Return of the Rifles – but 13 of them did not make it

Soldiers march in Croydon in honour of the comrades they lost in Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

They had suffered more casualties in their tour than any other British unit in the Afghan frontline, carrying out their mission in an area the Taliban had concentrated their bombing campaign. Yesterday they were on the march in remembrance of one of the many who had fallen.

The streets of Croydon, in south London, were packed with hundreds of people welcoming the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles. Danny Simpson, one of the 13 who died in Sangin, came from the area and the soldiers had come from their base in Northern Ireland at the invitation of the mayor.

Fourteen others had suffered suffered "life-changing injuries". Lieutenant Alex Horsfal was one of them. Yesterday he was among those watching the parade in the hazy sunshine. He lost a leg and suffered severe damage to an arm when he and his comrades were caught in a twin blast in July. Five riflemen were killed in the carnage, one of the worst days suffered by the Army in recent military history.

"I think what we have managed to achieve is fantastic, although the casualties have been fairly high. It's been a tough tour" he said. "While I was there, everything was going to plan as it should have been but there was one day, one hour of tragedy. I feel quite emotional today in a way." Riflemen crowded around 26-year-old Lt Horsfall, from Chitton, Wiltshire, in his wheelchair. They had not seen him since he was evacuated from the scenes of blood and fire. His treatment at Birmingham's Selly Oak hospital has seemed as if it had been "going on for years", he said, but he was making good progress.

Lt Horsfal did not want to talk too much about himself. Instead he reflected on the public attitude to the troops serving in Afghanistan and, until recently, Iraq. "I've got to say that the general public have been awesome," he said. "The change there has been in the last few years, the understanding and the sympathy felt towards the Army, and especially those who have been wounded, is phenomenal. It's a source of real encouragement to all of us."

Corporal James Gibbins, 25, from Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, described the stress and tension the families at home suffer. "The wives are on their own tour of duty as well. We know what's going on day to day, but they don't. It's not easy for them at all," he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thomson, the commanding officer, said his men had fought, "the campaign of their lives". "I'm hugely proud of the extraordinary courage that's been shown," he said. "For me, progress in Sangin has not been dramatic but we have moved forward, indelibly so." The "huge cost" paid was never far from his mind and others in the battalion, he said.

"That cost is utterly painful to me. Each of the 13 heroes killed left a hole in our hearts and we mourn them deeply. There are wives, kids and parents out there who won't be seeing their husband, father and son again."

George Fuller, 92, who applauded as the troops filed past, said he appreciated what the troops were doing. "But I think it's disgusting that so many people have been lost," he added.

Pamela Rodwell, a 43-year-old laboratory technician, said: "I was opposed to the Iraq war and I wonder where we are going in Afghanistan. But today is not about that. It is showing our support and sympathy."