These events took place during an Afghanistan mission rehearsal exercise (MRX) a couple of years ago and was written soon afterwards. All places mentioned were not actually in Helmand Province, but were stand-ins on Salisbury Plain (‘Helmandshire’ if you will). After acting as embedded media for 10 days, it was only on the last that I got near the action.
Finally, after what seems like weeks of waiting, I get the chance to join a unit going out on a mission. I meet up with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles or 2RGR at their camp at Musa Q’Aleh in Helmand Province. My escort is a petite blonde captain in her late 20s, known to all the Gurkhas as just ‘Emily’. Her primary job is education officer, but she also doubles as unit press officer or UPO for 2RGR. She speaks Nepali and teaches English to the Gurkhas. She is the only woman among 700 men. In her spare time she does 24-hour mountain bike races for fun.
Emily asks another officer how close will I be allowed to the action. She is told: “He can go as far forward as you do”. We will be part of a reserve platoon, following behind the actual strike force. Not far behind, though, as it turns out.
The pre-mission brief takes place at 8PM in the battle-group’s command centre. Officers from all the main units at Musa Q’aleh sit or stand around a big table. Brigade headquarters listens in via a radio link. The different sections – intelligence, artillery, forward air control and so on, say their pieces. The various incidents of shootings, rocket attacks and so on in the last 12 hours are outlined. There has been a drive-by shooting at a forward operating base or FOB. Nine mortar rounds landed inside another FOB and a patrol was fired on. A local police station has received a threatening ‘night letter’ warning that locals should not join or help ISAF and should take their children out of school. Most relevant to us is that the source of much of this trouble has been identified and tracked down to a location known as Prendegast Wood. Observed by a Gurkha reconnaissance squad, who have been hiding nearby for over a week, sentries have been seen and a vehicle has noted coming and going from the woods. The force I will be joining is to go and sort them out, and recover a suspected weapons cache. A last-minute update comes in – a van has dropped a further five suspected enemy at the wood. Actually, the word enemy isn’t used. The colonel in charge prefers AOF, which stands for armed opposition forces. The meeting breaks up and the officers go to brief their own men.
The plan, Emily tells me, is to move out in a convoy to FOB Edinburgh, have a final brief and a rock drill, where the squad leaders practice their locations and timings for the assault on a large-scale map laid out on the floor. From there we will head to a line of departure where we will meet the ‘Kandaks’ (the name for an Afghan army battalion) and their vehicles, expected to be Viking tracked personnel carriers. We head out to where the convoy, consisting of about a dozen Pinzgauer light trucks and Land Rovers, is lined up, engines idling and stow our gear.
The officer leading the convoy isn’t too happy at the size of this “train set” as he calls it. By the time the ANA are expected to join us, “we’ll be about 400 metres long by then” he says. There is a chance that a guided rocket strike will be called in on the target before we arrive, and if so, there won’t be much to do except to pick up the pieces, which will destroy the arms cache and the “exploitation value” of it. We are in the second vehicle, a Pinzgauer with a Gurkha driver and gunner. In the back are Emily, myself and two soldiers from the Estonian Army, here as observers. If there weren’t two of them, one might be forgiven for thinking that the larger of them was the Estonian Army, so much gear is he carrying. He says he visited Stonehenge this week, and I suspect he might be taking substantial parts of it back to Tallinn with him in the copious pouches attached to his webbing. A last minute decision to leave behind 30 helmets in plastic bags that we had aboard seems to suddenly make room for us all without anyone having to sit on anyone else’s lap. I sense the disappointment of the Estonian next to Emily.
Just after sunset we set off, down roads at first then across open country. Forty minutes later we stop in a large open field that slopes away gently to our right and get out of the wagons. The transports are arranged in an arc at a distance around the command vehicles. The squat silhouettes of Warrior fighting vehicles of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (PWRR) stand sentinel on our flanks, their cannon pointed ahead of us toward the woods from which bad things have come. The afterglow from the sun is now just a bruise on the horizon.
As the last light fades, the vehicles dotted around us soon become indistinct black shapes like sleeping cattle. I recognise a short but tough looking EOD engineer from yesterday, when we both flew on a Chinook helicopter for a medical response mission to pick up an injured Gurkha. He was as interested in what I do as I was in his job, which mainly seemed to involve being the first out of the helicopter clearing bombs and mines so the injured could be rescued. If the helicopter can’t land, he will rescue the wounded himself while dangling from a rope. He asked me if we journalists were issued with a personal weapon. I was just about to tell him all the reasons why that would be a bad idea when our helicopter arrived and we had to break off the conversation. My flight time on the Chinook yesterday had been only 15 minutes from base to casualty to base, but he tells me he spent seven hours on it, which is enough for a lifetime, he thinks.
