An unnecessary death: commander speaks out over ‘blue on blue’ shooting

Major Richard Streatfeild claims lack of basic equipment contributed to killing of Michael Pritchard by British sniper

The winter months are usually the quiet ones in Afghanistan, when the insurgents withdraw across the border to Pakistan or retreat to their villages in the hinterlands of Helmand province to wait for the rain and snow to lift.

But in December 2009, there was no such lull. The fighting – British orthodox against Taliban guerrilla – was focused on a stretch of Route 611, which links Sangin town to the rest of the province.

Control of the 611 was strategically important for both sides, and it was on the seventh day of an intense battle involving 350-400 British troops that Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard lost his life. He was killed not by the insurgents, who had planted roadside bombs wherever they could – 45 were found on the 611 in that brief period – but by a bullet fired by a British sniper.

No single mistake led to his death, but a catalogue of missed opportunities, and a lack of basic equipment such as radios, created an extra layer of confusion on top of the usual fog of war in which Pritchard’s commanding officer, Major Richard Streatfeild, was trying to establish some order. He described the incident as “the worst we had in Afghanistan. It remains by far and away the one that has concerned me most.”

Hours before the shooting, Streatfeild had hoped the operation was drawing to a close. He had joined the men and women of 2 Platoon – one of four for which he was responsible – at a patrol base called Blenhein, close to the 611, to take stock and recuperate after several days of what he calls “monumental fighting.”

“Every patrol they’d been on had been attacked and the sleep deprivation from earlier in the week was chronic. We were all absolutely shattered.”

But just after 9pm, a new emergency crackled over the radios in the operations room with two words that set off controlled panic in the chain of command: “Man down.”

Even at that early stage, the sniper who fired the fatal shot, Lance Corporal Malcolm Graham, realised what had happened, says Streatfeild. “As soon as the message came through, they knew they had fired. They knew immediately it was ‘blue on blue’. I remember exactly how I felt. I have relived it more times than I care to think about.”

Pritchard had done nothing wrong. He was an enthusiastic member of the Royal Military Police, who had apparently volunteered for more frontline duties and been seconded to 3 platoon, where he was well-liked and trusted.

On 20 December he was posted to a new and temporary observation post in a blind spot area of the 611 that had just been cleared. He was due to remain there for 24 hours to consolidate the gains that had been made.

Members of 1 Platoon were stationed a little further up the valley, on the look-out for insurgents, seemingly unaware that the figures they could see moving …read more    

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