Heroes of Afghanistan: The men. The lives. The waste

Author: By Emily Dugan and Nina Lakhani

In only 10 days, 15 British soldiers lost their lives in a conflict that experts increasingly say is “unwinnable”. Eight were killed in a single day: five were trapped in a Taliban bomb ambush on a foot patrol and a further three lost their lives in fighting. Their deaths sealed the bloodiest 24 hours since a Nimrod plane crash killed 12 in September 2006 and took the death toll of British forces to 184 ? five more than during the Iraq conflict.

Last night two of the soldiers killed on Thursday were named as Rifleman Daniel Hume, 22, from 4th Battalion the Rifles and Private John Brackpool, 27, of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.

Rifleman Hume was killed in what the MoD called a contact explosion on Thursday afternoon while he was on a foot patrol near Nad e-Ali, Helmand province. Pte Brackpool was shot dead while on sentry duty, guarding a compound. He was on attachment with the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards. The incident took place as part of Operation Panchai Palang (Panther’s Claw) during fighting with insurgent forces near Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, on Thursday evening.

Rifleman Hume, from Maidenhead in Berkshire, had only arrived in the Battalion at the end of April, having just passed out from Catterick where he was the top student. In a statement, Rifleman Hume’s parents, Adrian and Wendy, said his death had left “a huge void” in their lives.

“Daniel passed out of Catterick as top recruit and since joining the Army he was the happiest we had known him. He had truly found his place in the world”, they said.

“He believed in what the British Army was trying to achieve and was confident. He was proud to serve his country and was planning to move battalion when he returned, so that he could guarantee a speedy return to Afghanistan.

“We have lost a son and a best friend. His death has left a huge void in our lives. We are fiercely proud of him.”

Colleagues described him as “exceptionally gifted” and said they were “robbed of a future leader”. Before joining the Army he was a keen downhill mountain biker, and in 2002 had been ranked third in the country for the sport, with six wins to his name.

His commanding officer, Lt-Col Rupert Jones, said he was a “true professional” with “boundless energy” and “exceptional motivation”. He had been the epitome of the “thinking rifleman”. Lt-Col Jones said: “He was an exceptionally gifted young man who wanted to genuinely do something with his life and it would have been a brave man to bet against him to achieve his ambitions.”

The Secretary of State for Defence, Bob Ainsworth , said: “The loss of this soldier comes as terrible news for everyone in the armed forces, and I was very saddened to learn of the incident. Rifleman Daniel Hume gave his life fighting bravely to protect British national security and to make life better for the ordinary Afghan people.”

Lt-Col Charlie Sykes, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, said the recent toll of British deaths was uppermost in many soldiers’ minds. He said: “We have gone through a torrid time in Afghanistan in the last week or so, there is no shadow of a doubt.

“A very good friend of mine was killed recently, the commanding officer of the Welsh Guards. On top of that was announced the death of someone who was a member of this battalion, serving with the Welsh Guards.

“There was a personal aspect to the deaths that have happened recently both for me and the battalion. Therefore when I spoke to the battalion this morning I said that we need to remember that although we are celebrating, we are also commemorating.”

On Friday, five soldiers from the 2nd Battalion the Rifles were killed in two separate explosions in the same patrol near Sangin, Helmand Province in the morning. A soldier from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment was also killed as a result of an explosion during an operation near Nad-e-Ali, central Helmand Province.

Already July 2009 has proved to be one of the deadliest in Britain’s operations in Afghanistan. British casualties have escalated since troops became involved in Panchai Palang, a major British assault against the Taliban in Helmand ahead of next month’s Afghan elections. The UK army have been joined by about 4,000 US and 650 Afghan troops.

Tributes flowed in for the fallen soldiers yesterday. Lt-Col David Rhodes, commanding officer of 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, said yesterday: “Our hearts go out to all the families of those who have died since the conflict began. The important thing is that the troops out there are getting on with the job.

“This was a difficult and dangerous task and there was the ever-present threat of roadside bombs and suicide bombers in the city. I am proud of each and every one of my soldiers.

