Special Report March 2007

royal marines in big battle with tailiban

by Iain Ballantyne

Kajaki Dam

Above: The vital reservoir behind the Kajaki Dam, which the Royal Marines are determined to protect from the Taliban. Photo: Royal Navy.

Below: One of the Apaches takes off, with Royal Marines perilously embarked. Photo:  Sgt Garry Stanton/Royal Air Force.

Apaches Afghanistan

Above: A British commando during clearance operations near the Kajaki Dam. Photo: PO (Phot) Sean Clee/ 3 Cdo Bde RMs.

Below: Royal Marines in combat as they fight to secure the area around the Kajaki Dam. Photo: LA (Phot) Gaz Faulkner/ 42 Cdo RMs.

Kajaki Dam

A big battle around a key dam in southern Afghanistan was shaping up this month (Feb), with an estimated 700 Taliban fighters pouring across the border into Helmand Province from Pakistan.
The Kajaki Dam is possibly the lynchpin for the entire NATO campaign in the south of the war-torn country, for if a secure environment can be created it will be able to provide power to the poverty stricken province and help revive it after decades of war.

However, reports suggest that the fanatical Taliban fighters are determined to destroy the same, a move that is being contested by the Royal Marines of 42 Commando, one of the Royal Navy’s key amphibious infantry units. Here, as the battle around Kajaki develops we look back on the past few months of heavy fighting involving the sea soldiers of the Royal Marines in one of their most fraught campaigns since the Falklands War of 25 years ago.

An assault on a Taliban fort in Afghanistan by Royal Marines belonging to 3 Commando Brigade resulted in an amazing feat of arms in which British servicemen strapped themselves to the outside of Apache helicopter gunships, in order to make an attempt to snatch a missing comrade in arms from the clutches of the enemy.

The attack against the Jugroom Fort of Garmsir, Helmand Province, began at dawn on January 15, with marines from Z Company, 45 Commando, mounted in their lightly armoured (but amphibious) Viking AFVs, and supported by tanks from C Squadron, Light Dragoons, crossing the Helmand River to the south west of the enemy position. 

Earlier, the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) had secured the crossing point and once the 45 Cdo marines were across, they dismounted from the Vikings to engage the Taliban with small arms fire. The attack was supported by fire from 105mm howitzers belonging to 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, and the assault engineers of 59 Independent Squadron Royal Engineers, along with elements of 32 Regiment Royal Artillery plus Apache attack helicopters and strike aircraft. Earlier, I Company - a unit composed of marines from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines’ Command Support Group - had, alongside the Afghan National Police, conducted an attack north of the fort.  The marines and soldiers of 3 Commando Brigade are currently the spearhead combat and training formation of the UK Task Force (UKTF), which has been committed to operations in southern Afghanistan under NATO.

The assault on the Jugroom Fort provoked ferocious Taliban fire from all sides but, as planned, Z Company withdrew back to the far side of the Helmand River having successfully disrupted enemy preparations for their own offensive against NATO troops. The engagement lasted for approximately five hours and it is believed a number of Taliban ‘targets’ were killed but the UK Ministry of Defence said it was not possible to give an exact figure.

