When 2 Rifles deployed to Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 10 in spring 2009, they were given responsibility for the town of Sangin and the surrounding area. By this stage in the conflict, it was acknowledged that Sangin was one of the most dangerous places in Helmand. By the end of their tour, 13 Riflemen from 2 Rifles had been killed. 11 of these were from C Company. A Rifleman who stayed behind in Afghanistan at the end of the tour to provide continuity after 2 Rifles left was killed in November 2009.
To help come to terms with the loss of so many of their friends and colleagues, those based at Patrol Base Wishtan built a memorial cross. This became a focus for remembrance and quiet reflection. The cross commemorates nine men from C Company who were killed in the Wishtan area, including five who were killed by a series of explosions that took place on 10 July 2009.
In the audio excerpts below, some of those who served in Wishtan describe what happened during the summer of 2009 and share their memories of some of the men who were killed.
2 Rifles arrived in Helmand in April 2009. After a quiet start, the battalion suffered their first casualties in May and June.
On 7 May, Rifleman Adrian Sheldon, serving at Forward Operating Base Inkerman. was killed as a result of an explosion near Sangin. In June, two men serving in the Wishtan area died - 19 year old Rifleman Cyrus Thatcher was killed on 2 June, when patrolling near Gereshk and on 12 June, Lieutenant Paul Mervis was killed in an explosion near Sangin.
Lieutenant Mervis was described as ‘one in a trillion’ and ‘model Rifles officer’. Rehan Pasha, who was a Section Commander in C Company, was one of those he impressed.
'He was a very popular guy’
"Lieutenant Mervis had been an outstandingly popular bloke with the guys. Even for those who knew him very briefly. I always remember being astounded that he actually knew my name, erm, I wasn't in his platoon, I'd barely met him, but he was a very, very popular guy. If you’d talk to any guy who served under him, they’d always say “he was the best platoon commander I ever had.” You know, he really, really was. I think that was a real blow to everyone.”
C Company was based at Patrol Base Wishtan, at the end of what was known as Pharmacy Road, an unpaved track that connected Wishtan with another British manned patrol base and led to the main route into Sangin. This whole area contained a network of compounds and narrow alleyways and was notorious for the large number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that had been planted by Taliban. These devices were increasingly made with low metal content components making them hard to locate. Anyone triggering a device risked death or catastrophic injury.
Before sunrise on 10 July, a patrol left Forward Operating Base Wishtan. As they set off down Wishtan Bazaar road, one of the Riflemen in the other section triggered an IED.
Rifleman James Backhouse was killed instantly in the blast and six others had been wounded. The most severely injured was platoon commander, Captain Alex Horsfall.
The men acted quickly to provide medical care - medic Carl ‘Tommo’ Thomas managed to get Alex Horsfall breathing again - and to extract everyone from the immediate area to a location close by.
Company Sergeant Major Simon Thompson had been monitoring the progress of the patrol from the base and heard the IED detonate. He drove out with a quad bike to lead the casualty evacuation process. He was trying to organise a Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) helicopter to evacuate the wounded when he was informed by Rifleman Murphy that there were still multiple unexploded devices in the area.
'We will take everybody back'
“So, we were now basically stood in the middle of a minefield, so I’d called the helicopter off and I said, “Make it land in Wishtan, we’ll take everybody back.” Put Alex on the stretcher, and then I was driving, I had my team back in because I knew it was double tones on the way back in but, you know, we’d marked them, but I wanted to be sure. And then, erm, and then I had, Pasha was on the back of the trailer helping sort to the commander out and so was Tommo the medic. Riding back, halfway back, massive bang, looked behind me and I could just see people in the air and dust and stones and, you know, probably about 300 meters away. Tommo the medic just jumped off, he just jumped off the trailer and ran back, no helmet, no, by this time he had taken his helmet off because he was doing CPR and stuff. His weapon was by the side, so he just ran back. He had his body armour on, I think. So, he just ran back into the explosion to try and help people.”
The explosion they had heard was another device detonating as the rest of the walking wounded had begun to make their way back to the FOB. The Casualty Evacuation Process (CASEVAC) had to be restarted after the second explosion, with the men trying to care for the injured whilst coming under fire.
Caroline Bull was a Combat Medical Technician based at FOB Wishtan. She had heard both explosions from the base and after the second IED went off was posted to be triage officer to assess the casualties.
'We had a few walking wounded'
“There was a kind of entrance in a, in a neighbouring compound, so I went through there. I just, kind of, waved people through essentially, I’d give people a quick check over and then get them to the med centre. I think we were taking maybe some small arms fire at the same time, can’t really remember (chuckling). And we had a few walking wounded, so they would come in and I’d kind of sit them down and just take a few breaths and got some guys to assist them back to the med centre to be dealt with there. Yeah, so, it was just a matter of kind of triaging people and making sure that they had the people to get them further into the compound to get the assistance and then out on the med basically.”
Back at the base there was initial uncertainty about who had been injured or killed. Rehan Pasha particularly remembers one conversation back at the base with Carl ‘Tommo’ Thomas, the medic who had treated some of the wounded.
