The Uzbin Valley ambush occurred when ISAF troops were ambushed by Afghan militants in eastern Afghanistan on 18 August 2008. It took place outside the village of Spēṟ Kunday, of the Surobi District of Kabul province and resulted in heavy casualties to the French ISAF contingent.
The dossier presents Frédéric Pons, Valeurs Actuelles
What the surviving paras tell about the battle brings a succession of individual acts of bravery to light. Their professionalism ensured not only a low death toll, but to inflict terrible blows to the insurgents.
Monday, August 18. 9 am. About a hundred of soldiers form an armored column made up of two French platoons aboard VABs (light armored vehicles, APCs), two platoons of the Afghan National Army, trained by the French, and twelve American special forces, including an air guidance team. Evaluation by the intelligence service: “Thus far, the menace was due to small groups committing isolated acts… The insurgency has always failed to demonstrate the capacity or the intention of carrying out coordinated actions on a large scale”.
1 pm. Carmin 2 unit, led by adjudant (warrant officer) Gaëtan Évrard, arrives at Sper Kunday. The objective is a pass that reaches 2,000 meters, dominated by sheer crests. The road turns into a steep track. The armored vehicles must stop, troopers has to continue on foot. VABs and their 12.7 mm machine guns position themselves: the pass, located 1,500 meters away from the village, is lined up in the sights. The adjudant gives his orders. The ascent begins.
Adjudant Gaëtan Évrard: “I form a column as soon as the path starts to wind. Our gear is heavy, the progress is slow. It’s as hot as hell. I order the group leaders to quicken their pace. Each soldier is carrying six magazines of twenty-five cartridges plus a heavy bulletproof vest. A para gets sunstroke. He stays behind with the medic, a caporal-chef (rank between corporal and sergeant) from the 2-d para regiment of Foreign Legion. “I ask the sharpshooters to tell me what they see far away in the distance. Nothing to report, they reply, adding that the first group is 100 meters away from the pass.”
1.45 pm. H hour. In the last hairpin bend, this is Hell all of a sudden. Within a second, the air is filled with detonations, firings in bursts and explosions. It’s an ambush. Reflexes are instantaneous. ”Everyone jumps behind the scrawny rocks which line the slope. The position is precarious, the platoon is utterly scattered over 100 meters. An intense fire lacerates the ground for a quarter of an hour.” The paras strive to blend in with the rocks in order to dodge the rounds. “I immediately make the radio contact with the leading group. I hear that my second-in-command and two other guys are hit.”
The noise is deafening. Impacts on the ground whip up a suffocating dust. “I try to take cover behind a big rock with five other paras, including the radio operator and the sharpshooter. There are some other guys a few meters away, but I can’t see them.” The ground is being riddled with the fire. It is impossible to go and get the wounded. “One of my group leader achieves to catch me up. He looks really pale, he staggers, he’s got a bullet in the stomach. We lie him down, we take his bulletproof vest off, his helmet and we apply a compress. Fire comes from the ridges, both from the left and the right. We are caught in the crossfire.”
The paras shoot back forcefully but they cannot see their assailants. Splinters of rock shatter everywhere. “My face is covered with blood, other buddies are shot in the legs, in the arms. Our sharpshooter manages to shoot down a few silhouettes furtively made out over the crest line. We hear the Famas firing higher up.” Now this is proof that the platoon does retaliate. The paras are fighting. And they’re fighting well.
Down in the valley, VABs machine guns spit out belt after belt to contain the Talibans and to allow the platoon to extricate itself from the trap. By two, by three or all alone, the paras dispersed among the rocky battlefield defend themselves. They fight back while the Talibans attempt to approach. “Sergeant Cazzaro shouts at me that the enemy is damn close. I lose the contact with the RMT section (another French Infantry unit) in the village but I reach the captain in Tora.” Évrard achieves to maintain the radio contact: “Sir, hurry up! No one is in a position to support me. I’m stuck under heavy fire. It’s Bazeilles around here, my captain. It’s Bazeilles!”
