The Diary of a REMF – Part Four

Photo: Cpl Lee Goddard/MOD, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 19th February

It seemed as though Colonel Nguyen was getting frustrated with National Caveats as well. His Environmental Health Officer, Major Stavros Balaskas was due to go up to the Czech military hospital on Friday to oversee the quarterly tests of water quality, from samples gathered from the various ISAF locations around the city. But the Greek officer was digging in and refused point blank to drive up to the airport in the CJ Med 4×4. Colonel Željko had offered to drive him but Stavros was having none of it.

“My national caveat clearly states that non-combatant personnel should not leave their compounds.”

Colonel Nguyen tried to reason with him, “You must have left the airport to get here at the beginning of your tour. And you must leave this compound to get to the airport at the end of your tour. Unless you intend to teleport?”

“Colonel, I am a veterinary surgeon, not an environmental health officer.”

“However, Major Balaskas, I have in front of me a report on your pre-deployment training,” he spoke slowly, framing his words carefully, “It states that you attended a course in environmental health in Athens last year. I am aware that the water testing involves you in a supervisory role only. Anybody could do it and they bring the results back here.”

“Then let anyone do it,” Major Balaskas said adamantly.

Once he had left, Colonel Nguyen pondered his next move. He knew that Christophe Margin would not travel in the CJ Med’s 4×4, but he still went outside the walls on many occasions. The Czech SO1 Healthcare waked past the office and the colonel called out to him.

“Would you ask Squadron Leader Margin to come in to see me? Telephone him if he’s in the CJOC.”

Margin knocked on the colonel’s door a minute or so later.

“Morning, Colonel. You wanted to see me?”

“Yes, Christophe, come in and shut the door.”

Colonel Nguyen explained his problem and asked: “So how do you attend these meetings off base?”

“I travel in British vehicles with an armed escort. They are tracked as soon as they leave, I can’t tell you how because I’m not sure myself, but it’s so our Special Forces know where we are and when to come and get us if there’s a problem.”

“Can any nationality travel in these vehicles?”

Margin knew what was coming next, “Yes provided a transport requisition form is submitted to MT, countersigned by a DACOS level officer, forty-eight hours before the journey and they are armed with a long weapon, not just a pistol. And of course, they must be accompanying a Brit on official ISAF business.”

“I wondered why you kept asking me to sign those forms. That will teach me to read them in future. Christophe, I know that it will be on Friday morning, but you should be back in time for lunch and then your down time.”

Margin smiled ruefully, “C’est la vie, Colonel, or as we Brits say: La merde arrive.”

And it would.

They had been chosen for their technical aptitude and dexterity with assembling IEDs. Their tribal leader had given them money for the Jingle Bus to Jalalabad and then onwards across the border into Pakistan. They had a letter to the Imam of a Madrassa in Peshawar that stated they were promising Islamic students, an address of somewhere to stay and a café where they could eat. They were told they would be contacted within a few days of arriving at Peshawar.

The man that approached them in the café was dressed as a poor motor mechanic, but they could tell from his hands and clean smell that he didn’t know one end of a vehicle engine from another. But he knew a great deal about explosives, timers, and detonators. He was a colonel in Pakistan’s ISI and they were eager to learn. He told them they didn’t need to understand the physics, but they wanted to understand as much as possible. He told them about the Monroe Effect, shaped charges and explosively formed projectiles. He told them the best containers to house the explosives, how to heat the explosive to form the cone and how to shape the copper sheet metal that would form the plasma plug. They were taught how to camouflage the devices on the roadsides and the most effective ways of detonating the devices. In a city there was too much passing traffic for a photo-electric cell activator. Killing your own people wasted valuable resources. The ISAF vehicle ECM counteracted a radio or telephone signal activation, so a command wire would be the best, with the brothers standing by to block the roads and kill the survivors, or better still take any of their women. He advised them to try an attack on a single vehicle before moving up to multiple IEDs on a convoy target.

