Leave’s over – now it’s back to war

MARK NICHOLLS Sergeant Simon Panter today heads back to the battlefields of Afghanistan after spending leave in the UK. Ahead of his return, he told EDP defence writer MARK NICHOLLS of the daily perils that face the Royal Anglians during their deployment.

MARK NICHOLLS

The terrain is arid, dusty and deadly with Taliban fighters likely to spring an ambush from anywhere.

This is the troubled Helmand province in southern Afghanistan where hundreds of soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment face daily fire fights with the enemy.

With that come the tensions of battle and the risk of serious injury or even death.

For one Norfolk soldier, that has been a tragic part of the war to control the insurgents in one of the world's deadliest conflict zones.

Simon Panter, a platoon sergeant with A Company, has been faced with losing two of his men and seeing others seriously injured from his close-knit 30-strong unit in the weeks since they deployed in early April.

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Sgt Panter, 36, from Harleston, has been back in England for two weeks “R&R” but today heads back to Helmand to face an enemy that has vowed to step up its attacks on coalition forces.

The last few days have been a period of rest and relaxation, time to catch up with his family - wife Dionne and sons Thomas, nine, and Benjamin, four, and his parents Ian and Ros in Harleston - and also enjoy some English country air after the intense heat of the Afghan desert.

But for Sgt Panter, it was also time to visit the family of fallen comrades to offer comfort and answer their questions.

That saw him in Manchester with the family of Private Chris Gray, who was killed by a Taliban bullet on April 13, and also attend the funeral of Cpl Darren Bonner last Wednesday, who died when the vehicle he was in triggered a mine at the end of May.

“It wasn't that I had to go,” he said, “but I felt it was something I wanted to do. Chris was one of my boys. He was 19.

“It was quite emotional, the family had a few questions to ask and I answered them as best as I could from being there and treating him when he was shot.”

After arriving in Camp Bastion, A Company headed to Now Zad, the most northerly town held by the coalition in Helmand.

“We had a period of familiarisation to get us used to the town and then we started doing operations to oust the Taliban,” said Sgt Panter.

“We had our first major contact on Friday, April 13, where Chris Gray was killed. Billy Moore was also wounded and Craig Fisher from Diss got shot in the arm on that day. But we did kill 22 Taliban.

“At the height of the contact we were getting constantly fired on. I did not realise it at the time, I was dealing with Chris, but I did feel the presence of something passing by pretty close.

“The fighting generally has been up close and personal, very fierce. Initially when we went on patrol it was a bit tense but then you just get on with the job.”

Now Zad has since become Cop Gray - Combat Outpost Gray - after their fallen comrade.

The temperature in Helmand now tops 100 degrees and while there are areas of greenery, much of the land is desert.

Living conditions in abandoned buildings are austere in Now Zad for the Anglians who sourced their water from a borehole and survived on ration packs.

Now Zad is a ghost town but also dangerous with many alleys and the risk of ambush from a Taliban force that is now made up of many foreign fighters.

The unit was also involved in Op Silicon in a push up the Sangin valley which killed more than 100 Taliban.

There have also been courageous acts in the fighting, most notably where Oliver Ruecker from Norfolk rescued a severely injured comrade from a blazing vehicle and could receive the Victoria Cross for his valour.

But Sgt Panter added: “We do not think of fearless acts, we just get on with doing what we are trained to do. Sometimes we go out on foot, carrying 80-100 lbs of equipment, other times in a Viking armoured vehicle and sometimes by air in the Chinook with Apache escorts.”

And they have British and US warplanes overhead to assist.

The operations are significantly different to the last time the 1st Battalion - known as The Vikings - were in Afghanistan in 2002 as peacekeepers in Kabul, or to their service in Iraq two years ago.

Sgt Panter says they are the most intense operations the battalion has carried out for some years. Yet morale remains good.

“There have been high points and low points, but generally it is good and people are doing the job they want to do; this is real soldiering, not just an exercise,” he said.

More recently the Vikings have been conducting Op Lastay Kulang in the Upper Sangin Valley alongside Afghan National Security Forces, Danish, Estonian and US forces, advancing through villages and towns to clear the area of Taliban throughout the day and night.

Private Terry Croft, from Yarmouth, said: “Our job was to clear the village of Putay of Taliban who we knew were waiting for us somewhere in the village. It was physically demanding. We patrolled throughout the day but as soon as we were on the ground, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and small arms fire hit us.”

Despite resistance, A and B Companies moved in to the villages of Putay and Lwarmalazi, have now consolidated their positions and begun to liaise with local tribal elders.

Vikings' commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart Carver said: “Over the past two months, the soldiers of the 1 Royal Anglian Battlegroup have proven their ability in combat against a vicious and determined enemy and consistently come out on top.”­