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Operation Medusa: The Battle For Panjwai



A Canadian soldier ducks as a helicopter lifts off during Operation Medusa. Inset top: across the Arghandab River, the area around the white school burns as the Canadians attack. Inset bottom: the town of Bazaar-e-Panjwai with Mar Ghar in the background.

Part 1: The Charge of Charles Company.

Within sight of the infamous white schoolhouse, epicentre of the insurgency in Kandahar province, the hastily assembled Canadian force entered the kill zone. An enemy signal flare shot up across Charles Company’s lead elements and there aren’t many polite words to describe what happened next.

Rick Nolan died. 7 Platoon’s warrant officer, its heart and soul, was sitting in the passenger seat of a lightly armoured G-Wagon when a rocket-propelled grenade came crashing through the windshield. Sitting in the back seat were a medic and an Afghan interpreter, both badly wounded. Corporal Sean Teal, dazed but mostly unhurt, jumped into a hail of bullets and went to find help. The G-Wagon never moved again.

Shane Stachnik died. The engineer sergeant was standing in his armoured vehicle’s air sentry hatch when an 82-mm recoilless rifle round blew them apart. Most inside were wounded or unconscious and the vehicle went radio silent. Call sign Echo 3-2 was out of the fight.

The enemy were hidden in their trenches and fortified buildings, firing from three sides. The Canadians were enveloped. Bullets kicked up dirt cinematically. Rockets screamed in. Every Canadian gun that could still fire blasted away at the muzzle flashes in the distance.

A Canadian armoured vehicle, full of wounded and dead, reversed at high speed out of the kill zone only to crash backwards into a ditch, where it was hit by several RPGs. Call sign 3-1 Bravo was stuck and dying. It never left the ditch.

The radios were full of screaming voices, some calling for medics, some just looking for help. As the firing and explosions continued, many soldiers began helping their wounded friends, focusing on their own rescue mission, fighting their own war. Time got all messed up. It went too fast or it went too slow; hours seemed like minutes and some seconds took forever. Wounded men crawled across the ground looking for cover. Everywhere there were acts of unimaginable courage.

Yet more would die. Private William Cushley, legendary joker, friend to seemingly everybody, was killed alongside 8 Platoon’s warrant officer, Frank Mellish, who came forward to see if he could help after he heard his friend Nolan was in trouble.

It went on and on for hours. An officer sprinted across open ground armed now only with his pistol, looking for his comrade. The enemy kept firing. The company sergeant major went down.

They fought through one calamity after another. And the wounded piled up. Some were hit more than once. Others were wounded in ways that couldn’t be seen.

Through it all the calm voice of Charles’ commander, Major Mathew Sprague, himself under fire, came over the net, directing his men through the chaos, calling in air strikes and artillery. But the enemy was dug in too deep and hidden too well. They poured unrelenting, if poorly aimed, fire on the trapped Canadian force.

When an errant 1,000-pound bomb, dropped off target by a coalition aircraft, came bouncing through the Canadian lines and ended up right in front of them, there was little left to do but retreat.

Captain Derek Wessan radioed Sprague at call sign 3-9er. “We’ve gotta get the f–k out of here,” he said. “And then we’ve gotta blow this place up.”

Of the 50 or so Canadian soldiers that went into the kill zone that day, no fewer than 10 were wounded, four were killed and at least six became stress casualties.

Even now, even with a year’s worth of hindsight, it’s still hard for any one person to say exactly what happened that day.

What’s known for sure is that five soldiers in that fight received Canada’s third highest award for bravery–the Medal of Military Valour–while another, Corporal Sean Teal, received the Star of Military Valour–Canada’s second highest award, just beneath the Victoria Cross. One other soldier was mentioned in dispatches.

The ambush at the white schoolhouse took place Sept. 3, 2006, on the second day of Operation Medusa, NATO’s first-ever ground combat operation, and Canada’s largest combat operation since the Korean War.

