Authors: Andy McNab
My tours of Iraq were an absolute breeze compared with
Afghanistan. Iraq was just a bimble around the desert enjoying
the view. I didn't fire one round in anger. But Afghanistan
was a massively different kettle of fish. My first detachment
to Afghanistan was with the Dutch Air Force from February
2006 to May 2006 [where Phillips received a general's
commendation for his work]. I wasn't involved in any enemy
contacts whilst with the Dutch. Then I went back out with the
RAF in July . I had been in theatre for three to four days
and there was a big op on called Op Augustus. We were
trying to grab some high-value [Taliban] targets in Sangin. It
was planned as a five-ship [aircraft] insert with 3 Para. It
was intended as a dawn raid but it started to slip and all the
timings went out of the window. They couldn't get a definite
on the [main] target: they were still trying to work out
whether this guy [Taliban] was there or not. But the second
objective was to land on the HLS [helicopter landing site] and
start clearing the area anyway, then sweep through these two
compounds where they thought some relatively high-value
targets would be. We were out to the east of Sangin holding
for a good thirty or forty minutes for the Predator [unmanned
aircraft] to clear us in. And everyone was thinking: It'll get
knocked off [postponed]. They [the Taliban] will have
scarpered. Then somebody, somewhere, decided we were
going to go. So we pootled off to the HLS.
I was in the third cab of the first wave because there was
going to be a three-ship to drop off three platoons. There were
two ships coming behind us to drop off another two platoons.
We must have been a couple of hundred metres from the HLS
on the approach and somebody said: 'There's a group of
people on the HLS.' I was on the left-hand – the port – gun
and I stuck my head out of the window and there was this big
group of [Afghan] civvies just stood in the middle of the HLS
with these three honking-great twenty-ton Chinooks heading
towards them. They got the message and started to leg it. As
we went over the top of them, they were still running under
the aircraft. They were running across the HLS and I thought:
I don't know whether they've got weapons or not but I'm not
going to give them the opportunity to use them if they have.
So as we went across [the HLS], I waited until the aircraft was
about twenty feet beyond them and I put a burst of fire down
as warning shots. And I've never seen so many people cover
a hundred metres so quickly. They got the message and they
got out of there pretty sharpish.
Just prior to that happening, the number-one cab had got
opened up on quite heavily. It turns out that this HLS was
fairly well defended and it went from being fairly benign to
in nano-seconds. I was in Has's [Flying
Officer Christopher 'Has' Hasler's] cab. There was tracer
going everywhere – both outgoing and incoming. It turned
into a two-way range fairly rapidly. We had just touched
down by this point and we were being fired at from two
positions. Ginge [Flight Sergeant Dale Folkard] was on the
right-hand side, but he couldn't really fire at anybody
because the number-two cab was in his way. On the left-hand
side, I saw a couple of muzzle flashes from about eleven
o'clock. It was from like a small ditch with a tree-line just
behind it. I never felt any rounds coming in but I certainly
saw the muzzle flashes so they got the good news [fired
upon]. And then I could see silhouettes running from one
compound to another.
I thought: I've just been opened up on from about fifteen
metres from where they are now. So they got the good news
as well. But we managed to get the guys [the Paras] off and
shortly after that the aircraft departed rather rapidly. We
must have been on the ground for thirty or forty seconds. So
there were two definite firing points there and there must
have been four or five individuals moving from one compound
to another. I was firing an M60 [machine-gun].
Sometimes you can tell if you've hit people and sometimes
you can't. That time I couldn't because it was that dark. We
had all the tracer going off and I was firing a weapon with my
[night-vision] goggles on, which had backed down slightly.
So you really are firing at a muzzle flash. But once I started
firing at the muzzle flashes they stopped firing so, at the end
of the day, I achieved my aim because I either suppressed
them – or killed them.
