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Authors: Andy McNab

Spoken from the Front (39 page)

BOOK: Spoken from the Front

On the first day, we started moving down to a secure
location where we could gather around in our team to talk
things over, make plans and get organized. The second day
we started moving – on foot. The only vehicle we had with us
was a quad [bike] and trailer because of all the kit that we
needed for the operation. The kit we needed was horrendous.
Even getting it [the quad] over the Green Zone was a nightmare
because we hit rivers, and couldn't get the trailer over
the river. Then we hit bumps and ditches. So we started
moving down to another secure location and still no contact.
After the second day, still no contacts. That second night we
hid up in a compound and stayed there overnight. Then on
the third day we moved a little bit closer to our objective.
Again, we stayed in another compound overnight. But still
no contact. It came over the net [radio] that we had made
such good progress we were going to take our objectives the
very next day.

So that whole night we – B Company – were just sitting
there thinking: This is it. This is the big one. It's going to go
down in history. And if it is going to go down in history, then
we hope it doesn't turn out badly. We knew this time it was
us doing the attack. The Rules of Engagement had changed at
this stage for us to go in and do the attack. What we were told
was: seven o'clock in the morning, first move, and the contact
will initiate from a GLMRS [guided launch missile rocket
system] being launched into the Sentry Compound. So, the
next morning, we were all packed up ready to go and the
GLMRS were launched – you could hear the vibrations. The
bombing went off and we started making our move through
a cornfield. But the mortars were still coming down on top of
our objective to keep the enemies' heads down so we could
get ready to go in and do an advance [attack].

We were all lined up, ready to go in for the assault, and one
of the other teams were giving us fire support. So they were
now firing on the position we were going into. As they
were firing we made our move. Straight in. By that time, we
didn't even come under contact. Our other team had been
fired upon but they had sorted it out and dealt with whoever
was firing back. We went in – the place was just flattened,
rubble everywhere. There were loads of different buildings,
compounds. We had to blow some of the doors off the hinges
with the engineers. Either the Taliban were killed or they had
fled. That whole day we killed 250 Taliban in total. But I
didn't have to fire, although there was plenty of firing done.

That was an amazing day. Only because the mortars were
commanded to land at 'danger close'. That meant, as we
moved in, the mortars were meant to be landing pretty much
right beside us. And that was happening. I got an adrenalin
rush from this but the ANA were absolutely frightened by it.
A lot of them refused to move until the mortars had stopped
being fired. But we told them: 'This is the last one [attack]
you're going to do. Once this has finished you're going
home.' So then they were up for it and they were like: 'Yes, no
problem.' So we all went in. This position was clear but the
only problem there was that the other two teams were
clearing Big Top. And they had come under extreme
contacts because the Taliban had all these rat-run tunnels
underground and there was loads of bunkers all over the
place. All they were doing was running underground, then
coming up: they could pop you in your back and you
wouldn't even know there was a hole around. But the Taliban
came under contact and they had lost everything. They had
used all their rocket launchers and near enough all their

That was the big battle. In our company, there were less
than fifty men and we did that operation and even today
we're proud of what we did that day. I feel honoured to have
been a part of it.

We extracted back after the main battle was done. We
stayed in the compound that we stayed in the previous
[third] night. But the compounds were getting hit like crazy.
At one stage, I was on the roof with no body armour or
helmet on because we thought it was all done. Me and the
boss, we were up on the roofs of the compounds taking
photos and taking videos. And the next thing you know, you
could hear the cracks of machine-gun fire. My initial reaction
was: 'I'm getting the hell off this roof.' Usually, you got off
using the ladder but I jumped off it and landed on my knees,
while the boss lay down on the roof. It was just crazy. From
then on, we were getting hit every single night but on the
sixth night we decided: 'Right, we're leaving.'

As we were leaving, the Apaches came in, the Black Hawks
[US utility helicopters] came in. And they just started firing
all over the area so we could move out [to provide cover from
a Taliban attack]. It was cluster-fuck trying to get everyone
out. From our base, there were at least 450 troops on the
ground, and trying to get 450 troops moved back in at once
was a nightmare. This was moving back into the big base
where the [Kajaki] turbine had been taken to. Then we went
back up to the dam and everyone was jumping into the water
[with delight]. Everyone was taking a dive off the dam. It was
brilliant. It was clear blue, proper clear blue, water. And all
the boys wanted to do was to go for a swim – and there were
big jumps. This was day seven. This was us getting a breather.
A bit of fucking down-time. Enjoying ourselves. Having a
laugh. The turbine had arrived and the mission had been

