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Monday, 26 December 2011

Chai with the Royals before Secret Santa arrives

Well, today is Boxing Day. For most of you, the festive season is still in full swing, but for us, the Christmas rush, and it's festivities are over.

The last week has been a manic one. With several key visits all before Christmas, there has been no rest for the CCT.

The first visit, which was not done for media publicity, was the Earl and Countess of Wessex. They both flew out to Afghanistan for a two day programme. The first day was in Helmand, before heading to Kandahar for the second day.

CO 5 Rifles gives an operational brief

So on the first morning, after an initial 'meet and great,' we flew out to Patrol Base (PB) 2 in Nahr-e Saraj South

As the Regimental Colonel's for both 5 and 2 Rifles, it was key for them to see as many men from their Battalions as possible. So after a quick morning brief on the current situation within the area, they got a guided tour of camp.

The Regimental Aid Post (RAP)

The Earl and Countess had several key bits to see within the PB, including the Operations Room (Ops Rm), the Welfare facilities, and the Regimental Aid Post, or Medical Centre. After this, the Royalty split down into two, slightly different visits, where the Earl of Wessex got to meet soldiers from A Company, 2 Rifles, who had just arrived at PB2 from a nearby Check Point (CP).

The Earl studies the Improvised Explosive Device (IED)

With A Company fresh in off the ground, they were able to demonstrate their capabilities within their patrol. The Earl was briefed by the team medic, the lead man of the patrol, the patrol commander and the Signaller. This all highlighted key points about how they operate as a patrol, what kit they carry, how they carry it and so on.

Another part of the visit, was showing the Earl the latest Counter IED measures, showing him the kit used to detect IEDs, and also an example of an IED. Very eye opening stuff for him to see.

After the visit was over, and lunch was eaten, we flew back to Bastion. I think the RAF Chinook crew enjoyed their flight back, giving the Royals a real taste for 'tactical' flying! It was a real cheeky ride back, but quite a good one. Not sure the Countess of Wessex enjoyed it as much as the crew did though.

The Earl of Wessex meets Brigadier General Sheren Shah

That night, we were off to meet 2 Rifles, the Brigade Advisory Group (BAG) in Camp Tombstone. There first point of call was to meet the Afghan Commander of the 3rd Brigade, Afghan National Army, Brigadier General Sheren Shah.

The General spoke about upcoming Operations with the BAG, and the recent training they have undertaken. The General enjoyed a cup of 'chai' with the Royals, before presenting them with traditional Afghan gifts.

Then it was time for a spot of curry at the BAG before having a group photo at the end of the night.

A Royal Group Photo

A day or so later, Christmas preparations seemed to be going well. 

Christmas Carols

The Royal Regiment of Scotland Band, had recently arrived in theatre, with a master plan of visiting as many PBs as possible. The weather mucked up their plans a bit, but nevertheless, they put on a good show at the carol service.

Troops enjoy a bit of singing

The Chief of The General Staff (CGS) General Sir Peter Wall was in theatre at the time, so he was also in attendance. The hangar where the service took place was packed. Lots of people were getting in the festive moods, with Christmas hats, santa outfits etc, and believe it or not, they all seemed to sing, something squaddies are renowned for hating.


With several multi national forces in attendance too, the night went well. We had a choir from the United States forces sing to us, as well as the Tongan Marines serenade us with a Christmas Carol, but sung in their native tongue.

The CGS addresses the troops

The CGS then addressed the troops, thanking them for their hard work and wishing them the best for the festive season.

Christmas day, was just another working day for the CCT. We had planned to get out to the PBs, but our plans fell through. We decided to cover the day with the BAG in Camp Tombstone, who were going to be hosting the Commander of the 3rd Brigade, Afghan National Army, Brigadier General Sheren Shah.

The day was relaxed, with the guys making the most of a day off, since completing an Afghan Operation just prior to Christmas.

Lieutenant Roz Ashworth surrounded by presents

The day there was good, despite not having a drop of alcohol in sight.

