Queen honours the heroes of Helmand

Sarah Brealey Six months have passed since the soldiers of the 1st battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment returned from arguably the most intensive combat involving British troops since 1944.

Sarah Brealey

Six months have passed since the soldiers of the 1st battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment returned from arguably the most intensive combat involving British troops since 1944.

But the memory of the pivotal tour of Helmand in Afghanistan, which has been hailed as a turning point in the conflict with the Taliban, is fresh in the minds of those who served.

Yesterday, three of the men - and one who did not make it home but whose outstanding gallantry has left an indel-ible mark - were honoured by the Queen at an emotional investiture ceremony.

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Lt Col Stuart Carver, commanding officer of the 1st battalion, received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for the way he led his troops.

He was joined by Cpl Robert "Billy" Moore, of Southend in Essex, and Major Dominic Biddick, of Leicester, both of whom received the Military Cross (MC).

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The fourth Helmand hero to be honoured was Capt David Hicks, who died in combat.

Capt Hicks's parents, Alun and Leslie, and his girlfriend Nicola Billen were at the palace to receive the honour on his behalf in a poignant, private ceremony.

Last night, Lt Col Carver told the EDP of a "proud and emotional" day, during which their minds were never far from the families of the nine 1st battalion sol-diers who died during the bloody tour.

He said; "It was an emotional day and a special occasion. It's always tinged with a little bit of sadness. Six months have passed, but with Mr and Mrs Hicks there you couldn't help thinking about the nine guys that didn't make it back. That was in the back of our minds."

He added: "It was a proud day. Personally I see the award very much as recognition of the whole battalion's efforts. You cannot give a medal to all 700 members of the battalion, but my medal is to recognise them all.

"I'm immensely proud of them all. That feeling hasn't diminished over time. The real test of our work will come this summer. I look back and see that we made a huge difference to the overall campaign. I'm not saying we won it, but we changed the mindset from being defensive to taking the fight to the Taliban."

Lt Col Carver was delighted that the presentations were made by the Queen, who is served with great pride by the soldiers. He said: "The Queen is the head of the armed forces and our ultimate boss. She has a genuine soft spot for the people in the forces and what they do.

"The government gives us our day-to-day orders, but our employer is the Queen, so it was like being called in to see the boss."

He added: "The Queen had obviously heard of us and heard that we had had a particularly tough tour, what with the conditions and the number of casualties.

"She said we had a high reputation and asked how the casualties from the tour were getting on."

Lt Col Carver said Capt Hicks's family was given a private tour of the palace after a ceremony that was conducted out of the public eye, and added: "I think they valued the occasion."

The six-month tour, which began in April 2007, was a relentless time of combat that was physically and mentally taxing for the members of the 1st battalion, known as the Vikings.

It featured many days of close-quarter skirmishing with Taliban fighters as the battalion sought to switch the overall strategy from defensive to offensive.

While the results were tangible as they pushed back the Taliban and brought some normality back to towns such as Sangin, the human cost was high.

Nine soldiers died, 57 were wounded in battle and 78 suffered non-battle illness and injury directly.

A number of other 1st battalion soldiers, who have their own extraordinary stories to tell, will receive their decorations on a later date.

One of the highest profile incidents saw L/Cpl Oliver "Teddy" Ruecker rescue his injured comrade Cpl Dean Bailey from a burning vehicle under intense enemy fire after a routine patrol descended into chaos under ambush.

With vehicles burning around him, L/Cpl Ruecker fled the scene, only to confront a Taliban face to face in an alley. He emptied his pistol into the enemy and then realised that Cpl Bailey was unconscious in the burning vehicle.

The 21-year-old from Thetford, who received a Military Cross for his efforts, returned to pull his friend to safety.

Sgt Simon Panter, from Harleston, was mentioned in dispatches for his overall contribution to the campaign.

L/Cpl Levi Ashby, 21, from Wells, also received an MC after finding himself under attack in open ground.

A rocket-propelled grenade had left five of his close comrades injured. It was down to him to provide covering fire from his exposed position to enable the casualties to be moved to safety.

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