AN EXTRACT FROM OPERATION SNAKEBITE
More than 150 British service personnel have died in Afghanistan. Like many of them, Sergeant Lee Johnson was just a name until Stephen Grey – who witnessed his death – uncovered his profoundly moving story
B Company of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) was formed up and ready for action. The officer commanding approached and reviewed his men. “Permission to have a go, sir?” asked Corporal Carl Peterson.
“I don’t think so, lads,” said the OC. “Not tonight.”
They were, after all, in Blackpool.
Major Jason Alexis Little, 36, had a twinkle in his eyes. He had known some of these men for nearly 16 years. He had grown up with them. They all addressed him formally as “sir”, but for the seniors among them he was simply Jake and he was one of them.
He probably knew Sergeant Lee “Jonno” Johnson the best. Jonno was the reason they were all standing outside the Walkabout club in Queen Street, Blackpool, in early September 2007. The bouncers had just evicted him for being drunk, not to mention for wearing flip-flops. Jake had gone out to remonstrate. If Jonno was a little drunk, as most were that night, then he was a happy drunk and no cause for worry.
The rest of the company had followed Jake out and that was why they were lined up for action. Jonno was something of a legend in the regiment and not always for the best of reasons. As a boxer and army judo champion, his nicknames varied from “Judo Johnson” to “Mad Dog Johnson”. Every man with something to prove wanted to take on Jonno and it invariably ended up in big trouble.
When Jake had joined B Company as a green young subaltern, Jonno had seen himself as his protector. If they were in a club and someone started to pick a fight with Jake, he would come steaming to the rescue. Although they were poles apart in many ways, everyone remembered them as very close.
While Jake had been steadily promoted, Jonno had moved up the ranks and been busted down again more times than anyone could remember. It had taken him until he was 33 to realise he was a good soldier, a born leader. Everyone in the regiment was proud of what he had become. But even as he achieved self-belief he became convinced that he was about to die.
THE trip to Blackpool was a last fling before a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, where B Company became mentors to a 400-man battalion of the Afghan national army (ANA). This meant fighting alongside and often leading the Afghans, work that in other conflicts was done by elite special forces. In early December they were ordered to take part in the biggest manoeuvre by the British Army in Afghanistan since the days of the British empire. Its purpose was to support an attack on Musa Qala, a town from which the British had withdrawn in 2006 and which was now infamous as a rebel stronghold.
Jonno was sitting in the ANA camp outside Camp Bastion, the huge Nato military base in Helmand, waiting to go on R&R (rest and recreation) when the news came in of the Musa Qala op. It was hard to turn his back on a battle.
He knew where to go for advice.
His young brother Don was also there — in C Company. Although four years older, Jonno was always asking Don for advice. As kids they had hardly known each other. Being together in the army had brought them close and for the first time in their lives they had said they loved each other. “What do you think I should do?” asked Jonno.
“It’s up to you,” Don replied. “This is the biggest battle the battalion has ever had and if you missed out on it you would kick yourself for ever and ever . . . If you do go and you get hurt, you’re probably going to regret it for the rest of your life . . . You can’t ask me what I think; I only tell you what you need to hear.”
Jonno said: “Yeah. Musa Qala. I need to take Musa Qala.”
“I know you do; you just wanted to ask me.”
“You need to be sure you want to go.”
“Yeah, I’m going.”
Jonno’s team were surprised to find he hadn’t gone on his R&R. They also learnt that he had started going to church. Someone said he hadn’t been for 17 years. “Things change,” said Jonno.
But he began to get spooked. Don began receiving electronic messages from him saying “I think I’ve made a really bad decision” and “I don’t think I should go” and “I’ve got a bad feeling”. But Don told him: “It will be all right. We will be laughing in a few months’ time in the pub.”
It was Don who was in immediate danger. Deployed to the Kajaki dam, an exposed outpost, he was caught in a deadly incident in a minefield.
In the middle of the night, his mentoring team and their ANA patrol were moving fast down a dry river bed for an operation with the Royal Marines. Don stopped suddenly because a battery alarm in his day sack was ringing. “Right, go firm,” he said, and he and his men got down on one knee. And then “for some strange, random reason” an interpreter behind him ran past and stepped on a mine about three yards in front of him. Don knew it should have been his own head that was blown off.
