Introduction: ‘THE ROAD TO HELMAND’
40 Commando Royal Marines in Afghanistan 2007–08
From September 2007 through to April 2008, 40 Commando Royal Marines, known simply as 40 Commando, deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan as the core Battle Group in the UK’s contribution to the international military operation in that country. Following the devastating terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001, the international community became involved in military activity in Afghanistan and by the time 40 Commando came to deploy, over 40 nations had committed military forces to the UN-mandated, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to bring peace and security to Afghanistan. The seven month deployment was to be one of the most complex, and challenging, in the unit’s recent history; indeed, such was the human cost to the unit the only comparable recent military operation, in terms of casualties sustained, was over a sustained period during the Malaya Campaign in the 1950s. The unit was being deployed to bring security and military support to a region of southern Afghanistan, with a clear focus on enabling activity to be undertaken by the institutions of Afghanistan’s government. But to achieve this it would be necessary to face an intractable, determined and utterly ruthless enemy. As a result, all constituent parts of the unit would see action, and one or other element would be in action on 188 out of the 194 days during which 40 Commando was deployed as Battle Group North in the UK sector.
This extreme level of enemy engagement across Helmand was, however, by no means atypical for ISAF forces deployed at that time. The insurgency was well established and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA) had little, or no, control over vast swathes of territory. From 2006, when UK forces first deployed to Helmand in significant numbers, the situation had been exceptionally dangerous and when 40 Commando deployed as part of Operation Herrick 7 (Herrick being the official codename for UK military operations in Afghanistan), the situation remained complex and highly fluid. But progress was being made, albeit slowly, and footholds were being established across the UK’s area of responsibility. 40 Commando were determined to maintain the forward momentum that previous UK forces had generated. The operational experience of the men in the unit was varied. For the vast majority of the men in the unit this would be their first major operational deployment since completing commando training with the Royal Marines. For a few it would be a return to familiar ground, having deployed with 45 Commando Royal Marines some years earlier during the initial military response to the 9/11 attacks. Others had experience of military operations such as Iraq and Northern Ireland. Regardless of their starting point, it rapidly became clear that the nature of military operations in Afghanistan throughout the 2007–08 deployment would be a unique experience that would test their resolve, determination and courage to the maximum.
A Royal Marines Commando unit is manned, equipped and trained to undertake amphibious operations, recognised as one of the most complex and challenging types of military operation that modern forces undertake. With this pedigree they are well suited to highly fluid, dynamic environments such as Afghanistan, but as with any military operation, they would need to train and prepare for the specifics of the terrain and enemy they would face. In the 12 months preceding 40 Commando’s deployment, the unit was providing a rapid response component of the Naval Service, known as the Lead Commando Group, which would spearhead any UK engagement in contingency operation, anywhere in the world. From its base in Taunton, Somerset the unit was held at extremely high readiness and on a very short notice to deploy globally, and undertook training exercises in Europe and West Africa to continuously hone both its amphibious and general military skills. Fortuitously this proved to be an outstanding period of preparation for Afghanistan. Split into four generic companies (each of approximately 125 men) equipped with a variety of weapon and vehicle types, with a headquarters company providing command and control and a logistics element to provide the essential life-support both in barracks and on deployment, the unit bonded in the jungles of Sierra Leone, on the beaches of Poland and Denmark, and across the military training areas of Great Britain. And when it was time to switch focus and concentrate wholly on the challenges of Afghanistan, the core of the unit was already a welldrilled and exceptionally capable military force.
There was however still a considerable road that the unit had to travel before it would be ready to deploy to Helmand. Numerous issues had to be overcome and the unit headquarters developed a plan of action to address these. Manpower was the immediate concern. As the Lead Commando Group, 40 Commando was optimised for conventional force-on-force military operations; in order to get the unit to the fighting strength it would require for a counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan, 40 Commando would require some additional manpower and this came primarily from members of the Royal Marines Reserve. Some 87 part-time commandos volunteered to deploy with the unit to Afghanistan, representing 10 per cent of the unit’s manpower. It would be a significant undertaking to prepare such a large contingent of reservists, both physically and mentally, for the forthcoming operation but such was their motivation and determination that, by the time the unit deployed, it was almost impossible to tell reservist from his regular counterpart. They were subsequently to play a part, and do so with distinction, in every event or action that the unit undertook in Afghanistan.
