In one of the biggest air assaults in their history, troops from the Parachute Regiment have spent the last four days deep in Taliban territory.
Breaking one of the last insurgent strongholds in southern Afghanistan, the "Battle of Qarat-e-Hazrat" in Zabul Province ended in an enemy rout.
The Correspondent Thomas Harding watched as British firepower finally turned the tide in the Taliban's own "back yard".
Witnessing the firefight, he reports on a fight which destroyed the idea of Afghanistan's "mythical warriors".
Paratroopers fought their biggest battle in Afghanistan for two years as the Taliban attempted to push them out of their "backyard".
But the inability of the insurgents to make an impact on the British force during its fourth day deep in enemy territory was demonstrated by a brutal rebuff which resulted in an enemy rout.
As last light crept in, a stream of red tracer bullets lit up the sky, zipping 10ft above heads of those in the mudbrick compound held by A Company, 3rd Bn The Parachute Regiment.
"None of the British will leave that compound alive," local intelligence had reported a day earlier.
In reply to the threat, company commander Major Jamie Loden told a meeting of village elders that the Taliban "fight like women" and if they were men "they would dare to fight us".
Two hours later mortar rounds, heavy machine gun bullets and other weapons rained down on the Paras' positions but by the early hours of the morning the Taliban were a beaten force.
In one of the biggest air assaults in the regiment's history, the Paras have landed by helicopter deep in the heartland of Taliban territory in Zabul province to take on the last insurgent strongholds in southern Afghanistan.
For the last week the Paras have been relentlessly patrolling through pretty villages surrounded by apricot orchards and climbing mountains, redolent of wild rosemary, to provoke the Taliban into a response.
In almost every village the local population still lives in terror of the insurgents denying that the Taliban operated in the area.
With the insurgents murdering people who co-operate with security forces their lies were understandable but became more difficult to sustain after the major gunfight.
Using "dead ground" to get close to observation posts on a hill overlooking the Para's compound, the Taliban opened up from 800 yards with a heavy salvo.
Enemy fire was coming in from all directions at a ferocious rate, said one of the soldiers.
Capt Andy Mallet, Patrols Platoon commander on the hill, said mortars landed 20 yards from his position and tracer rounds "were winging past my eyes".
With the enemy sneaking upon the rear position, the soldiers were taken by surprise and in the desperate opening moments of the firefight they struggled to hold them back.
Cpl "Jack" Russell helped lead the counter-attack by running back to his position to grab a GPMG machine gun as his comrades held off the enemy with small arms fire.
"The enemy rounds were all around us," said Cpl Russell. "They were winning the firefight for a little while as they hit us by surprise. It was pretty hairy, like. When I was running back to my position the guys saw rounds landing by my feet."
With the enemy opening up a second front by firing from an orchard on a flank, the pressure intensified.
But the tide of the "Battle of Qarat-e-Hazrat" was turned as the Paras hit the Taliban with a barrage of 40 rounds from their 81mm mortars. It was followed up by machine gunfire and two £30,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The heavy and accurate fire the broke the Taliban will to fight and they ran.
At first they tried to drag back two badly wounded fighters but then abandoned them and another dead insurgent.
Using thermal imaging equipment the troops spotted three heat sources on the ground.
"We had two heat sources that were seen crawling on the floor and one that was static," said Capt Mallet. "After about 45 minutes all three sources then faded."
French Mirage fighters also circled over the scene but were not used as the Taliban withdrew.
Spent bullet casings and smashed apricot trees littered the battle area as the Paras went on dawn patrol.
Major Loden said the battle showed that "contrary to popular belief this confirms that the Taliban are not mythical warriors".
"This shows they cannot match us force on force. When they try and take us on they always lose. They start it we finish it."
He added: "The ethos of the Parachute Regiment is all about being deep in enemy territory surrounded and destroying them regardless of everything they throw at us. So morale is exceptionally high."
Capt Mallet added: "The blokes reacted exceptionally well – they are soldiers and paratroopers. You don't have to ask them twice to start returning fire. They are massively experienced and that showed last night.
A member of the mortars' platoon said: "The Taliban took us from the rear and we gave them a good spanking,"
Click to view image: '188960-para.jpg'
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