Men of Valor: Part IV

 

SGT Richard Edwards, a 12-year veteran from Newport, South Wales had served in Iraq during Telic 6 without firing a shot during those six months. During Telic 10, Edwards found himself down at the PJCC, where Iraqi police outnumbered British soldiers by a significant ratio. In late July, while they were waiting for the Brigade Commander Brigadier Bashall to arrive, a couple of shots came in from a neighboring and overlooking building used as a wheat factory.  Shots also began coming in from the “Hole in the Wall,” a lateral slit several inches high and about three feet long in a wall 200 meters away.

Although the enemy often shot at British soldiers from the Hole in the Wall, the soldiers refrained from firing back with rockets to avoid killing civilians living nearby. There were other known—and named—firing points, like RPG Alley 1, 2 and 3, and soon bullets began coming in from those.

Three British snipers headed to the PJCC roof. SGT Edwards set up a Javelin missile in order to use the highly sensitive CLU (Command Launch Unit) to search for heat sources. He relayed that information to the snipers, who shot at least two, possibly three enemy fighters while a Warrior armored vehicle began pouring bullets from its chain gun into the windows of the wheat factory. After about an hour of steady gunfire, the battlefield quieted for 15-20 minutes. Then started again, this time lasting maybe four hours until dusk. By the end of the day, roughly 17 enemy were dead.

[Photo of a “Welsh Warrior” taken near Iraq-Iran border.]

LCpl John “Jock” Fowler, with the Scottish “Black Watch” Regiment, had been in the Army 16 years. Fowler had been in Iraq during Telic 4 and had seen no combat. Telic 4 coincided with Operation Phantom Fury (Fallujah II, November 2004) and some British troops were sent to Camp Dogwood in Anbar to cover for American forces while they flattened Fallujah. The Brits in Anbar lost several comrades.

About 4-dozen Black Watch soldiers volunteered for Telic 10, Fowler among them. When Fowler volunteered to serve with the Welsh Warriors in Telic 10, he’d told his younger sister, “This will be a life-changing tour.” He was prescient. (I could barely understand Fowler’s accent, sometimes needing an interpreter.)

CPL John Preece from South Wales had served nearly 10 years in the Army, including tours in Bosnia, Kosovo and on Telic 6, during which he never fired a shot. The first time he left base on Telic 10 was to conduct a “Strike Op” in Al Qibla. I had accompanied 2 Rifles into Al Qibla some months earlier when they killed about 26 enemy fighters in an excellently-planned and executed operation called “Op Arezzo.”

Young British soldiers sometimes get jealous that Americans get to name their operations things like, “Phantom Fury”and “Phantom Strike.” I tell the squaddies that our operations are named by the same people who think up names for professional wrestlers.

CPL Preece was in the lead Warrior as his section rolled out. Through his Battle Group Thermal Imagery (BGTI) monitor, Preece saw the ghosts of five men with AKs cross the road toward an Iraqi police car parked on the side. The hood was up. The time was about 2230 (10:30 pm), and Preece was the vehicle commander sitting on the right side of the turret. As his gunner traversed the gun, Preece could see on his own BGTI monitor a sixth man holding a hot-spot that appeared to be an IED. When Preece saw the man unspooling a command wire back to the IP car with the hood up, the five men with AKs began firing on Preece’s Warrior. Maybe they thought Preece was alone, but behind Preece were 13 more Warriors and 15 Bulldogs—2 companies and Tac HQ of 4 RIFLES Battle Group. When the men fired at the Warrior, Pte Wayne Howells fired his 7.62mm machine gun, ripping through and killing two men on the spot. The other four ran to the police car and tried to drive away with the hood still up. The enemy fired out the windows at the British, and Preece ordered Howells to shoot two high explosive 30mm shots into the car, now about 100 meters away. Howells put the crosshairs center-mass on the car and pushed the trigger pedal with his foot—BOOM! BOOM! FLASH! FLASH! Both rounds struck the car and it burst into flames as Preece watched the men frantically trying to escape but they burned alive.

A massive ambush kicked off with RPGs and small-arms fire raining from everywhere. As enemy fighters popped up in windows, the Warriors and Bulldogs behind moved up into the ambush and closed in, joining battle with hot machine guns and 30mm. Three men ran toward Preece’s Warrior, two with AKs and one with an RPG, but a British vehicle from behind destroyed the men. The whole battle lasted 5-10 minutes, and the British moved forward to continue their mission.

Every day was combat, offensive and defensive, with a persistent enemy.

On 26 June, for instance, Sgt McLeod from the Scots Black Watch completed a mission in which he and his men were hit with 15 IEDs and nearly two dozen serious RPG and small-arms attacks. At about midnight on the following night, a convoy was scheduled between Basra Palace and the main British base at Basra Airport. 4 Rifles was to clear the route. The “Welsh Warriors” along with “Black Watch” adjuncts were on point as usual, led by Major Steve Webb.

