On this day five years ago I set off to war, speeding down the M4 motorway in the dead of night in an overloaded minibus.
I RETURNED TO the barracks to find a group of soldiers standing around their bergans, like so many girls at a school disco, quietly chatting and smoking, their cigarettes glowing in the dark as they patiently waited for the transport to RAF Brize Norton. A voice addressed me from the shadows:
“Good of you to make it, Chris.”
It was the Adjutant, Captain Rupert Stevens. Rupert had been one of the first Grenadiers I’d met almost two years ago and although he’d always been supportive of my ambition to mobilise with the battalion, that didn’t mean he was averse to a bit of squaddie banter. He informed me that our trooping flight was scheduled for 07.00 the following morning but as this was ‘Crab Air’, army slang for the Royal Air Force, this was not a departure time but a no move before time. In his opinion it was anyone’s guess when we might eventually take off.
Rivalry and deep cultural differences between the armed services ensured that Rupert, like all self‑respecting soldiers, did not have a kind word to say about the RAF. Still there was some truth behind his comments. The RAF was trying to maintain a busy air bridge between the UK and Afghanistan using an ageing fleet of Lockheed TriStar aircraft. These had first come into service in 1978 as commercial airliners operated by Pan American Airways who subsequently sold them to the RAF shortly after the Falklands War.
After 34 years of service the TriStar was showing its age and, a bit like myself, was only just about fit for purpose.
Troops had become resigned to long delays in the journey to and from Afghanistan. It’s also fair to say that the RAF, unlike the aircraft’s original owner, is not a customer focussed organisation and puts little thought into the welfare of its passengers. We would all spend many hours experiencing RAF hospitality and it was never enjoyable. Disparaging comments not only helped to pass the time but also managed expectation.
Some months later a much publicised visit to Afghanistan by James Blunt and Catherine Jenkins was cancelled after the TriStar in which they were travelling was forced to abort and return to Cyprus, not once but twice, with first an air leak and then a problem with the undercarriage. James Blunt, himself a former soldier, was not impressed and wrote an uncomplimentary article in The Telegraph which delighted the rank and file but angered the top brass, who disputed his claims of military incompetence. For Rupert, who had been tasked with organising this visit and who had boasted for days about his self‑appointed role as Catherine Jenkins’ personal assistant, this would only serve to confirm his already very low opinion of the RAF.
Ironically, despite his obvious frustration, the RAF had actually done James a favour. So far as I could tell, Rupert had invested considerable time and effort preparing a detailed and comprehensive visit programme for Catherine in which he intended personally to take care of her every need and desire. By contrast he’d assumed ‘Blunty’ would doss down in the honking transit accommodation and sort himself out.
01.00 came and went with no sign of the coaches. No one seemed to mind terribly much and we continued chatting in our little groups as the grass turned white with frost around us. It was bitterly cold but since none of my colleagues, not even Tom, seemed to have noticed, I wasn’t about to bring it up. Nor did they seem to share my own sense of foreboding. The group appeared relaxed, almost carefree. It would have been hard to tell that these men, only a few hours previously, had said goodbye to their families and were setting off to a war with which they were already familiar and which had claimed the lives of friends and colleagues.
Some, like Captain Paddy Rice, even bore the scars of previous deployments. Paddy, described by The Telegraph in 2009 as ‘the luckiest soldier in Afghanistan’, had narrowly escaped death when he was targeted by a Taliban sniper. The bullet had entered just below his left shoulder blade, travelled across his back and exited by his right ear. Paddy had calmly lit a cigarette before radioing in his own nine liner¹ requesting immediate medical evacuation to Camp Bastion.
A gunshot wound is an almost guaranteed ticket home and a lesser man might have chosen to convalesce in the UK but Paddy was back on duty just three weeks later. With nothing to do all day but sit around smoking, Paddy reckoned Camp Bastion hospital had been bad for his health. So he’d volunteered to return to his unit as soon as possible.
Eventually someone went in search of some news and a short while later an ancient Ford Fiesta screeched up. It was Dave Kenny, our Chief of Staff, who would not be deploying for another few months. He jumped out, talking urgently into a mobile phone. Looking thoroughly harassed, he explained that there’d been a SNAFU² and the coach was booked for the following day. It was now close to 2am and he was trying to organise some alternative transport. Not unreasonably, everyone who might be able to assist him was tucked up asleep in bed.
He jumped back into the Fiesta, phone still clamped to his ear and roared away, wheels spinning, to return half an hour later with a couple of minibuses and two bleary-eyed drivers. Somehow, with Dave clucking about us like a mother hen, we managed to load all our gear and ourselves into these vehicles. Packed like sardines, we set off at breakneck speed.
Barrelling down the motorway in an overloaded minibus in the dead of night was not quite how I’d imagined myself setting off to war.
¹Nine Liner: Medical evacuation request, so called because of the nine point reporting format
²SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.
‘The best book by a soldier concerning the Afghan War that I have read’
Frank Ledwidge, bestselling author of Losing Small Wars and Investment in Blood
‘SPIN ZHIRA vividly conveys the disjointed essence of modern warfare and the impossibility of balancing the adrenaline of combat with ‘normal’ life. This book brims with authenticity and dark humour.’
Patrick Hennessey, bestselling author of The Junior Officers’ Reading Club and Kandak
‘If you want to read about political and military success in Afghanistan, this book isn’t for you. If you want a fresh perspective from someone who is not a career officer and who is brave enough to bare his soul, then SPIN ZHIRA is a must read.’
Lt Col Richard Dorney, bestselling author of The Killing Zoneand An Active Service
SOLDIER The official magazine of the British Army
‘A journey of love, service and adventure. Excellent.’