'We landed - then pandemonium': Recalling the moment ITV News crew came under fire in Afghanistan

Bill Neely reporting for ITV News in Afghanistan in 2006. Credit: ITV News

In 2006, the soldiers of C Company, 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, posed for a photo at their base in Sangin in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. At that time, Sangin was the most dangerous place on earth, the centre of British forces' fight against the Taliban. The Paras were sent to Helmand Province after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, a response to the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. The campaign lasted 20 years and cost the lives of 457 British soldiers. ITV News has tried to trace the people on the C Company photograph 15 years on to tell their stories, in our series Afghanistan: Photo From The Frontline.

Here, former ITV News International Editor Bill Neely, who was part of the ITV News team embedded with C Company, recalls what happened moments after he landed in Helmand Province.

In the late summer of 2006, Sangin was the deadly centre of one of the most dangerous places on earth.

It was also the centre of strategic folly.

In order to help reconstruct the region, Britain sent in one of the most aggressive units of its army, the Parachute Regiment.

British commanders knew they had too few troops for the deployment, knew that Northern Ireland hadn’t been pacified with many times the number of soldiers flown into Afghanistan, but embraced the mission with “can-do” enthusiasm nonetheless.

The government deployed troops to Helmand Province, hub of the heroin business and a region Afghanistan’s government had never held securely, with the words of the then Secretary of State John Reid ringing unconvincingly in its ears; he hoped not a single shot would be fired.

Just a few months later, the Commander of British troops in Afghanistan, Brigadier Ed Butler told me nearly half a million bullets had been fired so far. More than 30 soldiers were already dead.

C Company posed for this photograph ahead of their tour in Afghanistan in 2006.

My “embed” with the troops was not meant to happen. I had tried to persuade the Ministry of Defence to give me access to soldiers south of Kabul. The answer was "no".

But, somehow, Butler got me and my cameraman, Eugene Campbell, into the British base at Gereshk and an embed with the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.

It was the fifth anniversary of the attacks on New York's World Trade Centre & the reverberations were still being felt in the dusty lands the Taliban once ruled.

Sangin was my goal. The soldiers there had come under repeated attack but the British public was essentially blind to what was going on.

Getting in there was anything but easy. Twice we had permission from the Commander to go. Twice we’d been on a helicopter at 5am and each time we had to pull back; once because of intelligence that Taliban fighters had plans to blow a helicopter out of the sky.

We waited five days. It was hugely frustrating, because although nearly half a million bullets had been fired, the MoD had deliberately provided not a single frame of combat video.

C Company soldiers practice at a firing range

Its combat camera team was led by a female soldier, who couldn’t film at the front line because, I was told, women couldn’t be at the front line.

Finally, my backpack bulging with 600 cigarettes and wine gums for the troops, we flew towards Sangin for a third attempt at landing, our two Chinook helicopters flanked by two Apache helicopter gunships.

The plan drawn up to evade any Taliban ambush involved our chopper landing 800 metres from the base - the new landing zone guarded by a light tank and a dozen Paras.

Our pilot dropped down and jettisoned the pallets swinging under the helicopter, full of food and mail but, more importantly, ammunition and mortar shells. The helicopter rose, and then suddenly banked. And rose again, then banked the other way.

I was scared. I thought we were about to crash as he circled wildly. What I was told afterwards was that he almost hit a vehicle on the ground, rose at the last minute then lost his sense of where the ground was in the darkness.

Suddenly, bang, we were down. Our cameras, mine and, more importantly, Eugene’s were rolling as we ran down the ramp, the helicopter heat and backdraft powerful as we hit the dirt.

Within seconds of landing, the ITV News crew was in the midst of fighting between British soldiers and the Taliban - this is what they captured on camera

Dust and stones flew everywhere as the chopper lifted up seconds later. Up, up, 20, 50 feet and then pandemonium.

Wild firing. “Contact”. “Get down”. Men suddenly shouting everywhere. We were under attack. I scrambled towards a JCB digger for cover.

Dozens of men were now firing, tracer and bullets everywhere, the noise deafening.

Then I saw it. I knew immediately what it was, about 12 feet above the ground. It was glowing red; a rocket propelled grenade, flying overhead with a whoosh.

Eugene was to my left, filming everything. Another RPG bounced on the ground and into the river.

A few soldiers began tossing the supplies and our boxes of TV gear into the digger’s scoop, as a light tank pumped out bullets at our attackers.

Bill Neely takes cover as the soldiers come under yet another attack

An Afghan fighting alongside the Brits calmly rose up and levelled his own RPG, firing back at the Taliban. It was just first light. The gunfire has been continuous for 15 minutes.

