22 years after he was shot down and tortured in Iraq, John Nichol returns to enemy territory to find a new generation of fearless fighter pilots in action over Afghanistan

We were running from the target area; the Tornado was doing 600mph, just 50ft above the desert, as we screamed out of the danger zone.

We had just completed our attack run on the giant Ar Rumaylah airfield in South-East Iraq – our bombing mission had been a failure and we were heading home dejected, tails between our legs, wondering what our mates would say about making a cock-up of our very first war operation.

The question became academic; a heat-seeking surface-to-air missile slammed into the right-hand engine. It was like being hit by an express train. As the titanium-laced missile warhead exploded, the 30-ton jet was blasted sideways like a leaf in the wind.

As the sand loomed towards my cockpit I screamed at my pilot to fight for control; if we hit the ground, only one thing was certain – we would die.

My pilot managed to wrest back control of the jet, and, still wallowing dangerously, we struggled away from the deadly desert floor. Just then, a radar-guided anti-aircraft gun opened up on us.

The engine was on fire, the on-board computers were out of action, and one of our own missiles had ignited and was now acting like a welder’s torch, steadily cutting off the right-hand wing. The warning panel had lit up like a Christmas tree and the sirens were screaming in my headset.

Looking back, I could see that the tail of the jet had disappeared in a furnace of flames, which were now marching steadily towards my seat in the rear cockpit of the aircraft. I keyed the transmit button on the radio: ‘Ejecting, ejecting.’

The phone call came as I walked the dog on a balmy summer afternoon last year; the caller’s number showed as ‘unknown’ and there was silence on the line. I was about to hang up when a voice crackled faintly: ‘Please hold, you have a call from Afghanistan.’

Seconds later, the dulcet tones of an old RAF friend echoed across 3,500 miles. ‘Hey, JN, why don’t you get your backside out here to Afghanistan – come and see how things have changed since your time, and how the RAF war-fights these days.’

It was a worrying and unwanted invitation; my last excursion into hostile territory had ended in disaster. In fact, it nearly cost me my life.

In 1991, alongside my pilot John Peters (JP), I was involved in the first Gulf War to evict Saddam Hussein’s invading forces from occupied Kuwait. On the first day of the operation our Tornado jet was blasted out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. We were captured, beaten and paraded on television, provoking worldwide condemnation of Saddam’s brutal regime and leaving one of the enduring images of that war. During my subsequent seven-week ordeal in Iraq, there were many times when I thought I might die – and two occasions when I very nearly did.

So, as our forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, I am not too ashamed to admit that the invitation to return to a war zone aroused a real sense of trepidation. As a civilian friend asked in astonishment: ‘Why would you want to go out there? You nearly died last time!’

But perhaps only those from a military background would understand; I was immensely proud to have been asked to return to the front line. My own war had lasted a mere seven weeks and at its conclusion I firmly believed we had done the right thing, that our mission had been a success. This generation has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than ten years and plans are well under way to bring them all home; I was eager to discover how they will look back on their role in their war.

There was no doubt I was heading towards the danger zone – it was the dead of night, the RAF TriStar aircraft was blacked out and the crew were wearing body armour.

Even on board the aircraft heading towards Camp Bastion – the British military fortress in the middle of the Helmand desert – the signs of a new generation at war were on display. One of the military ‘in-flight’ magazines carried a story of a recent awards ceremony I’d attended in London where troops had been honoured for their courage and dedication in Afghanistan; it had been a beer-filled night of celebration.

But the magazine also had a page entitled ‘In Memoriam’ listing those who had recently made the ultimate sacrifice in the war-torn country that I was heading towards.

Despite my initial trepidation, and nearly 17 years after I left the RAF, it felt good to be back in the heart of the military environment. There was a homecoming comfort in the reams of barbed wire, the orange glow of sodium lights and the clatter of helicopters. And within minutes of landing I’d slipped back into the easy banter of military life.

However, while much of the humour and camaraderie of the RAF I’d joined in 1981 remains, I would discover that in every other respect, it is a completely different organisation today.

The first indication of this change came during my visit to the Tornado squadron at Kandahar Airfield, some 100 miles east of Camp Bastion, where Squadron Leader Joe Doyle and Flight Lieutenant Guy Gibbons of IX (Bomber) Squadron gave me a guided tour.

To say that the aircraft I crewed as a navigator has changed beyond all recognition is a monumental understatement: it still looks the same, but that’s where any similarities end. At the start of my Gulf War in 1991, we were proficient in deploying three types of weapon – all of them ‘dumb’, or ‘non-precision’. Guy and Joe showed me a giddy array of guided weapons and electronic sensors that gave them, and their commanders on the ground, an astonishing overview of the battlefield and the means of destroying anything from a reinforced bunker to a single insurgent.

Perhaps most importantly, their Tornado is now equipped with an incredible self-defence system designed to mitigate the threat from surface-to-air missiles. Looking in awe at this incredible capability, I did pause to wonder if I would have had the capacity to master it all, or rather more wryly, if it might have saved me from being shot down.

This modern RAF is very different to the one I joined in 1981. We never expected to go to war; we were a Cold War air force, flying aircraft designed to deliver nuclear Armageddon. It is fair to say that ‘my RAF’ was surprised by the call to arms for the war against Iraq.

Our Tornado jets were painted green and black to provide camouflage for our low-level dash across the German plains. The logistics of repainting them all the colour of sand took months to complete.

As a young airman joining my first unit, my sergeant had ordered me to go to the local military supplies shop to buy, with my own money, some decent boots and a rucksack. Ten years later, the day after landing in the Gulf in green flying suits, my boss told me to go to the local tailor, who would quickly run up a few sand-coloured flying suits. At least the RAF was paying this time.

The modern crewrooms I saw in Kandahar are very different to the one I inhabited in Bahrain in 1991, where overflowing ashtrays littered every surface and a thick pall of smoke filled the air. And there was always a healthy supply of chilled beer – to be consumed after landing of course.

Today, all that has changed, but perhaps the greatest difference I discovered was in the skill and preparedness of the men, and women, who now fly these amazing machines.

Sitting in a briefing room with Joe and Guy, sharing a brew, I was amazed at how the military mind-set had evolved since my days as a young Tornado navigator. Twenty-nine-year-old Guy’s take on his role as a military pilot in the modern world was a revelation. Aged only seven when I had been shot down, the images of my war were fixed in his head and he was determined to fly those jets.

Joining the RAF in 2005, he has known nothing other than war-fighting, and although a relatively junior pilot, he had already cut his teeth flying combat operations over Libya before deploying to Afghanistan.

‘I joined an organisation knowing I would go on operations – almost looking forward to it,’ he told me. I knew exactly what Guy meant. No one wants to kill, or to be killed, but it is what we sign up to do and conflict is a brutal reality of our modern world.

But there is another side to their new world. Passionate and confident, Guy described the feeling of wanting to ‘make a difference’, of watching Misrata in Libya burn, of knowing Benghazi was next.

‘We needed to do something and it was humbling to influence what was happening. That’s what I joined the Air Force for and I can’t think of anything else I would rather do with my life.’

The notion of ‘making a difference’ had never entered my head when I wandered into the RAF recruiting office aged 16 – I simply wanted a job.

And the young generation who have replaced me in the ranks are a different breed in ability and training. The airman who showed me the surveillance and intelligence systems had been a barrister before joining the RAF; his sergeant told me that this young man had recently carried out ‘life-saving analysis’ of intelligence material.

The military policeman, a relatively junior corporal, who took me on a security patrol of the base, was armed not only with a pistol, rifle and machine gun, but also with a degree in criminology.

‘Ejecting, ejecting!’ It was a call I could never have imagined making when I joined up in 1981; now, as the inferno blazed inside my Tornado, the only chance of survival was to pull that handle. As the straps tightened and ejection-seat rockets fired, it was as though a giant hand had dragged me from my perch by the shoulders and tossed me like a rag doll into the centre of a hurricane.

Amid the roar of the rockets, the tumbling and falling, there was a ‘crack’, my parachute opened; I hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. Just a few hours earlier, I’d been part of a band of brothers, excited, proud and eager to prove ourselves. My brothers were now heading home to safety; I was standing in the middle of the enemy’s desert. I was very alone, and very afraid.

