Saturday, October 31, 2009

Soldier tells of enemy attack on the front line

A soldier who is serving on the front line in Afghanistan has spoken of the moment he came under enemy fire.

Corporal Jamie Hilton, of the 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, was deployed to Helmand province in August. As a section commander, he is in charge of eight men.

Since the summer, he and his soldiers have been involved in operations to expand security.

They have also built two new checkpoints and are building a bridge across a canal to allow greater freedom of movement for locals, as well as the military.

Cpl Hilton, aged 23, said: “We were under some heavy enemy fire.

“We were suppressing the enemy. Then a rocket-propelled grenade came in and made an explosion and blew me off the roof. One of my lads was right in front of my face shouting man down. I was hanging off the roof by my arm, wedged in by my weapon system. I looked round and my platoon sergeant was behind me with complete shock on his face. Once I realised I was all right and everything was in the right place I jumped down.

“Me and my platoon sergeant had a laugh and I got back on the roof albeit with incoming fire still coming in but someone had to be up there to help my lads get through it, to identify the enemy and start putting rounds down.”

He admits his parents and wife, Jen, find it hard when he is away. He said: “It is never easy for them.

“In some ways it is harder for them than us because we know what is happening on the ground.

“All they see is on the news — British soldier killed or hurt and they don’t know who it is. We can’t ring home obviously to tell them it’s not us.”

Friday, October 30, 2009

Humbled by his riflemen - Lt Col Robert Thomson, CO 2 RIFLES

Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thomson with Major Karim of the Afghan National Army

When we were told in 2008 that we would become the Battlegroup responsible for the town of Sangin and the Upper Sangin Valley, we were only too well aware of the challenge that lay ahead.

Having deployed each and every year over the last ten years, we had the right operational experience but there was not one iota of complacency as we headed out to Afghanistan on our toughest assignment yet.

We have a saying in the Battlegroup that one is only as good as the next operation so, as we grabbed our rifles, body armour and packs, we knew we would be called upon to strain every sinew over six hard months. We were not wrong.

Our area of operations, the patch, was about the same size as Dorset, approximately 2,225 km2, a massive area for a Battle Group numbering 1,100 soldiers; there were over 25 different cap badges represented in our ranks including the RAF and one sailor! A Company 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers joined the Battlegroup to make us five Companies strong.

The Battlegroup was focused on the town of Sangin which has a population of 20,000 people, all living on the equivalent of about $2 per day. Life for the Afghans is harsh. Most are farmers or bazaar stall holders. Electricity, while limited, is improving and water all comes out of a well.

But the people of Sangin are as clever and committed as anywhere else and are determined to build a future for their children, free from the Taliban and its horrific threats.

The threat this summer has been growing rapidly. The enemy knows he loses when he fights us openly so he has resorted to indiscriminate and lethal Improvised Explosive Devices (the infamous IED) which also kill and maim innocent locals.

So, the enemy has planted IEDs in a greater number than ever before, trying to restrict our movements. It has been a hard battle but the Riflemen have found more than 200 IEDs across the Area of Operations.

We have targeted the bomb-maker in his home and in his factory and when he is putting the IED in the ground.

Since the end of July, we managed to kill four IED teams who were laying IEDs. It is difficult to describe accurately the intensity of this fight. When on patrol, everyone is fixed on the job in hand. The Rifleman operating the VALLON metal detector literally holds the lives of his comrades in his hands.

One of My Riflemen has found 19 IEDs whilst on patrol. This extraordinary job is made more difficult by the heat (temperatures have been above 40 for most of our tour) and the weight we all carry (most hump over 40 kilograms around on their back when on patrol). It is not a job for the faint-hearted.

Furthest to my north was I Company at Kajaki Dam, a stunningly beautiful and striking place, but one which harboured a lethal enemy.

I Company faced a largely conventional fight to keep the enemy from the strategically important dam that delivers electricity to the entire Upper Sangin Valley.

Coming south and only seven kilometres north of the Sangin District Centre, home to the District Governor, is Forward Operating Base Inkerman, home to the men and women of B Company. FOB Inkerman is critical to interdicting the routes of the enemy as they try to infiltrate into Sangin from the enemy bases in the Upper Sangin Valley.

B Company has fought fiercely with a tenacious enemy who combine improvised explosives with small arms fire ambushes.

Sangin DC and the town centre was protected by A Company, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, all based out of FOB Jackson, which sits on the banks of the wide-flowing Helmand River.

Here, military operations seek to protect the people and prevent the enemy from getting its grip on the town centre.