We edged towards the battered brick building that sat amid baked mud outbuildings; the centre of British power in the district. Mortar holes were everywhere, bullet holes in every wall.

In the distance, Apache helicopters were still firing bursts into the woods where, we were told, a dozen Taliban gunmen had scattered.

We made it onto the dirt floor of a room protected by sandbags and quickly assembled our edit gear.

Then, to our horror, we saw that the Chinook taking off had blown so much sand into the camera that the pictures were skipping and pixellating.

Perfectly framed under enormous pressure by Eugene, a battle unfolded on screen but was, it appeared, unusable.

Camera operator Eugene Campbell runs through the fortification during a Taliban attack

My small camera had recorded more images but it wouldn’t play them into the edit machine because of the dust.

We edited what we could, using the compromised video, which at least had the unmistakable sounds of the battle.

However, the challenges weren’t over yet. Just a few hours later, heavy shooting started again.

We raced to the roof of the compound, where British soldiers had died in recent weeks, to catch the gunners opening up on a Taliban mortar position that had just fired at the base.

For a few minutes, the firing was intense, then died away as quickly as it began. We finished our report and began sending it to London on two videophones.

The technology was basic, the waiting for a clear from ITN’s control room was agony.

Watch Bill Neely's report from Sangin, filmed while under fire from Taliban forces

But the report made it onto the Evening News, as second story to news of a BBC presenter who crashed in a test car at 300 mph and injured himself. I wasn’t pleased. The Editor was adamant the crash story had more popular appeal.

Actually, I was furious. No-one had seen British troops in action in Afghanistan like this before, months after their deployment.

It’s hard to recall how basic and brutal the Sangin base was. Corporal Trevor Colt of the Royal Irish Regiment, who manned the base with the Paras, had just learned he’d won the Military Cross for bravery in Iraq.

He told me this was worse. Far worse.

“It’s like World War One,” was the only way he could describe it.

"Living in trenches and being fired on, attacked all the time. It’s the worst place I’ve ever been.”

They’d been there for three weeks. The Taliban had attacked every day, morning and night. And they were about to attack again.

We were on the roof at 5.30pm. The troops were watching and waiting. It wasn’t a case of if, but when the attack would start.

I began an interview with the Officer Commanding, Major ‘Paddy’ Blair. He said it’s the waiting that gets to the men, playing on their nerves.

'Not a question of if, but when': Watch Bill Neely's report from Sangin shot during a surprise attack

We didn’t wait long. Suddenly, there was machine gun fire, dirt in the air around us and four new bullet holes in the wall three feet above where we stood for the interview. We hit the ground next to a group of soldiers using a Javelin missile system.

They fired into the brush half a kilometre away, the back blast bone shuddering. Another ten minutes of battle, then silence. We edited another report and sent it.

But soon we had our marching orders; the only chance to leave on a 4am helicopter out. The ambush threat remained. It was not a comfortable take off.

The chopper lifted, its blades sparkling in the night and I silently willed it into the air. I knew an RPG grenade has a range of about 800 metres before it explodes spontaneously.

This time there was no ambush, and within an hour we were in a tent at Camp Bastion, the main British base.

I learned later from Ed Butler and Col. Stuart Tootal, the Commanding Officer of the Paras, that the men of Sangin had been close to running out of ammunition several times.

C Company soldiers fire a mortar.

It was, in the words of another war, “a damned close run thing”.

The strategy behind the Sangin base, and half a dozen other isolated outposts, was that of the inkblot; put down the mark and gradually spread British power out from each of the bases until they link up and form a chain of power across Helmand.

Except, it never really worked out. The British held the bases and the ground for a kilometre or two around them.

Beyond that, it was Taliban country. By day, the British could risk patrols. By night, the roads were the Taliban’s.

Dozens of British troops died in and around Sangin, their bodies flown back and driven through Wootton Bassett, roses strewn before the black hearses.

There was no doubting the bravery of the men who manned Sangin. I developed huge respect for those who served there and for so many other military units in the dozen or so embeds I did after Sangin.

But there was also no doubting that their mission was ultimately a failure.

As the whole Afghan war - the longest war - has been. Two decades of occupation by Britain, the US and the West may soon end in the triumph of the Taliban.

They are still in control in Helmand, and in districts and provinces across Afghanistan. Camp Bastion was overrun in 2014. The poppy trade still flourishes.

And the families of the men who fell in Sangin still grieve. And they still ask that heartbreaking question: “What exactly did my son die for?"

Read more stories from our series Afghanistan: Photo From The Frontline