Three dead and inspiring commander seriously wounded: A terrifyingly graphic despatch from the Afghan frontline

By Richard Pendlebury and Jamie Wiseman
Last updated at 12:52 PM on 07th July 2009

They caught us out in the open, some way from cover and at almost point-blank range. But for their poor marksmanship, that would have been that.

We were in the front section of six men, half-way across a ploughed field, when automatic fire from at least two Taliban fighters about 80 yards to our front right came crackling past us.

'Go firm!' someone shouted, meaning that we should get down immediately. Then, a heartbeat later, with our noses in the dust and the crackle intensifying: 'We can't stay here. Get to cover, move, move, move!'

Troops blast their way through compounds in the Green Zone

So we staggered up under the weight of our packs and ran. Our luck held, we made the treeline ahead of us, plunged through a screen of bamboo and slid waist-deep into a filthy irrigation canal.

A few feet away on the far bank, the mud walls of a compound loomed. On the other side of the wall, the Taliban were exchanging fire with the rest of 6 Platoon, B Company 2nd Mercian Regiment, who were pinned down out in the field.

As we hauled ourselves onto the far bank of the waterway, our own situation clarified.

It was not a good position to be in. We had no idea how many of the enemy were a wall's width away. With a civilian Afghan interpreter in tow, alongside photographer Jamie Wiseman and myself, three of our party of six were unarmed.

Platoon leader Lieutenant Jem McIlveen turned and put his fingers to his lips to signal silence. The Taliban were that close. 'Do you want a gun?' hissed the sergeant major, who had a pistol as well as his rifle. 'I'm serious - do you want a gun?'

'No, I don't think so, thank you.' 'Well, if you change your mind, just ask. We are in the ****ing s**t here.'

Out in the field, the platoon had brought to bear at least one belt-fed general-purpose machine gun - known to the soldiers as the 'jimpy' - and were hammering away at targets to our immediate left.

It was then that the sergeant major, a grizzled 49-year-old sniper specialist, made his move. As I watched him, he took a hand grenade from a pouch, stepped forward to where the wall of the compound turned a corner and lobbed it over the parapet.

There was tremendous bang, a swirl of dust and the firing from inside the compound ceased.

'Wahoo! Go get 'em, Diamonds!' a Mercian yelled from the field, referring to the regiment's diamond shoulder flash. The tide had turned.

Moments later, an Apache attack helicopter swooped in to strafe a compound nearby, where three Taliban with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) had been spotted. Swinging round, the Apache then launched a Hellfire missile.

Trench warfare: Troops arrange defensive positions after being pinned down by the Taliban

This was just one incident of many in the first day of combat for 6 Platoon.

They were the spearhead infantry unit in the main thrust of Operation Panther's Claw, the biggest British ground offensive against the Taliban.

The troops are operating in the Malgir and Babaji areas, south west of Gereshk, which have been controlled by the Taliban for almost two years.

Mail photographer Jamie and I were embedded with the platoon, as they experienced firefight after firefight, pressing on aggressively through a number of ambushes, in countryside infested with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) - the lethal homemade bombs that have claimed so many British lives.

The first hours had gone well. But as daylight faded, B Company began to take casualties.

By nightfall three men were dead: one Mercian, one Light Dragoon, and an attached Afghan soldier. At least eight others were listed as wounded or suffering from heat exhaustion, several of them in a serious condition.

This is the story of that first day of combat, from the perspective of a British frontline infantry platoon.

Chickens, sheep and goats picked their way among 6 Platoon as they slept in a farmyard on the eve of battle.

If we get contacted (fired upon) I want you to lay down as much firepower as you can. They're going to be the ones who have to keep their heads down, not us.'

Hundreds of B company troops are pictured as they advance into the battle ground on the second day of the advance into the Green Zone

We did not have long to wait. A little after 10.30am the platoon was crossing an irrigation channel, lined with trees, when bursts of accurate AK-47 fire began to crack past us.

The most exposed soldier, Lance Corporal Gaz James, launched himself neck-deep into the water as his colleagues went to ground along the bank and began to seek the shooters.

One of the jimpy machine guns opened up, deafeningly, next to me, at a compound 500 metres across a field. Then the rest of the platoon began to blaze away, calling out sightings and warnings.

'Two possible firing points.'

'But the respite was brief. An interpreter who had a radio to monitor Taliban communications reported that they were about to attack again. The platoon finished crossing the canal and moved on.

