with Our Boys in Panther?s Claw territory, Helmand, Afghanistan

Published: 10 Aug 2009

HE'S a grey-haired carpenter nudging 50 while the baby-faced soldiers at his side barely look old enough to shave.
Yet Army part-timer Les Welsh and Privates Max Bedford, 19, and Danny Eaglesfield, 18, have battled shoulder to shoulder in a historic victory against Taliban fanatics.

In some of the fiercest fighting involving UK forces since World War II, the troops of 6 Platoon, B Company, 2nd Mercians, helped liberate a swathe of territory as big as the Isle of Wight.

Phil Hannaford

Danny lost his best pal to a Taliban bomb in the Panther's Claw thrust into the Taliban heartland of Babaji.

Liverpudlian Les - known affectionately by the platoon as Harry Patch after the Great War soldier who died recently aged 111 - has since taken Danny under his wing.

Behind his constant wise-cracking, the Parachute Regiment veteran is a man with the emotional strength to console and cajole the teenage soldiers in tough times.

He was in the thick of it as they went to war in near 50?C temperatures with 90lbs on their backs.

Phil Hannaford

Munching on his pre-patrol Sugar Puffs, Warrant Officer Les revealed: "It was mad.

Bullets flying everywhere, rockets coming overhead. We were returning fire at close quarters.

"At one point we took fire from a tree line. I fired off a few rounds and the lads saw a Taliban fall, thud, out of a tree.

"We took casualties but hit them harder."

Sun photographer Phil Hannaford and I listened to their chatter over "scoff" and a brew as we shared bed space with them on a dusty scrap of ground against a straw and mud wall near Tarbela.

The only journalists with British forces in the Panther's Claw killing zone, we were joined them in a "hold" phase of an operation.

Panther's Claw started for Les and the rest of the Light Dragoons battle group on July 4 when they descended the southern Afghan Desert of Death into the Green Zone of the Helmand valley.

They took impressive firepower, including one Spartan armoured personnel carrier on which was scrawled "Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war" from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Phil Hannaford

The lads from 6 Platoon - their adrenaline pumping - wore specially-made T-shirts bearing the slogan "Taliban Hunting Club".

Some had "Death To The Taliban" skull and crossbones badges on their backpacks.

They encountered the booby-trapped Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDS) that can wreak carnage to British armoured vehicles.

But instead of employing their recent "shoot and scoot" tactics, the Taliban stayed and fought.

Victory came eventually, but at a high price. Ten soldiers died and more than 100 were injured.

Dad-of-two Les, from Salisbury, Wilts, said: "At one point I took my helmet off in the open.

"Ricocheting bullets sent the helmet into the air and we dived for cover. But I realised I'd left my fags behind.

"So with bullets pinging around my ears I ran back for the pack."

Smirking, he added: "It's amazing what a bloke will do for 20 Lambert & Butler Gold."

Nottingham Forest fan Max said: "Les just keeps us all laughing."

The jokes help mask the tragedies. Danny's best pal, Pte Robbie Laws, of Bromsgrove, Worcs, was killed when the Spartan they were in was hit by a rocket.

They were helping clear IEDs. He said "Les and the rest are looking after me."

Married Les, who is on his final tour, said: "I'm the older guy and you can't afford to break down."

As night falls the platoon's resident comedian, L/Sgt Jules Thomas, 29, from Pencoed in Mid-Glamorgan, produces a constant stream of gags about "Harry Patch".

Sitting beneath his Welsh dragon flag, he laughs: "Les is that old, his first job was Commanding Officer Pots and Pans at the last supper!"

He adds: "He smells like an old bus stop. We have to change him every night."

Jules, who has a daughter Megan, six, tells me: "It's the banter that gets us all through this."

The success in clearing Taliban fighters has enabled vital work to begin rebuilding the Babaji area and winning over locals.

On Saturday I watched as Helmand Taskforce second-in-command Colonel Greville Bibby joined a Shura gathering of turbaned local leaders. Shura is Arabic for consultation.

He told them: "If you tell us where the Taliban are, and where the bombs are hidden, we will get rid of them for you."