H + 25 minutes. Évrard has asked for air support. Ten minutes later, American A-10s fly over the combat zone. The combatants are utterly interlocked and the pilots have to turn back. That’s what the Talibans were expecting. At the same time, Tora dispatches troops as reinforcements.
Évrard is hit. “I’ve felt a shock in my shoulder, but I could still use my hand. I could feel my shoulder tingling, but I haven’t looked at it because the bad guys were sniping at us real hard.” Native of the Ardennes, tough, the noncom devotes himself wholeheartedly to his command under enemy fire. “In fact, I got that I was badly hit when we were able to disengage.”
Fire becomes more and more accurate. “We squeezed up because the rounds were hitting really close. It was no longer burst firing, but pinpoint firing. I saw my sharpshooter killing a Talib. The dude tumbled down a rock, his sniper rifle followed him.”
The radio has remained out in the open. Évrard holds the handset, but the cord is too tight. The operator is busy rescuing the wounded group leader. Desperately, he gives him a heart massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A round goes through his hand. He sits up and shows his hand to Évrard. The blood is pouring. “****! Sir…” Évrard growls: “Wait, what do you think? Keep giving him a massage. We’ll see your injury later!” He looked at me and his face broke into the very same funny grin he had every time, I was giving him an earful or when he was having a hard time at the commando training.”
Rounds are hitting dangerously close. The operator realizes that the radio is still out in the open: “Sir, I’m gonna get the radio.”He rushes through the heavy fire and comes back with it. “He puts the radio on my knees, under an increasingly violent fire. Bullets ring out very closely. Then… he sits down in front of me, as if to shield me with his body. He looked at me. Just then he’s fatally wounded. I will never forget his grimace and his small grin.” This sacrifice symbolizes Carmin 2’s tremendous cohesion.
The position is unbearable. The paras create a fireball by firing full rounds of bullets at the ridge in order to cover their adjudant, who manages to move back a bit. The sharpshooter who had remained near the rock to protect the retreat of his mates got killed. Before he passes away, he has the time to whisper: “I bumped off eight of them… eight.” Évrard finds himself beside another para, who has remained with the medic of the Foreign Legion, whose knee is smashed. In civilian life, the caporal-chef from the 2-me REP had already saved two people. He will be found dead, after having taken three injured comrades under cover.
H + 2 hours and 5 minutes. Carmin 2 has started to effect a tactical withdrawal, supported by American attack helicopters and A-10s. The support last an hour. Évrard manages to get to the VABs.
8 pm. Night has fallen. Backup from Kabul have arrived. A few paras achieve to pull out. Some others keep on fighting between the rocks, alone in the dark. “We save the cartridges, because we had been fighting since eight hours! We had lost all sense of time, the harassing fire had left us reeling.”
H + 8 hours and 15 minutes. Sper Kunday is under control. The first bodies are found. The pass is finally taken at sunrise, but clashes continued until noon, on August 19. The fighting lasted twenty hours. About eighty rebels have been killed.
For the duration of the engagement, adjudant Évrard, wounded, have maintained the radio contact with his captain and his men who were applying to push back the Talibans near the pass. He was able to point sergeant Andrieux’s heavy machine guns, 600 meters down below. “We’ve done it just like we’ve learn it at the training!”, they all state.
Sergeant Romain Andrieux
His four VABs deployed near the village and their 12.7 mm machine guns pointed at the pass, provide the first fire support. “I have pointed out the fields of fire in order to rake every peak.” He scans the landscape through binoculars. “We could see the platoon moving forward on the twisting path. It was a steep hill. The fire started in one fell swoop. I immediately returned fire.”
The first fire comes from the pass, but Andrieux’s VABs are also engaged. “Bullets splatter on the ground and on the vehicles. An antitank rocket that came from the right goes above our heads and explodes farther away. Up there around the pass, the shoot-out gets even fiercer. Other rockets are fired without causing any damage. I quickly get the contact with adjudant Évrard, so he can point my gunnery. Even through the binoculars, I can’t see the Talibs.”