That was the first time in my life that I had been in a
contact. It was memorable. Frisky: massively so. You can feel
the adrenalin pumping. The minute you know something's
happening you can almost hear your heart pounding in your
ears. You don't really notice it at the time but [you do] once
you have a breather and take stock. Once we'd lifted out, we
had a quick check: everyone was OK, no holes in the aircraft.
I must have looked like a startled rabbit. I said [to Ginge]:
'Fuck me, that was sporty.' I was bouncing around in the back
of the cab like a little boy, all excited. I looked over at Ginge
and he was just sitting there going, 'Fucking hell.' I said: 'I
can't believe we just got away with that,' because I thought
someone somewhere was going to get whacked badly. But we
managed to get three cabs in and three cabs out and nobody
got a pasting.
Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, aged twenty-four, of the
Intelligence Corps, became the first British Muslim soldier to be
killed in the 'war on terror'. He died in an attack by the Taliban on
the British base at Sangin. Hashmi's family spoke movingly about
how, as a devout Muslim, he had been committed to bringing peace
to Afghanistan. Zeehan Hashmi said of his brother: 'He was a very
happy young man but very cheeky and mischievous. He was very
daring – he had no fear of anything. He was a bit of a joker who
could really make you laugh, but also make you cry if he wanted to.'
He was the fifth British soldier to die in the past three weeks.
Corporal Peter Thorpe, aged twenty-seven, of the Royal Signals,
was killed during the same attack, which injured four other
Flight Lieutenant Christopher 'Has' Hasler, DFC, RAF
We had to go into Sangin because the boys on the ground
were out of water and ammo. As we came in, the aircraft
were engaged but, sadly, a guy was killed as he was trying
to secure the HLS. So we were called off by the troops. We
went back to Bastion. We still needed to get in there and
we needed a new plan. Satellite imagery of the area showed
us there was just enough space between two buildings where
I could put the aircraft down. We had a roller conveyor in the
back – pallets on wheels – that we had to get off. But the aircraft
on the ground has to move forward as you push on
these crates to get them off.
We got there, landed, and there wasn't much room. It was
daylight. I was moving forward and the disc was getting
quite close to the building, which was higher than the disc. I
was out of ideas. I can hardly take the credit but the boss just
said: 'You've got to do something here.' So I sort of did a
'wheelie' on the back two wheels. It's a skill we all practise –
two-wheel taxiing – but I had never had to do it with a building
six inches under the disc. I had to go on the back two
wheels and move the heli forward with the building just
underneath. So that was interesting. I managed to hold it on
the back wheels while they got the crates out and loaded the
body on and some of the wounded.
Because it was so hot [swarming with enemy], it was
decided the Apaches would light up with their guns an area
where we thought the enemy would be. It was a bit odd. As I
was doing my thing, just outside the left-hand side, they were
lighting it up. To start with I thought it was incoming but
later I learnt they were rifling the enemy. It was a bit disconcerting,
though, to see these big red balls next to me. But
they were just missing us. There was a bit of incoming too,
but not much because the Apaches were doing their thing. We
were there for quite a few minutes ...
I first came under fire on one of the earliest jobs I did. We
were going in to pick up some seriously injured casualties
and the locals – the Taliban – decided to put on a fireworks'
display for us. It was the first time I realized that somebody
was actually shooting at me – well, nah, I prefer to think they
were shooting at the helicopter that I just happened to be in.
I got over it by saying to myself: 'Let's not personalize this.
They don't know me from Adam. They're just trying to shoot
the vehicle I'm in and, actually, the pilots here are exceptional
so I'm probably going to be okay.'
But it was easy after that incident because now I just don't
look out of the windows: problem solved! Sometimes you
don't even know when you've been fired upon although,
with the ballistic protection, you can sometimes hear the
bullet hissing. At the time [of coming under fire], it's often not
scary because you're so focused on what you're doing.
But on this occasion [when he was first under fire] we were
going into Musa Qa'leh, which was always notoriously
difficult to get into for lots of different reasons. You could see
the green tracer fire coming up towards the Chinook, and just
as it started to flare in, you could also see the smoke from the
RPGs going across and it was very obvious at that point that
they were waiting for the helicopters to come in. We were
going to pick up casualties that had suffered mortar injuries.
