Sleeping in a container on Artillery Hill

At work at Artillery Hill and, below, lunchtime and the view from the base.
At work at Artillery Hill and, below, lunchtime and the view from the base.

Most of the 500 21 Engineers’ sappers in Helmand are based in Camp Bastion – the biggest base in the province – but many live and work in the dozens of smaller bases and checkpoints scattered around the area.

Their work sees them building, refurbishing, strengthening and, as British forces get ready to leave Afghanistan by 2014, demolishing the bases.

And while the bigger bases like Camp Bastion have become established camps over the last 10 years, boasting heated tents and hot running water, life in the austere small bases can be very different.

Among these smaller bases is Artillery Hill, normally home to an Afghan National Army unit which has moved out to let sappers from 21 Engineers rebuild parts of their base, and strengthen its defences.

Conditions at Artillery Hill are sparse – sleeping quarters are in metal shipping containers, and food comes from “rat packs” - or Army issue 24-hour ration packs.

The hilltop site of the base was home to a military base of one sort or another for many years before the current forces arrived 10 years ago, and its name comes from the Russian shells that pepper the land around the base and are regularly dug up.

Twenty-two-year-old Lance Corporal Richard Cummings has spent the last few weeks working at Artillery Hill.

He said: “We’re all working hard because we want to get this job done quickly. It’s pretty harsh here - sleeping in the shipping containers is quite cold.”

“This is my second tour Afghanistan and a lot is different. I was in this location last time - we built a small compound which we just took down.”

Returning to the same bases nearly two years later has given him an interesting perspective on their job in Afghanistan.

“I wouldn’t say it’s drastically changed though. I think the danger is still out there, it just depends where you are,” LCpl Cummings added.

“It’s quite weird to come back to the same places. I thought I’d know the place, but when I arrived I realised the bases have changed a lot - there’s only a few small things that are the same this time.”

Close by is Patrol Base Clifton – another small base the Engineers are rebuilding and refurbishing.

It’s currently manned by a Royal Marines unit and the sappers are working on the base before it, like dozens of other sites across the region, is handed over to Afghan forces as they take on responsbility for security in Helmand.

Major Mike Scanlon, officer commanding the Marines unit that mans Clifton, praised the work the Ripon-based Engineers have done for his men.

He said: “We are a Navy unit, but if we have to work with anyone in the Army, we want it to be the Engineers. They are hard working and great to have around.

“We had a date set for this base to be handed over to the Afghan forces, but the Engineers are so forward looking we are in danger of being ready too soon.”

But it’s the work they do to make life more bearable on the austere small bases that really wins praise, Major Scanlon added.

“Without them, life would be significantly more austere than it is. Even when they’ve got major construction tasks to do, we can ask them to take on smaller jobs and they will always find time.

“They’ve fixed all the showers and washing areas here, and they’ve helped build a welfare area with benches and seats, and computer desks.”

Elsewhere in the British forces’ patch of Helmand is Patrol Base Wahid - a Gurkha base on the banks of the Neb canal. Like every other base in Helmand Wahid’s walls and fortifications are made from the ubiquitous “Hesco” metal baskets, filled with stone and gravel, and the camp is littered with pieces of furniture - and even decorations - made from spare Hesco basket metalwork.

Like small bases across the province, it is home to a small detachment of Royal Engineers including Cpl Phil Holmyard

Cpl Holmyard, who married wife Louise only four weeks before deploying to Afghanistan, said he volunteered for the tour because, he said “there’s a job to be done” and he wanted the chance to serve in Afghanistan one last time, before British troops are due to pull out in 2014.

With his troop Cpl Holmyard too has been back to some of the bases they saw on their last deployment - including the tiny Patrol Base Four.

“We went back to PB Four two weeks ago to strip out a check point nearby. The whole time we were there we didn’t hear any gunfire, but I remember going out on patrols last time and we’d be shot at before we’d gone 20 metres,” he said.

Serving alongside the Engineers at PB Wahid are soldiers from another Yorkshire based regiment - 4th Regiment Royal Artillery - usually based at Alanbrooke Barracks in Topcliffe, near Thirsk.

Among them is Gunner Matthew Turton originally from Barnsley, who is on his first operational tour. It has, he said, turned out very differently to what he expected.

“It’s a lot quieter than I thought it would be, and I didn’t expect hot food. I thought we’d be on ration packs.”

While the soldiers at PB Wahid are fed by army chefs, operating out of a tented kitchen the Engineers rebuilt when they arrived three months ago, rather than Army-issue ration packs, the welfare packages they receive from family and friends - and in Gnr Turton’s case his old school - as well as from strangers in the UK, are still welcomed.

“It’s nice to feel like people care about us and are behind what we are doing. It makes it feel like we are not doing this for nothing,” Gnr Turton added.