Fighting fit for Afghan mission

Troops from South Yorkshire on pre-deployment training exercise in Brecon Beacons.
Troops from South Yorkshire on pre-deployment training exercise in Brecon Beacons.
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WHILE most South Yorkshire folk are preparing for their summer holidays, some of the county’s Territorial Army soldiers are gearing up for a very different trip abroad. Star reporter Richard Marsden joined them in training for Afghanistan.

THE noise was deafening as the helicopter touched down.

Faces smeared with camouflage and burdened with rifles, ammunition and equipment weighing several stone, the platoon of more than two dozen soldiers poured from the Chinook’s rear exit ramp.

A section of eight men came forward to a muddy embankment to stand as sentries, while others moved to a wooded area to go through final checks of their equipment before preparing to advance.

The battle started with enemy positions being pounded with fire from a machine gun stationed on a hillside above the battlefield.

Then, the soldiers advanced – a section took a position firing on the enemy to keep their heads down and prevent them from moving.

Meanwhile, other troops advanced, hidden from view in a river valley, to attack and destroy each enemy position, finishing them off with a grenade and burst of gunfire.

The dramatic scene was repeated for each of the three enemy positions, with soldiers swapping roles for each offensive manoeuvre to keep themselves fresh and to have sufficient, loaded ammunition, until the valley had been cleared.

A textbook platoon attack completed successfully.

But although the battle used live ammunition and was as realistic as you can get, it was just a rehearsal taking place in the Brecon Beacons.

In only a few months, however, it is a situation the soldiers - many of them from South Yorkshire - could encounter for real if they are sent to Afghanistan. All those taking part have volunteered to be sent to the war zone if needed as part of the next deployment.

Among those in the mock battle was Corporal David Evans, aged 44, of Kimberworth, who normally works in IT for Sheffield Council contractor, Capita.

Cpl Evans, a member of Fourth Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, based at Endcliffe Hall, said: “I’ve been in the TA for 17 years and served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq so I thought I’d finish with a tour in Afghanistan.

“In terms of depth of training, this time it’s been better than ever before. Patrolling on this tour will be much tenser than on my previous experiences because of the threat from roadside bombs.

“Military life has its ups and downs - most of the time it will be boring jobs, with brief periods of terror and excitement.

“In Kosovo and Bosnia we were peacekeeping whereas in Iraq I was helping escort people from the airport into Basra town. We had improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades to deal with but the threat was not as severe as it is in Afghanistan.”

Cpl Evans said he will be a company signaller in Afghanistan – responsible for sending important messages over the radio system on behalf of his commanders.

Private Chris Clarke, aged 26, who graduated from Sheffield University last year with a degree in International Business, is preparing to deploy whilst partner Hemisha Patel, 21, remains in Sheffield studying her further maths degree at the same university.

He said: “It’ll be my first deployment and I only completed recruit training 10 months ago. Having the chance to step up and go on tour is an excellent opportunity. I don’t yet know what my role will be, though.

“I also have mixed emotions – I’m excited but apprehensive, and I’ll miss my girlfriend and family while I am away.”

In total, 46 members of Fourth Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment are among 221 Territorial Army soldiers being deployed later this year.

Also on the training exercise and ready for deployment from South Yorkshire are members of the TA’s Rifles Company Fifth Royal Regiment of Fusiliers’ Y Company, based at Danum Barracks, Doncaster.

Colour Sergeant David Carswell and Sergeant Roy Edwards are both set to head to Afghanistan.

CSgt Carswell, aged 41, said: “I last went on operations eight years ago, to Iraq. We were doing foot and vehicle patrols and it was quite hairy – the insurgency was starting.”

He said he lost two comrades on the six-month tour of duty.

But CSgt Carswell, a TA soldier from the age of 21, said it was a ‘personal ambition’ to deploy to Afghanistan and that he wanted to go ‘out of a sense of duty’.

Y Company’s second in command, Captain Ben Clare, aged 30, a former Sheffield University student and Sheffield University Officer Training Corps member who has served in Afghanistan in 2008, is not deploying this year.

But he was among a huge number of people helping run the training exercise at Brecon.

He said: “The members of our company who are deploying will be alongside full-time soldiers from Second Battalion The Rifles.

“Fifteen of our members, including myself, have been to Afghanistan so far. When I went, it was the best and worst time of my life. I had some lows due to the stress of the job but it also pushed me to the limit.

“Because we are sending so many of our guys, it’s important for those of us in charge to have some authority, so we must go as well. I’m planning to put myself forward again next year.”

Major Andy Wareing, who has been in charge of the two weeks of training exercises at Brecon, said: “The soldiers being deployed came with varying levels of skills and the idea of the course here has been to sharpen their battle skills so they can serve alongside their full-time counterparts.

“I’m happy with what I’ve seen and they are now being sent to various places to carry out final training with the regular troops they will serve with in Afghanistan.

“They look the part and they are the part.”

As well as honing their attacking techniques, soldiers on the training course learned about the type of weapons used by other international troops and the Taliban, and other important skills such as dealing with casualties and improvised explosive devices.