Page last updated at 12:25 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 13:25 UK

St David's Day gunfire and daffs

Last month the Queen's Dragoon Guards, known as the Welsh Cavalry, were coming to the end of their bloodiest tour of duty in 50 years. The BBC's Gareth Jones was filming with them during some of their final operations, including one on St David's Day, which turned into a vicious firefight in a village near Garmsir. His film Frontline Afghanistan is on BBC One Wales on Thursday at 2100 BST.

Gareth Jones in Garmsir
Gareth Jones on a Queen's Dragoon Guards foot patrol in Garmsir

So here I was again. At another desolate outpost in the 'war on terror', filming the Welsh Cavalry, otherwise known as the Queens Dragoon Guards (QDG).

Two years ago I was with them on the Iraq-Iran border. This time it was Patrol Base Shamshad, about 15kms south of Garmsir, in lawless Helmand Province.

To the south, east and west of the base, British control slips away into the Afghan sand and a vicious battle is being waged with Taliban insurgents who come up from their bases in nearby Pakistan.

I had come to Shamshad to meet up with 'A' Squadron of the QDG. British infantry, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Welsh Cavalry were gathering to strike into enemy territory the next day.

I was to be with Sgt Maj Rob Mansel. 'Manse' may only stand 5ft 6ins tall, but he's a calm, tough Swansea Jack, a veteran of nine tours of duty in war-zones, and exactly the kind of bloke you'd want in charge if the balloon went up.

As the sun went down, he brought his troop together for orders. "Tomorrow's op," he told them, "is a raid. The village of Mian Poshtay is a known enemy stronghold. Our job is to provide mobile firepower for the infantry and the ANA."

Manse showed me what I'd be travelling in - a Jackal all-terrain armoured vehicle - and introduced me to his crew.

First troop C Squadron Queen's Dragoon Guards
The Welsh Cavalry fought the Taliban in the village of Mian Poshtay

First there was L/Cpl Matthew Hartt, from Whitland. He said he enjoyed the job of driver despite having to sit in the part of the vehicle most exposed to incoming fire.

Then there was L/Cpl Daniel Lewis, 23-years-old and from Llanrhystud. 'Louie' was in charge of the .50 cal gun. "It's a big black ugly beast," he told me. "My advice to anyone coming up against it is to run away." Louie had never fired the thing in anger. And he was keen to.

Manse continued the vehicle tour. I lost count of all the different weapon systems on board.

I spent the next hour getting Louie to modify the wagon for me, creating a protected space down below into which I could dive. Doing things like that - reducing risk - is a good way of managing fear, I've learned.

The next day, March the first, dawned to the sound of 'Allahu Akbar', as the Afghan National Army rose to say their prayers. The Welsh started St David's Day by tucking into British Army ration packs, oiling their weapons and attaching daffodils or leeks to their vehicles. I never did find out where they'd got them from.

'Operation Kapcha Spin Four' then swung into action. The gates of the Patrol Base opened and, armed to the teeth, our convoy pushed out into the desert. We numbered 36 infantry from the Rifles, 90 Afghans and 40 Welsh Cavalry.

I sat side-saddle on top of my wagon, next to Louie and behind Manse and Hartty up front. It was an exhilarating, high speed sortie past camels, Bedouin camps and over sand dunes. As we pressed on, we spotted a B-1 bomber readying itself in the sky above us.

Gareth Jones with L/Cpl Daniel 'Louie' Lewis, Sgt Maj Rob 'Manse' Mansel and L/Cpl Matthew Hartt
The most important thing for young soldiers is to see the troop leader stay composed, panic can spread like wildfire, so I had to show everyone I was in control.
Sgt Maj Rob 'Manse' Mansel

Soon enough, we were poised to enter the village of Mian Poshtay where we knew the Taliban were waiting for us. As we waited at the muster point and with no little irony, I wished Louie a happy St David's Day.

"Don't think it'll be too happy," he replied. "This could turn into an ugly firefight and it's a bit frightening!"

As we pushed forward, I got down into my cubby hole. From now on in I was going to be filming up through the gunner's turret and out through gaps in the side. From here I could already see farmers running from their fields. They knew something nasty was about to kick off.

