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Coming home: 3 Para Battlegroup talk about their battle with the Taliban

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Coming home: 3 Para Battlegroup talk about their battle with the Taliban
12 Oct 06
450,000 rifle and machine gun rounds, 7,500 mortar rockets and 4,000 light artillery rounds fired. These statistics illustrate the level of intensity which the 3 Para Battlegroup faced during their recent tour of duty in Afghanistan.

It was a deployment which saw the Battlegroup involved in some of the most ferocious fighting faced in a generation. But for the personnel, now coming home, it was just a job, and a job many found to be the most rewarding of their careers.

The Battlegroup consisted of the 3 Para Battalion of 16 Air Assault Brigade, and included support units from the Royal Engineers, Military Police, Gurkhas and the RAF.

They deployed to southern Afghanistan in April 2006. Their mission was to support the Afghan Police and Afghan Army to bring security and stability to the region. In doing so they faced incredibly tough fighting during a number of offensive actions.

One operation involved a Pathfinder platoon spending 52 days in the town of Musa Qal'eh. They were engaged in fighting for 26 of the 52 days. And patrols going into the town of Sangin faced a 70% chance of contact with the Taliban:

"It takes a certain amount of courage to go into that kind of zone," said a senior commander, "especially when some of your friends have recently been killed in action.

"It has been a particularly difficult operation. We were going into the unknown. But none of us expected to go out there and not have to fight the Taliban. It was clear we would have to go out on a war footing. You can't begin reconstruction work without first bringing security."

16 Soldiers form the Battlegroup were sadly killed while in Afghanistan. Despite the intensity of the fighting and formidability of the Taliban, which some of the soldiers described, most of them still saw their experience in Afghanistan as incredibly positive and rewarding.

Lieutenant Nichol Benzie RN is currently on secondment to 18 Squadron RAF. He spent two months in Afghanistan as Operations Officer in Camp Bastion. His role was to plan and co-ordinate all aviation taskings beyond routine re-supplies. And there were lots of operations beyond the routine. He regularly flew Chinook helicopters into combat situations:

"It's bloody challenging flying conditions. At night the light levels are unbelievably low and it's unbelievably dusty too. You can't see anything when landing out there.

"I was regularly attacked, and heavily most of the time. On one occasion I was leading five aircraft, and was briefed that if I landed and started unloading my troops, everyone else had to land too, no matter what.

"Within three or four seconds of my guys starting to get off, we were opened up on from seven machine gun points."

Later when the area was secured, around 8,000 AK47 rounds were found. Lieutenant Benzie's team took only two hits:

"It's very surreal," Lt Benzie continued. "It's your standard training. You identify your landing site, get in as quick as possible, but then you see the machine gun tracer and know you just have to stay there. It's hard to put into words. But the training kicks in. Although you do see bullets coming in and think they could easily hit you, but our training is second to none."

"The ferocity with which the Taliban fight takes Afghanistan to another level."

Lt Benzie RN
Lt Benzie was in Iraq in 2003, but hasn't seen anything like the Taliban before:

"That was exciting, but the ferocity with which the Taliban fight takes Afghanistan to another level. They know what they are doing, you can see them learning and watching everyday. So you have to be imaginative and develop cunning yourself."

Despite the constant threats and fierceness of the Taliban, Lt Benzie found the deployment rewarding:

"Professionally it was the best two months I have had. I have never worked so hard. But it was the best experience and quite good fun to co-ordinate and lead the aircraft. It's what you join to do."

Master Andrew 'Dex' Mann echoed Lt Benzie's experiences. From the Mobile Air Operations Team, 'Dex' acts as the link between the RAF and the Army. He described his time in Afghanistan:

"Very busy and extremely interesting," he said. "You're doing the job for real, as opposed to exercises. And in some respect it's easier than exercises, where there can often be more aircraft to organise.

"It was a fantastic privilege to do the job and work out there with 3 Para in such an austere environment. The dust out there is like talcum powder. It gets into everything, your computer systems, your kits. It's very annoying."

Rifleman Rupendra Rai, from 2 Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles, also saw how fierce an enemy the Taliban are when he was involved in a significant ambush early on in the Battlegroup's deployment.

"The Taliban know what they are doing," he said, "they are well trained and are hardcore fighters, they have been for years."

Rifleman Rai was in a vehicle convoy when they were attacked with multiple weapons systems:

"We got out the vehicle and took cover. We had to fire while manoeuvring to get out. There was a big fire fight before we gained the initiative. We managed to get our two vehicles out of the killing zone and then called in air support. We were the first to use the Apache's."

Like most of the returning soldiers, Rifleman Rai praised his training for getting him through the ambush:

"Initially it was a bit scary. We are human. But the training kicks in and your body does what you 're trained to do and you get more confident."

Having also trained as a Para, Master 'Dex' claims to be the only Loadmaster to have jumped out of a helicopter. Although he didn't jump out of any helicopters in Afghanistan:

"That would be stupid," he quipped.

Sgt Major Mic Bolton from 3 Para embraces his girlfriend as he arrives at Colchester barracks
[Picture: Cpl A L Belgrave]

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The Times October 12, 2006

Glad to be home, but Paras mourn 16 lost in action
By Michael Evans, Defence Editor

Major Hew Williams greets his one-year-old son, Ieuan, on arrival at the Colchester Garrison (Chris Harris)
THE Paras are back after one of the most traumatic series of battles in recent times, fighting for six months with the Taleban in southern Afghanistan.
But the relief of homecoming for the men of 16 Air Assault Brigade was tempered with sadness and loss; 16 of their comrades have been killed in action during their six months in action.

As the soldiers returned to their home base in Colchester, their experience in Helmand province could be best summed up by the amount of ammunition they they fired: 4,500 rifle rounds, 4,300 high explosive shells, more than 1,050 grenades, 7,500 mortar rounds and 85 anti-tank missiles.

“No doubt about it, these guys have faced an intensity of combat that hasn’t been faced for a generation,” a senior officer said.

However, some of the most poignant stories emerging at Hyderabad Barracks were from the non-combative soldiers.

Many never expected to fire a weapon but were forced to shoot to save their lives and those of their comrades.

Two soldiers from the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME) spent seven hours with the 16 Air Assault Brigade’s Pathfinder Platoon in Musa Qala, in northern Helmand, holding back a fierce attack by the Taleban.

Their extraordinary experience was recounted by Staff Sergeant Craig Midgley, 28, who spent his six-months’ tour at Camp Bastion, the British base in Helmand.

“We had a call from the Pathfinders in Musa Qala who said they had a problem with one of their Wimics (a converted Land Rover equipped with a heavy machine gun). It needed a new clutch, so we sent up two guys in a helicopter to help them out,” he said.

“They got it repaired but when the Chinook came to extract them, it couldn’t land because there was a lot of dust in the air and it had to fly off. The Pathfinders can’t just sit around, they had to carry on with their operation, so the two REME blokes were embedded with them and were part of a Wimic crew and became involved in direct attacks against the Taleban. They loved it, it’s not what the average REME soldier expects to be doing.”

One of the engineers was injured when a hot shell case landed on his neck. Staff Sergeant Midgley, 28, from Queensbury. in North Yorkshire, said that the Chinook eventually managed to lift the two mechanics to homebase.

Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal, the commanding officer of the 3 Para battle group, said: “In this sort of combat action all sorts of soldiers are required to fight.”

The Paras have been replaced in Helmand by the Royal Marines.