RICHARD PENDLEBURY witnessed the courage of the men of 2 Mercians in Afghan conflict.


We were lying along a thin tree line by a ditch, having just come under accurate machine gun fire for the first time that day.

It was a little after 10.30am and hot. Very hot, certainly, by the standards of Derby, Nottingham and Worcester, where the recruiting officers had welcomed the soldiers beside me.

Not so hot, yet, for a summer’s day in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Then there was a whoosh, and an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) came streaking across the open ground towards us, but far too high and wide to trouble us.

‘Who fired that?’ wondered some humorist with an East Midlands accent and his nose in the dirt. ‘Stevie Wonder?’

Laughter. And outgoing rifle fire. I recall a large white butterfly flitting across the British frontline. Then came a situational assessment by the senior NCOs who are the mother hens and de facto masters of any battalion.

‘Everyone OK that side, Webby?’ bellowed one from the far right of the platoon’s gun line. ‘Yeah, everyone OK here,’ sang out Webby on the far left. But it wouldn’t remain OK, that day almost 12 years ago. Far from it.

By the time dusk came, the Officer Commanding B Company, 2nd Battalion of The Mercian Regiment was in a coma with shrapnel in his brain and not expected to live.

The Company Sergeant Major was also wounded and out of the fight. As was the attached special forces’ forward air controller.

The officer in charge of 2 Mercian’s supporting armoured vehicles had had a leg blown off, and a lance corporal of the same regiment had been killed. So, too, was the second youngest Mercian on the battlefield that day, along with an Afghan soldier attached to the Mercians for the operation. Eight other Mercians were wounded or stricken by the heat, including another teenager.

Horrible. None of us who were there — Mail photographer Jamie Wiseman was also embedded and took a set of extraordinary and highly acclaimed images — will forget what happened between sunrise and sunset on July 4, 2009.

This week, it was announced that the 2nd Battalion is to be the only major unit wholly disbanded as part of the British Army’s latest reduction in manpower.

This week, it was announced that the 2nd Battalion is to be the only major unit wholly disbanded as part of the British Army’s latest reduction in manpower.

The 2nd Battalion of The Mercian Regiment was the spearhead infantry formation of the final push of Operation Panther’s Claw — the biggest ground offensive and bloodiest fight of Britain’s most recent war.

In the end the Taliban didn’t beat 2 Mercian. That battle honour will go to HM Government’s 2021 Defence Review.

This week, it was announced that the 2nd Battalion is to be the only major unit wholly disbanded as part of the British Army’s latest reduction in manpower.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that ‘no cap badges will be lost’ and that 2 Mercian would simply be ‘amalgamated’ into the regiment’s 1st Battalion.

That’s all very well on paper. But 2 Mercian has its own unique history and esprit de corps, having previously been the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, itself formed in 1970 from two county regiments that dated back to 1881 and further into the mists of time.

Daily Mail writer Richard Pendlebury, embedded with 6 Platoon, B company, 2 Mercians, scrambles for cover in the first 'Contact' with Taliban fighters of the day

Daily Mail writer Richard Pendlebury, embedded with 6 Platoon, B company, 2 Mercians, scrambles for cover in the first ‘Contact’ with Taliban fighters of the day

But they aren’t fashionable, glamorous or well-connected like the Coldstream Guards, Black Watch or the Paras. And so the axe has fallen on the ‘Heart of England’s Infantry’, as the MoD website refers to the Mercians.

How best to mark the passing of the admirable but undervalued 2nd Battalion? Perhaps by recounting the hardest engagement in its relatively short history.

The Mail was there to witness it.

B Company, 2 Mercian and their two embedded journalists spent the night before ‘D Day’ bivouacked among chickens on the dirt floor of a farm compound.

Flares and tracers lit up the sky as Danish tanks exchanged fire with Taliban fighters across the nearby Nahr-e-Bagra canal.

Troops from B company, 2 Mercians, arrange defensive positions

Troops from B company, 2 Mercians, arrange defensive positions 

That waterway would be the Mercian’s start line the next morning; its objective was to push into the ‘green zone’ beyond the canal and capture territory around Babaji that had been held by the Taliban for the previous two years.

The men had already been addressed by their OC, Major Stewart Hill. I heard him put this question to them: ‘Is it to be the insurgents’ summer or will it belong to us?’ He answered it himself: ‘Of course, it’s going to be ours.’

The Mercians were not Major Hill’s parent regiment. He was attached to the 2nd Battalion for its Afghan tour. Nevertheless, Panther’s Claw would provide the defining, indeed final, action of his military career. What happened there continues to have a profound impact on his life to this day.