We'd travelled just a few hundred yards when a fusillade of small arms fire broke out on our left flank. 'Contact from front. One single firer,' came the message down the line. Our sniper moved up the column and someone remarked: 'He's about to give the Taliban the good news.'

Hot work: already more than 40c with 'dust devil' whirlwinds dancing across the parched, claustrophobic landscape. The platoon, each carrying at least 55kg on their backs, as well as their weapons, pressed on.

More Taliban radio chatter, deciphered by our interpreter. They would attack 'in ten minutes'. An NCO's reply was typically pugnacious: 'What, are they having a f***ing teabreak? Bring it on!'

They tried to. At 12.28pm there was another burst of inaccurate fire. But half an hour later came the ambush in which six of us were cut off and the firefight, which, as I described earlier, ended with the British grenade and Hellfire missile.
After it was over, the sergeant major called for 'dry fags'. Alas, I cannot name him because 'my missus thinks I am safe in an office in Camp Bastion [the British HQ in Helmand]'.

'Good work, boys,' said Lt McIlveen. I noticed that on the back of his rucksack he had sewn the motto: 'Stand Firm. Strike Hard.'

An hour later the platoon was still lying in the shade along the irrigation channel. Taliban radio suggested their fighters were trying to surround us. 'Charming,' drawled one soldier.

As the tension grew, a man in traditional white 'dish dash' robe was seen moving along the opposite treeline. 'Shall I drop him?' asked the sniper.

The lieutenant and his NCOs studied the figure through telescopic sights: 'No, he's an old man. A stubborn old man who won't leave the battlefield.'

With reports coming in that the insurgents were 'ready to attack' us, the lieutenant decided we had to change our position. Immediately.

To avoid being channelled into another likely ambush point, or triggering IEDs in doorways of buildings - a new Taliban tactic - we would blow our way through the perimeter of a large compound that could be seen through the trees.

Engineers placed a mine against the nearest wall and lit the fuse. The terrific concussion left a hole large enough for a man to climb through, past a fiercely blazing stook of cannabis - stockpiled by the Taliban - which had been ignited by the blast.
A soldier takes in news of casualties and the deaths of colleagues a few hundred metres away

Half the platoon pushed on towards a wooded water channel. As they did so, the interpreter announced the Taliban had 'eyes on' (had made visual contact) and were 'ready to attack'. Within seconds all hell broke loose again.

AK-47s crackled and at least one jimpy opened up in reply, interspersed with several explosions.

Silence followed, broken only by the shouts of squaddies and the crowing of a rooster. Then the battle began again and a green flare rose in the blue sky, above the sunflowers, to mark the enemy's location.

Our section caught up with the others in the wood and the situation became more clear.

The rest of the platoon, under Sgt Lee Brough, a father-of-three from Nottingham, was positioned astride the irrigation channels, partially shielded by trees. Jimpy gunners were using the canals as trenches; up to their thighs in muddy water, the weapons resting on the bank.

'More men are coming to help you,' the Taliban were telling their own frontline. Then came the bad news that was to throw a pall over the day's successes began to arrive over the radio from 5 Platoon.

A Rocket Propelled Grenade strike: casualties.

'Our lads?' someone asks anxiously from the canal.

A calm, clear voice came across the radio. What he said stunned into silence the soldiers who heard him.

'I need a heli(copter). I think I have lost a leg.'

An RPG had hit one of the vehicles supporting the Mercians' advance. Private Robert Laws, 18, of B Company 2nd Mercians, was killed and five others wounded.

Communications traffic began to increase. 'Eight minutes to MERT,' (medical evacuation helicopter).

'Keep eyes on our west. They could be moving round.'

'Boys, f***ing concentrate!' On time, an RAF Chinook clattered in low, just as an Apache delivered yet another strafing run on the insurgents to our front.

Almost immediately further bad news arrived via the radio. Two new casualties from a massive IED, both Category A - the most serious level. We had heard the deep boom a few minutes earlier.

One of them, Lance Corporal David Dennis, 29, of the Light Dragoons, died before he could be evacuated.

The men had been helping to get the initial RPG casualties loaded on to the Chinook and were blown up as they walked back to their positions.

'One of them's the OC, I'm afraid.' announced the radio man.

He was referring to the Officer Commanding of B Company, Major Stewart Hill, an inspirational leader and a man of great charm and good humour, who had been seriously wounded in the blast.

