royalnavy.mod.ukTop Class Employer with Top Class People
Royal NavyRoyal Navy

Taliban Hooked By 42 Commando Surprise Operation

Marines and soldiers from Plymouth-based 42 Commando Group have swooped into southern-most regions of Helmand Province, on a mission to provide critical information and intelligence for subsequent operations
Marines and soldiers from Plymouth-based 42 Commando Group have swooped into southern-most regions of Helmand Province, on a mission to provide critical information and intelligence for subsequent operations
Marines and soldiers from Plymouth-based 42 Commando Group have swooped into southern-most regions of Helmand Province, on a mission to provide critical information and intelligence for subsequent operations

Over 500 Marines from 42 Commando Group, partnered with soldiers from the Afghan National Army, have completed a gruelling month-long operation into the southern-most regions of Helmand Province. Using helicopter insertions, long desert marches and vehicle patrols throughout the ‘Fish Hook’ area of the Helmand Valley, their aim was to gather intelligence and gain an understanding of an area previously little-visited by ISAF troops.

As well as carrying out a large-scale reconnaissance manoeuvre, working closely with the local population, the Commando Group deliberately disrupted the enemy and were engaged in a number of significant contacts – not least, in the town of Khan Neshin – an area known for Taliban influence. Here, they took on the enemy in the town, defeating suicide bombers, clearing compounds and engaging in fierce close-quarters combat.

42 Commando Group operate as the Regional Battlegroup South, used across the whole of southern Afghanistan by the Regional Commander. As part of a wider operation, Operation Aabi Toorah (Pashtu for Blue Sword), they provided the main assaulting force for this stage in southern Helmand.

This is the first time such a sizeable reconnaissance force had been into the area - notorious as an ungoverned space allowing the insurgents freedom of movement for fighters, equipment and narcotics. The Marines spent nearly a month in the field, laying up in the desert between operations and being resupplied by helicopter drop.

It all began on the 22nd February, when the force inserted into an area 100km south of Garmsir, into the lush Green Zone area on the banks of the River Helmand, in an area known as the ‘Fish Hook’, due to the prominent bend in the river.

Royal Marines in their heavily-armed and highly manoeuvrable VIKING and JACKAL vehicles took up position, whilst another 300 Royal Marines were flown in by RAF Chinook helicopters. Joined by around 60 soldiers of the Afghan National Army, the joint force began their mission by moving rapidly eastwards through the area.

Not just interested in enemy strength and movements, the force was bolstered with specialist Non-Kinetic Effects Teams (NKETs) – experts in the Baluch and Pashtun culture – who were able to gain a better understanding of the region and its dynamics.

For nearly a week the force scoured the region, clearing over 40 square kilometres and spanning 70km of the River Helmand, holding Shura, or meetings, with local elders. They left with a wealth of information to assist those who will come back to the area later and informing the next stage of the operation – one that was to be far more aggressive. 

As with many of the British operations in Helmand, surprise was to form a vital weapon against the insurgents. On 29th January, the joint force gathered in a desert holding area 20km north west of the town Khan Neshin – a settlement surrounding an ancient fort and a bazaar known for drug and weapon dealing.

The town had been identified by intelligence as a hotbed of Taliban activity – mingling with the local population and exerting significant influence over them in their brutal and oppressive way.

Before dawn, the men of Lima Company 42 Commando Group left their desert hideaway in VIKING vehicles before ‘yomping’ the final distance over tough terrain, undetected, towards their target. As they broke into the village, compounds were secured and searched, with the Afghan forces taking the lead.

Whilst the ground manoeuvre force cleared the main bazaar, the Commando Reconnaissance Force, a JACKAL-borne company of recce and heavy weapon experts, covered their approach..

A number of insurgent-held compounds were discovered and bitter close-quarters fighting broke out. As the Commandos stormed the enemy compounds, both they and the insurgents within traded grenades over compound walls. There were regular sporadic attacks and ambushes using automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, but they were soon suppressed, causing the enemy to flee in disarray.

As they moved through the area, two attempts were made to attack the Marines by suicide bombers - but due to the vigilance of the patrol the bombers only succeeded in killing themselves. Both detonated within metres of the marines and their Afghan comrades, but no-one was injured in either incident.

As they systematically moved through the town the fighting intensified as they got closer to the main bazaar. With the insurgents attacking from urban firing points, showing total disregard for the safety of civilians, an Apache attack helicopter was called in – its accurate targeting systems and powerful 30mm cannon suppressed their firing points with no civilian casualties, allowing the Marines and ANSF to enter and clear compounds. A quantity of raw opium, weapons and ammunition, including AK-47 variant rifles and RPGs, were seized, along with two suicide vests – ready to be used against targets.

Ed Stout, Company Sergeant Major of Lima Company 42 Commando Group, said:

“Our engagements with the insurgents only ever end one way. Our overmatch is simply too much for the enemy. We are quite happy to engage him - it plays to our strengths as Commandos and allows us demonstrate our capability to everyone in the area. We can disrupt the insurgent and empower the locals in the same few days. It works.”

With the insurgents having fled the area, led by the Afghan National Army, the men of Kilo Company set about conducting reassurance and intelligence gathering patrols, re-introducing a legitimate security presence in the village. Shuras were held with local people, where with the consent of the village elders, they arranged for the commando medics and dentist to run a temporary clinic, proving to the population that they provide more than just force and security.

Major Neil Willson, Chief of Staff 42 Commando Group, said:

“If we can present a human face, an understanding of local culture, customs and sensitivities, and show that we are honourable warriors in the face of the insurgency, the locals engage with us and respond positively.

“They offer honest feedback on their situation and a degree of hospitality that is frankly humbling. I think we have moved the ball forward significantly in this area.”

Having significantly disrupted the enemy in Khan Neshin, the Commando Group and their Afghan counterparts continued with their information gathering. The final move of their long operation saw them launch one more surprise move to the western villages of Malakhan and Taghaz, just a few kilometres from the border of Nimruz Province.

From the 7th - 14th March they moved through the area, identifying the key infrastructure requirements, assessing the nature of facilities, the level of local governance and the key leaders within the community. Through a series of shuras, the Marines and Afghan forces discussed the priorities for the local people and identified the ways in which ISAF forces and the Government of Afghanistan would be able to expand its own influence and further disempower the insurgency in the region.

Finally, their long mission complete, the force extracted back to Camp Bastion where with the hard yards of the operation behind them, the job of analysing and processing the huge amount of information and knowledge gathered will begin.

Lt Col Charlie Stickland Royal Marines, Commanding Officer 42 Commando Group, said:

“Before our arrival no-one knew what was here – it was largely a blank map. We have walked, fought and talked across a huge area and operated at huge reach. We have drunk endless cups of tea with the local Afghans, and as ISAF’s advance party we have set up the Government - Coalition partnership for significant success here.

“This was a reconnaissance in force, and the key was agility; in terms of manoeuvre across a huge area by day and night, through long range desert patrols, helicopter insertion, and a reassuring posture when amongst the villagers.

“By appearing unexpected at a time and place of our choosing we owned the space, causing uncertainty in the insurgent’s mind, disrupting his plans. The many shuras we have held are crucial to generating a real and meaningful understanding of this area, and that was my mission.

“We have achieved more than we could have imagined a month ago, and ultimately this comes down to the robustness of the Marines and soldiers of the Commando Group, who can operate at such intensity for a month.”

More pictures in the Photo Gallery