A British Stabilisation Advisor works shoulder to shoulder with the Afghan District Governor, one of the local tribal elders, to improve the day to day lives of the Afghan people.

FOB Wishtan, just to the east of Sangin, where C Company lived, guards the eastern approaches to Sangin. Like the rest of Sangin, it is a place strewn with IEDs and all movement is dangerous. We have been fighting a battle of wills with the enemy here and gradually we have been able to increase our control of the area and our freedom of movement.

Finally, FOB Nolay, my most southern base, guards the southern route into Sangin, vital to our own resupply but also provides a commercial lifeline for the bazaar in Sangin.

Conditions have been refreshingly basic (austere is the posh word). There are no soft mattresses, no hot showers for the mornings or nights, the most basic toilets you've ever seen and very little fresh rations. But one gets used to a simple and basic existence very quickly.

The heat was the hardest thing to get used to - one could never drink enough and I am not sure I need to eat pasta for a while!

But the true test is whether we have left Sangin a better place. For me, progress in Sangin has not been dramatic but we have moved forward, indelibly so. We will definitely leave Sangin in a better state then when we found it.

Security in the heart of the town has improved, based on new Police Checkpoints and an increase in police numbers.

Afghan Governance has also improved as District Governor Fazil Haq has moved out of the FOB and now works from his offices in the secure Governance zone, protected by Afghan security forces.

A Mayor has been appointed - a first for Sangin - who will pick up some of those unenviable bureaucratic responsibilities which make local government work. The bazaar has got bigger under a sponsored regeneration scheme.

One hundred new stalls were added in June and more are planned. The Afghan Army opened a new Patrol Base which has reduced the enemy's freedom to operate. And the enemy has come off second best on countless occasions.

There are too many tales of heroism to tell here but if you want to know more, come and ask.

All of this has not been without a heavy cost. The Battlegroup has lost 24 soldiers killed in action, 13 of them Riflemen from 2 Rifles, and more than 80 soldiers have been wounded in action.

We will never forget the sacrifice made by those who have given their lives and we are holding their families close. The wounded are in the best of care and have got the strength of character and determination to fight back - we will be in close support.

The commitment, courage and sheer grit of every man in the Battle Group has been humbling.

In extraordinary times, extraordinary men and women have day in, day out done extraordinary things for the good of our Nation and for the benefit of the impoverished people of Afghanistan.

Some as young as 18 have taken the fight to the enemy in some of the most arduous and demanding situations faced by British soldiers for a generation.

That they have retained their sense of humour and sanity is, to me, quite remarkable. You would not believe me, but we have faced donkey-borne IEDs - it fell off and the donkey sat on it with inevitable consequences.

So, as we come home to those we love dearly, our first thoughts and prayers are for those families who will not be able to wrap their arms around a loved one because he has gone.

But they would be the first to say, 'thank you for holding the baton high, now go and rest.

We will celebrate our return - the noise will, I am sure, be heard, far and wide, but we will also remember the sacrifice and the courage of every man and woman in this extraordinary Battle Group.

Monday, October 26, 2009

4 RIFLES CO reflects on OP HERRICK 10

Lt Col Rupert Jones

AS THE Election Support Force elements of 4 RIFLES prepare to fly home, and A Company start their Afghanistan commitment, we can reflect on a period of achievement and uncertainty.

The Riflemen operated in the Nad e-Ali District in the extreme south of the UK area of operations in Helmand Province. ISAF moved into the area for the first time late last year, so it is still in the early stages of development and the insurgent threat remains high. The Riflemen faced a constant and debilitating threat from Improvised Explosive Devices and operated, in the main, in austere locations living a very basic existence.

B Company operated very much alone, working through the difficult summer to keep the insurgents at bay and protect the ISAF push into Babaji to their north. Progress was deliberate and steady, but in the last month a number of local national families who had moved into the desert for security have started returning home.

While there are many reasons for their return, they would not have done so if they did not feel that the security situation was improving. This is a legacy that the Riflemen can be proud of - small steps, but ultimately it is the local population who will decide the success of this campaign and it is they who are the real judges of security and progress.

These are early days in Nad e-Ali District, but the Riflemen have set the area up for further development.

