31st August 2009

Be careful what you wish for is a phrase that I’ve muttered many times over the last five months and I stand by it now more than ever. We’d had a quiet couple of weeks because of the elections, but our last operation saw us once again on the front. On 30th August A Company flew to FOB WAHID to begin Operation TOR KAT.  The plan was to support the Welsh Guards in the removal of several crossing points along the Shamalan Canal. The canal is the stretch of water that separates the CAT Triangle (northern Nad-e-Ali and a Taliban hotspot) from the area of Babaji. British Military Forces deployed in Afghanistan - Photograph James BanksThe basic scheme of manoeuvre was that we would patrol to the west of the canal into the CAT before taking up a blocking role to the west of crossing point 7 allowing the Royal Engineers to deny the crossing to the enemy.  Sounds simple enough, but to the west of the canal was a Taliban strong hold and the guys on the crossing points had been taking fire from the area on a daily basis.  We now needed to get in there, disrupt the enemy and give the Engineers enough space and protection to take down one of the crossings. But before all that we had our final orders and rested up in FOB WAHID.  We even had time for a quick swim in the canal than ran along the northern edge of the FOB.  Then just before we due to step off  Cpl Jamie Steele (one of my Mortar Fire Controllers) was involved in what can only be called an extremely bizarre accident! Steely was resting under the shade of a HESCO wall (the large protective walls that surround many of the FOBs) when a helmet that was resting on top was blown off by a sudden gust.  It landed smack bang on his face and broke his nose!  So even before we had stepped out of the FOB we had our first casualty (albeit not a particular glamorous one!) I took the decision that Cpl Steele and his broken nose had to stay behind.  Lucikily Sgt Gus Millar (my senior Mortar Fire Controller) was always eager to get forward and always volunteering for more action.  So I decided to push him forward with 1 Platoon (to take Steely’s place) rather than his usual spot in the Company Tac with me. Whilst Cpl Steele was not happy with the decision, it was the sensible and right decision to make. Although this bizarre twist of fate would prove to be more significant than I could have imagined as the events of the next twenty-four hours unfolded. At 0100 on the 31st we set off 1Plt, 3Plt Tac and 2 Plt. The plan was for 2Lt David Parsons and 1 Platoon to lead us down in a company snake and then take up a position of over watch in numbered compound 20 before 3 and 2 platoons formed a block. 1 Platoon would then become the reserve.

Danny Venter, Gus Millar (KIA 31/08/09), Willie Ewens, James Banks, Craig Hopson (KIA 25/07/09), Ross McBride, Jamie Steele

Danny Venter, Gus Millar (KIA 31/08/09), Willie Ewens, James Banks, Craig Hopson (KIA 25/07/09), Ross McBride, Jamie Steele

The insertion tab went without too many dramas although the constant climbing in and out of drainage ditches and wading through flooded maize fields did wear a little thin. The threat of IEDs and booby-trapped compounds was extremely high as we were pushing into the area that had previously been used by the insurgents to engage the crossing point of the canal. As we approached the objective our progressed slowed as the Valons (metal detectors) took over. 1 Platoon pushed into compound 20 and 3 Platoon to the South. Tac took up position to the East of the objective. Whilst it was a good position for balance of the company our arcs were poor and we immediately realised that we would have to relocate. During our tab into the area the enemy activity had been limited, but by 0700 the intelligence was suggesting that it was beginning to ramp up. We then received intelligence suggesting that an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) attack was imminent. This was shortly followed by the sound of 3 RPGs followed by bursts of small arms fire. During our tour in Afghanistan we have had many RPGs fired at us with little effect and so therefore we had little cause for concern. At this time I was sat on a rooftop with my FAC (Forward Air Controller) Sgt Ross McBride and the A Company Commander Major Matt Munro. I shouted down to LBdr “Taff” Price (my second in command) to get hold of Gus on the radio and instruct him to try and call mortars in on the firing points, but he got no reply. This immediately struck me as unusual, Gus was usually the first man on the net when we were in a contact, but this time he was silent. There seemed to be little information coming from his compound and I was getting limited information over my personal radio. After five minutes of trying to get a grid reference of the firing points I saw the Doc (Capt Will Charlton) putting on his Bergen, I then heard that 1 Platoon had taken a direct hit from one of the RPGs and that they had taken multiple casualties. Suddenly I realised why Gus wasn’t on the radio. The Doc and his force protection crashed out of the compound and towards the incident. After much frustration I got a firing point grid reference and bring in mortars (I couldn’t see the target so had to rely on information relayed to me over the radio, a risk I had to take). I was then allocated two Apache Attack Helicopters and as they came into the overhead I was told that we had 2 x KIA, 2 x CAT C and 1 x CAT B casualties. My worst fears were then confirmed when I heard Gus’ ZAP number over the radio as one of those that had been killed. The other was Private Kev Elliot.

