Royal Anglians “supremely prepared” for Afghan deployment in March

Soldiers from East Anglia are weeks away from being pitched into the complex conflict in Afghanistan – and their commander says they are 'supremely well prepared' for the challenge.

Troops from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment are beginning a fortnight's leave with their families before departing for the war-ravaged country in March, where they will remain until October.

Having completed their final pre-deployment exercises on Salisbury Plain, they have refined their fighting skills and cultural awareness, while rehearsing an increasingly-important support role.

The battalion, which recruits from Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex, will be stationed in the Nad-e-Ali district of Helmand province, regarded as a shining example of progress during a crucial transitional period.

In previous tours, the Vikings were on the frontline of the battle against the Taliban, suffering the loss of nine men in 2007 and five in 2009/10.

This time, although the dangers of insurgents and improvised bombs remain, their mission is more focused on helping the Afghan army and police forces take back the responsibility for protecting their own people.

The Vikings' commanding officer, Lt Col Mick Aston, said his soldiers were ready for the new challenge.

Most Read

'Everybody is just really keen to get out there and start the mission,' he said. 'There is an aspect of apprehension, which is natural, but we are confident and supremely well prepared.

'Nad-e-Ali is one of the districts of Helmand which is held up as an example of progress. It is a reflection of the willingness and capability of the Afghans to take the lead. It is led by a very capable and charismatic district governor who is well supported by the Afghan army and police.

'It is still a dangerous place, and while there has certainly been some real headway in transition there is still an active, but suppressed, insurgency that is trying to undermine what the government is trying to achieve out there.

'We need to counter those threats and we have done that through the superb training and the world class people and equipment that we have available. It makes me supremely confident in the ability of the soldiers to take the mission forward.'

Lt Col Aston said he had visited Nad-e-Ali last month, and seen encouraging signs for the region's future.

'Some of our soldiers who have not been there since 2010 will be staggered at how capable and willing the Afghan forces are,' he said.

'We are moving from a counter-insurgency model to one of security assistance, where we increasingly take a step back and let the Afghan forces take the lead.

'We benefit from our experience in previous tours but we are not held hostage to those experiences. We can't be. We have got to be attuned to the situation we face. That's where all the training comes in. We cannot go out and do the same as last time, as that's just not relevant. The situation has moved on, and in the right direction, which is indicated in every aspect of life out there.'

Lt Col Aston said his soldiers would spend much of their time based in Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) from where they will organise patrols, keep watch on sentry duty and maintain their training, fitness and equipment.

'There will also be a significant amount of time spent mixing with the Afghan soldiers, setting an example,' he said. 'It will certainly be busy.'

Among the Vikings soldiers preparing for deployment are L/Cpl Andrew Olby, 22, from Holt, who will be making his second tour of Afghanistan.

'I'm looking forward to getting back into it and getting out there,' he said. 'The experience counts for something, but we have had to start from ground zero with the training.'

Now second in command of his section, L/Cpl Olby said his abiding memory of his previous tour was the bond between his comrades.

'You are out there living together and working together the whole time,' he said. 'Whatever challenges come across, you hit them together. You work through whatever happens. When you get back home, you miss that bond with everybody. You only look back on the good memories, so that's why I'm looking forward to going back again.'

Pte Toby Lawrence, 22, from Lopham Road in East Harling, will be making his first active tour of duty.

'I am a little bit nervous, but mainly excited,' he said. 'We've been training for so long, and now I am looking forward to doing the job for real. My girlfriend is worried, but I've just told her everything we're doing, and that we'll be alright.'

The Royal Anglians will be joined in Afghanistan by soldiers from the Light Dragoons, based in Swanton Morley, near Dereham, who are due to be deployed in April.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter