Saturday, 13 August 2022

Remembering friends who died in war

REMEMBRANCE Day has very personal significance for Henley Conservative town councillor Dylan Thomas.

REMEMBRANCE Day has very personal significance for Henley Conservative town councillor Dylan Thomas.

The 37-year-old, who lives in Northfield End with his wife Clare and two-year-old son Archie, was an army intelligence officer for seven years and served in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As well as receiving four campaign medals, three from the Queen and another from NATO, he was formally commended by the latter after his seven-month deployment in Kabul.

By that stage a captain, Councillor Thomas commanded a 20-strong team that collected tip-offs and information then analysed them to deduce their reliability.

Their work, much of which was conducted in secrecy, was fed back to British and American special forces units and played a key role in the elimination of a high-ranking Taliban commander.

Mullah Dadullah Akhund, thought to have been a close aide to the movement’s leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, was notorious for massacring civilians and directing suicide bombings. Thanks to information provided by Cllr Thomas and his colleagues, he was tracked down and shot dead after leaving his hideout for a meeting with other key Taliban figures.

His atrocities had inspired such hatred that Assadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar province, ordered his body to be put on public display.

Today, Cllr Thomas speaks proudly of his achievements and says young people considering a career in the military should be encouraged.

However, his recollections are tinged with sadness as he lost several colleagues in service, including Lt Tom Mildenhall, with whom he trained as an officer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2003 and who was killed by a roadside bomb in 2006.

Cllr Thomas said: “Remembrance Day is almost part of British culture and identity now and that’s how it was for me when I was young — it was primarily a historical and ceremonial occasion.

“However, since serving in the forces, it has become much more personal. When I now wear the poppy, attend a remembrance service or watch a wreath being laid at the Cenotaph it brings back memories of people I worked with who died in action.

“It isn’t just British personnel for me — having worked in a NATO environment I knew quite a few people of different nationalities who never came home.

“That’s how it must have felt for the men who survived the world wars and attended similar services in the aftermath of those conflicts. Indeed, it’s probably true for veterans of all wars.”

Cllr Thomas grew up in Aberdeen and attended the independent Robert Gordon’s College before going on to study for a master’s degree in history at the University of Edinburgh.

As a teenager, a military career seemed unlikely as he was quite “rebellious”.

“I was in the combined cadet force but I never got promoted once, despite the school’s strong military tradition,” he said. “It was drilled into you from a very early age but despite that I could never have imagined I would end up in the army.”

After graduating, Cllr Thomas worked as an intern for the Conservative Party at the House of Commons.

He said: “It was great but made me realise I didn’t want a backroom career in politics — if I was ever going to enter that world I wanted it to be as an elected representative.

“However, it gave me exposure to what was going on the wider world and made me interested in making a  difference.”

Cllr Thomas said the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001 influenced his decision to apply for a place at Sandhurst.

After undergoing several rounds of selection, including arduous physical and mental assessments, he was successful and began training in January 2003.

Cllr Thomas recalled: “That was pretty brutal, like you imagine it might be from the way it’s portrayed in films. We contended with 5am starts, 18-hour days, lots of marching, polishing and ironing and endless, endless drill. There was lots of time on the range learning to fire and maintain a rifle.”

On passing out as a second lieutenant, he was selected for the army’s Intelligence Corps and sent to Northern Ireland for six months in May 2004.

He was based in Omagh, where he commanded a unit that helped the police to track down terrorists and drug dealers. Cllr Thomas said: “There was much more going on back then than people realised. It was after the Good Friday agreement but Operation Banner was still in effect and we had more troops out in Ulster at the time than we did in Iraq.”

He then joined the corps’ year-long junior officer course at Chicksands in Bedfordshire, the details of which he must not divulge under the Official Secrets Act.

During this time he was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, which provides information to help senior officers make strategic decisions.

In January 2006 he was sent to Iraq for three months and was based at Basra air base, where he carried out “human intelligence analysis”.

He and his colleagues would be sent information about enemy combatants from various sources and had to check it against other claims to work out if it was accurate.

He said: “We had so much information that it was like that quote by Donald Rumsfeld — we didn’t know what we knew and what we didn’t know. It was hard to tell what we could be certain of.

“We had to treat it like an academic exercise by asking probing questions before we reported our findings to whoever required them.”

During this time he was stationed in a “tent city” made up of rows of small tents under larger canvas structures and protected by low breeze block walls in case of an enemy shell attack.

Cllr Thomas said: “I was fortunate never to see armed conflict myself but we were all on the receiving end of many mortars as Basra was always being shelled.

“There was one occasion when I was using the gym while the shells were falling all around us, which is quite funny looking back on it.

“You had to put on your helmet and body armour and get on with it — you couldn’t just shelter and wait it out. It was vital to get enough daily exercise because our work could be pretty sedentary.”

The situation in Iraq became more volatile when al Qaeda blew up the Al ‘Askari Shrine in Samarra, escalating the conflict between the nation’s Shia and Sunni Muslim denominations.

Cllr Thomas left in March and two months later Lt Mildenhall was killed along with a colleague while riding in a Land Rover through Basra.

“It got very violent in downtown Basra and unfortunately there were a lot of deaths,” said Cllr Thomas. “We lost a number of colleagues out there but I had gone through Sandhurst with Tom and we were of the same generation.

“This was the first time someone that close to me had died. We were in the same training company and did sports afternoons together.

