Welcome to the adventures of Jim The Eagle

Hello, I am a freelance writer and photographer who specialises in aviation, defence and transport subjects. Occasionally I get out of the house to actually see something, but not all of what I do makes it in to print. When it does, it can be a bit on the dry side. I got into this game because I love flying and hanging out with military equipment. The people you meet are fun, too, so here is somewhere to put those bits of writing that don't have a home.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Gurkha Tank Battle Part 2

At 0335, one of the Warriors opens up with its cannon and machine-gun. Eight “pax” (people) have been seen to break out of the woods. The guns chatter for a few seconds, then cease. Another Warrior lets fly a little later, but that’s all the action before dawn and the end of any hope of sleep for me.

0422, we hear that the ‘Omelet’ team will go in first. This is not to prepare breakfast, for OMLT is an acronym standing for Operational Mentor and Liaison Team, which is a British unit that works to train the ANA to be effective and professional and to eventually work on their own. Another piece of intelligence is passed to us – three linked command-wire detonated surface mines have been spotted in the woods.

The starry sky has now been replaced by a dull overcast. The Kandaks have arrived, and their commanding officer, who wears a Lt Colonel’s three stars, is briefed beside the command vehicles. The approaches to the wood from different directions are discussed. The importance of the ANA giving reports of their position is stressed – everything north of their line will be considered unfriendly.

The trucks and Warriors load up with ANA and British troops for the short distance to the woods themselves. In our “Pinz”, Emily catches a few more winks of sleep.

A final brief at the edge of the woods – the ANA commander wants to assault from the south east of the woods. He will use Sound Commander – a man-portable loudspeaker system – to call for the enemy to surrender. Just in case they don’t, a Warrior will be there as back up. An Apache attack helicopter (AH) clatters slowly overhead. “We have AH on call.” Says the briefing officer, somewhat unnecessarily. “Any questions...? Ok, we move in two.” he finishes and the group breaks up.

We have joined a reserve squad of soldiers made up from 1st Battalion, the Rifles (1 Rifles) and the ANA, including an interpreter in a blue jacket. We form up in two lines and move out on either side of a forest path. The helmeted Rifles soldiers in their green camouflage and copious kit contrasting with the desert-camouflaged, baseball cap wearing ANA, who appear to have nothing but their guns.

On the edge of a treeline we wait as the first Sound Commander broadcast issues forth in harsh-sounding Pashtu. More walking and then we enter an area of tall green grass and plants, including nettles that I soon put a hand in and trap behind my knee as we crouch behind cover. I conclude that war is hard on the knees in general, and hope we can move on before they lock up and I fall over sideways.

The Apache clatters above, the Sound Commander repeats its call. The reply comes from surprisingly close “Allahu Akbar!” Hmm… it’s not looking good for the commander’s hope of avoiding bloodshed. The message is repeated in English, beginning with a good old cliché: “Resistance is useless. Come and join the government of Afghanistan”. The response, even as the message goes on, is a series of jeers and catcalls. We seem to have surrounded a football crowd. Four distant shots tap out like a woodpecker at work. The Sound Commander presses on regardless: “Any civilians in the woods should make their way to the left-hand side of the woods, in the direction of this noise. You will see white smoke. No harm will come of you”.

Suddenly a Warrior opens up with long bursts and the battle is on. Unseen guns and grenades fire around us. Our squad leader, a small NCO with a huge amount of equipment on his back, including a radio with a long aerial, relays messages to the ANA via the unarmed interpreter, who has to travel up and down our line and around a corner.

“Warrior is engaging. AH is engaging…Ok, there’s going to be quite a few casualties in this. They’re dug in and it’s not going to be easy to weed them out. Stand by.”

He darts about here and there, despite his bulky kit. He stops to speak in my ear “There’s the mother of IEDs in there and tripwires everywhere. Stay in the tracks of the man in front and be careful”. I ask how far away the shooting is and he says: “120 to 150 metres, but you would have to be pretty unlucky to be hit by a bullet in here” he reassures me, though not all that much.

At 0620 we are called in and run from our cover. I know the time because a few seconds earlier the alarm on my mobile phone rings cheerily. I am fumbling to switch it off when the patrol leader calls “Go! Go!” It was good thing that the shooting had started a couple of minutes before. Not good embed form to attract attention to the position of your hosts while creeping up on the enemy. Another one for the ‘next time’ list.

