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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
'It looked like hell'
An unidentified British Royal Marine Commando takes up position in Ginger Valley
The troops have begun their mission in Afghanistan
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By James Clark
Near Shah-i-Kot in eastern Afghanistan

More than 4,000ft below, the 105mm guns of the commando artillery were firing shells into the rock face above suspected al-Qaeda cave complexes.

In the early morning sunlight at the top of the ridge code-named Objective Ginger, Regimental Sergeant Major Tony Jacka looked on at the falling rock and dust as his men swept their heavy machine guns across the ridge-line.

"We're learning more and more about this land every day," the Falklands veteran said.

"In time we're going to know more about it than the enemy down this valley, and that time is approaching fast; when it arrives we'll kill him.

I have to tell you that the blokes have been magnificent

Lt Col Tim Chicken

"There isn't one bloke up here that wants to go home without doing that."

Jacka, a 37-year-old father-of-two, is the man the marines of 45 Commando turn to in tough places.

He was speaking on Wednesday - the third full day of what is the first combat mission for the Royal Marines since they stormed ashore at San Carlos in the Falklands 20 years ago.

Together with the gunners of 7 (Sphinx) Commando Battery of the Royal Artillery, they are tasked with clearing out the multitude of caves and bunkers which al-Qaeda and the Taleban have used in this region, and killing the enemy when they find him.

Booby traps

Already they have found evidence that the terrorists have returned to the area since it was the centre of the bloody battle that was Operation Anaconda.

In the battle the Americans fought for 17 days to clear the entrenched enemy positions from what amounts to only part of the area the marines will cover.

The man in charge on the mountain is Lieutenant Colonel Tim Chicken, 43, the only other Falklands veteran in the unit.

"We've found a number of things, including bodies which appear to have been booby trapped, documents, ammunition and at least one vehicle which has been destroyed," he said.

Troops in eastern Afghanistan
Royal Marine Commandos occupy a strategic position overlooking a valley
"The enemy has been here, but he has scarpered. Our job is to make sure he can't come back and then see where he is."

It is a daunting task. 10,500ft above sea level, where gulping a lungful of air is a task in itself, the young men of 45 touched down in the dead of night on top of the mountain.

They were just 50 yards from the wreckage of an American Chinook helicopter which al-Qaeda forces had shot down, killing eight men, during Anaconda.

As the Chinook's ramp hit the rocks in the early hours of 15 April, the troops inside looked out over an alien landscape of towering rocks and valleys, covered in 12ins of fresh snow and swept by a biting sub-zero wind.

The bodies of Taleban and al-Qaeda soldiers were still lying on the ground and the entire scene was lit by the forked lightning of a massive electrical storm.

First impressions

"It looked like hell," said "Doc", Zulu Company's medic, crouched on the edge of the now snow-free valley wall in the morning sun.

"It was pretty intimidating at first, but we dealt with it."

The vertical distance from the ridge line where Zulu Company are dug in, to the valley floor where Whisky Company are moving forward destroying positions and gathering intelligence is 4,000ft.

This is far greater than the height of Mount Snowdon in Wales, and it is only one of countless ridges and mountains which lay ahead for the marines.

Down the slopes of Objective Ginger, covered with loose rock and parts of the downed US helicopter, marines and artillerymen are dug into the edges of the cliffs in gunnery posts which resemble giant eyries.

I joined because I wanted some adventure I suppose, I think this is it

Tom Jordan
Radio operator

In one, a 31-year-old marine corporal manned a Light Support Weapon, guarding the barely visible path used by locals to traverse the cliff.

"This is one of the toughest places I've been in 13 years in the Corps," he said.

"I last spoke to the family two weeks ago on HMS Ocean. I don't tell them about this sort of thing - they think I'm at Bagram doing camp construction."

Almost invisible from anything above 10ft away another, larger, post has been dug into the valley wall further down.

'Respect enemy'

Inside Troop Sergeant `Buck' Ryan, the man in charge of 45's machine guns, sits with a younger marine speaking in whispers into a special forces radio.

"The whole lot of us were mega-keen to get up here," said Ryan, a veteran of 16 years in the Corps.

"Some of the younger lads get so fired up you have to go about and calm them down.

"We know how good we are, but you have to respect anyone who comes to fight you up here."

Jacka, the RSM, interrupts from outside the bunker.

Royal marines
The marines are learning more about their enemy each day
"We'll all feel better when we've got to grips with the enemy. It's what God put marines on earth to do. We're going looking for them."

The third, silent, marine in the trench, radio operator Tom Jordan, 24, from Chippenham in Wiltshire, looks slightly less sure.

"I finished my basic training a week before they send me out here, I joined because I wanted some adventure I suppose, I think this is it."

Whilst physically taxing, and dangerous, the marines accept that the first phase of what Col Chicken has chosen to call Operation Ptarmigan, after a bird famed for its camouflage abilities, is the easiest of the tasks ahead.

"The boss, Brigadier Lane, was examining four options for the second phase when I left a few nights ago," said Chicken.

"All of them will be tough, and all will involve the risk of casualties, but what we are showing here, and will continue to show, is that when people write us off, they don't understand marines."

James Clark is the defence correspondent for the Sunday Times. This article was put together from pooled copy filed by Mr Clark from Afghanistan.

See also:

17 Apr 02 | South Asia
UK troops destroy al-Qaeda caves
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