Christmas jumper

The BAG all had their presents from the charity UK4U to open among many others, with WO2 Kev Diggle dressed as Santa, on a quad bike sleigh, dishing them out.

Thanks UK4U

Ho Ho Ho

After the presents were over, the carol service began, with the padre leading the proceedings.

Christmas Carols

The Officers and Senior Non Commissioned Officers then opened their 'Secret Santa' gifts from one another before heading over to lunch. 

Lt Col Bill Wright - CO 2 Rifles opens his Secret Santa gift

Lunch, as you would expect, was the full trimmings you probably had at home. Homemade tomato soup, beef, turkey, ham, pigs in blankets, sprouts, carrots, gravy and some of the most amazing puddings and cakes imaginable.

Everybody got served and sat to eat. Probably the quietest 20 minutes of the day, as everybody tucked into a cracking meal.

The Afghan General enjoys the festivities

As mentioned, the Afghan General was also in attendance, which is something I am not sure has happened before. The day went well, and everybody enjoyed themselves.

For us, it was then back to the office to edit, making sure I got the pictures out for todays press. 

With the Christmas rush now over, work resumes as normal with my bags getting packed for an imminent trip out. 

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas from Afghanistan

Well, it's that time of the year again. The festive silly season is no doubt in full swing back in the UK, but here in Afghanistan, it's a totally different story.

As the UK prepare to get obscenely drunk and eat masses of food and chocolates, the troops here in Afghanistan prepare for just another day! 

Some will spend the day relaxing and playing games. 
Some will spend the day patrolling through the bazaar. 

Some will have the luxury of a cooked turkey dinner. 
Some will be eating yet another ration pack. 

Some will spend time on Skype to there families. 
Some won't even get the chance to ring home.

Some will go to bed full of Christmas cheer and food.
Some won't sleep because they will be on duty.

Whatever happens here tomorrow, wherever they are, everyone will be thankful of one thing. The fact they are a day closer to getting home to their loved ones.

Whatever you do this Christmas, please, spare a thought for our Troops on Operations who won't get to see there loved ones this Christmas. Be grateful for whatever 'Santa' brings you, but most of all, please be grateful, and raise a glass, to the people sacrificing there lives for your peaceful and terrorist free Christmas. A lot of people won't have the opportunity to see there loved ones ever again, and many more now have to face life changing injuries.

I would like to thank everyone that has supported me and my blog over the past few months, the feedback on my imagery has been amazing. But most of all, I want to thank my beautiful wife Michelle, who has been my absolute rock since I departed the UK in September. Big hugs to my kids too, who I am missing terribly. Also not forgetting my gorgeous spaniels, Willow, Monty and Tia.

I wish my family, and everyone, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

All the best


Monday, 12 December 2011

Operation Come Dine With Me

Over the past week, the Combat Camera Team have been out on a job with a difference. 

We were recently approached by Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Simon Macey, the Forward Operating Base Catering Warrant Officer (FOBCWO), from the Bastion Kitchen regarding a front line feeding story.

WO2 Macey is responsible for the feeding of all troops in forward locations from Bastion. This comprises of nearly 6,000 troops. It is his job to ensure enough ration packs are sent to even the remotest of locations within Helmand. 

As I am sure you can appreciate, transporting fresh food to these remote Checkpoints (CP's) can be quite tricky, therefore, most of the lads don't receive a vast amount of fresh, but appreciate the little things they do manage to get.

So, with a plan in mind, WO2 Macey and WO2 Medlock proposed a plan, fully endorsed by the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Patrick Sanders, that they would fly to as many CP's as possible within their six month tour to cook fresh food for the blokes, and intend to spend at least 24hrs in each location. 

The main aim for the Operation was to boost moral, but to also provide some hands on training to those in the CP's responsible for cooking. A booklet written by WO2 Macey would also be handed out with basic kitchen hygiene rules in, and some menu options using the 10 man ration pack, just to vary there diets with the food they had. 