Before going into battle he had asked his men: 'Is it to be the insurgents' summer or will it belong to us? Of course, it's going to be ours.'

Then he had quoted Field Marshal Montgomery: 'Decision in action; calmness in crisis.' His men had not let him down. Now he is receiving the first-class medical care he needs. I wish him a swift recovery.

Among the casualties were other men I had chatted to only that morning.

There was the young officer who had allowed me to charge my laptop from the battery of his Spartan armoured vehicle; the senior NCO who'd made sure I had an extra litre of drinking water; the 18-year-old private with the cherubic face, who had joined only in April.

He had said to me: 'I wasn't very good at school so I joined the Army. Me mum was furious I was coming here.'

All casualties; all within the last hour of battle as the light faded.

Sgt Lee Brough from 6 Platoon still needed to get 'the boss' Lt McIlveen and the other men back to the cover of the water course before darkness.

Four smoke bombs were fired from a mortar to cover their withdrawal and, amid furious bursts of fire, they made it safely back across the field.

The platoon rallied in a cucumber patch surrounded by trees. For a minute they rested, the strain of combat etched on their faces. But no time for introspection; we had to get moving, to reach a 'safe' position to make camp.

As we trudged, hundreds of bats swirled about our heads, feeding on the millions of mosquitoes which feasted on the soldiers.

After an hour, a green flare rose into the night sky from the farm compound where we would be spending the night.

Miraculously, it seemed to me at least, 6 Platoon was intact after a bloody day for its parent company.

'These young lads are just incredible,' said Lt McIlveen, as his men bedded down under the stars. 'They suck it in and go back for more.'

Today they will indeed be back for more in the frontline. They have lost comrades - yesterday, the death of a Welsh Guardsman attached to the Light Dragoons was also announced - but the offensive goes on.


BBC 6th. July 2009

Hundreds honour dead UK soldiers

Silence fell over Wootton Bassett as the cortege passed through

Hundreds of people have held a one-minute silence in a Wiltshire market town to pay their respects to two British soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The bodies of Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, 39, from Oxfordshire, and Trooper Joshua Hammond, 18, from Devon, were flown to nearby RAF Lyneham earlier.

A private memorial was held before the coffins passed through Wootton Bassett.

Meanwhile, two soldiers killed in Afghanistan on Saturday were named as Pte Robert Laws and L/Cpl David Dennis.

Shortly after 1100 BST on Monday, the C-17 Globemaster transporting the the bodies of Col Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond landed at the RAF base.

The families of the two men said their own private goodbyes during a memorial at a chapel on the site, before the cortege proceeded to Wootton Bassett.

Col Thorneloe and Trooper Hammond died during a major UK offensive

Later, hundreds of British Legion veterans, shopkeepers and local residents stood in silence as the cars carrying the Union flag-draped coffins slowly drove along the high street.

BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, a personal friend of Col Thorneloe, was in Wootton Bassett to pay tribute to "the best of the best".

Col Thorneloe, from Kirtlington, near Oxford, of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards in Aldershot, and Trooper Hammond, from Plymouth, of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, were travelling as part of a resupply convoy when a bomb blew up their armoured vehicle on Wednesday.

Six other soldiers were injured in the blast near Lashkar Gah in Helmand province.

Prince Charles and Gordon Brown both paid tribute to the men last week.

Major offensive

The men died as UK and US troops launched a major offensive against Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan.

Col Thorneloe was the most senior British army officer to be killed in action since Lt Col Herbert "H" Jones died at Goose Green on the Falklands on 28 May 1982.

Since 2001, a total of 174 UK service personnel have died in Afghanistan.

Tributes have also been paid to two other soldiers who died on Saturday in separate Taliban attacks.

Pte Laws, from 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, died from a rocket-propelled grenade and L/Cpl Dennis, from The Light Dragoons, was killed in an explosion.

A third soldier, known to be from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, died on Sunday in a blast near Gereshk in Afghanistan's Helmand province. He has not yet been named.




Monday 27th July
British Korean Veterans' Association
Annual Service of Commemoration and Parade
Time - 11.30
Venue - Leonard Cheshire Amphitheatre and BKVA Garden
Contact: Mr. Frank Ellison (Hon. Sec BKVA) on  



Israel shelled UK war graves in Gaza

Israeli shelling has caused heavy damage to the Commonwealth war graves in Gaza City, where British and Australian soldiers were buried after dying in the First World War.


Representatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission expressed their "distress'' after The Daily Telegraph sent them photographs of the latest damage at Gaza War cemetery.

The damage is much worse than that caused by Israeli forces in 2006 in an incident that briefly soured British-Israeli relations and led eventually to the Jewish state paying £90,000 in compensation.

A commission spokesman said a full damage assessment would be made as soon as it was once again safe to visit the site, which is north and east of Gaza City.

The Daily Telegraph found at least 287 headstones were damaged, some shattered beyond repair, as the cemetery was hit by at least five Israeli shells and its grass singed in places by white phosphorus.

It is believed at least one unexploded shell is still under the soil at the cemetery, meaning no visitors can be allowed until it has been dealt with.

The staff who tend the cemetery, normally an oasis of calm and well-maintained order in the otherwise chaotic Gaza Strip, had to flee for their lives.

"I sent all the others away because the shelling got too heavy," said Ibrahim Jerradeh, 71, who was made MBE after tending the grave since 1958.

"Only when it got really close and started to hit the cemetery did I leave."

"There were no people here, just graves, so why does Israel fire on this place?" he said.

"It is just a graveyard for all people, why cannot Israel respect that?"

The war grave is the largest in the Gaza Strip, which was the theatre for several major battles during the first world war between British and Ottoman forces.

It is the last resting place for 3,502 soldiers. Most are British, although there are many Australians and at least 700 Turks.

Paul Price, the regional supervisor for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Israel, said repairs would be carried out as soon as possible.

"While we are extremely relieved that our dedicated staff are unhurt, we were distressed to learn that Gaza War Cemetery has suffered considerable damage during the recent fighting," he said.

"We are currently assessing the level of damage and what action may be necessary to restore the cemetery and graves to a standard befitting the sacrifices of those buried and commemorated there.

"The Commission will carry out the work as soon as it is possible to do so."

A spokesman for the Israeli army said that Israeli forces attacked a target "near" the cemetery but he claimed that no Israeli shells were fired at the cemetery. He claimed any damage there was caused when a weapons cache belonging to militants blew up, causing secondary explosions.

While the cemetary was damaged by Israeli armed forces in 2006, it has also faced desecration by Gazans.

Palestinian troublemakers launched an attack in 2004 to protest at the maltreatment of Muslim prisoners by American troops in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, knocking down several headstones.

Last spring another British war grave in the Gaza Strip, located at Deir el Belah, had its commemorative altar blown up by unknown attackers.

Palestinian militants were blamed although local police did not catch anyone.

Sunday 27th July
British Korean Veterans' Association

Annual Commemoration Day

 Programme of events
Concert with Band of the Lancashire Artillery (V) and the Band of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment
Time: 11.30 am
Memorial service
Time: 12.00 noon
Parade and march past
Time: 12.40 pm
Short ceremony and wreath laying
Time: 1.00 pm
Venue: Amphitheatre with parade to BKVA memorial garden for ceremony and wreath laying

Address by Ambassador Chun Yung-woo of the Republic of Korea to the British Veterans of the Korean War

 on the Occasion of the 55th Anniversary of the Korean Armistice at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire (27 July 2008)

General Swindells, President of the British Korean Veterans Association, Colonel George Gadd, National Chairman of the BKVA,

 distinguished veterans of the Korean War, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here and to see you all in good health, high spirits and rigorous military discipline. It is a great pleasure for me to join you at this solemn thanksgiving service to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Korean Armistice. I thank the BKVA for organizing such a splendid event. I also thank Reverend David Brierley for conducting this service. My thanks also go to the Combined Bands of Lancashire Artillery Band and the Band of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment for the wonderful music they presented to us.

This may be the appropriate moment to reflect on the meaning of the Korean Armistice and what the future holds for the Armistice.

I can proudly report to you that, despite countless violations and occasional challenges over the past 55 years, the Armistice has held and holds today. It has served as a cornerstone for maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula, relative and precarious as it may be.

We know that the Armistice was not intended to be a substitute for a lasting peace. It was initially intended to be an interim step toward a permanent peace. Unfortunately, 55 years after the ceasefire we are still struggling to realize a permanent peace on the Peninsula.

Today, the most pressing and intractable challenge to peace and security on the Peninsula and in Northeast Asia comes from North Korea's nuclear ambition. The Six Party Talks (6PT), involving South and North Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan, are working hard to denuclearize North Korea. As the ROK representative to the 6PT until three months ago, I can report to you that we have made meaningful progress and we have a good chance of moving forward in the path of denuclearization.

