Remembrance Sunday approaches - but battle goes on for many

Third Battalion The Rifles'Homecoming parade in Edinburgh, where the battalion was the first English unit to be given the freedom of the Scottish capital, after return from six month deployment in Afghanistan.
Third Battalion The Rifles'Homecoming parade in Edinburgh, where the battalion was the first English unit to be given the freedom of the Scottish capital, after return from six month deployment in Afghanistan.

As Remembrance Sunday approaches thoughts focus on the sacrifices of armed forces over the years - but for current South Yorkshire soldiers the harsh reality of conflict has been an everyday fact of life for the last six months.

Richard Marsden spoke to South Yorkshire troops who have just returned from Afghanistan...

IN TEMPERATURES of up to 50C and at constant risk of coming under enemy fire from bullets and rocket propelled grenades, troops were out on long patrols for up to 24 hours at a time.

It was a tough experience for young South Yorkshire soldier Daniel Armitage on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan.

The 20-year-old, of Third Battalion The Rifles, has spent the last few months in a small base with just a few dozen other British soldiers, mentoring members of the Afghan police force.

Rifleman Armitage was based at Checkpoint Qudrat, in the Nad-e Ali area of Helmand.

Describing the experience, he said: “The downside was the amount of contacts we had with the enemy. Constantly coming under fire was quite difficult. The checkpoint itself was attacked more days than not, from small arms and underslung grenade launchers.

“When patrolling outside, we would be out for up to 24 hours at a time, sometimes having to watch a position overnight.

“There were quite a few 12-hour patrols.

“We were contacted by a rocket-propelled grenade on a foot patrol, which was worrying although it missed by quite some way.

“At first, we didn’t know what it was - there was just this big bang. We took cover and were safe.”

Rfn Armitage, from Kendray, Barnsley, said one of the main things that got himself and other young troops through the experience was the close bond they developed over the deployment.

He said: “Thankfully I had the chance to work with really good lads. If I had the choice, I wouldn’t want to go back there, being away from friends and family in really hard conditions, but it’s my job.

“The morale was brilliant and it was good to see things changing for the better. The Afghans we were working with were coming on well.”

Rfn Armitage said Remembrance Sunday is ‘massively important’ - even more so as soldiers are out making sacrifices for their country in the present day.

He said: “Although our experience of war is different from those who fought in the world wars, it makes you think what people went through years ago.

“Everyone should mark the occasion.”

Rfn Armitage was part of C Company, one of three companies in the 500-strong deployment by 3 Rifles.

Meanwhile, at the remote Lashkar Gah Durai base, was B Company, whose members included a small South Yorkshire contingent.

Among them were Riflemen Neil Le Masurier, from Wosbrough, and Luke Pawson, from Doncaster.

Rfn Le Masurier, whose older brother, Ryan, is also a member of 3 Rifles, told how his company was sent ‘all over’ Helmand to provide security for different operations.

Also on his first deployment, he said: “It was a good tour but the heat was really hard to deal with, it’s ridiculous to be honest.

“We could be out on operations away from our base for up to three weeks at a time. We would be out providing security patrols for operations where other troops were building checkpoints or clearing roads.

“We would be searching compounds to make sure there were no weapons.”

Rfn Le Masurier said that finds of improvised explosives were commonplace and some vehicles were damaged.

There were also close shaves from stray bullets when in firefights with insurgents - but his unit was unscathed.

“I feel very proud to have completed the tour and served my country,” he said.

As well as the young troops, more experienced campaigners were also on the tour, including Warrant Officer II Paul Kelly, also from Worsbrough.

The 39-year-old has been a soldier for 20 years and been on previous tours of duty in Northern ireland, Bosnia and Iraq.

He was also in Afghanistan with 3 Rifles in 2009-10, when the battalion paid a heavy price having the highest number of soldiers killed out of any unit during the six-year Helmand campaign.

WOII Kelly, married to Donna with whom he has three children, said: “My role in Afghanistan was different compared with on the previous tour, when I was a company Serjeant Major in Sangin, one of the toughest areas.

“This time, I was looking after logistics for the entire battalion, with the rear party based at Camp Tombstone, which is next to Camp Bastion.

“I was in charge of supplying everything from food and kit to ammunition to troops on the ground. The aim was to make sure the lives of troops out on the ground were as comfortable as possible.

“What was clear was how much the whole situation had changed, compared with the previous tour, when scraps with the Taliban were quite frequent.

“The environment has calmed down and the role has changed to mentoring Afghan security forces to look after the area for themselves.”

WOII Kelly said he will be probably be observing Remembrance Sunday at the Doncaster service, because of soldiers from the area killed on previous tours.

The battalion lost Rifleman Liam Maughan, aged 18, from Hatfield, in 2010, and soldiers from just over the border into West Yorkshire.

Sheffield battalion member, Rifleman Ross Burkinshaw, 26, who has been sponsored by the Army to be a professional boxer and was not on the tour, paid tribute to his comrades’ work.

He said: “It’s some effort to be out there and do the job in very difficult circumstances. As Remembrance Sunday is coming up, people need to get behind the troops.

“Remembrance Day is not only about the world wars - there are troops out there putting their lives on the line every day.”

n EFFORTS of soldiers from Third Battalion The Rifles were praised by their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Maconochie.

The battalion returned from Afghanistan only last month and members were handed their medals after a parade in Edinburgh, where the unit is based.

The battalion, one of the main Army units to recruit from South Yorkshire, was also the first English military unit to receive the freedom of the Scottish capital.

Lt Col Maconochie said that apart from one officer who was killed, there were no soldiers who suffered life changing injuries such as amputations, and only 10 who were hurt at all.