Under a hail of bullets, I was captured and dragged off to Baghdad. And now I really was in trouble. My time in the Iraqi interrogation centre was one of brutality, pain and fear. It started with good old-fashioned beatings and I could actually smell them before they fell on me. A group of soldiers punched and kicked me to the ground. Blood flowed from my nose, thick and grimy on my teeth. They would stop when they were bored or exhausted. Or I would die.

Flying from Kandahar back to Camp Bastion I could see the vast ‘Green Zone’; the fertile landscape where so many of our troops have spilt their blood, lost limbs, and died. And while life on the main bases is undoubtedly safer than patrol bases, the dangers still exist.

There is now another, more dangerous threat from inside the wire. In a tragic twist of events, most recent killings of coalition troops have been carried out by Afghan army or police personnel turning their weapons on the very people charged with helping them.

The risks should not be overstated; I visited the Afghan Army base at Bastion with no sense of danger and ate alongside our Afghan civilian translators in the same canteen.

But the reality is that every single person on base is armed with a pistol or rifle. Weapons lie next to mugs of steaming tea while hash browns and beans are consumed at breakfast. Entering the gym, I was confronted by scores of men and women wearing shorts and Lycra, but pistols were still strapped to hips and rifles lay on exercise mats.

I found it a somewhat disconcerting sight. We were rarely trusted with loaded weapons, and if we were, it was under close supervision. Even as we prepared for our war in 1991, pistols were to be signed out only for the duration of any flight over hostile territory. Indeed, we used to joke that, when armed, we were more danger to ourselves than to any potential enemy.

There is no joking for those who patrol beyond the 25-mile-long security fence. I watched as young gunners from the RAF Regiment, charged with security outside the base, demonstrated how they cleared their routes of the ever-present Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that have maimed and killed so many of their colleagues. One of the officers I spoke to had direct experience of the devastation caused by these brutal weapons of choice for the insurgents.

Flight Lieutenant Andy Costin is a tough and uncompromising airman with 30 years’ service in the ranks and as an officer. He has served in many war zones, yet as we chatted over tea and bars of chocolate, I gained the impression that his personal war, like mine, was still being fought.

In April 2008, Andy had been the commander of an RAF Regiment patrol protecting Kandahar Airfield. Crossing a wadi, his vehicle was ripped apart by an IED. He was blasted out of the vehicle, breaking the door frame with his head, and landing 32ft away. The first thing he remembers is coming around on all fours, submerged in the fetid water. Andy had a broken back and injuries to his head, shoulders, hips and legs.

He dragged himself back to the burning vehicle and continued to give orders in the search for his missing colleagues. Two of his men had been seriously injured and subsequently died of their wounds.

Five years on, and now back on the front line, Andy admits the incident still plays on his mind. ‘Not a day goes by when I don’t think of those two guys,’ he says.

As a former serviceman, I felt I could risk asking a deeply personal question: ‘As a commander, does it weigh on you?’

Andy is open and honest. ‘Yes, it does,’ he responds immediately. ‘You always [think], “Did I make the right decision that day?”. You look inwards . . . I’d said to my guys prior to deploying, “I intend to get every one of you back.” I looked at that [incident] as though I’d failed as their boss.’

Of course, Andy hadn’t failed. Indeed, he had performed with incredible courage, but the ramifications of any catastrophic event play on the mind for many years.

I identified with his feelings of guilt and the constant questioning of one’s actions in the midst of a crisis – 22 years after my failed mission over Iraq, similar questions still inhabit my mind. I had a tear in my eye listening to Andy relive those terrible events. He might not thank me for saying this, but I thought he did too – the death of a friend and colleague cuts deep for those who fight, and sometimes die together.

Being on the receiving end of a violent interrogation was a curious place to exist. I knew I would eventually give in to the Iraqi guards, but I felt I needed to suffer as much as possible so I could retain some foolish personal pride.

