Operations in Afghanistan

Warrant Officer Class 2 Michael Norman Williams and Private Joe John Whittaker killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the deaths of Warrant Officer Class 2 Michael Williams of 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (2 PARA) and Private Joe Whittaker from 4th Battalion The Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan on Tuesday 24 June 2008.

WO2 Michael Williams was killed during a firefight. He was on a deliberate operation against the Taliban in the Upper Sangin Valley when he was fatally wounded.

Private Joe Whittaker, a reserve soldier who was attached to 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, was killed by a suspected Improvised Explosive Device.

Sergeant Major Michael Williams (left) and Private Joe Whittaker (All rights reserved.)
WO2 Michael Williams (left) and Private Joe Whittaker (All rights reserved.)

Following their deaths, 2 PARA’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Joe O’Sullivan, paid the following tribute:

Yesterday the battalion lost one of its most senior and its most junior soldiers. Sergeant Major Michael Williams joined the regiment in 1986, Private Joe Whittaker was a reserve soldier from 4 PARA and part of a 48 strong contingent of 4 PARA integrated into 2 PARA Battle Group for our tour.

Sergeant Major Williams died commanding C (Bruneval) Company’s Fire Support Group while the Company was in contact in the Upper Sangin Valley. Private Whittaker was part of a mine detection team and was killed helping to ensure that the large vehicle resupply convoys could reach our Forward Operating Bases.

Sergeant Major Williams had given most of his working life to the Parachute Regiment; Private Whittaker was just starting his working life. Sergeant Major Williams was a Warrant Officer and part of that very special group of men, the Senior Non-Commissioned Officers of the battalion, who are its glue and its heart, and who lead the engine room of the Sergeants’ Mess.

Private Whittaker had already passed the Army Officers Selection Board, and was soon to begin his training to become an Army Officer and, he hoped, an Apache pilot.

These two men were very different in age, experience and rank, but both were inspired by the challenge of service with the Parachute Regiment, and the very difficult task that confronts us each day here in Northern Helmand. Both were respected and both will be sorely missed by their friends and the Battle Group, but most of all by their families.

They join five other brave members of 2 PARA who have given their lives in recent weeks. The Regimental Motto is ‘ready for anything’; Sergeant Major Michael Williams and Private Joe Whittaker were ready for the risks they calmly accepted on the day that they died. They are an example to the rest of us, and their courage and commitment will spur us on to give our best to improve the situation here, no matter how difficult or dangerous other people may tell us that will be. Utrinque Paratus.

Defence Secretary Des Browne said:

I was deeply saddened to hear about the deaths of Company Sergeant Major Michael Williams and Private Joe Whittaker. They both died in the most heroic of circumstances - Company Sergeant Major Williams was taking part in a deliberate operation to drive Taliban fighters from the Upper Sangin Valley and Private Whittaker was checking the road for mines to ensure the safety of his comrades. At this extremely difficult time my thoughts are with their family, friends and comrades.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Michael (‘Mark’) Williams

Sergeant Major Michael Williams was born on 28 November 1967 and grew up in Cardiff, where his unbridled and ever-present love for Cardiff City Football Club originated.

Sergeant Major Michael Williams (All rights reserved.)
WO2 Michael Williams (All rights reserved.)

Known affectionately by his many friends as Mark, or Weasel, he was a small man with huge depths of physical courage and stamina, and a giant personality. Beneath his kindness and sense of fun and adventure was the most professional soldier, who was loved and respected by the whole Battalion, not least those under his command.

Mark Williams joined the Army in 1986. After completing training, he joined the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, starting his long career in 11 Platoon, D Company. Over the next 22 years he served with distinction as a rifleman in B and D Companies (including on Operations in Northern Ireland) and as a Lance Corporal in B Company.

In 1998 he moved to the Machine Gun Platoon in Support Company, where he served as a Detachment Commander and Platoon Sergeant on Operations in Macedonia and Afghanistan. In 2004 he was posted to the Infantry Training Centre in Brecon as a Machine Gun Instructor, where he relished passing on his expertise, and living in Wales.

