About Doug Beattie

I am a soldier and author. These BLOGs are the by-product of my own personal thought stream from 30 years in the military.


The middle of December 2002 and I’d just left the Headquarters building and walked, along with my commanding officer, to the side of the parade square. Stretched out in front of us were not the trappings of an Air Assault Infantry battalion but lines of Green Goddess Fire Engines. CRW_6280

We had just received the news we had been hoping for and with little fanfare Colonel Tim Collins turned to me and said “RSM, lets get the battalion ready for War”

Just 3 months later I stood on the left side of Colonel Collins in Fort Blair Mayne situated in the middle of the Kuwait Desert.

“We go to liberate, not to conquer” It was an opening salvo from the CO, another unrehearsed speech like so many before.  But for the public back home it resonated through the corridors of power, the pubs and bars and the sitting rooms.  It found its way onto the wall of the Oval Office, an inspirational oratory meant for those not preparing to fight.

As expected the first days of war where chaotic as we prepared to unleash controlled violence on an enemy prepared to use chemical weapon. What we had not been prepared for was the real face of our enemy.  They were starving poorly led, poorly equip wretches.  They had no will to fight, no means to fight and no understanding of what was going on.

WMIK on patrol near Ramaila oil fields

WMIK on patrol near Ramaila oil fields

The 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiments mission in those early days was to secure the Ramilya oil fields and the Gas Oil Separation Plants dotted around the desert. My role was to take control of the prisoners of war and immediately I was confronted with 500 enemy soldiers bewildered, starving and scared.

I always remember the conduct of my men, those scared young soldiers fighting as I was in their first war.  They showed compassion very rarely talked about when people mention the Iraq war.  They gave away their own food and when ordered to stop they scavenged for food from nearby building just to feed the starving Iraq prisoners.  They’re not taught this but it’s the humanity in men you find even in war.

Amongst the prisoners there was those who were seriously injured and who quickly succumbed to their wounds.  The gentleness shown by the men of 1 R IRISH was incredibly moving.  They took the body, dug a deep grave so the ferial dogs wouldn’t dig it up and then, taking a compass bearing towards Mecca, they laid him to rest with his head towards this holy sight.  An Iraqi colleague spoke a few words before the grave was marked and recorded. It was the dignity we would all hope for in death, which can, during war, be overlooked.

In early April 1 R IRISH were ordered to lead the breakout from the oil fields to the town of Al Madina southwest of Al Basra.

Col Tim.  I was later to learn that due to his dress he was known as the 'American Tourist' by other members of the Brigade.

Col Tim. I was later to learn that due to his dress he was known as the ‘American Tourist’ by other members of the Brigade.

In Al Madina we were to learn what the war had become.  The population were happy to see British forces and the scene resembled the liberation of Holland during WW2 with cheering crowd’s and kids running alongside our vehicles.

But we also found the population were ready to exact revenge on Baathist supporters in the town. A crowd had gathered in the market place surrounding three hapless men – murdering one they preparing to murder the other two.  But quick intervention by the Rangers managed to secure the prisoners and they were dragged to a nearby hospital.

Entering the hospital we were faced with the ridiculous sight of doctors hurriedly ripping down dozens of pictures of Saddam Hussein while refusing to treat the Baath party supporters.  The whole infrastructure of the country was quickly collapsing.

The advance north continued again led by 1 R RISH into the town of Al Quarna where three great rivers met, the Euphrates, the Shat-el-Arab and the Tigress – the legendary location of the Garden of Eden.  While here the extent of the looting really manifested itself.  We watched an Iraqi army barracks literally dismantled brick by brick, the looters leaving nothing but a barren space.

Our final advance took us into the town of Al Amara, the first unit to enter the town.  Long gone were the Iraqi civilians lining the streets to herald our arrival.  Instead there was a steady stream of men and boys pushing carts full of belongings looted from the homes of individuals who had fled north in the wake of our arrival.

I am asked many times what it was like to fight during the invasion of Iraq but the reality was there was no fighting and no credible enemy. We had been prepared to unleash hell on the Iraqi regime but it soon crumbled and what was left was a shattered helpless army. To take life for no reason would have been criminal.

So in terms of war fighting there was none, but there was honour to be found in the professionalism and behaviour of the men of 1 R IRISH.  For its part the battalion was awarded its first battle honour since Korea “Iraq 2003”.  I was proudly awarded the Queens Commendation for Bravery for preventing the murder of Baathist supporters in Al Madina.

We had gone to war with little preparation and equipment but we never complained.  We just remembered the words of Colonel Tim Collins “We will go to war with what’s in our pockets, the rest will follow us”

St Patricks Day 2003 - Fort Blair Mayne - Kuwait

St Patricks Day 2003 – Fort Blair Mayne – Kuwait


As they always seem to, the explosion erupted out of nowhere. One second there was nothing, the next a ballooning cloud of dust and grit, heat and noise, shrapnel and pressure enveloped the soldier and he disappeared from view. The force of the detonation climbed up his body at supersonic speed, shards of metal hacking and tearing at the soft surfaces of his body, ripping into limbs, puncturing the torso, catching his helmet and pulling it violently from his head, the chin strap offering only token resistance before being torn away.

Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT)

Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT)

In the immediate moment following the blast, the casualty’s shocked colleagues tried to gathered their rattled senses. Then they came to help, their priority, their only aim, to keep death at bay. To apply bandages and tourniquets, tend the devastated injuries and plug the wounds, essentially to stop the man bleeding out, losing the fluids that sustain life.

Although terribly hurt the young soldier is still conscious, aware that around him a small army of others are helping him cling to existence and reacting to his moans and murmurings.

“Its ok mate – you’ll be fine – we got you buddy – just hold on – just stay with us – fight mate”.

