Both of Doug Beattie's grandfathers saw action during World War II, and with his father and two older brothers also in the Army, it could be said that Beattie had soldiering in the blood - and as a 17-year-old from Northern Ireland it was no surprise that he volunteered for the Royal Irish Regiment. Rising through the ranks to become Regimental Sergeant Major, he served in Germany, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq. He was there when Colonel Tim Collins gave his famous ‘eve of battle’ speech before the advance into Iraq. While the rest of the world was entranced by Collins’s oratory, the young soldiers of the Royal Irish found talk of impending death more dispiriting than inspiring, and Beattie – on this occasion, less than impressed with his charismatic CO – had the task of rousing his men for action. In the finest RSM tradition he gave everyone a good bollocking.
Having reached the top as an NCO, Beattie accepted a late-entry commission as a captain, and it was with this rank that he flew into Kandahar in the summer of 2006. Once there, he was assigned to the Provisional Security and Co-ordination Centre, his role to help the disparate Afghan security forces in the fight against the Taliban. When the town of Garmsir fell to the Taliban in September, a task force comprising the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) was cobbled together with British Army support. Beattie was assigned a unit of ANP to mentor.
The battle to retake and then hold Garmsir is the centrepiece of this first-rate memoir. Assisted by ITV reporter Philip Gomm, Beattie renders a brilliant account of his part in the battle for the town – nearly two weeks of ferocious, daily combat. The relentless intensity of the fighting blasts its way though the pages of the book, with Beattie and his small Afghan-British force seemingly about to be overwhelmed by the Taliban at any minute. The rag-tag ANP does better than expected, and Beattie grows to respect its courageous and loyal commander, Major Shahrukh, whose death in action comes as a real loss.
Beattie's award of a Military Cross for selfless bravery and inspired leadership during the defence of Garmsir seemed an appropriate and crowning end to a long Army career. He then prepared to cross over into civvie street in July 2007 to spend more time with his family and long-suffering wife, Margaret. But the last-minute offer of a final deployment was to prove irresistible, and once more he was on the plane to Afghanistan.
Pocket Books, 336 pages, £7.99 (p/b); Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, £17.99 (h/b)