It was as the marines regrouped on the far side of the river that they discovered Lance Corporal Mathew Ford was missing. An initial plan was hatched, to use Viking vehicles, but it was soon concluded that Apache WAH-64 attack helicopters would provide a quicker and safer means to get him out and back to safety. A Ministry of Defence statement explained how the rescue mission unfolded: “Four marines were strapped to the small side ‘wings’ of two Apaches, two to each helicopter. A third Apache provided aerial cover, and further units laid down a mass of covering fire while the other two Apaches landed.” L/Cpl Ford was lying by the walls of the fort, but it was not known what condition he was in.
It transpired that he was dead - killed in the heat of battle by a Taliban bullet. Lieutenant Colonel Rory Bruce, spokesman for the Royal Marines in Afghanistan, later observed: “It was a leap into the unknown. This is believed to be the first time UK forces have ever tried this type of rescue mission. It was an extraordinary tale of heroism and bravery of our airmen, soldiers and marines who were all prepared to put themselves back into the line of fire to rescue a fallen comrade.”
One of the four rescuers who rode in on an Apache was Regimental Sgt Major Colin Hearn, of 3 Commando Brigade’s Landing Force Command Support Group. He had watched the battle unfold via a real-time visual link provided by an Unmanned Air Vehicle loitering over the Jugroom Fort. When the Army Air Corps offered to take four men in using Apaches, RSM Hearn did not hesitate to put himself in the frame. “I’m a Royal Marine, I’m the RSM of the unit, he’s a Royal Marine the same as me - there’s no way we were ever going to leave him, or anyone else, on that battlefield.”

Explaining the rationale behind the initial attack on the fort, Lt Col Bruce added: “Our intention was to show the insurgents that they are not safe anywhere, that we are able to reach out to them and attack whenever and wherever we choose, even where they think they are at their safest. To that end, the mission was a success and the insurgents now know we can and will strike at any time. By conducting operations on this basis we do not allow the Taliban to regroup and rearm during the winter period.  The attack reflects UKTF’s intent to restore confidence in the local population in the Garmsir area, to allow locals to improve their livelihoods without fear of persecution from Taliban.”

Lt Col Bruce explained that NATO is making big efforts to restore security around the deserted town of Garmsir. “This is so that the reconstruction effort can continue and Garmsir can once again thrive as the southern gateway to the Helmand development zone,” he explained. “Taliban forces have been present in the area for several months, causing much of the local population to disperse.

The operation sought to help provide a secure environment and reassure the population that they can begin to return to their homes. This will then allow NATO to begin the process of reconstruction in the area.” Prior to the attack on the Jugroom Fort which cost the young marine his life, the British commandos had throughout the Christmas and New Year period been involved in daily battles with the Taliban.  Based at Lashkar Gah, the marines from Multiple One (India Company), had seen action in the no-man’s land to the south of their Forward Operating Base (FOB) Delhi, another outpost in the dangerous district of Garmsir. Before the malevolent Taliban moved in, Garmsir itself used to boast a bustling bazaar and busy high street. Today, any movement tends to draw enemy fire. The bridge on the only route in and out of the town receives sniper fire whenever it is crossed.

There was a fierce firefight on December 24, as the resourceful and determined Taliban mounted an attack on Royal Marine positions. Marine Eddie Cain, a member of Multiple One described the firefight: “During a fairly routine morning, some small arms fire was exchanged, but nothing unusual until, finally, 51mm mortars were dropped onto a Taliban position, followed by some 105mm shells which seemed to finish the contact. Having just been instructed to head back to Delhi at around 1.30pm, the Taliban opened fire on us out of nowhere with Rocket-Propelled Grenades, RPGs, and impressively accurate small arms fire. They had managed to sneak within 200m of our position using the dried up canals and trenches. Immediately we jumped behind the foot-tall sandbag wall to return fire, only to be beaten back by the bullets ripping through our protection. Rolling back from the trench I realised a round had gone through my shirt, just missing my shoulder - for the second time in three days! We then laid down a heavy weight of machine gun fire, giving us the chance to regroup and re-assault the Taliban as they appeared again. I looked to my left and saw our vehicles taking fire and raced down to provide them with some cover. Jumping into our WMIK - a Land Rover with Weapons Mount Installation Kit - I shunted back another vehicle so that I could bring the 50 calibre machine gun into good position. All the while, more RPGs and small arms fire were being fired at us.

