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Makeshift 'Rorke's Drift' unit of medics and engineers holds out Taliban

By MATTHEW HICKLEY in Gareshk
26th November 2006



Local police are trained by soldiers from the Royal Marines in Gereshk, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.





When a key strategic town in Afghanistan's Helmand Province fell to the Taliban, British commanders ordered that it must be retaken as a top priority. But with the UK's main fighting units locked in bloody battles further north, it was left to a ragtag band of 12 British soldiers, including TA reservists and medics, to lead a force of barely-trained Afghan soldiers and police across Taliban-held desert. They hoped to retake the town of Garmisir within 24 hours. In fact they faced an astonishing 14 day close-quarter battle - isolated, heavily outnumbered and fighting for their lives in an action reminiscent of Rorke's Drift.
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After a summer of intense fighting by British troops in Northern Helmand, attention was focussed on 16 Air Assault Brigade's epic defence of the besieged 'platoon house' garrisons in Sangin, Musa Qala and Nowzad.

But hundreds of miles to the south and largely ignored, the frontier town of Garmisir was also under siege and had already fallen once to the Taliban - for whom it is a key transport hub for fighters crossing the nearby border from Pakistan.

Helmand's provincial governor, an Afghan trusted by the British, was warning that if Garmisir fell again he would have to resign.

On September 8 the town was overrun, presenting UK commanders with a crisis.

Garmisir must be saved, but there were no British troops available.

Instead, three officers were given 24 hours to scrape together what men and equipment they could, and ordered to lead around 200 Afghan National Army (ANA) and police on a desperate 100-mile dash across Taliban-held desert in open top Land Rovers and trucks, groaning with all the ammunition they could carry.

On the night of September 10 they paused outside Garmisir and at dawn - five years to the day after the Twin Towers fell - they advanced. Captain Doug Beattie of the Royal Irish Regiment was one of the three British officers, and recalls how things went disastrously wrong within minutes, when the ANA got lost and failed to secure a vital canal crossing.

"Our remit was to stay at the back and let the Afghans take the lead," Doug said. "But they took the wrong crossing and wouldn't move. We were under heavy fire and our attack had already stalled."

Captain Paddy Williams, the Household Cavalry Regiment officer commanding the operation, realised decisive action was needed.

Nine British soldiers in two Land Rovers raced forward to storm the correct bridge, braving mortar fire, RPGs and heavy machine-gun fire from the Taliban.

The ANA soldiers quickly lost two soldiers killed and refused to go any further, leaving the tiny British force and the Afghan police to fight on.

For 12 hours on the first day the fighting raged, with continuous airstrikes by UK and American aircraft guided in by tactical air controller Corporal Sam New of the Household Cavalry Regiment, who was to play a crucial role in the battle.

By dusk, the British held the small town's main street, with Doug Beattie and Sam New established on a low hill outside - sheltering in the remains of an ancient fort built by Alexander the Great's armies.

At dawn on day two, they led the Afghan police further south, hoping to create a two mile buffer zone protecting the town.

The Taliban had other ideas, and the British were soon pinned down under withering fire from three sides, sheltering in mud huts while allied jets screamed overhead, dropping precision bombs as close as they dared to the UK ground call sign 'Widow 77.'

Creeping froward in their vehicles, the UK troops pushed their luck too far.

Doug Beattie, 42, recalled: "We were shot up pretty badly at that point. We had no cover at all, and had to shelter behind the Land Rovers for four hours.

"At one point Sam New's radio went dead as he called in an airstrike. A round had severed the wire from the handset to the radio. Our antennae was shot away, and the water cooler and tyres were shot out."

Again the attack had stalled, and again Paddy Williams decided on a bold attack.

Patching up their vehicles as best they could, still under fire, the British soldiers made an astonishing 1.5mile sprint south along the canal road to storm a Taliban stronghold, blasting a group of huts with heavy machine guns and clearing the buildings with grenades as the enemy fell back.

As dusk fell the ANA finally advanced to help secure the position, and for the first time in 40 hours the British soldiers were able to break contact and pull back to sleep for a couple of hours.

At dawn they tried to advance again, but it was soon clear the small force had over-reached itself. The ANA commander was killed along with two of his men. Doug Beattie's driver Joe Cummings, a TA reservist, was wounded in the leg.

