Special Report May 2007
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45 Commando Rehearse

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Marines Recce

Royal Marines rehearsing for and conducting operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Photos: Royal Navy.

As the conclusion of their deployment to Afghanistan’s treacherous Helmand Province approached, the United Kingdom’s commando forces were determined to maintain pressure on the Taliban, who were expected to launch a spring offensive. Aside from fighting to secure the area around the crucial Kajaki Dam, as reported in the last edition of this magazine, the Royal Marines have also been seeking to shut the ‘Gateway to Helmand’ in the face of their implacable foe.

Operation Glacier - the fourth such operation - was the name given to a determined sweep by both British forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA), with more than 250 troops from several units within the UK Task Force taking part and attacking a major Taliban headquarters and stronghold south of Garmsir, in southern Helmand. The attack began by targeting three major compounds.

The area around Garmsir is infested with insurgents, with both the UKTF and Afghan security forces coming under daily small arms fire and mortar attacks in recent weeks. A once thriving town, Garmsir has become largely deserted after much of the local population fled into the desert. Prior to launching Operation Glacier the man who would command it, Lieutenant Colonel Rob MaGowan, conducted shuras - talks - with local elders, to assess residual civilian activity in the area. The Governor of Helmand Province was also consulted. Op Glacier opened with artillery and air strikes on the three main targets. Significantly, the artillery bombardment included the first use of three D30 guns by guncrews from the ANA. The crews, working alongside those from 29 Commando Royal Artillery, had been trained on the D30s for the past four months by UKTF mentors from the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) and it was the first time they had fired shots in combat.

The Battery Commander of the operation, Major Nick Sargent, praised the ANA guncrews, saying: “Considering they were involved in a complex plan integrating the ANA artillery with UK and US artillery, mortars, and Coalition air assets, they performed extremely well.”

Having conducted thorough rehearsals in preparation, troops from Zulu Company, 45 Commando then launched a ground attack to clear the compounds, supported by I Company, Royal Marines and C Squadron Light Dragoons. Meanwhile, the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) engaged Taliban forces to the east of the main push. The BRF held off a large Taliban group, allowing Z Company to move to their final objective. There were no UKTF or ANA casualties during this phase of Op Glacier but there were Taliban casualties, although it was not possible to say how many. Major Jules Wilson, who co-ordinated the operation, said: “Our aim was to disrupt Taliban activity, deny them their sanctuary and destroy the defensive positions they have routinely been using to launch attacks against Afghan security forces. Garmsir is the Taliban gateway to Helmand. In effect large groups of the enemy are now fixed south of Garmsir, ensuring important re-development within the rest of the province can continue.” While attacking the area UK troops discovered an extensive trench and underground bunker system linking compounds; in places the trenches were 40 metres long, a metre wide and more than 2 metres deep with a network of firing points and cover positions. Major Wilson observed: “The big difference between Garmsir and everywhere else in Helmand is that it is very linear in nature. The area is littered with Taliban prepared positions; it’s almost like a First World War battlefield in appearance. Previous reconnaissance identified a number of their defences but not to the extent that this operation revealed. Our troops destroyed a number of these trench systems as well as compounds being used to shelter fighters from view.”

Lieutenant Colonel MaGowan said: “The operation was a great success.
We achieved our objective of destroying and clearing Taliban compounds while pushing enemy forces further south from the district centre.” As Op Glacier was being launched a 45 Cdo marine was killed by a landmine during a routine patrol of the Sangin District. Marine Jonathan “Dutchy” Holland was at the time of his death the longest serving member of 45 Cdo’s Whiskey Company, a fact of which he was extremely proud. A few days later sister unit, 42 Cdo, suffered another loss when Marine Scott Summers died in the UK, from injuries sustained during a road traffic accident in Afghanistan a few weeks earlier.

During early March the Taliban continued to mount attacks on the UK base in Sangin, claiming the lives of three soldiers belonging to 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, which is attached to the Royal Marines.

WO2 Michael ‘Mick’ Smith died from injuries sustained when a Rocket-Propelled Grenade was fired into the base. A 22-year veteran, Warrant Officer Smith had also seen service in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Kuwait. The regiment’s other two KIAs were Lance Bombardiers Ross Clark and Liam McLaughlin.

The two soldiers, who were firm friends as well as colleagues, died during a rocket attack. Lance Bombardier Clark was brought up in South Africa before joining the British Army in April 2002. Following his basic and specialist military training, he volunteered for service with 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, passing the Commando Course in March 2003 and proceeding directly to war-fighting operations on the Al-Faw Peninsula in Iraq. Lance Bombardier McLaughlin passed the All Arms Commando Course at his first attempt, securing the right to his Green Beret. He spent a brief period based at the Regimental Headquarters in Plymouth before moving to 148 Commando Forward Observation Battery Royal Artillery, a detached sub-unit based at Royal Marines Poole, Dorset, in November 2004.  In the first week of March, 42 Commando suffered another combat casualty, with K Company’s Marine Benjamin Reddy killed when his unit came under fire during a clearance operation at Kajaki.

His Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Holmes said by way of tribute to Marine Reddy: “He was always the first to offer assistance or to volunteer, no matter what the associated danger.”

As the Royal Marines and soldiers of 3 Commando Brigade, the spearhead unit for NATO’s operations in Helmand, concluded their deployment they looked back on six months in which a major objective was to help the Afghan security forces and military take the battle to the Taliban.

Playing a key role in enabling this to happen was Captain Matthew Williams, who acted as a liaison officer between Afghan troops and the UK and United States forces involved in a training programme.

The Royal Marine officer’s Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team trained the ANA in all military and security aspects, from basic soldiering skills and weapons training to more advanced operations.

The ANA are now conducting regular check-point and security patrols based on their training. “The highlight of my tour has been finding out that the ANA that we helped train had captured a key Taliban leader,” said Captain Williams. “This really shows the progress that has been made. We trained them and then they completed the operation on their own, it is really gratifying to see.”

The last six months have also thrown up numerous obstacles, said Captain Williams. 
“There are many cultural differences between the British and the Afghans and also their work ethics are quite different to ours, so this has sometimes caused misunderstandings. Language has also been something that we have had to deal with. The [Afghan] guys are generally young and uneducated, so their ability to take on information and act on it requires special handling and understanding. They are not like your average British recruit.

“The Afghans also look to their OMLT leadership when they are out on the ground and so, when we are faced with difficult situations, such as being under fire, we have to stand up and be counted along with them.” Captain Williams, a father of two young children, admitted that his tour had seen some sad and difficult moments. He witnessed first-hand the very real risks run by Royal Marines. “I was 15 metres away when a suicide bomber blew himself up and killed a young Marine,” he recalled. “That was definitely the low point of my tour. It brings things into perspective and makes you think of your loved ones.”

• Report based on material provided by the UK MoD.

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