Corporal Si Longworth is one of 38 trained British Army photographers. He left a career in aviation to pursue his passion for photography; capturing everything that military life has to offer. He is currently in Afghanistan as the Task Force Helmand Photographer on Op HERRICK 18.
A Combat Logistic Patrol
So hello again. It’s good to know you guys and girls are still reading about life as a British Army Photographer, five blogs in. I have had really positive feedback from you all and for that, I thank you.
Just when I thought I was getting ‘into the groove’ of things out here, what with portraits, group-shots, training budding photographers and the occasional walk-on-the-wild-side, the powers that be decided to mix things up a little, and here’s how.
As some of you may know, my trade is lovingly nestled deep in the bosom of the Royal Logistic Corps (RLC), the largest corps within the British Army. I wear that cap-badge along with over 16,000 other officers and soldiers. The trade groups within the RLC are vast, and include Air Despatcher, Chef, Ammunition Technician, Supply Specialist, Movement Coordinator and Boat Crewman. However, there is another group of fellow RLC soldiers that probably make up one of the largest trade groups, but maybe don’t get enough recognition or praise. (Well not from me in the past, anyway) These are the humble Drivers.
Being a driver in the Army may well appeal to the young guys at school whose dreams are filled with tearing up the road in a huge military truck or tank, but it has never flicked my switch. So, when I was approached by the adjutant of 3 Combat Logistic Support Regiment and asked if I wanted to come out with them ‘for a drive’, my heart didn’t exactly skip a beat.
Not wanting to disappoint and having a slight curiosity of what life was like on a Combat Logistic Patrol, I checked my diary and pencilled it in.
My first of several mistakes was to assume that I would be out with these guys for a few hours. I should have remembered flying around those patrols, providing valuable top-cover from a Lynx helicopter two years ago. Even more importantly, I should have remembered that we used to be out for hours and hours whilst the patrol made its way through the Helmand River Valley.
Anyway, having a terrible memory, lets just say I was more than a little shocked when attending the orders for the patrol, and discovered I would be out for over 24 hours. Nice!
Once I had recovered from my initial shock I was hit with mistake number two; photographers, as it happens, don’t get the comfy ride.
In order for me to get on the patrol I had to take somebody else’s place on it. On this occasion I was heading to the heights of the EPLS (Enhanced Palletised Loading System) as the gunner / top-cover man. An EPLS only caries a two-man crew, and as I don’t have a HGV licence, yep, you guessed it, I was ‘stagging’ (On duty/sentry at a post) on the top. I could almost feel my bladder strain as I re-checked my notes from patrol orders to discover that the journey would take around eight hours.
Okay, so this was going to be a challenge for me, but one I relished. First thing to do was brush up on a few key skills that would be required such as: Patrol SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), GPMG (The big machine gun on top) refresher training, and most importantly, ‘drop-down drills’, should we inadvertently roll over whilst out and about.
At this point I was introduced to my driver (drives), a 43-year-old Army reservist named Ian. Ian was a steady hand, and through his very broad ‘geordie’ accent he guided me through the basics and the essentials of the EPLS cab.
The plan was relatively simple. My vehicle joined by another 30 or so would make their way from Camp Bastion, down Highway 1 and through the green-zone, stopping off at each of the main locations along the way. At each location a smaller vehicle packet would break away and deliver its stores, whilst the larger packet moved on. The main convoy would remain outside the wire the whole time, so there was no rest for the top-cover man.
Checks, checks, checks
With all the necessary familiarisation and refresher training complete I hit the sack. It was only 1600 hrs the day before the patrol, but I was due to be up and parading in the CMA, (Convoy Marshalling Area) that’s a vehicle park to you and I, for 0200 hrs.
Beep Beep Beep… “Oh my god. What am I doing?” I asked myself as I clambered out of my pit (bed). It took me a full half an hour to wake up, just as I joined my fellow dreary-eyed men and women in the CMA. We were quickly put to work as there were more preparations to be made; final kit checks, communications checks, weapons checks, vehicle checks, checks, checks and some more checks. To be honest, I was impressed by how professional the whole thing was.
It was reassuring to see the Squadron Sergeant Major, WO2 Turley, conducting random checks on individuals’ kit and equipment, including their clothing. All the personal protective equipment that we are issued in the Army is state of the art, so there really isn’t any point in leaving it in your bed space.
Before moving off around 0530 hrs, there was just enough time for a sausage bap, delivered to us from the kitchen by some RLC guys from another well-known trade group – the chefs.
Ian and I mounted up, and away we went. We were positioned around two-thirds the way into the patrol. The sun was breaking so I managed to grab a quick shot before heading out of camp.
Almost immediately I realised that the journey was not going to be a particularly pleasant one. The road surfaces were dusty gravel tracks for around 70 per cent of the journey, and when you are 13 feet up and standing on your feet, boy do you feel it! Side to side you’re thrown constantly, bouncing left, right, up and down. CRACK goes your elbows as they smash into another piece of metal in the turret. I never expected it to be so rough. I stupidly assumed that big tyres meant smooth sailing. Well, there you have big mistake number three.
