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Royal Irish heroes of Musa Qal'eh siege deserving of honour

Easy Company in Helmand has earned the Military Cross, writes Richard Doherty

Published 26/08/2016

Soldiers in Helmand were facing a formidable foe
Soldiers in Helmand were facing a formidable foe

Musa Qal'eh: its name means "fortress of Moses". To anyone who served there, Musa Qal'eh means intensive fighting, attacks with mortars, rockets, machine-guns and rifles, the feeling of being cut off and sheer exhaustion from the many firefights in which they were involved.

It's 10 years since Nato troops were first deployed to Musa Qal'eh as part of a plan to defend district centres (DCs) and help stabilise local government in Helmand province.

Fighting had broken out in the town in February 2006, resulting in more than two dozen deaths, including Abdul Quddus, the district chief. On March 3, Amir Jan, governor of Sangin district, was also killed in Musa Qal'eh.

Because of these deaths, British troops were sent to Musa Qal'eh, Sangin, Kajaki and Nowzad to protect the DCs. Between their arrival and late-July, eight men were killed in Taliban attacks. Danish troops, also part of the UK-led Task Force Helmand (TFH), then took over. They were due to remain until late August, when they, in turn, would be relieved by British soldiers.

The troops who relieved the Danes included a Royal Irish platoon, known as Somme Platoon. This was one of three Royal Irish Regiment platoons sent to Helmand to reinforce the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment (3 Para) Battle Group.

However, the three platoons did not deploy simultaneously and it's necessary to go back to January to examine the origins of what became E, or Easy, Company, 3 Para.

The Royal Irish returned from operations in Iraq in January 2006 and almost immediately volunteers were sought for a platoon to join 3 Para's Battle Group. There was no shortage of volunteers for 'Ranger Platoon'.

When 16 Air Assault Brigade took over the role of Task Force Helmand in April 2006, Ranger Platoon was ready for operational deployment.

It was soon clear that more boots were needed "on the ground". The Royal Irish were asked for two more platoons and a mortar section. Barrosa and Somme Platoons were created. Again, there was no shortage of volunteers. Before setting off for Helmand, the soldiers knew they would face a formidable foe and a high operational tempo.

Shortly after arriving in Helmand, Somme Platoon and the mortar section were told that they would join the Danish Reconnaissance Squadron in Musa Qal'eh. The Irishmen would relieve 16 Air Assault Brigade's Pathfinder Platoon in the DC.

Somme Platoon's commander later described how he watched the smiling faces of the Pathfinders as they waved the Royal Irish in and "viewed Musa Qal'eh in their rear-view mirrors".

It was soon evident why the Pathfinders were so cheery. They were waving goodbye to a scene of fighting fiercer than almost anything the British Army had experienced since Korea. Somme Platoon came under attack within minutes of arrival. It was the first of many assaults.

The deserted town had the surreal air of a ghost town. Its citizens had fled several days before Somme Platoon arrived as the fighting intensified.

All that remained were the Taliban, trying to get in and take over, and 140 Danes, supported by 38 Irishmen, battling to keep them out. The Danes were well-equipped and organised and Somme Platoon fitted in perfectly with their ethos.

Somme Platoon's first casualties were sustained on their third day in Musa Qal'eh, with two soldiers having to be evacuated. At this stage of the campaign, the Taliban were launching conventional infantry attacks, supported by mortars, rockets and machine-guns. They seemed determined to maintain the pressure on the DC to force the Nato troops out.

Frequent attacks were launched every day, some lasting for hours, while harassing fire from mortars and rockets was persistent. But there was some easing of the pressure at night as the Taliban realised that the defenders' night-vision equipment put any attacker at a disadvantage.

The pattern was set for the weeks that followed. On August 26, the Danes left Musa Qal'eh, while Barrosa Platoon with a company headquarter element from 3 Para arrived. Thus was E Company 3 Para formed.

But almost all its soldiers wore the green hackle and shamrock of the Royal Irish. The Danes' departure prompted the Taliban to believe that Nato was abandoning the DC, leaving it to the Afghan National Police. A major attack followed and, in a fierce two-hour engagement, the Taliban strove to drive out the defenders. Their efforts were repelled.

One defender was killed: Lance Corporal Jonathan Hetherington, Royal Signals.

In spite of this, the Taliban continued attacking. Knowing there were fewer defenders, they increased the pressure. The only opportunity for any rest was during the night when the Taliban refrained from attacking.

Rocket attacks ceased, however, probably due to Nato air, or artillery, operations, but Taliban mortar teams continued harassing the defenders.

Those mortar teams were well-trained and assisted many attacks in which seemingly fearless attackers used rifles, machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Taliban casualties were heavy, as the defenders could also call in air strikes and artillery support.

However, the Taliban mortars took their toll.

On September 1, four days after Cpl Hetherington's death, a mortar round struck a sangar, killing Ranger Anare Draiva instantly and wounding fatally Lance Corporal Luke McCulloch, who died on September 6. Others were wounded and had to be evacuated.

Those medical evacuations were the only opportunity for re-supply of the besieged garrison. The defenders were surviving on emergency rations and water from a well.

Then, on September 13, came a truce. Brokered by village elders, it indicated that the Taliban had blinked first. An agreement was reached that both Nato troops and the Taliban would leave Musa Qal'eh.

E Company were able to leave. They believed they had accomplished their mission, but the Taliban reneged on the agreement. Musa Qal'eh had to be fought for again, in 2007 and more lives were lost.

Ten years on, veterans are calling for the 2006 defenders of Musa Qal'eh to be recognised. Writing in this paper on Wednesday, Doug Beattie MC called for retrospective recognition of the gallant defenders of Musa Qal'eh.

It isn't too late for their courage to be recognised by the award of gallantry decorations to those who did their duty, fighting with courage and distinction.

Not everyone can be decorated, of course. But a small number of awards of the Military Cross and the Queen's Commendation for Bravery would show that their courage and sacrifice have been recognised by their Government.

The defenders of the Fortress of Moses deserve no less.

Richard Doherty's Helmand Mission: With 1st Royal Irish Battlegroup in Afghanistan is published by Pen & Sword (£19.99)

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