Our War: Rescue mission in a dust storm

Monday 20 August 2012, 10:30

Jonathan Singh Jonathan Singh

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My four tours of duty in Afghanistan provided some of the best and worst experiences of my life, often only minutes apart.

Despite the years of training and experience nothing can prepare you for the realities of modern warfare: the huge logistic support involved, the proximity to death or serious injury and, above all, the way extreme violence becomes mundane.

The environment of Afghanistan, both physical and human, was always a source of a strange mix of wonder and dread.

From a physical point of view the variation between extreme cold in the winter and extreme heat in the summer made flying in an unpressurised, un-air conditioned cockpit interesting.

Added to this was the helicopter pilot's nemesis: the Afghan dust.

Dust storms, sometimes lasting days, would make flying almost impossible as the visibility was reduced to a few hundred metres, akin to driving down the motorway in thick fog.

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Watch the trailer for series two of Our War

The events of episode one of Our War took place during such weather.

My crew and I were on duty as the Immediate Response Team (IRT) who fly the Chinook with a team of medics and soldiers in the back.

It was our job to get to seriously injured casualties, Nato, Afghan or civilian, as quickly as possible so the medical team could get to work providing often lifesaving care.

When a call came through we would run to the aircraft and 'scramble' like Battle of Britain pilots in WWII.

The first information we got would include the nature of the injuries sustained. In the case of Captain Griffiths it was the most serious 'Category A', or 'Cat Alpha' in military parlance.

When faced with the prospect of a Nato soldier seriously injured on the battlefield the immediate instinct of all the members of the IRT, air crew, doctors and soldiers is to get airborne and go as quickly as possible.

Despite the dust storm and poor visibility and the reservations of the headquarters officers I was immediately clear that my crew was going to attempt a rescue mission.

How, I hadn't quite worked out, but I began to form a plan as we raced to the aircraft.

Flying multi-crew aircraft is all about trust. When I made my decision to give it a go I knew my crew trusted me to make the right call and I trusted them to tell me if I was being an idiot.

The headquarters quickly relented, I think because as a four-man helicopter crew we were united in our instant confidence that we could attempt a mission.

Before we took off I briefed the crew on the plan I had formulated over the radio with the pilot of the Apache gunship Steve Lunn.

We decided to fly the Apache and the Chinook in close formation. The Apache had Forward Looking Infrared - superior visual equipment which meant their crew could see further through the dust.

In the Chinook we couldn't see far enough in those conditions to fly alone. We would stay close on the Apache's tail, entirely dependent on it to navigate us both through the storm.

We could not lose it or we would both have had to climb several thousand feet to keep clear of areas of high ground and to be out of range of most types of enemy fire.

It would then have been almost impossible to locate the troops given the thickness of the dust and our only option would have been to return to the airfield at Camp Bastion with the help of Air Traffic Control radar, leaving the troops on the ground to fend for themselves.

The risk for the Apache was that with less armour than the Chinook it would be a much easier target to shoot down.

Normally it would stay up at around 1,000ft as an 'eye in the sky' instead of flying low and slow as we planned.

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Jonathan Singh's daring helicopter mission

Everyone had an opportunity to say they weren't happy to go, in which case I would have had to convince them otherwise or scrub the mission.

No one voiced any concerns although I'm certain everyone harboured some doubt as to whether we were doing the right thing.

Strangely at the time I felt no such reservations. It was only later that I would be racked with self-doubt, questioning whether I had taken unnecessary risks and worse... whether I had enjoyed the danger a little too much.

I remember feeling hyper-alert but calm and clear headed right through the mission. I wasn't scared at all as I was purely focused on the task in hand.

For me that state of mind was normal flying in Afghanistan. The fear and emotional release would come months later while back in the UK.

As you see unfold in the programme, flying the mission was broken into a series of tasks: finding the troops in the dust, avoiding the enemy, landing, taking off again and finally returning and landing back at the airfield.

As soon as each stage was completed I focused on the next. When we landed back at Bastion we were elated, we thought we had saved a soldier's life.

I was overwhelmed by the collective skill and composure of my crew, the Apache crew and the medical team in the back who without hesitation had trusted their lives to our judgement.

Tragically both Captain Griffiths, who we rescued during the dust storm, and Kingsman Deady, who we'd flown back to Bastion 24 hours earlier, were to later die of their injuries in a British hospital.

We never knew any of the soldiers we picked up personally. I think it would have been even harder to be objective in analysing the risks of a mission if we had.

