Diaries from Afghanistan
Our reporter Alastair Fee writes from Kandahar.
Sitting in complete darkness, dressed in body armour and helmet - this is how all passengers arrive into Kandahar airfield. The southern Afghanistan base has seen more than 64,000 passengers fly in and out since January. Like me all of those took off from RAF Brize Norton. This is operation 'airbridge' and is a major role for the West Oxfordshire air base.
RAF Brize Norton fly 4 flights a week into Afghanistan and it's also the main point of departure for troops going to Iraq. The scale of this transport of troops and equipment is huge. Joining me are 160 army, navy and airforce personnel all providing relief for the military base in southern Afghanistan.
A Hercules comes in to land...
The descent is slow and steady, unnervingly quiet and very dark. The lights are turned out an hour before landing. This is the reality of flying into one of the most hostile environments in the world. 216 Squadron bring us down more smoothly than many commercial flights I've been on, the precision a mark of their training and experience.
For the servicemen and women operating the airbridge, it's just a 2 hour stop before leaving to refuel in Oman. As one officer said to me - they're always pleased to get back in the air, their thoughts with the military who will stay to serve a 4 to 6 month tour.
Standing on the runway at Kandahar airfield at midnight, rolling towards me is the pride of the RAF, the C17 cargo plane. This the latest addition to the fleet at Brize Norton and is capable of carrying hundreds of tonnes of heavy machinery, from helicopters to ammunition. This is the other side of the airbridge, without which none these military operations could take place.
In the cold night air the servicemen and women move quickly. Brize personnel on board are greeted by their colleagues here on the base. It takes less than two hours to unload and fill for the return journey back to West Oxfordshire. Tonight we are ushered away early as preparations begin for a repatriation ceremony. Lance Corporal Jake Alderton of the 36 Engineer Regiment died last week in a vehicle accident in Helmand. For staff on this C17 flight, their carriage home is a timely reminder of the dangers faced by troops in Afghanistan.
Dawn in Kandahar comes early and with it the heat. The rains are expected but the cloudless sky tells a different story. Movers based here from Brize Norton start early taking cargo from back home and redistributing the contents to waiting Hercules planes to be flown to Camp Bastion. The men and women here work hard - 12 hours a day 7 days a week - but spirits are good and friendships strong. They all know how important each individual is to the wider military campaign. A four month tour will typically give ten days off, and many here now won't be home for Christmas.
Sunset at Camp Bastion
A dull thud and everyone is suddenly alert. Sirens confirm the rocket attack and we all scramble to don body armour and helmets. Thankfully it misses the base. It's the second rocket attack this month, a reminder of the risks even in the relative safety of Kandahar air field.
While the engines rumble, we run through the darkness shielding our faces from the sand and dust storm created in the Hercules backwash and onto the waiting plane. After troops and freight have made their way from Brize Norton to Kandahar this is the onward journey into Helmand and Camp Bastion.
Camp Bastion is like nowhere on earth, a landscape unlike anything I have seen. Imagine a vast town of grey tents some 4 miles long and 2 miles wide. It's been set up in the flat empty southern Afghanistan desert. This is the main military base for the British Army, some 2,000 troops are here and it's the largest purpose built base since World War 2. It's one of the most inhospitable and barren environments on earth but despite that I still find myself sat eating pizza outside Pizza Hut on my first night, a surreal slice of home.
1 platoon - part of the Salonika company
After 6 weeks of waiting, 1 platoon made up of TA and regular soldiers from the Salonika Company are running through their final preparations before heading into Northeast Helmand. BBC Oxford last joined them training in Macedonia, and I'm lucky to catch up with them in Camp Bastion where they have been since September.
The company, which includes soldiers of the 7th Battalion The Rifles, are based in Reading and is made up of TA soldiers from Oxford, Swindon, Milton Keynes and London. Two thirds of the company are from the Territorial Army. Out here in southern Afghanistan they are a good example of the concept of 'one army' where the TA serves alongside their regular counterparts.
Sergeant Deborah Francis from Oxford is the company clerk and responsible for important details such as pay and leave. BBC Oxford spoke to her in Macedonia and she told me how the extreme heat had prepared them for the conditions they now faced in the desert. Her comments are echoed by Rifleman Grant, also from Oxford and a member of the platoon heading off on their first operation. The soldiers are all keen to go and their enthusiasm is infectious. This is what they have come here to do and they tell me they're ready for the challenges ahead.
The C17 - newest of the RAF fleet
One platoon will spend the next few weeks protecting the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in an area of the notorious Helmand province. Whilst there, it will be their job to reassure local Afghans and defend against the Taliban. The operation is not without risks. The threat of rocket attacks, road side bombs and small arms fire will be a very real danger.
Everywhere you go at Camp Bastion, building work is going on. A new hospital is due to open in January replacing the existing village of tents, beside it another helicopter landing site is bringing wounded troops to its door. There's a new accommodation block, and talk of a much needed water bottling plant to be run by the Afghan government. It's hard to believe but less than two years ago this base didn't exist. The list of jobs here is long and so the prospect of further tours out here is inevitable.
The smaller C130 Hercules
The recently converted runway is the most important development here. In future, the new huge C17 cargo planes will be able to land. It's a giant step forward for the airbridge from Brize Norton. In future freight travelling to Kandahar will come straight here, easing the pressures on Kandahar airfield and freeing up flights to enable more troops to travel by Hercules into Camp Bastion.
last updated: 06/03/2008 at 15:14