WO2 Macey prepares the food

With everything in place, we headed to the kitchen to watch WO2 Macey prepare his food boxes before the off. The preparation that goes into a five day Op, feeding blokes at three different CP's was immense, but needless to say, carried out with true Military precision. WO2 Macey flew about the store with his boxes, filling them to the brim, this was all before any fresh was included.

That night we met at the flight line, with our kit, which weighed a fair bit as it was, only to meet WO2 Macey with his 750kg of freight!! Luckily there were only seven of us on the Merlin flight, but with all this freight it was still packed, and boy did it take some loading! There were about six large boxes, a field cookset and a portable refrigeration unit full of fresh chicken and fillet steaks, then all of our personal kit and cameras.

After an arduous 20 minutes of packing the aircraft, we were off, heading for Patrol Base (PB) 5 in the Nad-e-Ali South region. We were to spend a night there before our road moves to the CP's, where he will be feeding personnel from 2nd Battalion The Rifles.

Final preparations on the cookset

The next morning we had time after breakfast for some final prep, and loading of stores before we headed out to CP Sarhad. The cooker also got tested and run up before that got delivered to CP Seka prior to our arrival the next day.

Lunch is served

On arrival at CP Sarhad, it was time to get straight to work. WO2 Macey quickly blitzed the kitchen area, with our help, before starting lunch. Anyone would have thought all these blokes christmas' had come at once, they were ecstatic. They had been on ration packs for three months, and rarely got any fresh. This was a real treat for them.

In the party mood

Having got all excited over the amount of fresh food they were about to consume, they decided to treat it like christmas day, and get dressed up. God knows where they got some of there outfits from, but this was the most viewer friendly image I have to show you. The rest of the outfits showed quite a bit of flesh, need I say more!!!???

No rest for the wicked

No sooner was lunch over, and the lads got cracking with the pan bashing (Military term for cleaning the pots), WO2 Macey was preparing a chicken curry and fillet steak for the evening meal. The last meal to be cooked at Sarhad would be breakfast. The lads were out of an Op that morning, so breakfast was a very early start prior to them all heading out. I think heading out on an Op after bacon baps, porridge and  danish pastries was a good start to the day for them!

Back on the road

After breakfast, the Mastiff's arrived and we were off again. By this point, we finally had the feeling back in our feet after a freezing night sleeping on the floor in their compound.

Next stop, CP Seka.

WO2 Macey gets to work on the new cookset

The cookset had arrived safely at CP Seka the day before, although everyone was scared to touch it until we arrived incase they broke it, knowing they would get three freshly cooked meals from it!  

About an hour or so before lunch, one of the patrols arrived back at the CP. They had just got in from an Op, one that they had got contacted on, resulting in one of the lads being shot in the leg. Those of you that know what Squaddies are like, will know we have weird senses of humour. Needless to say, once they found out he had only got shot in the leg, the jokes started. Most of them evolving around the fact that he had only been in Afghan for 10 days, and gets to go home already! So, in a weird way, moral was already high, but would get higher when lunch arrived!

Spicy chicken pittas for lunch

Yet again, the blokes were amazed with this experience! The thought of fresh food, cooked by a professional chef was the talk of the CP. Not one bloke went passed the kitchen without making comment about how 'amazing' it was, and how they were 'proper chuffed.' For us, this was a great story to cover, with such a positive reason for doing it. Plus, we knew we'd get fed well for the five days we were out! ha

Flambeed fillet steak for dinner

Again, WO2 Macey set straight to work on the evening meal as soon as lunch was finished. I'll give him credit where credit's due, he worked bloody hard, as do all chef's.

Dinner is served

As with the last CP, Seka had 3 fresh meals cooked for them before we left for CP Chabaak. On arrival at Chabaak, we were pleasantly surprised by its size in comparison to Seka and Sarhad. Chabaak is the only out of the three that has been almost 100% purpose built. The others are old Afghan compounds that are rented by ISAF, and probably older than all the blokes in it put together.

Lunch in CP Chabaak

Chabaak was quite a chilled day for the CCT. We had all the footage we needed in both stills and video from the last two CP's, so we spent most of the day helping in the kitchen. 