Next day, the eve of the Musa Qala operation, Jonno tried to fit Kevlar armour plates to the seat of his Vector armoured vehicle. But once they were in place he couldn’t get in with his helmet and kit on. Everyone hated the design of the Vectors. They had a crucial design flaw that made the driver or front passenger (usually the vehicle commander) particularly vulnerable to being killed if the vehicle struck a mine. “It’s an absolute death trap. I don’t feel safe in this,” said Jonno.
“You’ve just to get on with it,” he was told. Everyone knew the problem all too well.
That night Jonno went to visit Fran Myatt, the 2 Yorks chaplain, and asked for his own copy of the Bible. He placed it beneath his combat armour. Then he sat down and wrote an e-mail, sent at 18.00, to his fiancée, Lisa.
FROM: Lee Johnson
TO: Lisa McIntosh
SENT: Weds Dec 5 2007
RE:“Well angel, I’m going at 2 in the morning. You might see me on the telly
soon or in the Times paper as I have got a film crew with me. This is the
biggest thing since D-Day and I am not lying. I am worried . . .
understand this could be my last message to you. So I am going to say a few
things. You know I love you with all my heart and always will. And I am sorry
truly for all the things I have done . . .I want you to put the money on the
sale of my house and split it . . .
“I know this is a bit upsetting but I
need to let you know about this. I really love you and will try my hardest to
come home safely. I would like you to play one song for me if it happens and
this is Killers and ‘really wish I could be somewhere else’. And I want my
photos played at wherever the wake is which are all on the DVD marked up
‘Kajaki’ and the footage I got from there which is on my camcorder which you
will receive in my box. Thanks. Please do this because I want people to
understand how things were over here and why I love the army so much and the
“I want you to get on with your life and live it to the full . . . I
only ask your forgiveness in my wrongdoing. The thought of not holding you in my
arms again is awful and gets me down but your photos are close to my heart and
will be with me forever. I love you. Tell my daughter and son I love them. Love
you Lisa my angel for ever and a day.”
As Lisa would later point out, “really want to be somewhere else” is actually by Razorlight, but Killers is what he wrote.
THE convoy set off in the pre-dawn darkness on December 6 and began to stretch out into a 12-mile long column in the desert, throwing up a cloud of dust that Taliban scouts could not miss.
After dark that evening, Jonno sat down with his platoon contemplating the days ahead. He started talking about his daughter Lilly, passing round her photo and saying her birthday was soon. The atmosphere was almost cheerful. Then Jonno turned serious.
He steeled his men: “I’ve been here before, guys, and you can trust me. Trust me, you know. Just work hard — obviously work hard — but you’ll be okay.”
The battle plan called for a diversionary attack by the Afghans and B Company together with American special forces before US paratroopers led the main thrust from another direction. The Green Howards broke camp in the morning of December 7 as AC/DC’s Back in Black blared from the loudspeakers of an American anti-tank platoon. With Nick Cornish, the photographer, I was embedded with them.
The convoy moved 12 miles north across the desert before B Company broke off and led its Afghan battalion towards Musa Qala. As we passed through a village we came under attack. Pummelled by gunfire, many of the Afghans refused to fight. Jonno got them up and pushed them forward, leaving behind a dead Taliban fighter.
We camped out again that night on a ridge southwest of Musa Qala. Lieutenant Andy Breach had the pre-dawn sentry shift alongside Jonno. Normally, in the British Army, officers do not do sentry duty but in the mentoring teams many traditions were ignored.
Jonno talked about how he loved what he was doing and how happy he had been to lead men forward under fire in the village. “If anything happens to me,” he said, “I want to die outright. Lisa would kill me if I came back in bits.”
He told Breach he was going to church. “I know something will happen,” he said. But he didn’t seem scared or deterred.
They moved out again soon after dawn and by mid-morning everyone was hot, hungry and thirsty. Toiling slowly along a dry river bed, Jonno was at the back of the convoy.
Lee Bellingham, his machinegunner, later recalled: “It was that sort of day where you’re hungry, you’re tired, you just want to get back to the camp, get a hot shower, get a beer and stuff like that. And Jonno just turned around and said, ‘No, I don’t like today; something’s going to happen’, and, you know, for him it did.”