Once North Korea embarks on the final phase of denuclearization, our plan is to begin a process of Four-Party Peace Talks involving South and North Korea, the US and China in order to turn the existing Armistice regime into a permanent peace regime. This permanent peace regime again will not be a substitute for the unification of the Peninsula. It will instead be another interim regime conducive to a unified Korea. The ultimate goal of your participation in the Korean War will be fully accomplished when Korea becomes one and whole again so that the 24 million people in North Korea can enjoy the same freedom, dignity and prosperity of their 48 million compatriots in the South. The ROK will do all we can to realize this goal during your lifetime.

I take this opportunity to convey the warm greetings and sincere gratitude of the people and government of the ROK to you all and to all those who lost their loved ones in defence of a country so far away from home and which most of you did not know much about at the time. We, the Korean people, remember the heroism and gallantry you displayed on the most brutal battlefields of Korea under the most trying circumstances. We will keep deep in our hearts your sacrifices and those of your comrades in arms who failed to return home.

Over the past 55 years, we, in the Republic of Korea, have built from the devastation of the War a resilient, thriving democracy and a robust, vibrant market economy which is the 12th largest in the world. The ROK is now the beacon of hope of the entire North Korean people who languish under abject poverty and a unique regime that is all too well known.

As such, the ROK has also become an important political and economic partner of the UK. Korean troops fought together with the UK and other coalition partners against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan until last year. We have deployed and maintain the third largest military contingent after the UK in Iraq. Korea is also actively participating in UN peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and is considering what more we can do for the cause of international peace and security.

The ROK is also an active new player in official development assistance. We take our responsibilities in international peace, security and development seriously, because we believe this is the least we can do to pay our debt of gratitude to the UK and 15 other nations which contributed troops to save us from our existential peril.

Apart from the fundamental turn of the fate of my own country, what you did more than 50 years ago in Korea made the world safer from communism and turned the tide of history, eventually leading to the demise or irreversible decline of communism throughout the entire world.

The Republic of Korea will work closely with the UK to make today's world and tomorrow's world safer from the global threat of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

This is the additional assurance I can give you today to make sure that your sacrifices and those of your comrades in arms who could not return home will never be in vain.

Let me conclude by wishing you all the best, good health and long life.
I hope to see you all here next year.


Mr F E Ellison OBE BEM JP


Has anyone got information about this print, presumably taken from a photograph.

It was kindly sent to me in 2006, But I have unfortunately forgotten who sent it.

I would be most grateful if that person, or whoever else has knowledge of it,

would be so kind as to contact me. Thank you,

Charles Haynes, BKVA Webmaster. 


Hidden Gems of the City of London

Thursday July 10th, 6:30pm

Invitation to BKVA Members

See Link Below

AKS London walk.pdf


Monday, January 07, 2008
Max Hastings, writing in the Guardian, states that the prime minister's visceral lack of sympathy for his warriors is beginning to lose him public sympathy

I am drinking coffee this morning out of a mug decorated with caricatures of wounded teddy bears in battledress. If this appears further evidence of my depravity, I should explain that the mugs, like similar mouse mats, keyrings and pad blocks, are sold in aid of Help For Heroes. This is a charity launched three months ago on the initiative of a public-spirited cartoonist named Bryn Parry, who does all the artwork for its merchandise. Its purpose is to raise £5m for facilities for patients at the services' rehabilitatio  centre at Hedley Court in Surrey, where some of the most grievously wounded casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan transfer on leaving hospital. Parry's efforts, aided by a team of unpaid volunteers, have already raised £2.2m towards a new swimming pool complex. The need for this has been highlighted by the behaviour of some civilians, who complained that the presence of Hedley Court amputees at the nearby public baths was spoiling their enjoyment             n.