His Company Sergeant Major was Paul Muckle, a caring, good-humoured father-of-seven from Redditch, Worcestershire. Lieutenant Jem McIlveen, 26, would lead 6 Platoon, with whom Jamie and I were embedded.

Two soldiers from B company died on the same day, one in a Taliban R.P.G attack on a Scimitar Vehicle, and a second in an I.E.D strike

Two soldiers from B company died on the same day, one in a Taliban R.P.G attack on a Scimitar Vehicle, and a second in an I.E.D strike

On McIlveen’s back pack was stitched the Mercian motto: ‘Stand Firm, Strike Hard.’ He expected his men to do just that.

In battle, a battalion is measured by its men rather than its history or silverware in the officers’ mess. But some of the soldiers there that day were no more than boys.

The two youngest were Pte Danny Eaglesfield from Derby and his best friend from training, Pte Robbie Laws of Worcestershire.

Eaglesfield was only 5ft 4in tall and, with his freckles, looked even younger than his years. Before the battle, he told me: ‘I wasn’t very good at school so I joined the Army. Me mum was furious I was coming here.’

He had met Laws at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate when they were both 16. In 2009, their battalion deployed to Afghanistan without them because they were still too young to go to war. Only once Laws turned 18 that February and Eaglesfield the following month were they sent to Helmand.

B company, 2 Mercians, attached to The Light Dragoon Battle Group pictured before the start of their Green Zone battles as part of Operation Panther Claw

B company, 2 Mercians, attached to The Light Dragoon Battle Group pictured before the start of their Green Zone battles as part of Operation Panther Claw

Perhaps to keep them out of harm’s way that day, the two teenagers were deployed as infantry dismounts; carried into combat inside one of the accompanying armoured vehicles of the Light Dragoons. The worst place to be, it transpired.

Taliban ambushes began soon after we forded the canal. Later that morning while crossing a field, 6 Platoon came under fire from two automatic weapons at almost point-blank range. In seeking cover, our section ran, then jumped into an irrigation ditch below the walls of the very compound from which the Taliban was engaging the rest of the platoon. There were six of us there, with our backs to that wall, including an Afghan interpreter. Lt McIlveen put his fingers to his lips for silence. The Taliban was only the width of a brick away.

A grizzled NCO sniper offered me his sidearm — which I declined — and the whispered observation: ‘Well, if you change your mind, just ask. We are in the ****ing s**t here.’

9 A Spartan Armoured Recconnaisance Vehicle pictured on the second day of the advance

9 A Spartan Armoured Recconnaisance Vehicle pictured on the second day of the advance 

 Then he tossed a hand grenade over the wall. ‘That was a friendly grenade,’ I remember Lt McIlveen reporting over the radio after the explosion which enveloped us in dust; and the Taliban firing from inside the compound ceased.

The battle moved on and the temperature rose further still. All seemed well for 2 Mercian until the last hour of daylight.

By then, McIlveen’s platoon was using a number of other ditches as a trench line. The lieutenant himself had pushed forward with a couple of men and was pinned down in the field beyond.

‘More men are coming to help you,’ the Taliban was telling its own frontline over the radio. Two fields away from 6 Platoon, Major Hill, his HQ element and the armour support were also in contact with the insurgents.

The battle moved on. All seemed well for 2 Mercian until the last hour of daylight

The battle moved on. All seemed well for 2 Mercian until the last hour of daylight

The sequence of disasters which marked that day began.

The Taliban fired an RPG at the lead Spartan vehicle. It scored a direct hit with devastating effect.

Laws and Eaglesfield were sitting in the rear compartment. Laws was killed by the blast and Eaglesfield wounded.

Over the radio, we heard the grievously injured vehicle commander say, quite calmly: ‘I need a helo (helicopter). I think I have lost a leg.’  

This was Guy Disney of the Light Dragoons who did indeed lose his limb and later worked with Prince Harry at the Walking With the Wounded charity. 

A medical evacuation helicopter came in, under fire, and collected the casualties.

Two Scimitar Armoured Recconnaisance Vehicles and a Spartan Tank (centre) pictured on the second day of the advance into the Green Zone

Two Scimitar Armoured Recconnaisance Vehicles and a Spartan Tank (centre) pictured on the second day of the advance into the Green Zone

Major Hill and his men were walking away from the landing zone when one of the soldiers in their group, Lance Corporal David Dennis, 29, of the Light Dragoons, stepped on an enormous IED (improvised explosive device). The explosion killed him instantly and effectively wiped out 2 Mercian’s HQ element.

We heard the detonation from our own position several hundred yards away.

