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  The sun baked days with record breaking temperatures have now been replaced by cold cloudy days and even colder nights.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

Home comforts in Patrol Base Clifton

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 know as Engineer Close Support Squadron 1, which covers the northern areas of operation of Task Force Helmand (TFH).

Change of scenery

The troop requirements at Patrol Base (PB) Clifton have taken a different turn of direction within the last week. Task requirements from further afield in Helmand have been made, and the original group of 28 men has now been reduced to ten to continue with PB jobs. For some members this will be a look at life in other Check Points (CPs)/PBs, and a change of scenery, which will break the monotony up of a six-month tour nicely, for others it will be the challenge of a new task albeit in a new location. Certainly up to Christmas it looks like troop movement to other areas will be happening, some members have been ear-marked for larger projects taking them into 2013 before we will see them again, they have already packed and gone.

PB life is a mixed bag of events to be honest; you have to experience it to appreciate the effects it can have. The full spectrum of emotions which humans display are touched in one way or another, from the highs of completing a task or being a dangerous environment to the lows of missing friends and family at home, all are experienced from one day to another here. The sight of poverty in the surrounding areas is evident and it often reminds you how lucky we are back home, essential basics and sanitation to locals are in denial but life just continues as normal.

Life and luxuries

As a quick insight into PB life, the run of the mill pace of life we have (excluding large tasks and projects) the days normally starts around 6.30am.  Your own physical training is the norm most mornings, which lasts around 45 minutes followed by a shave and shower. The shower facilities consist of a tent with shower heads dotted around inside it. Water is pumped from a bore hole well (deep in the ground) through a series of filter units (Stella meta units) into two 5000 litre water holding tanks (pillow tanks), from here it is feed into a kerosene heater which provides heat to the water. Outside the shower areas, directly to one side is the wash sinks. These are like large trough tubs with a number of taps attached providing warm water, it’s clean enough to drink but people choose not to.

Warm showers are a luxury.

Warm showers are a luxury.

The site has been winterised so is covered by large aggregate to aid in drainage, this in its self is a struggle to walk in from one area to another and can only be compared to walking in deep snow back home. The accommodation on camp consists of a row of ten-man tents located behind a series of blast walls; these provide ample room for cot beds which come complete with fly nets surrounding them. The floor is a plastic based surface which sits about 25mm high consisting of a flat surface with slots on top followed by a honey comb base underneath, this design in its self keeps it clean and any dust on the surface clears away quickly.

Home comforts - a proper toilet seat.

Home comforts – a proper toilet seat.

Electricity is supplied on site through mobile units 415v, 240v and 110v is available so electrical products can be used and charged up for personal use in the accommodation areas.  Toilet facilities are in the form of a wooden hut complete with a toilet seat inside; a chemical type bag is presented over the top of it which is later disposed of in a burn pit once used.  A ‘desert rose’ (urinal) is used frequently which is a deep hole with a drainpipe embedded in it, to which ‘wriggly tin’ roof sheets are used as a urinal draining away into the pipe, this in itself is adequate and clean enough for the usage it gets.

The cookhouse

The cookhouse

Finally the cookhouse which co-incidentally is the lad’s favourite place is a tent housing a choice of food served daily on paper plates with vacuum packed sealed cutlery provided with every meal. Served three times per day there is plenty of choice and the standards are similar to a good hotel back home. I hope this has shown a light on the way we live until next time.

Read about James here: Lance Corporal James Hyland

Good plans don’t always go to plan

Lance Corporal Hylands at PB Clifton

Lance Corporal Hylands at PB Clifton

LCpl James Hylands (39), 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 know as Engineer Close Support Squadron 1, which covers the northern areas of operation of Task Force Helmand (TFH).

‘Scrap Heap Challenge’

Well as a new week starts the job load changes. This week sees the construction of a platform for heavy equipment in aid of 39 Royal Artillery who join us in Patrol Base (PB) Clifton for the duration of Op Herrick 17. The initial design and order stage had been passed and the first load of much needed stores arrived promptly Monday morning, by locally employed contractors (LECs) selected to fulfil the task of delivering lorry loads of aggregate to complete the 21×10 metre Hesco construction.