“We both opted for horse riding, which was a useful skill for being in a cavalry regiment though for me it was mostly a great skive from everything else! I was incredibly sad at his loss.” His next deployment was a seven-month stint in Afghanistan from October that year. He was promoted to captain shortly before leaving in May 2007.

He was based at the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps’ headquarters in Kabul and was commanding officer at its strategic intelligence function centre. He led a team of about 20 people, from British Army Intelligence Corps soldiers to civil servants from the Ministry of Defence and Territorial Army recruits with specialist intelligence skills.

Cllr Thomas reported to one of the US Army’s joint chiefs of staff, who in turn reported back to his British counterparts and the NATO corps’ head of intelligence, a Canadian brigadier.

Although he commanded the men and women who were out getting information, he did not meet sources personally as this required separate training in “human intelligence handling”.

As well as receiving tip-offs, Cllr Thomas and his colleagues would analyse footage from drone bombers to determine how successful an air strike had been.

They would put together “high-value target lists” of individuals who played a pivotal role in the campaign. Although some were threats to be “disrupted or denied”, in some cases the objective was to recruit them and persuade them to help the Western forces.

The team’s findings were passed on to Task Force 42, a British special forces unit made up of Special Air Service, Special Boat Service and Special Reconnaissance Regiment commandos. This was the unit that would eventually find and kill Akhund.

Cllr Thomas said: “Our job was to make sense of the many pieces of information that were coming in from various sources — some top secret, others that were non-classified and being reported in local media — and draw up a detailed picture.

“It was far from routine as it was a fast-moving conflict and unfortunately the British ran into quite considerable trouble in Helmand province. We lost a lot of men, including some Intelligence Corps soldiers. It was an extraordinarily intensive and highly exhilarating but demanding and pressured role.

“As a relatively junior captain, I was briefing a four-star general and many of his subordinate commanders and sometimes had the uncomfortable task of telling them things they didn’t want to hear.”

Cllr Thomas visited the British-built international barracks at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, where some of the most intense fighting took place.

He said: “Our colleagues in Helmand were on the receiving end of some pretty vicious and prolonged attacks by the Taliban in some very remote locations.

“It was really difficult to get supplies out there except by helicopter so they were essentially living off army rations and really having to put their basic skills and drills into practice.

“I personally never experienced that because of the nature of my role. Most of the threat we faced was from mortars, rocket launchers or roadside bombs.

“Every time we got into a helicopter there was a risk of being targeted by surface-to-air missiles but fortunately I was never on the receiving end of that, nor Taliban sniper or machine gun fire. On one occasion, a week after I’d visited Kabul airport, a suicide bomber drove a car into the gates there and killed a number of Belgian soldiers. It was all pot luck, sadly.

“That’s the nature of fighting an insurgency — as many casualties will testify, there was a real randomness to the violence.

“An improvised explosive device could get anyone, whether it was a combatant, someone in a headquarters role or a medic.

“We were just as liable as some of the front line infantry guys, without playing down the importance of their roles.

“If you were travelling in a convoy and another vehicle interjected, the drill was to ram them out of the way as soon as possible in case it was a suicide bomber. That happened to me many times but luckily it never was a bomb.”

Cllr Thomas returned to the UK and spent 18 months training troops at Bulford Camp in Wiltshire before retiring from the army.

Soon afterwards he married Clare, whom he had met in London during his Sandhurst days.

He spent just over two years working as a security consultant for Barclays Bank before going into sales for security software companies. Most recently he was working for Microsoft at its Reading offices but he is about to take on a new role with Japanese electronics giant Hitachi.

The couple lived in various places in the Thames Valley before moving to Henley in 2012. It is, he says, “the best market town in England”. He was elected to the town council in May, saying he wanted to get more involved in the community, especially around transport and environmental issues.

He is a member of the Royal British Legion’s Bix branch and recently discussed his career at one of its fund-raising lunches. He also supports the forces’ charities Help for Heroes and Give Us Time.

Cllr Thomas said: “I was never going to stay in the army as a full-time career. I could have extended my service to a 16- or 25-year term but I decided not to go down that route.

“I was turning 30 and felt I should leave before I got any older. I thought it would be easier to change career at that stage than if I was pushing 40.

“I also wanted to settle down and start a family. If you do that while serving, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. I have enormous respect for those who can do it but that wasn’t for me.

“I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment when I left — it was without doubt a fantastic way to spend my twenties and I’d recommend it to anyone. It was the making of me in many ways.

“I learned a lot about my own capabilities, experienced extraordinary things and got everything out of it that I was hoping to achieve.”

He says there is no doubt that the British people support the forces.

“Putting aside politics and the reasons for going to war, people still respect that soldiers are always trying to do the right thing and help the citizens wherever they are deployed,” he said.

“I’ve never felt any kind of animosity towards me as a soldier that politicians who made the big decisions might — and I hope that continues.

“I highly recommend a service career to any young men or women who are considering it. It’s a fabulous thing to serve your country — you see many different parts of the world and it develops your personal, physical and intellectual abilities.

“Yes, Remembrance Day is a time to reflect and there is sadness but I would also like people to celebrate the wonderful work the armed forces do and to stress the positive aspects of military life.

“Those of us who served in Afghanistan saw big improvements in girls’ education, vaccination and health care and the democratic process.

“There’s trouble and problems still to overcome with corruption but show me a perfect society that doesn’t have that. Things have some way to go out there and it will take time but it’s better than it used to be.”

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