“The majority of these soldiers have civilian jobs and they put these and their family lives on hold for six months to serve their country. They richly deserve this honour and their friends and families are justly proud of them for the role they played.”

After a march for the armed forces in Worthing yesterday, mayor of Worthing, Councillor Noel Atkins said: “My hearts go out to the soldiers but they are doing a tremendous job in effectively preserving our freedom from potential terrorist threat.

“They are keeping terrorism at bay by being in Helmand and in Iraq. It’s a critical time in Helmand, so at this stage we have to keep the Taliban at bay otherwise we risk a greater threat of insurgency.”

The casualties

Christopher Whiteside

Age: 20

Rank: Trooper

Date of death: 7 July

The young trooper from Blackpool, of the Light Dragoons, died in a blast from an improvised explosive device near Gereshk in Helmand. His fencing coach, David Varey, remembers: “Christopher loved the Army, completely lived for it. As soon as he picked up a sword, he wanted to fence for the Army. He was a dream to teach. everyone at the club loved him. I was his coach but I would call him my friend.”

Rupert Thorneloe

Age: 39

Rank: Lt-Colonel

Date of death: 1 July

Died alongside 18-year-old Trooper Joshua Hammond near Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. An improvised explosive device was detonated under their Viking armoured vehicle. A close friend, Tom Gadsby, said: “We were friends for more than 20 years, best men at each other’s weddings and I am the godfather to his eldest daughter Hannah. It is very hard to lose such a good friend. We’re all heartbroken.”

Robert Laws

Age: 18

Rank: Private

Date of death: 4 July

Having only finished his army training less than a year ago, Pte Laws was killed when the vehicle he was travelling in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Helmand Province. His father, Steven, said: “I regarded him not only as a son but as a brother. He knew what the consequences were. Hopefully, you think you are coming back. His day was not to be.”

David Dennis

Age: 29

Rank: Lance-Corporal

Date of death: 4 July

Killed by a roadside bomb explosion in Helmand Province. The bomb was detonated as he was helping bring back casualties from an earlier incident. His father, Roger Dennis, said: “My boy went out there to do a job and make the world a better place. He made the ultimate sacrifice… I don’t want to think he wasted his life for nothing.”

Daniel Hume

Age: 22

Rank: Private

Date of death: 9 July

The rifleman from 4th Battalion the Rifles was killed in a what the MoD called a “contact explosion”. The incident took place whilst he was on a foot patrol near Nad e-Ali, Helmand province, on Thursday afternoon. He was a talented snowboarder and mountain bike racer, and described as a “rising star” by his platoon commander.

Ben Babington-Browne

Age: 27

Rank: Captain

Date of death: 6 July

Having previously served in Iraq, Ben was killed in a helicopter crash alongside two Canadian soldiers in the southern Zabul Province. Lt-Col Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said: “This soldier gave his life for the security of his own country and the freedom of the Afghan people ? there is no greater sacrifice than this.”

Joshua Hammond

Age: 18

Rank: Trooper

Date of death: 1 July

He and Rupert Thorneloe were taking part in Operation Panther’s Claw, a major assault against the Taliban ahead of next month’s Afghan elections. Emma Green, his fiancĂ©e, said: “He was and still is my childhood sweetheart. The last thing he said to me was that he loved me and he promised he would come home safe.”

John Brackpool

Age: 27

Rank: Private

Date of death: 9 July

The soldier, from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment attached to 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was killed as a result of a gunshot wound. The incident took place as part of Operation Panther’s Claw in an engagement with insurgent forces near Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, on Thursday evening.

Dane Elson

Age: 22

Rank: Lance-Corporal

Date of death: 5 July

Serving in the Welsh Guards, he was patrolling north of Lashkar Gah in support of the Light Dragoons armoured group when an improvised explosive device detonated. His grandmother, Anne Smith said: “He was a gorgeous young man but should not have been there, none of our boys should be there. It’s for what? So they can have elections? It’s terrible. My grandson has died for nothing.”

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