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’
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'
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'
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'
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 that the atmosphere at the base that evening.
'People weren’t alone'
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'
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'
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'
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.