When you’ve got between 3,000-5,000 anguished Afghans cajoled by the Taliban closing in on the airfield, it’s also about having the courage to apply restraint.
You train for IED attacks, you learn to appreciate the threat and you come to understand what a Taliban gunman may or not do.
But this was of a different order of magnitude. To see all those distressed people was to see the human face of desperation.
At no time could we afford to lose the initiative. But once we increased our force numbers, we were able to strengthen our security. Throughout it all what stood out for me was not just the bravery of our young soldiers but how they kept that vast flow of people moving without the whole thing collapsing.
It was chaotic but it was never chaos. We always had a plan – and that required us to get people into Kabul’s Baron Hotel as quickly as possible. to be processed before their flight.
Once inside there was a real transition from chaos to calm. Whether you were the logistician, the paratrooper on the line, the engineer, medic or the gunner supporting the Foreign Office and Home Office teams”everyone played a part.
Together we managed to get to the point where we were processing over 1,000 eligible people per day.
In the Baron Hotel, there was an oddly serene, if slightly surreal atmosphere. You saw all those families who had been recovered, who were about to get out on to flights and, despite all the difficulties, that made it worthwhile.
But the threats remained. Trying to discern one suicide bomber in a crowd of 20,000-plus is incredibly difficult. When the strike did occur, it was tragic. We had worked intimately with the Americans and built up a really strong relationship.
Not long after the attack, UK forces moved to Hamid Karzai airfield and processed people up until the 11th hour.