The words are encouraging but the façade of optimism is paper thin, those who are tending the casualty continue to reel from the horrific revelation of what a weapon of war can do to one of their friends. Now it becomes a matter of time. The blood can be staunched but the real work falls to the professionals: the doctors and nurses. And to get to them the helicopter is needed.

And there in the debris and the dirt of the battlefield, as he awaits evacuation, the soldier is becoming aware of how seriously he has been hurt.

“I can’t see.” The voice is pitiful, a whimper, a noise like a child might make, “Please help.”

“Its ok mate I’m still here, I won’t leave you” the young infantryman’s best mate reaches across and takes hold of a hand, squeezing it lightly, an act of gentleness and compassion, that hides a terrible fear for his pal’s future.

For so many years now, rarely a day passes without some miraculous, uplifting story appearing in the media about how a member of the armed forces has come to cope with so-called life changing injuries incurred in the backstreets of Basra, or the Helmand Green Zone. Yet many forget those who received terrible injuries in The Falklands, Aden, the troubles of Northern Ireland and the many peace keeping operations around the world such as Bosnia and Kosovo.

Compassion and dignity and the ability to live a full life.

Compassion and dignity and the ability to live a full life.

Some of the victims of war have soared to great success: climbing, skiing, exploring, completing rallies and becoming Olympians. Many others have simply returned to some sort of normality thanks to the medical and technological breakthroughs born of conflict. Prosthetics are state of the art. Mental distress has been recognised and is treated. But so far no one has invented a cure for the sightless. Thus far, losing the ability to see is essentially irrevocable, and deeply traumatic. While the activities of such charities as Help for Heroes, Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion is wonderful and admirable perhaps some of the most critical and challenging work undertaken with scarred ex-servicemen is provided by Blind Veterans UK.

Formerly know as St Dunstan’s the organisation was established in 1915 to cater for the avalanche of soldiers returning from the trenches, robbed of their vision. Its aim was to give training and assistance to this particular group of veterans so they could eventually lead as productive a life as possible without further charitable support.

Those who received – and continue to receive – are categorised only on the basis of need. It matters not how or where people have been afflicted by blindness, be it on the battlefield or Salisbury Plain. It is enough for them to have worn the uniform of this country whether in time of war or peace, as a national serviceman, conscript or modern volunteer.

The ethos of the charity is clear and simple: that no ex-serviceman or woman should suffer their disability alone. If losing their sight is the greatest dread of many soldiers, sailors and airmen, then Blind Veterans UK is the saving grace.

Long after the battle is over. As the uniform is hug up for the last time, there will always be those who will dedicate themselves to support our veterans who have given so much for their country.

For you and me the question is simple, ‘what can we do to support those who support our vision impaired service veterans’.

So start by clinking on noonealone.org.uk and find out what Blind Veterans UK does and how you can support them.

Help creating hope for the future

Help creating hope for the future

The young infantryman is no longer there, but thanks to @BlindVeterans there is still someone to hold the veterans hand, squeezing it lightly, an act of gentleness and compassion, ensuring dignity for those who lost their sight in the service of their country.



You turn on the TV news and there, somewhere after a report on the credit crunch and before the footie, you get the other stuff, events in brief, the stories they haven’t got pictures for or don’t think are important enough to warrant two minutes all to themselves.  Amongst these fillers you hear the presenter say, ‘A British soldier has been killed in action in Afghanistan after being hit by a roadside bomb’.  Killed in action.  KIA.  It all sounds so unsentimental, so impersonal, so clinical.  But its’ not.  It is usually brutal and bloody and painful.  So here it comes, the wretched truth about KIA, a truth you’ll never hear, let alone see, on News at Ten.  This is what KIA is all about.


This was the time a British soldier stood on an IED, an improvised explosive device, a roadside bomb.  It wasn’t clear whether it was the heal of his boot that made contact first, or the sole, or perhaps he was already springing off his toes and well into his next stride when the weapon that he trod on killed him.  It doesn’t matter, for any of these scenarios would have set off the same catastrophic chain of events.

As the weight – several stone of the soldier, and a few more of his equipment – came to bear on the track, it also fell on the part of the bomb that would trigger the explosion.  Just below the surface, encased in a motorcycle inner tube to keep them free of dirt and moisture, were a pair of old saw blades: one connected by wire to an electrical power source, a pack of six domestic batteries; the other attached by a different wire to a Russian mortar shell. The blades were wedged apart at each end by a piece of wood.  In this configuration the blocks acted like a circuit breaker, preventing the flow of electricity, keeping the system inert.  With the soldier’s full weight now coming down inexorably on the top blade, it buckled and bowed in the middle, then made contact with its twin beneath.  And that was that.  The circuit was complete and a current started to flow, at the speed of light, from battery, via the saw blades to a detonator.  In turn the detonator was connected to a booster charge, which in itself was hooked up to the mortar shell.

The weapon could have lain there for days, a week, a month.  It might have been there for a year or more.  Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered to the bomb how long it had gone undiscovered.  It had no feelings, no sense of time, no memory, only and endless patience it wasn’t aware of.  But now its moment had come.  It was about to do the one and only thing it had been created for.  Wreak death on the enemy of those who had first dug the hole for the weapon to sit in and then carefully buried it, hiding all signs of the earth having ever been disturbed.

In that most routine and instinctive of movements, walking, the British soldier had sealed his fate, self-selected himself as a victim.  And the life for his family was about to be irrevocably altered.  Shattered beyond recognition.  Not that they knew it yet.  Though, it seems, he probably did.

Because even as he was completing his step, as events were about to unfold beneath him out of sight, he suddenly stopped as if he suspected something.  Had he already seen something, felt something not quite right through the rubber sole of his boot?  It was as if he already had an inkling of what he’d just done.

