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Special Air Service (SAS) - Operation Trent

Dateline : November 2001, Afghanistan

In the midst of America's retaliation for 9/11, a relatively small force of UKSF personnel were soon to see action in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan.

The SBS were to get embroiled in one of the bloodiest and most controversial actions of the war when they assisted in putting down the uprising of Taliban prisoners at Qala-i-janghi. (external link)

As for the SAS, 2 full squadrons, A & G, had been deployed as part of Operation DETERMINE, a reconnaissance and bomb damage assessment mission. Whilst better than being stuck at home on SP (anti-terrorist) duty or on training, as was the fate of B & D squadrons, OP DETERMINE was still as dull as ditch water. It seemed that the Americans were wary of committing ground troops in force, preferring to rely on air power coordinated with Northern Alliance troops.

In late November, the SAS received orders to attack a large opium storage facility / Al-Qaeda base located close to Afghanistan's southern border with Pakistan. 60-100 fanatical Al-Qaeda fighters were holed up and dug in around the heavily-fortified base.

download Google Earth KMZ file of the target area | get google earth

For the Americans, the operation was low priority. They were more interested in finding Bin Laden and no high-value Al-Qaeda or Taliban figures were thought to be on site. If it wasn't for British pressure, the US would probably have decided to decimate the base from the air. UK planners suspected that the base would yield some vital intelligence, which would require men to go in and get.

In order to co-ordinate with US air strikes, the attack would have to go in mid-morning. A frontal attack on an elevated fortified position in broad daylight, without any real intelligence or close reconnaissance was extremely dangerous, some might even say, foolhardy. But the orders required an attack as soon as possible and so the SAS planners went to work. The plan was as follows:

  1. Air Troop would HALO jump into the desert to secure and mark out a temporary landing zone (TLZ) for the 6 C130 planes to ferry A and G Squadrons into the arena

  2. Both squadrons, some 120+ men in 36 vehicles, mostly heavily-armed Land Rovers (known as 'Pinkies'), would ten drive from the TLZ to a forming up point (FUP).

  3. At 11:00am local time, G Squadron would form a Fire Support Base (FSB) and engage the Al-Qaeda positions at stand-off range

  4. American aircraft would destroy the opium depots.

  5. Undercover from the FSB and air strikes, A Squadron would assault the opium base and sweep for intelligence materials

  6. Under cover of the FSB, A squadron would withdraw from contact followed by G Squadron.

On the night before the main insertion, Air troop performed the Regiment's first ever HALO insertion into enemy territory. The 8-man team jumped from a C130 cargo plane at high altitude, only opening their chutes at the last moment. Once down and secure, Air Troop tested the proposed TLZ, ensuring that the desert could support the weight of fully-laden Hercules transports. Next, they marked out the outline of the landing strip. With one part of the team keeping an eye out from within a concealed OP, the rest of the team hid in a LUP. When A & G squadron arrived in the 2 waves of 6 US C130s, Air Troop guided them in using infra-red torches.

Before the huge transport planes could come to a full stop, their rear ramps were down and SAS Land Rovers were speeding out and off, moving into a all-round defensive position. Within half an hour the C130s were away, only to soon return with the rest of the SAS force. Not long after that, the SAS columns were organized to move out. Aside from the Pinkies, several Acmat trucks and a number of scout motorcycles were brought along. Acting as motherships, the Acmats were piled high with spare ammo, fuel and water. The motorbikes were used to scout ahead of the columns, proving the routes in and out and keeping a look out for the enemy who could be laying in ambush anywhere along the route. Under the cover of darkness, the men and machines of A & G squadrons, the largest wartime concentration of SAS firepower, headed off to a laying up position (LUP) to await the time to move on for the attack.

The drive to the forming up point (FUP) was uneventful apart from the loss of one Pinkie due to engine failure, which was left behind.

As the Land Rover columns maneuvered into position they visually acquired their objective : a group of buildings at the base of a small mountain. The Al-Qaeda defenders soon spotted the dust thrown up by the SAS column and started arcing RPG fire down in their direction.

The Pinkies of G Squadron lined up and poured suppressive fire onto the Al Qaeda positions. A Squadron pushed forward, driving as far as possible before de-bussing and moving on foot. Using classic infantry advance-to-contact drills, the SAS split into 2-man teams. As one group 'went firm' and fired at the enemy, the second group would advance before itself going firm. This leap frog-like maneuvering is known as 'pepper-potting'.

The FSB continued to provide suppressing fire, pounding the Al-Qaeda defences with their HMGs, GPMGs, MK19s and Milans. Snipers armed with L82A1 Barret rifles engaged Al-Qaeda targets, accounting for many of the enemy dead.

In a pre-arranged attack, US Navy F18 Hornets fired Maverick missiles into the Opium storage depots, destroying them and the £50,000,000 worth of opium inside. On a later pass, a potentially disastrous blue-on-blue incident was narrowly avoided when on F18 strafed an SAS position. Luckily, no one was hit. US aircraft also provided on-call close air support (CAS) to the advancing SAS troops. Several bunkers that had pinned down A Squadron were obliterated by the bombers.

As A Squadron closed on the fortified positions several SAS troopers were wounded, one seriously.The Al-Qaeda fighters were not particularly well trained but they were fanatical fighters and most relished the fight. The SAS had to fight hard for every inch of progress. Eventually, the A Squadron assault force reached the objective. They moved in and cleared the HQ building, gathering all intelligence materials they could find.

The battle had taken 4 hours. Scores of dead Al-Qaeda fighters littered the battlefield. The Regiment had taken relatively light casualties.

The SAS then carried out a tactical withdrawal, covering each other as they pulled off target. Once a safe distance from the scene of the battle, the 4 wounded were casevaced out by a US Chinook helicopter.

Related Book :

Ultimate Risk
by Mark Nicol

This is a truly fascinating and gripping account of Operation Trent, without which this page could not exist.

The operation is recounted in exquisite detail. Nicols focuses on several key characters and the reader follows them through the battle.

For those wanting the FULL story of Operation Trent, this book comes highly recommended.

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