That it was a huge battle fought heroically against long odds is clear. But what’s less well known are the controversial circumstances that prefigured the battle. This was a struggle that saw a general’s strategic instinct–his feel for the shape of the battle–lead him to abandon a carefully laid plan and overrule his tactical commanders in the field in order to send Charles Company on a hastily conceived and ultimately harrowing attack against a numerically superior enemy in a well-established defensive position.

That story, and more, will be detailed here, in Legion Magazine’s three-part report on the Battle of Panjwai, which begins with the background to Op Medusa and the behind-the-scenes controversy that shaped the deadly Sept. 3 attack.

Op Medusa was the largest operation in Afghanistan since 2002 and it was intended to disperse or destroy the hundreds, if not thousands, of insurgents that had gathered about 20 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city, in a district called Panjwai.

In 2006, Panjwai was the insurgency’s simmering heartland. For a whole generation of Canadian service members, the mention of Panjwai will almost certainly conjure hard memories of small villages and complex defensive terrain, intractable hostility and endless roadside bombs. Of the 66 Canadians killed in Afghanistan since 2002 (as of July 10, 2007), almost half died in Panjwai.

Panjwai is the spiritual and literal home of the Taliban movement. It’s the birthplace of their as-yet-unaccounted-for leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and the place where the movement began in the mid-1990s.

The district is centred on the Arghandab River and the town of Bazaar-e-Panjwai. Bordered on the south by desert, Panjwai is dominated by a few massive, singular mountains–Masum Ghar and Mar Ghar.

Since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Kandahar province had been mostly an American responsibility. When the Canadian battle group moved south from Kabul to Kandahar in early 2006, they discovered quickly that Taliban activity was high, and it was centred in Panjwai.

Throughout the first six months of the new mission, the first rotation–largely comprised of soldiers from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry–routinely fought insurgents in and around Panjwai.

Op Medusa was meant to change all that. It was going to be a decisive victory in the Battle of Panjwai.

Brigadier-General David Fraser controlled Medusa from his headquarters at Kandahar airfield, the sprawling coalition base just outside Kandahar city. Fraser was not only Canada’s highest-ranking man on the ground, but he was also NATO’s commander in southern Afghanistan.

Out in the field, the battle group was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Omer Lavoie, the tough-talking commander of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, a man described by several of his men as a soldier’s soldier. The Canadian component of his force was comprised of the 1RCR, a complement of 2 Combat Engineer Regt., 2 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, medics from 2 Field Ambulance and various support staff for a total of about 1,050 Canadians.

While trouble had been brewing in Panjwai for some time, when Lavoie and his RCR battle group arrived in Kandahar in early August 2006, just as NATO was taking command from the Americans in the south, the situation there reached a critical point. Expecting to conduct a counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan, Lavoie was surprised to discover that a threatening number of enemy fighters had gathered just outside Kandahar city.

“We took over right on the threshold of the transition to NATO,” said Lavoie. “So I think the Taliban decided that they would either test or show that NATO didn’t have the resolve to conduct combat operations to the extent that U.S. forces did.”

Within hours of the Aug. 19 ceremony that marked his assumption of command over the Canadian battle group, Lavoie got a first-hand look at the real situation in Panjwai.

A few days before, Lavoie had ordered a small company-sized force to go camp out on the high point Masum Ghar and observe the area for enemy activity.

Three hours after taking command, at about 7:00 p.m., Lavoie received a message that between 300 and 500 insurgents were attacking his force out at Masum Ghar. “What happened, of course, was the Taliban, seeing our vehicles up on our hill and not liking the idea, decided to launch a fairly significant attack,” said Lavoie. “I finally got forward to the position at about 4:00 a.m. In the end we killed about 100 Taliban and took no friendly casualties, so it was a good way to start off.

“But the significance of that was that it sent a very strong message to us, and by extension NATO, that if they could mass that size of an attack there was a significantly greater proportion of enemy in that area than was anticipated, based on what our predecessors had noted; so that battle of Panjwai on August 19 was the precursor to Medusa.