But by now it was way to late to alter the course of history.

The chemical reaction going on inside the mortar shell was rapidly generating an extreme amount of pressure and heat – as much as several hundred tones per square inch of the former and anything between 1,500 and 2,500 degrees Celsius of the latter.  It was all happening so fast – unimaginably fast – and it had become impossible to turn the clock back; things had already gone far beyond the point of no return.  Yet for a few more milliseconds there was still no outward sign of the impending disaster.  Because at that precise moment the destructive power was still, just about, being contained within the shell.  The original makers of the shell had been ruthlessly exact in their calculations.  They hadn’t wanted all the heat and pressure to burst out too son.  No, they’d designed the casing to be strong enough to resist its own demise for as long as possible – long enough for the force of the imminent explosion to have reached its absolute zenith.  And only then did it break free.

The mortar disintegrated into a million pieces of metal that hurtled away from the seat of the blast.  There would be no dodging them.  Not at the immense speed they were travelling – as much as several thousand meters per second.  The fragments were followed by the blast wave.  It radiated from the epicenter of the explosion even faster than the splinters of the bomb casing, at a velocity many times the speed of sound.  For good measure there was a heat wave too.  And a hell of a lot of noise.

Because the mortar had been buried only just below the surface of the track the soldier had been walking on, most of the energy was funneled skywards, following the path of least resistance, up through the thin veneer of the Afghan desert.  It took with it bucket loads of dirt and grit.

In the moment the explosion mushroomed clear of the ground, both the soldiers’ legs were shredded.  It was as if someone had furiously rubbed them up an down a giant cheese grater, not stopping until the white of the bone was clearly visible through the bloody, ragged remains of human tissue.  If the soldier had had the chance to take in what was happening to him, then he might have been tempted to count his blessings, pleased at least that both his lower limbs remained anchored to the rest of his body.  But he would have been wrong to do so.  Already they were useless to him; indeed they were hardly recognisable as legs.  There was little or no skin left to speak of, and much of the mass and most of the definition of the muscle had gone too, hacked off by supersonic, super-sharp pieces of twisted metal.  That which remained had become blackened in places – charred, seared by the extreme temperature that accompanied the blast.  The torn remnants of skin and uniform had been similarly singed.

As the cuts of human meat, some minuscule, others the size of a hand, were hacked off the bone, other fragments of the bomb now buried themselves deep inside the ragged flesh that remained.  They also tunneled into the man’s thighs and groin, peppering the muscle.  For good measure the billowing cloud of dust then further contaminated the wounds.

The blast wave continued running up the length of the victims torso, forcing its way under the body armour, eventually tearing it off.  The two removable, protective ceramic plates worn to protect the front and back of the armour had already been blown from their pouches, and now, as projectiles, they had become part of the problem rather than the cure.

By this stage the soldiers weapons had been ripped from his right hand, then the hand and the arm were flayed as the legs had been.

As the blast reached his head, it got beneath the rim of his helmet and forced it off, the chinstrap offering only limited resistance before giving way.  There was also massive damage inflicted on the mans throat and jaw.  A large piece of shrapnel – or maybe it was the plate off the body armour – had torn out his voice box and smashed his chin.  A fold in the skin now hung limply from his cheek.  Even if he had wanted to call out for help, to scream in pain, he wouldn’t have been able to do so.

There was also the damage done that you’d struggle to see.  The force of the explosion had caused serious internal injuries.  The soldier’s eardrums burst.  So too did the blood vessels in his eyes.  His lungs probably collapsed as the blast wave rippled through his body.  By now he was no longer in contact with the ground.  Instead, he and his barely attached limbs were sailing through the air, tumbling, turning, before crashing back to earth.  He was flung a good ten meters from the point of detonation.

The very worst thing of all was that – despite everything – he was still alive.

Eyes rolling; trickles of blood seeping from his ears, nose and mouth; torrents of thick red blood pumping from at least three severed arteries; he was still alive.

And conscious.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the medic did a heroic job trying to treat the soldier, applying tourniquets, inserting a drip, giving morphine.  And then it was a case of clock watching, waiting for the MERT helicopter to arrive.  Knelt down alongside the casualty, the medic held on to the soldiers remaining good hand, offering what comfort he could, reassuring him everything would be alright.  Except it wouldn’t.

Because twenty minutes after he had detonated the bomb, the soldier succumbed to his horrendous injuries, the lifeblood finally drained out of him into the dust.

The brutally dispassionate message went out over the radio ‘UK Bravo now KIA’

That’s is the reality of Killed in Action.  For some, death comes mercifully quickly. But for others dying is an agonizing, lingering, terrifying experience.  Their last on earth.

Now, where were we? Ah yes.  How did Chelsea get on against Man Utd.



I know what it is like to look down the barrel of a gun held be my supposed colleagues. In 2008, my men and I were held at gunpoint by soldiers of the Afghan National Army while some of their associates turned weapons on an insurgent we had captured during a fire-fight. Seconds later the prisoner was dead, cut to pieces by 7.62 rounds from the Kalashnikovs our allies used to mete out their rough justice.

Taking an enemy prisoner

Murder of enemy prisoner

But we were incidental to proceedings. The target was the prisoner not us. We were being kept out of the way while the ANA vented their lethal fury on their true enemy. These days’ things are rather different in Helmand and beyond.

If you take a forensic look at the growing spate of Green on Blue incidents – or as ISAF now like to call them, ‘Insider Attacks’ taking into account the Afghan attacks on other Afghans that we don’t regularly hear about – you will come up with various reasons.

At the moment about 10% are directly attributed to insurgent activity, with perhaps the same number again suspected of being enemy related. But the rest are rather more mundane: cultural clashes and personal grievances for example, also the effect of events that might be taking place far beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

The release of the ‘Innocence of Islam’ and the consequent storm of protest and outrage it unleashed is a case in point as was the accidental burning of pages of the Koran earlier this year.

