- Published: Tuesday, 20 November 2007 00:00
“Bizarre” is an accurate word to describe how quickly a man can fly from, say, Orlando and land smack in the middle of a minefield. Not a metaphorical minefield, but a big, real minefield. The transition occurred in a matter of a few days: Goodbye Mickey Mouse, Hello Minefield. Hello Iran.
The American name for the war is Operation Iraqi Freedom. OIF 1 comprised the initial invasion back in 2003. Subsequent rotations have led to OIF 2, 3, and so on until the OIF number has become nearly meaningless, and definitely confusing. The British name for OIF is “Operation Telic,” or “Op Telic.” The British designation is less confusing, but practically no British soldiers know what “Telic” means. Whatever the case, Op Telic 1 describes the invasion and immediately thereafter. Since the British rotate every six months, the “Op Telic” number changes every six months, and so, as I write this, we are in Op Telic 10 as we inch up to the 60th month since the invasion.
Telic 1 was eventful because it was an invasion. Telics 2-8 were mostly uneventful, with the exception of Telic 4 which saw brief but sharp fighting. And so Basra fell off the map. Shots were rarely fired and journalists spent relatively little time in Basra. One could almost say the British were treading water while we sorted out “Northern Iraq.” The British call everything north of their area “Northern Iraq,” while for Americans “Northern Iraq” is more likely to denote areas north of Baghdad, and especially Nineveh Province and the peaceful Kurdish areas.
Telics 2-8 were nearly sleepwalks, with exception of Telic 4 when 9 British soldiers were KIA and 35 wounded in a six-month period. But for the most part, the work of British soldiers in southern Iraq went largely unnoticed by the media and unappreciated by anyone else. On both trips with the British, I made a point of asking British soldiers how they were treated back in the United Kingdom. They said they are mostly ignored; occasionally expressing a muted desire to get the treatment they imagine American soldiers get. British soldiers seem to imagine our soldiers get big parades and so forth, and hugs from strangers at the airport. And to be sure, many do, especially in Texas, they say.
American soldiers get care packages from people they do not even know, and those packages are morale boosters. American soldiers get cards from kindergartens from sea to sea, and the soldiers paste the cards all over the walls of their headquarters and hospitals. I don’t know what it is about those homemade cards, with their squiggly letters, stick figures and smiley-faced suns, but whenever I am in hospitals in Iraq, those cards from the kids greatly lift my spirits. I’ve seen the British get cards and packages like this, but nothing like the quantity, variety and frequency of what American soldiers get. And, of course, not everyone was indifferent to British efforts in Iraq. As for the British fighting, the enemy was always present in the background, but it was not until Telics 9 and 10 that the enemy truly came alive.
I first embedded with British troops during Telic 9, and during that approximate one-month embed, British casualties might have been, on a per capita basis, 2-3 times higher than American casualties for the same period. The math is difficult because there are many variables—at that time there were about 30 American soldiers in Iraq for every British soldier—but the British officers I spoke with generally concurred with that estimate.
Certainly, for those approximate 5,000 Brits in Iraq, there was a lot of shooting and all kinds of exploding munitions, both improvised and off-the-shelf varieties. Some of it was hitting very close; during three consecutive missions that I went on, there were fatalities. One day the British killed about 26; the next night I witnessed an ambush where the British killed about 8; and on the next mission we got ambushed and lost 2 British soldiers with others wounded. In three consecutive missions about 36 people were killed and the tempo was increasing.
American units are typically designated by numbers; British units have names. For instance, the “Royal Green Jackets” were combined with the “Royal Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry” and the “Devonshire and Dorset Light Infantry” along with the “Light Infantry” into a new outfit called “The Rifles.” “The Rifles” consists of five battalions, named respectively 1 Rifles, 2 Rifles, 3 Rifles, 4 Rifles and 5 Rifles.
Earlier in 2007, I accompanied 2 Rifles in combat in Basra, during the expertly planned and executed “Operation Arezzo.” 2 Rifles killed about 26 enemy fighters without sustaining a scratch. Surely fortune smiled upon 2 Rifles that day, but it smiled especially brightly because 2 Rifles was loaded with combat veterans who had taken nothing for granted and were meticulously prepared for battle, as I chronicled in a dispatch about that mission.
“The plan for Operation Arezzo was cleverly contrived. While Americans count on helicopter support for deliberate high-intensity combat here, the Brits were going into extremely hostile terrain, outnumbered, without helicopter support, relying instead upon timing, terrain, maneuverability, firepower, and sheer audacity.”
“In combat, luck can be a decisive factor, but Murphy’s Law remains in effect. For Operation Arezzo, the risks of something going catastrophically wrong were apparent at the outset. The soldiers in 5 Platoon had never conducted such an audacious operation—in broad daylight—but LTC Maciejewski intended to show the enemy that even in their strongest bastion, outnumbered British forces could strike into their heart and inflict heavy losses.”
“The enemy was at times on both sides of us firing from many positions, on the ground and on rooftops. 5 Platoon and others continued answering heavy fire with accurate return fire. I saw a soldier fire his 40mm grenade launcher several times, arching explosive rounds into enemy positions. A British sniper fired four bullets. One 7.62-mm bullet struck an armed man on a rooftop in the chest. Another bullet stopped a gunman who was firing from a car.”
“Bullets popped into the walls of the vehicles. British planners had anticipated that JAM would by now have placed large IEDs on our egress routes, and the commanders’ plan to defeat this threat so far was working. At least one IED was in fact placed to get us, but exploded at the wrong time and missed a Bulldog.”
2 Rifles—photographed after the battle described in the dispatch “British Soldiers at War”—had fought well, sustained losses and inflicted much greater, but the enemy had only been warming up for the most serious battles to come. It was this combat-experienced enemy that would welcome 4 Rifles to Basra, intent on squeezing out every possible drop of British blood.
Assessing the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, conventional wisdom has Op Herrick 4 (in Afghanistan) as setting the high-water mark for heavy fighting. But that is apparently only because so few people know about Telic 10 in Iraq. During the first 3 months of Telic 10, as many were killed and twice as many wounded as during 6 months of Herrick 4.
Webb had served in Northern Ireland, and did two tours in Bosnia, but this was his first tour in Iraq. His 2 Battalion the Royal Welsh is also known as “B (Rorke’s Drift) Company,” a name it earned after a major battle with Zulu warriors. Its 120 soldiers also go by the name of “Welsh Warriors.” When present on the 4 Rifles patrols and convoys, the Welsh Warriors always take point. This is because 4 Rifles mostly uses the older, armored Bulldogs, vehicles equipped with electronics that are not well-suited for spotting IEDs and other threats. Webb’s company uses the more modern Warriors (similar to the American Bradley), which have more sophisticated gear, therefore landing them the unenviable job of being permanently on point.
On 21 May, 4 Rifles would conduct its first mission in on the deadly streets of Basra.
Enemy deathtraps were set. As always, the Welsh Warriors had point.