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WITH the sun heading for the horizon, 40 Commando medic L/Cpl Hanlon pauses to refl ect on another day at Forward Operating Base Zeebrugge, high above Kajaki and Helmand’s Green Zone.

For half a decade this outpost has been one of the focal points of Britain’s efforts to stabilise southern Afghanistan and bring some form of normality to the region.

The 150 or so men of the 40 Cdo Battlegroup deployed to Kajaki have handed over responsibility for the district to the Americans, permitting a ‘surge’ by the Royals in another Helmand hotspot. “British forces are redeploying

from Kajaki with their heads held high, with the knowledge that they have changed the area for the better,” said Major General Gordon Messenger RM, former Task Force Helmand commander and the senior spokesman for British operations in Afghanistan.

That work has focused

But no longer.

in particular on restoring the Kajaki Dam to full working order; providing irrigation to some 700 square miles of farmland and power to homes in Lashkar Gah, Musa Qaleh and Sangin. The latter town lies twenty miles downstream on the Helmand River. It is to there that the majority of the Kajaki-based commandos redeployed – for now. Like Kajaki, British troops will be pulling out of Sangin – later this year, Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox told Parliament. Until then, however, the district demands continued commitment and, tragically, continued sacrifice.

Of all the villages, towns and districts in Helmand, the name of Sangin is writ large on the roll of honour. One in three British casualties killed in Afghanistan has died in or around Sangin – six Royal Marines in the past month alone.

Many of the dead of Sangin have been victims of Improvised Explosive Devices (bombs). The men of Charlie Company, 40 Cdo, set out to clear one village, Pylae, of booby traps. Previous patrols by the Royals determined that there was lively insurgent activity in the village – and the insurgents had planted a sizeable number of IEDs, not least in Pylae’s market street. The operation to render the heart of the village safe began with the commandos occupying high ground – in this instance a compound rooftop, where Charlie Coy established an observation post.

Then the marines moved in on the ground, accompanied by Army bomb disposal experts. Despite the cordon drawn

around the centre of Pylae, some locals chose to continue life as normal.

“We all have a bit of rudimentary Pashtu which we shouted at the locals as they came towards us,” explained Lt Doug Spencer RM.

“Some came past on motorbikes quite fast and ignoring our shouts, so we had to fi re mini fl ares into the air above the motorbikes as they come by – that usually stops them.”

Other locals were not so obliging; the marines and bomb disposal team were fi red upon on a couple of occasions. To give additional protection to the soldiers, the Royals threw up a smoke screen.


In time, as with most tasks in Helmand, such a mission will be performed by Afghan troops and Afghan National Police, who are being trained by numerous British-led mentoring teams. And what you don’t see on the 24-hour rolling news channels and in your morning newspaper is that they’re taking casualties alongside Britons. “We have tried to tell the police offi cers here not to touch IEDs if they fi nd them, but to tell us where they are and we will deal with them,” said Capt Dom Rogers RM, Offi cer Commanding 40 Cdo’s Police Mentoring Team in Sangin.

“But often, such is their outrage that the Taleban have planted these devices in a built- up area, they don’t want to wait to remove them. They will often carry them back to us in triumph.”

On one patrol, the Afghan policemen uncovered four bombs on a road leading to a security compound and dug them up. As they tackled a fi fth device, it exploded. Two police were killed, a third injured.

profound effect on the police as the two who lost their lives were very popular, not just with the ANP but also the guys in the PMT who lived, worked and patrolled with them on a daily basis.

Despite the deaths, Capt Rogers said the Royals could take a lot of encouragement from the progress the Afghan police were making.

“The good thing is that this operation proved the ANP are now confi dent enough to run their operations with little support from us,” the Royal Marine offi cer added. “We are training Afghan bomb disposal experts but they are not up to speed yet. And until then they have to rely on ISAF.”

WITH Afghanistan being the military’s – and the Senior Service’s – ‘main effort’, there’s been a succession of high- ranking fi gures visiting 40 Commando on the ground. Last month the First Sea Lord was in theatre. In July, Commander-in-Chief Fleet Admiral Sir Trevor Soar, Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Charles Montgomery and Commandant General Royal Marines Maj Gen Buster Howes have all been on the ground in Helmand.

A tour of this troubled

province invariably begins at Camp Bastion, the hub of UK operations.

“One of the marines thought it would be a good idea to have a ‘joint’ memorial service with the ANP in their memory and the whole event has, I think, brought the policemen and the Marines closer together.”

“The incident has had a

It is the principal base for the Commando Helicopter Force and home to the main fi eld hospital in Helmand; the former is, of course, very dark blue while the latter is staffed by a large Royal Navy contingent.

While Admiral Soar met the

nursing and surgical staff, Maj Gen Howes talked with fellow green berets wounded in action in Helmand.

Then Admiral Soar thanked the CHF team for rising to the demands made of them. “On behalf of the Navy, I just want to thank you. Your efforts are appreciated and the wider MOD is clearly aware of the contribution you make,” he told the assembled ranks.

On leaving Camp Bastion,

the three senior offi cers fl ew by helicopter to Task Force Helmand headquarters in Lashkar Gah where they were met by the Commander of 4th Mechanized Brigade, Brigadier Richard Felton, who gave them an update on the situation in Helmand province.

And then it was on to the front line of the war against insurgency with a fl ight by Chinook to Sangin to meet the men of 40 Cdo. The guests donned body armour and protective clothing before being guided through Forward Operating Base Jackson to the Fire Support Group tower. From this elevated position the party could view all of the surrounding area and receive a detailed brief from 40 Cdo’s CO Lt Col Paul James. The trio were also introduced to the district governor, police and army chiefs, before a fi nal road move in Mastiff and Jackal vehicles to Forward Operating Base Nolay to meet Alpha Company before leaving theatre.

picture: la(phot) si ethell, 40 cdo

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