12 Mech - Brigade Recon Force


Book Reviewer
From the Independent on Sunday:

Blood & dust: On the front line with British troops in Afghanistan

Terri Judd goes on patrol with the Grenadiers, Hussars, Staffords and Dragoons who form Britain's Brigade Reconnaissance Force in Helmand province
Published: 24 June 2007

Our long column of open-top armoured Land Rovers and Pinzgauers, bristling with machine guns, moved through the impenetrable darkness of a moonless desert in the far south of Afghanistan. All lights were extinguished, all conversations in whispers.

Perched on ammunition boxes in the back of an open Pinzgauer, I breathed in sand as I peered forth in an attempt to make sense of the shadows. Lance Corporal Matt "Orange" Hall, 21, manning the vehicle's mounted machine gun, handed me his night-vision scope. Through a green haze, I could just make out a few mud compounds and the first trees we had seen after travelling all day through barren desert. We were entering the "green zone".

Unlike the supposed safety of the district in central Baghdad, this strip of fertile inhabited ground, bordering the Helmand river, is lethal fighting territory for British troops. The Taliban avoid taking the battle into the desert; instead they operate in areas where they have the advantage, a maze of civilian compounds and irrigation ditches where tunnels have been dug and weapons stashed for battle. Entering the green zone means donning body armour and helmet in anticipation of attack.

Before leaving Camp Bastion, the main British base, on a three-week mission, Major Rob Sergeant, commanding officer of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF), had warned his men to be prepared for a tough time. They were moving into an area, south of Garmsir, where the Taliban have been attacking the British compound and a nearby checkpoint every day. Their mission was part of a wider 12 Mechanised Brigade effort to clear the insurgent stronghold - one that led to fierce battles last week as a bridge was built into new territory.

Far from the brigade's headquarters in Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah, the mobile fighting unit deals with the harsher reality of a Taliban force that still controls swathes of the province, and is proving a ferocious adversary. It is a struggle which takes its toll not only on the combatants - Nato said one of its soldiers was killed in Helmand yesterday, along with "dozens" of insurgents in several clashes around the country - but also on civilians.

As they seek to bring the insurgents to battle, the thinly spread forces of Britain and its allies frequently have to call in air support to avoid being overrun, and civilians are regularly killed. Last week, local officials said 25 civilians, including women and children, died in an air strike in Helmand's northern half, and in Kabul yesterday President Hamid Karzai spoke out, saying: "In the past five or six nights and days, we had huge civilian casualties ... caused by Nato and coalition carelessness."

Major Sergeant explained that the BRF would be confronted by foreign fighters and what the military call Tier One Taliban, the well-trained, fanatical element of their enemy. Around Garmsir, narcotics are traded in bazaars and newly trained fighters come across the border to be "blooded", before heading north to the key points of Gereshk and Lashkar Gah. It is a part of Helmand where British soldiers have at times, in the words of one squaddie, "got a spanking".

"It is quite important that we don't underestimate the enemy," said Major Sergeant. "We have operated with some success in the north, but we are dealing with a different dynamic down south. They see it very much as their home ground." Company Sergeant-Major Ian "Faz" Farrell, 36, added: "They are really good. Their fire is accurate and they stay and fight."

Living in the desert for weeks on end, the BRF operates a small army of WMIK Land Rovers, known as "Wemmicks", and Pinzgauers. They are stripped of everything bar heavy weaponry, ammunition and enough food and water to survive. The force's task is to gather intelligence and "disrupt the enemy" with 50mm heavy machine guns, Javelin anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers, mortars and general-purpose machine guns.

Their call sign, Maverick, is uncharacteristically macho for the British - inherited from the Americans, explained the slightly embarrassed commanding officer. But it suits this itinerant bunch of roving soldiers. They are, in the words of the Coldstream Guards officer leading them, a mongrel bunch, handpicked from across the brigade - an eclectic group of Grenadier Guards, Light Dragoons, King's Royal Hussars, Staffords, REME, Royal Artillery, Royal Army Medical Corps, Royal Engineers and one officer from the Honourable Artillery Company.

Fourteen hours after leaving Camp Bastion, we were into the green zone, with soldiers scanning the area for a shot or a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). L/Cpl Hall suggested I might like to crouch lower in the vehicle, but we moved through safely into the desert beyond the river, and there was hushed banter and laughter as the soldiers removed hot helmets.

Far from human habitation, the vehicles parked in formation, with an outer circle for protection. Those not on guard rolled out mats and collapsed on to them, asleep within minutes among the spiders. In the distance the sound of artillery and air bombs roared on.

But within hours we were off again - REME Staff Sergeant Ernie Tindall, 33, provided a wake-up call with the thump of a rolled-up sleeping mat. Before first light, we were ploughing into deep, soft sands, and as the heat of the day mounted, the vehicles - built for another era, another climate, another war - struggled to cope. Every so often one would sink into the sand or overheat, requiring, in the words of Sgt-Maj Farrell, a "David Mellor", or tow job.

When the temperature rose close to 50C, the order came once again to make camp in the desert close to their target - a known Taliban stronghold. Entertainment was limited to watching dung beetles or bantering between themselves. One vehicle crew claimed to have adopted a spider named "Fred West".

