Update from 4 SCOTS in Helmand

 

Apart from one or two notable examples, operations in Afghanistan are woefully reported by our media. Indeed, our television and newspapers reported the Vietnam conflict more comprehensively than they do events in Helmand. Most people, and I include myself, couldn't tell you with any accuracy how our forces are currently faring; the only barometer in the public consciousness being the frequency or otherwise of corteges going down the High Street of Wooton Basset.

This very recent uplifting update then, from the Commanding Officer of The Highlanders, 4 SCOTS, is of particular interest and is a must read, for those both in and out of the Regimental Family, with interest in events and concern for our soldiers.

As it happens, I have more than a passing affection for this regiment given, I joined them when still a teenager when they were known as the Queens Own Highlanders and before they amalgamated with the Gordons, (another terrific regiment). 

We wish all in the Battle Group, God speed and a safe home.

"Update letter from Lt Col Alastair Aitken MBE – Commanding The Highlanders 4 SCOTS

 I write to you on the occasion of my third year in Command and what is sadly my last.  It has been a distinctly unusual and incredibly frantic period that has unfolded for the Battalion over the course of the last twelve months. It has been dominated by the preparation for deployment to and execution of operations in the Central Helmand River Valley throughout the course of summer 2011.

Our preparation period of "Mission Specific Training" was more intense, complex and thorough than any I have encountered in my rapidly approaching 24 years in the Army.  Much of the cycle you would find familiar from preparation for Northern Ireland in a steady progression from individual All Ranks Briefings through to Commanders' Cadres and Final Text Exercises.  What is different is the myriad of other training courses that take people away from barracks to train on the enormous variety of equipments and capabilities that we are required to operate, from Counter IED equipments, vehicles, weapons and communications.  Add to this the requirement to make sure that everyman has a very high degree of first aid skills and a high degree of tactical knowledge combined with above average fitness and shooting skills has meant a large amount of time away from camp.  A Brecon qualified NCO would average ten weeks away from home before we even started our collective training.  In all we have spent the best part of eight months away from home prior to the tour.  Our biggest problem has been ensuring that we were not tired before we deployed and keeping our long suffering families on side.  Suffice to say that we completed the training in good order and with an extremely good report from our final test exercise as part of 3 Commando Brigade.

We have now deployed to the area of Lashkar Gar District in Central Helmand.  Despite taking our name from the District Centre of Lashkar Gar, we do not operate in what is now a thriving town, but have our focus on the outlying rural areas.  The Battalion has formed the only non-3 Commando Brigade Battlegroup based around the three companies reinforced by Support Company, an Armoured Infantry Company from 3 MERCIAN and a Squadron of the SCOTS DG in the Infantry role.  In addition we have a battery of guns, two missile troops, Counter IED teams, search teams, dog teams, combat engineers, and more ISTAR operators than I know what to do with.  A total of nearly 1,000 men. 

The operation is very fluid and there is a real sense of optimism about the progress that is being made, a sense of momentum is very apparent.  Our area is by far the largest and most diverse of any in the Task Force stretching 70kms from east to west.  The challenges appear from one end to the other and to meet the threats individual Multiples are moved from area to area to join different companies from the ones they deployed with.  At least two of the companies are entirely mixed with 4 SCOTS, MERCIAN and SCOTS DG soldiers, so it is difficult to tell who is who.

Bravo Company is deployed in the heart of the Green Zone in South West Babaji where they have excelled in keeping the momentum going in turning one of the most kinetic areas in Afghanistan into the quietest.  Delta Company currently operate in North Bolan, a mixture of Green Zone and desert but are about to move again to take on some major clearance operations in another part of the area.  Alpha Company are the Ops Company and as such have been to almost every part of my patch from the high IED threat area of Loy Mandeh through to the largely uncleared and untouched Koshkawa and Surdigar areas to the east of Lashkar Gar.  I also have 4 SCOTS platoons working with the other companies in the eastern regions of Surdigar and Puplazay and as far east as into Maiwand Province supporting US operations north of Band-e-Timor. 

The HQ is based in Lashkar Gar itself where we have the pleasure of riding the roller coaster that is the Transfer of Lead Security Authority to the Afghan National Security Forces.  Despite what you may have read in the papers the Afghan National Police in our area are highly effective and most of the commanders have been fighting battles for the past thirty years; I learn more from them than I ever could hope to teach or mentor.  We fight and live together with them and they are increasingly setting the pace and direction for the way that they wish the campaign to go - a hugely positive step.