The tensions led to sensible precautions being taken such as the limiting of joint Coalition-Afghan patrols at local tactical level and now at the strategic level. Yet is not the step backwards some have portrayed it, instead it is the development of an ongoing campaign.

Cultural sensitivities.

Previously a company-level risk assessment would be carried out before any military patrol which involving Afghans forces took place. This would need to be signed off by the Battle Group (Battalion). Now, on the orders of the Commander ISAF, that level of scrutiny has now been given another layer.

Now the initial assessment will still be conducted by the company and then passed up the chain of command as before for scrutiny. But now it also needs the rubber-stamping at Task Force level.  A ‘no’ might arise if a major political or cultural factor was identified at national or even global level that could inflame tempers at the micro-level. Such was the case with the film.

The reality for British forces is they don’t work at Battalion level; instead they work at the company level spread out all over the central populous belt of Helmand.  So in essence they will continue to partner and mentor the Afghan security forces in exactly the same way as we did previously but with more oversight by commanders with an eye for the bigger picture.

To say there have been catastrophic events in Afghanistan recently is indisputable. But as ever, context is all. Despite the picture the media are tempted to portray of a coalition crumbling, these attacks – especially where they are driven by the enemy – mark points on an evolving landscape and potentially the move from one phase of the campaign to another, just as in 2008/9 the proliferation of IEDs increased dramatically and two years later the enemy switched to the targeted assassinations of government officials.

Some may find this hard to swallow, but the Coalition forces and the Afghan Army and Police have made major gains in the last couple of years and the strategy of partnering Afghan security forces is working.

We forget that half of Afghanistan is now under Government security force control. The strategy to hand over the remaining areas by district and province is still well on track and the effectiveness of the Afghan Army increases day by day.

The Afghan Police are still less developed than the Army but that may be due to their mentoring only really beginning in any coherent way in 2009 – three full years after the programme with the Afghan Army began.

Our Afghan partners.

Of course we need to train Afghan forces so that they can determine the fate of their own country. Selfishly, the quicker we do this then the quicker we can withdraw. And the better the Afghans are at their jobs, the easier our departure will be. We need the Afghan forces

My Afghan counterpart.

to provide time and space to allow an orderly pull out rather than a humiliating, ragged, fighting withdrawal with all the British casualties that will entail. For that reason the mentoring must continue, despite the risks.

The Olympic struggle, every day of every year for the rest of their lives.

If the roots of the Olympic Games can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks, then the Paralympics is of rather more recent vintage and its origins lie rather closer to home; in Buckinghamshire, to be precise.

For it was in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital that Dr Ludwig Guttmann, an expert in helping rehabilitate injured service personnel, especially those with spinal injuries, organised an event for those hurt during World War II. The first International Wheelchair Games coincided with the start of the now last-but-one Olympics to be held in London. The rest as they say is history and by 1960 in Rome Dr Guttmann’s vision had evolved into the inaugural Paralympics. The 400 disabled participants came from all walks of life and were not just injured servicemen.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann

But here’s the irony. Given the genesis of the Paralympics it will surprise many, and shock some, to learn that just six members – two per cent – of the current Great British team are from the armed forces.

To be blunt, it isn’t as if there isn’t a deep pool of prospective talent. Since the start of 2006, 281 UK personnel have been categorised as being very seriously injured in Afghanistan. 289 others seriously injured. Before ‘Afghan’, was Iraq. For Operation Telic the figures were 73 and 149 respectively.

Most of these people will have been young, extremely fit, immensely courageous and steely-willed. And as an organisation the military puts sport very much at the heart of their activities and they support all abled and disabled service personnel achieve the highest levels possible in numerous sporting activities.

So why will so few of them be competing in 2012? Is the MOD disinterested and failing to carry the flame for an institution it itself helped bear and nurture? Or is there something else that precludes participation of the very people one would want on the team sheet?

Despite first sight of the evidence it is probably the latter.

The numbers demonstrate the balance of casualties have occurred in the last half decade or so. Advances in equipment and battlefield medical provision mean that many of these troops survived injuries which in previous conflicts they would not. Yet it also means more soldiers, sailors and airmen than ever before are left facing the future with life changing injuries, a euphemism for terrible wounds which require years of treatment. Many have lost one or two limbs, brain damage, loss of sight and groin injuries are also common. The road to some degree of adequate recovery is long and arduous.

Occasionally it is all but impossible. Demonstrating the difficulties a good friend and close colleague was seriously wounded in 2008 when his vehicle went over an IED, this would have been as the last Paralympics was coming to an end. Four years later he still wears a cage around his left leg, shattered by the blast. Even now there is no guarantee that he will not lose the limb but his fight is no less a fight than those chasing Olympic glory.

Clearly there are wounded colleagues who notably and publicly achieve immense feats of endurance: reaching the poles, trekking to Everest, learning to ski, sail and cycle. They are truly inspirational role models, but for the majority of those who have been hurt the challenge is not to travel to the ends of the earth or to climb mountains, but simply to get to the end of the road under their own steam or ascend the stairs in a home designed for the unimpeded. Their lives are not moulded by four-year training cycles but constant hurdles over which they must leap merely to reach the end of each day.

Nor is youth, for those who possess it, a single-edged sword, for their bodies continue to mature. Cleaved bones keep on growing.

Recovering from catastrophic injuries

None of which is to say that future Paralympics teams will not be packed with service people. But first, almost to a man, those with injuries want to stand on their own two feet. The great depths of pride and courage they possess drive them on to try and regain their independence and, crucially, to regain their place in the military family as equals.

