Afghanistan diary: Days 5 and 6

BBC Look East Defence Correspondent Alex Dunlop and cameraman Shaun Whitmore are spending a week in Helmand Province.

Some 1,500 troops from the eastern region are embedded in Afghanistan, mostly in Helmand.

They include 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, bomb disposal teams, RAF air and ground crews, medics, reservists and the Norfolk-based Light Dragoons.


As we sit here at the helicopter landing site (HLS) at Camp Bastion, I am reminded of the movie Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray is a TV weather anchorman.

Image caption Cameraman Shaun and reporter Alex joined soldiers on an exercise to train Afghan soldiers

He's caught in a time loop, where he lives through the same day over and over again. For the last two days, Shaun and I have relived the same experience of unpacking, repacking, heading to the HLS to be told the flight has either been delayed or scrapped.

That's the unpredictability in operating in a theatre of war. But it means our proposed filming schedule with Norfolk's Light Dragoons and 33 Engineers based in Essex has had to be redrawn. Finally at 02:00 AFT we lift and fly north of the Dashte (desert).

Minutes later we're at Mobile Operations Base (MOB) Price, just outside the Green Zone. All afternoon we film with the Light Dragoons. Based at Swanton Morley, they have 350 men out here, along with their Scimitar and Jackal vehicles - true to their cavalry roots. Capt Freddy Paske, from Hadleigh, in Suffolk, and Capt Will Todd host us. Outstanding guys.

We plan to broadcast live into Look East. It's 11:00 AFT here. We attempt to link up with a small satellite dish (BGAN) - the size of a tea tray. Gremlins in the ethernet dash our hopes and we curse our luck. But the Royal Anglians film makes it to air.

We so quickly take new technology for granted and then curse it so readily when it doesn't come up to scratch. Not so long ago, it would have taken weeks to send back footage from a war zone, yet now we - and the viewers - expect a live broadcast from anywhere on the planet, at the drop of a hat. That said, tomorrow I expect to go live tomorrow... at the drop of a hat.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionFinding and destroying mines is all in a day's work for soldiers from Essex-based 33 Engineers


A fruitful morning with 33 Engineers (EOD), who are based at Carver Barracks near Saffron Walden.

49 Squadron let us join them on a training exercise as they teach Afghan soldiers how to detect and clear improvised explosive devices (IEDs) - the insurgents' weapon of choice. The Afghan National Army have come on in the last two years. But for the engineers, getting them up to speed can be frustrating. Their instinct is to jump in and show the local soldiers how it's done, but their Co, Lt Col Simon Bell, told me his men have to let them make mistakes and learn from them.

Our film about Sgt Simon Mercer being whisked back home to join his pregnant wife who had gone into labour nine weeks early is the easiest to cut. From Forward Operating Base to front door back in the UK, it was a 14-hour trip - "flash to bang" he called it. One helicopter and three plane flights later and a car waiting for him at RAF Brize Norton. He and his wife will always be grateful to the service personnel who got him home.

Image caption Alex Dunlop had a five-second delay to contend with during broadcasts

MOB Price is a Danish base. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition is made up of many nations, including the Danes, French and Estonians. After the Americans though, the British make up the biggest contingent, with around 9,500 service personnel. Price is relatively small, not as sprawling at Camp Bastion.

The Danes have an extended log cabin with outdoor seating in the centre of camp, where you can find slushies and a good coffee. Many of the men grow beards - I'm told only the Danish soldiers are allowed to do that. Why would they want to? It's 55C (131F) out here!

Tonight the sat dish works like a dream. The producer back in Norwich decides I should do a pre-recorded interview with Susie (Fowler-Watt) and Stewart (White), who are in the Look East studio. As the satellite delay is about five seconds, it could look messy live.

There's a big military operation going on far outside the base tonight. We see flares and tracer rounds in the sky and the regular exchange of small arms fire and big guns. Sitting outside the Danish log cabin sipping our slushies, watching and listening to this battle in the desert is more than a little surreal.

Watch Alex Dunlop's reports from Helmand Province on BBC Look East.

More on this story