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Cut-off. Surrounded. Outnumbered. Just 88 British soldiers resigned to defeat after fighting off 500 Taliban for 54 days. Then, against all the odds,…

  • The 88 men of Easy Company held out against Taliban for two months
  • They defended Helmand outpost Musa Qala against 500 enemy troops
  • Ministry of Defence previously banned details of conflict being revealed
  • Channel 4 documentary will shed new light using the soldiers’ stories

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Outgunned, outmanoeuvred, hopelessly outnumbered and besieged in the Afghan desert, a small band of British soldiers chose to save a final bullet for themselves rather than fall into Taliban hands. For nearly two months, the 88 men of Easy Company a mix of Paratroopers and the Royal Irish had faced the overwhelming force and firepower of up to 500 Taliban determined to over-run the remote Helmand outpost of Musa Qala. And their near miraculous survival has been described as a latter day Rorke s Drift, evocative of the 1879 siege in which 140 British soldiers held off a Zulu force of 3,000, later immortalised in the blockbuster film starring Michael Caine.

For 56 days in the autumn of 2006, the men at Musa Qala faced constant fire from fixed machine gun posts and mortars. Hugh Keir, left, and Jared Cleary, right, were two of the Easy Company snipers under constant attack for two months at the remote Helmand outpost Musa Qala

Hungry and frequently at the point of exhaustion, they were forced to somehow fend off 360-degree attacks from the Taliban, with little protection beyond a series of low mud walls. They used up a quarter of all the British Army s Afghan ammunition for that entire year.

Yet today their heroism remains little known, not least because the Ministry of Defence has never permitted the full story of what happened there ten years ago this month to be told. It has taken a Channel 4 documentary team to piece together fragments of testimony from survivors who have now left the Army, to reveal in devastating detail how close the 88 officers and men came to being massacred. They lost three men and saw 12 badly wounded before a ragged ceasefire was brokered by tribal elders, allowing them to evacuate their Helmand hell-hole. As with Rorke s Drift, the final, devastating assault somehow never came.

Their ordeal began almost immediately when, on August 23, Easy Company was dropped by Chinook to replace a mainly Danish Nato contingent struggling to bring stability and security to the remote region. It was a terrible start. The Taliban watched in satisfaction as the Danes took with them more than 40 armoured vehicles, eight heavy machine guns and a 12-strong medical team with armoured ambulances. Their British replacements had just two heavy machine guns, one doctor, two medics and a quad bike. When Taliban spies reported the huge reduction in armour and weaponry, the terror leaders scented an easy victory.

To make matters worse, the village was often too dangerous for helicopter support, and reinforcements although it is still not entirely clear why simply never came. The ‘miracle’ survival of the 88 soldiers has been compared to Rorke’s Drift, immortalised by the Michael Caine film Zulu, pictured, where 140 British soldiers held off 3,000 Zulu

Troop Staff Sergeant Ian Wornham listened with his Afghan translator to the enemy s radio communications. He recalled: They were talking about drinking tea in our headquarters by sunrise which meant they were going to kill anyone in their way. Or worse. There was, after all, the prospect of being taken alive, with beheadings later broadcast on YouTube.

Sniper Jared Cleary said: It came to a point I actually thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

‘I swore I was going to get hit by a mortar bomb. I remember standing there, my legs shaking uncontrollably.

‘If you got caught, you d probably end up on YouTube having your head cut off. Everybody knew that the possibility of getting captured and executed was very real. Initially, Taliban tactics resembled scenes from Rorke s Drift as they tried to over-run the compound in a series of full frontal attacks. They came so close to breaking in that they were able to lob grenades over the walls of the compound.

Wornham, a veteran with 20 years experience, said: I d never encountered fighting like that. It was very intense and it wasn t just from one direction. They were attacking from all sides all the time. Sergeant Freddie Kruyer of 3 Para continued: You re returning fire but for every one that you re knocking down, you re thinking how many more are going to keep coming up?

You re not dealing with a conventional enemy. So I thought, well I ve got the bullet with my name on it that I m going to fire at myself if it comes to it. To be blunt, their chances seemed slim. We were totally alone. It would have been very easy to lose the entire compound with us in it, said commanding officer, Paratroop Major Adam Jowett.

