Welcome home 2 RIFLES!

2 RIFLES return

Well, we always we knew that it was going to an absolute brute of a tour, but I don't think anyone thought it could get that bad. 13 dead from the battalion, 24 from the battle group as a whole and around 80 wounded; it was a hell of a toll.

If there was a lot of death and sorrow, there was also an outstanding amount of gallantry and raw courage. Especially amongst the newest and youngest Riflemen, lads who and joined us straight from depot just a few months before deploying. These kids were amazing and I swear that I'll never let another dismissive remark about the 'playstation generation' go unchallenged.

A big thank you should also go out to the TA & Reservists who joined us for the tour, giving up a year of their lives and, in a few cases, their good health. Especially those few amongst them that volunteered to extend after their enlistments had elapsed and stayed with their platoons to the bitter end. Youngy, Pash and the rest, you guys are legends! Lastly, and most easily forgotten, are the attached arms. The medics and combat engineers who routinely came out on the ground with us and became as much a part of the rifle companies as the Riflemen.

Well played all - Swift & Bold!
Welcome back Rabbit. I am inclined to agree with you:

WhiteRabbit said:
These kids were amazing and I swear that I'll never let another dismissive remark about the 'playstation generation' go unchallenged.
These 'kids' from my Bn were magnificent when we did our tour. Anyway have a well deserved POTL.
Ditto, Tomo113954 welcome home mucker, give us a shout if your about - I'll get them in - I think you deserve it.

RIP to all those who didn't make it and condolences to the families, freinds and mates who lost loved ones.
Just like to say RIP to those that were lost, Get Well Soon to those that are / were injured and Job Well Done to everyone else.

My brother in law is with 2 Rifles, I think he's the QM(T) at the moment!! C***s L**b for those that may know him.
WhiteRabbit said:
2 RIFLES return

Lastly, and most easily forgotten, are the attached arms. The medics and combat engineers who routinely came out on the ground with us and became as much a part of the rifle companies as the Riflemen.

Well played all - Swift & Bold!
Welcome home guys (and gals) - and well done.

I thought some might have missed this account while you were out there, by one of your own...a former Jacket.......my apologies it is a bit long - but well worth a read:


Beneath the lip of his helmet the colonel’s face had the grey luminosity and glowing eyes of sudden grief. “I’ve just lost one of my best soldiers.” His words, so quiet that they were nearly a whisper, could almost have been a question. The identities of two dead soldiers had come over the radio just minutes earlier. Serjeant Paul McAleese, one of the battalion’s most renowned soldiers, had been so recently alive that his death warranted more than a degree of incredulity.

“Sh1t day,” the colonel added. “Two KIA [Killed In Action]. Why is it always the ones with wives and children?”

I had seen that look before in the faces of field commanders in Afghanistan. They talk about their mission and their operations with an air of enthusiasm that is either real or projected, becoming a little more cautious as they explain the “small steps of progress”. Then, bang, one more of their soldiers is dead – “ragdolled” as the men call it. The patter stops, the mask drops fleetingly, and raw grief stares back into your face.

I was here with 2 Rifles, and this moment, August 20, marked the start of Afghanistan’s presidential election in Sangin. The polling booths in the small town had not even been open an hour.

In the sandbagged operations room in FOB (Forward Operating Base) Jackson, Lieutenant-Colonel Rob Thomson and his 2 Rifles headquarters staff were in full body armour and helmets as Taleban rocket fire and mortars detonated haphazardly about the base. On the walls, flickering “Kill TV” screens, as the soldiers call them, displayed in real time the battle space outside courtesy of invisible drones.

Serjeant McAleese and Private Johnathon Young – an 18-year-old battle casualty replacement who had only been in the country for 18 days – had been killed by bombs in the east of the town. From the gun emplacements on the flat roof of the base’s FSG (Fire Support Group) tower, soldiers blazed away with medium machine-guns, grenade launchers, heavy .50 calibres and Javelin missiles at insurgents in the tree line along the Helmand River to the north. Their delight was almost feverish as those guns ripped away and the brass bullet cases jangled at their feet. For they were hurling much more than lead across those perimeter walls: rage and pain, pent-up frustration and outright vengeance were ploughing the river reed lines with every burst of fire.

Of political process, on this of all days, there was scant sign. By the time the last poll booths had closed in mid-afternoon, just 434 of Sangin’s 17,000 registered voters had cast their vote.

