Troops send blogs back home

MORE than 120 troops from 23 Engineer Regiment (Air Assault) were being re-united with loved ones at Rock Barracks in Woodbridge after a gruelling six months on the frontline in Afghanistan.As they leave their work in the embattled country behind them, SIMON TOMLINSON has been granted exclusive access to a series of blogs chronicling the soldiers' time.From deliberately blowing up their own vehicles to building police stations, these first-hand accounts provide a fascinating insight into the strenuous and diverse demands placed on our soldiers in a 21st Century combat zone.

CORPORAL Kurt Knight was relaxing back at base when a lad from the Royal Irish regiment came rushing down with bad news.

“There's been an explosion involving one of the patrol vehicles,” he said. Cpl Knight's fellow engineers, Buckley and Le Roux, had been out on dangerous patrol along the enemy frontline in northern Helmand at the time

He said: “My heart jumped into my throat and my thoughts were immediately with Buckley and Le Roux. Although expected in this environment it is still the last thing that anyone wants to hear.

“The technical quartermaster ran towards the accommodation telling us he needed two mines and some explosives. Within ten minutes we were ready to deploy to help the lads on the ground.”

It was in fact a Royal Marine's armoured Land Rover (WIMIK) that had taken a hit.

“On reaching the scene of the explosion, I shouted a few expletives as the place was carnage,” Cpl Knight added. “The entire front of the WIMIK was in pieces but the back was still intact. It was a devastating scene.

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“With the fear of further enemy action, we worked quickly placing the explosives on all of the vehicle's sensitive equipment to deny it from the Taliban.

“We lit the fuse and withdrew to a safe distance. Ninety seconds later, there was an almighty explosion. We had left nothing for the enemy.”

Such is the continued threat of Taliban insurgents, a more favourable course of action is to blow up our own technology than let it get into the hands of the enemy.

Meanwhile in southern Helmand, a bomb search team from 51 Para Squadron of the 23 Engineers had been scouring the area for three weeks in a dangerous “game” to see who could find the most explosive devices.

Sergeant Leigh Davies, one of the patrol team, said: “Our first operation was in the town of Garmsir. We had been searching for no more than 20 metres when Sapper (Engineer) Smith came across our first pressure pad.

“Then within 100 metres we found another two. Our disposal team were American and they decided to use controlled explosions to destroy the main charges.

“The following day our search took us to an abandoned village. Within the first metre Spr Smith bagged his hat-trick when he found the mother of all devices, a particularly nasty thing.

“The device consisted of mortars with a pressure pad. This could take out a lot of men if initiated. When the Yanks blew it up the devastation that could have been caused was obvious.

“With our work in Garmsir complete, it was time to move to Kajaki. We were to clear a number of compounds for the Royal Marines. Unlike the previous operations, no finds this time around. However our work gives peace of mind as the Taliban have laid booby traps in the past in compounds which they have occupied.

“The scores on the doors for 51 Para Sqn search team are: Spr Smith - four finds, Spr McLellan - one find. There's still a long way to go and it's anyone's game yet.”

As well as looking for hidden explosives, troops had to be extremely vigilant for other disguised attack from Taliban fighters masquerading as ordinary civilians.

But for one squadron this increased defensiveness was to have a rather light-hearted consequence.

Upon arriving in the town of Towghi Keli, where 9 Parachute Sqn would be helping to build a police station, a member of the team perceived a possible threat.

Lance Corporal Will Carling added: “We had only been on site for two minutes when Corporal “Pinhead” McKenzie was approached by a family of four on a rickety motorbike.

“He took this as the first sign of the Taliban and raised his rifle. As the brakes slammed on the family all fell off. Thankfully the children were laughing their heads off. A classic example of winning hearts and minds. Well done Pinhead!”

Such moments of light relief are most welcome in the intensity and stress of a combat zone - as Lance Corporal Dan Preece was to discover for himself.

On duty in the operations room at Camp Bastion in Helmand, LCpl Preece's day took an unexpected turn when he answered a phone call on a hectic night.

“Expecting it to be a call from one of the Forward Operating Bases, I got the most pleasant surprise when I realised who I was speaking to,” he said.

“It was my dad, Flight Sergeant Trevor Preece, who phoned to say that he was in Camp Bastion and looking forward to catching up for a chat over a brew.”

They met for a cuppa and even managed to arrange for Fl Sgt Reece to watch his son take part in a 5km charity race at the camp.

LCpl Preece said: “My dad positioned himself half-way round the course to take some pictures and hand me, what would prove to be, some much-needed water. He was really pleased to find out that I finished in 11th place.”

Captain Marty Willson, who compiled the blogs in the regiment newsletter, said the troops had focused on improving the long-term quality of the country's infrastructure.

Speaking to The Evening Star from his base in Afghanistan, he said: “Our relationship between the Afghan civilians and the ministries has improved.

“We have been working on reconstruction and development to give the country stability. You can build a hospital but if you haven't got the nurses and doctors to go with it then it is just a building.

“It has been an excellent tour and the boys have had a fantastic time, but it has got to that stage now when it is time to come home.”

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DURING a moment of reflection, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Wilson, 23 Engineers' commanding officer, penned some thoughts in April on the scourge of drugs that has beset Afghanistan and its impact on the UK.

He said: “As far as the eye can see, the fields of Helmand sway pink and white in the breeze. The towns and bazaars are all but deserted as almost everybody, friendly or not, are busy in the fields harvesting the opium from the poppies.

“The beauty of the flower-filled fields and tranquillity of the workers belies the insidious harm of heroin addiction and the crime this spawns on the streets of the UK.

“So far, the impact on the narcotics trade in Afghanistan has been small, but our efforts to achieve security and stability underpin this generation of government, alternative livelihoods and a rule of law - all of which are necessary precursors to changing a nation's agricultural history.

“In effect we are still laying the foundations which some day will see Afghan fields full of wheat and UK hospitals empty of addicts.”

OPERATIONS have this month come up against an unlikely obstacle in the form of an Islamic religious observance.

September is the holy month of Ramadan, a time for spiritual reflection, prayer and good deeds. During this period, all physically healthy and mature Muslims are expected to abstain from food, drink, sex and other improprieties between dawn and sunset.

And, as the commanding officer from 23 Engineers says, this can have some negative knock-on effects for their military activity.

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Wilson said: “The contractors building reconstruction projects will largely stop. But then if I was not allowed to eat or drink from dawn until dusk I wouldn't be much use on a construction site either.

“Unfortunately this is not the same for Taliban fighters. Because they consider themselves to be fighting a Jihad or 'Holy War' they believe they are exempt from the fast, so for them it is business as usual.”

However, it seems the enemy will be audacious and two-faced enough to join in the festival of Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan.

Lt Col Wilson added: “One of the civilian construction projects we are building is a large park-type area, where the community will come together to celebrate Eid.

“I have no doubt that among the crowds there will be more than a few Taliban fighters enjoying the festivities - I hope they appreciate their new facilities.”

The regiment has been engaged in its current operation in Afghanistan since March this year.

23 Engineer Regiment (Air Assault) was officially formed on 7 January 2003 to provide engineer support to 16 Air Assault Brigade.

The regiment's sub-units are: 12 (Nova Scotia) Headquarters Squadron, 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, 51 Parachute Squadron, 61 Field Support Squadron and 23 Engineer Regiment Workshop.

Royal Engineers are more colloquially known as Sappers.