When informed that the two soldiers had passed away (I still did not know their names and wouldn't find out till this series was made) it was a devastating blow. But I had to put it to the back of my mind... sadly there were always more casualties that needed rescuing and I wanted to stay focused.

Looking back I feel a deep sadness that we weren't able to save their lives but I hope the families can take comfort in knowing that a lot of people, of all ranks and backgrounds, gave their utmost to try and save the lives of their loved ones.

I hope they can take some comfort that they were able to see their family member before he passed away.

Sadly the events of that day on the IRT reflects the war in Afghanistan in microcosm for me: A huge effort in the face of an incredibly hostile environment against an unseen, vicious enemy where success and failure hang in the balance.

Jonathan Singh is a former RAF pilot who appears in Our War. Jonathan has since left the RAF and is now a full-time student.

Our War is on Monday, 20 August at 9pm on BBC Three. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Listen to an audio blog with Our War executive producer Colin Barr about the making of the programme.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I was Jon's senior crewman during the sorties featured and want to say a couple of things;
    Jon talks about trust and this was paramount, it is no exaggeration to say I and everyone else trusted him with our lives.
    Jon is far too modest to blow his own trumpet so I will; excellent pilot, inspirational leader and all round top bloke.
    Finally I know I speak for everyone when I say that everything we did was done with the casualties in mind and the fact that they did not make it will stay with me forever.
    RIP Captain Andrew Griffiths and Kingsman Darren Deady.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    That was one of the most powerful things I've ever watched....

    Respect to you, your crew and your Force for going out there, day in and day out and giving hope to our injured in the darkest of hours....

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I know the family of both soldiers and trust me your actions in getting them home and allowing them to say goodbye meant so much despite the tragic outcome. Flying through that sandstorm was heroic and they are so grateful that Andy was given that chance to survive. If you read this Fl Lt Singh - thank you and your crew so much for making that trip.

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    Comment number 4.

    Jon (and indeed all the characters in this excellent film),
    Fantastic job, no doubt about it. Getting the job done when everything is stacked against you (all) is what makes the British servicemen so special. You should be very proud of what you did and feel no shame for enjoying doing it; military flying is all about the 'rush', after all.

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    Comment number 5.

    As an ex-serviceman (veteran) i am so proud of the servicemen serving in Afghanistan.To see they stick together and helping wonded servicemen and carry on their work.You guys/gals are a credit to our country.Thank you.No matter what we are here for you and pray your safe return.........Nick Zaver Ceo (Help for veterans)

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    Comment number 6.

    Having watched the first episode of 'Our War' and read Jonathan Singh's blog I am once again moved and extremely proud of all that our armed services are doing and have done on operation around the world.

    I think what strikes me most is the fact that these men and women really are true heroes and a real inspiration to the country and society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Absolute respect. This is why I am proud to be British. We have the best and most selfless armed forces in the world. Thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I have just watched the programme on BBC 3 - it made me angry and almost unbearabley sad by the end. How many more ill-conceived, ill-thought out and poorly suppoprted missions must our brave soldiers endure in this nasty country? The mission was essentially 'go out and make yourselves targets, go out without Appache air support, go into compounds you do not know are safe etc etc. This sort of mission simply re-enacts all that was bad and wasteful in WW1. Where were the Appaches to take out the 'minibuses' full of Taliban, where was the nightime drone recon to show where the enemy was? Wickedly wasteful, negligent, infuriating and upsetting - senior officers should be dismissed and prosecuted for gross negligence.

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    Comment number 9.

    jonathan you are a top bloke thanke you all .

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Such a moving documentary! What amazing young men. I will never forget what they do for us!! So proud of everyone in our armed forces.. God bless u all xxx

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The words of Siegfried Sassoon have never been more poignant or relevant. Nearly 100 years since this verse was written, and here we are again.

    To Any Dead Officer

    Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you'd say,
    Because I'd like to know that you're all right.
    Tell me, have you found everlasting day,
    Or been sucked in by everlasting night?
    For when I shut my eyes your face shows pain;
    I hear you make some cheery old remark--
    I can rebuild you in my brain,
    Though you've gone out patrolling in the dark.

    You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
    Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
    Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
    Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
    That's all washed out now. You're beyond the wire:
    No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
    You've finished with machine-gun fire--
    Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.

    Somehow I always thought you'd get done in,
    Because you were so desperate keen to live:
    You were all out to try and save your skin,
    Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
    You joked at shells and talked the usual "shop,"
    Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
    With "Jesus Christ! when _will_ it stop?
    Three years... It's hell unless we break their line."

