Arbroath in mourning after worst day of losses since Falklands War
THEY haven't grieved like this since the Falklands. The people of Arbroath, home of 45 Commando, have suffered losses since the 1982 conflict. But the unit's three casualties in Afghanistan this weekend are the highest single toll since commandos fought their way across the South Atlantic islands more than 25 years ago.
"People are just shocked," said Peter Nield, a councillor for the town and a former serviceman. "There haven't been this many casualties in one go since the Falklands War."
What added to the sense of disbelief is that the three men were killed by a 13-year-old boy, pushing a wheelbarrow full of explosives. "I was in Northern Ireland for two years," Nield said. "But I can't even begin to imagine what they are going through, under fire all the time, wary of everybody, wary even of children."
Arbroath, home of the regiment's Condor base, has long taken 45 to its heart. Each death, locals stress – and there have been seven in Afghanistan so far – is taken personally.
As Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday flew into Afghanistan to meet frontline troops, families heard the news of the killings with horror. Women, wives and mothers rang each other, desperate for news, some clue as to who had died, who had been hurt. Few cared that the men were not from Arbroath; being from the 45 was enough to make them local.
"My phone has not stopped," said David Fairweather, another councillor. "The call from my daughter was the worst. Her husband is in Afghanistan and she has just had a baby who is only 10 days old and he hasn't seen her. They always think the worst.
"Imagine what my daughter was feeling like this morning. She is very depressed and she has other families on the phone and friends who have got men in the services across there at the moment. The whole town is really sombre."
Fairweather's son-in-law is Grant Allen, a sergeant-major who has already been wounded in Afghanistan – "a nasty arm injury", said Fairweather. "He still wanted to go back because that is what he trained for. We should all be very proud of those lads out there, they have a thankless and difficult job."
Fairweather's view was echoed by First Minister Alex Salmond, who said: "This is a dreadful tragedy, and our heartfelt condolences go to the families and friends of the men who have lost their lives.
"It will be especially keenly felt in Arbroath… but it is a close-knit local community which will rally round all those most closely affected."
The three commandos, Sergeant John Manuel, Corporal Marc Birch and Marine Damian Davies, died when the 13-year-old approached them pushing a wheelbarrow.
The teenager – who may have been a suicide bomber or an innocent 'mule' whose bomb was detonated remotely – also died in the blast, which took place near the strategically vital town of Sangin in the north of the troubled Helmand province.
The other marine, Lance Corporal Steven Fellows, 26, of W Company, from High Wycombe, was also killed near Sangin, after his Jackal vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.
Both incidents involved the use of terror tactics that military experts believe have been imported from Iraq, where children have regularly been used as mules and the roadside bomb, or 'improvised explosive device', was perfected.
Yesterday Brown, in a flak jacket after visiting the frontline town of Musa Qala, which was recaptured from the Taliban last year, spoke of his "disgust and horror" at the way three of the men had died. "It is a terrible commentary on the Taliban that they should use a 13-year-old child to be a suicide bomber.
"My thoughts are with the families of those who have died and with the friends of those who have died. These men will never be forgotten for what they have achieved on behalf of our country."
Addressing the troops, Brown said: "We are safer in Britain, the people of Britain are safer because of what you do there, checking the Taliban, operating as the frontline against them, making sure that they can't make advances, holding them in and holding al-Qaeda in as well."
Brown said he had wanted to see for himself the "brilliant job" being done by the British forces to calm the situation and restore normality. The work was vital not only to secure a safe future for Afghanistan, but for Britain too, he said.
"There is a line of terror that leads from the Pakistan and Afghanistan mountains to the streets of our capital city and our towns if we allow the Taliban and al-Qaeda to flourish," he said. That was why British armed forces are in Afghanistan, he said, adding: "I am very proud."
The marines of 45 Commando are part of a contingent of more than 8,000 British troops in Helmand. Experts believe they are entering a 'make or break' stage in their mission in a year which has seen an estimated 8,000 civilian deaths.
Paul Burton, of the International Council for Security and Development, a think-tank formerly called the Senlis Council that specialises in Afghanistan, said: "We think 2009 is going to be the pivotal year in Afghanistan. The military forces from Nato are not big enough and not well-enough equipped to win this and we wonder what exit strategy they now have."
British military sources yesterday said thousands of extra US troops would join UK forces in Helmand as US President-elect Barack Obama refocuses America's military might from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Back in Arbroath, residents said they would continue to support "their" marines' mission, regardless of their personal views on the conflict.
Nield expects his local authority, Angus Council, to support the families of the lost men. But he warned that the NHS would need huge resources to handle the psychological damage they could suffer in the war.
Humphrey Lingane sums up the tight relationship between town and 45 Commando. A former marine, he still frequents Condor's sergeants' mess. But the pensioner now counts himself a Lichtie (an Arbroath resident) and, for more than 20 years, chaired the town's community council. "I am absolutely demoralised by this," Lingane said of the losses yesterday. "Everybody is. I am just shattered. I was in 45 Commando for many years. If you speak to anyone in the town, they will tell you: we have taken the marines to our heart.
"That is seven young people now that have died altogether, from 45 Commando. It's so devastating. Everyone in the town supports them. They are sending out Christmas gifts and making collections for them. They are part of the community."
Apr 15, 2003: A pregnant woman carried out a suicide attack on a group of US soldiers at a checkpoint north-west of Baghdad. Another female bomber was involved in the coordinated strike.
Feb 1, 2008: Two mentally ill women strapped with remote-control explosives struck a market in Baghdad, killing at least 73 people.
Mar 2, 2008: At least 42 people were killed near Peshawar, Pakistan, after a teenage suicide bomber detonated explosives at a meeting of tribal elders.
Sept 1, 2008: A boy believed to have been just 10 blew himself up in an attempt to assassinate an Iraqi tribal leader.
Nov 10, 2008: A 13-year-old girl blew herself up at a checkpoint in Baquba, capital of Diyala province, killing four Sunni guards and wounding at least 15 civilians.
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