C Company: the Royal Marines who mean business

First published on Sky News on 29th May 2010.

marines

It is the middle of the night as the men from C Company march down to the Helicopter Landing Site on the Forward Operating Base in Sangin.

The last time these boys left camp, they came back without one of their most popular and experienced Royal Marines.

As the two Chinooks roar out of the pitch darkness, the tension is palpable.

These men mean business – loaded with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bridging equipment and mine detecting kit, they move swiftly and efficiently onto the aircraft.

We’re crammed in, hanging off ceiling straps as the aircraft lurches over the hills just feet from the ground.

Then suddenly we’re off the ramp and piling into a huddle on the ground in the hope that our chosen landing spot is clear of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Mine-detecting kit is deployed and we set off gingerly across the fields. Every marine is quite literally checking his every footstep, staying low and wading through rivers on the way.

C Company is heading for a suspected Taliban compound a few hundred metres away. Just last week a local teenager struck up a friendly conversation with a passing patrol here.

Having identified the commander, he ambled off to collect his suicide vest from a neighbouring compound. He then walked back over to his new ‘friends’ and blew himself up.

The young Taliban recruit failed to take anyone else with him on his suicide mission, but C Company know there are more where he came from.

Assisted by soldiers from 1 Scots, the marines watch over the Afghan National Army as they clear through a series of compounds and question locals.

And all of this in the face of an intensely frustrating challenge – “courageous restraint” dictated by their rules of engagement.

This means using as little force as possible, sometimes staring an insurgent in the face and letting him walk away.

The idea is to protect the surrounding local population, win them over, and strip the Taliban of support.

But when your best mate has just been killed by an IED set by an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules, that’s a very big ask.

Today the mission was a success; the Royal Marines with the men from 1 Scots put “boots on the ground”, disrupted Taliban activity and reassured the local population.

But most importantly for the Marines from C Company, everyone came back.

Safely on the ground, Troop Sergeant ‘Smudge’ Smith gathers his boys into a huddle.

As every man remembers the mate and colleague they’ve lost, he tells them how proud he is of them.

They’ve held it together and teamwork has got them through a horrific couple of days.

They’ve got a job to do and giving their friend a proper send-off will have to wait until they get home.

Rite of passage on an Afghan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 28th May 2010.

footie in helmand

He only has to shave once a month, is desperate to learn to drive and has a chilled pint – his first legal drink – with his name on it down his local pub in Dumfries.

But Private Anton ‘Ando’ Anderson will have to wait another three weeks for all that; first he has a job to finish in Afghanistan.

The young soldier from 1 SCOTS Battle Group is based in Helmand Province.

He is among a handful of British soldiers who have set up a home of sorts in a Patrol Base near the town of Sangin, and is one of the youngest.

Just a month after his 18th birthday, Anton was sent out as a Battle Casualty Replacement for a few short weeks.

He has now served almost four months after he volunteered to stay on.

And what a rite of passage.

Nicknamed ‘Bacha’ – ‘young boy’ in Dari – Anton holds his own on patrol.

In charge of the life-saving and cripplingly heavy Electronic Counter-Measures equipment, at a skinny 5ft 7in, he carries more than his body weight in kit patrolling the Green Zone in temperatures in the 50s.

Bacha takes the unrelenting army banter with a chuckle and says he hides when the older lads try to put him on latrine-emptying duty one too many days in a row.

“It doesnae help when I look like I’m 12 years old!” he grins.

His mother may be worried about him, but it is fairly obvious the more senior soldiers have taken him under their wing and created a family environment in the small dusty compound in this dangerous part of Afghanistan.

His patrol buddies do however draw the line at eating the teenager’s food after his toxic attempts at making porridge and his own home-cooked favourite “mince and tatties”.

That is no doubt something his mum will gladly give him a few tips on when he gets home next month.

A day in the life: Media Advisor to Deputy Commander ISAF

(First published in the Pen & Sword “Scratchings” March 2013)

‘Poacher-turned-gamekeeper’, ‘spy’, ‘Colonel meeja’…the nicknames were endless. It may not have been the most conventional role for a journalist but the contradictions between my recent operational post and my day job are what made it challenging, rewarding, fascinating and occasionally infuriating all on a daily basis.

I was mobilised from my job as Deputy Foreign News editor at Sky News and deployed to Kabul for five months to create the role of Media Advisor to the ISAF Deputy Commander (and commander of British forces in Afghanistan), Lt Gen Adrian Bradshaw then Lt Gen Nick Carter. Privy at the highest level to the most sensitive information and thinking, input to some of the most important decisions on the campaign and a close working relationship with the most influential military figures in the British Army today. The kind of access and headline-rich environment a journalist could only dream of. But a privilege and situation which with my military hat on meant careful management of those potential stories, anticipating how my alter-ego might interpret the campaign’s every move and decision and turn them into news.

