Action in Iraq - Everyone should read this

Discussion in 'Current Affairs, News and Analysis' started by gallowglass, Jul 12, 2004.

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  1. I imagine that many will already be familiar with the overall details of this engagement, but I found this article utterly inspiring. This can answer any who question the Armed Forces, or the regimental system, or courage, or comradeship, or that strange prickly feeling one gets when the lead flies....

    The Sunday Times - July 11, 2004

    British soldiers tell of heroics in textbook attack

    SHIELDED only by a narrow bank of baked earth as bullets flew and a grenade exploded ominously close by, Corporal Mark Byles, 34, glanced at the four soldiers who lay sweating on the ground beside him and knew what they had to do.

    “Fix bayonets!” he shouted. “We’re going to assault the positions in front. Are you all up for it?” There were no objections. With the steel in place on their SA80 rifles, the men of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (PWRR) charged across 600ft of open ground towards the enemy trenches, taking it in turns to stop and provide covering fire while their comrades advanced.

    Byles, from Portsmouth, reached the first trench with another corporal, Brian Wood. “I wanted to put the fear of God into the enemy,” he said.

    “I could see some dead bodies and eight blokes, some scrambling for their weapons. I’ve never seen such a look of fear in anyone’s eyes before. I’m over six feet, I was covered in sweat, angry, red in the face, charging in with a bayonet and screaming my head off. You would be scared too.”

    Three Iraqis further ahead opened fire and Byles shot two with his rifle. “There was a lot of aggression and a lot of hand-to-hand fighting. It wasn’t a pleasant scene,” he said “Some did get cut with the blades of the bayonet as we tumbled around, but in the end they surrendered and were controlled. I do wonder how they regard life so cheaply. Some of those Iraqis in those trenches were 15 years old — against trained soldiers.”

    The assault on May 14, described by Byles as “a perfect textbook attack”, took place during the Battle of Danny Boy, named after a nearby checkpoint on a road 15 miles south of the city of Amara in southern Iraq.

    This battle, which began with three Iraqi ambushes and ended with more than 60 militants believed dead, was the culmination of one of the most intensive periods of action by a British regiment since the Falklands war in 1982.

    In an onslaught that went largely unnoticed at home, the British were attacked more than 300 times in three months in and around Amara by the Mehdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric who has led some of the fiercest resistance of the Iraq war.

    Last week, in interviews at their camps, soldiers who have been through what one commander called “the crucible of fire” told stories of heroism and horror. Some returned to their bases elated by combat; others broke down. But in the heat of battle itself, they rarely lost their nerve and while there have been dozens of injuries, not a single soldier lost his life.

    It was on April 17 that Byles’s regiment assumed responsibility for the security of Amara, whose overwhelmingly Shi’ite inhabitants had opposed Saddam Hussein but who nevertheless resented the foreign forces that ousted him.

    The clashes began at 2pm the following day when a blast bomb — a home-made grenade the size of a tin of baked beans — landed beneath the chassis of an army Land Rover in the city centre, leaving the vehicle in flames and a corporal with a shrapnel wound in the leg.

    Mehdi fighters appeared from everywhere and fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at the British soldiers as they dived for cover. “It was like a scene from Black Hawk Down,” said Sergeant Danny Mills, leader of a platoon of snipers. “There was gunfire coming from everywhere, rockets coming in around us and we were just taking any cover we could.”

    The battle raged for an hour-and-a-half before the rumble of 30-tonne Warrior armoured vehicles signalled the arrival of overwhelming firepower and the fighters fled. But during the days that followed, they re-emerged relentlessly to target the patrolling infantrymen of Y Company.

    The first sign of trouble was often a young child darting away from the patrol to warn the militia of their approach. Then the crowded market street would empty, the shutters would rattle down and the first RPGs would be fired.

    “Maybe it’s a bit sick but I enjoyed this,” said Mills. “I have waited 18 years as a soldier for this. The truth is that when we saw all these rounds go off around us and missed, we started to chuckle. But it doesn’t mean I want it to happen again.”
    While his pumped-up snipers shared “high-fives” after action, many soldiers were afraid, especially during private moments of reflection.