"We can hear the Taliban singing," Manse shouted to me from the commander's seat. "We listen in to their radio communications and when they start singing we know they are about to attack us. We just don't know when yet."

We found out shortly. We heard several distant crumps. The Taliban had tried to hit the QDG on the hill with rockets. All missed. Our jackals pushed forward slowly.

There was no sign of the enemy down here. The infantry and Afghan National Army had gone ahead, searching the high-walled compounds. Manse trained his binoculars on the village bazaar for signs of movement. Louie's index finger tapped nervously on the trigger of his gun.

The waiting went on for half an hour and then we noticed people returning to their fields. Encouraged by this, the decision was taken to call it a day and retire to an empty school in the village for the night. "The Taliban have retreated south," Manse reckoned. "That's cowardice!"

The convoy got back to the school. It was now mid afternoon. All seemed quiet.

I stood up on top of our vehicle ready to interview Manse. Then there was a distant explosion. "What was that, Manse?" I asked. Before he could answer there was an enormous whoosh followed by an almighty crash.

Manse toppled back into his commander's seat, I ducked into my cubby hole and Louie started shouting "CONTACT" at the top of his voice. All the vehicles' engines burst into life again. An RPG rocket had missed us by 30m, signalling a full-on ambush. The Taliban hadn't retreated. They had been waiting for us all along.

The Welsh cavalry and their jackals
Some attached leaks and daffodils to their vehicles on St David's Day

Another Taliban rocket came in fast and the Afghans replied with deafening automatic fire. But Manse ordered the Welsh to hold back. The priority was to work out where the enemy firing positions were. Not easy when bullets are coming at you and when the insurgents move quickly through rat runs. Composure was a must. When you are under fire you have to resist the temptation to fire back blindly otherwise you risk hitting your own friendly forces.

Manse ordered the jackals to push forward fast through the bazaar, to put the enemy on the back foot. More rounds came our way-rockets and bullets. Louie was screaming "I've got eyes on! Eyes on!" He'd seen the enemy positions. Manse ordered everyone to let rip and the jackals and their heavy machine guns all opened up together. I was filming it all through the sides when I suddenly felt a burning sensation on my legs.

I looked at my trousers and saw they were covered in scorch marks where red-hot spent cartridges were falling down on me from Louie's gun. He was getting very excited - this was the enemy contact he'd been wanting. But every few rounds his weapon would jam. He'd then douse it with lashings of oil which also came cascading down onto me.

"They're up for a fight, aren't they!?" cried Louie.

It wasn't until two British Apache helicopters joined the battle that things were brought to a conclusion. The gunships opened up with their 30mm canons. They made a deadly, unmistakeable sound in the sky. The crackle of firing from Taliban positions finally stopped.

"Happy St David's Day," Louie said through a grin. As we pulled back to the school, we heard over the radio that the Apaches had killed 10 Taliban and destroyed their vehicle.

The wagons were drawn into a ring of steel around the school and Afghan and British soldiers kept eyes out. We were spending the night in the heart of Taliban territory and a revenge attack could follow. As darkness fell, I asked Louie what he thought of his first contact, which had lasted nearly three hours.

"I was very excited and nervous"' he replied. "It was chaos at first, but then your training kicks in and you just concentrate on the job." Does every soldier want a contact, feel better for having one? I asked. "I'd say most do. To test themselves. It's a whole new experience."

Gareth Jones on location in Afganistan
Gareth Jones on location in Afganistan

A good one? "Yes and a bad one at the same time."

I wondered how Manse had remained so calm with bullets coming to within 10m of us. "I remember my first contact," he replied. "The most important thing for young soldiers is to see the troop leader stay composed. Panic can spread like wildfire, so I had to show everyone I was in control. It was fine. Some close calls there though."

In nearly 20 years of working in trouble-spots, I have had some surreal moments and that night was no exception. Before turning in, I looked at the night sky. In the east, a crescent moon and single bright star rose in unison: a beautiful, natural replica of familiar Islamic imagery.

The mission had been a success - we had taken no casualties - but it had taken a huge array of weaponry and men to achieve it. As Manse, Louie, Hartty and the other Welsh Cavalry prepared to head back to base, I noticed a solitary daffodil still fluttering on one of their gun turrets. It had been the strangest, most eventful St David's Day I had ever experienced.



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