People always think the hardest part of sitting in the no-man’s land between the media and the military must be to adhere to the Official Secrets Act and resist the temptation to ‘make’ my hack’s career on a scandal or sensitive information that I’ve acquired during military service. The reality is that’s relatively easy – a decision when I first joined the TA that the line would never be crossed and classified information and behaviour shared on trust stayed just that. And, contrary to popular belief, integrity is a quality valued in journalists and service personnel alike.

What is far harder is reconciling what are two very different, independent, antiquated and stubborn professions and institutions and attempting to get them to work in a more collaborative and less combative way; a task which is all the more difficult when under operational pressure and tempo.

The military is all about discipline, protocols and the chain of command. There are drills for everything. God help you if you put a comma or tab in the wrong place in a Fragmentary Order, Warning Order, Operational Order or any other kind of ‘service writing’. Every type of briefing has a format and powerpoint is a must, with a gold star if you can include flow charts. Officer cadets spend half their first term at Sandhurst marching back and forth across a drill square at 140 paces a minute in painstakingly bulled boots. But it is exactly that regimented way of life that makes the British Army one of the best in the world.

Journalism on the other hand is about thinking laterally, finding the point of view others have not considered. It means questioning authority, exposing imperfections and mistakes, and where the military is concerned, making sure nothing uttered by senior commanders is taken at face value or left unchallenged. Your writing and style are your signature. And the idea that any briefing or report should require anything other than your magnetic storytelling or charisma – let alone follow a dictated structure – is abhorrent. Mention powerpoint to a journalist and you’ll have them running for the hills.

So when the two come together it can be fairly interesting.

The sceptical glances I got initially as a journalist ‘in advisor’s clothing’ disappeared early on. I would like to think that it was because people realised I was a professional and started to believe that it is possible to be a journalist and still have a modicum of integrity. I think it’s more likely though that they thought that if I was put there somebody somewhere must have trusted me and at the end of the day I might actually be useful if I could shed some light on this ‘meeja’ lark.

One of my closest allies was a colleague working on the very opposite end of the information spectrum. That caused a few eyebrows to be raised until people understood that in order to be prepared for the worst possible leaks and stories in the press, and mitigate against the damage they might cause, I had to be conversant with everything that was going on in the campaign, including and most especially the most sensitive reports, intelligence and decisions – material most likely to cause the most controversy and therefore the most damaging headline if it ever hit the press.

There was a steady stream of stories and incidents to respond to as well as media engagements and embeds to plan and manage for the General. They were busy months of Insider Attacks, Prince Harry on the front line, the Camp Bastion attack, troop drawdown announcements, not to mention the ISAF commander coming under investigation. But for me what took the job beyond its media advisor tag and what made it all the more fascinating was that it was all about diplomacy, building and nurturing key relationships and enabling the passage of information to the right people at the right time. Those relationships outside the military machine – with both the Afghan and international press – were key but ironically more straightforward than those within it. It was a time-consuming and painstaking process of making sure the various headquarters across Afghanistan were talking to each other and to the Pentagon and to Whitehall, and to the various military institutions in the UK. And that they were all following the same ‘narrative’, and saying the same thing or would in the event of x, y or z. And if they weren’t, then finding a compromise they could all agree upon. And that meant tiptoeing through the different personalities, different agendas as well as coalition and national politics on the one hand, and making sure the UK position was represented in the ISAF decision-making process on the other.

A minefield to negotiate, an exhausting pace and level of pressure and constant demands and questions from three timezones to keep up with. There were occasions where I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when what I had predicted happened on cue; when advice I had pushed hard was borne out; when risks I had taken to achieve an aim under time pressure paid off. I hadn’t expected it to be easy; after all I’d agreed to deploy at 24-hours’ notice, to a job that didn’t exist, in the media management of the UK’s most unpopular military campaign in the last century. But to be privy to decision-making at that level, working with military minds at the top of their game, and battling to bring media and communication considerations to the forefront of military campaign planning was exciting, challenging and rewarding. I enjoyed it so much I would have stayed on well beyond the end of my tour. I was given the freedom of manoeuvre to have real impact and use my specialist knowledge and experience to best effect. I handed over a job which is now firmly on the map and made it one which I think justifies the continued investment in specialists and their deployment to the right jobs, where they can contribute unique skills which the military lacks and add real value.