After the week they were told where the equipment could be found and a safe garage to assemble them. They took the bus back across the border and they both had a signed letter from the Madrassa stating that they were not yet ready to continue their Islamic studies.

Friday 21st February

Margin had slept badly the night before. He always did the night before going out of the walls, or “over the bags,” as he dramatically called it. This wasn’t the first day of the Somme for goodness sake. As he shaved that morning, Margin concluded to his reflection that Colonel Željko was absolutely right. There could be something of the drama queen in him.

He had hoped to see the colonel at breakfast; he wasn’t sure why. But he was really.

What do you think of my new look?

You’ve done something with your hair?

No, the highlights.

Oh, you mean the halo. Frames your face perfectly.

Back in his room in the CORIMEC accommodation block, his two American roommates had gone to work, and Margin sat on his bed and moodily loaded the four magazines with thirty rounds, then tucked them into the pouches on his Osprey body armour. Morphine autojet and dog tags round neck. First field dressing top right pocket of his smock. Protective cover off the ballasting goggles on his helmet, check for dust. Osprey on. Helmet clipped to the carabiner on the side of the body armour. L85 rear slung. Glock and magazine in inside pouch pocket of his smock. Gloves on. Shamegh round neck to prevent the chafing from the Osprey’s standing Kevlar collar. Beret on.

Margin called in at the CJ Med offices to pick up Stavros and the water testing kit. Only the Slovakian warrant officer was in the office as it was before 08:00.

“Have you seen Major Balaskas?”

“No, but he rang in sick about ten minutes ago. He said there’s a letter for you on your desk.”

The envelope was sealed, and Margin opened it. At the top of the sheaf of A4 paper was a letter:


I am so sorry that I am unable to go to the field hospital with you this morning. I have been suffering with diarrhoea all night and as it’s a notifiable illness, I must go to the medical centre this morning.
I have left you a set of instructions, including screen shots of how the water test kit works. It’s really simple. Like testing water in a tropical fish tank. All you will need to do is verify the EH Technician’s results, sign the paperwork and bring it back with you to be scanned and sent to Brussels.
Again I am really sorry, but the tests take about an hour, and you should be back in time for lunch.



Margin re-read the letter and sighed. He tried to feel angry with Stavros, but he liked him too much. The truth was he should never have been there in the first place. God knows, Margin was pretty unmilitary, but Stavros made him look like George Patton. He trudged towards the MT yard and felt a sad disappointment. Colonel Nguyen was a placid man, but Margin suspected the French officer had a slow fuse and would be pretty angry when he found out. He reckoned that Stavros would be gone by the end of the week. He knew that he had been lumbered.

The Land Cruiser was waiting in the yard with the driver and vehicle commander. The driver was a young RLC private, and the commander was a female lance-jack. She had been the driver on the mail run from the airport.

“New oppo I see today.”

“Morning, sir,” She looked at the vehicle requisition form and frowned, “Squadron Leader Margin, but where is Major Balaskas?”

“He’s sick. Just me I’m afraid.”

She looked at him with a worried expression, “Sir we’re not supposed to do the runs with any less than two pax, otherwise we’re under gunned.”

Margin’s usual sense of nous seemed to have deserted him and normally his decisions were sound and logically thought out. But this morning he was under considerable pressure, and it caused him to make the mistake so many in the military have made through the years. He put the task ahead of the team and individuals. Sometimes that is unavoidable, but really not in this case. He pushed.

“Testing the water supplies for the various bases in and around the city is a vital, mission critical function. If the water is contaminated… Well, you get the picture.”

To her credit she wasn’t rolling over, “I’ll need to speak with my boss.”

“I’ll come with you.”

In the MT office Margin explained the situation to the duty sergeant. In truth he laid it on a bit thick. “Our concerns are that there may be Cryptosporidium in the water supplies as we’ve seen an increase in gastro-intestinal illness. (Bullshit Baffles Brains) so you’ll know how important it is. And after all, you do mail runs with just a commander and driver.”