The sergeant opens fire with all his machine guns. The 12.7 mm spray the crests. For the Talibans, Andrieux is a target of prime importance. “My gunners have to sit in the open turret, head and shoulders exposed. My pilots are lying flat on the ground against the armored vehicles. They shoot back with their Famas, but with a low effectiveness since they’re too far away. We couldn’t stay for too long in the same place, because the impacts were hitting dangerously close. The Talibs soon turned to a pinpoint firing.”
Impacts whip up clouds of dust. “The most worrying things are the bullets, which hit the armor plate and ricochet all over the place, whistling through the air. Fire never ceased. When it came from the left, we rushed to the right side of the VABs and conversely. A round went through my leg’s pants, another one cut the chinstrap of Gil’s helmet.”
The stock of ammunition belts becomes scarce. One needs to carry back some more, but soldiers have to run out in the open to reach the VAB which secures the rearguard. An American Hummer comes up to the French, shoots back and gives them a few crates of cartridges. âœWe fired off a lot and we often had to change the ammunitions onto the roof of the VABs. Pilots went up to do it without the slightest hesitation. They understood the order, even if the fire became more intense as soon as they were showing up. More than anything, we were thinking about our buddies trapped up there.”
In the twilight, Andrieux is informed by radio that Évrard and a few wounded paras are coming up to him. “We attempt to go to meet them but it was impossible for us to walk past the first house in the village: the fire was converging on us. So, we’ve created a fireball by shooting with all our weapons to allow them to run across the open field and board the VABs. We had practically exhausted our 12.7 ammunitions. I had kept a half-belt. Just in case.”
Première classe Philippe Gros
As an English speaker, Gros is responsible for acting in collaboration with the Afghan interpreter who accompanies the platoon leader. “At the outbreak of the attack, I’m with the second-in-command behind the adjudant. We catch up with our warrant officer straight away and gather round him behind a big rock, in order to protect him. He had his fight to carry out, we had ours.”
Professional reactions are instantaneous: the paras protect their leader who gives an account of the battle and coordinates the maneuver. They share their fields of fire. “We didn’t shoot back immediately to avoid friendly fire: the other groups were between us and the pass. There was nothing we could see, not even our buddies a few meters away. Too much dust. On the other hand, the Talibs were bound to see us very clearly, because their bullets were splattering very close. They were sniping at us terribly hard with Dragunov sniper rifles.”
A noncom leaves his rock to find out about the situation around the pass. “He comes back tearing down the slope a few minutes later. Just when he’s about to reach our shelter, he’s hit in the stomach, under the bulletproof vest. We give him the emergency care.”The second-in-command dashes forward to endeavor to free the paras stuck higher up. “I haven’t seen him coming back.”
“Talibs maneuver and start to outflank us on the right wing. The wounded mate is hit a second time and a third time. I had seen, that our adjudant was injured as well but we didn’t want to piss him off with that. He had a hard job to do. The captain was asking him detailed reports on the fighting before intervening.”
Gros decides to protect Évrard, who is hit. The place becomes unbearable. “We had to leave, but every attempt provoked a volley of bullets. The three of us did stay here to enable the adjudant to move back. He was the key guy and he had to withdraw to maintain the radio contact. Another buddy falls under enemy fire. He huddled up on the ground. I wanted to dash and take him under cover, but it was impossible to do so. The ground in front of me was being riddled with the bullets. I’ve found myself trapped with Dussaing and Marchand. We had to wait for dark to fall over the battlefield.”
The small group will slip away by crawling along a low wall. “Marchand is wounded, his shoulder is dislocated. He can’t crawl. He wants us to leave him on the spot but we don’t want to abandon him.” Night is falling. “We tell ourselves, that we could clear off thanks to the darkness. But the Talibs are making straight for us. Marchand throws a hand grenade that bumps four or five bad guys off.” They are located, fire resumes with renewed vigor. “I move away by crawling in order to attack them from the rear. Dussaing throws a grenade which drives them off. I spot four bad guys and I manage to shoot down a couple of them with my Famas. We hear the two others speaking on walkie-talkie. Another grenade silences them. We’ve told ourselves: they’re KO, we gotta go!”
