Hundreds of well-wishers, supporters and relatives lined the streets of Taunton, Somerset, in the driving rain today, holding aloft Welcome Home banners, union flags and a sea of umbrellas, to celebrate the safe return of the Royal Marines of 40 Commando back from Afghanistan. Shopkeepers huddled in doorways, office workers hung out of windows, and the crowd, seven deep in places, cheered and clapped as the 670-strong unit marched past in their homecoming parade. There were tears shed too, among those watching, for the men left behind and those who, through their injuries, could not join the parade.
The bald fact is that few in this close-knit unit have been left unscarred by the legacy of their six-month tour in Sangin, Helmand province, which ended last month. A measure of just how bloody the battle for the Taliban stronghold has become can be gauged by the number of young saplings planted on a sloping hill behind Norton Manor barracks, home to 40 Commando. Three trees, one for each marine, have been dedicated to the memory of those who died during their last tour there in 2007/8. But a week ago tomorrow, watched by the bereaved families in the bright November sunshine, the marines planted 14 more, marking a fourfold rise in the number who lost their lives in Afghanistan over the last six months.
During their deployment on Operation Herrick 12 â€“ they were the last British troops to leave Sangin before the handover to US forces â€“ the 670-strong unit also suffered almost 50 wounded, many very seriously, including one marine who is now a triple amputee.
Last week, away from the spotlight of the homecoming, those who escaped with their lives were in a reflective mood. “It was a very hard tour,” said Gavin Taylor, 28, a father of three. “We lost a lot of friends out there and we’ve seen a lot of things that are not ideal.”
Sangin has become a totemic place for our armed forces. It is the deadliest area in Afghanistan, after four years under control of British forces; it has become a byword for everything that has gone wrong in Helmand. The men of 40 Commando, speaking for the first time since their return, described Sangin as a place where hardcore Taliban fighters are sent to be blooded, where a wrong step is likely to trigger a blast that can kill outright, where the enemy â€“ invisible behind the walls of compounds rigged with booby traps â€“ is impossible to identify among the civilian population. 40 Commando was targeted with home-made bombs, machine guns and sniper fire, day and night. Evacuating wounded and dying comrades is fraught with danger.
“It’s horrible,” said Leighton Marsden, 23, of 7 Troop, Charlie Company. “You see the injuries IEDs [improvised explosive devices] cause. You are putting tourniquets on people’s stumps â€¦ all the time checking for the enemy.”
In the last two years, the Taliban have increased their use of IEDs; the area is now treated as an unofficial minefield. 40 Commando also began to discover more sophisticated devices, of a type not seen elsewhere, either rigged up to trip wires or detonated via radio or mobile phone signals.
Marines from 4 Troop, Bravo Company, spoke of the challenges of picking their way through terrain where, if you patrolled 300 metres, you were doing well. Keeping ahead of the Taliban’s shifting tactics was a steep learning curve. “Every day, you would learn something,” said Lance Corporal Harry Achilleos, 26, from Liverpool. “There would be trip wire and command-wire IEDs, so you would stay away from walls. But near enough every man in the section has antennas from equipment. So you would have to also look up in the trees. It was a game of cat and mouse. Every time they changed something, we changed something.”
Achilleos was based in Shuga patrol base, a mile and a half (2km) north of the main Forward Operating Base (FOB) Jackson. “On patrol you’ll take the hardest route,” he said. “Things like bridges and streams you wouldn’t take, there would be IEDs. You’ll go down irrigation ditches. We used to take ladders so that we wouldn’t be channelled into doorways. They would put dummy IEDs in a certain place and then you’d find there would be a secondary device.”
Even when back in their base (Shuga was home to 27 marines, three engineers and 15 Afghan soldiers) they had to be constantly alert. Grenades and mortars would be lobbed in over the walls.
Each member of 40 Commando has undergone the toughest training and many have experience of the district from their last tour. But one marine, speaking with characteristic understatement, said he thought the Taliban were getting “more necky”, bolder.
That is, arguably, backed up by statistics. A third of all 344 British deaths since the conflict began in 2001 have happened in Sangin. The number of injuries has also increased. The British forces have had to evolve and hone a few new tactics to patrol in the narrow alleyways of Sangin and it’s surrounding “green zone” of lush fields, British forces have evolved a number of tactics.