We work amongst the Pashtun people and although Helmandis have their own slightly nuanced version of the pashtun approach and code, they are essentially the same people that our grandfathers fought alongside, on the edge of the North West Frontier.  They are an instantly likeable people with a straight forward approach to life, with a fierce sense of loyalty, hospitality and warrior like spirit that is instantly recognisable to any Highland soldier.  Officers and NCOs have been quick to form bonds with them and have recognised that as a people they like to laugh as well as fight.

So far we have managed to keep the much heralded Insurgent "Spring Offensive" on the back foot through a combination of a frenetic pace of operations and the increasing support of the population.  When we are required to fight it is intense and we face an enemy who is quicker than us and who is adept and try to get behind us and outflank us when he can.  He is not afraid to stand and fight and the more that we press into his traditional strongholds the harder he defends.  In one incident the firefight went on for nearly six hours with continual missile strikes and Attack Helicopter support adding to our ability to wear him down.  A lot of soldiers are growing up extremely quickly. 

Our casualties have been light so far with the majority being shrapnel wounds from RPGs.  We have also been lucky with a number of IEDs failing to function properly or sharp witted Jocks finding them before they step on them.  Operating in the high IED threat areas, particularly in Loy Mandeh (an area where just 800m from Alpha Coy, 42 Commando have had two double amputees this week) is a nerve jangling and exhausting process as patrols move slowly checking the ground whilst always being alive to the threat of small arms fire.  Being contacted in an IED belt is one of the most difficult tactical problems a young commander can face.

The conditions are also staggeringly harsh.  The temperatures now average 43 degrees making patrolling during the heat of the day nearly impossible.  The body armour is now very comfortable, but extremely heavy with plates at the front, back and sides and integrated pouches.  Ammunition, batteries, radios, weapons and of course water add to the weight making it one of the most physically intense experiences any man (and especially a Lt Col in his forties) could face.  Helmand is also one of the most irrigated sections of land in the region with a criss-crossed lattice of drainage ditches around and across every field.  Ditches are full of water and are deep to allow the water to flow.  This means that as a patrol moves it will encounter ditches every couple of hundred yards, all of which require a soldier to climb, wade across up to his waist and then climb out; which when carrying well over 100-130lbs of kit means doing an assault course every 5-10 minutes.  Added to this, ones feet are almost constantly wet and the boots have hardly dried out when it is time to push out again. The weight is falling off everyone as the body mass begins to be eaten away.  It makes pushing through hawthorn bushes in South Armagh (as I did as a subaltern) seem like a pleasant holiday.

The Jocks are on good form; their constant irrepressible humour and professionalism has been a joy to see.  They have found innovative ways to be comfortable even in the most extreme places and they are of course happier to be deployed (to these less comfortable locations) rather than the better Company location where they are under the beady eye of the CSM and RSM.

There is still a long way to go on the tour and there are many plans that see another increase in the pace of operations that will have 4 SCOTS at the heart of them.  My final address to the Battalion before we deployed was after our farewell Kirk Service with the colours draped over the drums.  One of the points that I was keen to make to the Jocks was that our tour was just one in a long line that linked them back to their forefathers at Assaye, Waterloo and Dargai all of whom would have gone through the same emotions as they were now experiencing.  Our aim was to continue in the tradition of all those that had gone before and to be worthy of our glorious collective past.  I am still confident that we are upholding the good name of our historical ancestry.

May 30th 2011"

Step Back

 

Good marriages need to be nurtured, they don’t just happen. Ever conscious of this I occasionally take Mrs Flashbang away for a romantic weekend and last week was one of those special times. Now, I’d be close to an untruth if I suggested that a weekend spent swapping one battlefield for another and visiting the battlefields and war cemeteries of the Somme and Passchandaele would be her first choice, but I’m sure it’s right up there. And, given there were 40 other parents from school on the trip, there was plenty to talk about.

Interestingly, battlefield tours have never been more popular, (not just with Mrs Flashbang), with coaches from British schools, regiments, British Legion branches and battlefield tour companies criss-crossing the countryside all over Flanders. At the Menin Gate each evening, you can easily expect to see 1400 people present to watch the Last Post, whereas a generation ago there might only have been a slack handful. The internet is impacting aspects of our lives in the most unexpected ways and interest in history and our forebears is one of the more meaningful. If you have yet to make the pilgrimage, then do. You won’t regret it. Visits are though, inevitably charged with many emotions. That though, is exactly how it should be.

