From 2006-2014 British troops were operating in Helmand province, Afghanistan, as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) supporting the Afghan government against the Taliban insurgency.
The daily lives of UK forces were documented by official Ministry of Defence (MOD) photographers. Examples of their work, which gives an insight into the conditions for service personnel in Afghanistan, were recently added to IWM’s collection. The quotes accompanying them are taken from IWM oral history interviews with military personnel who served in Afghanistan.
After initial training in Camp Bastion, (the then main logistical base for operations in Helmand province), most infantry soldiers or marines deployed to forward operating bases (FOBs) and a smaller network of checkpoints (CP) and patrol bases (PB).
'Myself and eleven others went into what’s called a Patrol Base, which is a small version of a FOB [Forward Operating Base] basically it was just a compound say eighty metres by eighty metres and we shared that compound with some Afghans, ANA, which is Afghan National Army...'
'...we were strategically placed between two FOBs to be kind of a cut off to any Taliban transiting through the area and that’s what we did. We defended the Patrol Base for four weeks. We didn’t patrol out, literally [our job was] to stay there and defend and observe the area which we had to do for twenty four hours a day.'
Each base had a ‘sangar’ (a military term for a watch tower ) which enabled soldiers or marines within the base to monitor the situation in surrounding areas.
'In terms of physical defences we had two sangars. Sangars are sort of like watchtowers, but rather than for looking in they look out. They are much more heavily built up than you would imagine a watch tower to be. They are completely reinforced with Hesco, which is the metal bins filled with rubble to make solid walls, sandbags and camouflaged up fairly well.'
Living conditions varied according to base. This photograph shows a member of the Royal Military Police in front of her sleeping accommodation in patrol base Argyll.
The larger FOBs tended to boast showers and toilets, a regular electricity supply, fresh food and a relatively good standard of sleeping accommodation. PBs and CPs were more austere, sometimes in converted Afghan compounds.
'For washing ourselves personally, when I first turned up you would get a bowl of hot water or cold water or whatever you fancied then you would just bring your own mirror, put on a table do yourself from that for shaving and for washing. For having a shower, you would fill up a solar shower bag with some hot or cold water, put it on the little shower area which was basically four hessian walls for a bit of privacy then just open shower bag, have your shower from that.'
Recreational activities available also varied according to base. Where electricity was available, soldiers could watch DVDs on laptops and often access the internet (however troops were typically restricted on length of usage). They also improvised their own entertainment by producing makeshift gym equipment and games, and shared magazines and books sent from home.
Troops tended to have access to fresh food in larger FOBs, but in more remote locations they often had to survive on their basic army rations. On later operational tours, such as Herrick 15 (Oct 11 – April 12) the British Army appointed a ‘FOB Catering Warrant Officer’ from the Royal Logistic Corps, who was responsible for traveling to austere locations such as FOBs, PBs and CP’s, in order to supply fresh food to troops on the front line.
On Christmas Day 2011, the plan was to get around to all of the checkpoints within taskforce Helmand and supply all of the troops a proper roast dinner with all of the trimmings.