And when Chinooks finally delivered Sangin’s sealed ballot boxes to the British base in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, soldiers waiting on the HLS (Helicopter Landing Site) had to leap upon them to stop them being blown away by the downdraught from the rotors. If there was one single moment in August that most suggested the futility of the loss of life in the province then that was perhaps it: British soldiers running through the hot beaten air and jumping upon the bouncing plastic ballot boxes and the 434 votes that had been fought for at such frightful cost.

Heavy casualties

Stack up every accusation that has been made about all that is going wrong in Helmand – too few troops, not enough helicopters, corrupt police, venal local authorities, drug smuggling – and you will find that every one of them has at least an echo of reality in Sangin. Straddling the Helmand River on the road between Gereshk and Kajaki, Sangin district – home to about 70,000 Afghans from a mix of Pashtun tribes – has claimed more British lives than any other part of Helmand since troops first arrived there in 2006.

In April this year it became 2 Rifles’ dubious fortune to be sent to Sangin on a six-month tour. By mid-August their battle group, a composite force from various units built around a core of several hundred riflemen and fusiliers, had the worst casualties of any British brigade sent to Helmand, with just over 100 soldiers killed or wounded: a fifth of their total patrol troops. The trend suggested that by the time the battle group’s tour ends this month as many as one in four of these infantrymen will have been slain or injured, a figure that compares with British infantry casualty ratios in Europe during the later stages of the Second World War.

Like any other believer in the necessity of the war I could load the dice with fear to justify it all: fear of defeat; fear of another civil war, like the one I had already seen in Afghanistan in the late 90s; fear of Nato's collapse, Britain's disempowerment, and the jihadist Spring that would follow it all; fear of a Taleban thrust into Pakistan and, fear of fears, fear of nukes in fundamentalist hands. I could mantra the list just like the next man, and block my ears to the whispers of anyone trying to suggest that I sounded like an American in '69 talking about South East Asian domino theories and the spread of communism. I could do all of that, but I could never quite ignore the words of the burned out spooks and soldiers I had met along the way who told me that British blood was being shed for a lot less than ideology in Sangin, a place with the same reputation for the quality of its heroin as Havana had for cigars; where one cartel just happened to have the support of the Afghan government and the other the Taleban. Ideological conflict? If only it were so pure.

I should declare my personal interest here. In 1991, after just over five years in the Army, I left the Royal Green Jackets, the infantry regiment which was the ancestor to The Rifles prior to amalgamation. I left because I was bored. The era in which I had served was that of the Cold War’s end. It was dull. My great-grandfather fought at the Somme. My grandfather bombed Germany. My father served in West Belfast in 1972. Yet it was my fortune to be a soldier during the late Eighties, one of the most supremely uneventful periods for the British Army in its entire existence.

But I remain rather proud of having once been a soldier, although 20 years on would like to deny more than I am able to the link I still feel with my old battalion. As the years pass I better perceive the cords of the relationship that still bind me. There are not many, but those that do exist are strong. My understanding of the word “honour” is linked foremost to the institution of the British Army. I am loosely aware of the current whereabouts, rank or civilian status of men such as Melia, McLeod, Morrell and McCaffrey – the corporals with whom I once served, men who made me laugh more than any other. My first company commander lives not far away, and although we do not see each other often, we still discuss “serious” matters past and present. Unsolicited, he turned up at my mother’s funeral a few years ago, simply because he knew it would be a tough day and he was staunch, and tough days and staunchness are what soldiers sign up to share. Tough days and staunchness are what I went to Sangin to see.

Medics at work

The morning of August 13 was not yet hot and the war seemed far away. I had just taken a shower. I had shaved. I could taste the mint in my mouth as I walked to the entrance of the field hospital in Camp Bastion, where I had travelled en route for Sangin. A wounded British soldier arrived by helicopter at that moment. He was a young, dark-skinned man in his prime, with the torso of an athlete. He was still conscious. I was surprised. One of his legs had been blown off above the knee. The other had been grotesquely stripped so that it was no more than bone and ligament.

In the operating theatre they used an electric saw to tidy him up. One of the soldier’s hands was so damaged as to also suggest amputation. It seemed the soldier would leave the hospital “a triple”. Of all the thousands of dead and wounded people that I have seen in wars over the past 17 years, women and children among them, there was something profoundly haunting in the vision of that young soldier as he lay on the table, arms outstretched while his tattered uniform was cut from his body: he was the emblem of a British institution that I had always been raised to admire, even love. It lay there before me in bloody rags and terrible ruin.