More fillet steak

Loads of the blokes had heard about the visit, but didn't quite know what to expect. When they saw they would have fillet steak, spicy savoury rice, spicy potato wedges, carrots, homemade garlic and chilli bread, chocolate cake and homemade raspberry cheesecake for there evening meal, reality soon sunk in. They were ecstatic. It was the talk of the CP for the whole time we were there. They couldn't thank WO2 Macey enough.

Fill your plates lads

Smiles all round

As it was the last CP to be covered, and the Brigade Commander had given the Op such a well known title, we thought it only right to get some scoring done, in true 'Come Dine With Me' fashion. What a laugh. The lads sat and gave a proper critique on camera, obviously lots of humour was involved, but it worked well. It was really good to see them happy, although their moral seemed high anyway, this Op just boosted it off the radar!

Lieutenant Jack Hartley gives top scores

With WO2 Macey's work done, it was back to PB5 for our flight home. The trip had gone extremely well, despite me putting my back out on day one, but things soon changed. CP Sarhad, our first location, came under fire about 10 minutes before our flight was due. The next thing you know, there are two apache attack helicopters orbiting the area, the mortar lines at PB5 and the surrounding PB's were loaded and ready. The whole time this is going on our chinook and merlin that would take us back to Bastion, were sent away, temporarily. There was talk that once the heavy gunfire stopped, and we were able to land the helicopter to collect us, we would move over to the area to give fire support from the air. Quite an exciting thing to photograph, however, due to the delay of the aircraft, it was now dark, so pictures would be practically impossible. Luckily, after 20 minutes, the gunfire stopped, the mortars were disarmed, everyone was safe and we could fly back.

All in all a cracking job. The Chef's here do an amazing job, often for no gratitude at all. To travel down to the remotest CP's in Helmand, and cook three fresh meals is something everyone appreciated during the trip, and that was great to see!

WO2 Macey and WO2 Medlock are currently planning there Christmas dinner delivery Op next, which if it all goes to plan, every soldier within a CP in Helmand will get a freshly cooked christmas dinner, on christmas day. Quite a task, but with helicopters and armoured vehicles in the planning process, they hope to achieve their aim.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

ISAF Slaves and Naughty Locals

Well, what an awesome week we have had. We have just returned after a five day trip out to the Danish Area of Operations (AO) in Nad-e-Ali North. Situated on the edge of the vast, and well known 'Green Zone,' Patrol Base (PB) Clifton was to be our new home. This would be where we capture both the Danish and British Engineers working on Medium Girder Bridges, across a waterway 500m from Clifton. 

After a slight flight delay, we set off, in the dark, on the the Royal Air Force's Merlin Helicopter. I always find flying in the dark slightly weird in helicopters. Their tactical flying always leaves me a touch confused over which way we are heading, and sometime which side of the aircraft is banking over heavily. Nevertheless, helicopters are a brilliant piece of kit, and normally provide an enjoyable, high adrenaline flight.

After a heavy tactical landing in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Price, we were heading for PB Clifton. Within what seemed like two minutes flat, we had arrived, with a big thump, again! Being pitch black, we had no idea what the PB was to be like until sunrise. So after a quick brew and a smoke, we were shown to our luxury accommodation, the newly built Operations Room (Ops Rm). Although it wasn't quite finished, it had walls and a roof, which was 5* compared to what we were expecting. We soon got settled for the night, as the next day was to be an early start.

Danish Infantry provide top cover

At 0500hrs we were up and trawling through the kitchen area for some rations to eat before heading out. The sun was rising, and the air was full of morning mist. Great picture opportunities to be had here, just before the sun becomes to bright.

We loaded up into the Danish Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC's) and drove into the nearby PB Bridzar. From there, it was a short walk to the bridge. By this point, our protection, called 'The Ring of Steel' was already in place, provided by the Danish Infantry Company from Clifton. This meant we were safe to commence work. We also had several air assets, and snipers watching our position, and beyond, for potential Taliban threats.