Capt Beattie recalled: "We were taking heavy fire from three sides - Taliban within 100 yards of us - and we had no cover. The ANA didn't move up to support us.

"That was when I really thought we were f*****. We got our arses kicked on that third day."

Eventually Captain Tim Illingsworth of the Light Infantry, the third British officer, stepped in and led the Afghan soldiers forward, and with allied jets dropping 500lb bombs on the Taliban firing points Doug's two vehicles were able to limp out of the killing zone.

But there would be no more attempts to advance. The British troops began digging defences where they were.

At last a helicopter brought fresh ammunition supplies, but no food. Now the battle settled into a bloody slogging match.

Wave after wave of Taliban attacks were broken up by airstrikes and machine gun fire, while the British officers led occasional fighting patrols forward, trying to stiffen the ANA soldiers' wavering resolve.

After eight days a Danish reconnaissance squadron arrived, but their rules of engagement prevented them from actually fighting the Taliban (bloody useless).

Time and again the embattled force came close to disaster.

When an RAF Harrier jump jet aimed a 1,000lb precision bomb at a Taliban position its guidance fins failed to work, and it exploded just yards from British troops, blasting red-hot shrapnel over their heads.

On his next run the pilot obliterated his target, killing the Taliban's regional commander and nine of his men.

The Danish soldiers were soon interpreting their rules of engagement loosely, helping to clear enemy-held buildings with grenades and machine guns.

Doug Beattie recalls an Afghan police officer, Major Showali, as "the bravest man I ever met."

"He refused to take cover under fire. Every time he saw us in trouble he would run over and pick me up and throw me into cover, shouting 'It's not your fight, Captain Doug, it's my fight!'

"Some of our guys didn't trust the Afghans, and I didn't always. But I trusted that man with my life.

"When he was shot dead on the last day, I was so sad."

Finally on the fourteenth day the exhausted British troops were relieved by a force of Royal Marines.

They had fired 50,000 rounds of 7.62mm machine gun ammunition, and thousands more from SA80 rifles.

Some had even emptied their pistols - weapons of last resort - as they stormed buildings.

Miraculously, when the dust settled, there were NO British fatalities.

Dozens of Afghan soldiers and police were dead, along with an unknown but certainly large number of Taliban.

Within days the Taliban attacked again in force and the hard-won, narrow buffer zone south of Garmisir was lost.

Today the frontline is back to where it was after day one of the battle, and Garmisir remains under siege.

Doug Beattie said: "It's nobody's fault. The Taliban were too strong, with endless supplies of men and ammunition coming in from Pakistan."

Capt Beattie, who was injured himself when an RPG hit a wall he was scaling, had already resigned from the Army six months before the Battle of Garmisir, and will leave next spring.

He recalls those 14 fateful days as the most intense fighting in a 25-year career spanning operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and the 2003 Iraq invasion - when he was the Royal Irish Regimental Sergeant Major under Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins, celebrated for his eve-of-battle speech.

Ironically the father-of-two was deployed to Afghanistan not to fight but to help train Afghan security forces.

He said yesterday: "My wife doesn't know. She still thinks I'm sitting behind a desk in Kandahar."
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READERS' COMMENTS

Bloody brilliant, boys.

Funny, but I don't recall seeing Blair beside the union flag atop the fort parapet at a Garmisir photocall.
Maybe on his next visit, unless Brown beats him to it.

- Dave, cumbria
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Just to prove this country does still provide outstanding people who would be hero's on any page of history. I wonder how the history books will place them against our political masters.

Tony Blair, please note this is how you earn respect not by posturing in front of a podium, giving this weeks fashionable spin.

- Lloyd, Elgin
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Thank you Daily Mail for bringing into the public domain a story of bravery and heroism that politicians and their crony friends in the Nu Labour-loving media would rather have kept quiet.

The bravery is beyond words but so too is the d'isgust we all feel at finding out that far from having the men and materiel needed to do the job (MORE Blair lies and spin) thse men were abandoned by New Labour to fight for their lives with inadequate resources in a war of Blair's making that in the end will be unwinnable.

From here on in anyone who votes for New Labour is a traitor to the bravery of these fine men and the country they represent.

- Andrew Murray, Delhi, India
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There are still giants among us, men with good and noble hearts. Well done the British Army... yet again!

- Baz, Exeter, Devon



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Last edited by Blackleaf; Nov 27th, 2006 at 01:30 PM..