Harry's heroes: A compelling dispatch from the Afghan frontline from nerve-shredding missions on Christmas Day to a Prince queuing at the camp canteen
Mail on Sunday man Matt Warren joins Prince harry and troops in Helmand ProvincePrince queues with 4,000 comrades for gargantuan Christmas lunchSoldiers dress up for Nativity play and tuck into traditional festive food
Royal Marines approaching end of final tour as operations scaled down
22:43 GMT, 29 December 2012
On duty: Prince Harry after a successful flight from Camp Bastion
I am sitting in the front of a heavily armoured truck. The handgrip of an SA80 rifle rests against my knee and the top gunner, manning the General Purpose Machine Gun on the cab’s roof, stands against my right shoulder. We are part of a Royal Marines convoy, chugging north out of Camp Price – itself a thunderous ten-minute Chinook flight east of Camp Bastion – en route to the isolated Clifton patrol base at the very northern extreme of the Marines’ area of operations.
Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace. But I am spending it at potentially one of the most dangerous places on Earth: on the banks of the River Helmand, in Afghanistan’s Gereshk valley.
But my briefing from the cheerful Marine sergeant before we set off is succinct and gloriously matter-of-fact. ‘Strap yourself in tight. If we encounter small-arms fire, keep your head down. But if the truck goes over, the top gunner will drop into your lap. Make sure you catch him and hold on.’ I had been rolled in a similar vehicle two days earlier as part of my training. It is not an experience I ever want to repeat, especially for real – particularly over Christmas.
Now, as I join these remarkable men on what is most probably their final tour of Afghanistan, I try to comfort myself with the wry thought that if the worst comes to the worst, Prince Harry might be at the controls of the first helicopter to come to our aid. Captain Wales is serving with 662 Squadron, 3 Regiment Army Air Corps in Camp Bastion, 20 miles away. His unit, on standby 24 hours a day, has flown scores of missions – although recent reports that he fired a Hellfire missile at a Taliban commander were strongly denied.
One of Harry’s roles is to provide cover for the Chinooks of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), the lifeline that transports injured troops from the battlefield to Bastion’s state-of-the-art hospital. Camp Bastion is an enormous, dusty sprawl of tents and Portakabins that is now roughly the size of Reading. It is home to 4,000 British troops, 4,350 contractors and 2,000 civilians but, although it has some of the comforts of home, life there is not easy. At least 600 flights come in and out every day, making it the fourth busiest British airport.
The winters can be harsh – it’s currently engulfed by a chilly dust storm. But it’s where Harry celebrated his 28th birthday in September and where he last week queued with 4,000 comrades for a gargantuan Christmas lunch cooked by 60 chefs, which included 200 turkeys, 140 joints of beef and 40 boxes of sprouts.
Camp Price, meanwhile, is on an altogether smaller scale. The 650 men of 40 Commando Royal Marines currently based there know it as ‘Camp Nice’. ‘It’s like a bad Butlins,’ jokes one, over coffee in the NAAFI. But despite the occasional, deafening thump of 105mm howitzer fire, unleashed by the camp’s detachment of Royal Artillery, it really is a surprisingly pleasant place to be.
Festive watch: 40 Commando Royal Marines conduct RSOI training in Camp Bastion, Helmland
The Marines are in high spirits. Their tents are festooned with tinsel. A 14ft real Christmas tree decorates the canteen and backstage an army of chefs are preparing 70 turkeys. On Christmas Morning, we gather around the charismatic Commando padre, the Rev Paul Andrew, for the traditional candlelit carol service in the tented St Hubertus chapel, which is followed by a four-course lunch at which the officers – some in drag, of course – nobly serve the men.
Alcohol-free beer is consumed. A band plays. And then we all retire to our ‘grots’ – Marine slang for accommodation – for the requisite screening of The Great Escape and to make our calls home.
The main event, though, is the camp Nativity play. I watch as Captain Richard ‘Bombs’ Garman, as Gabriel, stands on a tank wearing nothing but a Flashman moustache, a pistol, a pair of shorts and an angel costume. A squad of sheep, Commandos every one, waits bleating in the wings. The night air is filled with laughter. Along with courage, selflessness and determination, ‘cheerfulness in the face of adversity’ is one of the four key Commando values – especially if there’s fancy dress involved.
Christmas for the troops in Afghanistan is a time when contact with home is even more treasured than normal – a fact alluded to in Prince Charles’s Christmas message to the Armed Forces, when he revealed how much he valued Harry’s rare letters home.
It is not as if Harry has any excuse. The troops can send letters home free using the fax-bluey (handwritten) or e-bluey (typed) communication systems. Messages by this method can arrive in the UK the same day. They may also send conventional letters, which take up to a week to arrive.
Camp it up: Captain Richard 'Bombs' Garman dresses up for a Nativity play
I’m leaving all this relative comfort behind as our trucks drive out of Price, supported by Mastiff armoured personnel carriers, and head through Gereshk, following a hard-topped road lined with workshops and mud-walled compounds. Cars and lorries share the highway with heavily laden donkeys and brightly garlanded bicycles. In sections, the road narrows, squeezing the traffic to a near-standstill; the threat from IEDs and suicide attacks is ever-present. The driver of every other moped carries an AK-47 assault rifle.
