3 Platoon, A Company,
2 Rifles in Sangin speak about the horror of the attack that
killed three comrades


The Times Online


August 18, 2009
Tears on the front line: battle-weary forces tell of fatal
Taleban attack


As the dust cleared around them, revealing the terribly injured body of one of their
comrades, the fusiliers knew that the horror might have only just begun.
Three of their number had died on Thursday in the same green zone south of Sangin —
killed by a secondary device that exploded among soldiers trying to rescue the wounded
from the first blast.
Shortly after first light on Sunday, the same was about to happen again, killing three more
British soldiers and taking the death toll to 204.
As the troops of 3 Platoon, A Company, 2 Rifles battlegroup carried their casualty through
reeds on the bank of the Helmand River towards ground that was clear enough for a medical
helicopter to land upon, another blast ripped through them.
“I was blown on to my backside,” said Sergeant-Major Pete Burney. “I thought, ‘That’s me
then’ but as I picked myself up I saw I hadn’t a scratch. Then I realised we were among a
belt of IEDs [improvised explosive devices].”
To his right he could see a medic, a woman who seconds earlier had been attempting to
resuscitate the first casualty, but who had been blown past him and lay wounded on the
ground. Another fusilier and a Royal Military Police corporal were injured. A fusilier lay
dead among more IEDs.

Sangin has become synonymous with the Taleban’s weapon of choice. The town once
notorious for the gun battles between British soldiers and the Taleban is now the focus of an
intensive bombing campaign by the insurgents before this week’s elections in Afghanistan.
2 Rifles has suffered more casualties over the 4_ months of its tour than any British unit
serving in Helmand. Twenty soldiers have been killed from the mixed unit of riflemen and
fusiliers, including six in the past week. The number of wounded, a figure that cannot be
disclosed for security reasons, ranks alongside that suffered by British infantry units during
fighting in Europe in the Second World War.
The bombs — activated by a soldier’s foot, a command wire, or radio wave — are
multiplying in number and sophistication, swamping the best efforts of British engineers
and explosives experts. A total of 303 bombs have been found by the battlegroup since their
tour began on April 10, up from the 283 found during the previous unit’s six-month
deployment. During one operation troops came across 30 in a day.
“The enemy intent is clear: to block us in with a series of defensive IED belts which stop us
from engaging with the local population,” said Major Karl Hickman, A Company’s
commanding officer, who has lost ten soldiers to the bombers.
A number of triple amputations have been among the casualties. There have been lucky
escapes too. Corporal Ryan Hone, 23, a section commander in 2 Platoon, 2 Rifles, has been
blown up or over four times by IEDS. “I’ve still got five lives left,” he said yesterday. “Of
course it worries us all a bit but I’ve got to show the lads we’ve got a job to do.”
Sometimes the soldiers rely on the naked eye to spot the bombs, while at other times
intuition plays a factor in survival. Fijian troops serving in the battlegroup have an uncanny
reputation for anticipating bombs by spotting discrepancies in the behaviour of locals


More often, the troops rely on the front man of the platoon, equipped with a metal detector.
“The courage of the guy at the front is unbelievable,” said Lieutenant Alan Williamson, 26,
3 Platoon’s commander. “They know that if they miss something it’s either them or their
friends. The pressure on them is incredible.”
So it was with foreboding that Sergeant-Major Burney saw a party of Royal Engineer IED
specialists clearing a route towards him and his wounded and dead soldiers on Sunday.
“When I saw them appear it was like the cavalry arriving,” he said, “but then I realised that
we’d only moved around a few feet and already been blown up twice, so I was worried that
the same thing was going to happen again.”
Indeed, as he concentrated on treating one of his wounded soldiers, one of the first things
the Royal Engineer team discovered as they arrived on the scene was another bomb a metre
behind the sergeant-major, one of six at the site.
The soldiers eventually recovered all their casualties (one of whom hobbled out on two
broken ankles to save the effort of being stretchered), evacuating the dead and wounded by
helicopter before returning to their base in Sangin on foot. Little over three hours had passed
since the first bomb had exploded.
The survivors were among those who conducted a memorial service that afternoon for the
three dead and a fourth soldier from the battlegroup who was killed by a bomb the previous
evening. It was a brief and moving affair, held on the dust of a landing strip inside Sangin’s
fortified walls. There were not a few tears.
The soldiers here are now familiar with the process of grieving. When possible, a small
group of them are flown to Camp Bastion to say goodbye to their dead, attending the ramp
ceremonies for the bodies flown back to Britain. Those remaining in Sangin hold their own
service, then write eulogies for their dead friends, before sorting out their personal effects,
which are also flown home.

The new form of warfare may be one of massive strain and heavy casualties, but A
Company has never had a soldier who has refused to go out on an operation, nor one who
has claimed to be too traumatised to continue.
“If they’re shooting at you, then you can do something,” said the sergeant- major. “But
walking along, not knowing what each step may bring . . . We’ve got 18-year-olds out here
seeing things they never should. Horrific injuries. We’ve had a continuous process of death
or serious injury. Now grief is a process that they deal with much better than at the
beginning of the tour. And it hasn’t stopped us. The riflemen still crack on.”
His company commander, Major Hickman, was as succinct. “I’ve got 18-year-olds who six
weeks after coming here are different people,” he said. “To take three fatalities, then another
three, is a tough thing for the guys to understand. But we have to carry on doing it because
if we don’t, then the Taleban will push even closer. We have to carry on so that this
sacrifice isn’t in vain, and because it is expected of us by the population of Afghanistan and
the UK.”

Sent in by
Mike Murray