The Duchess of Cambridge has spoken to military personnel about their harrowing experience of helping Afghans flee their home country in a state of “desperation” and “confusion”.
Kate visited RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on Wednesday, where she met those who took part in Operation Pitting.
The evacuation, which ran between 14 and 28 August, was the largest humanitarian aid operation for more than 70 years.
More than 15,000 people were flown out of Kabul by the Royal Air Force, 850 of which arrived at Brize Norton over the course of the two weeks.
During the visit, Kate spoke with RAF aircrew and medics who supported evacuees at Kabul airport as well as the civilians and volunteers who established a Repatriation Centre at the air base, providing key supplies and support on their arrival into the UK.
The duchess was also given a tour of RAF C17 Globemaster, the plane which transported a record 439 evacuees in a single flight out of Kabul.
She was pictured speaking to personnel in the plane’s fuselage, where the passengers sat during the flights.
The royal was said to have expressed her “thanks and her pride” in the job all those involved in the operation had done.
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.
Cpl Watts said: “She appreciates that some of it wasn’t easy and she appreciated how smoothly we managed to keep things running.”
He told Kate that those he helped evacuate had not seen a military jet before.
“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,” he said.
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”.
The 43-year-old, who has two sons aged eight and five, told of the difficulty to see young children whose lives were “completely thrown apart, sitting in the back of a dark aeroplane being shipped halfway around the word”.
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’.”
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.
Every unit based at Brize Norton were involved in the evacuation, with personnel supporting the operation alongside the Royal Navy, British Army, local authorities and aid organisations in Afghanistan and the UK.
The base’s full fleet of RAF transport aircraft were also flying around the clock to support the evacuation, including a record flight for an RAF C17 Globemaster which took 439 passengers out of Kabul on a single flight.
Aircraft involved in the operation also carried supplies ranging from clothing and baby food for the evacuees.