Film-maker John Conroy (not pictured) has had his fair share of professional scrapes. A tour of duty in Afghanistan with Ross Kemp accounted for a few of them. But as he lay in hospital on 1 January 2011 he pondered how close he, and the soldiers he was filming, had come to death 48 hours earlier.
Conroy, 45, was making a series about the deployment of the Territorial Army in the Afghan war. He had asked to join a parachute-regiment assault on a series of compounds from where Taliban fighters were known to operate.
Dropped off in darkness by two Chinook helicopters, the 48 men, wearing night-vision goggles, made their way tentatively across open fields dotted with IEDs and crisscrossed by water-filled irrigation ditches.
After reaching their target the group of 11 men Conroy was attached to – including his TA subject, self-employed electrician George Moffitt – took up a position in a shallow, 3ft-wide ditch, while the others began searching the compound complex, home to dozens of Afghan villagers.
What he didn’t realise was that while the TA were defending the open ground between them and the compound 150m away, 25 Taliban fighters had entered the village from the rear. “They had seen where the soldiers were searching and had spotted our position,” says Conroy. “They had judged we were on our own.”
From eight firing positions within the compound the Taliban opened up with their AK47s.
“We were freezing cold and very uncomfortable,” adds Conroy. “We saw some of the villagers leaving with their cattle so we knew something was about to happen. You go from birds chirping to a battery of noise. The dust was kicking up all around us. I could hear the Taliban shouting euphorically. I just hugged the ground.
Two inches above me the air was filled with bullets. I said to myself, ‘John just don’t lift your head.’ Then came the shouts of ‘man down’ and I realised we were in trouble.”
In fact, four men had been shot and badly wounded – Conroy saw that a bullet had entered his leg near his shin, ricocheted its way up his leg and exited above his knee – while a fifth man discovered that a bullet had passed through his helmet, missing his head.
“We suddenly became a huge burden to the whole operation. I just felt like a huge bloody hindrance.”
As the gunfire continued, the rest of the group withdrew from the compound and provided covering fire as the wounded were pulled to safety and rescued by two US Black Hawk helicopters called in from nearby Camp Bastion.
Forty-eight hours later, on New Year’s Day, Conroy was being operated on in the Birmingham hospital to which all British victims of the war are evacuated.
“I had thought to myself that I was an imposter…that I had no right to be there,” he says. “But people need to be aware of what’s going on out there and turning my camera on and trying to do my job was the best thing to do in that moment.”
John Conroy is now back at work and recently ran a half-marathon.
The TA and the Taliban is on Watch, Thursday 3 August at 9pm