Two pieces of shrapnel from a radio antennae lodged in Major Hill’s brain. CSM Muckle was less badly injured but unable to carry on. Others were also hurt.

Another Chinook helicopter had to be called in, again under fire. Smoke bombs were fired from a small mortar in our ditch to allow Lt McIlveen and his men to retreat under furious covering fire. The platoon rallied as darkness fell. And that was the end of the momentous day.

That night, I was told that Major Hill was not expected to live.

He did, but his life changed dramatically, the brain injury being sufficiently debilitating to see him discharged from that Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Engineers run from an explosion as they blast their way through compounds in the Green Zone

Engineers run from an explosion as they blast their way through compounds in the Green Zone

 His initial struggles to adjust were painful for his family. Along the way we became friends. Today he is studying for a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and works as a motivational speaker and portrait painter.

He has also appeared on the West End stage, directed by Trevor Nunn, and seen his war poetry published. Stewart is the very image of a renaissance man.

He is deeply unhappy about the decision this week. ‘We have been left with one infantry unit for the whole of Middle England,’ he says. ‘To see the decline from three battalions drawn from the heart of England (which The Mercian Regiment fielded on its formation in 2007) to just one is very sad.’

He added: ‘I had the best two years of my career with 2 Mercian. I wonder how the families of the soldiers who were killed in action feel?’ In fact, he’d just received a text message from Jayne Elliott (her teenage son Gavin was killed serving in the battalion later in the 2009 tour): ‘Another blow for us,’ she wrote.

Stewart said: ‘In its short life, the officers and soldiers of 2 Mercian served repeatedly in Afghan, suffering some of the highest casualty rates of any unit. I hope those sacrifices are not forgotten.’

A soldier from 6 platoon, B company, 2 Mercians, takes in news of casualties and the deaths of colleagues a few hundred meters away in another part of the battlefield

A soldier from 6 platoon, B company, 2 Mercians, takes in news of casualties and the deaths of colleagues a few hundred meters away in another part of the battlefield

After the tour, his great ally and friend, CSM Muckle, rose to become the highest-ranking NCO in the British Army. He was then commissioned an officer and promoted to Major. He is still a serving soldier.

I caught up with Danny Eaglesfield a few days after the battle as he was recovering from his wounds. He had already spoken by phone to his dead friend’s mother, Wendy Laws. ‘I told Mrs Laws that when we joined up and did not know anyone else in the unit, Robbie and I looked out for each other. We looked after each other right to the end,’ he said.

Eaglesfield served another eight years and another Afghan tour before he left the army to start a family. He now works at the Toyota factory in Derby, where in 2019 he organised a reunion for B Company to mark the tenth anniversary of Panther’s Claw.

The last time they had all gathered together in uniform was at Sandringham in November 2009, when they received their campaign medals from Prince Charles. 

Eaglesfield is ‘gutted’ by his old battalion’s disbandment. ‘I gave everything I had to the regiment.’ Others gave their lives. His best friend Robbie Laws would have turned 30 last month. Eaglesfield reached that milestone himself yesterday, a bittersweet week indeed.

Lt Jem McIlveen, Platoon Leader of 6 Platoon, B company, 2 Mercians, pictured during a day of fighting the Taliban. Lt McIlveen left the Army in 2013 and now works in tech for Amazon

Lt Jem McIlveen, Platoon Leader of 6 Platoon, B company, 2 Mercians, pictured during a day of fighting the Taliban. Lt McIlveen left the Army in 2013 and now works in tech for Amazon 

Jem McIlveen left the Army in 2013, got married, had two children, moved to America and back, and now works in tech for Amazon. He, too, is saddened by the demise of 2 Mercian, which he called ‘arbitrary’ given its fighting record and high manning levels.

He also spoke of his pride in those who served with him and the families of those they lost.

They were still a source of inspiration and sadness. ‘Look at Danny Eaglesfield returning to the front line, Paul Muckle rising to the highest rank, and all that Guy and Stewart have accomplished since that tour,’ he told me. ‘And the incredible charitable work Wendy Laws continues to do in memory of her dear son Robbie.’

His admiration for 2 Mercian is not skewed by being one of their own. It was shared by one of the most respected foreign soldiers of the modern age. In late 2009, the U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, gave a speech in London about the war.

He said: ‘Within my office, I have a picture of a British battle group (in Helmand). I keep that picture because, when I looked into their eyes, which were bloodshot with fatigue, I remember the extraordinary professionalism, competence and sheer courage of those young men.’

The men in that photograph so dear to General McChrystal? Soldiers of 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment. The name now fades into history. But the memories and comradeship live on.

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