Parry's fine campaign seems to deserve the support even of those who oppose British commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, in the minds of some of us, it also begs an obvious question: why is the state not funding the pool? Ah, says a voice from the Treasury, there is a longstanding tradition of reinforcing public health provision with charitable support, the fruits of which are visible in every hospital in the land. True enough. But what makes Hedley Court special is that all the occupants of its beds suffered their disabilities fighting for Queen and country

It seems extraordinary that Gordon Brown and the Ministry of Defence can view with equanimity the spectacle of appallingly injured soldiers dependent upon private generosity for the prospect of a swim.Yet this is, of course, of a piece with the wider disconnection between the government and its warriors. Those at the sharp end feel starved of resources. A brisk exchange is soon expected between the prime minister and the Armed Forces' Pay Review Body. The AFPRB is likely to recommend a substantial pay increase, not only to enable those in uniform to catch up with better paid civilian public servants, but also to address difficulties of recruitment and retention. Downing Street, however, is thought most unwilling to endorse a major hike,.This is partly for reasons of precedent, when millions of other state employees stand in the pay queue. But the government is also deeply irritated with the armed forces. It perceives their senior ranks as dominated by Tory voters, apparently bent upon causing political embarrassment.

Those of us highly critical of the management of defence should concede a few points to ministers. First, there has never been a moment of British history when commanders professed themselves satisfied with their means. I recently came across an essay written in 1969 by Professor Laurence Martin of King's College London, entitled British Defence - the Long Recessional. Martin addressed the perceived mismatch between British defence commitments and resources. "There is a disturbing contrast," he wrote, "between the sophisticated precision with which Britain's now impressive system of military management allocates the output side of British defence policy and the crude political axeblows with which the overall size of the effort is determined." Sound familiar? And, as it happened, 1969 policy was in the hands of Denis Healey, the ablest defence secretary of the past 60 years. We might go back further still, to 1958, and a letter to the Times written by a young King's College lecturer, Michael Howard, deploring the climate of ignorance in which defence commitments were made. "Outside the armed forces themselves there is no community of well-informed laymen capable of or interested in developing any kind of expertise ... Public debate is left very largely to passionate but ill ... informed ideologues of the left, and equally passionate and barely better-informed supporters of government policy, often themselves retired service officers, on the right."

We should not, therefore, delude ourselves that there was ever a halcyon era in which commanders were content, and politicians demonstrably informed and sympathetic. Moreover, the Treasury is absolutely right in supposing that defence budgets are prey to chronic waste, most of it on ill-judged procurement.

suggest one small but useful gambit that could deliver handsome public relations benefits to today's chiefs of staff. All three services possess an absurdly extravagant number of senior officers. If the chiefs announced one morning that they were axing say, a third of generals, admirals and RAF marshals - which could be done without the slightest loss of operational effectiveness - they would demonstrate that no stone was being left unturned to make best use of squeezed budgets. The symbolic value of such an initiative would be out of all proportion to its financial significance.

There are, then, a few points that the defence secretary, Des Browne, might make to his own advantage. But none mitigates the core facts: British forces are trying to do too much with too little in Iraq and Afghanistan; Gordon Brown's promised 1.5% real-terms spending increase will be nowhere near enough to make the numbers add up, without slashing something big

I suspect that the prime minister's attitude is rooted, first, in a visceral lack of sympathy for the armed forces, whose activities he regards as getting in the way of the real business of government. Second, he may cling to a delusion that, once Tony Blair's imperialistic follies have been purged from the body politic, Britain will no longer fight wars in places like Afghanistan. More soldiers will therefore soon become unnecessary.

Yet the 21st century, which has begun inauspiciously, is unlikely to become more stable or secure. There seems every reason to suppose that Britain will indeed need soldiers fighting and peacekeeping abroad, hopefully in better causes than Iraq, through the decades ahead. There are good arguments for reducing Britain's inventories of fast jets, anti-submarine escorts, maybe even heavy tanks. But it seems overwhelmingly likely that we shall need as many helicopters, transport aircraft and boots on the ground as we can afford.

Britain's infantry still commands the respect of the world, and is vital to sustaining the credibility of the armed forces. We need more footsoldiers, and to take better care of those we have. The apparent indifference of Gordon Brown irks the army. No government that really cared about defence would entrust its political stewardship to the likes of Des Browne, with the added insult that he doubles as Scottish secretary.

Until a few months ago, it seemed unlikely that the mistreatment of defence would cost votes. The government could therefore afford to shrug off its critics. Now, however, there are many indications that the public has awoken to what is going on - or rather not going on - and dislikes it. The shoddy treatment of casualties, above all, has focused attention on the soulless, often apparently mindless, conduct of the MoD. Now that the prime minister is fighting for his political life, he may find it prudent to offer a little Help For Heroes himself, instead of leaving it all to Bryn Parry.

I miss you Charlie

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