EXCLUSIVE: South Yorkshire soldiers who get the job done

Pte Simon Akunda left LCpl Nick Clark right. s yorks lads interviewed in 3 Yorks feature. All are at Patrol Base Durai.
Pte Simon Akunda left LCpl Nick Clark right. s yorks lads interviewed in 3 Yorks feature. All are at Patrol Base Durai.

Star reporter Richard Marsden is with Third Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment in Afghanistan, who have had a tough tour...

DEATHS of six soldiers when their armoured vehicle was blown up by a Taliban bomb cast a shadow over 3 Yorks’ deployment in Afghanistan.

But nearly six months on from the tragedy at the very start of the tour, the battalion – formerly the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment - has scored major successes against the insurgency.

Soldiers from the battalion’s Corunna Company, many of whom are from Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham, are tasked with carrying out a range specialist operations, including providing security to searches and raids.

Sgt Stewart Watts, aged 29, who grew up in South Anston but is moving in with girlfriend Gina Barratt and daughter Olivia, 18 months, in Gleadless, Sheffield, said: “At the start, it looked like it would be a tough tour. A couple of us witnessed the vehicle explosion. We were in the wagon behind.

“Everyone dealt with it in their own ways and we were on operations within two days. We were not forgetting the lads but we had to be strong and had a job to do.”

Private Michael Bainbridge, aged 24, from Arbourthorne, Sheffield, added: “Since the difficult start, we have come on leaps and bounds.”

Heading home in September will bring a fresh challenge for Michael – he has been put forward for promotion to Lance Corporal and is starting a six-week course. Meanwhile, Pte Ryan Mills, of Herringthorpe, Rotherham, is looking forward to seeing his newborn son on his return to the UK.

His partner Katie Gavin is due to give birth on August 17.

Ryan said: “We have a little boy called Rylam, aged three and a half. Our second child will be a little boy, too, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him, although I can’t return for the birth because it is near the end of the tour.”

Pte Adam Lythall, from Woodthorpe and a member of 3 Yorks’ headquarters company but attached to Corunna Company, plans to recover from the searing Helmand temperatures by heading somewhere cold.

“I’m planning to go to Greenland with my wife Michaela and daughter, Elle-Mae, who is seven,” he said.

Dad-of-three Corporal Chris Tompkins, aged 30, from Lowedges, told of the challenges faced by soldiers from the battalion.

Experienced soldier Chris, who has previously been posted to Iraq three times, said: “The enemy out here are ruthless. It’s completely different from Iraq, where I was deployed to Al Amara.

“We had a good relationship with the locals and as long as we didn’t take our Warrior armoured vehicles into the town, the insurgents left us alone.

“This is my first tour of Afghanistan and on our first patrol we found an improvised explosive device.

“I saw plastic on the ground which shouldn’t have been there and discovered a pressure pad used to trigger the detonator.”

Blades fan Chris added: “Two days later, we had rocket propelled grenades aimed at us, which landed as close as 10 metres. It was a lively start to the tour and gave me a quick reality check.”

In another incident which took ‘a good few hours’, Corunna Company was providing firepower to help a reconnaissance mission.

Chris added: “We were out for two days and on the first day, a mortar landed within 10 metres of us.

“Vehicles I have been travelling in have been hit by IEDs though nobody inside has been seriously hurt.”

Cpl Jamie Oldham, 24, from Maltby, said: “Every day we keep seeing IEDs.”

On one operation to the Gereshk area of Helmand, two of the eight vehicles from 3 Yorks were damaged by IEDs and had to be recovered, Jamie said.

LCpl Nick Clark, aged 21, from Richmond, Sheffield, who has been in the Army four-and-a-half years and who was previously in Afghanistan in 2009, told how facing ‘small arms’ fire and IEDs were ‘daily occurrences’.

He said: “In one incident, we were providing over watch of ground for other troops and grenades started landing. We had 14 RPGs in quick succession.”

Pte Simon Akunda, 29, a married father of one from Fir Vale, Sheffield, added: “The Taliban watch us all the time but we are watching them too and strike back. It has been a long tour and I am ready to go back to my wife Betty and son Allan, who is two.”

In charge of keeping up morale is Colour Sergeant Stewart Kitridge, 36, who looks after stores and equipment, and likens his role to being ‘the father of 200 people’ in the base.

The Sheffield United season ticket holder also lays on regular entertainment which has included a barbecue for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and running a tuck shop.

But Stewart, who lives in Parson Cross with wife Alexis and teenage sons Lewis, 17, and Liam, 14, has recently received a treat himself.

He said: “When it was my birthday, my wife surprised me. She sent a cake which melted but she had also managed to get two signed Sheffield United shirts which were great reminders of home!”

CUTTING THE EFFECT OF TALIBAN FIGHTERS...