Part of the reason for that was the parlous state of Easy Company s defences. They were based in a low-walled compound that Jowett says was not a defensive position in any sense at all . The former Grenadier Guard who d switched to the Paras and saw service in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, says: I d worked in compounds in the Middle East, in Africa and for the UN and I had a concept of what a compound is. Good walls, security there was very little of that in Musa Qala. A British mortar team are pictured in action trying to fend off Taliban attacks

With no help coming from headquarters, Easy Company s survival depended on the skill of the mortar team, led by Corporal Danny Groves, of the Royal Irish, who was ordered to aim for insurgents just over the walls while avoiding his brothers in arms defending nearby positions.

Because they were taking so many casualties thanks to the accuracy of Groves and his team s mortar fire, the Taliban changed tactics and began attacking at long range with mortars, rockets and sniper fire with deadly results. Easy Company s first fatality was 22-year-old Lance Corporal Jon Hetherington, a signaller with the Paras. On August 27, a Taliban bullet found the narrow gap between his body and his armour. He died instantly.

He was right next to me on the headquarters roof, said Jowett, who heard the desperate cry Man down and knew the Taliban had scored their first victory.

But there was no time to mourn. It was strange. We knew that he was dead but we knew that he was all right, if that makes sense, in that we would get him out of Musa Qala. We went straight back up on the building and continued the fight. Wornham says: You have that initial thought of: Why Jon? Why did he die? But you have to get on with it.

‘You can t stop and cower in a corner. You take the fight to them. It s what s instilled in you as a Paratrooper. Less than a week later, on September 1, the Taliban scored a second hit. Fijian-born Royal Irish Ranger Anare Draiva and his colleague Lance Corporal Paul Muirhead headed for observation duty on the rooftop of the building the men called the Alamo .

Just after they had taken up their position it took a direct hit from a mortar. Draiva died and Muirhead suffered devastating injuries. It was several hours before it was safe enough to call in a helicopter to evacuate him to British Army HQ Camp Bastion from where he was flown to hospital in Oman. He died five days later. Machine-gunner Paul Johnstone said: Every time you went in one of the observation posts it was highly likely you were going to get hit.

You had a high chance of getting injured and dying.

In the words of fellow Royal Irish Ranger Phillip Gillespie: It was ferocious fighting. It was death round every turn. You know you could have died at any moment. Food was running low, and the men prepared for the worst. Yet, against all odds, Easy Company continued to resist. The Taliban s response was a firestorm of rockets and mortars. Even in this tale of 88 heroes, the story of Cleary and his compatriot Hugh Keir, a platoon sergeant with experience in Northern Ireland and Iraq, is extraordinary.

They were the ones who had to stay on exposed rooftops closing down attacks.

We were the vulnerable ones, said Keir.

We were putting ourselves on the line but we also knew it was for a good reason. We d have a little ritual.

‘We d just look at each other and give an understanding nod. You ready? Yeah ready. Because it could be the last time we d go out and do this. When more ammunition and fresh reinforcements arrived for the Taliban on September 11, boosting the enemy s strength to 500, it looked like the battle would be lost. Yet what happened next took everyone by surprise. Both sides were preparing for the final, overwhelming attack.

Lance Corporal Jon Hetherington, pictured, was the first casualty of the Taliban attack

Yet it was an attack which never materialised. And for this, the troops could thank the local elders. Such had been the Taliban s losses that, having seen their town virtually destroyed, the elders persuaded the fighters to call a ceasefire. So it was, that on September 13 Jowett, a married man with two children, found himself leaving the compound to meet the enemy face to face not knowing if it was a trap. And we just thrashed it out in the middle of town with a growing crowd around us.

Easy Company remained in the compound for another month until, on October 14, the elders provided a convoy of cattle trucks to give them safe passage to a rendezvous with two Chinooks. The battle of Musa Qala was over. Yet while Rorke s Drift has been immortalised in film and resulted in 11 Victoria Crosses, Musa Qala has been reduced to a controversial footnote in the history of the Afghan conflict.

It does not serve Whitehall well for details of such a poorly resourced mission to be revealed. Steve Humphries, the award-winning producer who has painstakingly put the jigsaw of pieces together for broadcast a decade later, says: It s a shocking account of what was supposed to be a peaceful mission to help bring security and stability to the region.

The British Government underestimated the backlash that the arrival of British troops would bring.

Theirs is a story of extraordinary courage that has never been told in full. These ex-soldiers who fought at Musa Qala have come forward. They want the truth to be heard. Serving soldiers have been banned from participating and the Government has refused access to factual information.

In February this year the Taliban recaptured the dusty little town from Afghan army forces.

  • Heroes of Helmand: The British Army s Great Escape, is on Channel 4 on August 16.

Miracle escape of the new Rorke’s Drift Paras: Cut-off, surrounded and outnumbered

  • The 88 men of Easy Company held out against Taliban for two months
  • They defended Helmand outpost Musa Qala against 500 enemy troops
  • Ministry of Defence previously banned details of conflict being revealed
  • Channel 4 documentary will shed new light using the soldiers’ stories

|

10

View
comments

Outgunned, outmanoeuvred, hopelessly outnumbered and besieged in the Afghan desert, a small band of British soldiers chose to save a final bullet for themselves rather than fall into Taliban hands. For nearly two months, the 88 men of Easy Company a mix of Paratroopers and the Royal Irish had faced the overwhelming force and firepower of up to 500 Taliban determined to over-run the remote Helmand outpost of Musa Qala. And their near miraculous survival has been described as a latter day Rorke s Drift, evocative of the 1879 siege in which 140 British soldiers held off a Zulu force of 3,000, later immortalised in the blockbuster film starring Michael Caine.

For 56 days in the autumn of 2006, the men at Musa Qala faced constant fire from fixed machine gun posts and mortars. Hugh Keir, left, and Jared Cleary, right, were two of the Easy Company snipers under constant attack for two months at the remote Helmand outpost Musa Qala

Hungry and frequently at the point of exhaustion, they were forced to somehow fend off 360-degree attacks from the Taliban, with little protection beyond a series of low mud walls. They used up a quarter of all the British Army s Afghan ammunition for that entire year.

Yet today their heroism remains little known, not least because the Ministry of Defence has never permitted the full story of what happened there ten years ago this month to be told. It has taken a Channel 4 documentary team to piece together fragments of testimony from survivors who have now left the Army, to reveal in devastating detail how close the 88 officers and men came to being massacred. They lost three men and saw 12 badly wounded before a ragged ceasefire was brokered by tribal elders, allowing them to evacuate their Helmand hell-hole. As with Rorke s Drift, the final, devastating assault somehow never came.

Their ordeal began almost immediately when, on August 23, Easy Company was dropped by Chinook to replace a mainly Danish Nato contingent struggling to bring stability and security to the remote region. It was a terrible start. The Taliban watched in satisfaction as the Danes took with them more than 40 armoured vehicles, eight heavy machine guns and a 12-strong medical team with armoured ambulances. Their British replacements had just two heavy machine guns, one doctor, two medics and a quad bike. When Taliban spies reported the huge reduction in armour and weaponry, the terror leaders scented an easy victory.

To make matters worse, the village was often too dangerous for helicopter support, and reinforcements although it is still not entirely clear why simply never came. The ‘miracle’ survival of the 88 soldiers has been compared to Rorke’s Drift, immortalised by the Michael Caine film Zulu, pictured, where 140 British soldiers held off 3,000 Zulu

Troop Staff Sergeant Ian Wornham listened with his Afghan translator to the enemy s radio communications. He recalled: They were talking about drinking tea in our headquarters by sunrise which meant they were going to kill anyone in their way. Or worse. There was, after all, the prospect of being taken alive, with beheadings later broadcast on YouTube.

Sniper Jared Cleary said: It came to a point I actually thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

‘I swore I was going to get hit by a mortar bomb. I remember standing there, my legs shaking uncontrollably.

