Gallantry awards to mark brutality of Afghan combat

Record number of medals will be given posthumously to honour those involved in ferocious fighting against the Taliban. Terri Judd reports
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The Independent Online

The greatest number of gallantry awards in recent times is expected to be announced next week in recognition of last summer's brutal fighting in Afghanistan.

More bravery awards will be posthumous after 19 Light Brigade suffered 67 deaths and 283 wounded. While medal recipients remain a closely guarded secret, The Independent understands that the ferocity of last summer's fighting is to be recognised with a host of accolades for valour and selfless sacrifice. "There will be more awards, more significant awards and more will be posthumous," a source said.

The awards, announced on Friday, go to a brigade which suffered a far higher level of casualties than previous tours, largely due to fighting during Operation Panther's Claw over six weeks last summer. One of the biggest missions since British forces went to Afghanistan, its aim was to capture a swathe of the Helmand river valley the size of the Isle of Wight.

Arriving home last Autumn, Brigadier Tim Radford, said: "I expect that 19 Light Brigade's tour will be remembered for the hardest fight the British Army has encountered in Helmand province ... the resolve, determination and bravery of the whole Task Force are something I am extremely proud of."

Awards are thought to be heaped on regiments such as the 2nd Battalion The Rifles Battle Group, which lost 23 men and suffered heavy losses in Sangin – where its sister regiments have suffered six deaths in the past week.

During the summer of 2009 troops had to contend with 1,800 improvised explosive devices. Among those expected to be recognised are Staff Sergeant Olaf "Oz" Schmid, 30, and Captain Dan Shepherd, 28, both of 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, who were killed trying to defuse bombs.

There is also believed to be a leadership award for Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, which lost seven soldiers. He was the most senior officer to die in combat since Lieutenant Colonel H Jones, of 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, who was killed in the Falklands and later awarded the Victoria Cross.

The 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, which was serving for the second time in Helmand and lost six men, is also expected to be recognised. Among the men they lost last summer was Sergeant Michael Lockett, 29, who was awarded the Military Cross for "selfless commitment and unshakable bravery" rescuing wounded colleagues during a Taliban ambush in 2007.

Men such as Sergeant Andrew McNulty, who went to the aid of stricken colleagues twice in one week, have been praised. The role of medics, such as Lance Corporal Sally Clarke, 22, has also been widely praised by fellow soldiers.

The Light Dragoons, led by Lt Col Gus Fair, were part of the initial entry into the Babaji area as part of Operation Panther's Claw and lost six men, four from the Regiment and two attached soldiers from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

Light Dragoon Lieutenant Guy Disney, 27, was among those praised for bravery after he stayed in command of his vehicle despite being seriously injured and losing a part of a leg in a grenade attack which killed Private Robert Laws, 18, during a Taliban attack.

Tales of bravery from the frontlines...

Injured medic who saved the fallen

L/Cpl Sally Clarke, 22, was on patrol south of Sangin with the 2nd Battalion the Rifles when they came under rocket propelled grenade fire from insurgents.

Despite searing pain from shrapnel lodged in her back and shoulder, the army medic ran to the aid of seven other wounded soldiers.

She continued to treat them while waiting for the Medical Emergency Response Team helicopter and helped to move them to the landing site so they could be evacuated to the field hospital at Camp Bastion.

When the helicopter arrived she was adamant her injuries were not serious and refused to go to hospital, insisting the patrol could not be left without a medic. She was later treated by a doctor in a forward base medical aid post.

Sergeant who dragged three colleagues to safety

Sgt Andrew "Mac" McNulty physically dragged his broken down Land Rover so that he could help out a supply convoy that had been ambushed by the Taliban. The armoured vehicle, fitted with a mounted machine gun and an automatic grenade-firing weapon, was struggling up a sandy desert slope when the gear box broke. Sgt McNulty, 29, and his two colleagues from the 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, were attempting to fix it when they heard a firefight breaking out. They managed to tow the Land Rover up hill so it could freewheel down into the middle of the battlefield, where they dragged it into position so they could fire back and help the stricken convoy.

In a second act of bravery that same week, he dragged three soldiers to safety after their vehicle plunged into a fast-flowing canal at night.

Bomb-disposal expert on last day of tour

Staff Sgt Olaf "Oz" Schmid was defusing the 65th bomb of his tour in Helmand when he was killed. The 30-year-old from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, was commanding a bomb disposal team near Sangin on his last day before returning home on leave when the device killed him. He was praised for working tirelessly during his tour to deal with the increasing surge in roadside bombs to save the lives of others. Lt-Col Robert Thomson, commanding officer of 2 Rifles Battle Group, said: "Staff Sgt Oz Schmid was simply the bravest and most courageous man I have ever met."

Corporal treated wounded amid IEDs

Cpl Carl "Tommo" Thomas, 29, helped to save the lives of seven friends as he treated casualties during one of the bloodiest days of his unit's tour. Cpl Thomas's platoon was caught in a twin bomb blast that killed five of his friends from 2nd Battalion, The Rifles. Without a thought for his own safety, the medic battled to save his friends as they waited for evacuation by helicopter, a task made all the more difficult by the fact the area was littered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). "I came round the corner and saw loads of webbing and bits of weapons through the dust, and a load of my mates lying on the ground," he said. "We found a daisy chain of IEDs, so the chopper couldn't land, so we had to find a way of making our own way out of there." Cpl Thomas managed to help evacuate the wounded from the first explosion – he rescued the commander on a quad bike and took him back to the Forward Operating Base Wishtan – before racing back to the danger zone to help out under fire after a second bomb went off. He had been unable to find his body armour but returned enemy fire using another man's rifle. His mother, Rosemarie, said: "I gave him a clip round the ear when I heard about what he'd done, but I am very, very proud."

In recognition: Military medals

Extreme bravery in the face of the enemy

*Victoria Cross For the most conspicuous bravery, daring, self sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty.

* Distinguished Service Order Recognises outstanding leadership during operations against the enemy

* Conspicuous Gallantry Cross Awarded for individual acts of conspicuous gallantry

*Distinguished Service Cross (at sea)
Military Cross (on land)
*Distinguished Flying Cross (in the air), To recognise acts of bravery in action.

Extreme bravery in the absence of the enemy

*George Cross Awarded for the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in the face of extreme danger

*George Medal For acts of great bravery

*Queen's Gallantry Medal For exemplary acts of bravery

*Air Force Cross Recognises gallantry while flying

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