Patrol base downsizing: a sign of the times

LCpl Hylands

LCpl Hylands

LCpl James Hylands (39), from Shaw, Oldham is a TA soldier who is currently serving with 8 Troop, 73 Armoured Engineer Squadron (AES) on Operation HERRICK 17.  He deployed along with the rest of 21 Engineer Regiment (21 Engr Regt) as part of Task Force Helmand Engineer Group, at the beginning of September 2012. Whilst on tour the squadron is known as Engineer Close Support Squadron 1, which covers the northern areas of operation of Task Force Helmand (TFH).

Two weeks’ freedom

Nearly 16 weeks have passed and the time has come (and gone) for R&R (rest and recuperation) a break from the life at Patrol Base (PB) Clifton.  A build-up of excitement surrounds you in the run-up to your R&R departure date, but the need to stay alert and switched on in an ever-changing environment is forever in your mind.  The sun baked days with record breaking temperatures have now been replaced by cold cloudy days and even colder nights.  Temperatures in the minus figures during the night present a new catalogue of problems for the Clifton team.  Water during the night quickly freezes with pumps and motors struggling with the extra demand placed on them from frozen water. The huge need of washing water in the morning time quickly has the lads out of bed trying to solve the problems now presented to them.

Flown back to Camp Bastion for R&R three days prior to your departure date, you attend the mandatory brief, basically about behaving yourself and the dos and don’ts during your two-week break.  It must be a headache for the management; here we have predominately young outgoing men who need time to rest operating in a stressful and challenging environment for weeks on end – to then be presented with two weeks’ freedom with extra non-spent money in their bank accounts.

Oxford to Manchester

Historically within the military system holding rank has its privileges, higher the rank better the privilege that’s the way it generally works with the exception of ‘Space A’.  For people returning to the UK for R&R the time allocated is 14 days including your travel time, effectively less the travel time you get 12 days at home (on average).  Where Space A  comes into effect is if there is an aircraft returning to the UK, not full, the seats are given out to the lowest ranking person first to return home slightly earlier to commence their R&R normally (2-3 days if you are lucky), hence the movement back to Camp Bastion 3-4 days before your fly date.

The kit that you have been lugging around with you for the last couple of weeks is handed back in.  Your 20kg Osprey body armour is replaced with a lighter flap jacket and your helmet stays with you for the return home.  Your weapon which has been constantly by your side or under your bed while you sleep, is placed in the armoury upon your return.  To be honest, once everything is handed back in you feel like you have lost something, for the next day or two when you get home, you are looking were you have placed your weapon; leaving or losing a weapon in theatre holds high consequences.

From Camp Bastion you pick up an RAF aircraft direct to the Middle East, a quick changeover to a civilian aircraft and 18 hours later I was catching a train from Oxford to Manchester.

Transforming PB Clifton

Since November 2012 we have been waiting for a decision on the future of PB Clifton, is it to close?  Be handed over to the Afghan Army? Nobody really knew.  Just prior to my R&R, a decision was made that it would be downsized, restructured and handed over to the Afghan Army early 2013. So here I stand now, fresh from R&R, transported by a Merlin helicopter back to PB Clifton, looking out of the window, not recognising the place.

Sangars have been moved, Hesco walls removed, more walls constructed, the place has totally transformed – construction is going on all around me as I’m left on the ground as the chopper flies away.

I see Cpl Rothwell approach me with a smile, he can see I’m bemused by the whole surrounding area.  “Come on,“ he says, ”I will put the kettle on and explain all.” I have only been gone three weeks I think to myself.

The beginnings of the Orthodox Build Earth (mud build) built by the Locally Employed Contractors

The beginnings of the Orthodox Build Earth (mud build) built by the Locally Employed Contractors

Doing what Engineers do best: bridging

Lance Corporal Hylands at PB Clifton

Lance Corporal Hylands at PB Clifton

LCpl James Hylands (39), from Shaw, Oldham is a TA soldier who is currently serving with 8 Troop, 73 Armoured Engineer Squadron (AES) on Operation HERRICK 17.  He deployed along with the rest of 21 Engineer Regiment (21 Engr Regt) as part of Task Force Helmand Engineer Group, at the beginning of September 2012. Whilst on tour the squadron is known as Engineer Close Support Squadron 1, which covers the northern areas of operation of Task Force Helmand (TFH).

Teaming-up to learn

With 8 troop’s recent achievements with the single story bridging task (Medium Girder 40-tonne load bridge) near Patrol Base (PB) Clifton, the next job to be tasked for us would be a bigger assignment, this time teaming up with our colleagues from 9 troop at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ouelette.

Planned in for just over a week, the rehearsal stage required our team to travel there via Camp Bastion to practice and learn a new type bridge as quickly as possible. This time it was a double story MGB (Medium Girder Bridge capable of withstanding 70-tonne loads) with 10 bays (number of bays denotes the span it needs to span over a crossing).

FOB Ouelette is located further north along the green zone from us, following the Helmand River. It falls under a different operating area,  ours being Nahr-e Seraj, it being Coalition Force Burma, which was originally part of the Sangin Valley district.  Out of all the areas, 73 Armoured Engineer Squadron (AES) are operating in theatre FOB Ouelette is renowned as being the most kinetic and certainly has a large insurgent presence in its area, hence it has to treated with caution and vigilance.  Upon arrival, you notice this difference straight away. Up to late September this year there has been no significant attacks, but the cautious presence is still maintained.

Nine troop lads have been really busy in this place in the past couple of months shutting down PBs and Check Points (CPs) within the area, constantly working out on the ground, sometimes under small arms attack; whilst performing their daily tasks.  Everyone seems to have a different story to tell, but they have genuinely enjoyed being there and have worked strong as a team, which was evident to me instantly.

The accommodation and work area was a good little set up (it must be an engineer thing) housed in its own little gated yard, with heated tents, ISO containers doubling up as offices and a 12ft x12ft  tent acting as a welfare room; complete with TV and PlayStation.  Some of us were located in this accommodation with them, the others in the empty Hesco Accommodation Bunkers located around camp.

The purpose of our stay was to practice the build and deconstruct of a double story MGB as quickly as possible, working as a mixed 26-man team, in order that we could provide vehicle access bridges to cross a nearby canal obtaining access into a local town – should it be required.

Pairing off into three sections left, right and centre of bridge, we practiced constructing and dismantling the structure until everyone could complete the task with their eyes shut.  All the guys now are fully up to speed with what is required of us and everyone knows the role they could play in any forthcoming operations.

Having now returned to PB Clifton we await any instructions to return to FOB Ouelette to complete the bridging tasks should it be required.

Elements of the Medium Girder Bridge

Elements of the Medium Girder Bridge

Lesson on the Medium Girder Bridge

Lesson on the Medium Girder Bridge

Getting stuck into a practice build

Getting stuck into a practice build

Read about James here: Lance Corporal James Hyland