Across open ground, Emily speeds up to a run without looking around, following the troops in front. Despite my appalling level of fitness, I keep up and am right there when the column stops. At the edge of another piece of woodland, the troop spreads out, guns pointing into the trees to prevent anyone escaping. After a couple of minutes, the squad leader calls “alright, let’s move up!” and we follow him into the woods.

The bangs and shouts continue from somewhere deeper in the woods. Following the translator and Emily, I take a position alongside a path. About a dozen captured ‘AOF’ are herded out. Men of different shapes and sizes and a variety of headwear file out with hands raised. One in a blue robe is very fat and carries a bottle of water. A British soldier tries to take charge of them, but his officer shouts “Let the ANA deal with it! We can’t wipe their arses all day”.  Warriors draw up to take them away, their engines grinding and tracks squealing.

Just when it seems the fighting is over, gunfire erupts again. I find myself fallen on my bum at the mouth of the forest path as soldiers run by, back into the fighting. I scramble back to Emily. The next thing to emerge from the trees is a pair of wounded civilians. Both are dragged backwards by two soldiers. One has a brown kameez and green trousers, soaked with blood. His left leg is missing below the knee. Medics work on the two men and stretcher them into the back hatches of the Warriors. The shooting has stopped and the final act in the parade that passes before me is a group of four unwounded civilians, two men and two women. Last in line is a large woman in a maroon burkha and white tennis shoes. Actually, it might be John Simpson for all I can tell, but whoever they are they are led to another Warrior.

After that it is all quiet, if you can call the chugging engines of the Warriors that pull up beside us quiet, and you can’t. The Apache makes a pass low overhead as a show of force. The rotors of a Chinook bringing medical help for the wounded beat the air. Despite the relative lack of exertion and mild temperatures, sweat is running down from my helmet and stinging my eyes. No-one else seems to be perspiring at all. Emily looks like she just put on make up and hasn’t spent the last two weeks in a rather Spartan army camp at all.

It’s now I tell her that I can’t find my phone. When I say where I last saw it she’s pretty sure it’s an ex-phone, somewhere in the tread marks of a Warrior. This particular phone has survived worse than being dropped on a battlefield, however, notably spending four days in a rubbish bin in Yuma, Arizona, and I am less surprised than Emily is when the first ANA soldier I ask produces it from a pocket.

Most of the troops, including us are sent away from the wood while the EOD team defuses the giant linked IED they found. We sit in a clearing off a forest path with a small group officers and men of 1 Rifles. I dig out my civvie map of the area and we try and locate where we are and where we were last night. Their estimate of the latter is miles away from where we must have been, given we were in sight of the woods. Well, at least we raided the right one. I guess.

A daddy-long-legs spider marches purposefully over us, looking like a tiny potato on stilts. Someone remarks they are the most venomous creatures to be found in these parts, but their teeth are too small to pierce the skin. I move this one with my notebook onto a nearby plant already occupied by some of its chums. A soldier produces a thermos of coffee brewed on a portable cooker. It is way too hot and easily the most dangerous thing I have encountered so far this morning. My deadline is approaching, but the operation is expected to last another “figures one-twenty” or two more hours. I can’t really wait that long if I want to get any material in before the deadline. Then there is a radio call that the colonel wants the arms cache photographed with the ANA. I am not too sure my role as a journalist is to produce propaganda for the coalition, but I am the only one with a working camera, and doing it might get me out of here quicker.

I take group shots of the ANA with their haul – a half-dozen rifles and machine-guns, a military radio, a laptop computer and a mortar shell case, all wrapped in clear plastic bags for evidence purposes. It seems a fairly small “cache” – the Met Police would probably find more if they randomly raided a row of lock-ups in south London, and according to the ANA commander, 15 enemy died for it. With my recovered phone, I relay these statistics to the radio studio, plus our lack of casualties and a quote from the colonel.

We get a chance to take the last seats in a Chinook going back to Musa Q’Aleh. With little warning, the big twin-rotor chopper zooms over a ridgeline and plops down next to a green smoke grenade. Fifty soldiers and one tired journalist are aboard in a minute and up and away en route to base. We unload even faster and the Chinook disappears off into the distance leaving nothing but a diminishing trail of dull thuds behind it. The last event of this adventure is a short hike to the camp behind the four-man Gurkha recce team, who spent the last 10 days in a hide, silently and secretly watching the enemy come and go from the woods. They are loaded down with backpacks almost as big as they are, carrying piles of equipment including tents, shovels, a machine-gun and ammunition. “And if I know them, probably a bag of shit as well” adds Emily.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Gurkha Tank Battle – Messing Around on Salisbury Plain

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...