The 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment (1 R IRISH) Battle Group has mounted the largest air assault operation in the history of the regiment since 1945, when soldiers from the regiment landed on the east bank of the Rhine during World War Two.
Op TORA ZHEMAY VI (Courageous Winter) took place at the end of February 2011 and involved the insertion of three companies by helicopter in one wave, followed by an ‘advance to contact’ to link up with a further three companies in containment positions to the west, north and east of the target area of Zaborabad in Helmand province.
The purpose of the operation was to demonstrate the power and might of ISAF and the Afghan Government through putting a joint Royal Irish and Afghan force into the heart of enemy territory.
Zaborabad was the target for the operation, where the aim was to disrupt and degrade the insurgents’ ability to attack into Sayedabad, which 1 R IRISH have spent five months fighting to secure:
“We had shed a lot of blood there,” Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Colin Weir said in a report on the operation. “So had the enemy; it turned out that the fighting in Zaborabad in the weeks preceding the air assault operation had achieved just the desired effect.
“Zaborabad had no permanent ISAF or Afghan security force presence and so the people were ambivalent towards us. If we were to stay there, they would come in behind us, but for the moment they hedged their bets, in fear of Taliban retribution. They needed confidence in us.”
Preparations for the operation started weeks ago: “We went through the start of the planning process prior to my going on R&R [Rest & Recuperation],” Lt Col Weir explained. “On my return, I fully expected that complications would conspire to make this hugely complex and ambitious plan come to nothing. I was wrong – on my return from the UK the operation was good to go, the aircraft were available and the weather looked good (enough).”
The 1 R IRISH Air Assault Force was a mixed body of the 1 R IRISH Battle Group Tactical Headquarters, D Company, 1 R IRISH, A Company, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, a company of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, and a platoon of US Marines: “It was an experience that none who were involved will easily forget,” Lt Col Weir said.
Taking up the story of the operation he continued: “D-Day was Saturday 26 February, D-1 (Friday) saw us rear-base to Camp Bastion. Friday was spent in confirmatory orders, battle procedure, helicopter drills and checking the intelligence to see what was changing in the target area.
“Tense. Battle procedure includes sleep; my mind was racing as I tried to get some before the early start the next day. Not much came and any that did was generally interrupted by [briefings] on the latest weather, or the intelligence twists and turns, or changes in timings.
“At three in the morning we attended a final set of orders for the operation with the helicopter crews. We all spoke English – but I understood little of what the aircrew were saying and I expect they understood little of what I was saying. But we all seemed to agree.
“From there, via a hearty breakfast (no queues in the Bastion Dining Hall at 0500 hours), we moved to our pens – mine tape staked out in the dust to keep us corralled to ensure that we all got on the right helicopter. It was very cold, and it showed who had packed warm kit and who had not (those who had warm kit put it on!).
“Gradually the flight line came to life. Aircrew arrived and helicopters were tested. In the event all aircraft started up were in good order.
“Out of the grey sky came the US Marines’ aircraft supporting the operation, four CH-53 Sea Stallions escorted by Cobra gunships.
“They set down as we started to load the helicopters; long lines of soldiers lugging radios, weapons, batteries, ammunition, food and water up the ramps.
“The air armada taxied as one; attack helicopters took off first and then the support helicopters carrying the troops lifted as a body.
“Seven dark green British helicopters rose up at the head of the fleet followed by the grey Sea Stallions. It was at that point that the scale of the operation dawned on all of us. The spectacle was overwhelming. Apprehension was washed from the system by adrenaline.
“On the ground, A and C Company were patrolling in to seal off the west and north of the target area, and Cyclops Squadron, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, were dominating the east in their heavy Mastiff armoured vehicles.
“In the air, from my place in the last Merlin, I could see the UK Chinooks and Merlins to our front and through the open back ramp I could see the four Sea Stallions behind us.
“We flew high over the Helmand River and around the provincial capital Lashkar Gah and then we dropped sharply to low level over the Red Desert. With our third ‘right-turn’ we knew we were heading to the landing zone.
“The laughter abates. To counter the threat of surface-to-air missiles the aircraft fires flares which bounce off the ground. Landmarks flash by which orientate us – the Trek Nawa checkpoint, Route Elephant.
“The aircraft flare and all eleven troop carriers set down in our three landing sites, Belfast, Carrick and Derry, in plumes of dust. 0910 hours, deliberately daylight as an overt demonstration of power.
“Off the back, fire positions, antennae up, radios on, sneaky look at the compass to make sure we are pointing north, check comms. All companies checked in and orientated, move off the landing site. Orders issued, which are no more than ‘Go!’
“Within minutes D Company are into a suspect compound on my forward left, the ANA Company in another on the forward right. D Company have found a cache of weapons and ammunition. The Afghans discover two, highly accurate, bolt-action weapons. Arrests made.
“Occasionally as we move forward Tac[tical] HQ’s Vallon man (mine-detector) identifies suspicious ground-sign or gets a tone on the detector. He attempts to confirm the presence of IEDs by scraping away the dirt.
“Later a civilian tells us that the track that we are moving on is seeded with IEDs; we change tack and move across the irrigated poppy fields from compound wall to compound wall for cover.
“The companies move forward, more finds, more arrests, no contact with the enemy. On the flanks, the people trying to leave the area are searched and have their details taken.
“An enemy fighting position – a sniper hole – is found and destroyed. A cache of grenades is found and blown up. Another AK47 is found.
“We meet some young men still showing the marks of a serious beating by the Taliban. We do this for two days, linking up with the containment forces, gathering the locals to explain what we are doing, always adjusting, rebalancing, making sure that we can react.
“The glamorous arrival into the target area is soon forgotten when the torrential rain hits and the sticky mud slows movement and the weight bears down on the shoulders. Still no contact with the enemy but the finds kept coming.
“At the end of the operation we had discovered fourteen separate enemy weapons caches and we had arrested a number of suspected Taliban. More importantly we had demonstrated that we could go where we wanted to, and the people of Zaborabad were delighted.
“The power, and the mass, and the agility of the Battle Group is overwhelming. Their elders came to us over the following days and thanked us for the effort; ‘more, please’, they said. More will come.
“We extracted from the area at night, another complex operation. Lines of soldiers in the dark waiting for Chinooks to descend into fields where only weeks ago battle would have been inevitable. Tonight, he wouldn’t dare.”