Highway 1….the Lifeline of Afghanistan

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards and the Household Cavalry are fighting to keep open a vital road in Afghanistan. Highway 1 runs through Helmand province and these soldiers are responsible for safeguarding 70 km of it. Working as a British Forces News reporter, I had exclusive access to the work they do.

It’s the ring road of Afghanistan, it covers over 2000km. Highway 1 starts in the East in Jalalabad and Kabul, then heads South to Kandahar, goes through Helmand Province on its way to Herat in the West, then goes up to the far North and Mazar e Sharif. Nearly half the population of Afghanistan lives within 50km of Highway 1.

It may look like an unremarkable single lane tarmac road, but it’s the most important trade route for the country and crucial to ISAF troops for the resupply of their patrol bases across the country.

The Taliban also rely on it to move around. Until recently this meant they didn’t target it directly; although settlements around it and convoys snaking down it weren’t quite so lucky.

Alongside the Household Cavalry, the 1st Battalion Irish Guards are the unit responsible for making sure the road is safe and keeps moving. They work with the Afghan National Army advising them on tactics and patrolling with them.

And the last couple of weeks have been busy. In the 24 hours we were there, their stretch of the Highway was hit by a suicide car bomber, three IED finds and a direct hit on a patrol.

The Guardsmen are based in the centre of Geresk where they live with their Afghan colleagues in what years ago used to be a Soviet Army R&R camp – swimming pool (albeit now empty) and all.

They’re acutely aware of the risks every time they go outside the gate into the bustling town and out onto to road teaming with convoys. But they also know that if they don’t keep those convoys safe and moving, the country’s economy will have little chance of getting back on track.

The power of the bellowed word….

As I mentioned previously – but got sidetracked with the ‘burns pit’ issue – we were down in the Babaji area a few days ago with soldiers from 2 SCOTS. As with most ISAF units, they are partnered with the Afghan national security forces and live side by side with them on their patrol base. They planned a joint operation – a patrol that would push well into Taliban-held territory, and an area into which they hadn’t ventured before. By moonlight and in the freezing pre-dawn temperatures, we set off on foot across ploughed fields, clambered over compound walls and waded through drainage ditches, all the while watching our footing like hawks for the slightest suggestion of an IED.

The patrol brief was to go as close as possible to the target village and try to coax out the locals for a ‘Shura’, an informal meeting about what they thought and what their needs were. The expectation from the British Company Commander, Major Piers Strudwick, was that we would get nowhere near the village but would end up getting targeted from the various firing points they had identified during previous ‘contacts’ across the area.

So, he brought along the ‘Sound Commander’ as an alternative means of ‘talking’ to the village elders. As we approached the village, the sky went a beautiful deep pink colour as the sun started to come up, but still no sign of insurgents and the only sound was that of birdsong and the squelching of our boots.

We reached one of the outer compounds – used we were told just the day before by insurgents as a perfect vantage point from which to shoot at a nearby Check Point (moments after we had left it) – and Maj Strudwick decided along with his Afghan colleague that we’d come quite far enough for now. They deployed the ‘Sound Commander’ – a grand name for what is essentially a loudspeaker attached to a ruck-sack. But its charm is in its simplicity. It is man-portable, easy-to-use and most of all, as we were about to find out, effective.

Within minutes of the Afghan Police commander shouting messages into it in Pashtu that echoed across the countryside (and the whole patrol bracing itself – me thoroughly included – for an onslaught of Taliban proportions), figures started to emerge from behind compound walls.

The first two individuals who appeared out of the nearest tree line were identified – rather disturbingly – by the Afghan police as Taliban leaders. They edged gingerly toward the patrol and the tension was palpable. One decided to come and join the meeting, his two colleagues thought better of it and melted back into the undergrowth.

Once a handful of elders had gathered, the ‘Shura’ began. ‘They were poor people who were stuck in the middle of a firefight’ they said; ‘they were frightened but too poor to leave the area’.

They led us deep into the compounds to show us their homes and pointed out repairs that they needed help with. A few minutes later, the elders, Afghan security forces and the British commander shook hands. Some of the Afghan soldiers even stopped for a handshake photo opportunity with the villagers.

We had been static for too long; we had to move. The ‘Sound Commander’ was packed away, hauled onto its bearer’s back ready to be despatched on the next patrol.

Despite concerns, our return journey was just as quiet (and just as wet).