At the very same time, an A-10 appears suddenly and fires a stream of 30 mm rounds, right above them. “We’ve taken advantage of the dust for withdrawing discreetly.” The paras get away through a series of thrusts and carefully avoid venturing onto the bombarded path. They come across a VAB, toppled into a ditch. “When we open it, we find Hamada. The corporal’s arm is seriously injured. The interior is covered with blood. He had put a tourniquet on him, but he did it wrong. I do it again correctly. We try to bring the VAB out of the ditch but it’s really impossible. We had to turn back.” Before leaving the place, the paras have the presence of mind to “bust what is needed”, so that nothing interesting will fall into the Talibans’ hands. “Later on, we’ve learnt, how many KIA we got. But we do know that we’ve plugged many bad guys.”
Première classe Vincent Paul
Paul stood in for the para, who got sunstroke in the leading group. He, therefore, finds himself in the very front line, when the insurgents open fire. “Right from the first shots, we’ve flattened ourselves against a low stone wall. We were five, all huddled up, surrounded by the impacts. Bullets were hitting twenty centimeters away from our feet. We returned fire, but we couldn’t see anything. Higher up, our buddy at the head of the march was wounded, but he was out of sight.”
The Talibans are extremely close. “My neighbor informs me, that he’s spotted a head between the rocks. In my telescopic sight, I make out a small slit, made of flat stones. Behind, there’s a moving shadowy figure. Rear sights 600. I fire a shot without seeing the impact. I adjust my aim: 400 meters. Wham, I got him! Everyone was firing off. Hamada have thrown a rifle grenade. We could only show up for a few seconds, because they were aiming at us quickly and accurately. After an hour and a half, we were having a hell of a hard time.”
The Talibans enfilade the paras on the right. “Within three seconds, everyone got hit. The wounded and groaning soldiers attempt to make themselves as small as possible. The sole salvation would be to get over the pile of rocks. We dived as one and took cover behind two big rocks. The caporal-chef GrÃ©groire gives Weatheane an injection of morphine. The others treat themselves as far as possible.”
Bullets ricochet, unharmed troopers shoot back nonstop. “We were eight, too many behind these rocks. We had to move outta here. The sergeant and another guy left to catch up with the adjudant. Along with Weatheane and Garabedian, we got to a small thalweg, that seemed to lead to the village. We progressed through a series of thrusts, because they were sniping at us at every possible opportunity. The caporal-chef’s arm was crushed to a pulp. He suffered a great deal.”
The fighting does not abate: explosions, bursts, smoke, dust, the whole of the hill is under fire. So are the VABs, but even so, the French machine guns keep on spraying the crests relentlessly. “I’ve seen the A-10s coming from the valley and flying above the slope at low altitude. They were firing at the insurgents, but also straight at our position. It was dark, I was afraid they hit us. I’ve seized my flashlight and sent out a few SOS: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. At some point, the plane has flown over me and I’ve seen the pilot’s figure. He’s sent me out signals with a red light. He had understood. It was an enormous relief.”
They must keep on moving down. As they approach the first house, Paul sees some figures. “At the shape of the helmets, I knew they were French. “Hey guys, that’s me, Paul!” They have immediately taken up their combat position. I’ve repeated my name a few times and they replied: “Carmin 2?” I went up to them and I recognize Carmin 3’s first lieutenant.” Thanks to Paul, the wounded caporal-chef is safe and useful pieces of information are delivered.
Badly affected, Carmin 2 has been repatriated to Castres. Volunteers of the 8-me RPIMa have fallen over each other to take over their comrades. The first section of the third company has been chosen. It also is an adjudant, who joined as a simple paratrooper in 1990, who is in command of this platoon. The section has arrived in Kabul. The mission must go on for this regiment united more, than ever, before by the ordeal.