“Almost immediately I was called back to the brigade commander (Fraser) and given a warning order to anticipate having to conduct a major combat operation in the Panjwai area to defeat and push this sizable enemy element out–so Medusa started from my perspective right at that time.”

Back in Kandahar, Fraser too noted the shift in Taliban tactics.

“We also found out the Taliban had changed their tactics. They went from small group hit-and-run to conventional come-and-get-me. Their intent was to prove to the world and the Karzai government that they could take us on. It was the culmination of their 2006 idea, I won’t even say campaign plan. It was their idea of how they wanted to finish off the fighting that year, and finish off the fighting in total. They thought they could win it then.

“What they underestimated was that I was onto their plan, I knew what their intent was,” said Fraser. “I had determined they wanted me to attack them head on, à la World War I, at enormous cost in soldiers, both Afghan and coalition. But I would not accept that as an acceptable course of operation.

“So we adapted and wrote a plan to counter their intent, designed to mitigate collateral damage to Afghans and their fields and their huts, and also to mitigate the threat to my soldiers, both Afghan and coalition.

“We circled the wagons, so to speak, around the Taliban, and forced them to pop their head up so we could lop it off.”

The plan for Medusa was big and seemed quite solid. In total there would be almost 1,400 coalition soldiers on the ground with the battle group and thousands more supporting them. According to Fraser, he spent much of August working up the plan.

“This was a big effort, from a brigade point of view; I pulled in troops from my entire brigade, which comprised nine nations across four provinces, down into Panjwai because the Taliban were not going to win. I was very firm. I said ‘You’ve taken on the wrong guy if you want to take on Dave Fraser, ’cause I’m going to beat you here.'”

On the ground, there were several distinct forces ready to close on the enemy. Lavoie’s Canadian force was Charles Company in the south, coming through Bazaar-e-Panjwai, with Bravo Company in the north, fighting southward. On one flank was Task Force 31, comprised of coalition–mainly U.S.–Special Forces and also Task Force Grizzly, an American company. With a Danish squad in position to the west and a Dutch Company patrolling the perimeter to the north, the enemy were pretty much surrounded.

Op Medusa began at first light on Sept. 2 with an attack on two axes, with the main effort being in the south. There, Sprague and Charles Company, in the main, were to seize the high features around Panjwai–Masum and Mar Ghar–and isolate the town of Panjwai itself. They would advance right up to the south bank of the Arghandab River, but not across.

“At 5:30 a.m., we moved out. The entire operation was based on my H-hour, which I had chosen as 6:00 a.m.–that being the time at which I intended to launch my forces to secure Masum Ghar,” said Sprague. “As it turned out, at 6:00 a.m. sharp we had secured Masum Ghar. By 6:15 a.m. I had declared no pattern of life across the river in Pashmul, save for groups of insurgents with whom we began to trade fire.”

According to the original plan, having seized the high points around Panjwai and to the north, the battle group would take the next several days to batter the Taliban–who were now trapped in a fairly small area, perhaps five square kilometres–into submission.

However, that carefully prepared plan began to change almost immediately.

“In the original brigade instruction, once I had confirmed that there were no civilians present, a pre-arranged air strike using precision guided munitions was supposed to simultaneously hit between 10 and 20 known insurgent command and control nodes,” said Sprague. “For whatever reason, this didn’t happen and the strike was cancelled by the brigade.”

Nonetheless, on both high points, the Canadians set up firing lines of armoured vehicles and proceeded to blast away at targets of opportunity across the river throughout the morning and afternoon of Sept. 2.

“The intent then,” said Lavoie, “once that area was seized and the enemy was hemmed in from the north and the south, was to continue to engage the enemy for the next three days with primarily offensive air support but artillery and direct fire as well, in order to, from my perspective, determine where the enemy actually was, and to degrade the enemy’s ability to fight before we actually committed the main force into the attack.”