Emily comes over. “We are going to stay here until H-hour.”
- “We’re stopping in a barn and all of that?” I ask.
- “No. We may still get called out for a couple of things, this and that. I guess we will just wait for everything to kick off, I think. Everything’s in position, I think, but I get the feeling that it won’t be a standard night. I recommend you get your head down. If you want to lie down by the vehicle, feel absolutely free to do so, but if you can sleep sitting up I recommend doing that in the vehicle”.
A few yards away, two officers are discussing why we have stopped here rather than gone to FOB Edinburgh and then attacked under cover of darkness.
“It’s only because you guys don’t want to clear a fucking wood in the night time!” Says one.
“I can’t believe we are waiting here for fucking five hours!” Says the second officer, laughing.
“The thing about waiting here is that no-one can get in and no-one can get out.”
Emily asks them what has happened to the original plan.
“The plan at FOB Edinburgh changed…” says the first officer “…because recce – the legends that they are – identified eight people inside the objective, laying a command wire IED now. So we said, roger, ok, let’s get ROE [the rules of engagement] to do something about it. That was granted but then we said fuck it, if we drop something on them now then we won’t be able to recover the weapons cache. So we said let’s go in, secure it. We know there’s only eight in there now. It can only get worse in terms of more and more enemy coming in. So we thought put a cordon around it now, no-one can come in or out. (At) first light the ANA can come down, shout at them a bit, tell them to put down their guns because they are hopelessly outnumbered. No bloodshed, clearance of the cache, big thumbs up all round, thank you very much.”
“Very good.” says the second officer. “I wouldn’t mind going in and smashing it all up, though.”
The moonless July night is so still and mild that I choose to lay down on just a roll mat under the stars. Sleep doesn’t come easy. First there is the anticipation of what might happen on tomorrow’s mission, which will be my first time in a combat environment, then an RAF Typhoon arrives high overhead, turning and climbing, diving and wheeling. I try to ignore it at first, in the interests of getting as much kip as I can, but then give in and lie back to watch it thread its way through the Milky Way, its wingtip lights adding two blinking red and green stars to the cosmos.
Eventually it goes away, but then a Warrior starts up to our left, its engine throbbing in the distance. At midnight, what I take to be Scimitar reconnaissance vehicles grind past our trucks. Uncertain that they are as aware of our prone bodies as we are of them, most of us sit up to give them a chance to not squash us under their tracks.
Finally, I get some sleep. The temperature has dropped enough to warrant digging out the sleeping bag. With five layers on my upper body, including body armour, but only a fairly thin pair of trousers, my knees are starting to feel the cold.
WOOOSSH! I am awoken from drooling sleep at 2AM by the hiss of a rocket speeding overhead. For a moment I think the guided rocket strike has happened, but as I fall out of my sleeping bag, it appears to be only an orange flare, bursting over the woods. Whatever it is, I’m sure it means I might find myself alone in a field if I don’t get my stuff together. I get my boots on and sleeping bag packed away in record time, I am approached by a soldier who is just an outline against the descending flare light, but sounds like he hails from somewhere on the Mersey.
“Are you the one doing the filming?” he asks, as another flare pops behind him.
- “…ahh…” I say, wondering if the focussing light on my camcorder might have given away our position earlier. ‘…not at the moment, no”.
“The attack is still supposed to go in at first light. We won’t necessarily be moving out right away”.
- “So it’s not guys preparing to attack us from the trees then?”
He considers this thought. “Errrm… it might be”.
Nothing comes our way, however and the flares continue to fly and fall, sometimes two, three or four at a time. For the next two hours or more, there seems to always be one yellow light falling gently in the distance, or in a couple of occasions dropping right overhead, lighting us all up. Mostly it has the feel of a somewhat cut-rate Bonfire Night display, but as some of the flares descend on their parachutes into the forest, their fall triggers flickering patterns through the trees and an eerie glow as they hang in the branches. It must be terrifying in there, and later I am told that the intention of this spectacle is to deny the enemy sleep and confuse him of our intentions. It certainly worked for me.
Some of the soldiers manage to stay asleep through all of this, except on a couple of occasions when another on guard duty or ‘stag’ trips over the dark cocoons of their sleeping bags, something which makes me chuckle with each grunt and ‘sorry!’ I have unintentionally avoided being stumbled over by bringing a pale blue roll mat that reflects light like a police beacon. Deciding that being kicked is a lesser discomfort than getting us all killed, I make a mental note to look for a green one before next time.
To be Continued...