Delivering diesel in a danger zone

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Fuel is a premium asset to troops, especially when the battle tempo is high. Getting it delivered to the patrol bases in Nad 'Ali presents its own challenges. Report by Ian Carr.

Sitting contentedly in the war room (what the Royal Irish Regiment call their central distribution point ops-come-welfare room) at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shawqat in Nad ‘Ali, Corporal David Bradshaw, one of the support tanker drivers, looks like a man at peace with the world. Which is perhaps odd for someone in the middle of a war zone.

He is toasting himself by the woodburning stove that the armourer knocked up for his boss, Sergeant Major Mason. It’s not exactly chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but burning a pallet or two can lend a much needed touch of home comfort when the Afghan winter begins to bite.

The only problem is finding enough wood to keep it going:

The locals were a step ahead of us planning for the winter,” said Sergeant Major Mason.

Whenever we chucked out any broken pallets, they’d mysteriously disappear. I know why now, they’ve been saving them up for the winter.

Happily though, when it comes to planning the distribution of military provisions around the operational area, Sergeant Major Mason and his team are second-to-none:

We deliver everything, from pairs of ballistic underpants to Javelin missiles,” said the Commanding Officer, Major Eamonn Coogan.

As the distribution hub for the operational area, FOB Shawqat keeps its stores ticking over with regular provisions received from Camp Bastion. In addition, deliveries come in twice a month by ‘Jinglies’, the local Afghan trucks that are colourfully decorated and often festooned with chains, icons and bells - hence their nickname.

Occasionally, when there is a demand for something critical, one of the Royal Irish drivers will make the 10km trip to Bastion in one of Shawqat’s four EPLS (Enhanced Palletised Load System) vehicles to pick it up.

From this constantly replenished stockpile, patrol bases and other FOBs in the operating area are kept supplied.

Not surprisingly, fuel is something no-one wants to run out of, especially when the operational tempo is high. Making sure that this never happens is Corporal Bradshaw, whose job is getting fuel through to the front line.

He will be making another trip in the morning. When he rolls out of the gates in his 7,000-litre tanker, he knows that it will have been topped up to the brim from the base’s 90,000-litre reservoir by Lance Corporal Jamie Shepherd, who will also have made sure that the vehicle’s own fuel tank is full.

At each delivery point they dip the tanks to double check that the fuel gauge levels are correct and that they have delivered the right amount. They also do it for a more immediate safeguard:

If the levels are lower than we expect, it could mean that we have been hit and sprung a leak, we need to be sure,” said Corporal Bradshaw.

Ranger Scotty Hayden rides in the cab providing top cover. They always carry ration packs and sleeping bags in case they have to spend a night in the cab:

We’ll join in with the EPLS convoy near the back going out with the Irish Guards loggies. The Royal Tank Regiment [The Tankies] will be providing escort protection, and we take a wrecker with us just in case we need hauling out of trouble,” said Corporal Bradshaw.

It will be a long day:

We will probably be out for 11 or 12 hours, but in distance we will only cover about 20km. That’s because we have to travel so slowly clearing the route and you have to add in the time it takes to offload.

Manoeuvring the huge vehicles along roads designed for donkeys and carts calls for skilful driving and complete concentration. Many of the patrol bases are tightly-packed and getting the vehicles into position calls for precision:

One of the bases takes us 30 minutes to reverse into, it’s such a small location,” said Corporal Bradshaw.

Some we can’t get into at all so we have to fill up their jerry cans outside.

It can be hairy. Last time we did get shot at, it was a quick shoot and scoot, but when you are sitting next to 7,000 litres of diesel it can make you think. But with all the guys protecting us, and good cover from the sangars, we can look after ourselves.

The Tankies go ahead checking for threats from IEDs, but one of the insurgents’ tactics is to watch the convoy go by then reseed the road with IEDs to catch vehicles on the homebound trip.

Now into the second half of his deployment, Corporal Bradshaw knows the roads well. The first three months were busy. Not only was the tempo high, as the Royal Irish blasted their way through the Taliban they needed regular resupplies, but it also meant getting to know the routes:

They’re not the best roads in the world, and at first you’re not sure if the bridges are going to take your weight or if the sides of the road are going to collapse.

The locals weren’t sure of us at first and the kids would throw stones as you drove by.

But a bit of stone-throwing isn’t going to faze a veteran with eight tours of Northern Ireland under his belt:

Round here the kids are all keen for you to hand out sweets, but further south they just want to brick you. We’ve just moved into Kalang so they haven’t had a chance to get used to us yet.

Once, he relates, on the way back from Kalang the convoy had stopped while a route was checked for IEDs:

While we were waiting, three young girls were sitting on a wall, watching their camel wander right through the area being checked. They waved at us and we waved back. Just then their father came out and gave them each a big slap for showing friendliness towards us.

It’s often like that before we gain the locals’ trust. It’s not that he was punishing them for being friendly, it was probably more that he was frightened of the Taliban’s reaction.

Inquisitive kids present the drivers with another test of nerve. Because the vehicles have to drive at such a slow pace, children often run alongside banging on the doors and windows asking for sweets:

If we don’t give them any they often scramble up onto the vehicle looking for anything they can take, it doesn’t matter what, even bottles of water. They don’t seem to have any concern for their own safety.

There are sweets however for the guys at the patrol bases who have given Corporal Bradshaw a shopping list for things from the EFI (Expeditionary Force Institute) at Shawqat.

Sometimes he carries a different kind of cargo to refresh the parts that Mars bars and cokes can’t reach:

Now and then I take the padre along. The guys are glad to see him, it gives them someone to chat to and share their troubles with. It reminds them that they haven’t been forgotten about and they are still part of the team.

This article is taken from the March 2011 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.