 

Therein, Lies Hope

 

Last week I was fortunate to attend a talk given by Sir Harold Atcherley. Sir Harold spoke quietly and with measured assurance about his bitter experiences as a Far East Prisoner of War on the Railway, after his capture in Singapore.

I had a great uncle who endured almost exactly the same experience but who rarely talked of the suffering at the hands of the Japanese guards, (I wonder if Sir Harold ever met Uncle Jack). Sir Harold was remarkable in two ways. First was the extent of his forgiveness and lack of malice toward his captors and second, his belief and faith in the young. Given some 180 million people have died in his lifetime in one war or another, he had only contempt for the nation state and many of the world’s leaders who have thrown their countries into repeated conflict.

He pointed out though, that the internet has empowered young people in ways never seen before and they have a much lower propensity to slavishly follow nationalism than did their forebears. Therein, lies hope.

Tales From The Lines (3)

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Royal Tournament 1967 poster

Our next "Tales from the Lines," is a lovely yarn from, appropriately enough, the 1967 Royal Tornament at Earls Court, passed to me by one of the participants.

It was during the Tournament that the announcement was made the very fine regiment, the Cameronians was to be disbanded the following year. This obviously didn't go down at all well with the massed pipes and drums of the Scottish Division who were at the Tournament. My friend takes up what happened,

"I posted a while back about our exploits at the Earls Court Royal Tournament in 1967 where all the pipe bands of the Scottish Division took part. This was when the guys in the Cameronians found out 'officially' that they were to be "No More". Yes, grown men do cry.

On the evening when Field Marshall Montgomery was taking the salute, unbeknown to the drum major or pipe majors, ALL the Scottish Regiment's pipe bands had decided to "mark the occasion" by playing the Cameronian Regimental march, The Athol Highlanders, instead of the 'normal,' (as per the programme), Scotland the Brave and the Black Bear, as a show of support for our good pals in the Cams Pipe band and Regiment who would be gone the following year.

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Massed Pipes & Drums, Scottish Div

Well we did it, and when we stepped off at the end of our performance and marched past the saluting dias, we were marching at 140 paces to the minute so were hawfway oot the arena before old Monty got aff his erse to take the salute. Needless to say, he was NOT amused, and the senior Drum major and Pipe major were summoned forthwith and given a rolliking (remember, they knew nothing about it) until 240+ massed pipers and drummers were passing THEM on the arena on the way oot.

So what, we had to go back on and do it again, PROPERLY. We had made our statement and it was our way of sticking two fingers up at the the establishment for getting rid of one of our own. Yes we suffered for it, but it was worth it and I will go to my grave with the memory of the old nutter hawfway oot his seat to take the salute and all he saluted was the back of our kilts swinging good style oot the arena. Funnily enough, we were never invited to take part again (as the Scottish Division), but once was enough."

Incidentally, I wrote previously about the Cameronians and their emotional farewell. If you have never listened to the address to the 1st Bn by the Rev Dr Donald McDonald it's well worth doing so. One of the finest pieces of oratory I've ever heard.

The Youngest and Smallest

Across the world there are kind friends of our nation who help the Commonwealth Graves Commission in the tending of the graves of our fallen. None more so than in Holland where the cemeteries are immaculate and school children lay flowers on the graves around the country on Armistice Day.

One such friend is Jan de Wilde, who lives in the village of Sittard where 253 British soldiers lie. Jan helps tend the graves and maintains a record of the fallen on his website.

Most of the men buried in Sittard belonged to the 52nd Lowland Division and whilst reading about Jans work on a veterans website I came across an interesting story about a young Royal Scots Fusilier Victoria Cross winner, the youngest VC of the Second World War in fact.

19 year old Fusiliar Dennis Donnini VC was a Durham boy, the son of an Italian immigrant who was in fact interned. Of his two elder brothers, one was captured at Dunkirk and the other died of wounds in 1944. When he left home he said to his Mum, "When I get there I'll finish the war."

