The words behind the pictures

Left to right: Author, Mastiff Pete and Owen the CULAD

The words behind Pete’s pictures:

‘THE HEAT OF the blast wave prickled my skin and knocked me to the ground before my ears registered the detonation. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in close proximity to an RPG strike but, wearing only shorts and flip‑flops, it was the first time I’d failed to dress correctly for the occasion.

A second blast wave washed over me emphasising the extreme inadequacy of my wardrobe selection. Despite the energy sapping daytime temperature I was beginning to regret my decision to flout the strict dress code for combat operations in Afghanistan.


Somewhere off to my left someone was redundantly letting us all know we’d just been whacked by a brace of RPGs.

‘Mastiff Pete’, who moments earlier had been watching The Expendables on his tablet in the commander’s seat of his Mastiff protected patrol vehicle, pulled the heavy armoured door shut with a clang, effectively cutting me off from the sanctuary within.

I couldn’t really blame Pete for locking down his vehicle but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to more than a little dismay at being on the wrong side of the door as the restraining bolts slid into place.

The RPG or Ruchnaya Protivotankovaya Granata is a World War Two era high explosive anti‑tank (HEAT) hand grenade first developed by the Soviet Union. While it was easily defeated by the Mastiff’s bar armour, this depended on the doors being closed. If an RPG were to penetrate the crew compartment it would ricochet around the interior at high velocity with devastating effect, damaging equipment, igniting fuel and ammunition and, most likely, killing Pete and the vehicle’s other occupants.

Even if it might be at my expense, Pete had unquestionably made the right decision.

In the finest traditions of his regiment, Captain Peter Eadon of the Royal Tank Regiment, otherwise known as Mastiff Pete, was a dashing young blade. Good looking, utterly fearless, blessed with supreme self‑confidence and all his own hair. We had almost nothing in common except that on the same day that my divorce papers came through he’d received a Dear John letter. I knew this because the Adjutant had raised it as an agenda item under ‘any other business’ in the Commander’s update briefing. If Pete was distressed at his private life being made quite so public he was too gallant to let it show.

Pete may have left me to fend for myself on this occasion but I could hardly complain. Together with his troop of six Mastiff patrol vehicles and their crews he’d come to my aid on countless occasions in the past.’

Tiger Team and Mastiff crew

Just a few weeks earlier I’d conducted a series of patrols in the Northern Dashte with an Afghan Special Forces Tiger Team. The Tiger Teams were better trained and equipped than the ANA guys but they still lacked military discipline and self control. They could be pretty feisty and often caused problems on the base, on one occasion starting a brawl in the D FAC, on another giving poor Siyal, the MOB Price laundryman a beating when he refused to prioritise their washing. On the ground it was always a case of shoot first and ask questions later. In their defence they were a fearless bunch who never shied away from a fight. I liked many of them and enjoyed working with them. The Northern Dashte is a harsh, mostly uninhabited desert region to the north of Gereshk. It had been largely ignored by ISAF, principally because COIN doctrine focusses on securing centres of population. Colonel James was rightly concerned that the Dashte was a blind spot for us about which we knew almost nothing, and instructed me to conduct a series of FFUI patrols to learn more. He was particularly concerned that the dry river beds running north south through the region could be insurgent facilitation routes for bringing arms and ammunition to resupply their fighters in our AO. He was right about this; we discovered that the Dashte was not just a Taliban supply line but an unofficial freeway for anyone wishing to bypass ANA and AUP checkpoints on Highway One. For many local people this was simply a way of avoiding the illegal taxes many of these checkpoints charged. However the main user was not local nationals or insurgents but the narco industry. Away from the prying eyes of ISAF, yet under our very noses, the Dashte was being used as an opium trade route to ship the vast poppy harvest north. Naturally the opium runners, who were just as well armed as the Taliban, were not best pleased to see us on their patch and attempted to dissuade us from staying. Throughout this period Pete and his Mastiff crews frequently exposed themselves to danger, in particular to the threat of IEDs, as they provided overwatch to our foot patrols with their 50 calibre machine guns.’

