THE Australian soldiers in an Afghan valley knew something was wrong when local women and children began leaving the nearby fields. Then followed a nervous wait until a barrage of rockets and machine-gun fire fell around them.
That was the start of a fierce, hour-long battle with a Taliban force that attacked from three directions. No Australians were hurt, but at least two insurgents are believed to have been killed.
In the first detailed account of the battle to save the fort the soldiers are building for the Afghan army, they described a battle fought out in the surreal green light of night-vision equipment.
The soldiers from the reconstruction task force were building an outpost for the Afghan national army near the mouth of the Baluci Pass about 15 kilometres from the Australian base at Tarin Kowt when the first in a week-long series of attacks began on February 16.
Lieutenant Richard Varvell commanded a 30-strong platoon forward of the building site and the main body of Australians. He realised when he saw local Afghan women and children leaving the area that something was up. Once the attack began, training took over and his men reacted automatically.
When the forward platoon was attacked, an ASLAV armoured vehicle commanded by Sergeant Justin "Junior" Smith was sent forward to support the infantry. The ASLAV, in turn, was fired on from three directions
"We moved in and returned fire and destroyed the Taliban insurgents who were firing upon us using our thermal sighting system to the best advantage," Sergeant Smith said.
"We have far superior observation compared to the Taliban and that aided us greatly. Through our thermal sighting system we could identify those who were bearing weapons and engaging us and we were able to see the effect we had on the target."
The night-vision equipment allowed the Australians to see clearly over two or three kilometres.
In dispassionate military language, Sergeant Smith described how he saw explosive rounds from the ASLAV's 25-millimetre "chain gun" strike some of the insurgents who were firing towards the Australian position.
"That was basically it. If you hit someone with this there's not going to be much left of them."
No bodies were found, but the Taliban generally remove their dead and wounded.
Lieutenant Varvell and his men bore the brunt of the attack. He said yesterday he did not deserve a medal: "I was just doing my job."
Other officers felt differently. They said the lieutenant bravely and calmly controlled the defence of his position and he was exposed to enemy fire on a number of occasions.
They said the Australians were lucky not to have suffered casualties. Several times rockets exploded nearby or passed low. A machine-gun bullet passed through a soldier's pack — he was not wearing it at the time.
Checking out the area the next day Corporal Damian Woods found a Russian-style machine-gun and an AK-47 hidden in hay, the first of two caches found by the Australians in a week in which they were subjected to three more Taliban attacks. Corporal Woods said finding the weapons was a morale-booster for the Australian unit: "We've got them. They don't. It means they can't shoot at us."
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