Soon, more wounded arrived. One, appallingly injured by a bomb, was dying. He became the 200th British soldier to lose his life in the war. Three others, men from the 2 Rifles battle group, were already there. They lay dead in “Rose Cottage”, the hospital’s morgue: a bombardier, a captain and a rifleman. They had died just a few hours earlier in an incident that was still ongoing, one that epitomised the type of war experienced in Sangin.

Troops from A Company had moved out of FOB Jackson in the early hours that morning on a search operation in the vegetated “Green Zone” along the River Helmand south of Sangin town. Just before sunrise one of their number, a sniper, was blown up by a bomb in a compound and lost a leg. Two other soldiers were wounded. Corporal Henry Sanday, 28,

an acting platoon serjeant, moved into the compound with a medic and other soldiers to extract the casualties. Nearby, the rest of the company tried to clear a landing site for the medevac helicopter, but ran into difficulties as their Vallon mine detectors started emitting alarm signals indicating more bombs.

Then, as a captain and riflemen carried the wounded bombardier through the compound door, a second device exploded. It left all three men dead or dying. Amid the dust cloud and carnage, the dead and wounded, Sanday’s surviving troops froze. They were already familiar with the Taleban’s habit of planting multiple devices close to one another. Earlier in the summer, five of their comrades had been killed by a cluster of bombs in a single incident as they tried to evacuate casualties. Moreover, though Vallon detectors warn of nearby metal yields, they cannot necessarily pick up the low metal content of the more sophisticated pressure plate devices used in Helmand.

Sanday, desperate to remove the casualties from the scene for evacuation, began yelling for another Vallon operator to start sweeping a withdrawal route. But no one stirred.

Among the survivors some soldiers appeared paralysed with shock. Others were crying.

Eventually a teenage rifleman stood up. “F*** it,” he said. The soldier grabbed a Vallon and started clearing an exit route. But Sanday’s problems were not over. He tried to guide an American medevac helicopter on to the compound roof, but it was too small a space for the helicopter to land on. Nor were there enough stretchers for all the casualties. Eventually the surviving sniper commander grabbed one dying soldier and ran 200m with him, through the mine-infested green zone, to reach a new landing site.

Despite having lost three dead and two wounded, A Company continued with their operation throughout the rest of the day. But when night fell, as they patrolled back towards Jackson, they suffered casualties to two more mines. Two interpreters were killed and two more soldiers wounded.

Back in Jackson, A Company went through a ritual that was by then all too familiar to 2 Rifles. They packed up their dead comrades’ personal effects. They wrote their eulogies. Some of these were long, sorrowful odes, later published on Army websites, cyberspace war memorials for our era. Others were read out by the dead soldiers’ friends at the small memorial services that were held on the HLS a day or so after each death, where steel-eyed, grim-jawed men choked as they tried to describe all that their lost mates had meant to them. Like any ritual of death, these were designed to give safe passage for the spirits of the fallen. They never quite succeeded: there was never a patrol went out without an attachment of ghosts. All the soldiers seemed to know that however hard they concentrated on the days ahead, a renewed sense of grief was waiting to ambush them when the tour finally ended – if they made it that far.

Three days later, August 16, A Company went out on another operation. They ran straight into another multiple bomb incident in the green zone. Three more soldiers were blown up and killed: two more were wounded. In this way the summer passed.


FOB Jackson’s one feature of salient appeal is the narrow strip of the Helmand River, chest-deep in places, that runs in a canal directly through the base, allowing the troops to swim and wash when not on patrol. In the day mynah birds and kingfishers bounced on the boughs along the river edge and a colony of mongooses hunted through the bankside reeds. At night the soldiers gazed into the depths, smoking, talking quietly. Some fished, too.

That stretch of moving water was something special among Helmand’s FOBs. There were limited means of killing time when not on operations and, as ever, boredom was more of a burden for the soldiers than fear. As many hours as possible were spent sleeping, the soldiers shrouded in their domed mosquito nets, which sat in rows along each side of the sandbagged blockhouses in which the men lived. They were a tightknit unit, though, and aside from sleeping, it was more common to see them in their fire teams or sections than as individuals. They ate centrally, in a tent, though had not had fresh rations for weeks by the time I saw them – not since a food contractor’s helicopter had been shot down, with the loss of all crew, beyond the perimeter. It was a spartan, tough existence as befitting infanteers, and they accepted it without complaint. But the water, that was something else; it made them dive and splash and laugh and shout; it gave them a slither of delight.