Winning a gold medal is one thing, retaining the admiration and respect of colleagues is quite another. And it is these things which the professionals at the MOD rehabilitation centre at Headly Court focus on, helped on by the immeasurable contributions from charities like Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion and the Army Benevolent fund just to name a few.

For once a soldier, always a soldier and nowhere is this best demonstrated than with Lance Corporal Ben Parkinson.

Horrifically maimed in 2006, Ben carried the torch through his home town of Doncaster ahead of the able-bodied games, not from a wheelchair, but walking tall as a soldier who serves in the British Army. And he is not alone; the number of soldiers who return from operation in Afghanistan without limbs yet fight to stand with their colleagues to receive their operational medals is also inspirational.


The motto of the Paralympics is ‘Spirit in Motion’. It could be said that Ben and his colleagues exemplify this sentiment day in day out, not just every four years.



Breathing hard, my back against the dusty wall of a mud compound, its metal doors forced open to reveal a small shop, the coolness of its shade washing over me, I stared hard at the Taliban fighter at my feet.

All smiles after the patrol when all my men are safe

He stared back.

Just moments earlier he had been intent on killing me and my men. What his motivation was – ideology, money, excitement – I didn’t know and would never find out. For the man’s deep, dark eyes were unseeing.

They were those of a man who had breathed his last, another casualty of war.

Where he lay, a small pool of blood had formed behind his head, his loose fitting robes twisted around him, the feet bare, the long hair matted with dirt, his beard matted with blood.

Around him was strewn the detritus of a medical emergency; tubes, bandages, a syringe, signs that immediately after he had been shot the soldiers then proceeded to try and save his life. It was not to be.

Death had triumphed over life. When we could, we would take a DNA sample and a photo, and then leave his body to be buried by the local population whose hospitality he had forced himself upon, taking advantage of the Pashtun-Wali code, the ancient custom of kindness to strangers adhered to as much today by the local population as it was during the time of Alexander the Great.

Afghan Market Stall.

But procedure would have to wait a bit longer, for the sounds of combat had not died with the young insurgent.

Even as my soldiers had tried to staunch his flow of blood and that of one of his wounded colleague, their comrades renewed the attack, trying to force us from the ground we had so recently taken, hoping we would abandon not just the territory but also the wounded fighter and the weapons and radios we had captured.

There was nothing particularly unusual about the situation. Using military mission verbs, we had been in the area to Find, Feel and Understand, in other words learn about the area.

Our patrol had been working on a road between Kalang, our main Patrol Base in Saidabad, Nad-e-Ali, Helmand Province and the rather smaller and more isolated checkpoint Tanoor. The result was predictable.

The insurgents had been first to engage, the 7.62mm short rounds from their AK47s, and 7.62mm long rounds from the PKMs, splitting the air above our heads, ripping up the earth at our feet and slamming into the compound walls the young rangers were using for cover.

But this wasn’t a day to absorb the enemy fire and merely trade a few rounds of our own. Today was a day to take the fight to them. Fast, aggressive movement, charging in depth, clearing insurgent positions and cutting off withdrawal routes.

The dead insurgent had tried to use children to mask his retreat, the same terrified youngsters he had hidden behind when he first opened up at us.

Not that his tactics were any match for the skill of my ranger sniper. He fired without hesitation, but not without thought. Because the highly trained Royal Irish soldier had many things going through his head as he focused on the insurgent.

He had been trained to ask himself three simple questions, Can I? Could I? And finally should I? The first two questions relating to his rules of engagement the last question relating to the impact of firing, what effect would it have not just on the insurgent but on the local population. In the end he had no choice, his skill matching his training.

It was then that the insurgent’s comrade moved from the shadows, rifle in hand as he fired wildly down the track. It was the next .338 calibre bullet from the sniper’s weapon that

A Force Multiplier in Combat

smashed through his groin exiting his buttock and sent him spinning to the ground.

This was not the movies. There was no spray of blood, no arms thrown theatrically into the air, just the sickly sound of the impact; lead boring through flesh and bone.

For the enemy the relief of being alive would quickly have been tempered by knowledge that his body had been seriously if not fatally damaged, physically unable to respond to the commands sent from the brain.

I am no stranger to violent death. Bosnia, Kosovo, the war in Iraq and now three tours of Afghanistan, have ensured that. But that does not mean I am immune to it, whether the loss of life has been suffered by friend or foe. I feel both keenly. The immediate euphoria of overcoming an enemy tarnished by the sense of waste.

Death on the battlefield is at least followed by a full stop. It is the fate of the wounded that raises the questions and introduces the thorny matter of compassion.

After the sniper struck there were quick decisions to be made. Do I send my men 400 metres forward to recover the wounded, give them medical treatment, arrest them and send them back to Camp Bastion?

Or do I leave them writhing in pain and misery, hopelessly willing their shattered limbs to carry them beyond our reach? It’s is a question of risk versus gain, but it is also a question of compassion on the battlefield.

I decided to exercise the compassion only available to the victor. The surviving insurgent is treated as if he is one of us. With a dressing on the wound, and morphine for the pain, a MIST report is sent back to HQ classifying him as a CAT A casualty.

Soon a helicopter will arrive to whisk him away to the same facility that would have treated a British casualty if the roles had been reversed, no medical distinction being made, it is the Law of Armed Conflict and it governs all our actions on the battlefield.

Meanwhile his dead colleague is shown the dignity in death I suppose we all deserve. His clothes are rearranged, his arms straightened by his sides.

Nowhere in the rules and regulations does it say this needs to be done. For what the young soldiers of 1 R IRISH do is a human thing, not a military action, there is a gentleness in the mayhem that makes me proud to command these young soldiers.

THE THREAT – Every minute of every day for combat troops.