As ever, our return will be tinged with sadness for those who are not with us and their families - LCpl Taran Cheeseman who tragically died of cancer early in the tour and Rifleman Daniel Hume killed in July. We all look forward to seeing our seriously injured brother Riflemen, for whom life will never be the same. Our homecoming in Bulford will bring a mixture of joy, pride, relief and sadness, but the Riflemen know that with the support of our families that they have done a great job.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thomson, commanding officer of 2 RIFLES

Britain's success in Afghanistan is measured in small steps

Better security, a health post, more schools – you know of the sacrifices, but let me tell you about the real progress

Both parents were inconsolable. They stood at the front gate of my patrol base in Wishtan, Sangin, and pleaded for help to find their child. We could give no satisfaction — their six-year-old daughter had stood on a Taleban pressure-pad IED (improvised explosive device); there was nothing left of the poor child. The parents continued to plead — a small part of her broken body would suffice. They had to have something to bury. The 2 Rifles Battle Group know about grief: we have seen friends killed but we had at least been able to salute a coffin. With the heaviest of hearts, my riflemen watched helpless as those heartbroken parents returned home to mourn the loss of a Muslim child who could not be buried.

It is this kind of IED that has been the Taleban’s indiscriminate and careless weapon of choice in the Upper Sangin Valley this summer. I have seen too many Afghans fighting for their lives in my trauma bay. As a battle group, 2 Rifles has dealt with more than 400 IED incidents in our six months here, finding more than 200 devices.

In my first tour of Northern Ireland in 1991-92, my platoon dealt with four IED incidents. We had nine platoons in the battalion then, so perhaps my commanding officer at the time had to deal with 36. These statistics provide some notion of the scale of the fight. One more will suffice — last year in the same period, there were 158 incidents.

And it is in the face of such adversity and such an insidious enemy, which adjusts its tactics almost weekly, that the courageous men and women of this battle group have fought. It is hard to describe the courage required to operate at all, let alone leave one’s base and take the fight to the enemy. But the riflemen and fusiliers of this battle group have patrolled Sangin and its immediate area daily to protect its people. The commitment, grit and indomitability have been humbling to observe.

The heavy cost has been recorded and rightly so — we will never forget the sacrifice made here this summer, and the hole each fallen rifleman has left behind in this battle group is enormous. I remember gathering my officers together to tell them that one of our platoon commanders had been killed. My leaders needed to know before everyone else so they could grieve briefly and be ready to lead their riflemen back out that day.

I remember telling a tough bunch of sappers late one night after they had come off the ground that the man who made them laugh the most had not made it. The cost is perhaps clearer to our country this summer than at any other time and I am grateful to the bottom of my boots for the support we have had from all corners of our nation.

But what has not been so well told by the media is the progress we have made here. The enemy has been hurt hard here in Sangin. Many of its fighters have died at our hands. We have disrupted its IED networks and are maintaining pressure on the bombers at every opportunity. We have removed four active IED teams, permanently, and the gratitude of the Sanginites was palpable.

Yet this campaign is not an attritional one; that is not the route to progress. As soldiers, we have to provide sufficient security to enable Haji Faisal Haq, the district governor, to do his job. His area, just outside the forward operating base , is now secure. He works there daily and is much more accessible to the people of Sangin. The numbers of police have increased.

We have built new police checkpoints in the bazaar and more are planned. As a result, Taleban physical intimidation has ceased and attacks have reduced. People can go about their lives with a touch more freedom. We have opened a small health post, the first government-sponsored public health provision in Sangin. And the bazaar has got bigger. It is definitely not Bluewater but an extra 100 stalls make a real difference.

As commanding officer, I spend as much time discussing reopening the schools (banned by the Taleban in a country fiercely proud of its tradition of learning) as I do where next to go and prove to enemies that they are not invulnerable. And we have done all this while fighting shoulder to shoulder with some very tough Afghan soldiers and policemen who become more capable each month.

All of this would be worthless if Sangin was unimportant. But Sangin is important and has a significance at the provincial, regional and national level. The town is a political centre with reach to Kabul; the tapestry of tribes here in the upper Sangin Valley has an echo in Kabul. Its market, which supplies the whole of the upper Sangin Valley, is a vital commercial centre. For the drug barons, Sangin is a gateway that helps to fund the Taleban and their terrorism. And the Taleban use Sangin as a route along which to infiltrate fighters, IEDs and technology further south into Helmand. The Taleban will continue to fight us here in the coming months. As a result, our work has been not just important and urgent but full of purpose.

Success has not been glamorous — as soldiers in Sangin, we talk of edging forward, taking small but essential steps in the right direction. This battle is not one we have lost nor are we losing. There is much to do but as I take my gang of extraordinary men and women home, I know that the baton in Sangin has not been dropped (nor is it likely to be) and we have played our part in the security challenge of our generation that, for the UK and this region, we must tackle. And, in a small way, we have helped to improve the lives of impoverished Afghans of Sangin. It has been the campaign of our lives.