'He can’t be dead he’s just got married'
“Later on, we’re back in the FOB and Carl Thomas, Tommo the medic, said to me, “Have you seen J Horne?” and I said, “No, he’s around here somewhere probably.” He said, “I think he’s dead, mate.”
“I don't know, Tommo, he’s around here somewhere.” I said something really stupid, I said, “No, he can’t be dead, he’s just got married.” I don’t know why I said that, but you say stupid things I suppose. And Tom had been very sort of slow and calm. “I’ve counted all the wounded and I’ve seen everyone, and J is not accounted for, I think he is one of the dead.” And, er, I think that’s the first one that really sort of, you know, stopped me for a bit, gave me a bit of pause because, you know, I really got on with J and that was, yeah, you know, he had just had a kid, and he had joined us late because he had been on paternity leave.”
Senior men tried to provide support to those who were left while also having to deal with practicalities such as collecting up the personal effects of those who had been killed or injured. This was a difficult task that brought home the reality of how many of their number were no longer there.
The men killed in the two explosions were confirmed as Corporal Jonathan ‘J’ Horne, Rifleman William Aldridge, Rifleman James Backhouse, Rifleman Joe Murphy and Rifleman Daniel Simpson.
Caroline Bull remembers the atmosphere at the base that evening.
'People weren’t alone'
“It was pretty quiet. I think people were quite reflective on what had happened. They’d doubled up the Century GTS essentially, so people weren’t alone, um, and, yeah, it was quite serene. We had a memorial service in the evening as we always did.”
In the days that followed, everyone was encouraged to talk to each other about what had happened. Simon Thompson explains how some of this was part of a formal investigation process.
'They will make you go over every single detail'
“The RMPs come in after any loss of life and they make you, like this, they’ll make you talk about every single detail because it’s part of their learning account. Not to apportion blame but to find out whether it was tactics that were the issue or whether, whether it was incorrect drills or, you know, anything like that really because it’s a death and they’ve got to put a full report to the coroner. So, I found that very good actually with, with talking about the whole process.”
Rehan Pasha remembers how he took one of the Riflemen aside who he could see had been badly affected by what he had seen.
'Him and Murph, they had been two really good mates'
“There was one chap really badly affected by what he had just seen. He was just going to bits, so I was just having a chat with him. He was very upset about Rifleman Murphy. Murphy had been his mate. I’d liked Murphy too a lot, he’d been a really good, just a cracking guy from Birmingham, really nice guy but him and Murph, they had been, you know, two really good mates, so it was just starting to hit him. I took him to one side and near the Mortar Pit and one of the Mortar Platoon guys had been in a FOB, just out of nowhere came and just got us some Cokes or whatever. And there was a lot of that going on.”
The following month, those who had been at Wishtan suffered another blow when Serjeant Paul McAleese and Private Johnathan Young were killed. Young was a soldier from the Yorkshire Regiment who had been drafted in with the rest of his platoon to replace men lost on 10 July. Platoon Sergeant Paul McAleese had been in the Rifles (previously the Royal Green Jackets) since 1997 and was well known within the battalion.
By the end of the tour in October, 2 Rifles had lost four more men, Rifleman Aminiasi Toge, Rifleman Daniel Wild, Captain Mark Hale and Acting Serjeant Stuart McGrath. There was one final loss for 2 Rifles after the tour ended. In November 2009, Rifleman Philip Allen was killed by an IED explosion – he had remained behind in Afghanistan when 2 Rifles came to the end of the tour to help the incoming brigade
Rehan Pasha recalls his feelings at the loss of Sergeant Paul McAleese, someone he particularly admired.
'He just seemed one of those invincible sort of guys'
“McAleese really (inaudible), McAleese was a bit of a legend in battalion. Again, I felt this one actually a bit. Maccy was one of the best leaders (inaudible) officers that I had ever served under, I genuinely mean that. I was a bit of his blue-eyed boy once as his QRF 2IC. One day actually the 9th of July, the day before the incident, we were contacted in Wishtan and I was his second in command, really had not done anything miraculous at all, I had just done my job. He really had a way of making you feel like you were special, and he was singing my praises after and, he was that sort of chap. And I remember after we found out it had been Mac that had been killed one of the NCIs with us, I remember him saying, “I never thought I’d ever see Mac’s name up on the wall because he just seemed one of those invincible sort of guys.”
The close knit group at Patrol Base Wishtan were devastated at the loss of so many of the friends and colleagues who had served alongside them in Wishtan. Sergeant Thompson initiated the idea to build a memorial and asked Royal Engineers to build a cross. Brass plaques bearing the names of each of the men who had died were added and the cross became a focus for remembrance and reflection on the base.
The cross is now part of IWM’s collection after being brought back from Afghanistan in 2012.
Since it came to IWM, curators have been trying to collect more material relating to the cross and the men that it commemorates.
It remains a powerful reminder of the loss of life but also of bravery and friendship and the importance of remembrance.
With thanks to Rehan Pasha, Caroline Bull and Simon Thompson.