Travelling along Highway 1 gave me a brief reprise, but watching all the other traffic squeeze every inch out of the tarmac was equally unnerving.
By the time we had arrived at our first destination to drop off a few vehicles, two hours had passed. My knees and feet were fully aware I was carrying an extra 20 kgs in body armour and had also cottoned-on to the fact I hadn’t sat down in a while, so they were politely asking me to take a rest. As I was standing there observing my arcs of fire, I declined gracefully.
I remember Ian looking at me whilst I performed weird ankle rotating exercises to try and sooth the discomfort, and quipping: “That was the easy part of the journey”. Well, unfortunately, he wasn’t wrong.
As we progressed, uneven track became potholes, which became bigger holes, and then finally what felt like full-on rocky outcrops. We forded fast flowing waddies, threaded huge lorries over bridges with little room to spare on either side and inched our way along the side of huge canals. The camber of which constantly fought against our high centre of gravity, trying to get us wet.
My feet, knees and elbows felt every single pebble until I was given a small blessing at the six-hour point, when everything went numb!
The journey down through the Helmand River Valley was otherwise a pleasant one. The landscape was beautiful, the adults and the children constantly waved and shouted hello. Sometimes the children would playfully throw stones at the vehicles in order to hear the ricochet “twang” off the armour. I could see them all laughing amongst themselves as it made the noise. Watching life carry on as normal from 13 feet up was fantastic, and everything from my chest upwards was thankful for the experience.
(I am going to save you the detailed account of how one goes to the loo whilst on the move, and stood right next to your driver’s head. Needless to say it becomes a very personal experience for both of you)
On the road again…
At the seven hours and fifteen minutes point, we rolled into PB Folad. Once stopped, I cautiously jumped down from the cab. My legs had never been so happy to see terra firma and they showed their love for it by embracing it horizontally, for about 10 minutes.
Lying on the ground gave me time to reflect on what was happening around me. There was no time to rest for the guys who were carrying essential loads. I watched vehicles being guided carefully into position and dropping off stores, then picking up new loads. This was all done with the slickest of efficiency, as no doubt the Patrol Base commander had been eagerly awaiting this logistics patrol resupply for some time.
The occupants from other vehicles, which weren’t carrying loads, helped where they could and then laid in the shade of their vehicles. Almost every person who was resting took off his or her boots and socks, and I didn’t need to be told. The relief was instantaneous, and in a cruel way, so was the respite, as in no time at all we were loading up again.
In the small space of time at Folad, I had managed to force-feed myself a whole tube of Pringles (Salt and Vinegar, in case you were wondering), a Mars bar and a Twix, flushed down with a can of Mountain Dew. I thought I would need the energy for the return journey, but the sun was shining on me that afternoon as I was offered a swap into the Mastiff command vehicle. I am not even sure the officer had finished the sentence, and I had thrown my bag in the back and jumped on a seat. Not the comfiest of seats in the world, but I certainly wasn’t going to be complaining.
I said farewell to Ian and wished my replacement luck. We were on the road again. The journey home was pretty uneventful. There isn’t much to look at from the back of a Mastiff vehicle. For safety reasons you are strapped very tightly into a four-point harness, and it feels like being in an inverting roller coaster safety seat, only without as much fun, screaming or somebody throwing up next to you. I did manage to grab this very quick shot of our resident top-cover woman, Cpl Sheridan Lucas.
We had a slightly longer break at one of the locations on the way back, so that the drivers could have some enforced rest and possibly a bit of shut-eye. I didn’t sleep for the two hours, but spent the time trying to convince the occupants of my vehicle (not the driver, who was flat-out) that it would be a great idea to let me experiment with some lighting techniques I had been mulling over during the last five-hour ‘roller coaster ride’.
Here are the results. I am reasonably content with the outcome considering how long I had been awake.
Extremely robust individuals
When we finally rolled through the gates of Camp Bastion it was 0200 hrs. 25 hrs after my stupid alarm clock forced me out of bed. I sighed in relief to the Squadron Sergeant Major and made some dribbly comment about being happy it was all over. He laughed at me, and then educated me that every one of the 30-odd vehicles needed to be refuelled, which took time from two petrol pumps, and then all kit had to be ‘squared away’, weapons handed back, cabs cleaned out, only after dropping the loads. I felt pretty humbled at the time. I am not ashamed to say that I was, how we say, ‘baggage’.
I left the crews and headed back to my bed. Having spoken to the adjutant the next day, I am reliably informed the last person made it to their bed two hours after we breached the gates of Bastion. That’s some going as far as I am concerned.
I now believe that being invited out with the Combat Logistic Support Regiment on a Combat Logistic Patrol was a real privilege. Being out with 32 Squadron for over 24 hours has smashed any misconception about what these extremely robust individuals do for a living. It is an unpleasant job due to the sheer time involved in moving tons of kit around a battlefield, all the time under threat and needing to be that little extra bit alert to your surroundings, when fatigue may well be knocking at your door.
32 Squadron, 3 Combat Logistic Support Regiment, and the rest of the driver trade in the RLC, I wholeheartedly take my hat off to you…My eyes have been opened.
Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot