Attack-Helicopter pilots memoirs

Good action details in Daily Mail story..

It's a straight gunfight, the best shot wins....
By Lieutenant Commander James Newton DFC RN

17th March 2007

It's a straight gunfight, the best shot wins ... the loser dies in flames

In an unprecedented account, a serving Royal Navy pilot tells what it's really like to be at the controls of a £30m attack helicopter, and reveals the intense emotional aftermath of unleashing its fearsome weapons of war.

High above the southern Iraqi desert there was a loud crash to the right of our Lynx helicopter. It was followed by what felt like a sack of gravel being thrown over the window.

One, two, three, four, five - BOOM! A blinding flash lit the air in front; an explosion so strong that my armoured chest plate lifted from my body and our Lynx bucked wildly as if a lorry had rammed it.

The helicopter filled with the stench of cordite. Below, an Iraqi T55 tank was firing at us. We faced a classic engagement, a straight gunfight. The best shot would win. The loser would die in flames.

It was March 24, 2003, the most momentous day in my life, and every last detail of it is seared on my mind.

It wasn't just an extraordinary date for me but for the entire 847 Naval Air Squadron - probably the most eventful in our history.

Every airman called forward from the amphibious helicopter carrier HMS Ocean was engaged in heavy fighting.

The battle was concentrated around the Basra suburb of Abu Al Khasib, where an entire Iraqi tank division and thousands of troops were dug in among the buildings and the date palms.

The Iraqis fought ferociously that day.

You couldn't help wondering whether they had intelligence that the heavy armour of the British 7th Armoured Brigade was not yet ready to join battle, and that only the thin line of lightly armed recce vehicles from the Queen's Dragoon Guards and the Brigade Recce Force stood in their way.

If the Iraqis had one chance of repelling the invasion, it was on that fourth day of the campaign before the full might of the task force rolled into action.

With the RAF jets busy bombing Baghdad and supporting the Americans, only four Lynx and four Gazelle helicopters of 847 Naval Air Squadron were protecting the beachhead and the recce forces.

I was 30 at the time and had bid my friends and family goodbye in January shortly before HMS Ocean set sail from Plymouth.

I was in overall charge of training for 847 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm based in Yeovilton, Somerset.

Having joined the Navy from school, I had already served in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Belize.

I'd originally intended to become a warfare officer, but when a friend took me out in a glider I decided to switch to a career as a pilot.

Twelve years after joining up, my Squadron and I had boarded HMS Ocean bound for Iraq. As we waved goodbye to our families, a handful of protesters held up Stop The War banners - not what you want to see when you're heading for a war zone.

It struck me that they were waving their placards at the wrong people: it wasn't within our power to decide whether we wanted to fight.

The politicians make the decisions and we - soldiers, airmen and sailors - fulfil our contract to the State.

Did the demonstrators really think the lads on deck would see the slogans ashore and say:

'Hey, those guys are right. Sod the war, let's all go home?'

All the same, it was amusing to see the dissenters had positioned themselves some way from our families, who were unlikely to have looked upon them sympathetically.

My mother and father were in the crowd too. Mum, who is a touch eccentric these days, carried a 10ft plastic poppy to help me identify her.

The week before, I'd been at the family home on Dartmoor to say goodbye. For the first time, I had seen a fear and a tenderness in my father.

Having served in the Merchant Navy himself for 40 years, he understood that this deployment carried greater risks than any other I had undertaken.

My father is a hard man and it was strange yet touching to see him welling up as he hugged me.

As we passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, the atmosphere on board reached a new intensity.

At the back of our minds was the fear that only our bodies would return home, inside flag-draped coffins.

Some wrote wills and 'last letters' to be handed to their loved ones in the event of their death.

One pilot said to me:

"Jim, if I never make it home, will you tell my wife she was right about the conservatory. We should have got one after all - I was just being tight."

What he was trying to say was

"Will you tell her how much I loved her?"

but being a big, hairy killing machine of a Marine, he could express tender feelings only through the medium of an unbought conservatory.

A couple of weeks later the 'Dear John,' letters started to appear on notice boards.

There is a weird tradition in the Navy that when sailors receive letters from girlfriends breaking off relationships, they put them up for everyone to read.

For some, this custom helps them through. These letters had a positive effect on morale, bringing us closer together.

In 847 Naval Air Squadron we like to think of ourselves as on the sharper end of operations, vulnerable to missiles, mortars, tank shells and even small-arms fire.

Our job on March 24 was to act as a 'screen' in conjunction with the reconnaissance vehicles below, observing enemy positions and calling in fire from artillery on the ground, from the guns on frigates and destroyers or from jets returning from missions elsewhere in Iraq.

We were not meant to go into offensive mode unless there was no alternative or one of our TOW (tube launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) missiles was the most appropriate weapon.

Faced with that Iraqi tank taking shots at my Lynx, I had no choice.

The tank commander was no rookie - he was brave, probably a veteran of the first Gulf War or Iraq's conflict with Iran.

