The 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment – better known as 3 Para – have a saying: "Be careful what you wish for." It had been 24 years since the Parachute Regiment was involved in heavy fighting (they returned from the Falklands War wreathed in glory), so when the order finally came to deploy to Afghanistan for a six-month tour in summer 2006, the boys were ready for a scrap.
The Paras are an elite force, their motto "ready for anything". Their extraordinary resilience against the odds became legend after Operation Market Garden during the Second World War. The boast of Pte Peter McKinley, who won the Military Cross in 2006, is: "We are airborne gods. The whole army hates us because we are mega. They hate us for the way we act, the way we walk and hold our heads high."
"Yes, we have a reputation for being very aggressive," says Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal, the commanding officer of 3 Para in Afghanistan. Yet the battalion was sent to Helmand province on a " hearts and minds" mission, to create a security zone within which development agencies could work on reconstruction.
The Taliban thought otherwise. Their "shoot and scoot" tactics, cunning and knowledge of the terrain created mayhem. "What do they know, this bunch of flip-flop-wearing bastards?" asked one Para. He returned from a skirmish declaring: "They actually know what they're doing."
The Taliban fought with rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and machine guns against the most efficient killing instruments Western technology could devise: Apache helicopters firing cannon rounds, the system slaved to a laser linked to the pilot's retina; American A-10 Thunderbolt jets that could chew up armour at a distance of four miles, the noise of their guns firing 4,200 rounds a minute like "an angry dinosaur". But the Taliban were fighting for God and death held no terror for them.
3 Para's excursions were like poking a stick in a hornet's nest. They faced relentless attacks, and by the end of the tour 14 soldiers and one interpreter had been killed, with 46 wounded. They fought with exceptional courage: a Victoria Cross was awarded to Corporal Bryan Budd and the George Cross to Corporal Mark Wright, both killed in action.
3 Para could not have wished for a better writer than Patrick Bishop. He recounts their bravery with a rigorous understanding of the military ethic in a compelling and shocking chronicle of modern warfare.
Harperpress, £18.99. Order for £17.50 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897Reuse content