His citation reads, "on the 18th January 1945, a battalion of The Royal Scots Fusiliers led the assault on the German positions between the rivers Roer and Maas. When Fusilier Donnini's platoon was ordered to attack a small village, it came under intense fire from the houses and he was wounded in the head. On recovering consciousness a few minutes later he charged down the road, threw a grenade into the nearest window, and with the survivors of his platoon ran in pursuit of the Germans. The British soldiers reached the cover of a wooden barn only thirty yards from the German trenches. From this cover Fusilier Donnini first went out under intense fire to carry into safety a wounded comrade, then a second time and though again wounded, he advanced firing a machine-gun until a bullet hit a grenade that he was carrying and killed him. His great gallantry and self-sacrifice in drawing the enemy fire on himself enabled his platoon to capture the position, and his comrades to overcome opponents more than twice their number."

His father, Alfredo Donnini was initially refused permission to visit the Palace to collect his son's medal. He was eventually given leave, however, to accept his son's VC medal at Buckingham Palace. Local legend has it that, when he confided in George VI about his internment during the ceremony, the King told him to go home to Easington – which he did.

I also notice that someone called Wendy Ugolini recently gave a talk at the Imperial War Museum called, "The embodiment of British Italian war memory? The curious marginalisation of Dennis Donnini, VC." I suppose the son of an immigrant Italian ice cream seller might not be the media's idea of a typical VC but he should be remembered nonetheless.

Oh, and by the way.............

Fusilier Donnini was 4'10'' tall..................

The Cameronians Marched Off With Heads High

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It strikes me that the Coalition Government are playing a cynical game in respect of the Strategic Defence Review. Having leaked a few weeks ago, some possible outcomes, they have sat back to see if there is any fall out in the press and public opinion. There is, but it's muted at best. 

Part of the reason is that the population centres are now so diluted that the collective memory of past service, past sacrifice and ownership of local regiments and corp cap badges is not what is once was. Army recruiters often find there is a dramatic difference in local pride and sense of belonging between the urban centres and the smaller towns and villages outside the cities where tradition, local pride and connections with the services have much more resonance. What they don't have though, is votes in great numbers.

Added to this, the Telegraph today suggested that the Government may introduce more benefits to servicemen such as free train travel, university tuition paid for and fast tracking to work as teachers. None of this is very radical. Indeed, Bob Ainsworth when he was Minister for the Armed Forces introduced free further education for servicemen after five years service; I know, because I went to see him and proposed it. Moreover, soldiers don't want free rail travel; why should they get it and not say, nurses? What they want is to keep their jobs and the Army, Navy and Air Force to be maintained at current levels, however modest they may be. More people now work for Marks and Spencers than are in the Army............... some clever clogs has obviously decided that we will never again have to fight a war with a determined enemy in strength.

So, the inevitable review will be announced and with it some platitudes and a trolley full of consultant-speak which will be another way of saying, "Look, you're all very brave and tough but frankly, there are no votes in this and we have to keep the lie-down-and-cry-liberals happy and keep paying out grants to India and China so some regiments are for the chop. Live with it."

It is an enormously sad day when a regiment disbands. The biggest and most tight knit families in our country march off into history. Men who have given their whole adult lives to the well being of those around them and honouring the traditions created through hundreds of years of battle are left with a sense of nothing less than bereavement. 

You may be wondering what I'm talking about. Let me illuminate such an event for you.

One such regiment to go were the Cameronians who, on Douglas Dale on the 14th of May 1968 disbanded just in the place they were raised in 1689. On that day, the remarkable Rev Dr Donald McDonald addressed the 1st Battalion. He gave what, I think, is one of the finest speeches I have ever heard but from it you will get a very real sense of the emotion and heavy hearts that follow disbandment of a fine regiment.

I have nothing but contempt for all those reptilian, lying, shortsighted and mendacious politicians and everything they're too feeble to stand for. At least the Cameronians marched off with their heads held high with these stirring words from the Rev McDonald echoing in their minds,

"It is not YOU who are being proved unworthy or unwilling to share the solemn trust of maintaining the dignity and furthering the destiny of this realm. Recent years speak their witness on that point, and it is a witness which can stand alongside the heroic story already engraved upon your annals.

You now move out of the Army List because of changes of emphasis in our Defence Systems coupled with economic duress and political expediency. But ‘be not disheartened.’ The Army List is a document of temporary significance, liable to amendments or excision according to the whim and swing of governments.

Pray, one day, those who defend us might get the government they deserve and have earned a hundred times over."