The Duchess of Cambridge has heard of the emotional toll on military personnel who helped evacuate Afghans from their home country in a state of “desperation” and “confusion”.
Kate visited RAF Brize Norton and met those who took part in Operation Pitting, which saw more than 15,000 people airlifted out of Kabul during August.
Those evacuated included thousands of Arap (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy) applicants and their dependents.
While speaking to a group of personnel, Kate commented on how some of the rescue flights included “babies, tiny babies”.
Corporal Guy Watts, who did seven flights to Kabul and whose job involved making sure the journeys remained safe, said the duchess voiced her appreciation of everyone’s efforts.
He said: “She appreciates that some of it wasn’t easy.
“And she appreciated how smoothly we managed to keep things running.”
Cpl Watts told Kate that those he helped evacuate had not seen a military jet before.
He said: “The adrenaline was really pumping as we were getting them on.
“Then as soon as we were in the air and got to altitude, they just collapsed.”
Kate asked him: “Did they know what the plan was?
“You must have been asked loads of questions, like, what’s happening next?”
He replied: “A lot of them did not realise we were going to Dubai.
“They were asking, how long is the flight to the UK? When is the next meal coming?”
He said the evacuees began to relax once the plane was airborne, adding: “That was such a big burden that was lifted off their shoulders.
“It was lovely to see, it was very rewarding.”
Flight lieutenant Andy Bell described flying into Kabul as “very challenging” and like a “rollercoaster ride”.
He spoke of the emotional impact of rescuing such desperate people, and said he “had to take a bit of time out to think about things”.
He added: “I was helping shepherd the refugees off the back of the aircraft, and it was the last family that really hit me.
“It was a family of four – a mother, a tiny little infant over her shoulder, fast asleep.
“The mother looked sick with worry.
“A young girl, no older than my youngest lad, has no idea where she is.
“And dad seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“Bewilderment, desperation, confusion.
“And a single backpack.
“That’s the bit that hit me.
“That’s the family that we have just taken out of a horrific situation.
“But they’re not out of it.
“The immediate threat has gone, but their life is in complete turmoil.
“I had to take myself away, find a quiet corner for 10 minutes while we turned the aircraft round and stuck some more fuel in it.
“Then it’s ‘right, let’s go and do the same tomorrow’.”
The officer commandeering 99 Squadron did three flights out of Kabul and said on the second “a bus drove out in front of me while I was on my take-off run”.
He said he was committed to taking off at that point and could not have slammed on the brakes as he would have hit the vehicle.
He said: “We normally take off at 125 knots, and I had to take off at 110 knots to miss the bus.
“We have had all the data back now, and we were less than 10 feet over the top of the bus.
“We had 377 people on board, and I’m glad that I’m stood here right now.”
Operation Pitting involved every unit at the military base, with personnel working alongside the Royal Navy, Army, local authorities and aid organisations in Afghanistan and the UK.
Brize Norton’s full fleet of RAF transport aircraft flew around the clock to support the evacuation, including a record flight for an RAF C17 Globemaster which carried 439 passengers out of Kabul.
Aircraft involved in the operation also carried supplies ranging from clothing and baby food for the evacuees.