South Yorkshire soldiers from 3 Yorks have scored major successes against the Taliban, but just a week after they took over at Patrol Base Durai in March, Corunna Company of Third Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment had six soldiers killed when their Warrior armoured vehicle hit a roadside bomb.

The company, commanded by Major Ed Colver from Sheffield, and which has the majority of its soldiers from South Yorkshire, is stationed at a remote location in the desert of eastern Helmand.

From there, its soldiers carry out routine security patrols and are sent on missions all over the province to help specific operations. With just a month of the tour left to go, Corunna Company’s successes have included:

n discovering the largest amounts of Taliban explosives seized so far in 2012.

n finding bomb factories containing 20 improvised explosive devices plus further bomb parts.

n taking out a four-strong Taliban mortar team dramatically-reducing the number of attacks by insurgents in the area as a result.

n arresting a mid-level Taliban commander after he was stopped at a checkpoint.

Patrols can last as long as 17 hours, with the Warriors going out in pairs each capable of carrying up to nine soldiers. At checkpoints set up by the soldiers, vehicles are given a once-over to ensure they are not carrying anything suspicious and people are asked if they have heard about local Taliban activity.

Men of fighting age have their photo taken and checked against a database of suspected insurgents.

Major Colver, 35, a former pupil at Westbourne School, Broomhill, before going to Rugby School and Newcastle University, praised his company’s efforts.

Other senior members of the company are also from South Yorkshire, including its two Sergeant Majors, Eric Whitehouse, aged 34, from Wombwell, Barnsley, and Paul Hutty, from Hellaby, Rotherham.

Major Colver, a Sheffield Wednesday fan whose parents and two brothers still live in Sheffield, said: “It was a very sad and difficult start to the tour. The loss of the six heroes hit the company really hard.”

Major Colver, who is married to Lisa with whom he has two children, son Hugo and daughter Philippa, said his company had been ‘quite simply remarkable’ in coping after the tragedy.

The deaths of the six soldiers, who were from West Yorkshire and Warrington, was the biggest single loss of life in Afghanistan since the UK’s deployment there.

Major Colver, who grew up near Stannington, said: “The soldiers’ resolve and courage to get back out on the ground did not let a terrible event affect the aims we are trying to achieve, to make the area safer for civilians.”

Describing the company’s current work, he said: “The team is now on 24-hours notice to move to where an operation is taking place.

“We provide support for operations using the Warrior vehicles which can go off-road and have great firepower, giving the Taliban quite a scare.”

Operations have included being part of a 300-strong international team raiding a Shele Kalay, an Afghan village suspected of being used as a bomb factory.

A unit of 3 Yorks troops including Sgt Stewart Watts, from Sheffield, and Cpl Lee Marshall, from Barnsley, found 300 kilogrammes of explosive at the village – the largest discovery in Helmand in 2012.

Major Colver said his soldiers’ successes, particularly in seizing the explosives in an area riddled with bombs, would have taken ‘a large amount of courage’.

OPERATIONS IN EAST HELMAND

SOLDIERS from Third Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment are spread at locations across Helmand.

Members of 3 Yorks’ Burma Company are based at Nahr-e Saraj, providing vital services.

Sgt Mark Cartwright, from Maltby, who manages battalion communications, said: “My role is to make sure everyone is using the correct frequencies so they can keep in touch on the ground.”

But the 30-year-old, who has a one-month-old baby Sophie with wife Amy, added: “I have been out earlier in the tour on a vehicle patrol. It involved four or five days in the desert to the north. We didn’t come under attack but the idea was to make a show of strength.

“It’s difficult being here when you have a new baby but I was allowed home for a week after Sophie was born.”

Third Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment is being helped by a contingent of Territorial Army soldiers from the regiment’s fourth battalion.

Among them is Lance Corporal Alex Wilson, from Chapeltown, Sheffield.

LCpl Wilson, aged 22 and who graduated from Hull University last year, said: “I volunteered to go on tour because it’s the job I trained for. I joined the TA aged 17 having been in the Air Cadets at Hillsborough.

“I was apprehensive, partly because of the six members of 3 Yorks killed in the vehicle explosion just before I was deployed in April but I felt I had something to live up to. When I arrived it looked like it was going to get quite dangerous. One of the vehicles partially detonated a bomb, then we were in a convoy and the front vehicle was hit with by a bomb.”

LCpl Wilson added: “More recently, we were on foot patrol and found an IED hidden in earth. We had to stay for 13 hours until the bomb had been made safe. We were shattered.

LCpl Wilson’s Platoon Sergeant, Sean Pears, 30, from Oakwell, Barnsley, said: “It is hard work in the heat with the amount of armour and equipment the lads have to carry. The climate is our second biggest problem to the insurgent threat.”

Sgt Pears added: “On this tour, it’s been quieter than my last time in Afghanistan in 2009, when we frequently had contact with the enemy almost every day.”