They had expected a firefight. What they got was a meeting with village elders. Maj Strudwick and the Afghan commanders were very pleasantly surprised.
And the reasons for such an unexpected success? According to the British commander, simply getting out of our sleeping bags earlier than the Taliban and beating them to the village played a huge part that day and meant the elders felt able to talk more freely and weren’t frightened to come out.

But I’d also like to think that the megaphone in the rucksack added a certain je ne sais quoi to the proceedings – the ‘Sound Commander’ on that occasion being mightier than the AK47….

On patrol with 2 SCOTS….

It’s 0430 in the morning, it’s dark with a very bright full moon, the temperature is hovering around freezing, my lips have gone blue and it takes every ounce of dedication to move my shivering body out of the relative warmth of my sleeping bag on Patrol Base Nahidullah.

Before long, we’re all loaded up in the back of Mastiffs and on our way to a nearby Check Point where we’ll dismount and head off into a local village on a foot patrol – what the 2 SCOTS OC Major Piers Strudwick calls an ‘advance to Shura’.

The idea is to arrive in the village and coax locals out to talk about what they need, what ISAF troops are doing in the area and beat the Taliban at their ‘information operations’ game.

We’re walking straight into a Taliban stronghold and the 2 SCOTS soldiers are expecting trouble. Everyone is focused.

The patrol gets off to a great start when we arrive at the Check Point and all inadvertently disembark from the back of the Mastiff right into the ‘burns pit’.

The driver had (he says not intentionally but the smirk gave him away) reverse-parked into the very spot where the lads on the Check Point disposed of their, erm, waste.

Cue a broad Glasgow accent out of the darkness….“I expected we’d get into the s*** on this patrol, but we haven’t even left the check-point yet”.

As it happened, bar the odd river crossing and a couple of insurgents who came close but then must have decided it was far too cold for a full-on firefight, it was a very successful patrol with a number of locals engaging with the commander and discussing how to bring more security to the area.

A good result overall then, but my boots will, I fear, never be the same again.

Back to the Dust…

 

I spent my R&R enjoying runs around the fields of Hampshire in the mud, rain, and on one occasion surviving a rather biting hailstorm. So it was only natural that one of the first things I wanted to do on return to the picturesque countryside of Camp Bastion was go for a run to stretch my legs after the cramped journey back.

Clearly I have a memory comparable to that of a goldfish. There was a very good reason why my running habits had taken a dive here prior to their resurrection back home in Blighty over R&R.

I am now back from my 5 mile circuit feeling like some desert nomad. Only a desert nomad who went on a trek with all the wrong kit and sans camel. My eyelashes and hair have gone a pale shade of beige, my nose now houses enough sand with which to build a castle. As a result of breathing (heavily) through my mouth (partly the result of being unable to breathe through the sandcastle in my nose), I will now spend the next couple of hours chewing on grit and will not be in need of any dinner. There is more sand and dust on the inside of my socks than on the outside and my IPod is now ironically playing Faith Hill’s ‘Breathe’ over and over in a loop, probably due to the mound of sand now stuck under the ‘play’ button.

I am now off for a shower before I reveal any more embarrassing facts about the state of my nostrils or indeed my taste in music.

The marathon journey home…

 

1000 on a hot and dusty Wednesday morning.

We all set off looking quite fresh and chirpy considering it was the middle of the night, but then we were excited at the prospect of going home – whether on R&R or at the end of a long tour.

By the early hours of Thursday in Bastion departure ‘lounge’, the brew kits had been pillaged, the Kitkats were sold out in the little snack bar, and even re-runs of Top Gear on the BFBS TV screen were no longer holding people’s attention.

Just in time, the oft-mentioned ‘sirs, ma’ams, ladies and gents’ was bellowed across the hall and we were on our way out to the mine-taped pen on the airfield eagerly awaiting the loud hum of props and the welcome sight of the green belly of the Hercules ready to swallow us up.

A short half-hour later in the middle of the night, we landed in Kandahar. After disentangling our identical bergans and bags and humping them onto the coach, we were shipped through the darkness to a row of tents. Then another ‘sirs, ma’ams, ladies and gents’ brief before being directed by torchlight to a large collection of camp beds. Time to get our heads down for a couple of hours.

Thursday…. Daylight brought another ‘sirs, ma’ams etc’ brief.

A day of sitting in a tent watching DVDs and drinking tea was punctuated by our first reporting time around lunchtime followed by a second well after dark.

Eventually, locked and loaded onto the ageing Tristar, we trundled along the runway in the very early hours of Friday morning and back up into the skies of Afghanistan.

