Afghanistan frontline: 'You don't have time to be scared – you don't want to let people down'
The Mail's Kevin Shoesmith reports from the frontline in Helmand Province.
BULLETS flew inches over our heads as the Taliban launched their ambush metres away in a poppy field.
Soldiers from The Yorkshire Regiment (1 Yorks) were on a mission to search for insurgents and weapons in Afghanistan.
All day, under the blazing Afghan sun, the Taliban had attacked relentlessly, using motorcycles to brazenly cross from one compound to another.
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Each time they were fired on, East Yorkshire soldiers had stood their ground, returned fire and forced the Taliban to retreat.
Bullets had slammed into the low mud and straw walls of compounds where we had taken shelter.
But no one had anticipated the ambush, just 600 metres from the relative safety of Patrol Base Pimon.
The Taliban had waited in a compound with a Russian-made machine-gun – most likely a relic from the country's Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
Soldiers, exhausted after lugging 80lbs of equipment for 12 hours, had trudged halfway across the field, when the Taliban opened fire.
"Contact!" screamed the soldiers, their voices rasping, throwing themselves on to the leafy green poppy plants, barely a couple of inches high.
Taliban bullets kicked up splashes of muddy water from puddles left from last week's heavy downpours.
More than ten years after troops entered Afghanistan, for ten minutes this featureless, desert field had become the frontline.
Private Robert Stone, 23, an infantry soldier and trained medic, of Driffield, told the Mail: "I know it sounds daft, but you don't have time to be scared when you are in a situation like that. You go into robot mode.
"You don't think, 'I might get shot'. If you did, you wouldn't be able to do your job.
"You don't want to let anyone down – that's your main concern when you are in a firefight."
Private Sean Lynch, 23, of Willerby, said: "The fire was pretty accurate. It would not be normal if you didn't feel threatened – someone is trying to hurt you."
Corporal Jordan Hoe, 29, of Sutton, said: "It was accurate fire. Some of the rounds were landing near the blokes' heads and feet.
"When you can see the rounds are that close all you want to do is stay low.
"But you have to return fire, denying the Taliban freedom of movement. It's the only way of stopping the firing."
Captain Ben Brading, 26, leading the ten-man patrol the Mail was attached to, screamed at his men, who were lying face-down in the mud, to return fire.
They switched their rifles to automatic fire and emptied magazine after magazine at the compound.
Spent brass cases, ejected from weapons, were squashed into the mud by the soldiers' bodies as they crawled into firing positions, fearful of raising their heads even for a second.
The barrage of fire from his men enabled Captain Brading to rise to one knee and hurl a smoke grenade ten metres. But still, Taliban bullets continued to fly past, missing the soldiers by inches.
The smoke screen allowed the soldiers to dash 100 metres to a compound, where other patrols were sheltering.
The poppy and cotton fields surrounding Patrol Base Pimon are known to contain makeshift bombs, known as IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
Corporal James Clark, 31, of Orchard Park, said this had weighed heavy on his mind.
"The Taliban know, if we are under fire, we may not have time to check the ground as carefully as we would otherwise," he said.
"It was quite frightening, especially for the younger lads, but our drills kicked in and we cracked on."
To our right flank, three Jackals, armoured patrol vehicles, sped towards us, firing their powerful 50-calibre machine guns at the Taliban who fled.
The smell of cordite, a chemical used in ammunition, wafted across the battlefield and mixed with the smoke, making the soldiers choke.
Now out of harm's way, each man, without exception, lit a cigarette and looked at one another, fixed-eyed, realising how close they had come to being struck down by the Taliban gunfire.
The night before, in the dimly lit operations room at Patrol Base Pimon, battle orders had been delivered by Major James Glossop, the officer commanding the A Company soldiers involved in the ambush. Soldiers were told to push the Taliban further into the desert, away from an area of strategic, fertile land surrounding the Nahr-e-Bughra Canal.
Many of the younger, less experienced soldiers packed, then repacked, their khaki daysacks, wanting to be certain they had everything needed.
As he carefully placed a "66" rocket launcher under the top flap of his daysack and tightened the straps, Lance Corporal Lee Rudderham, of Holderness Road, east Hull, said: "There's always nerves before an operation. It would not be normal if you were not a bit nervous."
Pinned to the wall of the tent, above his camp bed, are a selection of photographs showing him in dress uniform with relatives.
"My family are proud of me for being out here," he said, before crawling into his sleeping bag.
We rose at 3.30am. Bacon, eggs, sausage, beans and hash browns had been placed in large metal containers next to paper plates and plastic cutlery for soldiers to help themselves.
An hour later, we formed at the main gates, in complete darkness, each man knowing his role. The gate, topped with razor wire, was opened by a guard and the clunking sound of rifles being cocked filled the night.
Soldiers, with night-vision sights fitted to their helmets, trudged through the mud, carefully following the footsteps of the man in front to lessen the risk of treading on an IED.
As dawn broke, silhouetting the soldiers against the burnt-orange sky, we reached the pre-designated rendezvous point, where we joined other patrols.
First "contact" came at 8.49am.
Our patrol had stopped at a well. Seconds earlier, three Afghan men had left the area, telling the soldiers' interpreter they were going indoors for some food. Soldiers were suspicious they had been tipped off by the Taliban about the imminent attack.
They were right to be suspicious.
Bullets struck a 3ft wall, which the patrol had crouched behind.
Private Ian McDermott, 28, attached to 1 Yorks from the regiment's Territorial Army battalion, threw off his daysack, unstrapping his 60mm mortar tube.
On hearing the order from the patrol commander, he popped a HE (high explosive) bomb into the 2.5ft-long tube and fired.
A few seconds later, a plume of black smoke rose from a compound 800 metres away.
Private McDermott, 28, based at Beverley TA Centre, was praised for his accurate shot.
But still the Taliban continued to fire at us from our 2 o'clock position.
Then, rounds began to smash into a wall at our 9 o'clock.
The insurgents were attempting to out-flank us.
Other patrols in the area joined the fight and the firing stopped, enabling us to push on with the mission, but not before the soldiers inspected a chunk that had been taken out of the wall by an insurgent's bullet.
We came under contact another three times, including the ambush later in the day.
Miraculously, no British soldier was hit. It is thought a Taliban was killed during one of the firefights, but there was no confirmation.
Later, during the debrief, Major Glossop insisted the operation had been successful.
He said: "We went out and disrupted the Taliban's day.
"They were unable to go out and collect their illegal taxes off the poppy growers or do whatever else insurgents do.
"Just as importantly, whenever they fired at us, we stayed on the ground.
"We watched them withdraw before talking to the locals and reassuring them.
"That sends a very clear message to the Taliban."
For the soldiers, who are nearing the end of their six-month tour of duty in the warzone, being fired on is part of daily life.
Private Carl Blythe, 21, of Withernsea, said: "The op went ok. We just got on with what we are trained to do.
"We get fired on a fair bit out here."