The paradox of fighting in armored vehicles is that it’s often important for infantry soldiers to dismount to secure the route for the armor; otherwise the vehicle could be destroyed along with everyone in it.

During tonight’s route clearance, LCpl Jock Fowler’s Warrior approached an intersection, halted, and four soldiers got out to search for bombs in the dark. This act requires great courage. Unfortunately, the enemy had learned devastating techniques from a wide array of sources. These techniques include one said to have been developed in Lebanon: planting massive bombs at intersections. In addition to the bombs, Iraqi snipers and machine gunners often use night-vision gear. Or they simply fire rockets or mortars at an intersection.

The soldiers dismounted into the night: CPL Paul Joszko; Pte Scott Kennedy; Pte Jamie Kerr and Pte Kieren Flower slipped through the darkness toward the intersection. LCpl Fowler was about 20 meters away inside the Warrior when BOOM! the vehicle was slammed by the blast. The blast even rocked the CO’s vehicle parked 70 meters back. The blast was so powerful that Fowler was sure they had been hit, though they had not.

Sgt McLeod was disoriented and temporarily deafened, but dismounted at once taking three soldiers with him into the dark. Smoke and dust were thick, electrical lines snapped and popped, and a larger ambush unfolded. Screams came from the dark and although McLeod could see nothing, he ran toward the screams. IED wounds tend to be dramatic and horrific. This was no exception. One soldier was missing part of his head and was in intense pain from other wounds. Another was badly maimed. The remaining two of the four man team had just ceased to exist. As the dust and smoke cleared, McLeod saw body parts and bloody gear spread all over.

The living casualties were evacuated. As with their American counterparts, some of the more senior British soldiers often treat younger combat soldiers more like their own sons than equal warriors. WO2 Kretzschmar didn’t want his young soldiers to see the carnage, so he sent them back to the vehicle, and began the task of collecting the fallen with Sgt McLeod. But they came under automatic weapons fire from at least two unknown positions as they collected body parts. Somehow, the bullets all missed. Similarly, an RPG warhead landed only a couple of feet between them but did not explode. When the RPG launched, however, a Warrior detected the thermal signature and fired 30mm into the position. Small arms continued to snap through the darkness as McLeod and Kretzschmar filled the body bags with the remains of their friends and comrades.

Pte Kieren, who was also hit, but still alive, was immediately casevac’d to the hospital. The remains of Joszko, Kennedy and Kerr were handed over to QRF by the soldiers. The CO and Maj Webb conferred at the scene and the CO ordered the operation to continue.

About five minutes and roughly 100 meters down the road, a Warrior was blasted by an IED. There were a couple of minor casualties, but since the vehicle was good to go, the soldiers continued the mission. Again, about fifteen minutes later and another 100 meters down the road, a 3rd bomb detonated, this time disabling a Warrior, and for the 3rd time LCpl Fowler dismounted to assist and there were two more casualties. Fowler and Sergeant-Major Mark Kretzschmar hitched up the disabled Warrior and carried on with the mission. By this time an American Apache team had come on station and the CO ordered a strafing run down the side of the road and onto a junction further down the route where RPG gunners were gathering. The convoy got through.

The missions continued. Nearly every patrol got into combat. Often the soldiers would have to clear a dozen or so EFPs just to move through the city, and the price of missing just once could be death by flames. Veritable belts of IEDs were established. People were killed within a quarter mile of the front gate. Over 100 strikes on vehicles occurred within 3 months.

At least one deadly sniper was picking off soldiers. During Telic 9, 8 soldiers fell to the same rifle in 9 weeks. On the first day of Telic 10, the first fatality resulted from the same sniper rifle. The troops operated at night to mitigate this risk, but the sniper(s) adapted and took 3 more soldiers with single bullets. One of those bullets was so accurately aimed that it slipped through the narrow aperture of the driver’s hatch. The driver was dead for 15-20 minutes before anyone even realized he was hit. The vehicle was parked so it was not unusual for the soldier not to talk on the intercom. However, when it came time to move, he didn’t respond. When they checked, they realized he was dead.

Soldiers tried to pull out the driver but were in combat and taking direct fire; two soldiers were hit in their body armor plates while trying to remove him. The driver was a massive rugby player, built solid. He weighed 18 stones or about 250 lbs. They just couldn’t get him out: even dragging him back through the crew compartment, they couldn’t squeeze him through. Finally, with the dead driver’s foot on the brake pedal, they towed the Warrior through a series of ambushes including massive amounts of fire, IEDs, RPGs and so on.

The extraction back to Basra Palace culminated with a massive ambush on the approaches into the Palace. For once the JAM had decided to stand and fight. It was a mistake. A platoon of Warriors and a platoon of Bulldogs joined the fierce firefight which was ended abruptly by a Javelin missile engagement from a sentry position at the far end of the Palace. 20 enemy bodies were left behind. But it wasn’t over yet. As the disabled Warrior was dragged back into base, it developed an engine fire just outside the gate and the JAM again took advantage, shooting with an RPG.