The track out of the wadi was blocked by a broken-down Afghan ammo truck, but Jonno thought he could drive past. He shouted to his men to get down in the back in case he rolled going up the slope.
Halfway up the engine struggled. The Vector was getting bogged down: its wheels were spinning and it was digging down into the sand. That must have been how it struck the anti-tank mine, probably one left behind by Soviet troops. Other vehicles had probably loosened things up.
Bellingham did not hear the blast, but suddenly he was in a strange, silent world inside the Vector and events were moving weirdly slowly.
He must have been knocked out. When his mind started working, he saw smoke everywhere. He felt a thud as the back of the Vector hit something. He popped his head up out of the hatch and saw his machinegun was in bits, cut in half. A piece of the engine was on top of the vehicle.
Bellingham saw the driver, Lance-Corporal Christopher Fletcher. He was halfway up the hill with blood on his face and his arms were badly cut. He put his hand up and his lips were moving, as though he was shouting for help, but Bellingham couldn’t hear him at all.
He jumped down and managed to get Jonno’s door open, clearing away the rubble and dirt inside. “The first thing I noticed, there’s no steering wheel; it was just black inside. It was like something went through and just left the outer shell, ripping it to shreds inside.”
He crawled towards Jonno, but when he saw him his heart almost stopped. There was no life left. Both Jonno’s legs had been amputated in the blast. No one could survive that. He must have died instantaneously. He had felt no pain.
AT the Kajaki dam, Don Johnson and his men had had a couple of days off since the mine strike that killed the interpreter. It was a bit of a luxury. He was playing his guitar outside the ops room that morning when someone came out and gave him a phone message: “You need to be on the helipad, right now.”
Don said it was a mistake. Others were due out on R&R on a helicopter that was supposed to have gone 10 minutes ago. The messenger insisted.
“I don’t think so,” said Don.
He went into the ops room. Confirmation came in again from the 2 Yorks HQ.
“Put me on to the ops officer, because I think you’ve made a mistake.”
The ops officer came on the line: “Look, I don’t know what it is, but you need to make your way back as fast as you can.”
Don put the phone down. He knew now; he just knew. Then Sergeant Andrew Morrison came in crying his eyes out. He was a big bloke; no one would expect him to cry. “Look, I’m sorry. Your kid’s dead.” He gave Don a cuddle.
The Chinook taking him back to base was also carrying a Taliban fighter who had been badly injured handling a bomb that went off early. The chopper was taking him for medical treatment.
Don took a look at the wounded man covered in burns and it made him furious. The back door of the helicopter was open “and I honestly really just wanted to kick him out the back”. A marine officer grabbed Don’s leg, as if for reassurance.
Don was saying to him: “Can we just throw him off?”
The officer just held him and said: “It’s going to be all right; it’s going to be all right.” Don buried his face in his arm.
By 5pm on the ridgeline southwest of Musa Qala it was getting close to darkness. Jonno’s body was still in the Vector more than six hours after his death. A promised helicopter had still not come with explosive experts to clear the site around it of possible mines. In the end, Jake Little decided: “We’ll do it ourselves.”
Lance-Corporal John Dickens, an engineer, got out his metal detector and scanned the ground around the Vector. He came back up in a sweat, but gave the all-clear.
Jake took down the men he thought would cope best. As they prepared to bring Jonno up the hill they found his Bible beneath his body armour.
At 6pm a message came that a helicopter would be there in five minutes to take the body out. An hour and half later a message came that it was too dark.
Jake knew he had to try to restore his men’s spirits, even though his own were at an all-time low. Under the stars he gathered the company in a huddle. His face was weary and he spoke softly.
“I’m shit at this,” he confessed. He spoke of the gap Jonno would leave behind and how he had died doing what he loved. He explained that tonight the lads would have to stand sentry on the ridge over Jonno’s body.
Emotions, he said, would have to be suppressed in the next few days. However hard, they needed to focus on the mission. There would be a time for mourning later: “We have to move on, but not forget.” It was a miserable night. Rain pelted down on the ponchos of those who could find sleep.
AT Camp Shorabak, base of the 2 Yorks battle group, Don Johnson had been through a worse trauma. When someone died or was seriously injured in Task Force Helmand, all communication between the soldiers and back home was cut off to stop the news reaching the families or the media before next-of-kin had been properly informed.