Far from the spit and polish of base camp, sandals, shorts and bare chests are the rule during quiet times. With water in short supply, washing is an unaffordable luxury, and beards grow wild. One soldier said he had been taken into hospital in Camp Bastion with a minor injury. "I woke to find a nurse spraying me with deodorant. She said, 'You stink.'" As the evening cooled, the men kept fit by lifting ammunition boxes or running through the sand. Meals consist of boil-in-the-bag corn-beef hash, "biscuits fruit" from ration packs and the ubiquitous "brews" on which the British army has long survived.

Under the shade of an army poncho, Maj Sergeant and Sgt-Maj Farrell explained what usually happened in the kind of encounter for which they were preparing. The mobile unit did not start fights, they said, but simply entered known enemy territory. This usually led to women and children leaving the village, swiftly followed by the first shots, at which they would return fire with ferocity. While many of the locals simply fled, they said, others would come forward with information.

In the past few months they had operated in the north of the province, near Sangin and Gereshk, where three of their men had suffered serious injuries. One of their fiercest fights was in late April in the village of Pasab, north east of Gereshk. On an intelligence-gathering mission, Maj Sergeant took one of his platoons into the village while the rest remained watching from a distance. The dusty streets were deserted as they walked between the high mud walls of the compounds, acutely aware of each step in the eerie silence.

"We found a local elder and, as is the good British way, I took off my helmet and my rifle, only keeping my pistol," said the major. "The elder insisted there were no Taliban. He had barely finished the word 'Taliban' when they opened fire." RPGs and fire from machine guns and small-arms fire rained down on the platoon. At one point the fight became so fierce that the soldiers fixed bayonets, anticipating hand-to-hand combat. At the same time, fighters emerged from the poppy fields and encircled the platoon outside the village. Departing "women" lifted their burqas to reveal armed men.

Suddenly over the radios they heard that one guardsman had been seriously injured by an RPG. With rounds whipping past, Sgt-Maj Farrell and his team went in to rescue the wounded soldier and take him up to open ground for the medevac helicopter to land, but they were immediately attacked with mortars. They returned fire with mortars, grenades and small arms, silencing the fighters long enough for the Chinook to come down and fly the injured guardsman to field hospital.

Back in the village, 2 Platoon was running low on ammunition. "In one of the gardens, there was a wheelbarrow so we loaded it up to get the ammunition to the platoon, still in contact. As we got back to the vehicle they were firing around our heads," said Sgt-Maj Farrell.

The battle raged for three hours but eventually, with the help of Hellfire missiles from Apache attack helicopters, it quietened down. As they withdrew, they could hear the sound of a single AK-47 rifle. "It all goes quiet and, as we pull out, there is a burst of fire or RPG. They always have to have the last word," added the senior non-commissioned officer.

The next day the BRF was in the nearby village of Khugyani when once again they faced a full ambush, "walls of RPGs". Two of their team were seriously injured and there were countless near misses. "Their courage is humbling," the major said of his 80 men. "That platoon went into the village knowing that they were going to get hit again. It was quite impressive."

And now, south of Garmsir, they were expecting even fiercer opposition. At daybreak, each man reacted in his own unique way. Some joked, others sat quietly on their own - a few admitted to butterflies or feeling sick. Nerves were tempered with humour, often black, always barbed.

Across the radio between the different vehicles, the jokes focused on Lance Sergeant Dave Rideout, the lone member of the team yet to be "christened" in a fight. Contemplating his future R&R (rest and recuperation break mid-tour), the 34-year-old, nicknamed "Dagenham Dave", said: "Is there a McDonald's near Brize [RAF Brize Norton]?" A corporal replied: "You have to get through this first." Another added cheerily: "Don't worry, we will wheel you out of Selly Oak [hospital]." The Lance Sergeant retorted: "I can't go home today. I haven't tanned my legs yet."

Each man had his own lucky charms and rituals. Staff Sergeant Tindall sported a yellow soft toy duck, sent by a young relative, on the side of his Pinzgauer, where a "chuff chart" marked off the days until R&R. He munched on biscuits before battle.

Next to him Sgt-Maj Farrell carried a heart pendant from his wife as his lucky charm. As the vehicles prepared to head into the green zone, he listened to "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses. As the track finished, he placed the iPod carefully away, turned and smiled: "Let the games begin."

Once again the vehicles sped and lurched through the desert and into the green zone, waiting at a distance as they watched long columns of women and children depart. Closer and closer they inched into the compounds, eyes scanning the area. But for some inexplicable reason the onslaught never materialised. After hours of daring the enemy to emerge, the team returned to its desert camp, the anti-climax of the day proving a mixture of disappointment and relief.

The following morning, on a Chinook to another part of Helmand, I listened with little interest to the chatter coming over the radio when suddenly I heard the BRF's call sign requesting an emergency response helicopter, and my stomach lurched. They had a T1 - a serious casualty. Their battle had come, and someone had paid a heavy price

Well done Miss Judd.

Guys, we are thinking about you. Be proud of who you are.

(sorry if this is a repeat post)

Le Chevre

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