The rifle sat easily in the firers hand as he lay in the rushes beside the irrigation ditch – his body hidden from view. Only the tip of the weapon protruding, the only part visible.

The rifle sight settled on the enemy fighter as the firer began to settle his breathing, ready to begin the firing cycle and take the shot.

He was confident that a combination of the sun setting behind him, the reeds from the ditch concealing his position would offer protection from the retaliation that would inevitably follow.

Returning Fire

To his left lay his number two, also comfortable amongst the vegetation, scanning the open ground, watching not just for the enemy but also civilians who might stray into the line of fire. Next to him was his own automatic rifle. There was nothing said between the pair.

Gently the firer squeezed the trigger and the bullet was gone.

The 7.62mm round flew through the air at around 750 metres a second. With nothing to deviate it, the only thing that would prevent it from hitting the target was the accuracy of the firer.

Today the Taliban marksman was off his game for the bullet landed short, at the feet of the young soldier it was meant to strike, meant to kill.

Immediately he hit the ground, his patrol colleagues joining him in the Afghan dirt.

In unison they peered through their x6 ACOG sights, as Corporal ‘Lofty’ McDowell called in the action:

“Contact, single round, graded red from the west. Firing point not identified, wait-out”, he screams into the mouthpiece of his Bowman 354 radio.

Doug Beattie: reutrn to Afghanistan

On his third tour of Afghanistan, Lofty is newly promoted but vastly experienced for someone so young. He is already used to the Taliban’s ongoing tactic; the single round engagement.

As his men continue their hunt for the firing point, from 700 metres away another round is fired, narrowly missing a second soldier.

In official military circles the enemy firer would be known as a marksman, trained shot or sharpshooter, to call him anything else would imply the enemy had a capability they do not. It would lead to a perception of a highly sophisticated, highly skilled, operator able to engage us from extreme long distances.

But the reality is that it makes no difference what you call the firer. When you are pinned down by accurate fire and you cannot identify the firing point terminology becomes unimportant, a talking point for those not there.

What is important is how you deal with this threat.

For soldiers fighting in Helmand this is just one of many enemy tactics they have to deal with. They are well trained and know how to counter whatever the enemy throws at them, today it is small arms fire, tomorrow it will be an IED, they get on with the job while others talk about it.

As I lift my head from the dirt I see Lofty going about his work, supremely confident with his own ability and that of his men.


“A giant of a man.”

These are the words used by Colonel Bob Seddon, the former commanding officer of Staff Sgt Olaf Schmid, to describe the bomb disposal expert killed in Sangin whose inquest was held in 2010.

It is a fitting tribute to a fiercely brave man.

But for every one or two Improvised Explosive Devices – so called roadside bombs – found by specialist high risk teams several more are unearthed by the skill and concentration of the ordinary soldier.

Simple Soldiers, Complex Skills

Such was the case when Ranger Gavin Edgar found one of the deadly devices and a haul of other IED making equipment while on patrol in Nad-e-Ali.

“I slowly pulled the top of the hay away, saw the pressure plate and couldn’t believe my eyes! I’m delighted but I was just doing my job at the end of the day”, said the 19-year-old from Ballymoney, Northern Ireland modestly.

Modest or not the skill with which he does his job accounted for a device capable of killing him, his colleagues and innocent civilians. With the device was the component parts to make a further 10 devices.

It is statements like that from Ranger Edgar which underlies the real courage of these men, many only teenagers, as they go about their work trying to make Nad-e-Ali a better place for the people of Helmand.

These young soldiers, brothers, sons, husbands and friends step forward day in, day out knowing each step could be their last.

Amongst their number will be those armed with metal detectors, scanning the ground ahead of them. But often the detector will offer only psychological comfort because – as with the device which accounted for Olaf Schmid – the bombs the enemy plant are increasingly sophisticated and decreasingly reliant on metal components to make them work.

The lonely hunt for IEDs by none specialists

We do have another weapon in our armory though, the mark one eyeball.

Inching forward soldiers will scrutinise the ground at their feet looking for the tell-tale signs of enemy activity: disturbed earth, patches of raised ground, soil a slightly different colour to that which surrounds it.

But the task is exacting. It allows for no breaks, no distraction. A moment’s lack of focus can result in broken bodies and shattered lives.

There is also the peril of tunnel-vision. With so much attention centred on the hazard below there is always the risk that another Taliban threat – an ambush, suicide bomber – goes unnoticed until it is too late.

So far the combined brains of those working in the arms industry have failed to develop what would perhaps be the most useful battlefield weapon of all – eyes in the back of your head.

Until that happens, the imprecise act of warfare goes on, with British troops – hour by hour, minute by minute – making judgement calls on where the biggest and most immediate dangers actually lie.

A ‘Find’ a life saved

Most of the time we get it right and complete another patrol unscathed. But not always.

And that is when another miserable train of events is set in motion: the loss of a man, the repatriation of a body, the inquest into a violent death.

As my Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Colin Weir DSO MBE said of Ranger Edgar:

“The IED threat in this area has been significant. We have lost life and limb to IEDs. Ranger Edgar’s professionalism has without doubt saved lives. A good morning’s work!”

It is continuous, relentless, it saps the soldiers energy little by little. It is both physically and mentally demanding and it drives your actions every minute of every day, every step, every turn of the wheel. “But it is just about doing my job at the end of the day”.

The deaths in #Chamonix. One man’s experience of climbing #MontBlanc – the pinnacle of Europe

Many will have read the news that several people have been killed on Mont Blanc. I am posting this article by my good friend Philip Gomm in the hope you will be as interested in it as I was.

“The news that at least nine climbers have been killed on the slopes of Mont Maudit is tragic.  For me it also brings back memories of an intense experience on the same slopes just under a year ago. I have also made my way up the precipitous north-eastern flank of the mountain on my way to the summit of Mont Blanc. Unlike all those caught in this morning’s avalanche, I made it.