    “Getting the courage to go out again is difficult,” said one lance-corporal. “You feel like crying your eyes out.”

    A private said he began to shake when he picked up his rifle. “I didn’t know how long our luck would last,” he said.

    Despite the constant threat, patrols set off into the city every day. “The worst thing psychologically were the mortars because you felt there was nothing you could do to defend yourself,” said Major Justin Featherstone, commander of Y Company. One mortar bomb landed on his own bed; fortunately, he was not in it at the time.

    Another of the most pressing problems was the increasing difficulty of re-supplying the coalition’s Amara headquarters, known as CIMIC House. At one point, by May 1, the 140 people inside were down to their last box of eight litres of water — even though each person was supposed to drink one box a day. The cooks had run out of fresh food.

    Fourteen people were arrested during an attempt to round up the senior Mehdi army leaders, but the move provoked a ferocious reaction as an armoured British convoy set out from the Abu Naji camp, just south of Amara, to secure a supply route through the city to the headquarters.

    The convoy came under heavy fire. One soldier, Barry Bliss, was shot through the lung and was lying critically ill and trapped by the gunfire, when Corporal Matthew Natumeiu came to the rescue.

    According to Featherstone, his commanding officer, Natumeiu charged across an open bridge to help some other soldiers pinned down there.

    “He found the others were trapped behind a low wall under machinegun fire,” Featherstone said. “The rounds were just winging over them and they couldn’t lift their heads for a moment.”

    Natumeiu then dived across the wall and into an open square — a clear target for up to a dozen Mehdi gunmen. “It was an incredibly brave act. He just knelt down in the square, aimed his rifle, and picked off targets one by one,” said Featherstone.

    The Mehdi army’s anger remained unspent. Two American engineers were killed in the continuing mayhem. Another British soldier, Private Johnston Beharry, was forced to smash through a rebel barricade at the head of a group of Warriors, and later pulled his commander from their burning vehicle under small arms fire.

    Beharry earned plaudits from the Army but the overall situation was getting increasingly out of hand. Lieutenant- Colonel Matt Maer, in charge of British forces in the city, believed that only a significant show of strength would prevent the Mehdi army from taking over the city.

    On May 8, in an operation codenamed Waterloo, he assembled the most formidable armoured strike force in British-controlled Iraq since the official end of hostilities a year earlier.

    Thirty Warrior armoured vehicles, four Challenger main battle tanks, and more than 400 infantry soldiers were supported by RAF Tornado jets and an AC130 Spectre, America’s most deadly night-fighting aerial gunship.

    The decision to deploy the Spectre, confirmed by Major-General Andrew Stewart, commander of British forces in Iraq, was a controversial one, because of concern that it might kill innocents.

    “It was a very difficult decision but, strange as it seems, the technology of these assets means they can be highly accurate,” Stewart said.

    The spearhead of the operation was nevertheless formed by the men of the PWRR’s C Company, which was to fire two-thirds of the 30,000 rounds used by British forces during the entire conflict in Amara.

    The battle began at 2am when an armoured column from C Company, backed by Challenger tanks, fought its way through to CIMIC house to deliver supplies. It returned an hour later, forming a defensive square across the river from the Mehdi army headquarters.

    Conditions inside the Warrior vehicles were hellish. “There is no cooling and it’s baking hot,” said Lance Corporal Kevin Wright, who led a squad of C Company 8th Platoon infantry. “You can’t see anything and you can’t hear much. You’re just listening in on the radio and hearing people who are panicking under fire.

    “You are in the back, hyped up for action, your adrenalin pumping and you just scream and scream to be let out the back and get into the fight.

    “When you jump out you have to blink in the street lights because it’s been pitch black inside the Warrior and then all you can do is leg it for the nearest piece of cover.”

    Sergeant Chris Adkins, a Warrior commander, put it another way. “It’s like releasing bats from a cave,” he said.

