This Band of Brothers: Scots on the frontline
• Members of C Squadron Royal Scots Dragoon Guards on a patrol from patrol base Attal in Afghanistan. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA
IT IS HIGH summer in Helmand Province, and amid the heat and dust and high-explosives, A Company, The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland are enjoying a few hours down-time in the muggy tents of Patrol Base Attal. It is said that in the army one does not stand, when one can sit, or sit when one can lie down, or, indeed, lie down, when one can sleep; so it is with uniforms – tops are discarded at the first opportunity, and so is clear that here the men do more than wear their heart on their sleeve, it is inked into their skin.
One of them even bears a verse from the poem For The Fallen, by Laurence Binyon, an English poet and art scholar. It was written in 1914 after the Battle of Marne during the First World War, and echoes across the decades to encompass each new casualty of war on whatever side. Among those the men now remembered "at the going down of the sun'" is Highlander Scott McLaren, from D Company, who went missing from Checkpoint Salaang on 4 July and was found dead later that day after an extensive search. The tributes released 24 hours later painted a portrait of a loyal soldier, a fitness fanatic who was a whiz at computer game Call of Duty, and, as Highlander Jamal John recalled, "I will miss you throwing your Irn-Bru bottles in my bedspace."
At Patrol Base Attal, which is 15 miles from the city of Lashkar Gah, the troops go out on daily patrols as part of their duty to guard a 25 mile stretch of Route 601, which links the city with Highway 1, and so allow open access for farmers to trade. The base, however, is close to the village of Pupalzay, where there are many insurgents. Here improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the daily danger in operations, as they are for all troops in Afghanistan. With the country's own security forces now maintaining control in Lashkar Gah district centre, it is Afghan police officers who are leading the way in dealing with the threat in and around the capital of Helmand Province. Officers from the Afghan National Police (ANP) found seven IEDs near Patrol Base Attal at the weekend.
• Soldiers relax at Patrol Base Attal. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA
The find, was described as "significant" by Captain Ben McNeil, of C Squadron, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. He said: "That's a big find for them certainly and for us to know and hear about. Out in the field, for us, it's still a threat under foot and we need to deal with that. The threat on the road is the insurgents focusing on the ANP vehicles and using remote-controlled IEDs on the side of the road. The ANP have lost a lot of men in vehicles in the three or four months we have been here."
He added: "The way the ANP deal with it is incredible. They mourn it for a day and then the following day they will be back at work, getting on with it. Hats off to them, I guess. It's a completely different culture. There's a lot of work still needing to be done but we're halfway there, it's just finishing off." The ANP vehicles have become the main target for the insurgents.
Eight officers have been killed in the three months the Dragoon Guards have been in Afghanistan. Five of the deaths occurred in a single incident.
C Squadron, who are attached to The Highlanders 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (4 SCOTS), are tasked with providing security along one of the country's arterial roads. The 500 soldiers from 4 Scots and 180 from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards flew out to Afghanistan at the beginning of April for a six-month deployment. Their main duties are partnering, mentoring and training Afghan security forces so that the Afghans can take over complete security control of Helmand Province, an area in the south-west of Afghanistan that pokes up, like a finger, from the border with Pakistan.
• A Company out on patrol. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA
The British forces have the support of the Afghan government, but their role over the past decade has been complex and multi-pronged. In the jargon of the military, it is divided between "kinetic" and "non-kinetic".
The principal task, or "kinetic", is to track down and destroy those groups of Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters intent on the overthrow of the elected government. The "non-kinetic" is assisting in the reconstruction of the fourth-poorest country on the planet by assisting in the training and development of the new Afghan army and police forces. For the duration of the tour 4 Scots are partnering the ANP in Lashkar Gar District.
Capt McNeil, from Wilmslow in Cheshire, said: "There are three, maybe four, locations in this area that you know if you go to you will always get contact from the enemy. Most of our contacts have been in Pupalzay, there's a line in the sand that if we cross it, we know we'll get shot at. We had quite a heavy contact a couple of weeks ago where a rocket-propelled grenade hit us and three guys were sent home with shrapnel wounds.
"About six days ago we had an underslung grenade launcher round land next to us and it was only the very, very thick mud which saved serious injuries. It landed in the mud very close to three men, about six metres, and it was very fortunate it wasn't hard ground. You take the good luck when it comes."
When each soldier pulls on their kit and leaves their tents at Patrol Base Attal, there is one thing they fear more than any other. Major Nick Foulerton, officer commanding C Squadron, said: "I will be the first to admit that an IED is a soldier's worst nightmare. Small-arms fire is a threat you can deal with, the threat of an IED is a case of horror of the unknown."
No-one wants to be reduced to an inked line on a mate's body.