Sgt Gus Miller

Sgt Gus Millar

Gus and the others had been on the roof of compound 20 when the RPG (fired from approx 250m West) had impacted on the roof. A one in a million shot it had been fired directly over the compound and dipped at the last second impacting on the roof . Gus and Kev Elliot had taken the majority of the blast with David Parsons standing in between them, he amazingly survived without a scratch. Sgt Eddie Nichol had also been seriously injured but would survive. Gus had sustained a large injury to the back of his neck. I was told that the medics did get to Gus before he died, but it was too late and his injuries were too severe.  By all accounts when the medics approached him they couldn’t see the main injury and reassured him that he’d be ok.  But Gus knew his fate was sealed.  He knew he couldn’t be saved and that he was bleeding out, he instructed them to leave him and help the others who had been injured.  Only then did the medics notice the blood.  His final words showed the true measure of this man they were words of immense courage, bravery and selflessness.  An extraordinary act, by an extraordinary man. I broke the news to Ross on the roof of our compound. Taff and Gunner Danny Venter had by this point figured out Gus’ fate but the final member of my team LBdr Willie Ewens was deployed forward with 3 platoon and had to be told by their platoon commander. The surviving casualties and the bodies of Gus and Kev were brought into our compound.  Their bodies on stretchers covered in ponchos.  I’ll always remember staring at Gus’ boots sticking out from under that desert coloured poncho.  He had bought them just before the tour and was always been banging on about how good they were (to be honest I never really like them) and now the sight of them dangling off the edge of a stretcher would be my last memory of this heroic man. It was a surreal morning and I didn’t expect to lose another member of my team and certainly not to an RPG. As the Blackhawks took Gus and Kev’s bodies away we were able to use imagery from a Hermes 450 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to locate and kill 2 x insurgents close to the firing point, hopefully the RPG team that killed Gus. After the MERT and the PEDRO helicopter callsigns had extracted the casualties we moved forward to gain a better position of over watch. At our new position with 2 Platoon I had clear arcs to the West in the direction of the earlier firing points. The following day it soon became clear that there had been a change of plan and we were to withdraw back to the crossing point and move back to Wahid in a vehicle move. As we began to formulate our plan we were engaged from the west from a series of firing points. GPMG gunners and the Javelin team identified and engaged the targets approximately 300 m away and intelligence suggested that they were grouping together to prepare for an attack on our position. It also became apparent that they knew that we were preparing to withdraw. I called in mortars and adjusted them onto a likely enemy forming up point. Major Munro by this point had pushed back towards the crossing leaving a section of 2 Platoon and my Fire Support Team as the forward line of friendly troops. I remember feeling quite isolated, we were expecting the Taliban to assault our compound at any minute so I received a message over the radio from Major Munro that it was to be a “robust withdrawal” I was pretty relieved. I called in 5 minutes of mortar fire and began to move. We hurriedly scrambled out of the compound conscious that we were the last to withdraw and it was clear the enemy were keen to get on our tails.  It was perhaps the only time during the tour that I had wanted revenge on the enemy and I made sure the weight of mortar fire was heavy…I wanted to give them a bloody nose. I increased the rate of the mortar fire to cover our withdrawal and the last mortars were falling as we approached to the Mastiff vehicles that would take us back to the relative safety of FOB WAHID. The Battle Damage Assessment and Intelligence we received when we returned to the FOB suggested that my mortar fire had been accurate and the Taliban in the area had suffered significant casualties.  Listening to the enemy radio chat, we’d heard that the local women had been told to go into the fields and collect the bodies of the fighters that had been killed by the mortar fire.  It wouldn’t bring back Gus or Kev of course, but it felt like we had won the battle.  I walked over to the Mortar line inside the FOB and spoke to the guys about what had happened.  As a Mortar Fire Controller, Gus was extremely close to the guys on the mortar line and the news hit them hard.  But knowing that their mortars has inflicted significant damage on the enemy that day and perhaps even killed the team the RPG I know gave them some comfort.

James Banks

Operational smoker!

That evening we were extracted back to Kandahar by Chinook support helicopters. As a parting gift the Welsh Guards presented Major Munro with a box of cigars in way of a thank you for the support we had given them and losses we had suffered. Outside the Black Watch accommodation the following day I sat with Major Munro and almost became a casualty myself following the smoking of the gifted cigars. Whilst I had taken up “operational smoking” on the tour, I was clearly not ready to take on Cuba’s finest. Operation TOR KAT and the cigars that turned me green are mentioned in Toby Harnden’s book Dead Men Risen (P474).

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