And it was quite a place to attack. If Kandahar is the strategic centre of Afghanistan, and the Panjwai district is the key to Kandahar, then the area around the town of Bazaar-e-Panjwai, which includes the small village of Pashmul, is at the very heart of the whole situation.

This, roughly speaking, was Objective Rugby–the area just across the Arghandab River, centred on the white schoolhouse, where Charles Company would cross the river to be ambushed in just a few hours.

Objective Rugby was a place the Canadians knew well. On Aug. 3, 2006, the PPCLI was involved in a hellish battle at the white schoolhouse that led to the deaths of four soldiers–Sergeant Vaughn Ingram, Cpl. Christopher Jonathan Reid, Cpl. Bryce Jeffrey Keller and Pte. Kevin Dallaire–with six more wounded. Also during that fight Sgt. Patrick Tower was awarded the first Canadian Star of Military Valour.

“This was the ground the enemy had chosen to defend,” said Fraser, who, having been in command on Aug. 3, just one month prior, was well aware of what happened that day. “Rugby was where we assessed that the Taliban wanted us to fight them on. That was their main battleground. Their whole defence was structured to have us coming across the Arghandab River in the south and fight into Rugby. And the schoolhouse was the area in the centre, where there were big killing fields to the east and the north.”

Given the recent history of Objective Rugby, and the evident buildup of enemy forces in the area, the battle group was looking forward to taking their time before going across into Taliban territory. According to the plan, they had lots of time.

“There were a series of deceptions and feints planned in those three days to cause the enemy to react,” said Lavoie, “so that we would be able to see where he was so we could plan the final attack.”

But this was not to happen. The plan was about to change.

At about 2 p.m. on Sept. 2, Fraser visited Masum Ghar to check out the situation. At that point in the afternoon, insurgent activity had tapered off.

Seeing this, Fraser gave the order to cross the Arghandab. While many of the guys on the ground were wary of heading off into enemy territory with so little preparation, shortly after, as ordered, Sprague led 7 Platoon and an engineer detachment out into the riverbed to map out the crossing.

The order then came down to leave 7 Platoon camped in the riverbed for the night. This was duly arranged, and the platoon began to hunker down. However, a short time later a conference of senior leaders at Masum Ghar decided there was no tactical advantage to leaving the platoon dangling out on the edge of enemy territory, and they were pulled back just as darkness fell.

At about midnight, Lavoie was again ordered by Fraser to launch an attack across the river.

To the guys on the ground, this order made even less sense. But for Lavoie, managing to get that order postponed was no small feat. According to several sources, the conversation about whether it was a good idea to launch a spur-of-the-moment midnight attack into what was probably one of the most heavily defended hostile positions in Afghanistan did become quite animated.

Lavoie got on the radio and told Fraser that to cross now was not a good idea. It was too risky. They didn’t know the river’s flow rate or its depth, nor were any fording sites marked. And they had little intel on enemy positions.

While Lavoie’s stand earned him the undying respect of his soldiers, it was not an easy thing to do.

“(Lavoie) and I had some pretty serious discussions, because we were talking about the hardest fight either one of us had ever done in our military career,” said Fraser. “So the fact that we could have a frank and open discussion attests to the level of trust and co-operation we had, that we weren’t afraid to speak our minds. And you need that, because as commanders we’re dealing with lives of soldiers, and lives of Afghans. We were talking about the big step of going across the river, metaphorically and literally, to finish off the Taliban.”

Nonetheless, this argument was merely to get the midnight attack postponed. The orders were now to attack at first light on Sept. 3, still a full 48 hours earlier than planned and without the promised bombardment.

Several questions remain to this day for the men who had to follow out these orders, but they can all be reduced to this: why abandon the plan and bring forward the attack?

Indeed, it’s hard to see what caused the need to hurry–the Taliban were trapped and surrounded, it was now just a matter of lopping their heads off. As Fraser himself notes, the very heart of the Taliban strategy was to draw them into costly ground conflict.