As soon as there was a lull in the firing I jumped into position and fired into the compound that was protecting the Taliban fighters. We were relieved around 3.30pm so that we could go back to camp.” Although the marines have been involved in fierce fighting with the Taliban they have also been patrolling surrounding villages, trying to reassure the locals, and gain their confidence, explaining to them the reason for the UK troops being deployed. Captain Tom Evans-Jones, Officer Commanding, Multiple 1 said: “The way the men conducted themselves throughout the fighting was a testament to the rigorous training they undergo to become a Royal Marine Commando, but I was particularly impressed by the control they displayed. They were able to immediately switch from aggressive actions to winning the hearts and minds of locals, which is essential to what we are trying to achieve. We have to provide security and stability so that the local population can rebuild their lives in this previously thriving town without fear of the Taliban.”

Combining the need to win hearts and minds while dealing with an implacable foe, Royal Marines in Afghanistan in the first days of 2007 enjoyed one of their biggest successes to date. Operation Clay, as the four-day sweep was codenamed, was launched on New Year’s Day and the marines killed dozens of Taliban fighters, thereby making it possible for repairs to be carried out on a hydroelectric dam in the north of restless Helmand.

The Taliban had been disrupting repairs to turbines at the dam, on the Helmand River, which was built in 1953. When in operation it can supply power to 1.8 million people, in addition to boosting irrigation projects. Over 100 marines of 42 Commando’s M Company attacked the Taliban in a training camp and at other lesser locations, including clearing a cave complex. One marine was slightly injured in the operation - a gunshot wound to the hand. However it resulted in the deaths of many Taliban foot soldiers and also one of their commanders.  A spokesman of the Royal Marines in Afghanistan described the dead Taliban commander as “a man of considerable influence in Kajaki.”

Military spokesman Major Oliver Lee, based in Lashkar Gah, told reporters: “We needed to sort out the insurgency that there has been in the environs of Kajaki and we did that very successfully, with some very focused, targeted military operations, which included killing the key insurgency commander at that location. It involved running firefights for three or four days against fairly coherent, sustained attacks of small arms, rockets and indirect fire. It was a very meaningful fight.” One of the major achievements during the operation was construction of a Permanent Vehicle Check Point, a feat managed by Army engineers attached to the commando brigade, despite combat occurring all around them. The PVCP will enable easier disruption of Taliban attempts to use the road network as it affords better protection to NATO troops.

On January 13, as 42 Commando carried out further offensive operations in Taliban territory, around Kajaki, Marine Thomas Curry was killed during what the Ministry of Defence described as ‘close-quarter fighting with the Taliban.’  Marine Curry died instantly as a result of enemy small arms fire. A Ministry of Defence statement paid tribute to his bravery: “In typical fashion he was leading his comrades courageously from the front when he came under enemy fire, whilst in the process of clearing an enemy compound. His section had already come under fire, so the marines had moved forward to close with the enemy.”

Two days earlier Royal Marines from 42 Commando captured a key Taliban headquarters in a daring night-time raid. More than 100 men closed in on the compound in the early hours of 11 January, supported by Apache attack helicopters and NATO aircraft. The compound, with between 60 and 100 Taliban fighters inside, was in the area of Kostay, to the south of the town of Garmsir, and was considered to be one of the main headquarters for Taliban forces in the south of Helmand province. The operation began when troops from the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF), supported by the Light Dragoons, crossed the Helmand River and took up positions around the compound. BRF snipers targeted the first of two compounds before the building was attacked from the air and destroyed. Troops then switched attention to a second building, which was also destroyed by the air support.

The BRF marines and soldiers of the Light Dragoons involved in that attack and others mentioned in this report are all mobile and, for a commando unit heavily armed. They form what is known as Mobile Operations Group South - MOG (S) - which aims, in the spirit of the Long-Range Desert Group of WW2 fame, to keep the enemy off-balance by lurking in the desert wastelands of Helmand, watching and waiting for an opportunity to strike and then melting away equally swiftly. It must be most unsettling for the Taliban to face a foe that is effectively using insurgent tactics against them.

• Article based on reports provided by the Royal Marines.

• See the April 2007 edition of WARSHIPS IFR for more on this story.