UK’s toughest Paras ‘were left in tears’ choosing those that will live

Britain’s toughest Paras were left in tears as they made split-second decisions over who would live or die in the chaotic evacuation of Kabul, a documentary reveals.

The largest operation carried out by troops since the Second World War was “a humanitarian tragedy unfolding in almost slow motion”.

And the military scramble to airlift UK passport holders and Afghans from almost certain death at the hands of the Taliban took a huge toll on the 1,000 soldiers and aviators who carried it out.

Tonight, Channel 4 programme Evacuation will show troops were forced to reject undocumented babies even though the rest of the family was cleared to flee. But it led to some soldiers making gut-instinct exceptions.

One grizzled Sergeant-Major of the Parachute Regiment said: “This was completely different to anything we had experienced. We weren’t shooting at anyone, but it was harder physically, and mentally.

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“Some could have the email but their name wasn’t on the printout we are given, so we had to adapt. Foreign policy was being dictated by 19-year-old corporals at the Baron.”

The Baron Hotel was the admin HQ for those desperate to flee. Army padre Richard Meikle said: “These were big tough soldiers – Paras with high levels of resilience. But you’d see them struggling. We all cried. It was very difficult.”

Squadron leader Diana Bird of the RAF Regiment said other troops were in their teens. “I basically took a squadron of sixth formers on a field trip to Kabul,” she said.

And she recalled having to turn away a group of young and well-educated women who had received death threats from the Taliban.

“They were begging for their lives and they were asking how I, as a woman, could do that to them,” said Sqn Ldr Bird, pictured.

“Of course I understood but I still could not help them. There was more than one occasion where I sat and cried.”

The challenges increased with each day, as more Afghans gathered at Kabul airport in the hope of escaping. L/Cpl David Mitchell recalled: “I managed to get a lad tagged on to a family and then into the Baron for processing,

“His mum had been killed by the Taliban and his father had left. I said just get him to England and then he can make his own way. He said he wanted to open a phone shop in London. I don’t know if he made it.” Padre Meikle also told of a mother crushed to death, leaving behind five children.

“Her five girls were around her body. The oldest was 10. I saw that she had no hand and her arm had been chopped off. They were petrified and the Taliban were just standing there watching. They knew they couldn’t go home.”

Meanwhile, RAF pilots were coping with flying into the airport without a functioning air traffic control.

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Wing Commander Calvin Bailey told how he was forced to take charge when his calculations told him seven planes from different countries were due to land at the same time.

“I called the tower to inform them of the dangerous situation, asking what the plan was, and an American with a West coast accent, like a surfer, replied ‘Dude, I don’t have one’,” he said.

Even when the alarm about an imminent suicide bomb was sounded the evacuation continued. “It was the loudest bang you can imagine. Everything shakes like a tiny earthquake. It looked like people had been put in a blender and just tipped out”, said L/Cpl Mitchell.

The bomb killed 170 civilians and 13 US soldiers. Under a peace deal with the Taliban, all US troops were due to be evacuated in return for assurances the new regime would not help Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

But its rapid capture of Kabul caught the West by surprise, and the two-week Operation Pitting started.

It involved 1,000 members of the RAF and Parachute Regiment airlifting 15,722 mainly Afghans and Anglo-Afghans in a series of more than 100 transport flights.

That number would have been halved had quick-thinking RAF chiefs not broken the rules.

“We were faced with the question of how many people could we get out safely with humanity,” said Wing Commander Bailey. “There was very little real knowledge about how many we could get on board each aircraft.”

Official guidance from London stated a typical C-17 Globemaster could carry 230 people.

“These numbers meant we would fail,” he said. “So I sat down with loadmasters. There is only so much risk we could accept, but we arrived at the number 432.”

The scars of the operation are carried by some to this day. Picking up her PTSD stone – a small jagged pebble which she places on her palm and squeezes – Sqn Ldr Bird said: “You feel for each and every one of these people. But we couldn’t save everybody.”

  • Evacuation, Channel 4, 9pm

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