LCpl Hylands Stripping out of the previous firing platform with a Medium Wheeled Tractor

LCpl Hylands Stripping out of the previous firing platform with a Medium Wheeled Tractor

Being my first tour and more to the point my first interaction with LECs I didn’t really know what to expect. A small team and I were given the task of searching the vehicles and speaking to the drivers before they were cleared to enter the PB. This, to be fair, was made easy as the locals co-operated with everything asked of them, back home in the UK the same process would have been a lot more difficult, but here went rather smoothly. What did catch my attention however, was the condition of the vehicles being used.

In a world of ‘hi-viz’ and ‘health and safety’, it brought a smile to my face to see vehicles which resembled something out of the TV series scrap heap challenge! Things were falling apart, leaking and patched up, but the trucks worked and, more to the point, delivered what we needed. As the saying goes ‘poverty is the mother of ingenuity’. Once tipped the plant crew set to work in the medium and light wheeled tractor distributing the aggregate up into small piles around the PB for when they were needed later on.

Filling mil 7 hesco

Filling mil 7 hesco

A delivery of mil 7 and mil 5 Hesco (large and medium sized baskets) from Main Operating Base Price meant the job could effectively start, so LCpl Lee Hill rounded the lads up for a job overview, tasking groups to work in various areas to ensure the platform was constructed as quickly as possible (5 days was the target). The existing platform which was in place was quickly pulled down by the plant and the ground levelled ready for the new build. What was required was a larger platform on which an old 432 tank launcher sat with a large firing range around it. All good plans don’t always go to plan and this was about to happen to 8 Troop.

LCpl Robb Filling Mil 7 Hesco

LCpl Robb filling mil 7 hesco

 

‘Dressing up’

Due to a repatriation service at Camp Bastion, LCpl Lee Hill and other members who were good friends of the deceased had to pass the task over to the remaining troop members, LCpl Paul Robb stepped forward for the challenge, a TA member from 591 Independent Field Sqn who works in the civil service had chance to shine within the troop. The next problem to raise its ugly head on this job was a burst hydraulic pipe on the Medium Wheeled Tractor which took it out of action.

It was now estimated the original five-day window would now be a seven-day task with early starts/late finishes needed.  Mil 7 Hesco turned out to take for ages to fill with the remaining plant, the sheer volume of its design and the bulk required to fill it with aggregate was staggering it took the majority of the extended time. The outer top mil 5 was relatively easy to complete and by the end of day seven we were able to allow the 432 tank to mount the platform.  The job was effectively ready to begin albeit the surrounding landscape required ‘dressing up’ which has been planned in to tie with a maintenance day of the 432.

Seven days of hard work have passed. Lesson learned from the project on this occasion is always have a back-up plan ready for the unexpected eventuality, which in this case came twice for 8 Troop.

 

Golden Egg – the laying of a bridge

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 know as Engineer Close Support Squadron 1, which covers the northern areas of operation of Task Force Helmand (TFH).

Golden Egg – bridge task

Back home in the UK the run-up to Christmas will have begun. Adverts appearing on TV of so-called celebrities promoting their exclusive weight loss DVDs, all of which is marketed nicely when people historically work less and eat more during the Christmas period. All I can say is don’t waste your money. If want a serious workout with rapid weight loss join us in our non-equipment bridge task, alternatively known as ‘GOLDEN EGG’.

Running around in 20kg body armour or carrying your holiday suitcase with you at all times in heat of 25 deg lifting and moving heavy bridge parts in record time will have the desired results you are looking for! Physically and mentally demanding but extremely rewarding when complete is the best way of selling it. Headed up by Cpl Chilton the brief was delivered to the troops, “we will travel down to the green zone in convoy, the MGB (medium girder bridge) which is currently in place requires stripping out and rebuilding 15 meters to the right of its current location. While this is taking place, the new landing area needs prepping in record time ready to accept the MGB, this will be completed by the plant operators. The area is currently being cleared as we speak. The Royal Marines have provided a troop to provide security whilst we work.”

Day one went to plan and by 1600 hrs the troop was back inside PB Clifton ready for day two to commence.

