British Forces from 16 Air Assault Brigade stand inside an aircraft wearing their uniform and carrying their kit as they arrive in Kabul.

In August 2021, British military personnel arrived in Afghanistan as part of a multinational non-combatant evacuation operation, code-named Operation Pitting, to evacuate British and eligible Afghan nationals from Kabul following the rapid military offensive by the resurgent Taliban to take control of the country.

Over 1,000 military personnel were involved in Operation Pitting, including large elements from 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Members of the Brigade were interviewed soon after their return to the UK and in their own words, describe their role in the wider operation.

As the British Army’s rapid response team, the Brigade are held at high readiness to deploy. Major Shaun Clark remembers quickly bringing his company back from leave in anticipation to deploy.

“I remember ringing the commanding officer and saying I want to bring my blokes back because I know this is going to happen and I want to give a bit more notice and prep. And he said ‘are you sure?’ and I said ‘yep, I’ll do this’ and he said okay...they arrived on midday on Monday and then we left at midnight on Monday night. So we had 12 hours to get ready and go. It's what we should be ready for, so everyone was good to go and we left."

Major Clark's team travelled first to an air base in the United Arab Emirates before boarding another flight to Kabul.

'Kabul was starting to fall'

Lieutenant Colonel David Middleton recalls the security situation at the airport when the first members of the Brigade began arriving.

By the Sunday, the 15th, Kabul was starting to fall and there was large scale panic around the airfield driven by uncertainty amongst the civilian population which is obviously understandable and the security for the airport itself was not assured. The American marines were having a difficult task in terms of providing and reinforcing the perimeter security and A Company were involved in providing an inner layer of security around the military side of the airfield to prevent any further penetration from the civilian side across the runway towards where the military hardware was positioned.

Civilians sitting and standing as they wait to be evacuated at Kabul Airport. Soldiers stand around them an aircraft is parked behind them.
© UK MOD 2021

On the August 16, thousands of civilians entered the runway and tried to reach the military side of the airport where evacuations were taking place.

Sergeant Robert Adams was one of the first paratroopers to deploy and was at an entry point at the Abbey Gate trying to manage the flow of people entering the airport:

'It was very overwhelming to see it'

It was manpower intensive, I got my 12 guys and pushed them up to, in line with the Americans. We actually managed to, with the Americans, push the overwhelming crowd back as far as 900m  away from the terminal, the main terminal….to a [kilometre] I’d say and we then we kind of held them there….that took about an hour to give us back that 800 metres to a [kilometre] and then we sort of held them there. But the crowd….you could see gaps in the fences and the crowd just kept feeding through. And it wasn’t small numbers, it was literally hundreds of people coming through at a time, pushing past each other. Just kind of think of a rock concert and everyone sort of flooding towards the main stage. It was that but on a much bigger scale. And desperation as well. It was very overwhelming to sense, to see it. Bear in mind as well, we had no crowd control equipment, we were just rifles, pistols, and our PPE. Desperation turned into anger you could see as the hours went past. We were in the heat of the day; we were running out of water because we only planned to be on that rotation for a couple of hours – we had two litres of water max... 
Members of 16 Air Assault Brigade forming a 'shield wall' in front of civilians waiting to be evacuated from Kabul International Airport
© IWM (DC 125090)

For over ten hours, they formed a thin line of defence in front of the civilians before the airport was reopened and evacuation flights could continue.

An evacuation handling centre was also established at the nearby Baron Hotel.

Inside the hotel, civilians would be searched and checked by UK Border Force before being moved to the passenger handling facility at the airport for the next RAF evacuation flight. 

Private William White describes the processing system established outside the Baron Hotel, where a chevron of shipping containers was set up to help stem the flow of the crowds.

'It was like chaos, but we sort of brought order to chaos'

When we went to secure it, essentially there was like hundreds and hundreds, probably a couple of thousand people sort of blocking our passage, so we essentially managed to move them out and create a 20m wide width of this….where we could get vehicles up and down and then from the threat of vehicle borne IEDs we put ISO [shipping] containers at the end of the road to stop any suicide attacks and managed to push the crowd sideways so we had a clear run, clear stretch all the way from the hotel all the way back to the airport. Then that had to be manned for the whole two and a bit weeks. That was essentially Abbey Gate where all the processing got done. We reinforced it with razor wire, t-walls, anything you could get your hands on really. It was like chaos, but we sort of brought order to chaos and had a rapport with a lot of the civilians to explain ‘now we’ve got this system’ – because at the start there was no system – and then we created a system where we could extract people and we sort of said then, that’s when the processing was done. That’s when border force was brought out, Foreign Office, and they were doing the paperwork processing in the hotel and then we were on the frontlines with the crowds, crowd control essentially…..It was anyone with UK passports, UK residency permit and anyone with ARAP scheme and you’re just looking out. Probably ninety per cent of the crowd weren’t actually eligible so we ended up creating a one way system where they take people who weren’t eligible and then we would have an exit point where we would exit them and then anyone who were eligible we would try and bring over to this more ordered side and bring them in with their families, husbands or partner, anyone over the age of 18, within close family was eligible and then you’d bring them in to the hotel. That was our processing system.

