The First Real War
Just three weeks after finishing their training in Devon, fledgling Royal Marines found themselves on the front line in Afghanistan. Not all of them came back
"Incoming! Take cover!" I hurl myself to the ground as tracer bullets whistle past our heads. I am with a patrol of 20 heavily armed Royal Marine commandos. The Taliban had been waiting for us. The AK-47, their preferred weapon, fires naturally high, but they’re quick to adjust their aim, and soon their bullets are ricocheting off the rocky terrain around us. To my right is
Tom Curry, a marine just a year out of training, who celebrated his 21st birthday yesterday — New Year’s Day. To my left is the troop commander, Second Lieutenant Bertie Kerr, 22, barely three weeks out of training. Both are trying to crawl to the top of the ridge to return fire.
Seven months earlier, in June 2006, I had started training with the commandos at their base in Lympstone, Devon. It was to be the most extraordinary year of my life. I would not only face gruelling physical challenges, but also witness astonishing heroism and heartbreaking tragedy. I was not training to be a commando but embedding as a film-maker to document the fresh young recruits of 924 Troop going through the longest and hardest basic military training in the world.
The successful recruits, in their late teens and early twenties, would be sent straight to Afghanistan weeks after passing out in spring 2007 — their reward for enduring eight months of training hell. My plan was to follow them not only through this hell but also into the teeth of battle against an increasingly resurgent Taliban.
I had no inkling of what I was letting myself in for.
After a few weeks with the 924 Troop rookies, I met some of the YOs (young officers) finishing their training, including Bertie Kerr. An economics and philosophy graduate from Bristol University, and the son of a Royal Navy admiral, Kerr had wanted to be a Royal Marine since he was five. Before his passing out, I joined him on some of his final training: riot-control exercises, amphibious landings off the coast of Scotland and jungle-warfare training in the United States.
Most of the time, however, I trained with 924 Troop: rope-climbing, assault courses, speed marches, abseiling, close-quarter combat. In addition, we endured survival training in extreme conditions, with limited rations and sleep. It was relentless, unforgiving and injurious. I got off relatively lightly with a dislocated finger, ruptured biceps tendon and inflamed clavicle, but many were so badly broken, they had to leave the troop for recovery.
Pain, sweat, blood and tears were being exchanged for a strongly forged comradeship, an overpowering sense of pride, self-respect and purpose in the men. I remember listening to the lads round a campfire after a particularly demanding field exercise on Dartmoor, which had involved three days of living rough in subzero temperatures, killing rabbits for food, and miles of relentless route-marching — carrying 80lb on our backs.
"I never thought you could feel this close to other blokes," said Michael Urhegyi, from the rougher end of Salford. "I’m proud I did that f***ing yomping today, but then I think, f*** me, all you lot can do it as well."
"Yeah!" replied Lee Smith, who comes from Leytonstone in east London. "That’s the thing, ain’t it"
I respect you "cos you can do something but then you respect me ’cos I can do it too."
A few weeks later I joined the recruits on a tour of Normandy to visit the D-Day beaches and British military cemetery at Bayeux. It was astonishing to watch these young marine recruits walk among the graves. They had all been given small wooden crosses and told to lay them on the grave of any Royal Marine they liked. Adam Collins, a former stunt man from Nottingham, laid his cross on the grave of a marine also called Collins. "Twenty years old," he mused. "Same age as me. God, I hope we don’t end up like this."
In mid-December, days after passing out as a fully fledged officer, Bertie Kerr left to take up his first command on the front line in Afghanistan. Two weeks after that, with the recruits home for the holidays, I left for Afghanistan and caught up with Kerr on Christmas Eve at a remote but beleaguered outpost, Kajaki. This was the site of a strategically vital dam and hydroelectric plant that the Royal Marines of M Company, 42 Commando, were defending from a Taliban force.
The Royal Marines had established an HQ near the dam and gun positions on peaks nearby, commanding long arcs of fire over the valleys and river plains, but the place was honeycombed with deserted mud-walled compounds — perfect hiding places for the Taliban, from which they could launch their small-arms and mortar attacks. The daily operations for the Royal Marines involved flushing out the enemy, engaging with them and killing them. It was relentless work. The enemy was ruthless, ferocious and suicidally courageous.
Every day and most nights I went on patrol with Kerr and his own 11 Troop of 20 men — some as fresh out of training as himself. The biggest member of the troop was a man-mountain called Tom Curry, known as Vinders (Vindaloo), who had passed out of Lympstone a year ago. He had managed to call home on Christmas Day on a satellite phone and propose to his girlfriend, Carla. "She answered the question correctly," he grinned. Five days later, Curry celebrated his 21st birthday on New Year’s Day — the eve of a serious attack on a Taliban stronghold when we were ambushed and pinned to a hillside.
As the Taliban’s bullets continued to rain down on us, Kerr gave the order for us to withdraw by crawling down the slope on our belt buckles. We finally sprinted for cover in a dry gulley. There, 11 Troop consolidated before advancing again to establish a firing line that would take the fight back to the enemy. Supported by reinforcements from
M Company and air cover from an Apache helicopter, the Royal Marines got the better of the Taliban. But it had been an exhausting fight, with one marine, Richard Mayson, badly wounded by a bullet shattering his wrist. I did my best to carry on filming, recording Kerr in his first real confrontation with the enemy. Curry was resolute and unflinching. Later, as we searched compounds for the enemy, I saw Curry shoulder-charge a mud-brick wall and go straight through it. "Nice one, Vinders!" shouted Kerr, as he led his men through the hole to clear yet another compound. To his comrades, Tom Curry had an air of invincibility. Ten days later he was dead.
It happened during another advance through deserted compounds, but Curry, leading from the front as usual, walked straight into a Taliban bullet. He was killed instantly by a head shot, and the rest of 11 Troop, being fired on from three sides, fought on with tears in their eyes, immediately dispatching his killer. Sergeant Pete McGinley, a veteran of 18 years’ service, was the first at Curry’s side. He ripped a scarf off a dead Taliban fighter and wrapped it round the huge marine’s face. "Sorry, Vinders, old mate," he said. "Don’t want the lads to see you like this — a bit untidy. We’ll remember you the way you were." He kept talking to Curry until his body could be evacuated.
Back at Lympstone, I resumed training with 924 Troop until their own passout, when I returned to Afghanistan with the successful recruits. The boys had become men and earned the right to fight on the front line, just like Tom Curry.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff, warning of the dangers posed by a "strident Islamic shadow", says we face a generation of conflict in Afghanistan. That means marines who will serve there have yet to start training, have yet to leave school, have yet to be born. Meanwhile, at least for the foreseeable future, Vinders’ colleagues — men like Pete McGinley, Bertie Kerr and the rest — will continue to take all they learnt on Dartmoor to the bleak, mud-walled compounds of Afghanistan.
Commando, by Chris Terrill, is published by Century at £18.99 on September 20. It is available at the BooksFirst price of £16.99, including p&p. Tel: 0870 165 8585. An eight-part series, Commando: On the Front Line, starts on September 20, at 9pm, on ITV