As one RCR officer said, it’s not like they were racing to save Ottawa from an invading force. “What’s the rush?” said another RCR officer. “We know where they are, it’s a free fire zone.”

There was, in fact, no rush. Though Fraser agrees there was pressure from above to get things moving, he says that wasn’t a real factor.

“There was pressure from every quarter. I told people above me that we were going to play this the way we intended to play this. It was gonna take time, and it took a long time.”

Instead, the decision to bring the attack forward was based, in large part, on Fraser’s appraisal that the enemy had weakened and was ready to be exploited.

“So, the intelligence I was receiving, and also the information I was receiving from my other task force commanders that were part of this battle, not just Omer Lavoie, and talking to Afghans: we were ready. We were at the point where we could press this thing home. Yeah, we could have stuck to the plan, but, again, you start to ignore the enemy, what he’s doing, what intelligence is on the ground.

“You fight the enemy guided by a plan. You don’t fight a plan. If you fight a plan and ignore the enemy, you will fail. You will incur lots of casualties and you will fail. A plan only gets you thinking and gets you to meet the enemy. And the enemy has a vote. So, on (Sept. 1) or (Sept. 2), I had decided the situation was changing so that we could attack. I gave (Lavoie) the orders on the 2nd to attack. It was in advance of what the plan said. Well, I don’t care about the plan.”

Despite the fact, made apparent the next morning, that Fraser’s appraisal of the situation turned out to be demonstrably optimistic, the bottom line for the general is that he believes there was nothing to be gained by 48 hours of additional bombardment.

“Well, I listened to what they had to say,” he said of his cautious tactical commanders. “I knew a lot of enemy were there. But, you know, you do two more days of bombardment, how many do you kill? How do you know that? You guess.

“No matter if you went in on the 2nd, the 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th, guess what ladies and gentlemen? It is a difficult thing to cross a river and to go into a main defensive area where the Taliban were waiting and wanted to fight on. It would have been gut-wrenching, whatever day was picked to go across that river.”

Gut-wrenching it may have been, but according to the soldiers who did it, it would have been a much different event if they had stuck to the original plan. As Sprague notes, the extra time would have given the Canadians several major advantages in addition to reducing or destroying the buildings that were to give the Taliban such excellent cover and concealment.

“We could have used that time to conduct feints, force the insurgents into reacting to our manoeuvre. We could have used our manoeuvre to draw them out into positions where our firepower could have decimated them and at the very least we could have seen their reactions to our movement.”

“The old adage is, ‘time spent in recce is seldom wasted.’ We never got to do a recce. Therefore, we never had a tactical plan because we never had time to make one.”

Despite the arguments of his tactical commanders, Fraser would not be deterred.

“The decision was ‘we’re gonna go in’ and 26 years of experience in seven different operations told me now was the time to go in there and finish this thing off.”

In the end, of course, the only thing that was very nearly finished off was Charles Company.

As for Lavoie, he’d made his stand, but orders were orders, and, one way or another, the attack was going in.

“He’s my commander,” noted Lavoie diplomatically. “And I guess in his mind he thought that was the course of action to follow.”

At first light the next morning, Sept. 3, Sprague gathered his platoon leaders and supporting officers for hasty orders. With less than 15 minutes to make a plan, what was said didn’t amount to much more than, ‘We’re going across. Follow me.’ It was to be an old-fashioned WW I-style assault into the guns, albeit on a smaller scale. It was the charge of Charles Company.

So, with little if any battle procedure, no reconnaissance and intel that was either insufficient or wildly wrong, Sprague led his force down the bank and into the river. This was Canada’s first company-sized mechanized combined arms attack on a fixed position since Korea, at the heart of NATO’s first-ever battle, and it was like nothing they’d ever trained to do. It was rushed and it was risky–doctrine was out the window.

Across the river and onto the far bank, the engineers made their breeches and Charles crawled up into the fields beyond.

They moved into enemy territory, unaware of what was about to happen.

Everything was quiet. It was all to come.

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