Warrant Officer Class One Shane O’Neill is the Bandmaster of the REME Band. He started his career in the Corps of Army Music with the Band of the Grenadier Guards before completing the 3 year Bandmaster at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, Earlier this year Shane was attached to the RE Band on their operational commitment to supply music for Troops in Afghanistan over the Diamond Jubilee celebrations period.
Day 1 (24 May 12) – and the Band took off…
Despite knowing the tour was to be just over three weeks much of what was learnt on pre-op training and seen through the public media weighed heavily on my mind as my wife dropped me to Brize-Norton at 2230hrs. Here I was to meet with the Band of the Royal Corps of Engineers and await our flight to Afghanistan.
Day 2 (25 May 12)
At 0600hrs we boarded the flight and took off on time at 0640hrs, good old RAF. I was allowed to sit in the cockpit as we flew over Crete and headed to Cyprus where the plane would land to refuel. After a two hour wait we re-boarded and began the final leg of our outward bound journey. Sleep on the flight was elusive and I had only managed four hours in the last 36. The first real feeling of nerves came as the pilot announced that our final approach into Camp Bastion would be in total darkness and that we should wear our body armour. I can assure you that every single passenger felt uneasy as we descended, safely, and touched the ground at CampBastion. There we were greeted by Captain Matthews and Staff Sergeant Holt who had travelled several days earlier to prepare for the bands arrival. Phone cards were issued, bags collected and we were shown to our quarters, D block, Area 8, Bastion 1.
A quick explore led me to the phone cabins and I phoned home before falling into my sleeping bag at 0200hrs local time.
Day 3 (26 May 12) – a different noise and atmosphere
I was not prepared for the noise around the tent area during the night. To combat the heat generators rattled endlessly through the night and much helicopter activity ensured that not much more than an hour’s sleep was had by many.
Normally any troops who arrived at CampBastion would have a Day to acclimatise but due to the bands tight schedule we needed to attend RSOI immediately. With the severe lack of sleep and the 36 degree heat we attended an intense day of classroom lectures and briefs. There was a fun, if sobering, end to the day with a trip in the Mastiff simulator where, with full Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) we were buckled in and turned upside down. This was to simulate the vehicle rolling over after an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated nearby. The object of this exercise was to safely unbuckle and exit the vehicle as quickly as possible.
Op Minimise has been initiated since lunchtime which was another dose of reality for band members. This is normally put in place when casualties are transported in to the camp from more forward positions that don’t have the larger medical facilities.
The band was very pleased to roll into bed in the evening and did their best to sleep before another very hot day of training and lectures.
Day 4 (27 May 12)
Another 0430hrs start to the day but with about four hours sleep so feeling much less tired. After a light breakfast we fully kitted up and went on a 2.4km acclimatising walk to the ranges where we would check our weapons were zeroed and that they functioned correctly. Even at that early time in the morning it was uncomfortably hot and that short distance was not as easy as you might think.
After this we were directed to different stands and received a detailed lecture on topics such as the Law of Armed Conflict, Battlefield First Aid and a history of Afghanistan. The temperature was 38 degrees and several small sandstorms blew through the ranges area making it another stark reminder of where we were and what members of the British Army were working in day after day.
Captain Matthews introduced the Band Sergeant Major and me to Sergeant Kerr who was to be the band liaison while we were in theatre. A schedule for the next 2 weeks was agreed. The Air Con has packed in again in the living quarters and its reading 29 degrees. This will make for an uncomfortable night.
Day 5 (28 May 12) – Upping the tempo
Another better night’s sleep, at least 4 hours! With some of our commitments involving transport outside the wire another reality check was had with a trip to the QMs in order to sign out more specialist kit: Two large plates; to be fitted front and rear of the OSPREY (body armour), a Med Pack with a morphine injector pen, bandages and a tourniquet. We were also required to sign out 150 rounds, one magazine to be fitted to the weapon at all times and the rest to be carried should we travel outside the main camp. It was time for all band members to up their game as having a loaded weapon upon your person was slightly unfamiliar territory. I must admit it was strange going to the cookhouse, the showers and even the toilet with your rifle ready to fire.
In the afternoon the band set up in the chapel, which was just a large tent with whatever metal was available fashioned expertly to replicate the cross. Here we rehearsed all the music that we would need as a full band while Capt. Matthews took part in a live radio interview for BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service). I had arranged the very popular Afghanistan dance “The Attan” for the band and was hoping to perform it at an event coming up with some high ranking Afghanistan dignitaries present.
It was the hottest day of the year so far in Camp Bastion, 40 degrees, and the heat in the chapel was oppressive with the band struggling to cope and the simple task of tuning became very difficult indeed. The Band of The Royal Engineers were however more than up to the task and by the end of the practice it had all settled and a good sound was being produced.
Day 6 (29 May 12) – a sour note
0630hrs and disappointing news as Sergeant Kerr (band liaison) informed us that our first trip was cancelled. This was due to uncertainty with the return helicopter flights and we couldn’t risk not being available to travel to Kabul for one of the flagship jobs, a Diamond Jubilee celebration at the British Embassy. To be honest we were all a little disappointed but that is the nature of things and the demand for transport is immense in this environment.
The brass group took the opportunity to get together and look through the large pad of music that would be required over the next three weeks. This group had been booked to play in cookhouses, coffee areas and some of the smaller bases in the Helmand Province.
Day 7 (30 May 12)
We managed to get some much needed washing done and give some thought to repacking as we need to vacate the transit accommodation before our onward trip to Kabul.
After lunch the pop group “Funky Monkey’s” headed over to the Royal Engineers EOD Camp and gave them a great concert. The troops really got involved and were delighted to have live entertainment to take their minds of their day to day roles. The band felt that they had made difference and went to bed that evening feeling proud.
Day 8 (31 May 12) – a suitable note was struck
The air con packed up again so another extremely warm and restless night. The brass group headed to the DEFAC (cookhouse) in Bastion 3 where they would take part in the “Big Lunch” to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
At 1400hrs the full band loaded the truck and headed to Tombstone. It is from this camp that members of the Afghanistan Defence and Police Force are trained. We performed as a static band on a bandstand and my arrangement of the Afghan national dance (The Attan) went down very well with senior Afghan Generals.
Day 9 (1 June 12) – and the Band played on..
Reported to bus at 0600hrs and headed to the airfield. There was a familiar feeling of “hurry up and wait” as several flights had been diverted elsewhere. Eventually we were packed into a C17, in full PPE, for a 2 hour flight to Kabul.
I managed to locate Lance Corporal McLauchlin, a CAMUS musician on a 6 month tour as a driver. She was very well and spoke to us of day to day life as a driver in the Kabul area.
It was the J2 brief at the airport that once again reminded the band how dangerous things can get! We were loaded into several heavily armoured Ridgebacks and minibuses and, safely, made the 20 minute trip to Camp Souter. There was, however, one heart stopping moment when the convoy screeched to a halt and the top cover started to shout.