Spr Senior and LCpl Nicholson

Spr Senior and LCpl Nicholson

 

Hard at work

Hard at work

Not being a NEB (non equipment bridge) expert the one thing I learned quickly from the experienced lads, is the foundations consisting of abutments and steel girders which would span the flowing river, had to be precisely flat and level in place.  If they weren’t, the rest of the bridge which goes on top would be wrong and fit incorrectly, “measure twice complete once” I heard someone quote. Due to this, the next two days were a sequence of test-measure-adjust then continue, all with the help of a heavy duty crane supplied and operated by a local contractor.

By the start of day four, as a quick update, we were looking at an MGB in its temporary location being used constantly by the locals so not to disturb their pattern of life especially during the harvest period. A new flood defence was installed on the far side of the river to give extra protection in high waters, 6 abutments were fitted (3 either side of the river) levelled out and secure with ten ‘I’ section girders spanning in length of 12meters (just over 40 feet) linking the two together, all was going to plan.

Pulled out all the stops

The next stage of the operation, to give us a chance of getting within the five-day window, was a dual task on the NEB, splitting the troop down into half and half; one lot would be fitting the kerbs and wood along the bridge giving the backbone of strength, the other half would use the plant to deliver a smooth ramp for the entry and exit of the bridge. Once completed the final day was upon us in rapid time this would take the efforts of all the team to fit the wearing surfaces of the bridge. The wearing surface is the external surface of the bridge, the visual element, so appearance had to be everything. Each wooden run was individually cut at a angle, placed in position with equal spacers in between then nailed, ensuring all nails and fittings ran in the same sequence as you crossed the bridge.  It would and did leave a professional finish but it took time, by 1600 hrs on the final day a small element had to continue with the wearing surface.

A tractor drives over the finished bridge.

A tractor drives over the finished bridge.

A few locals who were watching at the time helped out as they could see we really wanted to finish the project before it got dark that night.  The remainder of the troop had to form up in order that the MGB could be stripped out ready to be returned to Main Operating Base Price. Tired and weary from the last couple of days work, the troop pulled out all the stops in the final hurdle of dismantling the MGB. 1800hrs  came and all was finished, the locals were now viewing the rapid transformation to their landscape, within a few minutes the site was left complete and tidy as we mounted up in the vehicles. We headed back to PB Clifton, chuffed and relieved all was finished, as a reward Lt Morton gave us the next day off, no more 5.30am get-ups, a lie in… great!

The troup admire their handy work

The troup admire their handy work

Read about James here: Lance Corporal James Hyland

Humble beginnings

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 know as Engineer Close Support Squadron 1, which covers the northern areas of operation of Task Force Helmand (TFH).

 

Breathtaking

If the six-month tour goes as fast as the six weeks we have just completed it will be finished in no time. It was back at the beginning of September that we all assembled outside the troop offices in Ripon to board the coaches to Teesside airport on that Sunday afternoon. By 4am Tuesday we had arrived at Camp Bastion to start our familiarisation package, which lasted between 2-7 days depending on the job role you had in theatre. We had been previously broken down into our troops prior to leaving the UK, ours being 8 Troop consisting of 27 men; mostly regular Royal Engineers, 4 reserve Engineers and 2 REME guys for the full period of the tour known as Op HERRICK 17.

Once we had completed the mandatory training at Camp Bastion a small group of us (the advance party) set off in the middle of the night to our new home for the next six months, Patrol Base (PB) Clifton in the North of the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand Province. We were greeted by 8 Troop, 33 Armoured Engineer Squadron who were coming to the end of a busy six-month tour and were more than happy to meet us, as going home for them was just round the corner. The next couple of days were a blur of paperwork, checking and signing forms, by which time the rest of the team had flown out from Camp Bastion to join us in helping to complete the handover.

PB Clifton is a growing camp, which sits 850 meters above sea level, high on a hill top approximately 20 kilometres from Camp Bastion. The one thing that’s strikes you is it’s situated in an area of natural beauty with breathtaking views overshadowed by mountains in the distance. Panning to the West, North and East is a vast plain of open desert with various compounds dotted around it. To the South is the ‘green zone’ where most of the patrols took place during the summer 2012, when Inkerman Coy of the Grenadier Guards Battle Group operated out of PB Clifton now replaced by Delta Coy, 40 Commando Royal Marines.