Promoted to Colour Sergeant, he returned to 2 PARA as Company Quartermaster Sergeant of Support Company and deployed to Iraq, before being promoted to Warrant Officer Class 2 and becoming the Company Sergeant Major of A Company. He had deployed to Afghanistan with 2 PARA in March 2008, initially running the Battle Group’s in-theatre training in Bastion before taking up his role as the Fire Support Group Commander in C (Bruneval) Company, based out of Forward Operating Base GIBRALTAR in the Upper Sangin Valley.

Mark Williams was one of the most experienced, popular and well respected soldiers within 2 PARA, with whom he spent almost all of his 22 year career. He loved his Battalion, soldiering, and his men, whom he led with compassion and constant encouragement. His other love was for Cardiff City Football Club, of whom he was the most fanatical supporter.

He had organised his leave from Afghanistan especially early in the tour so that he could attend the FA Cup Final. Mark Williams’ death leaves a huge hole in the hearts of the entire Battalion

His Company Commander, Major Adam Dawson, said:

Company Sergeant Major Mark Williams commanded the Fire Support Group attached to C (Bruneval) Company. He had joined the Company prior to Operations in Afghanistan although he deployed earlier than the majority of soldiers to conduct the final stages of training that would place the cap on the Battalion’s preparation for Afghanistan.

“His was the task of launching 2 PARA into Operation HERRICK, equipped to overcome the significant challenges that would be faced. He added polish and finesse to our skills at all levels.

Mark Williams was a rock and a constant, when the situation was swirling around him he would be found level headed and down to earth, able to cut through the cloud of uncertainty and doubt. A man of much passion, he was a life-long and avid supporter of Cardiff City Football Club, he was staunchly Welsh and as proud as any man I know of his heritage. His humanity was ever present and touched all aspects of his soldiering and his soldiers, who grew in his example.

A thoughtful man, when he spoke his words never failed to have impact and his actions always said more than words ever could. He expected high standards, setting only the best example in his own conduct. In leadership terms he was the anchor point for his Fire Support Group, pulling them together as a tight knit team, motivated to excel through a desire not to let him down. As far as his trade was concerned, what he did not know about machine gunnery was not worth knowing, he was a true professional and took great pride in his vocation.

Mark Williams had a light heart and a simple touch, able to connect with all around him. Firm when necessary but never overbearing he was renowned for his absolute dedication and loyalty to the soldiers under his command and those lucky enough to call him a friend.

“Compact in stature but strong in heart, his character overflowed, brought joy to many and left one feeling at ease in his presence. He was genuine, uncomplicated, straight talking and honest, a better man could not be found. He died providing overwatch and security for Bruneval Company as it undertook its most challenging operation to date in the centre of the Taliban’s heartland beyond Sangin. Whilst we will miss him greatly, we will all be thankful and consider ourselves blessed to have known him.”

His great friend, Sergeant Major Karl Mitchell, paid the following tribute:

I’ve known Michael for most of my military career - he was more commonly known to everyone as Mark or ‘Weasel’; I won’t go into how he gained the nickname. I think of him in two ways: Mark the soldier and Mark the friend.

The soldier was one of the most professional men I’ve ever had the honour of working with. He was always meticulous in everything he did, whether that be soldiering or the mountains of paperwork that comes with the job as Company Sergeant Major. This would constantly be a subject we would moan about over a pint. Mark was the type of person that could not rest until everything was just right. He was more at home in the field than in the office.

“His knowledge of Machine Gunning held legendary status within the Battalion and the men he trained will carry on his legacy for many years to come. He was due a posting after the tour that would have seen him move closer to the Welsh Valleys, and his beloved Cardiff City Football Club - never have I met a stauncher fan.

Mark the friend was more like a brother. He was generous nearly to a fault, he would stop everything to help out in any way he could, and nothing was too much to ask. There were three of us that lived in each others pockets: Mark, myself and Sergeant Lee Payne. It was a standing joke that wherever one was, the other two would not be far behind. Mark was shortest of the trio and this we never let him forget. My daughter believed he was called ‘Little Mark’ after Lee Payne convinced her it was his real name. He always took the time out to play with her and I know she will be devastated.