We had a four-strong MERT on board and anything up to ten
or twelve soldiers with us. We were landing on an unsecured
HLS. It was around eleven at night. Pitch black as you go in.
You could see some of the lights from the buildings but at that
time most of the town centre of Musa Qa'leh was fairly uninhabited.
The only locals in Musa Qa'leh then were ones
who were trying to do you harm. And everything was pitch
black in the back. Basically, they used to use two ways of
getting in to an HLS: either flying very high and then diving
down very quickly or low-level flying sometimes down at
fifty feet and there would be a lot of jinking around.
This landing was the latter: flying low and jinking around.
But the problem with Musa Qa'leh was electricity
pylons, which kept the pilots very busy. The air-crews
were fantastic; how they got us in and out, I don't know. And
they didn't have the luxury of not looking out of the
windows! They had the tracers coming straight at them.
As we prepared to land, one of the [MERT] team had
comms with the pilots using a helmet system, getting updates
on the casualties, and the rest of us were scurrying round the
cab getting kit out and preparing, putting drips up, making
sure the oxygen was switched on, getting out extra equipment
we might need depending on what we thought the
injuries were going to be. And it was extremely noisy. You
can't use normal radios in the back of the helicopter because
there's too much ambient noise. So most of it's done by sign
language, or standing beside somebody and yelling in their
ear. And this is where the team approach is very important.
Retrospectively, it's all quite exciting stuff. In Musa Qa'leh,
you want to be on the ground for as little time as possible.
The back ramp goes down, the guard force – ten or twelve
strong – pile out to their perimeter. They are, basically, maybe
twenty or thirty metres away from the aircraft, because as
soon as you move about ten metres away, you lose a visibility
because of the fine dust. And it was pitch black. So they did
that and then the medical team came on with the casualties –
because there's no way you can have a verbal handover
under the rotor blades. So, they had written something down
about the casualties and their treatment. Then they brought
the casualties into the cab on stretchers and put them in the
designated space on the aircraft where we felt was appropriate.
Where you put anyone depends on the type of injury
because you may want to put him head first or feet first
because helicopters don't fly flat, they fly nose down. So it
may be more important to have them head up if they have
head injuries, or if you're worried about them bleeding out
then it's feet up. But they are usually positioned in stretchers
on the floor – often strapped down on the floor.
You have to work out with the pilots their plan of
evacuation. Were they going to do a few minutes of low flying
or were they going to, as soon as they could, go up to
fifteen hundred feet? Nine times out of ten we would like
them to go up because, as soon as they get up there, there's a
more stable platform for us to work on, and as soon as they
get up high, they can put some ambient light on in the back.
But sometimes that's not possible – once again it comes down
to communication with the air-crews.
On this occasion, we were on the ground for no more than
sixty seconds. It felt a lot longer. There were three casualties
and then we just had to make sure the order was right for us
to do interventions. With multi-casualties, the team would
break down and the paramedic would often sort out those
who, on the face of it, were the less seriously injured.
Paramedics are used to working by themselves. The senior
clinician and the ODP [Operations Department practitioner]
usually work as a team on the worst casualty, and often the
RAF flight nurse would have a roving role. She had
the comms with the air-crew. She was our link, as well as
helping out when we required a third pair of hands.
On this occasion, the three casualties had mortar injuries.
Basically, they were on guard duty in a sangar on a perimeter
wall and a mortar or RPG had got lucky, struck it and
penetrated the sangar.
One guy had serious head injuries with a broken right leg
and he was unconscious. We knew he was going to be the
worst one because the other two were conscious, which is
always a good sign. If they're able to talk, by definition they
have a good airway and enough blood pumping around
them to keep them conscious. It's very basic signs you're
looking for, though it doesn't mean they don't need help.