UK hospital in Afghanistan copes with bloodiest day

Sun Jul 12, 2009 9:23pm IST

* Camp hospital deals with 30 casualties

* Wounded taken to Kabul and Britain

By Peter Graff

CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan, July 12 (Reuters) - More than 30 wounded British soldiers were flown into Camp Bastion off the battlefield in Afghanistan and the operating theatre went through more than 100 pints of blood products over the weekend.

In the bloodiest day in the history of the British war effort in Afghanistan, eight soldiers were killed on Friday.

Doctors, nurses and staff at the field hospital at Britain's Camp Bastion worked round the clock, sometimes 15-16 staff tending to a single badly injured patient.

The 33-bed hospital was already almost full when the carnage began, but never overflowed. Almost as quickly as helicopters arrived from the battlefield, planes and other aircraft took stabilised casualties to Kabul or Birmingham in Britain.

"We've had some very badly injured young people go back to Birmingham, and go back to Birmingham in very good shape. And I think there's no question that the hospital system has saved lives," said Colonel Peter Mahoney, the hospital's director, a professor of anaesthesiology and airborne soldier.

The battlefield casualties -- the most a British military hospital has coped with in a single day since the 1982 Falklands War -- has led to questions back home about a war that has had lukewarm public support.

But commanders say they expected a surge of casualties this summer, part of what they aim to be a decisive push to take advantage of U.S. reinforcements and seize Taliban-held territory ahead of an Afghan presidential election next month.

Taliban casualty figures were not immediately available.

Britain and the United States have launched simultaneous operations this month in Afghanistan's most violent province, Helmand, nearly half of which was under Taliban control until this month.

The British "Operation Panther's Claw" has met tough resistance from Taliban home-made bombs and sniper positions. Fighters have also struck back elsewhere in the province.

KILLED INSTANTLY

A Taliban homemade bomb struck a British foot patrol before dawn on Friday, killing one soldier instantly and wounding several others. When troops attempted to evacuate, they were hit by another bomb, killing a stretcher bearer and one of the wounded casualties.

Another bomb planted in a field prevented a medivac helicopter from landing, so troops had to bring the wounded back to base to fly them out. Two more soldiers later died of wounds. Five others and an interpreter were injured.

Two other roadside bombs killed another three soldiers in other parts of the province.

Captain Jac Solghan, a nurse from the U.S. Air Force working at the British hospital, said he worked 32 hours straight from 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, looking after patient arrivals from the battlefield and their evacuations to hospitals further on.

"We'd just stay and keep working and working," he said. "That morning the hospital had not quite full capacity. By the time we ended the day, the hospital was still full and we were still pushing patients out."

Mahoney said the hospital had been warned in advance that a big operation was being planned, and had mobilised additional staff in expectation of a surge in casualties.

"There's no doubt it has been wearing. But none of the staff have ever complained and said they hadn't wanted to do it. Everybody's risen up to the occasion," Mahoney said.

(Editing by Paul Tait)

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