During one single attack when the PJCC was nearly overrun, British soldiers fired about 12,500 rounds over four hours. Another mission was hit with 23 IEDs and 38 RPGs. During those three months there were 61 artillery fire missions, 19 strafing runs by jets and 165 Apache strikes.

Intelligence was produced regarding a local JAM member who was heavily involved in weapons smuggling and directly involved in fighting. The intelligence indicated he would be at a certain house in the Timinyah district of Basra, just near the Shatt al Arab River.

Various elements were dispatched on a “strike op,” including Recce (Recon) Platoon from 4 Rifles. Recce was led by an enthusiastic, competent and combat-experienced captain named Bertie Basset.  Bertie is from the fourth consecutive generation in his family to serve his country. His family taproot traces down nearly a thousand years into the soil of Great Britain. 4 Rifles locked down Timinyah, and Recce platoon moved to the target house in Bulldogs. They stopped directly in front of the house so the machine guns could be brought to bear. About twenty Recce soldiers in three sections piled out the backs of the Bulldogs.

[Photo of Recce Platoon taken by a British soldier, just before another fierce fight.]

Each section had its own task. Cpl Stephen Metcalf’s section was to gain entry and secure the courtyard, allowing the other two sections to move past. The courtyard was gated and barricaded, but Metcalf’s section smashed through, and found nothing in the courtyard. Section two pushed through, stacked on the door and smashed through. They cleared the bottom floor where they found two women and three young children aged about 2-5. The women were hysterical which made the children hysterical, which might have been just a cover for the suspect to escape.

Veterans of Iraq often have seen women do audacious things to cover for the men, such as surrounding armed but wounded enemy during a firefight to stop soldiers from firing, or dashing out onto a battlefield to take away weapons from the hands of wounded insurgents in order that they be seen as unarmed civilians. (I’ve seen this happen.)

The house was large and two stories. Three Section was called in to clear up the stairs and take the top floor and the roof. When Three Section made it to the roof, they found nobody. There were two small buildings and two water tanks on the roof, but they were empty. Maybe.

With the building locked down, a more thorough search could begin. Every conceivable hiding space was checked: cupboards, refrigerators, under the carpets, everywhere. Hidden walls and secret rooms are common. An aircraft called saying it detected movement on the roof. A sniper from R Company reported the same. Both calls came into Metcalf’s right ear through his Personal Role Radio (PRR). Something or someone was on that roof. CSjt Weeks sent Cpl Metcalf back to the roof with his section.

Metcalf headed to the roof, and though it was about 0200, the night remained hot. The soldiers were drenched in sweat. They cleared the two small buildings again, but nothing. Metcalf noticed the lid on one of the water tanks was not screwed on and was slightly askew. With LCpl Smalley covering, Metcalf climbed up about 5 feet onto the tank. Metcalf switched on his rifle’s Laser Light Module (LLM) and scanned the murky water inside the tank. The water came up about three feet. His light cut through the water, but he saw nothing and crawled back down. Smalley covered Metcalf as he moved toward the second tank. The lid was fully screwed on, and so Metcalf unscrewed the lid and peered inside.

His light cut a swath in the water but he saw nothing. Something or someone was up there. The soldiers could feel it. The openings on the water containers were relatively tiny, but that first container made the hair on Metcalf’s neck stick up. Smalley again covered Metcalf as he shined his LLM inside. But this time, Metcalf stuck his whole head into the water tank.

Metcalf’s heart jumped when he saw in the murky water a hairy human leg. Metcalf thought he found a body. What he really found was a terrorist holding his breath, holding still like a crocodile. Metcalf moved the light just a few inches and saw a man with puffed cheeks whose bulging eyes looked straight into the light. Metcalf put the laser on his forehead for a moment, then reached in with his left hand and pulled the man up by his hair.

Downstairs, the systematic search had begun. LCpl Chris Thorna started at the top of a corner and worked his way down. When he came to a dresser and slid out a drawer, he found an old pineapple grenade painted gold inscribed with some Arabic writing. Around the grenade was wrapped cheap costume jewelry which dropped to the floor and for a fraction of a second Thorna thought the pin had fallen out and it was about to explode. He and another soldier realized what had happened, glanced at each other, laughed nervously and kept searching.

They found a night vision goggle that reminded them of the type worn in Silence of the Lambs, 4 AKs, three vests loaded with about six magazines each with armor piercing bullets, and the terrorist’s cell phone. It had 200 numbers, and videos of beheadings, and the soldiers remember getting a report back that his phone actually had video of him doing “something bad.” The British soldiers took the man back and handed him to the Americans. He was later released when the Americans should have kept him. A report came in saying that although he was not the man they were looking for, he was a very bad guy, but they never caught him again.

 

 

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