7 September 2008

I made the news by launching a scathing public attack on
the British government's treatment of its troops. My comments
came after a poll revealed that two-thirds of the public thought the
level of care for servicemen was 'disgraceful'. I had commissioned
the ICM poll, which found that three-quarters of the 3,040 adults
questioned believed the Ministry of Defence did not support troops
once they were discharged. In the first poll of its kind, the survey
found that 76 per cent believed the government's commitment to the
psychological care of veterans was 'inadequate'. Almost half (49 per
cent) of those questioned said they would be willing to pay an extra
penny in income tax to help former servicemen with financial
difficulties. I said at the time: 'What we have at the moment is a time-bomb
of post-traumatic stress disorder that will go off in the next ten
to fifteen years in people who have experienced the horrors of the
current conflicts. It annoys me that we continually get politicians of
all persuasions jumping on the back of military success only for the
same politicians not to back them [servicemen] with money when they

September 2008

Captain Alan 'Barney' Barnwell, 845 Naval Air Squadron

Early in September my crew was back in Camp Bastion as the
Sea King HRF [Helmand Reaction Force] once again. This is
usually an arduous seven-day duty with minimum sleep, and
maximum coffee, but everyone likes it as you get interesting
and crucial tasks, which give a great sense of satisfaction
when completed. Also it has some autonomy, where you can
make a certain amount of your own decisions rather than
implementing someone else's. It exercises your thinking
muscles. The down-side is that throughout the day you are at
thirty mins' notice to move and at night sixty mins'. Often we
were airborne much quicker, especially when escorting the
CH47 MERT [Chinook medical team].

This particular day in question, the second tasking Sea
King from Kandahar was unserviceable so we were tasked to
pick up some under-slung loads [USL], one from Bastion to
Garmsir and then back to Lashkar Gah to pick up another
to return to Camp Bastion. The other Sea King would act as
escort. Under-slung loads are very useful for carrying oversized
stores and in the past I had carried 105mm light guns,
even old Land Rovers. But in Afghanistan the altitude and
the high summer temperatures have a debilitating effect on
the aircraft's performance so the loads must be carefully
weighed and the aircraft performance calculations, which
include fuel carried, must be diligently made. The distance to
the first drop-off was about forty-five miles, then twenty-five
to Lash and then pick up some ammo. We would be really
light by then and the twenty miles back to Bastion would be
a piece of piss.

I calculated the weights, speed about 60–70 knots with a
USL, distances, timings, etc. It would be tight but we could
make it. The load, we were told, was support weapons for the
FOB, so it was high priority. We briefed as a section with
the other aircraft crew as usual and got the latest int update
for the areas we were going to: Nad Ali and Marhja were
pretty hot again with probable AAA[enemy artillery] nearby.
I was not overly concerned as we planned to give them a
wide berth even though they were on our direct track. We
lifted from the spots and headed to the load park 500 metres
away. Usually it is the CH47 [Chinook] which does the USL
as they have a much greater capacity, so I was hoping the load
team had got the load right.

When we got to the load, they didn't seem to be surprised
it was a Sea King, which was a good start. Not so good was
this mountain of boxes they had in the net for us to lift! The
load was the size of a small caravan. I was a bit concerned: if
it was as heavy as it was large we would never get it airborne.
It was still only 7 a.m. – not too hot – so we had a bit more
power than usual. So we set up to give it a go. The load was
hooked up and we gingerly raised the collective. As we
reached max power, it slowly lifted up. Petchy, my co-pilot,
was flying the smoothest he ever had to coax the lumbering
beast into the air. We continued to rise at an infinitesimal rate,
and as we transitioned into wind I realized we did not have
enough air speed to turn and therefore would have to fly over
the camp. Apart from it being against standing orders, there
was the matter of the caravan-type load underneath and its
refusal to fly like an aircraft. If it became uncontrollable, I
would have to jettison it. Not a great idea when flying over
the accommodation tents of a Para battalion. They might not
take too kindly to being flattened by some boot-neck who
can't fly properly.

The seconds ticked slowly by and we passed over the camp
fence on our way south. As we struggled higher, we realized
our load was bulky rather than heavy, which has its own
problems. As we accelerated, the load started to swing: this
made the whole helicopter stutter from side to side. To stop
this we had to slow down. I thought: It must be Petchy – he
can't fly for toffee! So I took control. Shit! It felt horrible.
Every time we went past forty-five knots, it felt like some
enormous hand was grabbing us from underneath and pushing
us from side to side. We were about a third of the way
there. The stores were important, and I didn't want to fail the
task. 'No, we won't turn back,' I said to myself. I recalculated
time and distance, recalculated fuel. Well, if we went straight
over Nad Ali and Marhja, we could still make it. As we
approached Nad Ali, an Apache called that he was in contact.
I thought: Shit. OK, we need to avoid that area. Try to increase
speed. Shit, more oscillations. How bad do I need to drop the
load? I can't, important stores. Shit.

Travelling around Helmand province at 2,000 feet above
ground at forty-five knots with a caravan-like load underneath
was starting to feel like I was walking around Leicester Square
naked with a target pinned to my arse saying: 'Kick me!' In
short, decidedly uncomfortable. I thought: New plan. Let's get
the load to Garmsir. Then we'll have to divert, get some fuel at
the Yanks' place and carry on to Lash. OK, we'll be about an
hour and a half behind schedule but we'll get the job done as
long as we get to Garmsir without being shot down.