    For the next hour, the men repelled one assault after another, backed up by the Spectre gunship, which circled above, aiming thousands of rounds into Mehdi positions on the rooftops.

    At 4am they finally moved across the river and attacked the Mehdi headquarters, capturing three truckloads of weapons. As dawn broke, an angry crowd gathered, only to be dispersed when buzzed by the Tornado jets.

    Mehdi reprisals went on for several days. In one horrific incident, Sergeant Adam Llewellyn, a Warrior commander, suffered severe burns after a boy, thought to have been about 10 years old, hurled a petrol bomb into the open turret of his vehicle. He jumped out on fire, screaming in agony, before being pushed on the ground by another soldier who doused the flames.

    “It was hell for him,” said Corporal Joe Tagica, a Warrior commander. “They were pouring water on him to cool him down but the water from inside the Warriors they were using was practically boiling.”

    There was one final battle to come — the one near Danny Boy checkpoint, a week later. It began at 4.40pm when two Land Rovers from another regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, were attacked on the main highway from Basra to Baghdad near the city of Majar al-Kabir, about 15 miles south of Amara.

    The Land Rovers resisted two ambushes, but were finally trapped three miles from the checkpoint. Another platoon of Argylls arrived, only to be pinned down as well.

    Warriors and Challenger tanks raced down the highway from Amara, but Sergeant Dave Perfect, commander of the lead vehicle, found himself cut off by the enemy.

    His radio did not work. Both his turret guns jammed. The vehicle was then struck by an RPG that knocked one of the soldiers on board unconscious and started a fire in the back.

    Perfect, who was married just six days before coming to Iraq, briefly abandoned his turret to check on his injured comrade. He returned, aimed a light machinegun and fired.

    “I told everyone just to shut down the hatches,” said Perfect, who dispatched 1,600 rounds that day. “I said to them that if I got shot then someone else should take over my gun and carry on.”

    Perfect eventually managed to link up with the beleaguered Argylls’ patrol, but by this time only his reverse gears were working. When he finally reached Abu Naji camp, his steering also broke down. He, his crew and one prisoner walked the final few yards to the camp.

    While Perfect was fighting his own battle, most of the rest of the rescue force were engaged in another fierce exchange with up to 100 rebels opposite a factory. It was here that Byles launched his bayonet charge, to be followed by a series of further infantry assaults.

    When the fighting subsided, an order was given to recover the bodies of the enemy soldiers so that they could be brought back to camp for identification. It was a decision many came to regret.

    One of the Challenger tanks broke down on the way back, delaying the convoy for an hour-and-a-half. Warriors have no air-conditioning and the soldiers were forced to share the sweltering passenger compartment with some of the men they had just killed in action.

    The worst moments came when 22 bodies were unloaded back at camp. “There was one guy who was leaning up on his side and, although he was dead, I could swear his eyes were following me as I moved back in the Warrior to release the door,” said Lance Corporal Kevin Wright from Southampton. That day was Wright’s 20th birthday.

    As well as killing up to 65 members of the Mehdi army in all, the British forces had convinced it of the strength of their firepower. Attacks on a smaller scale nevertheless persisted, and Maer, the commander in the city, was certain that only a political solution could eliminate them.

    The opportunity arose when al-Sadr made a deal with senior Shi’ite clerics and American forces to withdraw troops from the holy city of Najaf and concentrate on turning his militia into a political movement.

    Maer took up the idea, persuading senior clergymen and tribal leaders to negotiate a cessation of violence. In return, he agreed no longer to send armoured vehicles into the city, unless in self-defence, and to cut the number of troops moving through it.

    The agreement was concluded by June 18 and read out in all the mosques. There has not been a single attack on British troops since.

    Most commanders agree that this may represent a lull rather than a permanent cessation of hostilities. They fear the fighters may turn on the new Iraqi government that took office two weeks ago.

    For the British soldiers, however, the worst may well be behind them and many are thinking about the danger they faced, the courage shown — and those they have killed.