Apart from a narrow band of green either side of the Helmand river, this is also desert country and everything exists in a fog of dust. But it is startlingly beautiful, too. Behind one marketplace looms the ruin of a magnificent fort, a legacy of Genghis Khan.
The official line is that Helmand province is vastly more peaceful than it was even a few years ago. But as we drive north, the radio crackles into life: an ISAF soldier from Georgia has gone missing. The desperate hunt for him has already begun.
Beyond a jagged escarpment known as the Dragon’s Teeth, Clifton occupies a low hilltop, a Beau Geste-style fortress constructed entirely from gravel-filled Hesco blast barriers. Over it flies the Union Jack – and the green flag of Delta Company, Royal Marines.
In command here is the gregarious and extremely likeable Major Mike Scanlon, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. As I arrive, he is busy overseeing the pursuit of an insurgent commander; updates are relayed to him throughout our meeting.
Despite its remote location, Christmas did come to Clifton. There was a freshly cooked festive lunch and party games. Troops could record a bedtime story for their children and Major Scanlon sent a card to the family of every Marine under his command, handwritten with his Waterman fountain pen. In fact, after a brief period of leave, he rushed back to Afghanistan for Christmas, leaving his wife, Jenny, 18-month-old son, John, and black labrador, Tom, at home. His men clearly admire him – and he is now sharply focused on the challenges 2013 will bring.
At the top of a sangar, the watchtowers guarding the approaches to Clifton, I join Marine Slater, from Bolton. This is his first tour – and he has only just got engaged, proposing to his fiancee, Jodie, on Remembrance Sunday. ‘She’s just sent me a big box of biscuits, but I’m now spending all of my phone allowance planning the wedding,’ he laughs.
Primed: A machine gunner is as vigilant as ever at Camp Price
The view, down the barrel of the General Purpose Machine Gun, is dramatic: a patchwork of green fields – this is opium country – and simple mud compounds stretching into the infinity of the dasht, or desert. Today, there is no sign of the Taliban but no one can say for sure how far they have gone or when they might return.
There is, however, a tangible sense that British forces are taking a step back. Security for the dangerous Helmand section of Highway 1, which links Kandahar and Herat with Kabul, became the responsibility of Afghan security forces two months ago. Next year, a number of UK bases will be handed over to the Afghan National Army. Clifton will be among them.
‘We are now tasked as an adviser team enabling company,’ Major Scanlon explains over ‘hot wets’, the Marine term for the endless cups of tea and coffee that punctuate every day.
‘Our job is to enable the Afghan security forces to secure the local area and then to pass responsibility over to them.’
As the withdrawal gathers pace – British troop numbers in Afghanistan halve to 5,200 in 2013 – more bases will be handed over to local control. Major Scanlon, however, is infectiously optimistic. ‘When I look back at my first tour of Afghanistan in 2007 and compare it to now, there has been a phenomenal difference for the better,’ he says. ‘Afghanistan will also play a significant role in Royal Marines history. There have been some incredible stories of bravery and courage.’
The following day, we take a five-man Husky armoured vehicle – complete with a single furry dice and leopard-skin steering-wheel cover – to nearby Camp Hayatullah. This is the headquarters of the local Afghan National Army commander, Colonel Abdul Saboor.
Call of duty: Prime Minister David Cameron visited troops in Helmand Province earlier this year
A small UK force is still based at Hayatullah in an advisory role, and the British major in command of it, who did not want to be named, takes me to meet Colonel Saboor.
Despite an upsurge in insider attacks – Royal Marine Corporal David O’Connor and Army Medic Corporal Channing Day were recently killed near here in a so-called green-on-blue attack – we walk through the Afghan side of the camp without body armour and with only a single Royal Marine bodyguard, a cool-headed, fluent Dari-speaker named Eugene. ‘No one ever uses my real name,’ he says.
‘You have to be cautious,’ explains the major, ‘but the reality is that 99.9 per cent of the Afghan security forces are keen as mustard and totally supportive.’
The colonel greets us in his office and talks about the planned withdrawal of UK forces in 2014. He is hugely supportive of the UK’s role in Afghanistan, but while the British line is unequivocally optimistic, the colonel’s is more nuanced.
Concentrated: Prince Harry examines the Apache flight-line at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
‘The handover is going to have a big negative effect on security,’ he says. ‘I can’t say that I’d want the coalition to stay longer, because the decision has been made.
‘The economy is bad and Western countries want their armies home as soon as possible.
‘The UK has been in Afghanistan for 11 years, and many soldiers have been killed, but it still isn’t secure. It will be very difficult when you leave.’
Back in Price, with Christmas a fading memory, the men of 40 Commando are still in good spirits. And rightly so. Thanks to their professionalism, bravery and sacrifice, most agree that Afghanistan is a far better place than it was a decade ago. Casualties are considerably lower than on previous tours.
But as the Royal Marines approach the end of their final tour, the big question for 2013 is whether the Afghans really can do without them.
This New Year, we should all celebrate the extraordinary job done by our military – and I will certainly return home with an even greater respect for the Royal Marines and my own father’s time as one of them.
But no one, it seems, can predict Afghanistan’s future. As the major at Hayatullah told me when I returned to my vehicle: ‘This is the Wild West and it can still get bloody hairy.’