‘If you got caught, you d probably end up on YouTube having your head cut off. Everybody knew that the possibility of getting captured and executed was very real. Initially, Taliban tactics resembled scenes from Rorke s Drift as they tried to over-run the compound in a series of full frontal attacks. They came so close to breaking in that they were able to lob grenades over the walls of the compound.

Wornham, a veteran with 20 years experience, said: I d never encountered fighting like that. It was very intense and it wasn t just from one direction. They were attacking from all sides all the time. Sergeant Freddie Kruyer of 3 Para continued: You re returning fire but for every one that you re knocking down, you re thinking how many more are going to keep coming up?

You re not dealing with a conventional enemy. So I thought, well I ve got the bullet with my name on it that I m going to fire at myself if it comes to it. To be blunt, their chances seemed slim. We were totally alone. It would have been very easy to lose the entire compound with us in it, said commanding officer, Paratroop Major Adam Jowett.

Part of the reason for that was the parlous state of Easy Company s defences. They were based in a low-walled compound that Jowett says was not a defensive position in any sense at all . The former Grenadier Guard who d switched to the Paras and saw service in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, says: I d worked in compounds in the Middle East, in Africa and for the UN and I had a concept of what a compound is. Good walls, security there was very little of that in Musa Qala. A British mortar team are pictured in action trying to fend off Taliban attacks

With no help coming from headquarters, Easy Company s survival depended on the skill of the mortar team, led by Corporal Danny Groves, of the Royal Irish, who was ordered to aim for insurgents just over the walls while avoiding his brothers in arms defending nearby positions.

Because they were taking so many casualties thanks to the accuracy of Groves and his team s mortar fire, the Taliban changed tactics and began attacking at long range with mortars, rockets and sniper fire with deadly results. Easy Company s first fatality was 22-year-old Lance Corporal Jon Hetherington, a signaller with the Paras. On August 27, a Taliban bullet found the narrow gap between his body and his armour. He died instantly.

He was right next to me on the headquarters roof, said Jowett, who heard the desperate cry Man down and knew the Taliban had scored their first victory.

But there was no time to mourn. It was strange. We knew that he was dead but we knew that he was all right, if that makes sense, in that we would get him out of Musa Qala. We went straight back up on the building and continued the fight. Wornham says: You have that initial thought of: Why Jon? Why did he die? But you have to get on with it.

‘You can t stop and cower in a corner. You take the fight to them. It s what s instilled in you as a Paratrooper. Less than a week later, on September 1, the Taliban scored a second hit. Fijian-born Royal Irish Ranger Anare Draiva and his colleague Lance Corporal Paul Muirhead headed for observation duty on the rooftop of the building the men called the Alamo .

Just after they had taken up their position it took a direct hit from a mortar. Draiva died and Muirhead suffered devastating injuries. It was several hours before it was safe enough to call in a helicopter to evacuate him to British Army HQ Camp Bastion from where he was flown to hospital in Oman. He died five days later. Machine-gunner Paul Johnstone said: Every time you went in one of the observation posts it was highly likely you were going to get hit.

You had a high chance of getting injured and dying.

In the words of fellow Royal Irish Ranger Phillip Gillespie: It was ferocious fighting. It was death round every turn. You know you could have died at any moment. Food was running low, and the men prepared for the worst. Yet, against all odds, Easy Company continued to resist. The Taliban s response was a firestorm of rockets and mortars. Even in this tale of 88 heroes, the story of Cleary and his compatriot Hugh Keir, a platoon sergeant with experience in Northern Ireland and Iraq, is extraordinary.

They were the ones who had to stay on exposed rooftops closing down attacks.

We were the vulnerable ones, said Keir.

We were putting ourselves on the line but we also knew it was for a good reason. We d have a little ritual.

‘We d just look at each other and give an understanding nod. You ready? Yeah ready. Because it could be the last time we d go out and do this. When more ammunition and fresh reinforcements arrived for the Taliban on September 11, boosting the enemy s strength to 500, it looked like the battle would be lost. Yet what happened next took everyone by surprise. Both sides were preparing for the final, overwhelming attack.