    So when they told me you'd been left for dead
    I wouldn't believe them, feeling it _must_ be true.
    Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
    "Wounded and missing"--(That's the thing to do
    When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
    With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
    Moaning for water till they know
    It's night, and then it's not worth while to wake!)

    * * * * *

    Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
    And tell Him that our Politicians swear
    They won't give in till Prussian Rule's been trod
    Under the Heel of England... Are you there? ...
    Yes ... and the War won't end for at least two years;
    But we've got stacks of men... I'm blind with tears,
    Staring into the dark. Cheero!
    I wish they'd killed you in a decent show.

    Siegfried Sassoon (circa 1918)

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I can't even imagine the thoughts of any of these men knowing that there's a real chance of dying. Iv'e just watched the most emotional program ever, i'm eternally in there gratitude for protecting me and my family and to all you brave soldiers THANK YOU and to all the families who have lost i live in hope that i never feel your grief.
    Eternally in your gratitude...........Paul

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    Comment number 13.

    Jonathan, hats off to you and your crew. You got Andy and Darren out. You didn't have to fly the mission to get Griff but you did. Conditions are rarely favourably, but those dust storms are a different kettle of fish. Well done mate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Very powerful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Just watched this programme and I am in awe of our guys and the work they do.I was so moved by the programme, and at the end.The brigadiers words were clearly painful for him. The amount of effort put in to saving the lives of our injured guys is inspiring, but It is sad for me to see our servicemen dying like this.Why do so many of our guys have to loose there lives.How do politicans sleep at night knowing they are sending some of our guys to die?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    watched ourwar tonight what true British heroes GOD BLESS

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Im an ex gunner, a number of things greatly consern me about this film. Not the heroic boys and girls particularly that pilot Sing. How can the govenment be so under resoursng them. Where was the air support to take out the enemy when they initialy arrived on bikes and mini buses? Where was the air and artillery support in the initial fire fights? (1 A10 the job would have been done in seconds). How did a patrol get lost, everyone has gps these days. Why cant the controller at base see them in real time from satalite or plane infra red. Why does the patrol not have real time infrared of the area day and night. Why doesnt the controlled have live feed and position of all the mens GPS location. Why does the patrol not have live heads up mapping and planned route not superimposed on there night sight. I could go on and on, its seems our boys are fighting with there hands tided. This tech was about when I was in, the US has it, maybe our men and women arent worth as much to the powers that be. Scandleless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    It would do a disservice to the memory of 2 very brave men to question the circumstances of their sacrifice. The crux of the matter is that we pass comment from the safety of our homes and have little or no idea of the conditions they endure. I only know that it makes me eternally grateful that I'm not there and I have nothing but the utmost admiration for those who are there, who sacrifice everything for us, without question or protest.
    "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat".
    God bless you all. You have our deepest admiration.
    Jonathan Singh - You displayed everything I could ever aspire to. I hope your nightmares end and you find peace in the knowledge that you did everything humanly possible for your fellow man. You have made a huge impact on my life and you're a complete stranger. Regards and best wishes for your future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    And I thought XMG and the Falklands were tough ! glad to see our lads have still got it and are still the best in the world. Top commitment from the chinook and apache crews aswell, huge respect to you all from an old soldier . you guys are morale in a tin. May God watch over you and lady luck smile on you. cheers with a few beers and a few tears

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Thank you to all of you who have commented, and those who were moved by the programme.
    Despite your kinds words, and please bear in mind I write as a private citizen not a representative of HM forces, I have to disagree that we were in any way "heroes". To me, people who fight wars are not heroes, although many, mainly soldiers on the ground, carry out acts of extreme bravery. For me the heroes of this world are those that take a stand against war, and all it entails, and work towards making the world a more peaceful place.

    Worldweary1, timtigger, and bigboy; I agree that we need to critique the actions that are carried out in our name, but to disparage senior officers and politicians is a tad simplistic. War is a confusing, messy business, and no amount of resources will prevent tragic events occuring. In my experience, everyone, at every level, thought they were doing the right thing. History will probably judge that we were ALL wrong, but that history is still a long way from being written. In Afghanistan in particular military action alone cannot, and will not, deliver the Afghan people from their suffering. It's also important to remember that every British serviceman or woman who served, or is currently serving in Afghanistan, volunteered to do the job they do. The support and good will of the British people means alot to those serving overseas, it certainly did to me while I was in the RAF, but as a society we owe it to those young soldiers not to get swept up by notions of patriotism and service to the detriment of asking the tough questions about what they are doing, and why.

    lamb142, thank you, and once again, I only wish we could have done more.


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