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Airborne Troops Strike at Taliban's Drug Industry

Waves of helicopter-borne troops caught the Taliban by surprise in a meticulously planned assault which has struck severely at the narcotics industry in Helmand which helps finance the Taliban's insurgency.

The operation, codenamed 'DIESEL', involved over 700 personnel and resulted in the disruption of enemy command and control, logistics and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) facilities in the Upper Sangin Valley, and the capture of four narcotics factories containing drugs, chemicals and equipment with a UK street value of £50m.

The area has long been a centre of enemy activity where extensive narcotics interests have provided a stream of funding for the Taliban.

After weeks of detailed planning, Operation DIESEL saw marines and soldiers over the period 6 to 11 February 2009 deliberately confuse the enemy before seizing a number of strategic sites after which waves of helicopter-borne troops conducted rapid assaults on the multiple targets.

The troops involved included Afghan Security Forces, Royal Marines from 45 Commando, 42 Commando, and 3 Commando Brigade's Reconnaissance Force, as well as armoured infantry and close reconnaissance from 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment (1 PWRR).

Commander Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Gordon Messenger Royal Marines, summed up the success of this operation saying:

"The links between the Taliban and the drugs trade are well proven and we know that the revenue from narcotics production directly funds the insurgency.

"Operation DIESEL was a clinical precision strike, supported by strong intelligence, which has had a powerful disruptive effect on known insurgent and narcotics networks in the area.

"The success of the operation is a significant boost to the Afghan authorities in their fight against the drugs trade. As a combined ISAF [International Security Assistance Force]/Afghan team, we will continue to take every opportunity to strike at the linkage between the narcotics trade and the Taliban, the product of which brings so much misery to the Afghan people."

The operation was led by Lieutenant Colonel Jim Morris, Commanding Officer, 45 Commando Group Royal Marines.

It began on 6 February, following detailed rehearsals of the plan, with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force in their Jackal vehicles moving onto high ground overlooking the objectives under cover of darkness.

The objectives - referred to as 'Southern', 'Western' and 'Eastern' - comprised a number of compounds and farm buildings in three areas, nestling in the Helmand Valley, flanked to the west by the River Helmand and by mountains to the east.

Intelligence had suggested that the area was a hotbed for narcotics production, providing the funding for the insurgency, as well as being a stronghold for enemy fighters.

Over the preceding week, British Forces from both 1 PWRR and the Armoured Support Group had deliberately feigned a move into an area to the north of the targets, leading the Taliban to divert their attention away from the actual objectives.

1 PWRR's armoured vehicles then moved up to secure the first of three helicopter landing sites, codenamed WILLOW, around 8km west of the objectives. Forming a western flank, they screened the target area to prevent enemy reinforcements arriving and to intercept any attempting to flee.

The Vikings of the Armoured Support Group moved into the south, ready to provide re-supply and casualty extraction, if required.

The Brigade Reconnaissance Force, high in the mountainous area to the east, provided overwatch protection to a second helicopter landing zone, codenamed OAK, carefully selected due to its location within a natural depression in the landscape, providing a perfect screen from the enemy targets in the valley below. Their heavy weaponry and view over the whole of the area below also provided protection to a third landing site deep in the valley, codenamed CHERRY.

At around 0100 hrs on 7 February 2009, with the screens in place and helicopter landing sites (HLS) secured, the raid was launched.

In just 20 minutes two waves of coalition helicopters, including RAF Chinooks, Royal Navy Sea Kings and Lynx, joined by US CH53 Sea Stallions, inserted over 500 commandos into their landing sites, 800 metres from the enemy positions.

The first wave of helicopters delivered troops from Lima Company 42 Commando into HLS CHERRY and 45 Commando Headquarters and Mortar Troop into HLS OAK.

X-Ray Company 45 Commando, who had been pre-positioned into HLS WILLOW, a holding area out of sight and earshot of the enemy, were the second wave into HLS OAK twenty minutes later and quickly reinforced the assault from a different direction.

Lima Company systematically cleared the western flank and secured a vital river-crossing to deny the enemy the freedom to move in reinforcements or to escape, while at the same time X-Ray Company were fighting through and searching the southern enemy positions. This initial insertion was a complete success and achieved total surprise.

As the first stage of the assault moved in, forces from Yankee Company were moved by helicopter from Camp Bastion to replace X-Ray at OAK, where they waited in reserve, within striking distance of their objective as the second stage of the assault.

Major Richard Parvin Royal Marines, Officer Commanding Yankee Company 45 Commando, on arrival at the helicopter landing site, positioned his men to await further orders. He described the situation:

"From the mountainside we could hear sporadic shots and small exchanges of fire throughout the morning but not the heavy defence we had prepared for; it was clear that several groups of Taliban had moved out to meet phantom threats as we had hoped."

To the west, Lima Company and their Afghan colleagues moved through compounds, searching for enemy forces, for weapons that many had dropped or hidden and the materials associated with narcotics.

Sergeant Tony Dryden, Lima Company, 42 Commando Group, said:

"The Taliban was confused and completely overmatched by our tactics. Our scheme of manoeuvre was fantastic. I have never seen anything like it as they were on the back foot and unable to cope throughout."