Leading from the front are the “Vallon men” â€“ named after their metal detectors. They search for IEDs even under fire. Individually, they deny their job requires special courage. But in 7 Troop, from Charlie Company, the worst-hit unit within 40 Commando, two out of three men killed were Vallon men.
Adam Gunningham, 22, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, said the role was voluntary; he just happened to be good at it. “Every job is dangerous out there. We secure the route. But as we found out, Vallon only picks out eight out of 10 IEDs. When it’s a command pull, there’s no metal needed. They are just sitting on the end of a wire, dug underground, and when they know you’re there, they’ll connect the battery. The only way you would spot them is ground signs. Rocks piled up, a change in the colour of the sand. Dips in the ground or sometimes they would put water on top of where it had been disturbed.”
It is the IEDs containing little or no metal that are doing the most damage, he said. On 16 July this year, Gunningham was on patrol with four members of 7 troop, including his friend and fellow Vallon man, Jonathan Crooke, 26, when they were hit by a double IED strike.
Split into two groups (of between 10-12 men), they had been helping another unit familiarise themselves with the area. An American soldier was also with them, in preparation for US forces taking over.
“I was valloning,” said Gunningham. “It was quiet, but it was around evening time when they all eat, so nothing you could pick up on. I was in front. The IED went off behind me. People must have walked over it. It was a command pull, after the fifth bloke had gone over it. They targeted the Amercian, he was getting intelligence. We had three injured, including one walking. The American was worst. I glanced at him a few times, he was a triple amputee. The guy I was dealing with had a broken arm, a few fingers missing and shrapnel wounds. He had been thrown down a ditch, into a massive crater and couldn’t walk.”
During their deployment the Taliban would often target those of higher rank, or those who “looked different”, according to Gunningham.
They could tell by the equipment they carried, or, in the case of the Amercian soldier, his uniform. “The higher the person they hit the better for them,” said Gunningham. “A lot of the time they target the corporals because they know it will affect us.”
The second IED went off two minutes later as Gunningham tended to one of the wounded. “I thought maybe it was a grenade. Then I heard a shout saying ‘contact IED’.” It wasn’t until after the initial casualties had been stretchered to a waiting quad bike back to FOB Jackson â€“ helicopters cannot be used as they represent too great a target â€“ he realised one of the casualties was his friend, Crookes, hit as he came to help the wounded.
“I could tell by his tattoo and his hair and his body it was Crooksey,” said Gunningham. “It was horrible, we were two Vallon men together. We were together all the time. It shocked me but it motivated me to get him out of there. I took the stretcher and I just ran.”
That day, Marsden, another Vallon man for 7 Troop, was making his way to the IED strike to help with the first casualties when the second went off.
“Crooksey’s IED went off about 100 metres from us,” said Marsden. “We could all feel the blast wave, the heat, the dust, the pressure, the noise. You know instantly.”
As they tried to evacuate the casualties, the firing began from the other side of the river. Marsden said: “There were rounds coming. It took minutes to [evacuate] the lads but the firefight went on for hours.”
“It’s shit,” he said. “You pray it’s not your mate. You get angry, angry at the cowards who won’t face you and have to leave devices everywhere. You walk down the bazaar and you don’t know who is who. They don’t wear a uniform and you can’t pick them out. They are obviously getting help from somewhere. They are getting cleverer all the time.”
Brandon Hubbs, 23, also of 7 Troop and based in the village of Pylae, was called to the site that day. He described his astonishment at seeing four marines running with a stretcher into the line of fire. “As we were extracting Crooksey, there was firing,” said Hubbs, from Toronto. “There was nowhere to hide. Crooksey and Luke [Lance Corporal Luke Metcalfe, one of those injured] were the last to get out. I was on the ground, talking to another guy, trying to keep him calm. There were bullets going over my head, I thought ‘If I get hit there is nothing I can do about it.’ I remember seeing the guys running 100m through a field with a stretcher â€¦ into the line of fire. You’re told not to do that, but all they cared about was getting their friend out.”
The firefight lasted three hours. At the end of that day, the Taliban had claimed another two lives. Crookes, of Halesowen, West Midlands, and an American soldier on patrol with them, Staff Sergeant Justus S Bartelt, 27, of Illinois, died as a result of their injuries.