Work starts early to avoid the heat

Due to our earlier flight delay, we had missed the British bridge being erected, by 7 and 8 Troop 35 Engineer Regiment, but still had time to capture the Danish one being removed, and the work that these two forces do together.

Shifting the heavy load

These bridges are in no way shape or form easy work. The blokes were working in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), humping tonnes of metal between them, in what looked like an absolute jigsaw of a bridge. As the temperature raised by mid morning, these blokes were absolutely sweating. Hats off to them all, they work bloody hard!

Another piece to lift out of the bridge

By about 1000hrs the heat was really kicking in. For some reason, once you leave Bastion, the temp during the day is hotter, but on the flip side, it's colder at night. Can't have it all I suppose.

Danish Engineers fitting stakes for the barb wire to connect to

The bridge got dismantled a lot quicker than we had expected. It was almost complete by 1100hrs, with loading it onto the flatbeds as the last job, ready for the Danish to drive it away.

Work almost done

While we were out, the area was very quiet. We did start seeing movement, but these were mostly children. 

We were briefed prior to that days Operation, and were told that the Interpreters from PB Bridzar, had intelligence from radio chatter that the Taliban were watching them work the previous day. They called the Engineers the ISAF Slaves, the ones that do all the ground work for the troops. We did find this slightly amusing, so did the Engineers. They also had information on a Taliban Dicker/Scout/Spotter, whatever they are called now, who was nothing more than an 11 year old boy. This boy, was later amongst us while we work, with all his friends, trying to steal our pens from our body armour and ask for sweets. The children below are not him, before anyone asks!

Children playing close by the Engineering works

So, by lunchtime, the work was done. All that was left was to bring in the 'Ring of Steel' that was over the water, and return to Bridzar for a coffee, then head back to Clifton when the vehicles were ready.

The 'Ring of Steel' returns across the newly built British bridge

Having never worked alongside the Danish, we weren't sure how they would take to us, or indeed us to them. What can i say, brilliant blokes, with a massive English vocabulary, and even a good Squaddie sense of humour to go with it. They were an awesome bunch of guys.

Lunchtime morale

We got back to Clifton for lunch and some downtime before the afternoons work began. For the Engineers, the only time they stop working, is when they get a few hours sleep at night, or when they eat. It's constant for them.

The roof of our accommodation is made IED proof

The Ops Room that we were staying in had to have more aggregate put on the roof, then a waterproof cover over that. So that was their next task. By this time, the midday heat was roaring. The lads were going through bottles of water like there was no tomorrow. It was HOT! But more work still needed to be done.

New walls are erected around the perimeter of Clifton

Another section of blokes had already started on the outer walls of Clifton. They had to remove a big chunk of Hesco, and replace it with bigger, newer stuff. This is no quick task, and eventually took them two days to get this done, in between other jobs.

For us, we had the story in the bag that we needed, so what to do now?? Well, we started helping the Engineers fit out the Ops Rm with ply board panels, that would eventually have map boards fitted to them. This took most of the day, but was reasonably enjoyable, despite being a very amateurish chippy! The lads were grateful of the help, and it was something different for us too.

Cans only, No paper/magazines

Our last afternoon in Clifton was pretty chilled, despite half the lads being awake all night listening to firefights at a nearby PB. I donned my 50mm f1.8 lens (camera geeks will understand this) and dotted around camp getting some PB Life imagery. The Danes have a great sense of humour, and like a lot of things that our British Squaddies do too. Such as Nuts/Zoo magazines and silly signs for stuff. Most of these just pass the time of day for the blokes, but provide great pictures for us.

The Duty Sapper Board

After getting several pictures of what was inside the PB, I threw on my body armour and headed to every Guard Post to get a view of the outside world. The area was quite vast, with the odd splattering of compounds here and there, but generally life in Clifton was quiet. I saw a small boy herding some cows up the hill, a tractor drive by and two women and a small toddler visit the nearby cemetary. That was it!

So what do the Danish guys on guard duty do to entertain themselves for hours on Stag while the outside is so quiet? They graffiti the Sangar and everything in it! ha

Throw this in case of naughty locals

The guy on the front gate took great pride in showing me his 'naughty local' rock. He was even more chuffed to tell me that it should have Version 2 written on it, as Version 1 has already been used! Brilliant!

