Saturday, February 27, 2010

Our armoured vehicle is stuck in mud!

Oliver Harvey, The Sun

THE harsh voices crackling over the walkie talkie are Taliban fighters - and they are enough for the Grenadier Guards officer in our party to call for silence.

Their broad Pashto on the intercepted conversation is soon translated for us, as one insurgent barks: "Praise be to God, I'm in the same place as yesterday."

Shifting nervously, I glance over at 3 Platoon Queen's Company leader Lieutenant Mike Dobbin, a charismatic officer in the Guards tradition. He is surveying the cost of an attack the previous evening by a 25-strong Taliban raiding party on the isolated Afghan National Police outpost where we are now standing.

Bullet holes pepper the mud-walled compound. Lying on a filthy mattress inside is an Afghan policeman with a poorly dressed wound where a bullet had entered and left his calf.

Lt Dobbin, who during his four-and-a-half month tour has survived a direct hit from a roadside bomb that took out his armoured vehicle, smiles and says of the radio chatter: "We could be in for an interesting night."

In the light of a gas lamp, Sun photographer Andy Bush and I watch combat medic Michael Piantkiwskyj, 30, expertly re-dress the cop's wound.This is the other side of the brave British Army in war-torn Afghanistan - helping patch up the devastating toll Taliban bomb and gun attacks take on the country. And saving lives on a daily basis.

Guardsman Michael, from Northampton, did part of his 22-week medical training in a busy UK A&E department. He says: "Our policy is everyone gets treatment. I've seen amputations and dead bodies - that's what a medic does."

Lt Dobbin, from Reigate, Surrey, and a Cambridge economics graduate, explains that his patrol have come to bolster the attacked unit in this wind-blown compound at Kalabost, which guards the road into provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Nearby, scraps of brilliantly coloured red and green cloth flap in the breeze on antennae-like poles, marking old graves.

The lieutenant signals it is time to go. Addressing, the police commander he says: "Tell your officer he is a brave man." With that we quickly move in single file to the compound yard and prepare for the journey back to Lashkar Gah. Our interpreter, listening to the chat on the walkie talkie, believes the Taliban are not in the immediate vicinity. But it is still a hair-raising walk through the chill of a moonless Helmand evening to a 27-tonne Mastiff armoured vehicle.

Setting off in the pitch black across the bleak, lunar-like desert landscape, we soon come to an alarming halt. The Mastiff is stuck in the cloying, gloopy soil, left as thick as treacle after winter storms. I look around uncomfortably but the Grenadiers are untroubled. Eventually freed from the mud after a few worrying minutes, Sergeant Richard Archer, a Spurs fan commanding our Mastiff, then turns to address the crew.

Until now the sergeant from Burnham, Bucks, dad to five-month-old daughter, Ava, has been businesslike but jovial. Now his voice takes on more urgency. He says slowly: "We have reports of a suicide bomb at a hotel used by the Afghan police. The details are unclear but there are believed to be casualties."

Lashkar Gah - where Britain's task force is headquartered - was targeted early on Tuesday with a bike bomb. Seven civilians - one a child - were killed near the bus station, where women in burkhas shop for succulent oranges and huge cauliflowers grown in this fertile finger of green that is the Helmand Valley. Intelligence suggests the bomb is part of a wave of attacks on coalition forces in the town. At the sergeant's command, the Mastiff roars towards the scene.

The chatter in the back is matter-of-fact and punctuated with laughter as the men discuss their first crushes and which Premier League footballers could be gay. When we arrive at the disaster area it becomes clear the building has collapsed and not been subject to a Taliban attack. The four-storey hotel, which could boast being one of just two buildings in the mud-walled, low-rise city visible on Google Earth, is no more.

Two Afghan soldiers are believed to be trapped in the rubble.

The Brits try digging through the mass of twisted metal and thick concrete to look for their Afghan comrades. But it is a pointless task and Lt Dobbin orders his men back to HQ following a five-and-a-half hour patrol.

The top gunner in our Mastiff is Lance Corporal Mathew Mooney, 26, born in Coventry and raised in Australia. With an unmistakeable Sydney twang, he says: "My hairiest moment was being caught under heavy fire in a drainage ditch, but it's the bread and butter of the job. If you don't want to be in Afghanistan as a soldier you're in the wrong job." The youngest member of the platoon, who turned 18 in October, is Guardsman Simon Dent. An engineer's son and a keen runner, he keeps in touch with mates at home in Coventry on Facebook. He says: "Most of my friends are about to sit their A levels and I'm fighting the Taliban. "I've been shot at and you do get scared. The most rewarding thing is when the locals here wave and thank you."

Earlier in the day the platoon - on a six-month tour - had shown the importance of winning "hearts and minds" in the military strategy here. Helmand's Provincial Reconstruction Team - including staff from the British Government's Department For International Development (DFID) - say 44 schools have opened across Helmand since 2008.

DFID are funding road building, a new district hospital, a business park is under construction at Lashkar Gah airport and nearly 1,500 loans have been given to small businesses. The generals say winning over the population will deprive the Taliban of their hiding places and support structure.

The platoon are mobbed as they drop off pens and stationery at a 200-pupil boys school at Kalabost. The Afghan lads, some with reasonable English and a thirst for learning, say they appreciate the security the coalition forces provide. Ten-year-old Baryalai, who wants to be a doctor, says: "I would like to thank the people of Britain for sending their soldiers to help us. They will rebuild our country."

Headmaster Sor Gul, 54, adds: "The Taliban will be finished soon. There will be peace but we need factories and jobs."

Back at base, Lt Dobbin takes off his helmet to reveal blond hair, smooth cheeks and a fresh complexion. Remarkably, this leader of men, a Helmand veteran, is still only 25.


  1. These young Grenadiers are cerainly keeping up the fine traditions of this loyal and famous regiment. Let us pray that they will all return home safe and sound.

  2. The great threat is IED, if there are vehicle to cope this destructive weapon, war would be lot easy.