Sergeant Steve Blake is a professional Army Photographer with the Royal Logistic Corps. A trained soldier, Steve is currently serving a six-month tour of Afghanistan as part of the three-man Combat Camera Team (comprising a trained journalist, photographer and video cameraman).
Steve and the team are based at Camp Bastion in Helmand province but will spend most of their time out on the ground, capturing life on the front line.
The Ring of Steel
Well, what an awesome week we have had. We have just returned after a five-day trip out to the Danish Area of Operations (AO) in Nad-e-Ali North. Situated on the edge of the vast and well known ‘Green Zone,’ Patrol Base (PB) Clifton was to be our new home. This would be where we capture both the Danish and British Engineers working on Medium Girder Bridges, across a waterway 500m from Clifton.
After a slight flight delay, we set off, in the dark, on the the Royal Air Force’s Merlin Helicopter. I always find flying in the dark slightly weird in helicopters. Their tactical flying always leaves me a touch confused over which way we are heading, and sometime which side of the aircraft is banking over heavily. Nevertheless, helicopters are a brilliant piece of kit, and normally provide an enjoyable, high adrenaline flight.
After a heavy tactical landing in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Price, we were heading for PB Clifton. Within what seemed like two minutes flat, we had arrived, with a big thump, again! Being pitch black, we had no idea what the PB was to be like until sunrise. So after a quick brew and a smoke, we were shown to our luxury accommodation, the newly built Operations Room (Ops Rm). Although it wasn’t quite finished, it had walls and a roof, which was 5* compared to what we were expecting. We soon got settled for the night, as the next day was to be an early start.
At 0500hrs we were up and trawling through the kitchen area for some rations to eat before heading out. The sun was rising, and the air was full of morning mist. Great picture opportunities to be had here, just before the sun becomes too bright.
We loaded up into the Danish Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC’s) and drove into the nearby PB Bridzar. From there, it was a short walk to the bridge. By this point, our protection, called ‘The Ring of Steel’ was already in place, provided by the Danish Infantry Company from Clifton. This meant we were safe to commence work. We also had several air assets, and snipers watching our position, and beyond, for potential Taliban threats.
Due to our earlier flight delay, we had missed the British bridge being erected, by 7 and 8 Troop 35 Engineer Regiment, but still had time to capture the Danish one being removed, and the work that these two forces do together.
These bridges are in no way shape or form easy work. The blokes were working in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), humping tonnes of metal between them, in what looked like an absolute jigsaw of a bridge. As the temperature raised by mid morning, these blokes were absolutely sweating. Hats off to them all, they work bloody hard!
By about 1000hrs the heat was really kicking in. For some reason, once you leave Bastion, the temp during the day is hotter, but on the flip side, it’s colder at night. Can’t have it all I suppose.
The bridge got dismantled a lot quicker than we had expected. It was almost complete by 1100hrs, with loading it onto the flatbeds as the last job, ready for the Danish to drive it away.
While we were out, the area was very quiet. We did start seeing movement, but these were mostly children.
We were briefed prior to that day’s Operation, and were told that interpreters from PB Bridzar had intelligence that the Taliban were watching them work the previous day. They called the Engineers the ISAF Slaves, the ones that do all the ground work for the troops. We did find this slightly amusing, so did the Engineers. They also had information on a Taliban Dicker/Scout/Spotter, whatever they are called now, who was nothing more than an 11 year old boy. This boy, was later amongst us while we work, with all his friends, trying to steal our pens from our body armour and ask for sweets. The children below are not him, before anyone asks!
So, by lunchtime, the work was done. All that was left was to bring in the ‘Ring of Steel’ that was over the water, and return to Bridzar for a coffee, then head back to Clifton when the vehicles were ready.
Having never worked alongside the Danish, we weren’t sure how they would take to us, or indeed us to them. What can I say, brilliant blokes, with a massive English vocabulary, and even a good Squaddie sense of humour to go with it. They were an awesome bunch of guys.
The Ops Room that we were staying in had to have more aggregate put on the roof, then a waterproof cover over that. So that was their next task. By this time, the midday heat was roaring. The lads were going through bottles of water like there was no tomorrow. It was HOT! But more work still needed to be done.
Another section of blokes had already started on the outer walls of Clifton. They had to remove a big chunk of Hesco, and replace it with bigger, newer stuff. This is no quick task, and eventually took them two days to get this done, in between other jobs.
For us, we had the story in the bag that we needed, so what to do now? Well, we started helping the Engineers fit out the Ops Rm with plyboard panels, that would eventually have map boards fitted to them. This took most of the day, but was reasonably enjoyable, despite being a very amateurish chippy! The lads were grateful of the help, and it was something different for us too.
Our last afternoon in Clifton was pretty chilled, despite half the lads being awake all night listening to firefights at a nearby PB. I donned my 50mm f1.8 lens (camera geeks will understand this) and dotted around camp getting some PB Life imagery. The Danes have a great sense of humour, and like a lot of things that our British Squaddies do too. Such as Nuts/Zoo magazines and silly signs for stuff. Most of these just pass the time of day for the blokes, but provide great pictures for us.
After getting several pictures of what was inside the PB, I threw on my body armour and headed to every Guard Post to get a view of the outside world. The area was quite vast, with the odd splattering of compounds here and there, but generally life in Clifton was quiet. I saw a small boy herding some cows up the hill, a tractor drive by and two women and a small toddler visit the nearby cemetary. That was it!
So what do the Danish guys on guard duty do to entertain themselves for hours on Stag while the outside is so quiet? They graffiti the Sangar and everything in it! Ha
The guy on the front gate took great pride in showing me his ‘naughty local’ rock. He was even more chuffed to tell me that it should have Version 2 written on it, as Version 1 has already been used! Brilliant!
Well our work here was almost done, just a Merlin flight and a brief stop off to get back to the office, where I spent the next 12 hours glued to my MacBook Pro editing. Loved every minute of it though. The trip was great, but to edit pictures that are great too, is very pleasing!
Until next time.
Thanks for reading