Blood & guts: At the front with the poor bloody infantry

This is the war they do not want you to see: but while the media are kept from the action, emails and videophone images from the troops tell a terrifyng story. By Raymond Whitaker
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"We headed off to what can only be described as the Wild West." Those are the words, not of a beleaguered British squaddie, but of a Canadian officer in a unit sent to help rescue our troops in the lawless Afghan province of Helmand. His account, emailed to family and friends back in Canada, is the most detailed to emerge from what commanders have called the most desperate fighting British troops have seen since the Korean War.

"A British company from 3 Para had been isolated and surrounded by Taliban in... Sangin district centre," the officer relates. "They had lost four soldiers and were being attacked three to five times a day. They were running out of food and were down to boiling river water." An attempt to air-drop supplies had failed, with the supplies landing in a Taliban stronghold, so the Canadians were ordered to conduct an immediate emergency resupply operation with their light armoured vehicles (LAVs).

"When we arrived in Sangin, the locals began throwing rocks and anything they could at us; this was not a friendly place," the officer reports. "We pushed into the district centre, and during the last few hundred metres we began receiving mortar fire." By the time they reached the British position, the Canadian convoy had to stay overnight. "We were attacked with small arms RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and mortars three times that night. I still can't believe the Brits have spent over a month living there under these conditions."

According to Brigadier Ed Butler, whose 16 Air Assault Brigade spearheaded the 2003 invasion of Iraq, nothing his men experienced there came close to what they have undergone in the past few weeks in Helmand. The Ministry of Defence has been accused of seeking to keep the reality from the British public by excluding journalists and television cameras from the front line. But it has learned that in the 21st century it cannot shut down all flows of information, as a stream of mobile phone videos and emails have made clear.

Soldiers have painted graphic pictures of all-out fighting amid scorpions and sandflies, with ammunition running out, equipment malfunctioning and reinforcements and supplies failing to arrive. One email described a soldier soiling himself with fear; another said there had been attacks by Taliban militiamen on motorbikes who open fire while clutching children in front of themselves.

"You see the Taliban cutting around on dirt bikes, their weapons in one hand, their kids in the other," said an email reported by The Mail on Sunday. "They think we will not shoot them. There have been some terrible accidents. It is horrible to kill a kid, nothing could prepare you for it."

In many cases, however, it was the troops who were on the receiving end. "Two days ago, we ran out of GPMG [general purpose machine gun] ammunition in our forward location," said an email to a Tory MP, Patrick Mercer. "The Taliban were dodging around in great numbers at about 700 metres and firing at us from there from behind all sorts of cover.

"We ran out of LINK [the linked-up ammunition for a general purpose machine gun] and we couldn't get any more in overnight because of the darkness and the weight of fire. We were within RPG range which they use superbly. We used our mortars to good effect, but again, ammunition ran short."

Similar complaints came from another officer, who said that his troops' SA80 rifles melted in the heat. "You would go to pull the trigger and a piece of the gun would come away in your hand," he wrote.

Even though the intense fighting ebbed nearly three weeks ago, and the British forces have since been able to resupply and draw breath, accounts of what they went through are still emerging.

Last week it was disclosed that an elite Paras Pathfinder platoon, sent on a four-day mission to Musa Qala, in the north of Helmand Province, ended up spending 52 days under siege by the Taliban. "We were there for eight weeks; three of those were under constant attack," said a senior officer.

Resupply was difficult: it was dangerous for helicopters to land inside the compound the Paras were defending, and there were not enough soldiers to secure a landing field outside. A force of 120 Paras supposed to relieve them had to be sent to Sangin instead. But, amazingly, the Pathfinders did not lose a single man, although the Sergeant Major was shot through the arm and several men suffered broken bones.

What happened in Sangin was related by the Canadian officer, who wrote: "We received orders that we were now [under] the control of 3 Para for their upcoming operation north of Sangin. We rode all through the night and arrived right as the Paras air-assaulted on to the objective with Chinook helicopters. There were helicopters everywhere.

"It was a hot landing zone, and they took intense fire until we arrived with the LAVs, and the enemy ran away. It was impressive to watch them ...They are unbelievable soldiers."

A less glorious account of a similar engagement was given by a British soldier, however, who reported on an operation to rescue Afghan troops and French special forces who had been ambushed by Taliban. "I could not believe we were going to charge off this helicopter into a wall of lead," he wrote. "Not everyone wanted to get off. One guy actually defecated. He sat rigid with fear inside the cargo hold until we pulled him up and pointed him towards the door.

"We had to manoeuvre across open ground for 200 metres. The scene was like a human abattoir. We fought off the Taliban, but were too late to save the French guys. All of us were shaking when we were flown back to base. One of the Afghan survivors said the French had been tied up, then gutted alive by the Taliban. It was one of the most shocking things I had ever heard."

But one soldier claimed that "scare tactics" were being used against anyone revealing such details, complaining: "It is not fair. The commanding officer said that he would mallet anyone he found was speaking about this."

The army chief of staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, was drawn into public controversy after an email from a 3 Para officer serving in Helmand, Major James Loden, criticised support from the RAF as "utterly, utterly useless". The major complained: "Twice I have had Harriers in support when [companies] on the ground have been in heavy contact, on one occasion trying to break clean. A female Harrier pilot 'couldn't identify the target', fired two phosphorous rockets that just missed our own compound so that we thought they were incoming RPGs, and then strafed our perimeter, missing the enemy by 200 metres." In contrast, he said, the US air force was "fantastic".

General Dannatt said Major Loden's comments were "irresponsible" and defended the RAF, which also drew more favourable comments from the Canadian officer. Describing another clash during his time with 3 Para, he wrote: "The company quickly came under attack from what was estimated as 100+ fighters. For about 15 minutes we lost communications with the company commander and a whole section of infantry as they were basically overrun. The section had last been seen going into a ditch that was subsequently hit with a volley of about 15 RPGs; I thought we had lost them all. I had Brit Apaches check in and they did an absolutely brilliant job at repelling the enemy."

Although senior commanders have dismissed some of the criticisms from serving soldiers as partial, and a "snapshot", the MoD said last night: "Incredible efforts are being made to ensure that front-line soldiers are given the best possible support in every way. The tough realities of combat will inevitably create friction about particular incidents, but each individual is doing their very best in the most challenging of circumstances.

"The MoD welcomes these gritty, hard-hitting reports, which portray the reality of difficult work on the front line. The 3 Para battlegroup has performed magnificently in extremely difficult circumstances. Alongside the Afghan National Army, they have stood up to the Taliban, who offer nothing to the Afghan people. We salute them."

At least two officers have quit as a result of their experiences in Helmand. The only one to be named was Captain Leo Docherty, aide-de-camp to Colonel Charlie Knaggs, the operational commander in the province. Calling the campaign "a textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency", he told The Sunday Times: "We've been grotesquely clumsy - we've said we'll be different to the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved exactly like them."

Yet another leaked email from a front-line officer endorsed this, saying: "We are not having an effect on the average Afghan. We are no better than the Taliban in their eyes, as all they can see is us moving into an area, blowing things up and leaving, which is very sad."

The British contingent in Helmand learned the brutal lesson some time ago that what was a reconstruction mission has turned into a war. Judging from comments on internet message boards, such as the British Army Rumour Service, that message is getting through to soldiers' families and the public back home.