You can’t like your odds when you are a soldier in a faraway land and outnumbered 88 to 500. Especially when they have your outpost completely surrounded and there are no reinforcements anywhere to be found. That was the grim and frightening scenario that a group of determined British soldiers faced and eventually fought their way out of.
On August 23, 2006, the soldiers of the Easy Company were dropped by Chinook at the Helmand outpost Musa Qala in Afghanistan. They were replacing a mainly Danish Nato unit that had struggled to bring stability to the region. When the Danish left they also took their 40-plus armored vehicles, eight heavy machine guns and armored ambulances. The British contingent had far less resources with only two heavy machine guns, one doctor and a quad bike. The Taliban in the area must have been licking their chops at the vulnerable security force.
Troop Staff Sergeant Ian Wornham remembers listening to the Taliban’s radio communications and how confident they were on capturing the outpost, “They were talking about drinking tea in our headquarters by sunrise – which meant they were going to kill anyone in their way.”
For 56 days, the 88 men of Easy Company held their ground as they were battling the enemy that totally surrounded their outpost. The unit, which was a mix of Paratroopers and the Royal Irish, believed the situation was so grim that they saved a final bullet for themselves rather than fall into Taliban hands and the possibility of them being beheaded on video for propaganda.
Sergeant Freddie Kruyer of 3 Para said, “You’re not dealing with a conventional enemy. So I thought, well I’ve got the bullet with my name on it that I’m going to fire at myself if it comes to it.”
For two months, the brave men at Musa Qala faced constant fire from fixed machine gun posts and mortars while they were only protected by low mud walls.
“It came to a point I actually thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown,” Sniper Jared Cleary said. “I swore I was going to get hit by a mortar bomb. I remember standing there, my legs shaking uncontrollably.”
The Taliban attempted to capture the compound in a series of attacks and came so close to breaking in that they were able to lob grenades over the walls of the compound.
“We were totally alone. It would have been very easy to lose the entire compound with us in it,” said commanding officer, Paratroop Major Adam Jowett.
Wornham, a veteran with 20 years’ experience, said, “I’d never encountered fighting like that. It was very intense and it wasn’t just from one direction. They were attacking from all sides – all the time.”
Kruyer explained the hectic scene, “You’re returning fire but for every one that you’re knocking down, you’re thinking how many more are going to keep coming up?”
Easy Company’s first fatality was 22-year-old Lance Corporal Jon Hetherington, a signaller with the Paras. On August 27, a Taliban bullet found the narrow gap between his body and his armour. He died instantly.
“He was right next to me on the headquarters roof,” said Jowett, who heard the desperate cry ‘Man down’ and knew the Taliban had scored their first victory.
But there was no time to mourn. “It was strange. We knew that he was dead but we knew that he was all right, if that makes sense, in that we would get him out of Musa Qala. We went straight back up on the building and continued the fight.”
Wornham says: “You have that initial thought of: Why Jon? Why did he die? But you have to get on with it. You can’t stop and cower in a corner. You take the fight to them. It’s what’s instilled in you as a Paratrooper.”
Less than a week later, on September 1, the Taliban scored a second hit. Fijian-born Royal Irish Ranger Anare Draiva and his colleague Lance Corporal Paul Muirhead headed for observation duty on the rooftop of the building the men called ‘the Alamo’. Just after they had taken up their position it took a direct hit from a mortar.
Draiva died and Muirhead suffered devastating injuries. It was several hours before it was safe enough to call in a helicopter to evacuate him to British Army HQ Camp Bastion from where he was flown to hospital in Oman. He died five days later.
With death looming from a gunshot or a mortar attack, things got even more agonizing as food started to run low. The village was often too dangerous for helicopter support and reinforcements, so the East Company could only depend on themselves.
Royal Irish Ranger Phillip Gillespie detailed the combat, “It was ferocious fighting. It was death round every turn. You know you could have died at any moment.”
Snipers Cleary and Hugh Keir, a platoon sergeant with experience in Northern Ireland and Iraq, had the terrifying jobs of staying on exposed roofs in an attempt to pick off the enemy.
“We were the vulnerable ones,” said Keir. “We were putting ourselves on the line but we also knew it was for a good reason. We’d have a little ritual. We’d just look at each other and give an understanding nod. ‘You ready? Yeah ready.’ Because it could be the last time we’d go out and do this.”
Every day these valiant troops wondered if today would be their last day on Earth. Every day they waited for the big attack that would take the outpost and their lives. Thankfully, that big attack never happened, and it was partly because of the locals from the town. The elders convinced the Taliban to call a ceasefire because they were sick of the constant war near their homes.
From the Daily Mail:
So it was, that on September 13 Jowett, a married man with two children, found himself leaving the compound to meet the enemy face to face – not knowing if it was a trap. “And we just thrashed it out in the middle of town with a growing crowd around us.” Company remained in the compound for another month until, on October 14, the elders provided a convoy of cattle trucks to give them safe passage to a rendezvous with two Chinooks. The battle of Musa Qala was over.
Despite being completely outmanned and outgunned, the Easy Company survived the harrowing experience. In the end, they lost three men and had 12 who were severely injured.
The saga of these 88 men are in the upcoming documentary for Channel 4 in the United Kingdom. The interviews and video clips have been mostly unseen and unheard over the 10 years since it happened because Britain’s Ministry of Defense previously banned details of conflict from being revealed.
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