The reason the ‘white mountain’ has its name is blindingly obvious. It is snow covered. All year round. And the reason it is snow covered is because it is so high. At 4,810 metres – 15,782 feet – it is the tallest mountain in Western Europe.

Many of the attempts to reach the pinnacle of the continent – though in reality, it is more of table top, a wide ridge, sloping gently to each side, perhaps fifty metres long – take place in the summer months when the days are longer, the temperatures warmer and the weather more benign.

But it that warmth that leads to the problems: melting snow and exhausting conditions. Not that it isn’t sometimes ferociously cold and windy up on massif, even in July and August. My own initial summit bid was cancelled after my colleagues and I were forced to spend two days and two nights holed up at 3,613 metres at the Cosmiques Refuge after snow, gales, thunder and lightening essentially closed the mountain and prevented the cable car up from Chamonix from running to the nearby Aiguille du Midi. (They say travel light on Mont Blanc, but my advice is to sacrifice something else before you leave behind a good book.)

Descending the Aiguille du Midi Arete.

When the weather eased we retreated to the safety of the valley to prepare for another bid a few days later when the conditions stabilised.

Second time round we again used the Cosmiques hut as base camp, hitting the sack at around 9pm. There followed a few sleepless hours, caused by a mix of tension and excitement, interspersed with the shuffling and occasional snoring of scores of other climbers who also had their eye on the glistening prize.

We – myself, my colleague Nick, and brilliant local guide Pete Mason from the Chamex agency – were up by 1am. By 1.30am we were out of the door, the first team to escape the claustrophobic conditions of our accommodation. There was nothing oppressive about the landscape outside. The night sky was alive with stars and in the brightness – enhanced by the reflective properties of the snow-covered mountains – we set off, using our head-torches not so much for route finding but to identify any sneaky crevices which might be laying in wait as we strode first across the plateau and then started the breath-sucking, energy sapping ascent itself.

To get to the top of Mont Blanc from this starting point (another route is from the Gouter hut which we had intended to use but was closed by a massive landslip) you need to partly circumvent two satellite peaks: Mont Blanc du Tacul and the now infamous Mont Maudit. Doing so involves cresting two shoulders before starting the slog up to the top of Mont Blanc itself. As is ever the case with mountaineering, progress upwards is never continuous. For every bit of height gained, there is always some that then seems to be lost. Two steps up, one step down.

We remained roped together for the entire enterprise, but it was the climb up to the ridge of Maudit which, though relatively short, was the steepest and most technically difficult part of the challenge, made just a little easier by a number of fixed ropes and slings. Certainly it was on this section that you could understand why there are front points on crampons.

Although getting a flying start is essential to having the best possible snow and ice conditions underfoot, it also means you don’t have to queue. Whilst witnessing nothing like the line of climbers pictured on Mount Everest earlier this year, there are a couple of bottlenecks where you would rather be the first to arrive than the last. The Maudit ridge is one of them.

On top of Mont Blanc

At about 7am we reached our goal. Taking a breather on the top of the continent, there was opportunity to look up rather than down at one’s feet – which had been the routine for the previous five and a half hours – and soak in the heavenly sky, splashed as it was with a glorious spectrum of colours: red, orange, crimson, ochre, dapples of white where a touch of cloud had intruded. The gathering light made the 360-degree views truly awe inspiring. Knowing that there was no one higher than you for several thousand miles in all directions was a spiritual feeling even for a confirmed agnostic.

Yet reaching the top was only half the journey. There was the return, not just to the hut but beyond to the cable car.

Going down was an interminable process. Once more, change in height was not linear, the ups and downs of the terrain sapping what little energy was left, the only consolation being that almost all the way down we passed people still on their way up. I did not envy them their task. Rising temperatures not only increased the risk of avalanches, it also turned firm conditions underfoot into a slushy, shifting morass. Then there was the heat. Even 4,000 metres up, the warmth of the rapidly rising sun soon became very uncomfortable.

It was the last hour of the ‘descent’ that was the worst. Once clear of Monts Blanc, Maudit and Tacul you face a slog across the plateau. For the first half-mile or so it is generally flat, but the last half a mile up to the Aiguille du Midi is torture. A gentle slope turns into a shoulder and then there is a knife-edge arête which needs to be negotiated before you are ‘home and dry’. You do these last few steps literally under the noses of hundreds of tourists who have journeyed to the Aiguille to get a better view of Mont Blanc (and you) but sensibly have no intention of climbing it.

In ‘normal’ conditions it is easy to think that to achieve an ascent of Mont Blanc it is merely necessary to overcome your own perceived limitations. But today’s events show that whatever your physical prowess, you only ever manage a safe passage because of the benevolence of the mountain.”

FEAR – A very personal emotion

I screamed as the large calibre bullet flew past my face, too fast to see, too quick to dodge, the distinctive cracking noise known only to those who know battle.

Fear. You won’t hear soldiers talk about it. Fear is a taboo subject, a word suggesting weakness or worse, what they once would have called a lack of moral fibre.

An Afghan soldier in the heat of battle

Troops skirt around it, deploying instead phrases like, “that was a close one” or “that wasn’t funny” to mask the reality of what they are feeling. But the question is not whether soldiers feel fear – for they do – but how they react to it.

It can be a powerful motivator, allowing you to do things you never thought you were capable of. But fear can also be mentally and physically debilitating, preventing men from carrying out the actions needed for survival.

If you look you will see fear everywhere. I have known fear, felt it, saw it in the eyes of my men and in the faces of my enemies. It strikes without warning, not just in the heat of combat but in the quiet reflective moments when there is too much time to think.