Lance Corporal Jon Hetherington, pictured, was the first casualty of the Taliban attack

Yet it was an attack which never materialised. And for this, the troops could thank the local elders. Such had been the Taliban s losses that, having seen their town virtually destroyed, the elders persuaded the fighters to call a ceasefire. So it was, that on September 13 Jowett, a married man with two children, found himself leaving the compound to meet the enemy face to face not knowing if it was a trap. And we just thrashed it out in the middle of town with a growing crowd around us.

Easy Company remained in the compound for another month until, on October 14, the elders provided a convoy of cattle trucks to give them safe passage to a rendezvous with two Chinooks. The battle of Musa Qala was over. Yet while Rorke s Drift has been immortalised in film and resulted in 11 Victoria Crosses, Musa Qala has been reduced to a controversial footnote in the history of the Afghan conflict.

It does not serve Whitehall well for details of such a poorly resourced mission to be revealed. Steve Humphries, the award-winning producer who has painstakingly put the jigsaw of pieces together for broadcast a decade later, says: It s a shocking account of what was supposed to be a peaceful mission to help bring security and stability to the region.

The British Government underestimated the backlash that the arrival of British troops would bring.

Theirs is a story of extraordinary courage that has never been told in full. These ex-soldiers who fought at Musa Qala have come forward. They want the truth to be heard. Serving soldiers have been banned from participating and the Government has refused access to factual information.

In February this year the Taliban recaptured the dusty little town from Afghan army forces.

  • Heroes of Helmand: The British Army s Great Escape, is on Channel 4 on August 16.

This Month’s Issue – Foreign Policy (blog)

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on January 25, 2016[1].

I only learned recently that in the 18th century British army, About one in ten colonels serving between 1713 and 1763 were of Huguenot origin, and they were still better represented in the lower ranks of officer. (John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783.)

I also read that between mid-March and mid-July of 1918 that is, about four months the Germans lost nearly a million men in their big offensive. In other British Armyrats © military news, I also learned recently that the British ambassador to Iraq during World War II was named Cornwallis[2]. Another World War II bit: I don t think I knew that Standartenf hrer Joachim Peiper, who oversaw the Malmedy massacre of American PoWs in December 1944, had previously been an aide de camp to the fiend Heinrich Himmler.

From left field: I ve also learned that the Romans oversaw coal mining in England in the 2nd century AD. I knew that tin was a very early export from the island, and also I think bronze. Ever since I was in the town of Mousehole (pronounced a lot like Mosul ) I ve wondered how much Phoenician or Arab trading occurred in SW Cornwall, and how much linguistic influence they may have had there. Anyone know? Meantime, back in the US of A, an interesting milestone: In 1890, the United States imported large amounts of fish from Europe for the first time. (This was done because the herring stock in the western North Atlantic was depleted by industrialized fishing using steam engines and machine-made nets.) It is interesting to me that this occurred at about the same time the American frontier was declared closed. I also read recently[3] that the dropout rate at the Marine Scout Sniper Course is 50 to 60 percent. Still, not as high as SEAL school, I am told.

Speaking of the Marines, here[4] is the odd story of how a Marine terminal lance corporal once stole an A-4 Skyhawk and then, after flying it out over the California coast, returned to base. And how did this guy wander into the section of Wright-Pat[5] where they keep the alien spaceships? I also learned (from a review in the new issue of Journal of Armyrats © Military History) that two weeks after Gen. Lesley McNair[6] was killed by friendly bombing in Normandy, his only son, who was chief of staff of the 77th Division, also was killed.

And here is something I still don t know: How are those manmade Chinese islands gonna survive the first big typhoon? Verily, the works of man will crumble under the wrath of the skies. Anyone got any answers?

Photo credit: Rygel, M.C./Flickr[7]

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References

  1. ^ January 25, 2016 (foreignpolicy.com)
  2. ^ Cornwallis (en.wikipedia.org)
  3. ^ read recently (www.mca-marines.org)
  4. ^ here (foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com)
  5. ^ the section of Wright-Pat (www.daytondailynews.com)
  6. ^ Gen. Lesley McNair (www.amazon.com)
  7. ^ Flickr (creativecommons.org)
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