Five British soldiers were killed yesterday in a devastating roadside bombing, the largest number to die in one single attack, bringing to eight the number killed in the most deadly 24 hours of the Afghan campaign.
With it another bleak and poignant milestone was reached and passed: the lethal toll in forces' lives lost in the conflict is now more than that in the whole of the Iraq war.
The sombre unfolding statistics reflect the rising ferocity of this defining war between the West and fundamentalist Islam. Fifteen British soldiers died this week alone as UK and US forces launched a massive operation against the Taliban in Helmand. The latest deaths took the number killed in Afghanistan to 184, five more than Iraq.
Five bodies were flown in to RAF Lyneham yesterday, with crowds watching in silence as hearses carrying the coffins passed through the town of Wootton Bassett. Amid the accusations and recriminations of the conduct of the campaign, there was agreement among the military, politicians and diplomats on one fact – that Britain must brace itself for more casualties to come as long as the Afghan mission continues.
The deaths cast a shadow over Gordon Brown's final day at the G8 summit in Italy. The Prime Minister held talks with Barack Obama on Afghanistan and, on returning to the UK, he went straight to the military's Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood to be briefed on the crisis.
Bracing the country for further losses, Mr Brown acknowledged: "This is a very hard summer and it is not over." He sought to justify the conflict, stressing: "We knew from the start that beating the insurgency in Helmand would be hard and dangerous but it is vital. People in Britain are safer because of the courageous sacrifice of British soldiers."
The latest round of killings began with a member of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment dying in a firefight at Lashkar Gah, the Helmand capital, on Thursday evening. The soldier was attached to the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, whose commanding officer, Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe was killed earlier this week to become the most senior British Army officer to fall in combat since the Falklands War.
Two hours earlier another soldier from the 4th Battalion The Rifles died in a roadside bombing while on patrol in the Nad-e-Ali where British forces had been clearing out pockets of the Taliban. There was a second death in the same area yesterday morning when a soldier from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment was killed in another blast while on an operation to track down the insurgents who had killed his comrade.
But the most devastating attack was a sophisticated roadside bomb. Soldiers from 2 Rifles on patrol outside the town of Sangin had just alighted from their armoured vehicle when a bomb detonated. The initial blast was not particularly damaging, but a second one killed five members of the patrol, gouging a massive crater into the ground. Last night bereaved families of the men were being told about what had happened.
The sustained losses over such a short period were the worst experienced in combat by British forces in Afghanistan. In 2006 an RAF Nimrod crashed in the south of the country, killing 14 service personnel. It was, however, an accident caused by technical problems and not enemy action.
Last night, General Sir Mike Jackson, the former head of the British Army, told The Independent: "This is very sad and obviously a terrible loss for the families and friends of these fine men. But a very big operation had been going on in Afghanistan and I am afraid that losses such as these do occur in these circumstances."
The Government will, however, face questions about the way it has responded to the call from military commanders to send reinforcements to Afghanistan.
The senior command had wanted to send about 2,500 extra troops, but Gordon Brown refused the request, agreeing to the temporary deployment of 700 just for the period of the Afghan elections scheduled for August.
One of the senior officers intimately involved in drawing up the reinforcement plan said last night: "What has happened has shown the sheer danger our forces face out there day in, day out. We know the force levels needed for safety. This was not a spurious request and there is sincere hope the Government will think again."