Sunday, March 21, 2010

'It was like Zulu'

How British troops in Afghanistan fought to the point of exhaustion against the Taliban.

By Sean Rayment

It became known as “the battle of Crossing Point One”. In a series of suicidal attacks late last year, hard-core Taliban fighters tried to over-run an isolated British base on the northern tip of Nad e’Ali. Had the insurgents succeeded, the victory would have been a propaganda coup par excellence, and the British mission in central Helmand could have been seriously jeopardised.

For two gruelling weeks in the area of Luy Mandah, 30 soldiers fought a 360-degree battle with the Taliban in the most arduous conditions. The combat was often at close quarters where bayonets were fixed and hand grenades became the weapons of choice for the beleaguered British troops. By the battle’s end, every man in the platoon was credited with at least one Taliban kill.

The battle proper began on the night of November 4 last year, just a few hours after five members of the battlegroup in another part of the district were shot dead by a rogue Afghan policeman. The troops’ morale had been dented three weeks earlier when a member of their company had been fatally wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Such was the force of the blast that Guardsman Jamie Janes suffered a quadruple amputation. As the troops carried Janes’s shattered body back to their base, they were ambushed by Taliban. Scores needed to be settled.

The troops from 5 Platoon No 2 Company 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, commanded by Lieutenant Craig Shephard, 24, and Sergeant Dean Bailey, 36, decided to exploit the Taliban’s fondness for attacking wounded soldiers by constructing an ambush based on a fake IED strike. After the explosives were detonated, the Taliban – as expected – quickly appeared with a two-man Pakistani sniper team leading the way. As the British troops pulled back to the base, the Pakistanis were shot dead by hidden British snipers – both dispatched with head shots from 400 metres. When the Taliban pushed forward towards the base, they were cut down by raking machine-gun fire and Javelin missiles. After two hours of fighting, 10 Taliban lay dead.

“The ambush was a case of thinking out of the box,” recalled Lt Shephard. “We wanted to outsmart them by using their tactics. We knew that they would ambush what they thought was an IED attack so we set up a trap.”

The following day, the platoon commander led a patrol to assess the damage. But this time the Taliban was waiting. “At the time, I called it a 'simple patrol’ – I will never use that phrase again,” said Lt Shephard. As the patrol pushed into enemy territory, it was ambushed. Accurate and sustained machine-gun fire and barrages of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) kept the troops pinned down for almost an hour.

“The fire was so intense and accurate – we simply couldn’t move,” recalled Sgt Bailey. “If we had tried to move, we would have been cut to pieces.”

The troops eventually managed to withdraw after a smoke screen was laid by mortar fire. But as they pulled back to the relative safety of the base, the Taliban attacked in force.

“You couldn’t make it up,” the sergeant added. “There were four sangar [sentry posts] in the corners of our compound being hit at the same time. It was 360-degree warfare.”

As the base came under intense fire, a group of Taliban used an irrigation ditch to move up to one of the compound’s rear walls. There was a real risk that the insurgents might breach the base’s security. With little thought for his personal safety, and knowing that drastic action was required, Sgt Bailey, with two of his corporals, filled their ammunition pouches with grenades, fixed bayonets, and charged 50 metres across a field to reach the wall behind which dozens of Taliban were preparing for an assault.

“We lobbed high-explosive grenades into the ditch from behind the wall. It worked. We killed or injured them all,” said Sergeant Bailey.

The fighting lasted for most of the day. By sunset, the British troops estimated they had killed another 30 Taliban – bringing the number of enemy dead to 40 in less than 24 hours.

Back in enemy territory, a force of around 100 to 150 Taliban fighters – including Chechens, Arabs and English-speaking Islamists from south Asia – was preparing more attacks. Their original plan was to create havoc for the second round of the presidential elections, but after they were cancelled, Taliban commanders focused their attention on Crossing Point One.

The battle continued for days with such regularity that the soldiers knew that it would begin in the morning after breakfast, followed by a lull at midday, and would then continue until sunset. “It was like Zulu,” said Sgt Bailey. “The Taliban just kept coming and coming. It was suicidal. The more they sent, the more we killed.”

As the assaults continued, commanders were forced to trawl the whole of Helmand for Javelin missiles, a high-powered rocket used against enemy forces hiding in compounds. In two months of fighting, 4 Platoon fired 47, more than the rest of the British force in Helmand combined.

As the days passed, some of the men became exhausted. Back at the main company location in Patrol Base Shaheed, the officer commanding No 2 Company, Maj Richard Green, pulled some of his men out of the front line just for a few hours’ rest. There was a real danger that battle fatigue might take root.

“I started to rotate the guys after a week. They were shattered. But it was everything you wanted from leadership. The guys were tested to the limit – no one let me down.”

Lt Shephard, who joined the Army in 2007, said: “Every platoon commander wants to come to Afghanistan and have 'their fight’. But you have to be careful what you wish for. We were lucky. We got away without any serious casualties.”

Today, in Nad e’Ali, life for the British soldiers has undergone a transformation. When I visited the Grenadier Guards Battlegroup last November, troops were coming under fire every day. At the height of the fighting, insurgents were launching more than 200 attacks a week. Hundreds of IEDs were laid in swathes across Helmand, turning huge areas of the province into “no-go” areas for British troops.

The Taliban ruled large areas of the district, taxing locals and punishing – sometimes executing – anyone who had dealings with the Nato-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).

Now markets and bazaars, which were empty during the Taliban years, are beginning to flourish. Roads that were riddled with booby traps have been cleared of IEDs by British bomb disposal experts and are safe for the first time in years.

For the full story click here for the Telegraph Online


  1. What an amazing story. Thank you for telling us.

  2. Hero s one and all - you lived this article - it was 'real life and by the way it was written, I don't think you will ever forget it. (R.I.P Jamie Janes - and I hope the wounded, are now on the way to a good recovery).