In the heart of Helmand there is much to be fearful of: the threat of death and injury, of having seen your family, your wife and children for the last time; of letting down your friends and colleagues, your regiment, your hometown, your country.

I have felt physically sick before deploying on a routine patrol, almost debilitated with fear as I watch children and women flee an area we’ve just entered, their dispersal known as a combat indicator, it’s always a prelude to attack. But as a commander I must stand tall, continue the mission, it is the loneliest of feelings, the loneliness of command.

In the middle of winter in Southern Helmand the fighting and killing is done in the open, in mud-heavy fields freshly ploughed and irrigated. There is nowhere to hide, the irrigation ditches that could give cover have been seeded with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the bare tree-lines no longer providing cover from view or fire. The mud is everywhere, it clings to your boots like glue and sucks the soldiers’ legs into the saturated terrain

It is a scene and experience that would not be alien to those who served in the Great War.

When the bullets come there is no quick dash to safety, the mud rooting you to the spot. As the enemy engages, the cursing and high-pitched screaming of men starts. But very soon, the training and the adrenaline really do kick in and the job of war truly begins.

The shouts are workmanlike and purposeful, orders are given and information passed. Insurgent positions are identified and fire is returned. For most the fear has been elbowed aside, the controlled violence and frenetic activity offering an escape. However for some the fear is persistent…

Looking for combat indicators

Back home, the British public are buoyed by media stories of heroism, young men overcoming adversity, it is uplifting. And these stories are part of the picture. I witnessed such bravery on many occasions, I was instrumental in the award of 3 Military Crosses and a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross to men under my command – there can be no greater honour for me that to have my soldiers recognised for what they have done.

But where is the glory for the man who has overcome the most incapacitating fear? The one who has – against every instinct – unfurled himself from a foetal position and used his inner strength to haul himself up to face the enemy?

What recognition for the soldier who has lost a colleague in horrifying circumstances and yet the very next day will return to the scene despite uncontrollable vomiting and emotional confusion?

For many of the men and women in Helmand the biggest battles every day of every week for six months and more are with themselves. Only when those are won can they turn their attentions to the enemy.

Even for me – a soldier of 30 years with 13 operational tours completed – those battles are still to be won daily, each time harder than the last and well beyond the confines of military service.

But they are never fought alone, they are fought with those who share your experiences – your friends, your colleagues, the men left and right of you when the bullets fly.

I screamed as the large calibre bullet flew past my face, too fast to see, too quick to dodge, the distinctive cracking noise known only to those who know battle.

I woke in my camp cot sweating. Even in sleep the fear is there.

An outpost in Helmand Province

British deaths shine spotlight on partnering operation. Tragedy underlines conflicting realities of our #Afghan allies.

The euphemisms for the type of slaughter which has resulted in the deaths of men from the Welsh Guards and Royal Corps of Signals are anodyne. Green on blue; blue on blue; green on green. Yet the human tragedy of such events, where one ally turns his gun on another, will be all too evident to the loved ones of those who will not now be returning from Afghanistan alive.

Afghan soldier prepares for battle alongside British forces.

The killing of three more soldiers in Afghanistan highlights once again the difficulties our troops face whilst training Afghan security forces. The job of mentoring was once the sole domain of UK Special Forces. Yet as the scale of the job became clear the net was cast wider to find suitable people to do it. The bulk of the burden fell on the ‘Green Army’.

Events like those reported today throw a long shadow over this work and it is easy to believe that everything is going wrong in the country. Yet the figures hint at another picture and in this war context is everything.

So far we have trained over 350,000 Afghan security personnel; that’s over a quarter of a million men at arms, nearly four times the size of the UK Army.  Over half of Afghanistan’s people live and work under the protection of the Afghan security services and the other 50% will be in the same situation by 2014.

Me working with an Afghan police commander who was himself a former member of the Taliban.

When we arrived in Afghanistan just under one million children were in education, none of them where female, now we have three million and a third are female.  Many people will know that education is the key to success in countries like Afghanistan but to put education, development, reconstruction, and law and order on the table you need security.

The same goes for the Afghan parliament, when we arrived there were no female MPs. Now there are over 60 and a female is running for the presidency, something that could never have happened a few years ago.

There have of course been some terrible setbacks and today’s is the seventh-such incident since we arrived in the south of the country. In human terms 15 young men have ostensibly died at the hands of our allies, men we had befriended, put our trust in who turned out to be either a wolf in sheep clothing or individuals with a real issue with our western ways.

During three tours of Afghanistan I worked closely with Afghan forces: ate with them, slept in the same compound as them, fought side by side.  They are a people of contrast, incredibly compassionate yet incredibly cruel. In 2006 I fought with an Afghan police major named Sher Wali. He remains the most honourable, noble and brave man I have ever known – he gave his life for mine.  Yet contrast that with what happened in the Upper Gereskh valley in 2008 when I watched as soldiers of the Afghan Army casually murdered a Talib taken prisoner only minutes previously.

But what is the alternative to trying to deal with these dichotomies? Those who say we should throw down our weapons and run ignore the strategic situation. To leave any semblance of order we need to complete the training up to a standard where our presence is not significantly missed.  Once we have trained the ANSF and they take over responsibility it will create the time and space for the remaining British soldiers to withdraw.

That said, the withdrawal has already started with the first 500 leaving by the end of this year and the remainder will follow in an orderly fashion over the next 2 years.

My patrol tries to deal with the aftermath of the murder of a Taliban prisoner by our Afghan Army colleagues.

History could teach us a thing or two. Those critics of the current policy who harp back to the first and second Afghan wars as proof the British cannot win in Afghanistan, should read up a little bit more. The British did actually win the military side of the conflicts, but they failed to secure the peace. It is the peace which is the difficult part of this puzzle and if we do not leave behind viable structures including security then history surely will repeat itself.