Here’s the latest blog from Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, the Spokesman for Task Force Helmand.
“Go, move, go!”
Fully kitted up with weapons, helmets, heavy packs and body armour we charged off the back of the RAF CH-47 Chinook helicopter and into the dust storm kicked up by the twin rotors, spreading out and kneeling down at the rear of the helicopter as it lifted off. We were on the second wave of a dawn Helicopter Assault Force cordon and search operation deep into insurgent-held territory east of Lashkar Gah and it was our job to investigate a number of compounds which J2 (intelligence) had indicated may be being used by insurgents. Within 15 minutes there were now more than 120 troops on the ground under command of Major Neil Tomlin, the Officer Commanding A Company Group of 4 SCOTS, pushing a cordon out around the compounds and sealing them off so that no ‘squirters’ could slip away while our inner cordon prepared to move in.
I was escorting the BBC’s Paul Wood and his cameraman Nick Millard who had come down from the BBC’s office in Kabul to report on the start of the transition process – the transfer of security from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) – this month in Lashkar Gah. We had already been back to Check Point (CP) Yellow 14 (One-Four) to see my friends, The Clan (D Company 4 SCOTS), and conducted an afternoon patrol around their area of operations. We were accompanied by 10 Afghan National Police (ANP) officers, their commander, Major Israel (a Tom Selleck lookalike who comes from the area) and The Clan’s patrol dog, Juno (a dog called Juno accompanied the Gordon Highlanders in battle 130 years ago). As we walked through the hot afternoon sun, through streams and across fields, we met with a local man who had been shot six times by the insurgents and lived to tell the tale.
The following morning we flew out of Yellow 14 in an RAF Merlin helicopter. From take-off the aircraft thundered along at almost ground level and then, suddenly, “let’s go ballistic, Mav”, as the giant helicopter shot up to altitude and headed back to Camp Bastion. On the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) in Bastion I caught up with Major Nick Foster, the Officer Commanding the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF). A few days later, with just 4 hours notice, Nick led the BRF on a daring assault against an insurgent improvised explosive device (IED) factory and training complex during which they seized more than 100 ready-made IEDs and over 150kg of home-made explosives, all the while having to deal with harassing small arms and grenade fire from the insurgents. The complex was destroyed. One of the CH-47 Chinooks that had dropped them off took a number of enemy rounds as it lifted out and the pilots conducted a forced but safe landing close to one of our Patrol Bases. What followed was an incredible helicopter recovery operation with the Close Support Logistic Regiment and the Theatre Equipment Support Battalion working tirelessly to successfully recover the aircraft to Camp Bastion where it is undergoing repairs before coming back into action.
From the Bastion HLS, we flew into Lashkar Gah where we had a couple of hours to clean up before we were in the back of a well-protected Mastiff vehicle – which was hotter than a roasting oven – for a short drive to the east of Lashkar Gah where we visited one of a new line of Afghan National Police (ANP) Check Points. We conducted the (by now) obligatory midday patrol in searing heat and, while we didn’t meet any locals – mad dogs and Englishmen, or in this case Scotsmen, and all that – it gave the BBC a chance to see the ANP at work and to interview their commander out on the ground.
We left the ANP Check Point, having presented a new walking stick to the ‘oldest man in Helmand’, and drove up to Check Point Attal about 40 minutes east of Lashkar Gah. Attal is being refurbished and there’s a lot of fine sand billowing around the camp which tends to get into everything, mainly eyes, mouth, nose and ears, but they had great food and showers organised by 4 SCOTS’s formidable Captain Ross Smith and we settled down for the pre-operational briefing from the Operations Company Commander, Major Neil Tomlin.
Now we were on the hard deck in the opening moments of Operation Zamary Sotak or Lion’s Hammer. Not surprisingly the BBC wanted to be where the action was which involved being passed around the search area from a 4 SCOTS Platoon, to 4 SCOTS Recce Platoon to a SCOTS DG Troop, to a 3 MERCIAN Platoon and back to A Company Headquarters – in other words, a smoke of a lot of walking around. It did mean that we saw the whole operation but it also meant that when it kicked off and got tasty we were the wrong end of the operation – about 1,500m from where the insurgents had decided to attack us with small arms fire.
At just about the same time as we started to get some incoming and give back twice as much outgoing, we completed the search operation and all forces now surged toward the insurgent firing points finding an IED, which was blown up by our Counter-IED Task Force specialists, and then we had a find by an ANP patrolman of over 1,000 rounds of 7.62mm bullets in a plastic bag, hidden in a melon field, clearly stashed by the insurgents as we had flown in that morning. We marched on towards our HLS – it really was burning hot now – and then rested up while Company HQ co-ordinated the lift out. As we did so our Afghan Police comrades brought a milk, yoghurt and bread lunch from the famer whose compound wall we were resting against as we tucked into our ration packs. Just in time for the end of lunch, two waves of CH-47 Chinooks flew in to recover us back to CP Attal.
News was breaking in Kabul of the insurgent attack on the Intercontinental Hotel and Paul Wood needed to get back to Lashkar Gah toute suite to do a live for the BBC 1 O’Clock News. I travelled back in an open-topped Jackal. Instead of being roasted in a Mastiff it was like being blasted in a fan oven as the nimble, well-armed vehicle carved the route back to Lash through the searing afternoon heat. Later that evening an ANP patrol was blown up by an IED on that same section of road. There but for the grace of God….
Back at my desk in Task Force Headquarters and there was a hand delivered letter from No 10 Downing Street propped up against my keyboard. Of course, you all know now that David Cameron came to visit troops in Helmand, so was this a personal missive from the PM? Even better, it was from Vickie Sheriff, the Deputy Spokesman for the Prime Minister, and a fellow Territorial Army officer from the Media Operations Group (Volunteers). With Vickie in London and me in Helmand, the Group has got one very high profile and one much lower profile Spokesmen on the go – you choose who is which. Incidentally, there are eleven members (19%) of our TA Group mobilised for operations here in Helmand today including two female military photographers, an escort for a documentary, four headquarters staff, three Combat Camera Team Commanders and a Spokesman. There’s also an officer in Italy supporting operations in Libya. Not bad from a TA unit of just 64 deployable Reservists (http://www.army.mod.uk/mog_v/9212.aspx).
It was Armed Forces Day on 25 June. A day when, perhaps, people at home can celebrate the contribution made by Service personnel, veterans and, most importantly, Service families whose sacrifice is, if you like, an involuntary one. The night before Armed Forces Day our Media Plans officer here in the Task Force Headquarters just dropped into the conversation that I would be doing a live interview with Sky News for Armed Forces Day the next morning. I scrawled out a few words, practiced them in front of the mirror – pretty much the same as staring down a camera lens – and, when it came to it the following morning, hopefully got across my message of thanks to all of those at home who support the Armed Forces. The only fly in the ointment was that as I was speaking live my words came back at me in the earpiece about two seconds after I had said them which made it pretty difficult to focus on what I was saying.
Another of my regular commitments is the Task Force Helmand weekly round-up for BFBS Radio. Rather than a dull dirge from me alone I have started to include other ‘voices’ from around the HQ who can talk about the contribution of their units. This week Captain Peter Andresen from the Danish Battle Group and Lieutenant Colonel Leigh Tingey, Commanding Officer of the Task Force Engineers, were the two outside contributors. We also link the broadcasts, with a whole lot of other material, on our Facebook page, Herrick14 (http://www.facebook.com/Herrick14), which has more than 10,600 people who ‘Like’ the page and 2.5m post views per month.