Under the rules Jonno’s parents and fiancée could not be informed until his death and identity were formally certified. That required a doctor, a military policeman and a member of his unit all to be there to record a statement of his death — which was impossible in Jonno’s case.
“I wasn’t allowed to phone anyone. I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone because they hadn’t positively identified him,” Don remembered.
By 7pm he was getting quite distraught. He had known for about eight hours that his brother was dead. He said: “I need to tell someone.”
The reply was: “But we can’t yet because we haven’t positively identified him.”
It was pathetic, he thought: “It was like they have little rules in the army that sometimes might need to be broke.”
Someone came in at about 10pm and said: “We can’t bring him back. The Americans won’t bring him back and the British can’t fly . . . He’ll just have to stay out for the night.”
Don had dark visions of “dogs eating the dead in the middle of the night”.
At brigade headquarters in Lashkar Gah, Major Nick Haston, the deputy chief of staff, was trying to follow a rule book that, while well intentioned, had been written in what he thought of as a “sterile made-up environment” in the UK.
It had been his call to leave Jonno’s body on the hillside, “the most painful decision” he made in his tour in Afghanistan. Ultimately, he recalled, “we couldn’t find a bloody helicopter to pick up a body because we needed that helicopter to go elsewhere”.
Nine other casualties were dealt with that day by one medevac team. Hard as it sounded, “if someone is dead, that comes low down on the priority list”. Those who were dying or severely injured clearly got precedence.
Now Haston was in an argument with higher command, who were insisting that Don could not inform his family until Jonno was formally identified. Don was in agony. “It was killing me,” he said. And everyone could see that.
It was the padre who “convinced the battalion, or whoever it was, to let me phone home”. Normally such things are done in person by a special welfare team. Such a team were waiting round the corner from the Johnson household in Yorkshire. But Don wanted to do it himself. The padre was sitting next to him as he made the call. His mother answered.
“Mam, can you put dad on really fast?” said Don.
She must have known it was something bad. His father picked up the phone.
“Dad, there’s been an accident. Lee died.”
His father said: “Oh God, oh my God.”
Don could hear his father telling his mother: “Lee’s dead.”
Her screams were awful. Don would never want to hear such screams again. But then he asked: “Look, you need to be strong. Will you phone Lisa? I need you to go round and see Lisa.”
Don remembered: “I didn’t want them to just phone Lisa and tell her when she was sat at home with his little Lilly, by herself. Imagine her screaming in front of that kid; it wouldn’t be very nice.
“I said: look you need to; don’t tell no one; go round and speak to her straight away. And they went round and told her, which I think was the best way to do things. I couldn’t have done it anyway.”
The call to his parents “was probably the worst time I’ve ever had in my life, crying down the phone. It was horrible”.
ON Armistice Day, November 11, 2008, I took the train to Stockton-on-Tees to see Alan and Sandra Johnson. While I was there, Don rang to wish his dad happy birthday.
This reminded us of Lee’s phone calls home from Afghanistan. The first was to say he had decided to marry Lisa. The last time, a few days before he died, was to say he might not live. He wanted them to know he was doing what he loved and to make sure they told everyone that, if he died.
Alan said: “The strange thing is that, when he was alive, I hardly used to think about Lee. Now I think about him all the time.”
He still kicks himself a little that he was always hard on his son. He can’t remember ever praising him: “He came back and said he was made sergeant. I told him I would have made general!”
Lee had seemed strangely lonely in his last few months. “He had so many friends and I’m not sure any of them would realise.” He used to come back home frequently, but his mind was far away, as though he was trying to sort things out in his head. “I only wish he could have come back and sat down for an hour and told us what he wanted to make of his life.”
We talked about coping with his death. In the world wars the nation as a whole shared your grief. These days no one really knows about this conflict.
As General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, put it to me: “I think the army is at war; the nation is not at war.”
When I saw Lisa, with Lilly sitting nearby watching the television, we talked about the same thing.
“No one really understands the army or squaddies,” she said. “They don’t know what they are doing or the brave things they are doing. And the sad thing is they have to die before you find out.”
© Stephen Grey 2009