Well our work here was almost done, just a Merlin flight and a brief stop off to get back to the office, where I spent the next 12 hours glued to my MacBook Pro editing. Loved every minute of it though. The trip was great, but to edit pictures that are great too, is very pleasing!

Up we go!

Until next time.

Thanks for reading


Friday, 25 November 2011

Spaghetti and Morale

Since my last post, work has been reasonably quiet. Without wanting to focus on the doom and gloom that you have probably read in the news, I thought i'd focus on something a little different.

Work in Afghanistan as a photographer, as with all jobs, has it's ups and downs. We sometimes have jobs that aren't as glamorous as others, but still need to be covered. But regardless of the subject, they all need the same amount of effort, and post production time. 

I started out photographing the Hermes 450, an Unmanned Airborne Vehicle (UAV) down at the flight line, before an early start to catch it taking off. For me, I like people pictures, static objects don't excite me. But nevertheless, if a job needs doing, it gets done.

A couple of days later, I was tasked to cover a visit by some Members of Parliament. The aim of their visit was to gain a greater understanding of the Military effort in Afghanistan, in order to take a bigger role in Ministerial debates on Defence subjects.

Lunch is served

After an initial 'meet and greet' of several different military personnel, lunch was served in the Afghan Training Village within Camp Bastion.

Small talk over a plate of Spag Bol

The lunch break provided several soldiers the chance to speak to MP's from their constituency about any issues they have, but also for the MP's to ask them about their role in theatre.

A day or so later, we had news that a Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) show was due into Bastion, prior to heading out to the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). They always perform as many shows as possible, in as many locations as feasible within their time in Afghan. There first show, a kind of warm up act, was for the Joint Helicopter Force. These are the people that are responsible for ensuring the CSE shows gets airlifted to all the locations on their program with ease. So this was a kind of thankyou to them in advance.

A comedian gets the show rolling

This was the first CSE show I had managed to see during my trips to Afghan over the past two years, and it was a complete laugh. Having been stuck editing in the office for a few days, this was just the break I needed. The comedians were brilliant, and had me in stitches for most of the night, even while trying to take pictures. The aircraft hangar in which they performed was packed, and everyone was having a good time. 

As with most CSE shows, they had two dancing girls, much to the delight of a good percentage of the men. They danced, men cheered (while drinking coke), I got some good pictures, what more can you ask for in Afghan??!!??

The opening dance

After the opening dance, it was back to the comedian to entertain us for half an hour. I can't even start to remember the jokes he said, there were too many, but it was brilliant. Thats one trouble with being zoned into the viewfinder, you sometimes miss the good bits.

Morale Boost

The dancers then came out for a second performance in their 'Morale Boost' T-shirts. By this point, they had the undivided attention of around 150 men, all sat gazing at them in their hot pants and skimpy tops. Trying to get pictures in such low light levels as they were dancing around was quite a challenge, my camera was being pushed, almost to its limits.

Once the girls had finished, the comedian was back, to the disappointment of some. He felt it only fair to provide some entertainment for the women now. So, he stripped off, attempted some pole dancing, before shaking his stomach at the crowd. Not quite sure if any of the women were grateful, but he did make the whole hangar erupt with laughter.

Do these jeans make me look fat?

The last act of the night, was by far the funniest. A middle aged man, with a guitar. Doesn't sound great, but he was actually hilarious. A very dry sense of humour, lots of swearing and an occasional note on the guitar, with rude vocals to some very popular songs.

After all that excitement, I had time to do a quick edit before bed.

The last two images on this post are not exactly rare, but it's also not very often you see skies like this as the sun sets. What a great sight. The sunset seems to go very fast here, so when I saw this from the office door, I quickly rushed to get my camera so I didn't miss the opportunity.

Thats about it from me for now. 

My next blog post will be about my time with the Danish Battlegroup, who are doing some bridge engineering with the British in Nad-e-Ali North.