Before the battle started on the ground, RAF Tornados, flying high above the central Helmand Valley, began gathering intelligence by scanning the terrain below with targeting pods, searching for signs of insurgent activity.
The information was instantly relayed to mission headquarters in a secure bunker at Kandahar airbase, where analysts monitoring banks of computers began to sift through the intelligence and relay vital information back to troops on the front line.
US and British spy planes added to the developing intelligence picture, hoping to pick up or disrupt communication between Taliban commanders.
The first kills were made by unmanned Predator aircraft and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, which targeted men seen laying roadside bombs and setting up anti-aircraft guns. Eleven were killed in the strikes. The early assaults took place shortly after
2am local time yesterday (9.30pm on Friday, British time) when troops from the US Marine Corps seized a series of canal crossings south of Nad-e-Ali, a main population centre of central Helmand.
Within half an hour US, British and Afghan special forces seized and secured dozens of helicopter landing sites. As the first Chinooks approached at 2.25am, the night sky was “illuminated” with “black light” from infra-red flares — invisible to the naked eye but vital to pilots with night vision equipment — dropped from US Marine Harrier AV-8B jets flying high above.
At about 4am, the most complex phase of the operation began when RAF Chinooks crammed with soldiers from the 1st battalion the Royal Welsh left Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, for the Pegasus landing zone in the Taliban stronghold of Showal in the Chah-e-Anjir area.
As the helicopters landed in clouds of dust, soldiers stormed into the night, heading for their rallying positions before moving off to seize their objectives.
Almost immediately the helicopters were again airborne, jinking their way through the black sky to avoid anti-aircraft fire which intelligence had suggested would be the most dangerous threat.
The most critical phase of the early “break-in” battle was under way and commanders had warned that if a Chinook “went down” the mission would not be aborted. As the British force began to secure their area, a 1,000-strong combined force of members of the US Marine Corps and the Afghan National Army landed in Marjah, an area where it was believed the Taliban would stand and fight and casualties could be taken.
Over the following 90 minutes, more marines arrived in waves of CH-53 Super Stallion transport helicopters.
By daybreak, hundreds more soldiers began to enter the area by land, using mobile bridges to cross streams and irrigation ditches. Heavily armoured mine-sweeping trucks and special tanks carved a path through a belt of makeshift bombs buried around the town.
“We’re going to take Marjah away from the Taliban,” said Brig Gen Lawrence Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. This could result in “a fundamental change in Helmand and, by extension, the entire nation of Afghanistan” he had said before the battle.
As the Nato and Afghan troops gingerly picked their way through the treacherous terrain, Apache helicopter gunships provided top cover, ready to strike if any resistance was encountered.
Other objectives throughout central Helmand were being seized by US Marines, who faced little or no Taliban resistance. To the north of the Americans, hundreds of British troops from the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards battle groups pushed forward in columns of Mastiff armoured vehicles into the formerly Taliban-controlled area of Babaji known as “The Pear”.
Resistance was minimal. Only the distant chatter of machine-guns or the rumble of an explosion reminded them of an enemy presence. By 4.15am, the units had linked up and secured another objective.
"This is a pretty good presentation of the plan of battle that unfolded. Modern military operations are more complicated than an opera and require equal precision. To pull them off with few glitches is to overcome the natural friction of such movements. It helps when the enemy is as incoherent as the Taliban have so far demonstrated in their own defense."
Author: Merv Benson