Outnumbered and short of food, British troops win six-day battle with Taliban By Tom Coghlan in Kabul (Filed: 22/09/2006) "Situation critical." The young British bombardier spoke urgently into the handset of his radio above the crack of small arms around him and the heavier thud of rocket-propelled grenades. The radio antennae on the jeep beside him abruptly cartwheeled away and an RPG round sailed gracefully five feet overhead. "Incoming mortar and RPG rounds getting closer and more accurate. Situation critical," he repeated. As the bombardment continued, Bombardier Sam New from 7 Para Royal Horse Artillery, began to feed complex sets of grid references to the disjointed voices of American and British close air support pilots circling high above Helmand. Then the line went dead. A bullet had severed the cord attaching it to the radio set. Last week, 17 British soldiers, 10 Estonian infantrymen, 100 Afghan army and 100 Afghan police took part in a joint Nato operation to retake the dusty desert town of Garmser in southern Helmand. The town, which sits on the Helmand river, has fallen to the Taliban twice since July and is strategically important because it is the southern-most point of government control. When the fighting finally finished earlier this week, the event merited a one-and-a-half line press release from the Afghan government: "Garmser retaken by Afghan police after five hours fighting." That did little justice to what was actually an unrelenting six-day battle, as British journalists discovered when they accompanied the British Army unit during its assault on Garmser. The British troops were part of a Nato Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) which works alongside the Afghan National Army. Sean Langan, a British television documentary maker who was embedded with the troops throughout the battle, said it took them 150 hours to retake the town in fighting that began on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on America. During the assault, he said Nato troops fired tens of thousands of rounds and called in 54 separate air strikes on Taliban positions that were sometimes closer than 100 yards. The Nato force went into the fight thinking they had a five-to-one numerical advantage, only to find that faulty intelligence meant they were outnumbered two to one. Then, in a reminder of the thinly-stretched forces available, a unit earmarked to reinforce them was called away to a more critical area further north. Chinook helicopters were able to make sure the troops were regularly resupplied with ammunition but were unable to deliver enough food - a familiar complaint for British troops sent to front-line positions in Afghanistan. "The first fire came down on us as we advanced towards the outskirts of Garmser," said Mr Langan, who was obliged to burn his clothes after the battle because they were soaked with the blood of wounded Afghan soldiers. "It was a rocket-propelled grenade that airburst over our jeeps. I could hear the shower of shrapnel falling around us. "After that, there was just a more or less continuous cracking of incoming rounds for six days." One British soldier was slightly wounded and three Afghan troops, including a commander, were killed during the fighting. More than a dozen Afghans were also wounded. A battle assessment is going to establish Taliban casualties although British officers said several fighters were killed and dozens more injured. For three days the British, Estonian and Afghan force pushed forward inch by inch into the town supported by almost constant air strikes. British Harriers sometimes flew so low over their positions on strafing runs that the soldiers mistook the sudden explosive roar of their engines 60 feet overhead for the explosion of incoming mortar rounds. When American A10s directed cannon fire on the Taliban positions it was, said Langan "a low physical vibration that you felt rather than heard. It is a beautiful and very disturbing sound". F18 jets and even B1 heavy bombers based on the Indian island of Diego Garcia dropped 2,000lb bombs on Taliban positions around them. As the bombs landed, British soldiers shouted "get some" at the enemy out of sheer relief. Correspondents attached to the Nato force saw numerous blood trails, although they rarely saw the bodies of enemy dead, which were being dragged away by Taliban fighters. On the first day however, they captured a Taliban fighter with a life-threatening stomach wound whose life was saved by the prompt attention of a British Army medic. "The medic kept him alive all night, even though this Taliban tried to grab a gun and kill him while they were caring for him," said Mr Langan. During the night, the Taliban fighter's heart stopped twice but the medic managed to revive him. In the morning, before he was airlifted out, the injured Taliban touched the forehead of the men who had saved him in respect. With intelligence reports indicating the Taliban force had been heavily reinforced by fighters coming in from across the Pakistan border, the Nato and Afghan force believed they might be overrun during the third night of fighting. They surrounded their position with trip flares and waited. Although a trip flare was triggered, flooding the area with light and eerie shifting shadows, the figures of Taliban fighters flitted away into the night. British officers were also impressed by the performance of the Afghan forces in the attack. On day three of the fighting, one of the Afghan army's commanders, a charismatic young man who wore a bandana and T-shirt with crossed bandoliers of bullets, died leading a headlong charge against a well-fortified position defended by around 30 Taliban fighters. The next day, the Afghan police chief, General Abu Jan, led 20 police in a similarly determined frontal attack. The battle finally turned on the fifth day after British soldiers conducted an intensive mortar attack against Taliban positions. After the Taliban had taken several direct hits, they gradually withdrew and the Nato force was finally allowed to retake control of Garmser. Major Luke Knittig, spokesman for the Nato commander Lt Gen David Richards, said: "We recognise that Garmser is a place that is worth fighting for and where we concentrate our forces, both Nato and Afghan, those forces succeed. "Though I will admit that it was not without substantial effort in Garmser."