LONDON - "We headed off to what can only be described as the Wild West."
Those are the words, not of a beleaguered British squaddie, but of a Canadian officer in a unit sent to rescue British troops in the lawless Afghan province of Helmand.
His account, emailed to family and friends back in Canada, is the most detailed to emerge from what commanders have called the most desperate fighting British troops have seen since the Korean War.
"A British company from 3 Para had been isolated and surrounded by Taleban in ... Sangin district centre," the officer relates.
"They had lost four soldiers and were being attacked three to five times a day. They were running out of food and were down to boiling river water."
An attempt to air-drop supplies had failed, with the supplies landing in a Taleban stronghold, so the Canadians were ordered to conduct an immediate emergency resupply operation with their light armoured vehicles.
"When we arrived in Sangin, the locals began throwing rocks and anything they could at us; this was not a friendly place," the officer reports. "We pushed into the district centre, and during the last few hundred metres we began receiving mortar fire." By the time they reached the British position, the Canadian convoy had to stay overnight.
"We were attacked with small arms, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and mortars three times that night. I still can't believe that the Brits have spent over a month living there under these conditions."
According to Brigadier Ed Butler, whose 16 Air Assault Brigade spearheaded the 2003 invasion of Iraq, nothing his men experienced there came close to what they have undergone in the past few weeks in Helmand.
The Ministry of Defence has been accused of seeking to keep the reality from the British public by excluding journalists and television cameras from the front line.
But internet access at main British bases is routine, and service families are used to having almost daily email contact with soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops revealed that they were engaged in all-out fighting, with ammunition running out, equipment malfunctioning and reinforcements and supplies failing to arrive. "Two days ago, we ran out of GPMG [general purpose machine gun] ammunition in our forward location," said an email to a Tory MP, Patrick Mercer.
"The Taleban were dodging around in great numbers at about 700m and firing at us from there from behind all sorts of cover. We ran out of LINK [the linked-up ammunition for a general-purpose machine gun] and we couldn't get any more in overnight because of the darkness and the weight of fire. We were within RPG range which they use superbly. We used our mortars to good effect, but, again, ammunition ran short."
Similar complaints came from another officer, who said that his troops' SA80 rifles melted in the heat. "You would go to pull the trigger and a piece of the gun would come away in your hand," he wrote. His force was also hampered by "a chronic lack of thermal imaging equipment, which allows you to plot the enemy at night. Without it you fight blind in a vast desert you don't know."
Communications equipment, including Harris 117 radios, which allow soldiers to call for help and back-up, was also being rationed, and their Land Rovers often broke down. "They were not made for battles in the desert," said the officer. "Every day, two or three vehicles were being repaired because axles were breaking under the strain. It made you an open target."
Though the intense fighting ebbed nearly three weeks ago accounts of what the British troops went through are still emerging. Last week it was disclosed that an elite Paras Pathfinder platoon, sent on a four-day mission to Musa Qala, in the north of Helmand Province, ended up spending 52 days under siege by the Taleban. "We were there for eight weeks; three of those were under constant attack," said a senior officer.
Resupply was difficult, since it was dangerous for helicopters to land inside the compound the Paras were defending, but there were not enough soldiers to secure both the compound and a landing field outside. A force of 120 Paras supposed to relieve them had to be sent to Sangin instead, but, amazingly, the Pathfinders did not lose a single man, though the Sergeant Major was shot through the arm and several men suffered broken bones.
A Canadian officer wrote about what happened in Sangin: "We received orders that we were now [under] the control of 3 Para for their upcoming operation north of Sangin. En route we were engaged by an 82mm mortar from across a valley. I engaged them with our artillery. We rode all through the night and arrived right as the Paras air-assaulted onto the objective with Chinook helicopters. There were helicopters everywhere.
"It was a hot landing zone, and they took intense fire until we arrived with the LAVs, and the enemy ran away. It was a different operation, as we were used to a lot more intimate support tanks to shoot the Paras in. It was impressive to watch them, though. They are unbelievable soldiers."
The Army chief of staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, was drawn into public controversy after an email from a 3 Para officer serving in Helmand, Major James Loden, criticised support from the RAF as "utterly, utterly useless".
The major complained: "Twice I have had Harriers in support when c/s [companies] on the ground have been in heavy contact, on one occasion trying to break clean.
"A female Harrier pilot 'couldn't identify the target', fired two phosphorous rockets that just missed our own compound so that we thought they were incoming RPGs, and then strafed our perimeter, missing the enemy by 200m." In contrast, he said, the US Air Force was "fantastic".
Dannatt said Loden's comments were "irresponsible" and defended the RAF, which also drew more favourable comments from the Canadian officer. Describing another clash during his time with 3 Para, he wrote: "The company quickly came under attack from what was estimated as 100-plus fighters.
"For about 15 minutes we lost communications with the company commander and a whole section of infantry as they were basically overrun. The section had last been seen going into a ditch that was subsequently hit with a volley of about 15 RPGs; I thought we had lost them all.
"I had Brit Apaches check in and they did an absolutely brilliant job at repelling the enemy. The only problem was I couldn't understand a word the pilot was saying, because of his accent! Luckily I had the Brit liaison officer riding in the back of my LAV. I ended up using him [a major] as a very highly paid interpreter to help me out. After about an hour-long fight the company broke contact ... and we levelled several compounds with artillery. Somehow we escaped without a scratch - truly amazing."
Senior commanders dismissed some of the criticisms from serving soldiers as partial, and a "snapshot", but at least two officers have quit as a result of their experiences in Helmand.
The only one to be named was Captain Leo Docherty, aide-de-camp to Colonel Charlie Knaggs, the operational commander in the province.
Calling the campaign "a textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency", he told the Sunday Times: "We've been grotesquely clumsy - we've said we'll be different to the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved exactly like them."
Docherty and the rest of the British contingent in Helmand learned the brutal lesson some time ago that what was billed as a reconstruction mission has turned into a war. Judging from comments on internet message boards, such as the British Army Rumour Service, that message is getting through to soldiers' families and the wider public back home.
A poster called "Nigegilb" wrote: "I am upset because the original rationale for the invasion - defeat the Taleban and rebuild Afghanistan, which at the time seemed credible, potentially even noble, has been neither properly resourced and pursued nor revised."
BRITISH ARMY FIREPOWER
This is the equipment generals have at their command, according to experts at Jane's Sentinel
* Challenger 2 battle tanks.
* 468 Scimitar & Sabre reconnaissance vehicles.
* 789 Warrior infantry fighting vehicles.
* 2764 Saxon, Spartan and other armoured personnel carriers.
* 50 Panther armoured command liaison vehicles.
* 15,000 Land Rover trucks (plus new order of Mastiff vehicles).
* 298 Artillery pieces like 105mm Light Gun.
* 63 MLRS and other rocket launchers.
* 2636 81mm and other-sized mortars.
* 840 Anti-tank weapons including LAW.
* 478 Rapier and other surface-to-air missiles.