“I can’t see how I won’t get hit before the tour is through,” a soldier told me one night, sitting by the river. The soldier had already been blown up a number of times but, so far at least, had survived. “I’ve just got that feeling that it’s going to happen again,” he said. “You can tell sometimes. The last time we got hit, just before the bomb went off, I looked at the sky and something about it made me think, ‘This is just about to go wrong,’ and it did. Now I’m expecting it again.”

He was not seeking consolation, merely confiding how he saw his chances in a manner so matter-of-fact it was chilling. Soldiers, however questioning, do not weigh risk against gain in the way of civilians.

“Young riflemen don’t discuss the Brigadier’s mission – they just get on and do it,” Lieutenant Will Hignett, one of A Company’s platoon commanders, told me. “I’m not going to ram it down their throats. They go out of the gate for each other, so that the guys who died didn’t do so in vain.”

This courage, born out of commitment to one another, was what would define them as “soldiers” for the rest of their lives, separating them from a group that could only ever be alien once their tour was over: “civvies”.

Nevertheless, by the river that evening, I tried to tell the soldier that everyone had feelings of dark prescience after a long exposure in war, but that it did not necessarily mean anything: intuition can be wrong.

He was 20 years younger than me. Until recently, rather familiar with death after so long reporting wars, I might have felt that I had some wisdom worth imparting. In Sangin, though, I felt lacking in experience. Those lanky, colt-limbed, dazzle-eyed, tattoo-covered youths – some of whose bodies were so undeveloped it was amazing that they could ever manage to pack the mule loads of weapons, ammunition, water, body armour and electronic equipment that they carried on each patrol in that dreadful heat – often sounded like wizened old men whenever they discussed anything serious.

“When we first came here we were whingeing that we weren’t getting enough action,” a corporal told me. It was the first of a two-line ode to his lost youth. Of the 27 men in his platoon, four had already been killed and five wounded. “How we take those words back now – massively.”

A couple of days after our conversation by the river, during yet another memorial service at Sangin, I saw the soldier again. The traditional minute’s silence for the dead was initiated and concluded by an explosion of pyrotechnics, which seemed an odd and slightly perverse way to commemorate men who had been blown up. The soldier jumped at both detonations. His was not the normal nervous reactive flinch of fighting troops to a sudden loud noise. It looked instead as if a shock wave went through him, starting at his right-hand side, flipping his elbow out, slapping his shoulder up, his knee in and head sideways. He was getting blown up all over again, I realised, standing to attention beneath a flag at half-mast. I thought by the end of the service he must be crying, but his eyes were dry. I never once saw him look anything else but angry.

If ever a soldier had refused to go out on patrol in Sangin then I never heard of it. When they formed up at the gates of the base with all their gear, already pouring with sweat before things had begun, some even looked carefree, joking among one another about how, if he died, they would f*** their comrade’s sister after his funeral, and the like.

But no one ever volunteered for a patrol they did not have to do. And I didn’t meet one soldier there who spoke of “winning”.

Death by drone

From time to time the riflemen got lucky and shot an insurgent dead. Shooting men who were shooting at them had a natural appeal for teeth arm (combat) troops. It was a rite of passage and mark of superior skill that most had signed up for, as opposed to having their legs ripped off at the hip by a pressure plate device. But in truth rifle kills happened too rarely for their liking. The shortfall in troop numbers and helicopters favoured the insurgents many times over, allowing them to control 95 per cent of Sangin and to plant minefields that blocked the soldiers into a narrow strip of territory. After three years in Sangin, British troops still could not move more than about 500m from FOB Jackson, if that, without the likelihood of coming across an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) or running into a small arms contact.

But asymmetric warfare cuts both ways, and the Taleban in Sangin found that death more often came from a hellfire missile launched by a pilotless drone than a bullet fired by a soldier. From the footage on the screens the skies seemed full of these invisible, unmanned craft, the killer drones Predator and Reaper among them. They beamed live footage of Helmand’s desert on to the “Kill TV” screens in various operations rooms around the province. Every now and then the scurrying activities of an individual or group on the screens would attract special attention.

It is a spooky way to watch a man die.

One minute his granulated image is hunched planting a bomb, unaware that the eyes of men as far away as Creech airbase in Nevada and perhaps as near as the closest FOB are scrutinising his every move. Their guilt or innocence is quickly judged according to a set of strict criteria that the Reaper people and local commanders must answer. The final decision is then given to the senior officer present. On his word the men on the screen live or die.