Taliban fighters standing on top of a ‘chevron’ of shipping containers, built at the entry point in front of the Baron Hotel to control the flow of people entering the airport, 28-29 August 2021.
© IWM (DC 125075)

A secondary entry point developed in a canal which ran along from the Abbey Gate and near the Baron Hotel.

With large amounts of civilians gathering at the canal point, military personnel quickly responded to the situation and introduced a more efficient system for checking people’s documents.

Captain James Robson remembers the impact this had on the operation:

"That’s when we went from the low hundreds per day to (by the end of the operation) pushing on nearly 2000 people a day being evacuated so that’s 1500 people that have been through the processing bit and deemed eligible to go back to the UK. But for every person that was deemed eligible, you processed probably 3 or 4 through the system that don’t have the right paperwork or have no reason to be in the UK and are just trying to get out."

Captain Robson recalls that representative of other NATO countries were also able to use the system to find the people they were looking for too.

During this peak of the operation, military personnel processed up to 1,800 people a day and were responsible for doing first checks of civilian documentation.

Members of 16 Air Assault Brigade would often hear about the backgrounds of those trying to leave the country.

Private Stephen Mack recalls one woman he met whilst at the canal zone:

'We were there to get the people out who were eligible'

I was just stood there like, just making sure nothing was going wrong and I was chatting to this woman and like, her English was better than mine. She was a local [Afghan] and she was chatting to me and helping me talk to the crowd, translating for me. She was on her own and we were just chatting, and she had like a folder full of paperwork. I hadn’t looked at it or anything, but I was like ‘yeah, she could speak really good English, she’s got all this paperwork in her folder, she’s gonna be coming in’. And then when we started letting people in, I said ‘go on, show us your paperwork' and she explained that she didn’t have anything, she wasn’t eligible to come but she had had a death threat already because she worked at a uni as an English lecturer at one of the universities in Kabul and like, she needed to get out the country. I couldn’t do anything to help her. We were there to get the people out who were eligible. It was a difficult one.

Civilians outside the airport waited for hours in cramped conditions under intense heat which resulted in causalities. A small child who had been injured was passed to Corporal Titus Kimani. 

"When the mum passed the kid to me, I just thought it was maybe a cut, but the kid was helpless, and I look at her and [she] were really pale. By the time we gave her to the medic, she was gone. She was maybe 14 months." 

As the operation further intensified, there was a growing security threat with reports of a possible attack by the Islamic State – Khorasan Province.

On August 26, an improvised explosive device was detonated in the crowd by the Abbey Gate. Daniel Hoyland was 60 meters away when the blast went off.

'I knew straight away it was an IED or a suicide bomber'

Myself and another corporal from my platoon had literally just walked down with some guys who were getting sent out, just to say hello to the Americans and say ‘how you doing?' and all that… about 30 seconds later, the suicide bomber detonated himself. He literally took out, he killed about 180 people I believe. It was absolute mayhem once that happened because people just panic. The only thing I had that kind of like, kept me from not doing that was having experience in the past, like was saying on on my previous tours whereas other lads would be like ‘Jesus, what’s going on?’. I knew straight away it was an IED or a suicide bomber and literally the whole crowd came running down the road. A lot of the Americans, there was a platoon’s worth of them there, roughly about 25, 30 of them there…. out of them the ones that were actually still standing were probably about one or two.
Afghans and British soldiers sit on board an RAF aircraft. The photograph is taken from slightly above.
UK MOD © 2021

British military personnel worked around the clock to ensure as many civilians could be evacuated as possible.

The final RAF evacuation flights took place on August 28 with the last remaining British military personnel leaving Afghanistan on the same day.

Operation Pitting was the largest humanitarian aid operation since the Berlin Airlift, evacuating over 15,000 people in 2-weeks and the operation marked the end of the UK’s 20-year military involvement in Afghanistan.

Today, the country faces a bleak and uncertain future under Taliban control as its people experience famine, financial hardship, and especially for women, the gradual erosion of their basic human rights.

Were you involved in Operation Pitting?

If you were involved in Operation Pitting - as a civilian, civil servant or member of the armed forces - IWM would love to hear from you.

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