Marines swoop into Taliban 'heart of darkness'

By Tom Coghlan in Sangeen, Afghanistan
Daily Telegraph

Probably the biggest raid by the Royal Marines since the Falklands War in 1982

An armoured column of 250 Royal Marines smashed into Sangeen yesterday down the main road from the north, driving off Taliban fighters who had been attacking a small British "platoon house".

A Royal Marine breaks cover to advance into Sangeen

Such was the ferocity of the operation that the rebels were taken completely by surprise and, despite mounting a weak counter-attack, could not stop the Royal Marines linking up with American troops from the 82nd Airborne Division from the south.

Embedded with Lima Company of 42 Commando under Major Gill Duncan, I can report that the operation was completed without a single British casualty. "The aim is to shock the Taliban to the point where they don't have a scoobie [clue] what is going on," 2nd Lieut Chris Sylven told the men of 7 Troop at a tense desert briefing.

Senior officers claimed that it was the biggest Royal Marine raid since the Falklands conflict.

Col Matthew Holmes, commander of 42 Commando, described Sangeen as a Taliban "heart of darkness".

Intelligence had suggested that there were up to 350 Taliban in the area with advanced munitions, such as Soviet grenade launchers. There was also a warning of reinforcement by 120 fighters from the north. The Marines were told the plan required "a high level of aggression".

"This is one ballsy shout from the CO, to go up the highway and start smashing heads together," said Sgt Richard St Louis, warning his men that 16 suicide bombers might be in the town. "If someone comes towards you in a fire fight, he is dead."

The first part of the operation called for the entire force to launch its assault in a 33-vehicle armoured convoy travelling at 35 mph down the main highway.

Royal Marines take cover behind mud walls as smoke rises from a British strike

"It was a risk on a route we had never travelled before," admitted Col Holmes. "They wouldn't expect us to jump straight in on the road from the north. They would expect the US forces to lead the attack from the south.

It was an opportunity to go for it, and fortune favours the brave."

The overall commander of the 3rd Commando Brigade, Brig Jerry Thomas, said the attack sought to prevent a build-up of Taliban forces.

"There was a fear that they would reinforce quicker than we could move, leading to defences we could not defeat quickly," he said. "If we had to reduce the town to rubble, that would be a pyrrhic victory.

We were looking for shock action to overload their command structure. Our intelligence suggests they went into paralysis today."

All the Royal Marines were veterans of many fire fights with the Taliban, and the 28 men of 7 Troop fired 17,000 rounds between them in a single day in February.

At 3.30am the convoy roared into the dense and confusing confines of Sangeen. A missile from an Apache helicopter destroyed a Taliban checkpoint before the convoy reached it, enabling the Marines to move forward so quickly that some vehicles almost collided when they braked.

Nine British soldiers have died in Sangeen this year, three in the past month. Many others have been injured.

The sandbagged buildings are pitted by innumerable weapons strikes and a zone around the centre has been cleared of civilians and is razed by the fighting.

Men who have served in Sangeen say it is the worst experience of their lives.

Twenty minutes after they arrived and in the first light of dawn, the Royal Marines began a sweep to secure the area. They were backed up by Apache helicopters, and Harriers and US F15 and F18 bombers were visible, while artillery support was available from outside the town.

The Royal Marines and accompanying assault engineers carried "mouse hole" charges to blast holes in thick mud walls and mines to collapse Taliban tunnel systems.

Royal Marines with heat-seeking sights scanned roof tops for rebels moving to attack. A number of figures were spotted and several engaged.

The air was filled with the disorientating thump of explosive charges followed by sprays of machine gun fire as the Marines moved through the warren of buildings, blasting holes in walls and firing into the rooms beyond. With their webbing packed with equipment, some Royal Marines had trouble fitting through holes in the walls and had to be shoved hard from behind.

"That's 68,000 of taxpayers' money well spent," shouted one officer as a British munition hit a suspected firing point with a thump that raised a plume of dust.

By noon the Royal Marines had achieved their objectives. Nato forces hope to hand the territory gained to Afghan forces within the next few days.

However, some Marines warned that it would be premature to write off a Taliban return in Sangeen.

"They are not stupid. They know we have massive combat power here now," said one officer. "They just melt into the background, they know we can't sustain this.

Then they can move back in, and things will be as they were."