Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

The Fighting Irish

The gripping true story of 1st Royal Irish Battlegroup's six-month war with the Taliban in Helmand Province can now be told, writes Derry-born historian Richard Doherty

Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world, Helmand is the most dangerous province in Afghanistan and Sangin is the most dangerous town, and you are sitting here talking to me. Why?"

This question was posed to Major Graham Shannon, from Londonderry, commanding Ranger Company, 1st Royal Irish, at a shura (meeting) with a village headman in 2008.

The answer was straightforward. Ranger Company was trying to bring peace and stability to the Sangin area. To do so, they were establishing new patrol bases (PBs). That shura was held at PB Derry - others were dubbed Enniskillen, Armagh and Templer, the last-named after Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, an Armagh man.

By the time Ranger Company handed responsibility for Sangin over to the Royal Marines in early October, there had been tremendous change. Security was better, the bazaar was flourishing, there was much less fear of the Taliban and community-based projects were being expanded into Sangin's hinterland.

Ranger Company had been detached from the main body of 1st Royal Irish Regiment, which formed the OMLT Battlegroup. OMLT - pronounced 'omlet' - stands for Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team. Within Taskforce Helmand, this is the battlegroup that works directly with the Afghan National Army (ANA). The OMLT role was no easy task. The ANA were mentored in the course of operations in Afghanistan's most dangerous province. This task the Royal Irish accepted with enthusiasm and carried out with solid professionalism.

Throughout their six months in Helmand, the men of the Royal Irish gained the confidence of the soldiers with whom they were working and made significant progress in raising ANA standards.

Mentoring was dangerous. It was carried out by small teams of Royal Irish, as few as six men, alongside companies (about 100 men) of ANA. There were also some other NATO soldiers, including a two or three-man artillery fire support team to call in fire from artillery, mortars, helicopters or fast jets if necessary.

Much of the mentoring took place in small patrol bases, such as Derry, which were often attacked by Taliban or other enemy forces. (NATO refers to ACM - anti-coalition militias - rather than Taliban as these are not the sole foe). Some bases, such as PB Attal in the Gereshk valley, were established by the Royal Irish and came under ferocious attack from Taliban who wanted to re-assert their control over the local area.

Conditions in PBs were far from pleasant. Often the only electricity was a generator to recharge equipment batteries. Living conditions were primitive with a constant threat of dysentery. Cooking was basic, sometimes with ovens improvised from ammunition containers and mud bricks.

Fresh food was rare. Re-supply was by road convoy or helicopter and meat and vegetables had lower priority than ammunition and fuel. Ration packs were the usual menu. In PB Attal there was the bonus of a chef turned soldier who brought some flair and imagination to cooking his meals.

To dominate the ground and reassure civilians that NATO meant to protect them, patrols were carried out. Many came under attack.

Taliban fighters showed tenacity and courage. In flowing robes and sandaled feet, without body armour or combat helmets, they were prepared to challenge highly professional soldiers.

They suffered heavily in their attacks and, by 2008, had added a more effective weapon to their armoury.

This was the improvised explosive device (IED). In many cases, usually unreported in the west, the victims have been local villagers, often children, who have lost limbs or been blown to pieces by these devices.

One Ranger commented that it could take up to an hour to cover 500 metres where there were known to be IEDs. These also threatened road convoys carrying supplies to PBs.

During their time in Helmand, Royal Irish soldiers took part in a major operation to clear Taliban from part of the Gereshk valley and in an air assault attack on a Taliban stronghold in which men from Ranger Company and an OMLT fought together.

They were rewarded with the gratitude of many Afghan civilians and the knowledge that they had loosened the Taliban hold on many parts of Helmand.

Their courage was also marked by the award of three Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses (CGC). This was the first time that any unit had earned three of Britain's second-highest decoration for gallantry in one tour of duty.

There were also four Military Crosses (MC), three to members of the Royal Irish and one to a Royal engineer officer serving with an OMLT. Further awards for courage included eleven Mentions in Despatches, two Queen's Commendations for Valuable Service - one to Major Shannon for his work in Sangin - and several commendations.

The OMLT role is the most important carried out by NATO troops in Afghanistan as its intention is to develop the ANA's proficiency so that it can assume the security role in much of the country and make way for the eventual withdrawal of NATO forces.

Brigadier General Mohaiyodin Ghori, the senior ANA commander in Helmand, believed that the Royal Irish did an excellent job and were a tremendous asset to the development of Afghan forces. In spite of language and cultural barriers, Royal Irish and ANA developed considerable trust and friendship.

But there was a price to pay. Three Battlegroup soldiers were killed. Two were attached from the Royal Regiment of Scotland - Sergeant Jon Mathews and Corporal Barry Dempsey - while the third was from Ranger Company. Ranger Justin Cupples was killed by an IED in Sangin on 4 September. Born in the United States, and a veteran of the US Navy in the Second Gulf War, his Irish parents had retuned to live in Co Cavan. He was buried in his wife's native Lithuania.

The bond between ANA and Royal Irish was demonstrated after Justin's death when a new PB was built near Sangin. At the suggestion of ANA soldiers, it was named PB Pylae.

'Pylae' is Pashtu for 'Cups', Ranger Cupples' nickname among his Afghan comrades. Surely this provided a real measure of the success achieved by the Royal Irish during Operation Herrick VIII?

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