The tank was outside an abandoned school surrounded by date palms. The Iraqis had broken cover to engage us.

As mission commander, I had let Gizmo, a Royal Marine veteran, pilot the helicopter while I took an overall view of the operation.

I selected the first TOW missile and felt a surge of adrenaline as Gizmo banked and accelerated towards the tank.

For security, we use only call signs in radio communications. Mine is Scooby, as in Scooby Doo - rhyming slang for 'hasn't got a clue.'

As I squeezed the trigger, I saw the tank muzzle flash. We were firing simultaneously, our shots crossing in mid-air. My missile raced away at 700mph.

Gripping the controller until my knuckles were white, I held the crosshairs on the tank, tracking the missile as Gizmo counted the seconds before impact: 'Eight, nine, ten . . .'

I held my breath. Sweat cascaded down my forehead. There was a great flash. '. . . 20, 21, 22' continued Gizmo. That he was still counting indicated I had missed the target.

My heart sank as another blast rocked the Lynx.

"The next one's for us, Gizmo, let's move!' I shouted. Yet another explosion jolted the Lynx.

I could feel Gizmo's disappointment as we withdrew. But then we sped back in, the blur of the desert rushing beneath us.

I fixed the gap between the tank's turret and the main body in the missile crosshairs, squeezed the trigger and waited. Gizmo started counting.

It wasn't a big explosion like the first - just a small flare as the warhead penetrated the tank's armour and the molten copper bolt bounced around inside.

After a few seconds there was a secondary explosion and smoke started pouring out of the turret as a figure jumped into the sand.

There was no joy, only relief as I sank back into my seat. Then, just when Gizmo started manoeuvring to turn us around, we were thrown forward as the tank's parting shot exploded metres in front of us.

"Right, we're bingo (low on fuel), let's get the hell out of here now, can we?", I said to Gizmo as he brought the aircraft under control.

"That's not a bad idea, that. Besides, I'm getting hungry," he replied.

It took about 15 minutes to get back to Camp Viking in Kuwait. We flew there in virtual silence. My hands were shaking so much I sat on them so Gizmo wouldn't notice.

He gave me a look and a half-smile that spoke more powerfully than words. Don't worry, Scooby, you're all right, you're not meant to feel relaxed.

By the time we set off on our fourth mission that day, the sun was going down. No sooner had we arrived in our 'battle position' than the first artillery and tank shells again began to crash around us.

As we came under attack, I made an important discovery - an Iraqi command post concealed beneath trees - but was reluctant to launch a TOW into it.

In a textbook battle you want a jet to drop a bomb or a Forward Observation Officer to send in an artillery strike: something big and heavy which would kill everyone instantly.

But here we couldn't be fussy. "If there are senior commanders in there, you have to fire," came the order.

"Cut off the head of the snake, Scooby . . ."

I felt my stomach tighten as the trigger yielded under my hand. This was going to be horrible. I couldn't help feeling sympathy for those men on the ground, even though they were firing at us.

Like us, they were just brothers, sons or fathers following orders from their political masters to kill strangers.

I recoiled sharply as a fireball filled my sights: the TOW must have hit a fuel tank. Flames leapt in all directions, turning the command post into an inferno.

It was bedlam. Those still standing started firing manically. Two men ran out of a burning tent - one was on fire. I thought I was going to be sick. Had I done that?

A split second later my second TOW impacted right behind him in a sharp flash. The men died where they lay. Moments later in a desperate engagement, I was also able to take out two more T55 tanks.

As we turned for camp, dark smoke hung over the line of tanks and trees. It had been a painful and dramatic performance lasting just 20 minutes.

Yet I felt as if I had used a lifetime of emotions. The terror and revulsion were plain in the quivering of my hands. We landed in near-darkness at Viking.

I felt faint. I took three deep breaths to clear my head as I walked unsteadily to see Clubs, my Commanding Officer, and write my mission report.

Describing the details of the engagement, I heard myself talking at a rate of knots. Adrenaline raged through me.

Then, slowly, it began to drain away, replaced by a feeling of listlessness and exhaustion. Images from the day flashed in my mind: explosions, fire, smoke, bodies, burning tanks.

I was aware the day's experiences had had a huge psychological and emotional impact on me - as powerful in their way as all the missiles and shells that had erupted during the engagements.

I knew it would be many months before I could bury those images.

Militarily, however, I was proud of what we had achieved. We had punched a hole in the Iraqis' offensive capability with limited resources and little back-up.

I later discovered we probably survived that engagement only because one of the T55s' machine guns had jammed.

A few days afterwards, a US Marine examined the tank and presented me with a shell, the one he said had my name on it.

Unfortunately it was a 23mm shell from an anti-aircraft gun rather than the 12.7mm type used by the Iraqi tank - but it was still a stark reminder of our lucky escape.

March 30 proved equally eventful.

On this occasion I was flying the Lynx alongside Bunker and John Boy, the two largest Marines in the Squadron, who had somehow squeezed their giant frames into a Gazelle helicopter.