We all lived together, worked together and played together (harder than most). Every weekend we would meet up with friends in Colchester town, and attempt to drink the pubs dry, then argue about football and the history between Wales and England, with the night usually ending in a drunken taxi ride back to the barracks. The following morning would always see Mark with a monster hangover, and Lee annoying him to get his arse out of bed.

There’s really too much to be able to put into words when it comes to Mark. He was the classic case of short of height, but tall in stature; a man who was larger than life. You were loved Mark by all that knew you, and your memory will forever be carried by us. With your passing a part of me has gone too. Until we meet again brother.

Warrant Officer Class 2, Sergeant Major Martin Thorpe:

I’ve known Weasel all my army career from B Company and more recently as a fellow warrant officer in 2 PARA. One of my lasting memories of Weasel was when we were both instructors at the Infantry Battle School in Brecon. When my wife and kids came to stay in Brecon for the weekend, he would offer to help entertain my two small children. He would chase them around the mess with the kids screaming “it’s the midget”. What fun they had!

“The first thing my kids asked if they came to visit me was “where’s the little man?”. My family and I will deeply miss him as a friend and a fellow paratrooper.”

Major Dave Lee, the Quartermaster, remembers when Mark Williams joined 2 PARA:

I remember him arriving in 2 PARA in 1986. I was a Lance Corporal in 10 Platoon, D Company, he was a new Tom in 11 Platoon. He was a mad little Tom, and was very popular because he was always up to mischief. He was a good boxer - I remember him boxing fiercely for the Company, and he was an excellent soldier. He was well known in the Battalion, and throughout his career he always found time for others, and would always see the positive side of life.

“He could lighten any moment, even travelling with Colchester Football Club away fans to watch his beloved Cardiff City play at home. He was a season ticket holder, and would always head out of Colchester to Cardiff’s home and away matches. He’d leave work early and drive across the country to night-time games. The highlight of his fanaticism was attending the FA Cup Final at Wembley this year, organising his leave from Afghanistan especially for it. He was a true professional who gave so much.”

2 PARA’s Regimental Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class 1 Tony Hobbins, said:

Mark wanted to get on that operation. In true Parachute Regiment fashion he wouldn’t have it any other way - he gave his all to everything, and was fanatically loyal to The Regiment and the Sergeants’ Mess. There is not one person is the Battalion who did not like him, and will not miss him.

Colour Sergeant Steve Pitt lived next door to him in the Sergeants’ Mess:

We used to go out all the time together. He was a brilliant bloke and really, really popular. He was well respected by everyone and a fantastic soldier and leader, who led from the front, in whatever job he was doing. He was a massive Cardiff City fan, and said he’d had a brilliant time on R&R watching them in the FA Cup Final.

Sergeant Stu Hodgkinson, his friend, said:

He was the life and soul of the party - always in the middle of the social scene in the Sergeants’ Mess, always up for a laugh. Overall, he was a really friendly and nice guy - he’d get on with anybody. He was a massive Cardiff City fan, and he was so excited to get to see them play in the FA Cup Final. He talked about the great weekend he had with 40 friends in London, even though Cardiff lost, staying in a hotel that overlooked Wembley. When he returned to Afghanistan, he was desperate to return to his men at FOB GIBRALTAR. He was always eager to be at the front.

Sergeant Dean Pilcher knew Mark Williams since he joined the Army in 1996:

Mark was a Lance Corporal when I joined the Battalion in Belfast in 1996. I looked up to him and thought ‘that’s what I’m going to be like when I’m a Non-Commissioned Officer’. Cardiff City was his passion - he wouldn’t drink out of a cup that wasn’t blue. He was well known around Colchester, especially in his local pubs - the Wig & Pen and Fox & Fiddler - where he was, that was always the happening place.

