Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, Spokesman for Task Force Helmand, blogs from Afghanistan on escorting The Sun’s Defence Editor, Virginia Wheeler, on the front line.
We were less than two minutes into the patrol and only 100m from our base when the enemy rounds and grenades came cracking at us. The Royal Marines of L Company 42 Commando at the front of the patrol put down a withering hail of machine gun, rifle, sharpshooter and sniper fire and quickly won the firefight as the insurgents slunk back to where they had come from and, hopefully, away forever.
I was on Operation OMID HAFT, or Hope 7, an operation designed and led by 3rd Brigade, 215 Corps of the Afghan National Army partnered with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops from Task Force Helmand. The aim was to root out the last of the insurgents’ strongholds in Central Helmand and expand the protected community so that the local people could begin to feel the benefits of security, governance and development opportunities offered by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as it connects to its people.
Now, it isn’t particularly usual for Lieutenant Colonels on the Brigade staff, especially one old enough to be the father to most of the Marines in L Company, to start mixing it with the insurgents on the frontline but I was there to escort Virginia Wheeler, The Sun’s Defence Editor, and her photographer, Andy Bush. We had met up at Patrol Base Wahid, the main base for our comrades in the Estonian Company which is attached to 42 Commando. As an aside, the Estonians have a soldier who was in the Russian Army when they had been here in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and who has been back six times with the Estonians – that’s quite a tour record.
On arrival at Patrol Base Wahid, we stood-to on the ramparts after an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade nearby. Welcome to the real frontline. We had just taken a big stick – 42 Commando and 1 RIFLES – and stuck it into the hornet’s nest. This was the reply. The following morning we drove up Route Neptune, a road which runs alongside the Nahr-e Burgha Canal and which had been cleared of IEDs the day before by the Royal Engineers Route Clearance Team. We travelled in convoy with Lieutenant Colonel Murchison, the Commanding Officer of 42 Commando, through the totally-trashed bazaar of Loy Mandeh Kalay and on to the newly established Check Point Lightning at the eastern end of the village. On one side of us was the canal, providing life giving water to the incredibly fertile land of the ‘food zone’ of Central Helmand, behind us were compounds leading to open fields and on the other was the village of Loy Mandeh Kalay.
We were met by L Company Commander, Major Alec Burrell. Alec and his Company had been inserted by helicopter the previous night and were busy establishing themselves in the compound they had just rented from a local family. The Royal Engineers were doing what they do best, working incredibly hard from dawn to dusk improving the security of the Check Point and starting to improve the living standards in the compound for the Marines by building a shower (a hose pipe from the canal) and temporary loos (poo in a bag and pee in a pipe) – basic but very workable. Not so long ago an insurgent was overheard saying that it was ‘OK to shoot the ISAF soldiers but not their slaves’. The bemused ISAF soldiers looked around them and, in the distance, they saw the Royal Engineers toiling hard, without break, building a bridge in the mid-day sun. Royal Engineers, our ISAF slaves.
Later that morning we headed out on the first patrol into Loy Mandeh Kalay. At first we had difficulty finding a way in to the village as it looked like the insurgents had placed IEDs across our path, but our interpreter called out to a family who guided us in to meet the Mullah for an informal shura, or meeting. It all went well and we patrolled back to L Company’s headquarters. As we enjoyed our rations supper the insurgent had the audacity to interrupt it with a burst of gunfire and some grenades. Before I could shout ‘Plymouth Ho’ every Royal Marine, grabbed their body armour, helmets and weapons are were lined up along the roof of the Check Point and the banks of the Canal to let the insurgent know he wasn’t welcome any more. All was quiet for the rest of the night.
Day broke early with the compound cockerel crowing his head off at 0515hrs – not long for the pot, I fear. We were up for a quick coffee and into the orders brief given by Alec for the morning patrol south of Loy Mandeh Kalay into an area of compounds which amounted to a small community. Loaded down with water, batteries, ammunition and rations, body armour, weapons and helmets, with most of the young men and women carrying almost their own body weight in equipment, we surged out of the base. We knew that we were likely to come into contact with the insurgents and it wasn’t long before we did. Rather ironically for the Marines, the photo that The Sun’s picture desk chose to run alongside Virginia’s article about the exchange of fire, on a whole page, was the media escort bloke from Task Force Helmand – luckily it didn’t say ‘hero officer protects reporter in firefight’ otherwise I would have got even more ribbing from the HQ staff than I have had already.
Alec later assessed that our ‘contact’ with the insurgent was a ‘meeting engagement’ where both parties were on the way towards each other. We were expecting it more than the insurgents and a convincing result had followed.
We continued across open fields of partially-cut wheat, stepping over small ditches bubbling with clear water, and we were quickly in amongst the compounds which were our target for the day. Once inside a family’s compound, with security established around us, our comrades from the Afghan National Army began the vitally important process of engagement with the local community. It went well and the soldiers bought a chicken from the family for their supper.
We hopped through a few more compounds in the mid-day heat – over 40 degrees – and were resting in some shade when we heard a double explosion. It’s never a good thing to hear and in this case, when the radio crackled a minute later, it was the very worst news. Lieutenant Ollie Augustin and Marine Sam Alexander MC, both of J Company 42 Commando, had been killed less than 1km from where we were. The banter between us fell away and all were lost for a few minutes with personal thoughts about the comrades we had just lost. I was truly humbled by the fortitude, determination and resolve of these young men and women as they picked themselves up, continued with the patrol, provided the security for further community engagements and then ensured that the whole party returned safely to Check Point Lightning. I did this for a couple of days with L Company – they’re doing it for an unremitting six months.