Asked if the 16 July was his worst day in Sangin, Hubbs shook his head. “No, I had a lot of shit days. I was there when Steve [Curley] got hit. That was on my birthday.” His friend Corporal Stephen Curley, 26, of 7 Troop, the father of a five-month-old baby boy, was killed in an IED explosion on May 26. “We were all quite shocked,” said Hubbs. “His was the first death we had seen.”
By the end of the tour, 7 Troop, a unit of 30 men, were down to 27. Curley was the first to be killed. Matthew Harrison, 23, another Vallon man, was killed in a firefight on the eve of his 24th birthday on 13 July, then Crookes three days later.
Harrison’s father, Brian, said: “Those guys were really up against it. Matt was there on point, every day taking it on the chin. You see on TV that someone else has died in Afghanistan and then it moves on to the tennis. But for those guys it didn’t stop.” There was little time for grief in Sangin though: anything less than 100% focus on the job ahead could have been fatal. Speaking about the day he was told his best friend, Anthony “Tino” Hotine, was killed on the 2 June, Taylor, said: “You get told and it hits you and you’re just baggage … You end up chatting with your mates and cracking funnies about them and all the lads pick up again. The next day, your mate’s still gone, you don’t forget about him, but you’re back in the whole routine.”
During the height of the Afghan fighting season, in June, 40 Commando lost four marines in four days. From his office in Norton Manor, Lieutenant Colonel Paul James, commanding officer 40 Commando Group, admits the losses made him doubt the tactics. “I don’t think for one minute I had any doubt about what we were doing there or what we were trying to achieve,” he said. “I perhaps doubt how it is we’re doing it. For me as a commander that’s something I have to address. It became abundantly clear to me that we could not continue in that sort of vein. I know my predecessor had lost a lot of very brave soldiers and so did his predecessor. We were exceeding their rate of casualties.”
Half way through the tour, which began in April, James adopted a more offensive strategy â€“ by that time US troops had been brought in to replace UK troops in Kajaki, north of Sangin. “In July, I was able to bring down Delta Company from Kajaki and bring them into the fight in Sangin,” said James. “They made a tremendous difference. I was also able to formulate a plan with our Afghan counterparts and Afghan police. I relieved my troops of static guard tasks. That allowed me to mount a series of offensive operations with the Afghan army to go into areas where the Taliban thought they had sanctuary. We pushed that relentlessly for the rest of our time there.”
This shift in tactics paid off, he said, by reducing attacks on his troops by a third. The number of casualties also reduced. The last marine to be killed from 40 Commando was Adam Brown, 25, who died on 1 August. James denied tactics should have changed earlier. Critics of the Sangin strategy, which kept a small number of troops in a large number of defensive positions, have said forces were spread too thinly.
The families of marines killed have spoken of the “temperature ratcheting up” when their sons were transferred to outlying bases. The families felt their lads were in more danger. “More troops would have been useful but it is not the most important aspect.” said James. “It needed not more [international] troops but more Afghan troops in Sangin.”
He is convinced that during their time in Sangin there were improvements in security, with 50 shops opening and an average of five families returning each month. “Sangin has seen immense success in the last four years,” he said. “From a bombed out shell it now has a bustling bazaar used by confidence and freedom by many many people. I don’t think it will go backwards. There’s almost an irreversible momentum. No one wants it to go back. The people who are going to deliver Sangin are not the British but the people of Sangin themselves.”
Asked if he regretted handing over to the Americans, he said: “You always like to see things through, there is a tidy professionalism. But such is the nature of a counter-insurgency that if you can leave Sangin in a better place than it was then that’s something to be proud of.”
Praising his men, he said: “The Taliban fight in a way where they seek to draw you in a response where you will incur civilian casualties. It takes extraordinary courage not to respond. In the six months 40 Commando was there, we never killed any innocent civilians.”
“It has been a tremendous ask. I think a large part of what the men do is down to the training, the leadership but by far the largest part is down to personnel courage, strength and selflessness.”
Back home, the marines look out for each another and for the families of the fallen. Last Saturday, all of 7 Troop travelled to Exeter to attend the christening of Curley’s son, William, and to support his widow, Kirianne.
Curley’s dad, Sean, 53, an ex-paratrooper, said: “The lads of 40 Commando, they were my son’s brothers so they are my sons. As an ex-soldier I can smell bullshit a mile away and they told me how good a marine he was. I’m proud, very proud, its the only thing that gets your through.”
- Home from hell (thesun.co.uk)