Lance Corporal Gary Houldsworth was led by Mark Williams in the Fire Support Group:

I first met Mark Williams on Pre Deployment Training before we started Operation HERRICK. At first he struck me as a down to earth normal kind of guy. However, once you worked with him you found out about the real man - he was funny, outgoing, courageous, strong and an all-round outstanding commander to work for. He lived and died loving his job. He was so proud to be a Paratrooper and so proud to be doing his job in Afghanistan.

“I am so happy that he got to see his beloved Cardiff City Football Club play at Wembley this year. Mark was extremely well respected and the Parachute Regiment has lost an excellent commander. It was an honour to work with him and say that I have known him. Until we meet again, take care Mark.”

Private Joe Whittaker

Private Joe Whittaker was born on 11 January 1988. He attended Warwick School and then Stratford Upon Avon College. He played hockey for Stratford Hockey Club and ran for Stratford Athletic Club. Joe joined the TA in Stratford in 2005.

Private Joe Whittaker (All rights reserved.)
Private Joe Whittaker (All rights reserved.)

He eventually joined 4 PARA in October 2007, after transferring from 37 Signal Regiment, having completed his basic training with the Royal Signals in June 2006. He was highly regarded throughout his time with them and was considered to be one of their top recruits. He was a particularly fit soldier; able to complete the one and a half mile run in a time of 8.09 minutes. His field craft and personal skills were considered the best in the platoon.

Joe had a wicked sense of humour and was usually the ringleader in the fun and games out of working hours. His natural ability and enthusiasm for adventure and challenge channelled his aspirations towards applying to join the Parachute Regiment Reserve. He completed the Combat Infantryman Course and P-Company with 4 PARA in November 2007. He gained a strong pass after working extremely hard on the course.

Joe Whittaker operated from 10 Company, 4 PARA based in London. He established himself quickly and it did not take him long to volunteer to serve with the Regiment on operations in Afghanistan. He mobilised in April 2008 and after completing all the necessary training joined 2 PARA in May.

Joe Whittaker was an outstanding young soldier who possessed all the qualities that one would expect from a young paratrooper. He had a flair for life, was fun and had a great sense of humour. His fitness was astonishing, and he possessed the courage, discipline and loyalty of a man many years his age.

In the time he spent with 4 PARA it was clear that Joe Whittaker had a bright future and he had the intellect and character for great things. Joe Whittaker was a kind and considerate soldier and he will be sadly missed by all his friends and colleagues in 4 PARA.

The Commanding Officer of 4 PARA, Lieutenant Colonel Ben Baldwin, said:

Pte Joe Whittaker was 19 years of age when he passed P-Company, allowing him the honour of wearing the maroon beret. Joe had that infectious optimism that goes with all young Paratroopers. Forthright and courageous, he showed great spirit and committed himself wholeheartedly in any task given to him. His slim build belied strength beyond his years.

Afghanistan was his first operational tour, and he showed no fear when chosen to be part of the Op BARMA team, a job fraught with danger. In fact, Joe relished the chance to be out on the ground and prove himself to his more experienced comrades. Joe Whittaker died a paratrooper.

“Even at such a young age he displayed all of the attributes specific to men of The Regiment, and we are proud to have known him and to have stood alongside him. Today, a good soul has left us, and he will be greatly missed. We, his brothers who are left, will never forget him.”

Joe’s Company Commander, Major Mike Shervington, paid the following tribute:

Pte Joe Whittaker joined D Company Group on 12 June as one of a substantial contingent from 4 PARA attached to 2 PARA Battle Group for Op HERRICK 8. He had deployed to FOB ROBINSON with a troop of Scimitar vehicles from the Scots Dragoon Guards to work alongside D Company 2 PARA. His role within his troop was as a member of the critically important Improvised Explosive Device team. Although I knew him all too briefly he struck me immediately as a man of great spirit, boundless energy and selfless commitment.

His friends tell me that he was always first to volunteer for difficult tasks and it was therefore typical that he found himself doing such an important job for his troop. He was extremely proud to be a member of 4 PARA serving alongside members of 2 PARA in Afghanistan, many of whom were his friends. All of them are shocked and deeply saddened by his death, which leaves an irreplaceable hole in so many people’s lives.