The Commando unit deployed to Afghanistan as part of 52 Infantry Brigade, a British Army Infantry Brigade, the headquarters of which was located within the spectacular setting of Edinburgh Castle. 40 Commando was transferred from its parent formation, 3Commando Brigade Royal Marines based in Plymouth, to provide the principle fighting and ground holding force of the nascent Task Force. They would be joined by 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, an infantry battalion who would deploy to mentor officers and soldiers from the Afghanistan National Army; two squadrons and the headquarters from the Household Cavalry Regiment, an armoured infantry regiment equipped with tracked reconnaissance vehicles; elements of the Coldstream Guards, another infantry battalion; and a wide assortment of other army units who would provide essential combat and logistical support. The Task Force headquarters rapidly expanded and as they worked to get to know one another, the command elements of the various units and smaller sub-units developed a programme of activity and joint training which would develop operating procedures and processes between them, prior to committal into the operational theatre. This proved to be a busy time for the unit. As well as developing the wide range of new skills that would be needed to operate in Afghanistan (such as explosive search training, driver training, language training and numerous other such courses), the unit needed to train and exercise alongside a variety of units and organisations who would deploy at the same time, and who would shortly be required to fight alongside them. This was to prove a very demanding task but the daily reports received from the units already deployed in Afghanistan, detailing the nature of the fight and the casualties they were sustaining, undoubtedly helped focus minds and ensure that enthusiasm for the pre-deployment training never waned.
The training progression, concentrating initially on individual skills through to small team tactics and then whole unit training with other elements of the Task Force either attached or in support, was a major undertaking and required considerable flexibility and improvisation to make it work. In early 2007, as the unit got into its stride, access to Afghanistan-specific equipment that was being developed was limited. However, pragmatic as ever, the Marines pushed forward with their UK preparations, with the knowledge that a period of acclimatisation and further training would follow at Camp Bastion, the main UK base in Helmand Province. By the time 40 Commando, now operating in its Afghanistan configuration as Battle Group North, conducted its final Mission Rehearsal Exercise in late summer 2007 the unit was ready, indeed was eager, to deploy. And given the steady flow of situation reports emanating from Helmand throughout its preparation period, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind, from the most junior Marine to the experienced officers and warrant officers, that the unit would be war-fighting. To a man, they were keen to get on with it but the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan, and the mission that the unit would be undertaking, required very careful consideration before the troops were committed to action. When deployed in a conventional warfighting role, a commando unit will fight as a cohesive entity with sub-units positioned on the battlefield in such a manner as to be able to provide direct support to one another; in Helmand it would be different. The unit was not being deployed to conduct large-scale Battle Group attacks (although it would subsequently undertake a major Task Force operation in exactly this role around the Taliban sanctuary of Musa Qala), rather it was to deploy to provide security and stability across an exceptionally wide region in order that development and progress could be made on governance and population-focussed projects. As such the unit would be widely dispersed, with the individual sub-units required to operate as small, largely self-reliant enclaves of military capability. Selecting the right individual for the right area of Helmand would be the key to unit’s success or otherwise.
In constructing the overarching operational design for the deployment there was a significant complicating factor; each of the areas into which the sub-units were to be deployed were quite different (economically, geographically, tribally) and each would place different demands and challenges on the men and officers deployed. It was clear that one size would not fit all. It was essential to match the correct commanders and their sub-units with the correct area. The decision as to which sub-unit deploys to which location rests with the Commanding Officer and, whilst the unit personnel continued their Helmand-specific preparation (such as weapon training, explosive search training, fitness and medical training), during the first six months of 2007 a number of exploratory deployments were made by 40 Commando’s command group to determine exactly what was required at each site. The Battle Group North area of Helmand was extremely large and contained a number of population centres of various sizes and tribal disposition. As gaining the trust and support of the population would be the key to success, for both sides in the conflict, these small towns and villages naturally became the focus for much of 40 Commando’s effort. The population centres were, however, widely dispersed across the unit’s area of responsibility but the majority tended to be close to, or in, the Green Zone, the highly cultivated area immediately adjacent to the Helmand River. A criss-cross of irrigation ditches and man-made canals, the Green Zone would prove to be a dangerous and deadly environment. It provided perfect cover, camouflage and concealment for the insurgent, and would be a heavily contested region for the duration of the unit’s deployment. Also within the Battle Group’s area of responsibility lay Kajaki Dam with its attendant hydroelectric sub-station, a hugely emblematic construction which, although not functioning at the time of the unit’s deployment, had the potential to deliver much needed electrical power for the Helmand Valley and beyond. Both the Taliban and ISAF/GIROA forces understood the potential significance of the dam to the population of Helmand and recognised that it provided an opportunity to positively influence ordinary Afghans. Like the Green Zone, this would also be a heavily contested area for the duration of 40 Commando’s deployment.