    “It is quite a serious thing to take another man’s life,” said Corporal Joe Tagica. “I had never done this before, although I knew when I joined the army that this day would come. I thought about our mission to help this country and I thought we did the right thing.”

    Maer, meanwhile, attributes the British forces’ success in keeping every one of their soldiers alive during the conflict to more than military skills. “There is no one who will leave this tour and not believe in the Almighty,” he said.
  2. totally agree gallowglass, thats my battalion, little was released of all these stories due to B& B taking so much grief over iraq, its nice to see some news getting thru for once, its been hard going!
  3. I'd bet it was slightly more than that!! Why dosn't the media over here report on this as it happens I wonder?
  4. Thanks Gallowglass. Like Soldier-Dan, its my Battalion. Cant wait to get hold of the CSM involved, or, WO2, 'they dont like it up em' in the mess.
    A first class effort by the whole Battlegroup.
  5. Goose bumps all over when reading. A shame the heroics get lost amid the politcs.
    Good Drills.
  6. Excellent effort by all involved. I hope all involved get the recognition they deserve.
  7. Outstanding.
  8. I am glad to see that my posting has met with so much approval. On this forum I know that such a posting will not be mocked or garner such a response as 'Tut! Tut! There you go glorifying war again....and an illegal war at that' (stifled yawn from gallowglass). Why did this marvellous example of courage, discipline, and sheer guts go largely unreported? Well, apart from being a 'good news story' about Iraq (heaven forbid!), it has to compete with Big Brother, Beckham, Michale Moore, celebrity culture in general etc..... But I don't imagine the chaps on the spot, who gritted their teeth and thought 'right, you b**tards!' are terribly concerned with whether 'the media' or 'the people' are singing their praises. They know themselves that they did a good job, and that their mates know, and that they will get that professional nod of approval from those whose opinion they respect. Most of all, anytime they catch a look at themselves in the mirror in future, they will think back to the action described above and know that they were tested in the only true manner that counts and were not found wanting.
  9. It also reflects the fact that the majority of the media in Iraq are too chickenshit to get outside Baghdad or occasionally Basra. This is why we get such overwhelmingly 'bad news' reporting, both about the reconstruction of Iraq - which is going quite well in most of the country - and, when necessary, the real heroics which are also taking place.

  10. I'm sorry, but this isn't a good news story! It tells us what we know - that we have the best damn army in the world and that none can stand against the British infantry.

    Well, that's good for the warm and fuzzy feeling it gives everyone, but I don't think it's good news that, in the *allegedly* quiet south, one battalion got bumped 100 times a month, had to call on heavy armour, AC130s and finally go in with cold steel - a year after the war. Counter-insurgency is not measured in battles, but the lack of them. The fact that, a year on, the 't other siders could put up so much of a fight should be very worrying. The maximum success in Iraq would be for Iraq to become a boring story - no bangs or battles, just power lines and stag.
  11. Agree with you on that....ex partner went to iraq for 6 months at the start of the war and has just received the news that he is going more concerned this time than I was before.

    The whole thing is a bloody shambles
  12. Well done to all. Not a lot more you can say really. It was a fantastic effort full stop.

    I would imagine that there will be a couple of serious and well deserved gongs from that lot.
  13. Jeremy Clarkson's prog on the VC ended by stating that the long-range, technological battlefield was no longer the place for eye-to-eye contact with the enemy and given the award criteria for the VC (90% certainty of not making it out alive), the small amount of bronze left from the Russian cannon used for striking the medals would last us a long, long time.

    I think not.

    Time to find a large bit of Iraqi hardware and start making the next batch from that.

    Well done the boys!
  14. You cannot put a price on the combination of tradition, bravery and esprit de corps that makes this sort of thing possible. Unfortunately those who bask the most in this reflected glory are those who will wield the axe. Was it a century ago Kipling wrote "It's Tommy this, and Tommy that and "chuck 'im out the brute/ But it's the thin red line of 'eroes when the guns begin to shoot"?
  15. Respect.