Now under interrogation, I still wanted to be able to tell my squadron mates, ‘I tried my best’. So I resisted the beatings and endured a minor amount of ‘cigarette-stubbing-out’ on my ear. I coped with the stress positions and being whipped with a rubber hose. But having burning tissue paper stuffed down my neck was my breaking point and, under threat of execution, I appeared on TV broadcasts, which were flashed around the world.

Those pictures of me mouthing Iraqi propaganda still signify a personal failure and, 22 years on, I still cannot bring myself to watch that footage.

Some commentators have said that the coalition troops in 1991 should have fought on to Baghdad and deposed Saddam Hussein. We were ordered into battle to evict Saddam’s evil army from Kuwait and liberate its people. Nothing more. Recent history has taught us a harsh lesson about what would have happened if we had tried to occupy Iraq and impose a new regime.

The price tag of Afghanistan’s ‘liberation’, the terrible roll call of military and civilian deaths, the tens of thousands of injuries, the limbless, the blind and the burnt, is overwhelming in its magnitude. In my last days at Bastion, a British soldier was rescued by the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) after an IED blast. Clattering in on board a Chinook helicopter, he required five hours of lifesaving surgery and significant amounts of blood. Now back in Britain, he is alive, although his war is clearly over. And just before I departed, a seriously wounded Afghan soldier was flown into the hospital. Sadly his injuries were unsurvivable.

At the heart of Camp Bastion, on the edge of a stony parade ground, is a memorial to the 440 British servicemen and women whose war is over for ever.

In the sinking afternoon sun, I stood at the gleaming yellow monument as a shadow, cast by the cross created out of spent shell casings, moved across the wall gently pointing out the names of the fallen; each one carved on row upon row of brass plaques. I felt a surge of emotion; it truly saddens me to think that it is the deaths of our young men and women that might mark the lasting legacy of our involvement in Afghanistan.

In a country where so much treasure has been expended, and so much blood spilt, there is still room on the wall for many more names amid the epitaph from the Battle of Kohima which is carved in the pristine stone: ‘When You Go Home Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Their Tomorrow We Gave Our Today’.

Has it been worth giving all of those ‘todays’? Tornado squadron boss Wing Commander Andy Turk was adamant it was and that he could see a real difference in the Afghanistan he has patrolled for many years.

‘Looking down, I can see children running about, playing football. Being a father, I can tell when kids are happy. I can see women walking with confidence, without looking over their shoulder. People out there seem happier.’

We are entering the end-game in Afghanistan. Both Prime Minister David Cameron and American President Barack Obama have committed to withdrawing the majority of combat troops by the end of next year.

On the airfield, I walked around a giant cargo plane laden with everything from quad bikes to rations – 80 tons of this returning equipment departs from Afghanistan daily. I was left in no doubt; we are coming home.

On the first morning of my visit, I had watched the news as Obama declared: ‘By the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.’ I thought it was a dangerous and premature statement; ‘our’ war may well be over soon (for the time being at least), but the war in Afghanistan is far from won.

While every one of the servicemen and women I’d spoken to believed they were making a real difference, when asked what they thought the future held beyond our withdrawal next year, theirs was a collective raising of eyebrows. The overriding feeling was that they were close to completing the complex, dangerous and ever-changing mission, ordered of them by their political leaders, to the very best of their ability. They could do no more.

The military can fight battles and win wars, but it is the political establishment that must win the subsequent peace. As recent history shows, our current generation of politicians has a very poor track record with its side of the bargain.

Winning the peace in Afghanistan will take so much more than we have already given – many more years of investment, training and support – a commitment that has been sadly lacking since the start of this ‘adventure’ back in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. Are we prepared to give even more? I have little faith we truly have the stomach.

My visit to Afghanistan cemented my confidence in the young generation of servicemen and women who succeeded me. Confident, well trained and equipped, determined and brave; they were far better prepared for war than I was as a young airman. But I – and some of the troops I spoke to – fear for the future of Afghanistan after our departure.

Just a few hours after President Obama finished his speech about the withdrawal, Camp Bastion was rocked by the roar of guided rockets screaming skywards out of the base to attack some far-flung insurgent position. There is still a lot of fighting, and almost certainly more dying, to be done on the blood-soaked soil of Afghanistan before this war can be finally declared ‘over’.