I was angry one day in Sangin, when, in the Colonel’s absence the acting commander asked me to leave the operations room as he made that decision. I had seen the moment several times before in Afghanistan, the point at which the men on the screen hunch a second before disappearing into a black cloud. It seemed contrary suddenly to deny me the opportunity to witness it once more. Besides, after all the hours staring at the screen, the killing was the main event. Who would miss it?

“I was just about to kill two men,” the officer explained afterwards. “I wanted a moment without someone on my shoulder judging my decision.”

It had been too easy, I reflected, what with all the grainy excitement of the miniature figures on the flickering screens, to forget that it was really death that was at hand: so cold-blooded it was effectively an execution.

Lt-Col Thomson was keen to emphasise that his men’s experience in Sangin was not exclusively adversarial, and that stability and development were strands that were equally important in their counter-insurgency operations. But there was no escaping it: this summer attrition was the dominant currency in the district, affecting the populations in both Britain and the Upper Sangin valley far more than any of the shuffling development steps.

Given the number of soldiers slain and maimed there, it was no surprise that revenge was often close to men’s thoughts. Sometimes it stepped right into the open. On the evening of August 16, by which time the colonel had lost seven soldiers in three days, he urged his staff to find and kill a Taleban commander thought to be behind the upsurge in insurgent operations. “I’m not after his head on a plate,” he told them. “But I want him dead. He’s my oppo here and that would be fitting enough vengeance.”

In the insurgents’ back yard

Eventually, inevitably, 20 years later than I would have wished, I was with the riflemen when they got into a firefight. I was asleep in the shade under a wicker table inside a local compound when the shooting started, and leapt from my dreams looking rather more startled than I might have wanted as a bullwhip crack of bullets shredded the air above us.

It was one of those rare days for A Company when there were enough Chinooks available to lift them out of FOB Jackson, over the Taleban minefields, across the River Helmand, to drop them right into the insurgents’ back yard before the sun was risen. Not everything went to plan. As we came in to land in the dark wastes of the desert the rear wheels of our Chinook became caught on a ledge of rock. The pilot, unable to see the nature of the obstacle, gave it a blast of power that all but severed one of the wheels and had the aircraft grinding along the rocky ground in an alarming fashion. This lasted perhaps two seconds and came to nothing. It seemed a very long two seconds, though, and I noticed the soldiers with whom I travelled seemed as eager as I was to run down the ramp and out of the machine once it had finally settled.

Nearly four hours later, as the troops moved through the village of Doab, a couple of Taleban appeared close by and engaged them with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic fire. They were quickly joined by other insurgents, firing from several different positions.

Firefights are seldom more than a series of jumbled images for the individuals concerned, and only make sense for those few commanders who may have an overview.

So from my perspective the whole of what followed seemed to pass in a rather leisurely fashion from a comfortable vantage point behind a thick wall. There was a lot of shooting for a few minutes, which then petered out to be rekindled sporadically over the next hour or so. For others, however, it was much more intense. One of the platoons involved ended up trading fire with Taleban at close quarters as both sides jockeyed for a position in the same compound. A drone’s hellfire rocket killed a couple of the Taleban, whose bodies were quickly extracted by their comrades. When riflemen finally secured the compound they found it empty save for rubble and blood. It was as close to a “win” as most troops are likely to get in Sangin.

I left a few days later, with a curious mixture of relief and guilt. The helicopter I took out of Sangin passed me effortlessly on to a plane flying to Kabul, which in turn allowed me to get a civilian flight to the UK with such ease that I was back home in a Devon village little more than three days later.

Here the deepening colours of the woods along the valley and the warm glow of the autumn light should have provided a swift tonic for all that had passed in Helmand. But it unsettled me, and it unsettles me still, as I try to connect what possible relevance links it with the Upper Sangin valley, where the price of attrition has teenage soldiers talking not of “when the tour ends”, but instead “if I make it home”. They looked rather brilliant, I thought, so far from any reference point of home, so up against it. But I thanked God I have no son a soldier there

Glad you're back - enjoy your leave to the max,

Welcome back the 60th Rifles/KRRC/2GJ/2RGJ/1RGJ/2Rifles!!! :D :D

(well, lets not get picky about an amalgamation or two eh?) :)

Seriously lads, us old 'uns stand in awe, well done indeed. :wink:

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