By mid-afternoon we were again under attack.

We had stumbled across a massive bunker complex the size of two football pitches and with an ancient fort forming two of its sides.

Inside were at least four artillery guns, a number of mortar base plates and God knows how many troops.

We had stumbled upon the equivalent of Chelsea Barracks - the likely source of much of the artillery barrage that had been pounding advancing British forces.

As a lightly-armed reconnaissance air patrol, we were ill-equipped to attack such an enormous enemy position. Firing a TOW missile would be akin to firing an airgun at an elephant from a mile away. There were no jets available, so our only option was the 105mm guns of 7 and 8 Batteries, 29 Commando Royal Artillery, who had moved into Iraq from the Kuwaiti coast.

Aware of the weight of fire we would be calling in, Bunker and I understood the importance of getting the grid reference right for the artillery unit.

The first shell landed marginally short of the fort so Bunker made a rapid readjustment, which was relayed to the guns.

Within a minute the second shell landed smack in the middle of the bunker. There was pandemonium inside the fort and enemy guns opened up in our general direction.

In return, 30 more shells landed in a near-simultaneous explosion. The whole complex appeared to lift away from the ground as a huge ball of fire and dark smoke mushroomed skywards.

For several seconds, we looked on in horror and astonishment. Many men were dead or injured. Others were running away - I didn't blame them.

Bunker called in 'Repeat', to the Commando battery and a minute later 30 more shells sent another mighty fireball into the air.

This time the guns fell silent. For almost two weeks, the fort had been shelling Coalition forces. In less time than it takes to smoke a cigarette, it had been razed to the ground.

Although none of us were aware we had just unleashed the largest artillery strike called in by a British helicopter air patrol since Suez, we were painfully conscious of the magnitude of the destruction.

We flew back in silence. It had been the most momentous day in our Squadron's history but pride was not our dominant emotion.

"By the time we landed I was wishing the war would end right there," said Bunker. We all understood how he felt.

I have no idea how many Iraqi soldiers died in that strike, nor did I take any joy or satisfaction from the episode.

We had come perilously close to our own deaths on at least half a dozen occasions that day, but that doesn't make killing other people sit any easier on my conscience.

For me and 847 Squadron, the war was as good as over. Marines flushed out any remaining resistance around Abu Al Khasib and pushed our front line to the Basra city limits.

I returned to HMS Ocean with a heavy cold and a stomach bug.

The following morning, I felt an overwhelming sense of dread, as if I was about to die. I sat on the edge of my bunk, breathing hard - my body was shaking and my heart raced.

The doctor told me I had probably had a panic attack: my mind and body had temporarily buckled under the exhaustion and stress.

My nervous system had become jangled, triggering a 'fight-or-flight', reaction that pumped adrenaline. Rest and removing the sources of the stress should do the trick, he said.

On April 19, the news came through that we were going home - you could feel relief throughout the ship. It would be six weeks before Ocean docked in Plymouth.

It took longer than I thought to get over the events of that March. Conflicting emotions were still lurking in my mind.

The Navy calls the process of adjusting to the aftermath of war 'decompression'.

I was interviewed and attended sessions with the doctor, all of which helped me, as did spending time with the lads I had fought with.

Together we came to terms with what we had carried out on that campaign.

The following year I received a Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in Iraq. Today, I still can't work out whether my actions were brave. If someone shoves into you in a pub, you can walk away.

If they come running at you or one of your close mates with a knife, then you have little option but to stand your ground and take him out. That's how I feel about those tank engagements.

I am not a naturally aggressive person - I am a professional aviator. Much as I had been in sticky situations before, nothing had been quite like Iraq.

But when your personal survival and that of your colleagues is at stake, aggression takes over.

Training prepares you for many situations, but not for killing.

You try to get round it by not viewing the enemy as people: instead, your targets are tanks, buildings or vehicles. That works most of the time, but not always, as I found.

The investiture at which I received my DFC was a tremendous experience. My parents were there and I felt proud as we headed up the grand staircase inside the Palace.

The Queen was smaller than I had imagined but she was well-informed and funny. I felt at ease as she asked me what I had done in Iraq.

The Distinguished Flying Cross is a heavy medal and the Queen had a little trouble pinning it on. When she had finished, she gave me a discreet push through the handshake. It was time to move on.

Armed Action, by James Newton,
is published by Headline on April 5, priced £18.99.
Blimey I dont think I'll have to read th book now (no doubt there will be one), most of the best bits seem to be in the above post.
I don't know about you but I have a hard time envisaging an Iraqi T-55 shooting at a moving airborne target....

But if it did - and managed to achieve a hit against a Lynx (say, hovering for a period longer than is sensible near the FEBA) surely the Lynx would have been toast? Doesn't sound quite right to me.

Any thoughts anyone?



Yeah the proximity rounds being fired by the T55 caused me to think it might just be hyped up crap to sell to the proles.

Latest Threads