Owen the CULAD

‘FOR A MAN who’d just cheated the sniper’s bullet by the narrowest of margins, Owen accepted the cigarette I’d lit for him with an admirably steady hand. The round had passed so close by that I’d felt the air it displaced before I’d heard the crack and thump.

Owen was manning the General Purpose Machine Gun mounted in the top gunner’s hatch of the Mastiff. He ducked his head back inside the crew compartment as he inhaled almost the entire cigarette in a single drag. I watched, fascinated, as the glowing ember marched steadily towards the filter tip leaving a lengthening cylinder of ash in its wake. The big Welshman removed the spent cigarette from his lips and, through a dense cloud of tobacco smoke that filled the vehicle, stated the blindingly obvious:

That one had my name on it.

It did not seem the appropriate moment to remind him of the MoD policy that prohibits smoking in service vehicles and other enclosed spaces.

Bent double inside the Mastiff, Owen struck a somewhat comical figure of two halves. The top half of his body, which had been exposed to enemy fire in the top gunner’s hatch, was dressed in full combat gear, including helmet, ballistic glasses and body armour. In contrast the lower half of his body, safely ensconced inside the vehicle, was completely naked but for a pair of disgustingly filthy underpants. Owen had seen more combat than most on this tour and it was widely acknowledged that he had some massive balls. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Despite taking heavy casualties at the target compound earlier in the day, the Taliban had continued to harass our patrol as we withdrew back to the desert leaguer. My new best friend, the Tiger Team machine gunner, had been busy with his Russian‑made PKM. In addition to making sure I didn’t wander off, he fired hundreds of rounds in wide sweeping arcs of our flanks as we made our way through the green zone. I got the impression he was thoroughly enjoying himself.

Eventually we requested air support but, even after a helicopter killed a further two of their number, the Taliban doggedly pressed their attack. It seemed there was an element of truth to a joke I’d heard back in the MOB Price D‑FAC about the anti‑bacterial hand wipe dispensers. I’d been told these were called Talibans. Every time you take one out, another one pops up.

Haji Jalander may or may not have been telling tales when he came to visit me in MOB Price, but his claim at the target compound had been truthful enough. The Taliban seemed prepared to stop at nothing in their efforts to prevent us leaving Zumbalay alive.

The Taliban sniper was clearly a skilled operative. He’d managed to get himself and his weapon into a firing position undetected before taking his shot and was unlucky not to score a kill when he narrowly missed Owen. However, he now faced a further test of his tradecraft. A second shot would reveal his position. Would he have the self‑discipline to overcome his frustration at missing the giant kafir and remain undetected, or would he risk firing again?

The decision was his and his alone to make, but an entire armoured infantry company of the Jutland Dragoons now waited, locked and loaded, on the outcome of his deliberations.

It seemed that the sniper lacked one of the skills most vital to his trade – patience – he went for the second shot. It was a catastrophic error of judgment.

It had taken a little over 24 hours to transform the Jutland Dragoons from wide‑eyed newcomers into combat veterans and there was no hesitation, as there had been the previous day following the RPG strike. The Dragoons opened up with everything at their disposal, including the Bushmaster III 35mm automatic cannon mounted on their APCs. One of Mastiff Pete’s 50‑cal gunners also joined the fray as did the Tigers with great enthusiasm, if less accuracy. Thousands of rounds pulverised the sniper’s firing position. Nothing could have survived the maelstrom.

Due to the incompatibility of the British and Danish radios, I couldn’t hear the Danish radio operator calling in the contact to the MOB Price operations room. But I could hear our Ops Officer, Captain Tom Gardner’s incredulous response:

Roger that, I read back: “Contact: 2 x rounds small arms fire. Action taken: Return fire with 5.56, 7.62, 50‑cal and 35 mil.” How many rounds did you fire? Over.

Roger that, I read back: “Too many to count.” Was that proportionate? Over.

Roger that, I read back: “You didn’t use the mortars.” Return to this location as soon as possible, we need to talk. Out.

Tom had just called time on our fact finding mission into Zumbalay. I could not have been happier.’

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.




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Old Man in Helmand

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