The initial force laydown for 40 Commando’s tour was confirmed in mid-summer 2007, enabling the officers and men of each sub-unit to focus upon the unique challenges they would face in their particular area, and to prepare both mentally and physically for this. The Battle Group headquarters would be based at Camp Bastion, a large tented facility that was rapidly expanding across an isolated region on the Helmand desert plain. It would be co-located with many of the assets that would provide direct support to the unit, such as helicopters (both heavy lift Chinook support helicopters, which were critical for casualty evacuation and logistic resupply, and the outstanding Apache attack helicopter) and the first class medical facility, which provided trauma and intensive care services of the very highest order. At Camp Bastion, the headquarters staff would direct and support operations in accordance with the overarching plan, and would co-ordinate the logistics activity necessary to provide essential support for an organisation that rapidly expanded to over 1,000 personnel (at its peak 40 Commando, as Battle Group North, numbered over 1,500 men and women from some 15 different sub-units). Bravo Company would deploy to the major population centre in the Battle Group’s area, Sangin, and would be predominately focussed on the civilian population and the challenges of patrolling in an urban environment; Sangin was the designated Main Effort for the Battle Group and all other activity across the region was shaped and developed to provide support to activities such as education programmes, governance meeting and police training being undertaken there. Delta Company would deploy north-west of Sangin to another population centre called Nowzad, at that time an abandoned settlement which the Taliban routinely transited through en-route to their safe-haven in Musa Qala (which itself was situated only 20km directly north of Sangin). Alpha Company would deploy north-east of Sangin, following the run of the Helmand River towards the Kajaki Dam feature. They would occupy an extremely basic location, little more than a square of protective sandbags when they arrived, which would become known as Forward Operating Base (FOB) Inkerman. Situated right on the edge of the Green Zone, their task would be to intercept and disrupt enemy movement towards Sangin and effectively soak up the pressure that the enemy would apply in an attempt to counter the activity which Bravo Company would attempt to initiate. Charlie Company was given the task of defending and maintaining security at the Kajaki Dam, the furthest manned outpost in the Battle Group’s area. Accessible only by helicopter, this was a particularly exposed location where leadership of the highest order would be required. Finally, Echo Company, with personnel drawn from the unit’s headquarters and logistic personnel, was formed to operate from FOB Robinson due south of Sangin. From here they would perform the same function as Alpha Company at FOB Inkerman, effectively acting as a block to prevent enemy infiltration into Sangin.
The confirmed laydown was briefed to the sub-unit commanders along with Confirmatory Orders detailing their missions and tasks prior to the unit taking summer leave through August 2007. This was the last time the whole unit would be together until the deployment was completed. Immediately after summer leave, the Battle Group deployed over a five-week window of frenetic activity. The Main Effort was developing the security situation in Sangin. Supported by activity to disrupt the enemy in and around FOBs Inkerman and Robinson, Bravo Company would set about this task alongside the Afghan Army and newly established Afghan Police units. Delta Company would be attempting to expand the area of Afghan government influence by seeking ways to entice the local population back into Nowzad, whilst concurrently interfering with Taliban movement in the north of the area, and Charlie Company would hold the Kajaki complex, maintaining a buffer zone between the dam and the Taliban controlled territory a mere 2km away. All sub-units would be on the ground and interacting with civilians daily. They would, however, operate with significant constraints on their actions as they operated within clearly defined Rules of Engagement and legal constraints through adherence to the Laws of Armed Conflict, both areas covered in detail during the pre-deployment training. The enemy had no such constraints upon them. The insurgent moved amongst the people, looked like the local population, and both through intimidation and tribal ties and family allegiances, was permitted to live amongst them. This would demand the most amazing restraint from commanders, Marines and soldiers alike and, if the Battle Group was to succeed in its mission, the very highest standards to command and control would be necessary.
From the outset, Battle Group North reached out to the civilian population across its area, and sought to work alongside the indigenous security forces. Working in conjunction with military forces from a range of ISAF countries (particularly Estonia, Denmark and the US), activity was shaped in order to develop an environment of trust with the people. But gaining trust from a population that had known little but conflict for over 30 years was an immense challenge, and it was clear from the outset that success in Helmand would be measured in inches gained rather than the hard miles run. The anticipation of the Marines in the days leading up to deployment was palpable, but so too was the trepidation and nervousness of the friends and families that would be left behind. As the unit headed to Helmand it was clear about what it needed to do, and was equipped with the skills necessary to do it. This was, after all, what each man had chosen to be a part of. Each had reconciled himself to the risks and prepared himself, and his family, as best he could. And each, regardless of role or task, would work selflessly for the men and women around him. The actions of those who deployed as part of Battle Group North, 40 Commando’s 2007–08 deployment to Helmand Province, demonstrated the very highest standards of honour and integrity, of service and sacrifice throughout. The unit played its part with conviction, determination and the utmost professionalism, and when it was time to return to the UK at the end
of the deployment, it left behind a situation markedly improved for the people of the region.
With this context for the deployment laid out, it is now for the diaries of those intimately involved with the activity on the ground, both officers and men, to provide substance to the story of 40 Commando’s participation in Operation Herrick 7
Excerpted from Helmand by Simon Weston. Copyright © 2013 by Anonymous. Excerpted by permission of Osprey Publishing, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.