The River Helmand flows from the North and is branched off into irrigation ditches, from this the green zone is created. The place seems so unnatural to the human eye a vast desert with all this greenery of trees, shrubs and crops lodged in the middle of it, physically it does not seem possible to have such a stark contrast in geographical features, but it has. PB Clifton is surrounded by other checkpoints or CPs; CP SPONDON, SARKALA, and MALVERN to name but a few, which are occupied by both International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops.

‘Wheels’ of Clifton moving

Conditions within the PB are far better than most of us expected, the last troop of Engineers did an excellent job in ensuring our stay is comfortable; so much so that the Royal Marines now refer to the accommodation as the ‘hotel’ when guests are staying with us. The kitchens, run by marines, are excellent with a good selection of main course meals, desserts and fresh fruit, all of which keeps the lads in good sprits in such a remote area.  A small number of locally employed contractors provide help and services to the camp, ensuring basic chores are taken care of and items from the outside are sold at the lads’ request (cigarettes and pop). Together they form part of this close knit team, which operates on a 24/7 basis.

Since our arrival here we have been carrying out tasks around the camp, such as winterisation of plumbing areas, camp upgrades, fitting of new toilet blocks and showers, upgrading the security, as well as submitting a list of job requests for major projects that are deemed for completion.  The engineers have been busy daily on various requirements with all trades being called upon. Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Mason has been the main point of contact for jobs and through him jobs are accessed, planned and prioritised into a level of importance, some of these jobs will be blogged at a later in date, so for now we will ‘crack’ on and keep the wheels of Clifton moving into the next couple of weeks.

Read about James here: Lance Corporal James Hyland

Cutting It Fine

Lieutenant Richard Armstrong from 2 Troop of ‘Dog’ Squadron (1 Armoured Engineer Squadron), part of 21 Engineer Regiment (21 Eng Regt) blogs about plans to downsize a checkpoint in readiness for handover to the ANA, and how things didn’t quite go according to plan…

Lieutenant Richard Armstrong

Lieutenant Richard Armstrong

It’s been another productive week for the members of 2 Troop of ‘Dog’ Sqn (1st Armoured Engineer Squadron). Few could have predicted how it could have turned out. Unforeseen circumstances have conspired to confound the best laid plans of the troop commander, but as usual the lads came to the rescue and as they say, all’s well that ends well.

This week was supposed to see the troop reducing a check point (CP) in size, ready to be handed over to our colleagues in the Afghan National Police. We were then to move to CP AZADI, which we had built two weeks ago. We were to carry out the upgrade of the site for long-term occupation.

Mechanical faults with one of our key assets, a wheeled tractor, meant that neither of these jobs could be completed. However, it would be unfair to lay all of the blame with the operator and maintainer, LCpl Bliss, who couldn’t have seen the razor wire that damaged the rubber hoses.

After a hasty crisis meeting between Cpl John Curphey and I (now doing the job of the troop Sergeant) and the officer commanding Corunna Company of 1 LANCS, a new plan was hatched. This would see half my troop stay in Patrol Base (PB) PARAANG under Cpl Curphey to train the ANA in basic combat engineering whilst the other half, under me, would go to CP AZADI and clear tree lines to enable the defensive positions to see further. This in turn would improve the security of the checkpoint.

Cpl John Curphey’s section took the opportunity with both hands. LCpl Kenny Cunningham delivered an excellent lesson on field defences and a lot of knowledge was passed to our Afghan National Army colleagues in areas as diverse as sandbag construction to field hygiene and checkpoint layout. In their spare time, the lads also took it upon themselves to build a number of additional structures to provide some much needed shelter from the 30 degree heat.

The remainder of the troop, over in AZADI, went out on a patrol to clear a tree line which, although only 50m from the CP, felt a world away from the safety of the walls and razor wire. Progress was slow as the chainsaw had broken early in the job and hand tools were also going down due to the ‘spartan’ like work ethic of LCpl Karlos Newman who was cutting down obstructions with vigour. We were further hampered by the need to clear the tree line to ensure there was nothing there that could slow the task down and this was a drill that had been carried out many times before and was part of most tasks when working unfamiliar ground. It wasn’t long before we had reports of suspicious activity to our front and I made the decision to extract the troop back to the safety of the CP.

All in all, it’s been another hard, busy, but enjoyable week where the Afghan factor has played its part once again. ‘TIA’ (this is Afghanistan).