Javelin guided missiles, took up positions in a threatening atmosphere.

The Army dive team was called in and once on site the Regimental Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class 1 Tony Pick, made a quick recce of the area, whilst the team of Captain Ian Macfarlane, Sergeant Tom Lawndes, Corporal John Spanhan and Sergeant Rob Green, all from 38 Engineer Regiment, prepared their diving equipment:

"It was quite unnerving," said Sgt Lawndes.

"This was an area where there had been a big contact with the enemy so it wasn't a safe place. There were plenty of suspicious people gathering, monitoring our movements and potentially co-ordinating an attack - we knew we had to get the job done quickly."

Dressed in wetsuits the dive team quickly surveyed the area before donning their kit and diving into the strong current:

"Visibility was down to just half-a-metre and the water was moving pretty quick - we had to shut off some sluice gates just to make it manageable so we could search."

After nearly two hours of exhaustive searching a successful haul of items including weapons and communications equipment was recovered, denying it to the enemy. However, intelligence suggested that an insurgent attack was imminent and the team quickly packed up their gear and extracted to Camp Bastion.

Sgt Rob Green, one of the first divers into the canal, said on his return:

"We were all very aware that things could have turned out differently, there were some close calls but thankfully no casualties were taken. We've recharged the dive sets and are now ready for more of the same."

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