Friday….with dawn breaking over the Middle East far below, the never-ending supply of orange squash was interrupted. Trolleys were wheeled down the aisles laden with cans of beer. Safely out of Afghan airspace, we were treated to a celebratory can of ale each, courtesy of the generous people of Britain and some of our best-known breweries. Refreshing and symbolic, but somewhat unorthodox when served with our breakfast of omelette, sausage and bacon. But I didn’t see anyone complaining.

It wasn’t long before we were welcomed onto Cyprus soil for a quick refuelling stop, then herded back on board. So close now, not one of us was sleeping. As we got closer, we all craned out the windows for our first sight of Blighty.

Grey, rainy, lush, green, busy, traffic – it has never looked quite so appealing.

48 hours, 15 cups of tea, 3 aircraft, 7 coach and car journeys, a handful of wet wipes and one can of lager later, our dishevelled bunch arrived slightly less fresh, a tad less chirpy but no less excited to finally have made it home in one piece.

Now it’s off for a bath, crisp clean sheets and that bucket of wine I’ve been promising myself. A long journey perhaps, but thoroughly worth it to finally be home.

Two Magic Letters…

There are two letters, or more specifically one repeated that are music to the ears of anyone who has ever done a six-month tour….R & R.

I have now reached almost my four-month point and today I fly out for a spot of relaxation back home.

Over my various outings across theatre, I have often asked soldiers what things they are most looking forward to when they go home on R&R. The answers are varied, but a theme they all have in common is just how simple they all are.

For one soldier from 2 Lancs, it was a pint (or six I suspect) down the pub with his mates. A huge mixed grill was top of the list for one of the airmen from the RAF Regiment. For a Gurkha from 1 Royal Gurkha Rifles, it was to celebrate the festival of Desain with his wife and children. And one officer from the Royal Dragoon Guards was looking forward to a smart meal and ‘a good glass of red’.

I’ve seen the eyes of quite a few grown men moisten at the mention of seeing their kids again; and some serious dog-lovers rave about their reunions with man’s best friend. Many are in desperate need of a haircut and many (and not just the women) are looking forward to a spot of pampering.

My plan for the next couple of weeks is not much different. It involves a large bubble bath, an equally large bucket of wine, a tasty meal eaten off a real plate with cutlery that ‘chinks’ rather than snaps in two, a run in the rain, and seeing my fantastic family – including one new nephew I haven’t met yet, and another due any day.

After spending months never feeling quite clean or rested, approaching meals as nothing more than an opportunity to refuel and for many out on the ground never being able to truly relax, it’s the simplest things in life that become sheer luxury and the light at the end of the R&R tunnel.

An Afghan date…

 

I never thought that visiting a Patrol Base in the heart of Nad e Ali would turn into social event, but then Afghanistan never ceases to amaze me.

My partner-in-crime Will and I have been out for the last few days around the Nad e Ali North area of operations. At one Patrol Base, we were kindly hosted by James, an officer with the Scots Guards and the liaison officer with the Afghan National Army. As with most Patrol Bases, the Afghan security forces live and work with the ISAF troops so we popped along to their row of tents to say hello.

The Company commander, Major Asif was charming and invited us in to his command hut for tea. We had a good chat about the area and the challenges of his job, after which he kindly invited us to come back for lunch with him and his men.

It was market day at the local bazaar – which is well stocked and a sign of hope that security is improving in the area – so his men had been out doing some retail therapy.

They returned to the patrol base laden down with bags of fresh radishes, mushrooms, some kind of grass-like vegetable that looked and tasted like the ends of spring onions, tomatoes, a couple of chickens (still squawking) and a few bottles of coke.

Although we were a little concerned that the local river – which is used for all washing of vegetables, cooking utensils, hands, and indeed for all other ablution purposes – may not agree with our delicate western stomachs, we accepted the generous offer of Afghan hospitality.

We were not disappointed. We sat cross-legged on the floor of the commander’s hut and were treated to fried chicken, seasoned rice, fresh salad; all washed down with chilled coke.

His officers and the interpreters were very friendly and full of banter so it was a very convivial affair. One young Lieutenant who we were told was a force to be reckoned with in the area then invited me to a party down at his check-point. He said he would ‘show me his IEDs’. A tempting offer, and let’s face it a refreshing change from ‘do you come here often’. Sadly I had to decline as we were due back in Bastion the next day, so a social jaunt to a check-point ten kilometres away for the night was not an option.

I am happy to say though that not only did our delicate constitutions digest our delicious lunch without a hitch, but our party with the Afghan National Army is the closest I’ve come to a social life in the three and a half months I’ve been in theatre. Fantastic.