Covert Gunners Recall Tough Helmand Tour
(Source: UK Ministry of Defence; issued Oct. 9, 2008)
The Sphinx convoy of vehicles parked during a break in patrol in Afghanistan (UK MoD photo Courtesy of 4/73 Battery)
At the same time as Prince Harry's presence in Afghanistan earlier this year was gaining all the media attention a group of gunners were mounting the British Army's longest recorded desert patrol since the Second World War.

In the lead up to the assault on Musa Qaleh in December 2007, members of 4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery provided vital intelligence for the upcoming operation and even liaised with the young Prince to call in supply drops.

The specialist unit lost two men during the deployment to Afghanistan - half the casualties it has suffered in its entire history - but its troops were ready, willing and able to take the fight back to the Taliban:

"We had a tough time last year," said patrol commander Staff Sergeant Tim Godfrey, adding that teams from the Yorkshire-based battery will be exercising in Germany and Belize in the coming months. "It gives us the luxury that all of our patrol commanders will have Afghan experience."

An elite unit within the Royal Artillery, 4/73 Battery were formed in 1982 to provide commanders with crucial battlefield intelligence on enemy positions and are tasked with directing artillery fire deep into enemy-held territory.

After returning from Afghanistan in July 2008, the unit received a hero's welcome during a homecoming parade in Catterick. Soldiers from the battery also held a memorial for their two fallen comrades.

The troops' subsequent leap back into training heralds expected future Op Herrick deployments, during which they will provide a different but still much-needed function:

"Instead of gathering intelligence and surveillance, we will be attached to units to provide offensive support fire artillery, close air support and protection for ground troops," explained SSgt Godfrey.

"Basically our job is to make sure that there is as little collateral damage as possible and no friendly fire incidents."

As well as suffering two fatalities, the battery also had seven personnel seriously injured by enemy actions. Included in this number was Lance Sergeant Glynn Bellman (Coldstream Guards), who has been attached to 4/73 Battery for the past two years.

LSgt Bellman broke his back, leg and ankle when a mine blast killed the top gunner of the vehicle he was travelling in and needed major surgery as a result of his many injuries.

But after returning to work on limited function just seven months later, he is pleased that a quicker-than-expected recovery has opened the door for him to get back out onto the front line:

"I am now exercising again, which shocked my doctors. It's a miraculous recovery really," he said. "I love my job and I just want to get back and hopefully deploy next year with the rest of the lads.

"The way I see it is that if I sat feeling sorry for myself it won't help anyone. I used my determination to get back to work."

Another Coldstream Guard attached to 4/73 Battery, Lance Corporal Matthew Lindon, also had first-hand experience of southern Afghanistan's deadly minefields during the tour.

The junior Non-Commissioned Officer was travelling in a convoy that suffered a double mine strike, killing one soldier and wounding a further six. The incident had a huge effect on morale, but such was the importance of the battery's mission that LCpl Lindon and his colleagues pressed ahead with their duties around Musa Qaleh:

"It took about seven hours to work our way out of the minefield," he said. "Our wagons were stuck in location and we knew the Taliban were likely to attack us.

"We knew we had months of the tour left to go, driving in the same area and seeing the devastation that mines cause. But I think the fact that we just got on with it showed the courage of a British soldier."

Although the battery's historical role is a covert one, many of 4/73's troops were left with a general sense of disappointment on their return to Britain.

While Prince Harry's time calling in air strikes and supply drops in Helmand dominated column inches for several months, their work - which proved to be instrumental in capturing Musa Qaleh - went largely unnoticed.

But despite this, the specialist battery are confident their operational experience and expertise will continue to help make headway - if not the headlines - in Helmand province.

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