On 4 June the Paras set off on what was billed as a ‘cordon and search’ operation. Their target was a mud-walled residential compound, 70 yards square, on the eastern outskirts of Now Zad. According to the sketchy information available, it was thought to be an ammunition and weapons dump, possibly a Taliban bomb factory and a safe house for insurgent commanders. The idea was to secure the compound, seize the materiel and grab any Taliban who might be there.
The job had been handed to them by the Americans. It was part of Operation Mountain Thrust, their ongoing hunt for ‘high value’ Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. It seemed a relatively straightforward task. The intelligence brief warned that there might be some Taliban present, but not enough to pose a major threat. ‘Cordon and Searches’ were a staple company level activity in Northern Ireland. They had also been practised in exercise before the deployment. The terraced streets of Ulster and the empty desert of Oman, however, were very different propositions from the mud-brick mazes of Helmand. The operation was to turn into one of the epic clashes of the Paras’ tour, a six hour fight in which virtually every-one involved got their first, hard look at the face of battle.
Altogether there were about a hundred men taking part. The mission would be led, once again, by ‘A’ company, the ‘Ops One’ company at Bastion. 10 platoon of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, garrisoned on the Now Zad district centre together with some Afghan police, and patrols platoon, who were in the area, were tasked with setting up an outer perimeter to seal off the area. Then ‘A’ Company would arrive by air to capture the compound. The Gurkhas would take the local district chief along them to give the operation an ‘Afghan face’. Air power was on hand to come in and blast the enemy if needed, in the shape of A-10 jets and apache helicopters. As it turned out they were to play a vital role.
This was a battle group operation and, as commander, Tootal went along with his headquarters team to oversee it himself. Even before he hit the ground, it was clear that the Taliban were waiting and eager for a fight. The Gurkhas had set off from the Now Zad district centre at 11 a.m. to establish their sector of the outer cordon around the target compound. They were expecting an uneventful day and though they were unlikely to encounter anything more than a handful of fighters.
There were about thirty in the convoy, including eight or nine Afghan police. It passed through a village on the Northern edge of a town called Aliz’ay, and along a wadi that led southwards. Lance Corporal Ananda Rai was driving the lead WMIK when they came across a small group of men who were apparently civilians. One of them broke away and ran into a house. Rai though he had taken fright. But then he re-emerged carrying an RPG launcher . He’ screamed and drooped to one knee’. The RPG streaked across the bonnet of the vehicle.
Rifleman Kiran Yonzon was providing ‘top cover’, manning the 50-cal. He saw the man with the grenade launcher but he was only a few yards away and Yonzon could not bring the heavy machine gun’s long barrel down to bear in him. Instead, he jumped down from his perch, snatched up his rifle and fired three shots, which killed the attacker. Another man popped up from behind a wall and fired fifteen or twenty rounds towards Yonzon.
Then unseen gunmen, crouching in the trees lining the far side of the wadi, opened up with more RPG’s a heavy machine gun and rifles. Lieutenant Paul Hollingshead, a twenty four years old from southport on Merseyside who had joined the Gurkhas after university, was three or four vehicles back in the convoy. He scrambled out of the lightly armoured Snatch Land Rover and started shooting back. Everyone was trying to get out of their vehicles to find cover and return fire. ‘it was very , very quick he said. ‘ if we’d stayed in the vehicles we would have been cut to shreds.
It was the first time Hollingshead had been on the receiving end of an RPG. They made made the loudest bang I had ever heard’ he said. Rounds from the heavy machine gun were smashing chunks out of the wall behind him.
The Apaches were hovering over the target compound about a mile away, but there was no way of calling in an air strike. In the rush to dismount, the radios had been left on the vehicles. Hollingshead decided he could not ask his boys to retrieve one so he ran forward as rounds zipped around him. He returned with an old clansman type transmitter, a notoriously poor piece of kit. This one had a label stuck on it reading dodgy but workable. The joint tactical air controller (JTAC), lieutenant Barry de Goede of the household cavalry, came to join him. But when they tried to get in contact with the aircraft in the area, the radio refused to work. We were beating it, hitting it, taking it apart, said holingshead. Finally, The Gurkhas signalled the air to identify their position and a few minutes afterwards Taliban positions were raked from the air with 30mm cannon fire.
The next step was to retrieve the vehicles and get out of the wadi. Hollingshead picked five of his men to come with him and lay down covering fire for the drivers. ‘ it was one of the proudest moments of my life, he said. I said ok you are coming with me. Then it was three, two, one go the young Gurkhas some of them only nineteen years old, ran forward unhesitatingly, with bullets cracking over their heads and ricocheting off the rocks around them.
Lance Corporal Ananda Rai was determined to get back to his WMIK, and rounded up two others to help him. But moving towards it, they came under heavy fire and had to stop. A little later there was a lull in the shooting and he ran forward on his own. He got behind the wheel and the bullet-shattered windscreen and tried to turn the vehicle round but his path out was blocked by a ‘Pinz’. The temptation to panic was strong. ‘I calmed myself down and told myself it didn’t matter if i got shot’, he said later.
As they worked forward, firing and manoeuvring, hollingshead realised that he was way ahead of his men. Before him was a low, flat-roofed building, something that ‘looked like a bundle of rags’ was lying in front of it. It took him a few seconds to realise it was the body of RPG gunner who had been shot dead at the start of the fight. As he was taking this in, ‘this guy came skidding out of the building. He looked down at his mate on the ground. He hadn’t seen me. ‘Hollingshead raised his rifle to shoot. The fighter was wearing a long green disdasha kaftan and a sparkly skullcap and carrying a kalashnikov. He had a bushy beard and appeared to be about thirty. He looked up as pulled the trigger of his SA80. but nothing happened. An empty cartridge case had jammed on ejection, blocking the chamber. He tried frantically to clear it, as bullets from the continuing firefight kicked dust arround his feet.
His apponent was just 15 yards away. Hollingshed yelled for help, steeling himself for the burst of fire. No shot came. The man was having his own problems. His rifle had also failed him, and after fiddling with it for a few seconds he ran back into the building. hollingshed finally cleared the stoppage and laid down fire to keep the gunman occupied while the last vehicle jolted their way out of the wadi. He would later laugh at the ‘Hollywoodesque’ nature of the encounter.
Afterwards, safely back in Naw Zad, the Gurkhas relaxed for the first time. ‘Everyone was pretty elated’, Hollingshead said. ‘We had all succeeded. No one had backed down, or done anything cowardly’. They had taken only one casualty, an Afghan police who was shot in the stomach. It was all the more satisfying because the Gurkhas had not prepared for full-on war fighting of the sort they had just experienced. The company had been put together at short notice and had not practised more than basic infantry drills together. They were supposed to be guarding the camp. But they had been at the forefront of the first big fight of the deployment and they could feel proud of themselves. Its the proud of being as Gurkhas.
So on…..still the war continued.
Source: ‘ 3 PARA’ Afghanistan , Summer 2006.This is the War } written by PATRICK BISHOP
Photo: Rifleman Kiran Yonzan and Lance Corporal Ananda Rai >>>