The Lance-jack looked at him sharply and Margin felt like a right little shit. But the sergeant relented and agreed that the journey could go ahead. By the vehicle, the female soldier briefed them on routes, actions-on and the locations of the safe houses and timings. It was a thorough and professional briefing from a young and very junior NCO, but Margin could tell she was annoyed, both with him and with her boss for caving in.

Before they embussed Margin briefly spoke with her, “Look I’m really sorry but it’s important. I can’t stand going outside the walls and wouldn’t unless it was really necessary. It’ll only take an hour so you can get something to eat in the hospital mess. The food is really good, served sixteen hours a day and just about everyone at the airport eats there.”

She smiled weakly at him. She wasn’t going to forgive him that easily. They drove to the rear gate of the compound and loaded their weapons in the bay. As it was a one-way road past the US Embassy, so they would take the route out of the base and turn left north up the Shash Darak Road to the dual carriage way, then right towards Abdul Haq square, where the traffic going round the monument was like the chariot race of Ben Hur. Margin realised that it was pointless calling out proximity threats from other vehicles and waited for them to double back around the monument and roundabout to the airport road.

Too bloody obvious again, Margin thought, but they must know what they were doing. The traffic thinned, probably because it was Friday and a holy day. A time to spend with the family or keeping up with other hobbies. There was a natural hiatus in the traffic at the junction of Sehat-e-Ama Road and 4th Macroryan Main Road and the 4×4 slowed to negotiate the slight chicane. There were no other vehicles within a hundred metres of them. NO OTHER VEHICLES!

Margin gave a start and looked over his left shoulder at the ground in front of the Afghan National Bank.

“There’s something wrong!” he yelled, “Look out for..!”

The vehicle commander had no idea what he was telling them to look out for, but she found out soon enough.

They had heard the explosions and gunfire coming from the city airport. Afzal was on the road the opposite side from the bank and from behind his cover Sajed saw his cousin wave the newspaper. They hadn’t been truly happy with the shaping of the copper sheet and Sajed remarked that one side looked slightly uneven. Perhaps the metal had been beaten until it was too thin in one area. But it was their first, live attempt at the construction an explosively formed projectile (EFP). They had moulded quick-setting concrete around the device and hidden the large cut off piece of steel tubing full of the shaped explosives in the shrubbery in front of the bank. With the hessian covering the business end, the copper plate, it resembled a large rock.

The command wire had been buried for most of its length until it emerged near a small shrub, on the slope overlooking the road. Sajed moved from cover towards the shrub, squatted down and picked up the command wire’s switch. A simple plastic box containing two batteries and a switch. Sajed saw the white Toyota Land Cruiser approach the stick they had placed at the side of the road as a marker point. He started chanting verses from the Holy Quran. The vehicle slowed to take the slight chicane near the junction. The front bumper passed the stick, and he pressed the button.

The exploding shaped charge had two immediate effects. Firstly, the super-heated 1.5 kilogram copper liner was blasted towards the vehicle at just over 2,000 metres per second. In the milliseconds it took to cover fifteen metres, the copper liner was now metallic plasma and had shaped from a flat, concave disc to a slug of molten copper. As a general rule of thumb, an EFP can penetrate a thickness of armour plate equivalent to half the diameter of the device if a copper liner is used.

Secondly, they had not paid sufficient attention to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, insofar as for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. They had badly miscalculated the size of the blast area and the command wire was in fact too short. They were used to explosives made from fertilizer, weed killer and chapatti flour, not military grade explosives. The supersonic blast wave and its solid wall of dust hit Sajed, rupturing his eyeballs and perforating his eardrums. It caused catastrophic damage to his internal organs, and he was dead before he hit the ground, thirty metres up the slope. Afzal lost sight of his cousin in the expanding ball of smoke, dust, and shredded foliage. He melted into the gathering crowd.

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file


© Chris Downes/Blown Periphery 2023

Chris served for 38 years in the military as an apprentice and adult Service. He completed tours in multiple locations in the UK and Germany during the Cold War. Later he served on operational tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Middle East and Asia.
Christophe Downes 28th July 1957 – 30th March 2023