Recent fighting in Afghanistan led to a record number of British casualties since the start of the war against the Taliban, with more than 150 badly wounded within a week, defence officials said yesterday.
The figures are in addition to the 17 soldiers killed this month so far. The latest, the victim of a roadside bomb while on foot patrol near Sangin on Sunday, was Corporal Joey Etchells, 22, from 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. It was his third deployment to Afghanistan. He told his local paper, the Oldham Evening Chronicle, last month: “It’s a great job and a big responsibility to have out here, but I really enjoy it. I can’t see myself ever wanting to do anything else.”
His death takes the British toll in Afghanistan since 2001 to 186.
More than 157 soldiers were treated at the field hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand province last week, according to army medics. Numbers were so high that medics have been forced to break their own rules by accepted more wounded than the hospital is designed to take.
“The last few weeks have been an extremely busy period. There have been injuries like you’ve probably never seen or experienced,” one medic told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, referring to the horrific wounds explosions roadside bombs can inflict.
The latest figures officially published by the Ministry of Defence reveal a significant increase in the number of wounded even before the latest fighting, which has produced the highest recorded so far. Forty-six soldiers were admitted to field hospitals in Afghanistan in June, compared with 24 in May and 11 in April. The figures are to some extent seasonal, they were higher last summer than in the winter.
With more than 150 admitted last week, the next set of official figures will reveal a huge increase over last month’s total.
The MoD’s figures do not give a detailed rundown of the severity and nature of the injuries to British soldiers. But they say that 13 were “very seriously” or “seriously injured” last month, descriptions which include life-threatening injuries and amputations. More than 200 soldiers have suffered such injuries since British forces began their campaign in Helmand three years ago.
Most of the deaths and serious injuries in recent months have been the result of roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices becoming increasingly sophisticated and deadly.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, has said electronic countermeasures and explosives experts are a priority in Helmand along with helicopters.
Commanders have been asking for more helicopters ever since 2006. They would avoid British troops having to make more dangerous tasks by travelling on roads in some missions. But the government argues that helicopters would not have saved those soldiers killed undertaking other missions, such as foot patrols.
Two RAF crew members were being assessed in hospital yesterday after a Tornado jet fighter crashed during takeoff at Kandahar airfield, east of Helmand.
A spokeswoman said the crash was not the result of enemy action.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato’s secretary general, who retires next week, said last night that, despite the casualties, coalition forces needed to stay.
“If we were to walk away, Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban, with devastating effect for the people there – women in particular,” he said in a speech to the thinktank Chatham House, adding: “Pakistan would suffer the consequences, with all that implies for international security.”