“He was excited to be attending the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in May 2009, where he hoped to fulfil his dream and become an Apache helicopter pilot. He will be sorely missed.”

Captain Tim McBride was Joe’s Troop Leader with the Scots Dragoon Guards:

Pte Joe Whittaker was working with the Scimitar Troop from The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards with three of his comrades from 4 PARA. They approached the challenge of working with armoured vehicles with the vigour and professionalism that one would expect from members of The Parachute Regiment, and none more so than Joe: He was the embodiment of a professional soldier who relished being a paratrooper.

“He was a quietly confident individual, always enthusiastic and extremely generous. He will be sorely missed by us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones.”

Lieutenant Steve Edwards, a 4 PARA Platoon Commander, said:

In the short time that I knew Private Joe Whittaker, he struck me as being a very enthusiastic and optimistic young soldier, refusing to be tainted by cynicism. He was extremely fit, and welcomed any opportunities put upon him to increase his contribution to the team, such as volunteering eagerly to be the section gunner. Although he had only been in 4 PARA for a short while, Joe Whittaker’s devotion to The Regiment, and the Army as a whole, could not be doubted.

He had already passed his Officer Selection to enter Sandhurst, as well as the Army Air Corps’ aptitude test, so he was looking forward to a career as a helicopter pilot. For Tuesday night training with 4 PARA, he travelled the best part of 200 miles, commuting from Stratford-Upon-Avon to his unit in London.

“Joe Whittaker was also a part-time coach for an under-19 ladies hockey team, a role which he missed when joining his fellow Paratroopers in 2 PARA on Operation HERRICK 8. Having been posted to the Op BARMA team, Joe Whittaker died at a tragic and youthful age doing a particularly dangerous and unenviable task.”

Lance Corporal Simon, also from 4 PARA, was Joe’s Section Commander:

Joe to me was an ideal ‘Tom’ to have in my section. He was keen, enthusiastic and eager to get on with the job, never complaining about any task no matter how unattractive the task was. He was also very strong physically and a very intelligent bloke. Goodbye Joe. Utrinque Paratus”.

Private Storey, Joe’s friend from 4 PARA and comrade in D Company Group, said:

Joe was always keen to get out on the ground and do the job. He was a popular and good humoured bloke who oozed confidence, which helped to secure him a place at Sandhurst where he was due to start in May next year. He was sponsored by the Army Air Corps, and dreamed about becoming an Apache pilot”.

Private Steven Fisher, 4 PARA, was serving alongside Joe:

Joe and I had become close friends. He was great for morale, always upbeat and optimistic, and he approached all tasks with verve and enthusiasm. The thing that always impressed me about Joe was his desire to be the best soldier he could be. Joe was incredibly popular, which was evident by the amount of mail he received from back home, always catching envious glances from the blokes. Joe will be sorely missed, and he will not be forgotten”.

Private Richard Thorburn, 4 PARA serving with D Company:

Joe excelled at every aspect of being a Paratrooper. His fitness and infectious smile never ceased to amaze both me and our section commander during our training together in Catterick in November 2007. We would always remember a cold night spent out on the training area clinging to each other for warmth! His dedication and enthusiasm to the Regiment, and his friends, rightly made him a character everyone wanted to call a friend.

“I count myself privileged to have known him and admire his courage and willingness to put the job and his mates before his own safety. John 15:13 - Greater love has no one than this; that he lay down his life for his friends. Utrinque Paratus.”

Joe’s mother, Naomi Whittaker, said:

Joe was a truly wonderful son. He was generous, funny, brave and loyal to his friends. He was doing what he wanted to do and he was immensely proud to wear his ‘maroon beret’.

He has wanted to be in the army since joining the School Cadets at the age of 13. He chose to undertake a tour of duty as a private soldier with the Parachute Regiment before going to RMA Sandhurst next spring. He hoped to join the Army Air Corps eventually.

“Joe lived life to the full. He loved his family and friends and was loved by everyone who knew him. His sister Kate and I will miss him more than words can express. We are so proud of him, his courage and his determination to serve his country.”