The first of the two processing plants was discovered in a chain of compounds, the vital components for the drugs trade having been hastily abandoned as the enemy fled. Vats used for refining opium, presses and chemicals used in heroin production, and even bags ready to be filled with heroin were found, along with over 60kg of wet opium waiting to be processed.

X-Ray Company had now secured their objectives and together with Afghan forces began to enter and search compounds in the Southern objective, uncovering weapons caches and another suspected drugs factory.

Over 400kg of raw opium and a massive supply of the essential chemicals required to make heroin were discovered; sacks of Ammonium Chloride, barrels of Acetic Anhydride and other chemicals that were piled up ready for use.

Such swift progress did not go unnoticed however, and they soon came under attack from enemy forces firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) from within the warren of compounds and ditches.

X-Ray Company and the Afghan forces returned fire, supported by Apache attack helicopters accurately targeting the enemy firing points. The attack was soon quashed and the area secured, with the enemy abandoning compounds and fleeing.

Major Rich Maltby, Officer Commanding X-Ray Company, 45 Commando, said:

"The company did extremely well, neutralising the enemy whenever they presented themselves, destroying large quantities of drugs and drug-making equipment and recovering enemy weapons and explosives. We then secured a route for the remainder of the Commando to extract."

Having been held in reserve for the majority of the morning, Yankee Company launched their attack on Eastern, the final objective. Moving up through the area previously secured by X-Ray Company, Yankee advanced north to the collection of compounds which comprised their target. Manning mortars and heavy machine guns, and with a sniper team, they moved onto high ground to the west to provide another layer of overwatch.

Captain Olly Osborne Royal Marines, 9 Troop Fire Support Group, Yankee Company, 45 Commando, said:

"We were 200 metres away from the first compounds and had just climbed onto the high ground when an RPG buzzed over our heads, fired by a guy who just came out of an alleyway. Fortunately it was a blind and didn't explode. The guys opened up on him in response. Another firing position with a PKM heavy machine gun was also firing at us too and we guided in an Apache helicopter to attack with its 30 millimetre cannon."

The sniper team began to spot enemy forces fleeing from the area in the face of such overwhelming odds. When positively identified as either carrying weapons or having left firing points they were engaged, through the deadly accuracy of the long-range rifles and by the ever-present Apache helicopters.

Marine Matthew Webb, a sniper with 9 Troop, Yankee Company, 45 Commando Group, said:

"Once Yankee started their move towards the Eastern objective we were up on the high ground giving them cover. We got contacted first - RPGs soaring over our heads and a bit of AK fire - we always expect this so it wasn't anything too new.

"We just got on with picking out enemy forces as they moved - appearing in breaks in the tree-line or when they moved from the compounds. We were picking targets from about 1,500 metres, and, for those further out where we were not able to clearly identify them as enemy, we were providing the information to the Apaches which have better optics at those distances - we were always checking to make sure they were enemy."

Yankee Company continued to advance on the compounds, forever conscious of the threat from IEDs and attack from those enemy forces remaining. As with the other objectives, the paraphernalia of the insurgency were soon discovered; weapons and ammunition abandoned as they fled and the largest find of opium on the operation, nearly 800kg. The final, and largest, complete processing lab with chemicals, vats and presses to make deadly heroin was also discovered.

Marine Jake McEndoo, Yankee Company, 45 Commando, said:

"We used explosive entry to some of the compounds but only where we had to. In one compound we found 10 or 15 barrels of wet opium cooking which is the most I've ever seen. I've not seen it on this scale before - once we'd finished searching, it was all put into one compound and then destroyed.

"We watched some of the enemy fleeing the area and it looked like they may be planning to IDF [mortar] us and X-Ray Company - we got the Apache in to take them out."

Commenting on the success of the operation, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Morris Royal Marines, Commanding Officer of 45 Commando Group Royal Marines, said:

"Operation DIESEL was a bold and hugely successful operation which demonstrated quite clearly that ISAF and Afghan Forces can strike when and where we choose, with speed and ruthless precision, at the very heart of Taliban bases.

"The resulting disruption of the enemy and his infrastructure, and the impact on the closely related narcotics activity that was achieved in this action will contribute directly to the gradually improving security situation in the Upper Sangin Valley. As ever, it was the bravery, determination and skill of the men and women on the ground that delivered this success; I am immensely proud of them all."

The operation was an enormous undertaking carefully planned and executed with precision and guile. Multiple, co-ordinated attacks by a large number of British and Afghan forces on a totally overmatched enemy were conducted without loss to ISAF or Afghan forces, and with minimal disruption to the local population.

Defence Secretary John Hutton said:

"Our dedicated and professional forces have once again taken the fight to the enemy. Their bravery, coupled with the size and sophistication of our firepower, has cleared the enemy from large areas of Helmand bringing security and governance to more of the province. The seizure of £50 million worth of narcotics will starve the Taliban of crucial funding preventing the proliferation of drugs and terror on the UK's streets."