Eventually we dropped off the load and headed for the
diversion and refuel, landing on at our minimum allowed
fuel. We only took on enough to get back to Bastion as we had
a load at Lash to pick up. Hope this one isn't a caravan, I
thought. We routed to Lash, feeling particularly proud and
happy. We had achieved part one and we were now doing 120
knots again. We lined up for our approach into Lash, zooming
past the rooftops just feet below at full speed making a
tactical arrival. Coming over the fence, I saw the load by the
first HLS [helicopter landing site] spot. Phew, that one's not
too big and the empty ammo cases should fly well, I thought.
We set ourselves in the hover, hooked on, and the marshaller
indicated us to lift. We pulled up the collective, and more. We
were now at a forty-foot hover, nicely above the protected
walls but going nowhere. I thought: More power. We're at
maximum. Try a smidge more. Watch the temperatures. But
there wasn't a single movement of the load, not a millimetre.
'Shit! Put her down, Petchy,' I said. The poor Sea King had
been wheezing like an asthmatic at the end of a marathon.
This load was going nowhere by Sea King: the 'empty' ammo
boxes were full! We gave our best sorry expressions, dropped
the load hook and made a quick departure. We landed back
at Bastion and debriefed the Ops Room on what had happened,
then went back to our tent for coffee. It was only 10
a.m.: lots of time left for more fun that day.

Epilogue by Andy McNab

I was working in America in November 2008 when a friend
emailed me with some sad news. Captain Kate Philp, whom
I had interviewed for this book in Afghanistan a couple of
months earlier, had been involved in a tragic incident. The
had revealed that a large roadside bomb, believed to
contain some fifty kilos of explosive, had gone off next to her
25-ton Warrior 'mini tank'. Kate's left foot was blown apart,
which meant she became the first woman soldier to lose a
limb since the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan had begun in
2001. Furthermore, she is believed to be the first woman in
the British Army to become a combat amputee.

There was even worse news for another family. The blast
had killed Gurkha Colour Sergeant Krishna Dura, thirty-six,
as well as injuring two more soldiers. The patrol had been
going to pick up a sniper team when they were attacked near
Musa Qa'leh. The large bomb was the first to penetrate a
Warrior in Helmand province.

Kate's company commander told the
: 'We remain in
awe of the courage and selflessness with which she has met
this tragic event.' A senior military source added: 'Kate has
not complained at all about what has happened to her and
does not regret a moment of her military service.' Donald and
Susan Philp, her parents, told the newspaper: 'Her morale is
extremely high, thanks to her enormous courage and determination,
but also thanks to the wonderful care she has
received.' In a prepared statement, Kate added: 'My thoughts
and condolences go to the family of Colour Sergeant Krishna
and to those who were also injured in the attack. And my
deepest thanks go to the medical staff and others in
Afghanistan and UK who have taken such great care of me.'
As Kate was treated in Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital, her
visitors included the Prince of Wales. I was glad to learn
recently from her father that Kate is making good progress as
she recovers from her serious injuries.

There is promising news, too, about another injured
soldier. Ranger Andrew Allen, who lost both his legs after
being hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in July
2008, is continuing his recovery. However, he has also had to
have an operation on his eyes. He had lost his sight but,
following the surgery, it is coming back slowly. His friend,
Sergeant Hughie Benson, told me: 'I recently picked Ranger
Allen up so he could attend the medals parade [at the Tern
Hill barracks in Shropshire] and receive his Afghanistan
service medal. I picked him up in a hire car. He was in a
wheelchair. His eyes were completely closed over then. He
couldn't see. I arrived down at Headley Court [rehabilitation
centre in Surrey] about six in the morning and he was sitting
there with his combats on, finishing his breakfast and ready
to go. He asked me why I was late because I was supposed to
be there at half five. It was a three-hour drive there and a
three-hour drive back. Ranger Allen sat in the front with me.
He talked for the first ten minutes, then fell asleep.

'When we arrived, his girlfriend was waiting in the Naafi.
I walked him out in his wheelchair at the parade. The
regimental colonel presented him with his medal. He
paraded with the company after that so he was with all his
mates. Then we went up to the Naafi, met up with his girlfriend
again. He asked her to marry him and she said yes. He
is learning to walk again and his girlfriend, who lives in
Belfast, has just had a baby boy – their first child. It's all good.
If it was me, I would be in turmoil, but the way he is getting
about and conducting himself is unbelievable. He is a brave
wee man.'

I will sign off with some more cheery news. In the Queen's
New Year's Honours List for 2009, Major Hugh Benson QM,
the father of Sergeant Hughie Benson, received an MBE.
Sergeant Benson himself later received a Mention in
Dispatches (MID) in the operation honours for Operation
Herrick 8. The Bensons deserve public recognition for their
bravery and service. With Major Benson and his three sons all
still serving, this is undoubtedly a family that has done
Britain proud.

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