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MICK AT LARGE
OPERATION PITTING
Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul

by Captain O E Wettern
Irish Guards

3 PARA’s call out came during summer leave, at 2330hrs on Sunday 15th August: get back to Colchester by midday, we are warned off for Kabul. Partly due to Covid-19, luckily very few were abroad on holiday. Despite being only on R4 readiness (20 days’ notice), 3 PARA drove back through the night, and was assembled on R1 timelines: 12 hours. A Company was the first to deploy, early on Tuesday morning, and C Company were right behind them, ready to deploy within 48 hours, reinforced from the Guards Parachute Platoon by Lance Sergeant Williams, Welsh Guards, as a section commander. At 0200hrs on Wednesday 18th August, the coaches rolled out of Colchester: we were off.

The author in Minhad, Dubai En route from Minhad to Kabul

As C Company Second in Command, halfway through a two-year posting with 3 PARA, we had been looking at a relatively quiet period. 3 PARA would take over as UK Standby Battalion in September, run Support Company cadres in October/November, then prepare for overseas company exercises the following year. Suddenly all that had changed, as ‘readiness’ became very much more than a state of mind. We had been following the news from Afghanistan, and 2 PARA had deployed the previous week, but there had been little inkling that 3 PARA would be following them. Now suddenly there we were, two Parachute Regiment battalions deploying together for the first time in decades. Trucks were arriving in Colchester with body armour plates and rations; weapons were zeroed and bergens packed; and MATTs were being brushed up in miraculously fast fashion in the company offices.

Somehow, we were ready to go in time and, unsurprisingly, the longest part of the deployment was spent at the Joint Air Mounting Centre in South Cerney. Once through there, and minus our freight due to RAF Brize Norton mover antics, we staged forward to the almost unbearable heat of Minhad, Dubai. Even here, it was unclear whether C Company would be deploying onward, but with 3 PARA Commanding Officer’s Tac as part of our flight, we felt quietly confident. We had so far had very little information as to the situation on the ground, or our likely tasks. Nevertheless, a few hours later we were issued ammunition, and at 1600hrs local on Thursday 19th August we loaded onto an A400 for the night flight into Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA).

For those few in the company who had been to HKIA before, they saw it as changed almost beyond recognition. Large groups of civilian eligible persons were clustered around the terminal offices, set amidst a sea of plastic rubbish and discarded baggage. Warning shots rang out from the perimeter, accompanied by tracer. Above all, what once had been military order and rules had become a free for all: speed limits did not exist, and any vehicle left unguarded was prone to ‘commandeering’, as every deployed force sought transport to move around. Airport tugs and baggage trolleys manned by 82nd Airborne soldiers delivered pallets of bottled water to the crowd, picking their way through the often chaotic scene. Every 20 minutes or so would come the roar of another transport plane arriving or departing; an impressive number of them RAF transports. That night we got broken sleep in tents, sporadically stood to by 16 Brigade HQ for a move which never came. Our bergens had been left behind: this was undoubtedly ‘fighting light’.

If the scene inside HKIA North Camp had seemed chaotic, this was as nothing compared to the scenes outside the Abbey Gate, when we moved forward the next day in a motley collection of armoured pick-ups and minivans. 2 PARA had taken over The Baron Hotel, the 4 star airport resort, as the processing centre for British eligible persons. The area of Route Leeds outside the hotel was a sea of people, nominally held in different pens, American, British, international, but with little immediate semblance of order. 2 PARA had worked hard to establish control over the entry points, building a ‘chevron’ of iso-containers to control the flow of people from Kabul, and using the natural barrier of a canal to aid control at the other main entry point. Our initial rotation was onto the shield wall, using public order kit, on the iso-container chevron, letting people in a few at a time. The road-wide crush of a crowd thousands deep made it impossible to turn people away: instead they had to be brought through the barricade, processed for eligibility, and then either held in the queue for onward checks, or taken to the exit point along the canal, where the US Marine Corps was ready to assist them back into the crowd. Gradually, over our ten days on the ground, this situation eased a little, but the crowds on the canal zone never diminished.

Route Leeds crowd control

Paratroopers take a moment to rest

People must have been waiting for 48 hours or more at both entry points, waving passports and paperwork for attention, with only the food and water they had brought with them. The platoons, split down into multiples, worked as quickly as the system would allow, while moderating the entry flow rate to avoid overwhelming our scant holding space. Once through initial checks, likely eligible persons would be searched and screened appropriately, and then led into the hotel where, after another period of queuing, with food and water provided (16 Brigade apparently purchased all the baby milk formula in Colchester), they were interviewed by UK Border Force personnel. After this final phase of checks, they were manifested onto flights, before waiting in the hotel gardens for the next road convoy back to HKIA North and their plane out.

As fresh troops, the first few days passed in a haze of tiredness as we moved through different tasks on a 24-hour rotation, from the iso-containers to the canal zone, then to the front gate searches and checks, and back into the canal zone before moving down into the hotel. We got a handle on the rotation, freeing up multiples for longer periods of rest, and scrounged hotel rooms which meant more secure downtime, the ability to wash, and the much coveted complimentary Baron Hotel dressing gown. Luckily the hotel kitchens were in operation, a much appreciated change from rations. An almost complete failure of communications equipment meant an old school, and welcome, return to face-to-face briefs, runners and mission command. With the platoons in multiples, and very much focused on the face-to-face dealing with the crowd, Company HQ focused on control, coordination, and liaison, trying to ensure that things ran smoothly.

By the time we drew down, the situation at the gates had eased, tragically linked, in part, to the canal zone suicide blast. As Brigade QRF, C Company secured the Abbey Gate for the rest of 2 and 3 PARA to extract, along with all remaining eligible persons awaiting full processing. We then collapsed back to HKIA North, handing the gate over to 82nd (US) Airborne personnel, and waited our turn to fly out on the second last RAF flight. The return stopover and administration in Minhad was mercifully brief, and then it was back to Colchester for Covid-19 isolation and decompression.

The author at the Abbey Gate

Throughout the period deployed, the Paratroopers performed in exemplary fashion. Despite the pressures of heat, surrounding environment, and emotional stress, no one lost their professional edge, and there are thousands of eligible persons who will be grateful for their patience, and readiness to perform to the highest standards.

 

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