Next stop Helmand: On manoeuvres with the British Army

The men of 11 Light Brigade are preparing for a mission from which some may not return. Kim Sengupta joins them on Salisbury Plain
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The task is to scramble into the searing heat and swirling dust of Afghanistan on a few minutes' notice and fly into combat zones, manoeuvring through some of the most difficult flying conditions in the world. Some missions will involve trading fire with the Taliban on the ground, others will mean landing in the middle of a battle. This will happen day after day, month after month.

This is the reality for British helicopter pilots in Afghanistan, amid accusations and recriminations at home over shortages of aircraft.

For the men doing the flying – and for those they ferry – the focus is on survival with what they have got, rather than what may materialise from the promises of politicians.

Yesterday, pilots and infantrymen trained on Salisbury Plain ahead of 11 Light Brigade's deployment to Helmand in September, under Brigadier James Cowan, the former commander of the Black Watch.

Wing Commander Simon Paterson and Captain David – who did not wish to give his surname – were among the pilots training. They have toured Afghanistan before and learnt of the dangers in the conflict, which has cost 188 British lives to date.

The latest fatality named was 28-year-old Captain Daniel Shepherd, an explosives specialist, killed while attempting to defuse a roadside bomb of the type which has taken such a terrible toll among British troops. A soldier from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, attached to the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was killed yesterday morning by an explosion while on a dismounted patrol in Nad e Ali District.

A lack of helicopters, senior officers say, makes the soldiers dependant on road movement and so more vulnerable to lethal blasts.

Wing Cdr Paterson, a Chinook pilot, and Capt David, who flies Apaches, are returning to the war. Wing Cdr Paterson, 36, Officer Commanding 28 Squadron, RAF, also served in Iraq. He will be taking in a squadron of Merlins, some of the much-needed additions to the helicopter fleet due to arrive at the end of the year.

"Flying in Afghanistan poses more dangers than we faced in Iraq, we have to cope with a lot more ground-to-air fire, something we did not have to really cope with in Iraq after the initial phase," he said. "We have problems because of the altitude and the dust which is very fine, almost like talcum powder, which makes visibility quite difficult. Of course, it also takes its toll on the aircraft. But we do feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to the guys on the ground. We need to evacuate the injured, ensure that the supplies get through. We do not take unnecessary risks – we will not fly in the mail in the middle of a battle for instance, but essential jobs must be done and the transport helicopters get invaluable help from the Apaches."

The Taliban have learnt to fear the Apaches, with their devastating firepower, and melt away at the sight of the aircraft. "They are right to be nervous," said Capt David, of 3 Regiment Army Air Corps. "Our role is not just to fight but act as a deterrent as well and if that works, that's fine.

"I am not in a position to talk about the numbers of helicopters, all I can say is that we are working very, very hard and this is going on 24/7. We are on a very short notice to move, you could be just sitting around with a cup of tea and then 15 minutes later you are flying. Obviously it does get very tense and you are on edge, but it is a question of learning to cope.

"It is dangerous, we have to climb high enough to get beyond the Taliban small arms fire, but we have pretty good defences and we have adapted our flying to be as safe as possible. At the end of the day it is a very good feeling to know that you help bring some casualties out because these guys are going through a hell of a lot out there. They need all the help and support that they get."

The 11 Light Brigade will specialise in counter-insurgency and Brigadier Cowan's plan has been approved by the Army's high command. His soldiers are preparing for the campaign against a backdrop of almost daily news of bomb fatalities, and approach the mission with trepidation and hope.

Corporal Rob Whiffin, of 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, said: "People are nervous. There is anxiety about what is happening. But this is what we do and we are looking forward to going. The main thing is to do our job well and come back alive."

Sergeant Gareth Gardner, pictured left, of the same regiment, said: "Anyone who says they are not nervous is lying. But we have trained very hard and that will be hugely helpful... I have been in the Army 11 years and we have seen a lot of improvement in kit in that time, that is something we should bear in mind."

Lance Corporal Liam Jones, also of 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, said: "The feeling is that this tour... is going to be particularly difficult. But that isn't surprising. There is nothing we can do about it except put everything we have learnt into good practice." Major Mark Melhorn, 30, fire support group commander, said: "I hope all my boys come back. But I'm a realist. The boys are nervous, they'd be crazy not to be, but they're still desperate to get out there."

The man taking them all, Brigadier Cowan, said: "One can always do with more helicopters, but one needs to cope with the reality on the ground... As far as more troops are concerned, it is up to the ministers to decide, I'll make do with what I am given, I am a practical man." He will lead Britain's new strategy in Afghanistan, which aims to dovetail with the plans of General Stanley McChrystal, the new US commander of Nato forces there. The strategy emphasises winning over the public, hastening reconstruction and adopting new measures to avoid civilian casualties.

"In conventional warfare the aim is to defeat the enemy," said Brigadier Cowan. "In counter-insurgency it is winning over the people. That is what we will be doing."

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